An American in Cuba, Part 2

I continue to recover from the month of December. That’s what I am telling people when they ask, “Have you healed from your mosquito bite virus yet?” After suffering through 72 hours of fever, fatigue, and hives, I was then hit with a run of the mill cold. Honestly, after all that I went through in Cuba, I barely noticed. I’ve simply decided to throw in the towel on December of 2016 altogether and I greatly look forward to January.

Sitting at a dinner party this week, I remarked to friends that it was the first time in my life I couldn’t “spin” the story of my trip. Always one to give people and experiences the benefit of the doubt, I can usually spot the silver lining in any story. But for Cuba? I simply cannot lie and tell people it was wonderful when it was not. Sure, I met MANY lovely Cuban people like our Airbnb hosts and occasional folks on the street who weren’t trying to sell us something, but the whole lack of access to credit cards and debit cards really threw a wrench in what was supposed to be a “vacation” — for journalistic purposes, ahem.

And then there was the tourist harassment that felt like it was coming at me at all times, “Lady, you want a taxi? Lady, you want to tour in an old car?” I get it, everyone has to make a living, but unlike travel I’ve experienced in other Third World countries, it was incessant and tiring to be hit up every few feet while walking down the sidewalk. Especially since I had no access to the money the locals presupposed I had. Juliann, my friend, was much nicer. I would blaze ahead down the road on my way to a museum or sight — pretending I knew where I was headed — while she walked a couple feet behind me on the narrow sidewalks, saying a polite “No, gracias” to the many people I just started ignoring after the first few days of attempting a polite dismissal. I’m not proud of this in hindsight, but it was so tiresome.

But enough about me. I want this post to be helpful, so let’s talk about money.

You can only get Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) in Cuba. If you bring in American dollars, expect to pay a 10% fee, so your dollar is actually worth 90 cents, less the fee or percentage taken by the currency exchange office (typically 3-4%). On average, we got $0.86 CUC to our $1 US. One bank actually negotiated with me for a higher rate ($.90). Yes, in Cuba you can negotiate everywhere, even in banks. Smart Americans exchange their US dollars to Canadian currency and bring that into the country instead since you’re not penalized for Canadian dollars like you are for US.

About the cost of things, which was a head-scratcher at times when it came to goods/service/hours spent vs. amount charged. A true Wild West of pricing, and never consistent…

  • Average “casa particular” lodging for two people: $30 CUC/night via Airbnb or walking up in person.
  • Book things in advance as much as you can (remember, Airbnb WILL NOT WORK for Americans while you’re in Cuba — see my last post: Part 1.) Casa particular owners ARE VERY HELPFUL and usually have relationships with friends/hosts/casa owners in other towns, so use their connections if you find yourself in need of lodging while on the road.
  • Beers $1.50 – $2 CUC. Cocktails (mojitos, daquiris, rum straight) $3. White Chilean wine: $4/glass.
  • Breakfasts consisting of coffee, juice, fruits, eggs made to order, and toasts consistently cost $5CUC — except for one Airbnb which charged us $5 CUC extra for the pleasure of dining on the roof. Which we soon learned was free everywhere else.
  • The cheapest, best dinners we found were around $4-5 CUC. A hint: look for the places where the prices are listed in Cuban pesos (CUPs) — which translate to $25 CUP:$1 CUC. Don’t run out the door if you see $100 on the menu, it’s pesos, which they’ll translate to CUC when they bring you the bill. It’s usually a sign of “authentic” food — which I will dedicate a whole post to shortly. This meal pictured (the only food photo I took while in Cuba) was $12 CUC at our Airbnb in Santa Clara. Food pics, like selfies, are not in my wheelhouse. And yes, those are papaya balls in cucumber. Cool, huh?
  • We hired a taxi to take us 1.5 hours to a boat that would take us to the waterfall pictured above. The driver waited for us to return six hours later and then he drove us 1.5 hours home. It cost the shockingly low price of $40 CUC for the entire day. (This is also indicative of the small town region–Cienfuegos–we were in vs. Havana.)
  • The guided 1.5 hour boat ride; 1-hour hike in; and 2-hour dip and tour of the waterfall plus the return 1-hour hike out and 1.5-hour boat ride back? $20 CUC total for 2 of us for the day (entering at Hanabanilla, hiking to El Nicho waterfall). We tipped him $10 CUC because we were horrified it was so cheap.
  • Entrance to the El Nicho waterfall $10 CUC for foreigners. (Must show your passport.)

  • No taxis have meters, though the shitty Lonely Planet Cuba book (its official title from here onward) mentions them like they’re as natural as the Cuban sun. The only taxis that *may* remotely have meters are the “state-sanctioned” yellow ones, but even when we rode in one, I suspected the meter didn’t work or hadn’t been turned on in years.
  • “Collectivos” are a great way of taxi sharing with other travelers to popular sights and towns. We traveled from Trinidad to Havana (a 4-hour ride) for $30 CUC a person. The minivan we were traveling in had seven other passengers crammed in, but it was air conditioned and tolerable.

*A tip we learned from our lovely Airbnb hosts in Cienfuegos: Book the Viazul buses in advance (ahem, as an American the site did not work for me when I tried to do this before my trip), but if you book advance while in Cuba and the bus office or site claims the bus is “full,” show up anyway. Ten minutes or so before the bus leaves, drivers pocket cash fees slightly above the posted rate and miraculously find room for passengers. Other travelers told us stories of sitting on buses where people were standing in the aisles for three hours. So if you’re desperate to get from one place to another and aren’t scheduling a a Collectivo ride through your casa host or an Infotur office, try this.

  • Slightly aside, but still on point in regard to money: Infotur offices are great — even exchanging money for us at one office, but AVOID Cubatur OFFICES at all costs. Yet another “helpful” tip in the shitty Lonely Planet Cuba book was to visit one of the Cubatur offices to find rooms. Don’t. They told us an astronomical per person rate for sharing a room in a mid-level hotel (hundreds of dollars per night). Numbers that would make your eyes bulge. The book hints at their bad attitude, but mentions nothing of the inside track and scheme they have going with area hotels. You’re better off on your own.
  • Negotiate. Negotiate. Negotiate. Especially for taxis. Expect to halve the amount quoted and work from there. If your Spanish is good, even better. You’ll do better than I did with college-level Spanish I haven’t practiced in years. In Havana, we had a taxi charge us $10 CUC for what turned out to be an 8-minute ride that should have cost $4-5.
  • In Havana, expect to pay $25 CUC to get to and from the airport, which is a 25-minute ride from Central Havana, but you can often talk them down to $20 CUC. ALSO — when getting dropped off AT the Jose Marti Airport in Havana, make sure you know your terminal. There’s something fishy happening where they drop you at Terminal 2, which is the departure terminal for Cubans and inter-Cuba travel, but if you’re flying back to America (or likely other international spots), you’ll probably need Terminal 3, not Terminal 2. For the pleasure of driving unsuspecting tourists 2km to the proper terminal, you’ll be robbed — er, I mean “charged” — another $10 CUC to make your flight on time. It’s not walkable, trust me, we almost tried. I suspect this scam/racket/”mistake” is why everyone advises you get to the airport three hours early!

I think that’s it for now, folks. There’s more to come.

Future post topics: Food & Drink, Tipping & Service, Design & Art, the fun stuff — Music (Cigars & Rum), and People