What I Learned While Traveling in Cuba
We traveled to Cuba mainly to check out the Dream Yacht Charter base in Cienfuegos as a potential sailing charter destination, but learned so much more. If you are up for an adventure, and I mean a real, out of your comfort zone adventure, read the next few blog entries and get ready to go!
1. Cuban currency is a little confusing, but once you get the hang of it you’ll have no problem. First, there are two currencies, the CUC and the CUP. The CUC is convertible (just remember C for convertible) to US dollars at about .87 - .90 cents. So, if you convert one US dollar, you will get .87 Cuban CUC’s in return. Simple, right? But wait, there’s a local currency for the Cuban people called the CUP (remember P for People). One CUP is worth about .04 cents (1/25th of a dollar). You are able to easily convert your US dollars to CUC at the airport or marina when you arrive, but CUP seem to be a little more difficult to get your hands on since there are fewer places to exchange them, although you can exchange at banks, but lines at the bank are forever (see below about lines).
OK, so here’s where it gets important to know the difference. You can identify the difference between the two currencies because CUC’s have pictures of monuments CUP’s have pictures of people. When you pay for something with CUC, be careful to get your change in CUC and don’t get your change in CUP! For the most part the Cuban people are very honest but there’s always someone out there willing to take advantage, right?
Another thing to pay attention to are the prices and whether they are in CUC or CUP. On my first trip to Cuba, not knowing the difference between the currencies, I ended up paying $20 CUC (about $23 US) at a roadside coffee stand for 2 coffees and two pastries, which is reasonable for the US, right? Well, turns out the $20 price tag was in CUP! So, I actually paid $23 US for something that the vendor was only asking .80 US cents!! And, of course, not knowing any better I didn’t ask for change.
As a general rule, most prices you’ll see are in CUC, but if you see an unadorned restaurant or store or street vendor with a lot of locals hanging around, and their prices seem high, chances are it’s a government run operation and the prices are most likely listed in CUP.
2. Another very important thing I learned is that you may not have an internet connection when you need it the most, like when you need the bus schedule, or a map of the city, or directions to the meeting place for a guided tour, or a new book to read. This all goes back to planning.
Take screen shots of everything you plan to do – the location of your Airbnb, the bus schedule and your bus ticket confirmation, the location of the tour meeting place. I got smart and downloaded Google Translate for Spanish (check in your settings to download it so you can access it off line – this saved us!).
One thing I didn’t do (duh) was download some kind of map app like Google Maps or Map.me before ever entering Cuba. I assumed as long as I had an internet connection I could download any app I needed, but silly me forgot all the media and internet and pretty much everything else is controlled by the government and isn’t always accessible. So, I had to do it the old-fashioned way and actually buy a paper map! But those paper maps can be hard to find early on a Sunday morning, and your internal compass might not be working too well either after a night at the Floridita.
3. If you are American, or your credit cards or bank is US based, you must budget your cash wisely while in Cuba since what you bring in is what you get because you can’t access your US based bank. We booked as much as we could in advance while in the US – Airbnb offers many affordable choices and the national bus system, Viazul, has an online booking system. You will need cash mostly for taxis (your biggest expense) and meals (surprisingly your smallest expense).
4. While on the topic of buses, keep in mind there is a national bus system (Viazul) that will get you to and from most of the major cities in Cuba. There is also a feeder bus system that runs from the bigger cities to the smaller towns. Be sure you are in the waiting area for the right one so you can hear them announce the boarding. (see # 8 below )
5. OK, lines. You will wait in line for just about everything except taxis. Taxis are easy to find, internet access cards and bathrooms are not. And carry lots of coins because when you do find a bathroom the attendant will want a small tip when they give you an even smaller amount of TP.
6. If you are flying, don’t even try to get to the airport early to fly standby- No such thing here. Cubans stick to the schedule and don’t find it necessary to change anything or be in a hurry to get anywhere. We were hoping to get an earlier flight so arrived at the airport about 6 hours early. The agents at the front desk said there was no way their system would allow them to change a ticket, so we thought we’d go to our gate hoping the gate agent had more flexibility. Well, security would not even let us through until 2 hours before flight time. So, there we were, waiting outside with the heat and bugs and intermittent internet for 6 long hours.
7. Airbnb’s and most hotels are not the Ritz. You may only get one sheet on your lumpy hard mattress, you may not get a washcloth, you may have trouble finding a diet coke, but you will always be able to find good authentic Cuban food in amounts that will easily satisfy your belly.
8. This goes without saying, but always tip your taxi driver. Chances are you will run into him again and he will provide invaluable information, such as “Hey lady, you’re waiting in the wrong terminal and you’re about to miss your bus!” And remember, $1 to them means so much more than $1 to us.
9. And again, this goes without saying, but be polite and say hello, good morning, good afternoon, etc. in Spanish, preferably. Cuban people are very friendly and always willing to help.
10. Parts of Havana are crumbling, dirty, smelly, and poor, yet they are filled with so much culture and history. Many of the places in Havana look unsafe, simply because the concrete is crumbling, an overwhelming amount of trash lines the streets, and there are stray dogs surviving on scraps on every corner. Yes, you can always find yourself in a dangerous situation if you don’t pay attention or get so drunk you can’t find your way, but for the most part, Havana is safe. The guns and knives were confiscated years ago, and the Cuban people know that if they don’t play by the government’s rules, they could lose everything.
11. Don’t be afraid to leave the confines of Havana. The countryside is gorgeous and full of fresh air. Vinales, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad are within a half-day’s drive from Havana and have so much to offer. More about that in future blogs…