What is the budget for Cuba ? Our tips, our impressions and our answer "Is Cuba the place to visit before the explosion of US tourism ?"
After 550 days on the road, across 18 countries, finely tuned budgeting skills and a few notions of Spanish , we fly from Mexico to the most populated island or the Caribbeans, Cuba!
Quite frankly, after so much time spent on traveling, we knew we had to avoid any kind of expectations. So up until Friday night we had no idea if we would actually visit Cuba at all, and if so, how. The following Monday we were flying there, with an open mind and no expectations.
Obtaining a visa was a bit unclear, so we agreed to check with a travel agency on Saturday morning. That didn’t help...much. We learnt it would cost us around 450$ per person (all inclusive), not accounting for the transportation from Playa Del Carmen (where we were staying at the time) to Cancun’s airport. Oh, and yes, the stay wasn’t included either...So what did "all inclusive" meant? Well, the round trip flight, and the tourist card ("Tarjeta de turista", the Cuban visa).
Everyone flying to Cuba needs this document, no exception.
It’s obtainable in any Cuban embassy, but here’s a tip: every single airline company must be able to provide this document and the according stamp, for a fee.
That’s the theory at least. In practice? Mexican airport provide that service. For the
rest of the world, it’s a mystery. The price of that fee, at the airport, was 318 pesos (16,2€) per person.
When deducting the 35$ of the visa out of the 900$ (!) asked by the travel agency, we get to a still gross 865 US$ for a round trip, flying economics (a 1h30 flight...for 865$)!
Of course, we rather chose to rely on our old trusty skyscanner.com. Bought at the very last minute, ready to leave on Monday morning, we managed to lower that price to 508 $. Ok, it was still expensive, buuuut...CUBA!
We luckily got upgraded to business class for the first time during our trip.
So that was a good start!
The Cuban history is so complex it’s kind of hard to apprehend. Add to that shifty information sources coming from countries with ambitious politics on one hand and pseudo humanists on the other, and then you’re really confused.
Despite the fact that the end of the American embargo was not noticeable, at all (there are still no good communication between the US and Cuba anyways), the number of American tourist keeps growing each years (around 100 000/year). For now, though, they have to fly in from Mexico.
Cuba’s symbols are first and foremost the old American and Russian cars, sometimes brightly colored, or barely even working.
Or vibes of very old American/Hispanic colonial mansions, often quite decrepit, with a few here and there undergoing renovations.
Enriched with a cultural and historical melting pot, and various ethnicity, it is quite easy to define the Cubans as beautiful. Tanned skin, fair eyes, a warm smile stuck on their lips. The men have stature and charisma.
The women looks are empowered by their strong sense of femininity, wearing laced tight clothes with such apparent ease, making the matriarchy based foundation of their society quite obvious.
Reaching out to the local culture was too often met by the illusory wall of self pitying the Cuban people have learnt to use to make a nice profit. Hearing "Poor them" over and over...and over from tourists made them realize that playing along would prove lucrative. And indeed, it has.
Nowadays, a lot of Cubans live quite comfortably, but still expect outsiders to treat them as they used to. Money has biased human interactions.
Moreover, not being allowed to leave their country makes it pretty hard to make any kind of comparison for them. For example, it was hard for us to find accommodations as welcoming and warm as the ones we found in Mexico (for the same price).
Interesting example of all-in-one tap+shower+water heater :
It is, indeed, something we have also experience in other countries, such as India, Nepal, or Bali. Contrary to Cuba though, the problem could be fixed by blending in with the local population, where we met extraordinary people, sometimes only for a brief lucky encounter, sometimes for lasting and meaningful friendships.
Although a decent bit of the Cuban population in contact with tourists manages to earn money off them, it’s very hard for them to use that money for anything else than food and basic commodities. If they are lucky, and/or know the right people, they can probably buy home appliances, under very strict supervising from the state.
Vehicles and real estate transactions were made possible by the State not so long ago, but no one seem to trust the Cuban government enough to do that.
Buying commodities is limited by offer rather than demand. Everything coming from subsidies, controlled and verified 10 times by the government, it’s not rare to find half empty grocery shelves. When they’re full, it’ll most likely be of junk food anyways.
Thankfully still, Cuba’s agriculture is largely untouched by industrialization, making it a strong contender for the job market, since the fall of the Soviet Union.
There are 2 currencies available in Cuba: the exchangeable one, for tourists, the Cuban convertible Peso. And the other one, the peso Cubano. Having 2 currencies allows for a proper separation of tourism economy from the local one. Lately though, a lot of tourists manage to come across CUP, whereas the locals use the CUC instead.
CUC (Cuban Convertible
Change offices are called CADECA. Pegged to the dollar, in theory at least, meaning that 1CUC should be equal to 1$. In practice, however, it is subjected to a 10% taxation. Strangely enough, the Euro is not submitted to this taxation, but instead has a 10% lower exchange rate.
Since our cash withdrawals in Mexico were free, we seriously considered the option of bringing Mexican pesos to exchange in Cuba. In retrospect, it is indeed better than just using the American dollar.
If you end your stay with an excess of CUC, you will have to change them back to dollars or euros again. And be taxed, again, for the dollar, or face the 8 to 10% lower exchange rate for the euro. Again.
For that, we advice to change back from other incoming travelers queuing in front of the CADECA, like we did. Just keep the 1=1 conversion, either with Euros or Dollars for a fair transaction.
