Everyone has their own impression of Cuba. It’s just that kind of place. Many think of cigars, rum, music, and beaches while for others the classic cars, the colonial architecture, and the relaxed island vibe come to mind first. For me, the Cuban Revolution, socialism, and the history of Fidel and Che defined my impression before I visited. No matter what comes to mind when you think of Cuba, there’s no denying that it’s unique, and you feel it as soon as you land.
Coming from Mexico, the differences were readily apparent. Instead of the American tourists we had come across in Cancun, we rubbed shoulders with Cubans returning home and a myriad of Canadian and European tourists curious to see the island nation as we got off the plane. Whereas it had only taken us a few minutes to drop our luggage and go through security in Cancun, it took us the better part of two hours to find our luggage and go through customs in Havana. American companies and brands, so prevalent in Mexico, were conspicuously absent in Cuba. Instead, as we waited for our luggage, we saw numerous ads for Samsung and Huawei, who have no embargo preventing them from selling new washing machines and cell phones to Cubans. Instead of the Mexican Spanish we’d been used to peppered with its various indigenous Nahuatl and Maya words, we were greeted by customs officers speaking Cuban Spanish, known for its conspicuous lack of ending s’s, more relaxed pronunciation, and informal tone. When we finally left the airport, we were greeted with blue skies, long lines for the money exchange house, scores of classic 1950’s cars, and all kinds of people making their way to the city. With no cell phone service, no WiFi, and no plan, we felt like we’d traveled back in time.
Over the course of our 10 days there, we visited Havana, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad, staying with Cubans, eating in family-run restaurants, and talking with locals as much as possible. In the process, we realized that the country is actually quite divided if you dig in a little. There are two distinct economies and our experience was shaped by how we participated in them. Luckily, they’re very easily identified by the currency you use.
Monetary and Economic Systems
Since 1994, there have been two equally official currencies in Cuba: la moneda nacional (national currency, or CUP), which is worth $0.04 USD, and the peso convertible (CUC), which is pegged at 1 to 1 to the US dollar. As a general rule, the CUC is used for goods marketed to foreigners or imported goods, while the CUP is for staple goods marketed to locals. When you change money at the airport, or in any other Casa de Cambio (government-run currency exchange office, or CaDeCa), you’ll be given CUC. Depending on the location and expected clientele of a store or restaurant, prices are displayed in one currency or the other, although you do also find some stores that display both prices. We had read about the system online, but got a better feel for how the currencies are used once we arrived and started looking at prices on the ground. We started spending our CUC as tourists by default, but once we started looking for cheaper opportunities we stumbled into the much cheaper local economy.
- If you’re planning a trip, it’s helpful to know that since 2004 there has been a 10% surcharge on exchanging USD in Cuba, so be sure to bring other currencies to exchange. We brought Mexican pesos, but Canadian dollars and Euros are also widely accepted. American ATM cards will not work, but we heard that other cards do.
Tourism Economy (CUC)
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba has had to re-orient its economy away from sugar exports to sheltered markets. Since the mid-1990s, tourism has been one of the best-performing sectors of the economy and a large source of hard foreign currency. In the beginning, large scale government-built resorts in places like Varadero dominated the tourism scene and helped the country find equilibrium after the Special Period.
Over 20 years later, tourism has become a very big deal for Cuba. Over 2 million people go every year. If you have a US-type budget to spend, it’s a perfect vacation destination and countless experiences have been engineered to that end. Although most people spend their time in Havana, the country is quite large and has plenty of natural beauty. From walking along the malecon feeling the spray of the ocean on your face while you hear old Buena Vista Social Club tunes from down the street to riding horses through the heartland of the War Against the Bandits and swimming under waterfalls in Trinidad, there’s a lot to do. Sipping on a Cuba Libre at Bodeguita del Medio while chatting with other travelers and imagining what it was like in Hemingway’s day is great fun. Wandering through the streets of Old Havana and being surprised with a different view of the Capitolio or another piece of stunning architecture at every corner is an adventure. Although we didn’t do this, I imagine riding in a pink 1950’s Cadillac along the malecon with the wind in your hair would be a blast.
As a tourist, there are now more options than ever, not only for things to do, but also places to stay. Aside from the resorts and hotels, there are all kinds of casa particulares (private, individually-run rooms for rent), which you can identify on the street by looking for a sign of a blue anchor. If you’d like to plan your stay in advance, AirBnb has even recently entered the country, partnering with local casa particular owners to give tourists easier access to homestay-like experiences over the internet. Over the past few decades, most Cubans have come to work in tourism in one form or another. We constantly had people approach us offering tours, souvenirs, and recommendations. If you’re looking for entertainment, simply stop and ask anyone at all.
