Cuba is a dream destination for many people. Stuck in a strange mix of the 1950’s and 2000’s the country is sure to enthral you. However being isolated from the rest of the world for so long has presented the country with many challenges and a better understanding of what to expect with help you fully appreciate how unique Cuba is.
Cuba has two currencies, one for the locals and one for the tourists. However it is not as simple as that. For certain commodities locals have to use the tourist currency and depending on how local you go tourists may need the local currency. The local money is called the ‘Moneda Nacional’ or abbreviated as the MN. The tourist currency is called the ‘Cuban Convertible Peso’ generally referred to as the CUC (pronounced say-oo-say). Generally speaking the exchange rate is 25 MN to one CUC. It is only when you start comparing between the two do you realise that there is no real conformity when it comes to price comparisons. There is talk that as Cuba opens up more and closer ties with the west are established one currency is likely to disappear and the locals fear it will be the MN.
Hotel accommodation is government controlled in most instances, expensive for the services provided and overall pretty basic. A far better option is to stay in a ‘Casa Particular’ or private homestay. Rooms are normally very clean if a bit small, far cheaper than the hotels (at around 35 CUC plus or minus) and for a few pesos extra will provide a decent breakfast or a huge home cooked three course dinner. We know where we would rather see the money going.
Cuba has had to learn to be relatively self sufficient which means outside of Havana choice can be quite limited. Breakfast is normally eggs a mixture of fruits (normally a combination of pineapple, papaya and guava) juice and coffee. Lunch across the entire country consists of ham and cheese sandwiches or pasta with Tomato sauce. Even when a menu looks like it has a wide variety expect the waiter to cringe and sadly inform you they only have the above lunch options! Dinner is normally pork or chicken and occasionally beef served with beans and rice. If you are a fish lover rejoice! The biggest choice you have is with fish. Shell fish is also incredibly cheap with a whole lobster costing only around $10-12 USD!
When it comes to drinking bottled water can be expensive and in some towns scarce (such as Baracoa), but beer is cheap and rum is almost cheaper than water. They make their own soft drinks in Cuba so your Cuba Libre, or rum and Coke, will be rum and the local cola. Fresh juices can also be quite hard to stumble across, quite surprising considering the tropical location. But if everyone is Downing a Havana Club there is no need for much else.
Transportation across Cuba can be tricky. While the distances are not great road conditions can be pretty poor, even some of the new roads. Car hire is expensive and parking in larger towns can be problematic and intercity buses run on a very limited timetable, often once daily or once every two days. Train travel is even less reliable, in fact the only train we saw in two weeks was stationary in Santiago and didn’t look like it was going anywhere in a hurry. In many instances if there is enough of you hiring a taxi to drive you from one city to another may actually work out to be the most time and cost effective option.
5. The People
The people are the highlight of Cuba and their heart beats to the rhythm of Salsa! They are super friendly and incredibly giving, something that people around the world who have very little always seem to be. We never felt threatened, bothered or harassed during our time there and people generally just wanted to know where you were from and what you were doing in Cuba. You can almost guarantee a great evening out in a local music hall, a friendly chat in a city park or square, even the souvenir hawkers and taxi drivers will normally only ask onece and when given a friendly refusal will smile and wish you a pleasant day! Where else but in Cuba!
Armed with this little bit of knowledge and some pre trip preparation Cuba will dazzle you. It is hard not to get caught up in its unique blend of Spanish, Caribbean and Africa culture. Over the next few weeks we will be expanding on these topics, but in the meant time, ‘ Viva Cuba Libre!’