So I’d thought I’d share some practical information that I learnt from my time in Cuba, in the hopes that someone else finds it useful. I encountered numerous (minor) challenges while in Cuba, so here’s some stuff that would have been helpful to know beforehand. The below information is based on my time spent visiting Cuba in January/February of 2015 before the changes in the relationship between the United States and Cuba.
While Cuba does have the standard upmarket hotels you’d expect to find, cheaper accommodation is all found in a quasi-network of guesthouses known as ‘Casas Particulars‘. These casas are generally people’s homes where they rent out 2 or 3 rooms to tourists for a modest price. Rooms I found usually go for between 20 and 35 CUC (ie. 20-35 $US) and sleep 2 or 3 people. While being a good price, in my experience they also offer warm hospitality and delicious breakfasts (for a small additional surcharge, usually 5 CUC). The owner’s will likely be able to help you arrange casas for your next destination. You can look for and book accommodation here at: https://www.mycasaparticular.com/
Cuba has two currencies, the Cuban Peso (CUP) for locals and the Cuban Convertible (CUC) for tourists. The CUC is tied to the US dollar, so all prices in CUC are effectively all in US, while there are roughly 18 Pesos to 1 CUC (as of Jan 2o15). When you exchange or withdraw money, you will get it in CUC and I didn’t encounter one place that wouldn’t except CUC. I did once receive Pesos as change but was able to use them later on without issue.
Accessing your money is the tricky part. When you land at Havana Airport, outside the arrival area on either side are two money exchange kiosks. From what I’ve read on the internet, generally the easiest currencies to exchange into CUC are Canadian Dollars, British Pounds, the Euro or Mexican Pesos. Exchanging US dollars draws a penalty of 10%, so it’s really worth trying to use one of these other currencies. There are also banks in Havana, like the Casa de Cambia in the old town, where you can exchange money.
Regarding using ATMs, all the ATMs I came across in Havana only accepted Visa and some other cards I was not familiar with. No Mastercard, no American Express. To use Mastercard, you need to go into the bank (like the Casa de Cambia) and a teller will withdraw money from your card. Make sure to take your passport with you! Again, cards from or associated with American Institutions may not work. Note for Australians: the 28 Degrees travel card did not work when I tried to withdraw money from it.
Don’t be surprised at restaurants if several items from the menu are unavailable. In Cuba there can be a shortage of certain supplies, so often restaurants won’t have everything that they offer. My advice is to pick a few things off the menu you would be happy with or ask before hand what they have available.
When it comes to prices for dinner, a pretty standard meal for one with a drink runs about 7 CUC, while eating at a nicer restaurant will cost closer to 15 CUC. Not bad, right!
WiFi has limited availability in Cuba. Really the only place to get internet/WiFi in Cuba is in some of the big hotels of Havana, like the hotels around Parque Central. Simply head over to their business centre and you can purchase a WiFi code for 15/30/60/120 minute allotments. It may be expensive, but can be quite handy if necessary.
Getting around Cuba can be a bit of a challenge if you aren’t on a tour group. The train network is according to all accounts infrequent and unreliable which is not something you really want to depend on. When it comes to buses, there are two options: Viazul and Transtur. I didn’t have a good experience with either of them!
When I visited, the government had declared a bus shortage and had therefore cancelled all Transtur buses. To book Transtur buses you need to make your way to a major hotel with one of their agency desks. After wandering around town for quite a while I finally found one of their desks, only to be told they weren’t running.
With Viazul, you need to head to the bus station to purchase your tickets. In Havana, this is quite a drive from the old town costing roughly 8 CUC one way. I was told to go the day before as tickets may sellout, but once at the bus station, was told I would need to buy it on the day. Wasted trip. I didn’t end up using Viazul from Havana, which I’ll explain in a little bit. However, I did use them from Trinidad to Cienfuegos and actually the price, service and trip was fine. Nothing special, but it did the trick.
For my trips to and from Havana, I actually used unofficial collectivos (taxis), sharing with other tourists. These were kindly arranged by the various owners of the Casas Particulars I stayed at. To go this option, you’ll probably pay the same or a little more than going by bus, but in theory, it should be faster, with less hassle and will be a door-to-door service.
With both collectivos I had interesting experiences. From Havana, our taxi was being driven by a mathematics teacher heading to see family in Trinidad. About halfway there, our taxi broke down on the highway leaving us stranded for 1.5 hours until we were rescued by some friends of his. We then rode in their SUV to Trinidad, arriving in the dark.
Heading to Havana, I was told that because the driver was a friend of the Casa’s owner, I was getting a discounted rate. However, I was told not to tell the other passengers that and to lie about how much I was paying if asked. A little dishonest sure, but I didn’t see the point of causing commotion or losing my discount.
If you have any further questions or any other advice for people visiting Cuba, please share in the comments below.