- To give you an idea for prices, a casa particular could be around $30 CUC, and a hotel would be at least double or triple that. A regular lunch at a restaurant in a nice part of town may go for $10-15 CUC, while a nicer meal (seafood) may be between $20-25 CUC. Taking a private taxi to a city like Trinidad or Cienfuegos would be about $30 per person. All in all, the prices aren’t bad if you budget for trips in USD, Canadian dollars, or Euros and are headed home after a week. If you opt for casas particulares, you may end up spending $90-120 per day on accommodation ($30), food ($40), and entertainment ($20), depending on your taste and how much you travel.
Local Cuban/Backpacker Economy (CUP)
In contrast, Cubans who work in the state-run economy earn in CUP (25 CUP = 1 CUC). According to the locals we asked, doctors and other professionals can earn up to $600 CUP per month, which is about $24 CUC or USD per month. Here it’s important to realize that Cubans spend money on very different things than citizens of other countries. As part of the Cuban planned economy, education, health care, and basic food rations are all free while housing and transportation are very cheap.
Despite these subsidies, take home income is low. We found it quite common for professionals (weather forecasters, accountants, doctors, university professors, and many others) to moonlight in the tourist-facing economy as waiters, cooks, restaurant owners, or tour guides. While we were a bit surprised at first, we learned that prices have been increasing as more tourists come, and there is a growing divide between Cubans with access to CUC and Cubans who only earn CUP. The CUC, vastly more valuable, provide access to foreign-made luxury goods and even higher-end services within Cuba. Without them, CUP-earning Cubans are largely excluded from a large section of the economy. Given that over 2 million tourists visit per year and that one night’s accommodation in a casa particular or a good seafood meal are often more than a Cuban’s monthly salary, it’s not so surprising.
Crossing the Divide
As we’re traveling long term and are trying to stretch our dollars, we decided to see what better deals we could find. In the process, we realized how far apart the two economies really are. Here are some of our favorite stories:
Our first adventure was finding a place to stay. We’d made an attempt at a last-minute AirBnb booking during our previous night in the Cancun airport with no success (given limited internet access and therefore opportunities for potential hosts to respond), so we had to figure things out on the ground. Based on our research with friends who had visited and some of the websites listed below, we figured we could find a casa particular for less than $25.
After getting our luggage and going through customs at the airport (which took over 2 hours), our first priority was changing money, which took another 45 minutes at the airport CaDeCa. In the meantime, I’d asked around about transport. At first, taxi drivers told us the only way to get to Havana was by taxi and that it would cost $25 CUC. Using the Triposo app, I found that we could instead use a public bus for only 1 or 2 CUP each. After several pointed questions, we found the bus stop and settled in to wait 45 minutes for the next bus.
With fresh CUC in hand and transported figured out, we turned our minds to finding a place to sleep. Our first step was to call a Havana casa particular owner recommended to us by a friend of Andrea’s. It turns out that the pay phones at the airport only accept CUP (one CUP is $0.04 CUC or USD), so all the bills and coins we had were far too large. Luckily, a Cuban woman nearby heard Andrea asking about how to use the payphone and graciously gave us a CUP to use. The phone call didn’t end up working out, but another Cuban man happened to be standing by the exit from the international terminal and was offering various tourists his casa particular for the night. Andrea approached him and asked the price: $30 USD per night for the both of us.
Bargaining is a way of life in Cuba. Everything is negotiable and it all depends on who needs what how badly. Andrea counter offered and said we were not really in a hurry and that we could only pay $20. The man on the street declined and they parted ways, but when the bus came 40 minutes later, he ran over, said he’d be happy to host us for $20, and led us to his home!
Lesson Learned: Don’t be afraid to walk away when bargaining! If you have a little time to invest and can shop around, you’ll get a better price.
After riding public buses through the city for an hour and a half or so, we had worked up a pretty big appetite. We asked our new host, Nelson, for a cheap restaurant recommendation and began walking through Central Havana searching for a place that was open on a Sunday afternoon. We ended up walking in circles, but eventually met a local named Damaso who has happy to show us his favorite local paladar (private, individually-run restaurant), which he promised us would be a bit more economical. We ended up paying exactly $100 CUP ($4 CUC or USD) for two large meals, juices for us, and a juice for Damaso as a thank you. Compared to the $15 CUC meals that had been offered to us along the way, we thought we did quite well!
During the rest of our time in Cuba, we always asked around for paladares. Although it can take some time to find them and they’re often tucked away from the more touristy sections, they offer incredible value and an interesting experience. Since Andrea and I both speak Spanish, we were able to connect with paladar owners, make small talk, and learn more about their lives. We were repeat customers at this paladar in Central Havana and got all kinds of good advice on places to go, things to do, and ways to save money traveling.
Lesson Learned: Ask locals! Guidebooks and travel apps are great for planning before you arrive, but being on the ground is different and no one knows it better than locals. If we hadn’t been open to chatting with Damaso, we would have walked right past the paladar without ever realizing it.
Our second full day in Havana, we toured the old city, saw churches, went to markets, and started planning the rest of our trip. We wanted to see Trinidad and Cienfuegos, both of which are on the southern coast a few hours away from Havana. Although we’d already been offered taxis for $30-40, we figured public buses would be the pay to go. Using the Triposo app’s offline Cuba guide and asking locals, we made a 3 segment bus journey across the city to the Via Azul station, which is close to the zoo. We learned that although the bus is slightly cheaper ($25 to Trinidad, $20 to Cienfuegos), the tickets sell out well in advance. Furthermore, it had taken us over 1.5 hours to get to the station from our casa particular on public city buses, which made the 7:00 AM departure time seem a bit out of reach.
We went back out to the curb and started asking around for taxis. After trying to bargain with a few different drivers, we realized that $30 was the minimum price per person. To us, the additional $5/person was well worth the ability to leave the next day without having to travel across the whole city to get to a bus, so we gladly made our arrangements and went along our day.
When later planning transport between Trinidad, Cienfuegos, and Havana, we used the same strategy. Trinidad and Cienfuegos are much smaller cities with more accessible bus stops. In every case, taxi ended up being a better option after we’d shopped around a bit.’
Lesson Learned: Consider at all options, even if they don’t seem promising! We assumed the bus would be the best option, but given the inefficiency and high cost of the tourist-facing bus system, taxi ended up offering a much better service for a slightly higher price.
When we visited the Museum of the Revolution in Havana, we were initially put off by the long line to get in. We’d heard the museum was worth seeing, but had a few other tempting and less crowded options for the afternoon. As we stood in line and were reading the signs, we noticed that while the price for foreigners was $8 CUC, the price for Cubans was only $8 CUP ($0.32 CUC). Although I felt a bit bad, I asked a nearby Cuban woman if she would mind helping us buy tickets. She agreed before I’d even finished asking and was able to get us the Cuban entrance price! I offered to pay for her entrance, but she wasn’t interested and simply said she was happy to help.
Lesson Learned: Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Locals not only know the area better, but are often very happy to help.
Our searching for deals and constantly trying to use CUP afforded us some unexpected learning opportunities about the two economies and the life of the Cuban people. Simply put, Cuba doesn’t always have the things you’d expect. As an island nation with limited domestic production and subject to the US embargo, things easily found in other countries can be a bit more elusive in Cuba.
- The most common item on the luggage carousel in the airport was not the universal black suitcase with wheels you always seem to see everyone clamoring for, but rather car tires individually shrink-wrapped. We asked a fellow passenger from our flight what the story was and learned that Cuba’s fleet of cars have no domestic source of tires. As they go bald, Cubans with the ability to travel (typically descendants of Spanish immigrants that have Spanish passports) leave the country, purchase them in bulk, and bring them back as personal luggage.
- During our second stay in Havana, our casa particular ran out of toilet paper. We stopped by a government-run convenience store at the end of a day spent walking the city. They didn’t have any toilet, and neither did the next four stores we visited. This is how we learned that there was a country-wide toilet paper shortage. Although we left before the shortage ended, we did spend three days digging through our bags for every spare napkin. In the end, we went to a fancy tourist-facing hotel in Havana, bought a single coffee, and then borrowed some of their stockpiled toilet paper for future use.
- Internet is not widely available. In sharp contrast to neighboring countries, the internet is all state-controlled and only accessible in public WiFi spots using prepaid cards. We paid $1.50 CUC for a card with 1 hour and 20 minutes of time at the government-run store (ETECSA), although you’ll find them resold at convenience stores for about $3.00 CUC. Although you can typically log on fairly easily, it’s quite common to be kicked off the network randomly if there are too many users nearby.
- Streets are poorly lit at night. Even in tourism-dependent neighborhoods like Old Havana or Punta Gorda in Cienfuegos, there are very few streetlights. We felt a bit nervous walking around in the dark at first, but become more comfortable over time once we say small children playing and old women chatting in the street at night.
In the end, we had a great time exploring Cuba and recommend it for a week-long adventure. It was a very different experience from other countries we’ve visited and has a lot to offer, both in terms of natural beauty and cultural experiences. Being disconnected from the internet made finding information and organizing logistics a bit tricky, but also forced us to do research on the ground and get more involved with locals instead of just letting our fingers do the walking. More and more, we find that while our travel experiences are defined by a location, we remember them because of the people we meet along the way. We thoroughly enjoyed talking to Cubans, learning about their lives, and swapping stories.