The original currency used in Cuba, it’s worth 25 times less than the CUC, and is the most largely used by the Cubans themselves.
1 CUP = 0,04 CUC = 0,039 US$ = 0,033€
It’s usually said tourists do not have access to it, when in reality they can exchange them very easily in any currency exchange office. In our opinion, it’s worth exchanging 20 to 30 CUC to CUP.
It lets you tip at the real value, buy lots of things worth 1 to 20 CUC without the fear of never seeing your change again. A perfect example of that is the price of the coffee: Worth 1CUC on the main street, you can find it at 1CUP by just walking down one or two blocks.
Another thing worth mentioning was the fun we had using both these currencies. There was a Monopoly feel too it.
The Cubans see you very differently too if they see you master your spending habits with the CUP. You’re then nopt seen as an easy prey for high prices, like the usual gullible and oblivious tourist. It also gives you a change to get the famed 3 CUP bill, famous for the portrait displayed, and sold for 5 to 10 CUC on the tourist markets.
Guest houses or "Casa Particular" have long been the accommodation choice for tourists for a long time now. A family business usually, allowed and supervised by the State for the past 20 years.
Prices supposedly range from 15 to 30 CUC, but reach 25 to 40 CUC in reality. 35 to 40 in Havana and around 20 CUC anywhere else we’ve been. The guest houses we’ve seen have all been pretty comfy and clean, that’s why it is advised to negotiate the price and visit quite a few of them before deciding.
In a few places like Vinales, Trinidad, Varadero, Baracoa, you can find hundreds of casa all lined up next to each other. It is very easy then to open negotiations, playing on your strong side, you being the demand, vastly outnumbered by the offer, for once. Prices, the duration of your stay, and the meals you will have in the casa, are all opened to negotiations.
WARNING: When a casa or a taxi kindly offers to find something for you, rest assured that behind the kindness lies the promise of a 5 CUC bill. The Cubans are used to help each other that way, and will often book something for you without telling you beforehand. It is preferable to find everything you can on you own when on a tight budget.
Oh yes, we also got to lower the end bill 3 times by sharing our room with couple met during our travels there. Indeed, it’s not unusual for rooms to be equipped with 2 king size beds. And even if you can’t share, negotiating for 4 people carries more weight than otherwise.
If you insist on staying at a luxurious hotel, get ready to face the usual prices for old fashioned and out of date rooms for most of them.
It’s worth noting for our fellow vegans, chunks of chicken and pork are a common occurrence in your vegetable soup.
With that said, you won’t starve with the meals served in casas: for 5 to 7€/ person you will get a generous portion of Cuban (plain) food. Since gastronomy isn’t really a thing in Cuba, the food is about the same anywhere you go.
Our fellow vegans will be bored pretty fast because of that, but trust me when I say you won’t go hungry. The ingredients are there, the preparation and recipes are lacking.
"High end" restaurants prices range from 10 to 22 CUC/person. That price gets justified by food decoration, and the use of exotic products (for Cuba) such as olive oil.
Our omnivorous friends will often eat gambas and grilled chicken. Beef is forbidden to Cubans, and cows are only bread for tourist restaurants.
A few casas will gladly lend you their kitchen, which you may find difficult to get used to.
Some sort of pizzas and sandwiches are available for lunch: the ingredients are nearly all industrially processed food, the vegetables toppings coming from the local farmers. Count 0,2 to 1€ per meal, if your stomach is empty and if your wallet filled (well not really) with CUP.
Fresh juice will cost you 2 to 3 CUC, compared to a measly 0,5 CUC per litre in less frequented areas.
Cocktails go for 3 to 5 CUC, whereas grocery stores sell Havana Club bottles for 2,8 CUC (the white one) and 6 CUC (for the amber one).
If you’re in no hurry, we advise you bike your way around the island. This is, by far, the best way to explore. There are no real downside to that, you’ll usually feel safe for the duration of your stay, and also discover places not covered by touristic State buses. Actually I lied, there is one downside: car fumes when they drive by.
Although car rental isn’t cheap, and only possible via State owned companies, it also is a good mean of exploring way more than just relying on Viazul. Most of the cars are Chinese, which make sense when you think about it. Oh, and yes, the maps are up to date.
Viazul/Transtur is the national bus company.
The busses, also coming from China, are old, only mildly comfortable (equipped with smelly cold air conditioning), and don’t even get me started on the toilets.
The prices ranges from 20€/person for a 1h30ish trip, to 60€/person for a 8h or more trip. The locals benefit from Cubans-only busses, supposedly less comfortable, are not available for us tourists.
La dernière alternative terrestre sera le Collectivo, 3CUC moins cher que le car. Ce sont des taxis collectifs qui font le trajet dans le même timing que le car souvent, et là vous vous retrouvez à la merci d’un pilote émérite, au volant d’un bolide plus vieux que vous, dont le freinage nécessite une anticipation estimée en centaines de mètres !
The truth is, they are just as comfortable as tourist busses (with the added bonus of travelling amongst the locals), but nope, it seems tourists and Cubans aren’t supposed to mingle!
Lastly, the Collectivo. 3CUC cheaper than a bus ticket, these are collective taxis, usually travelling at the same speed as busses, handled by (nearly) professional pilots.
Or well they have to be, seeing the car they drive is older than you are, and the stop distance is the horizon! It’s a nice and funny discovery the first few times, and for trips lasting less than 3 hours.
I should mention domestic flights, so very expensive. Train is also something that exist and is worth mentioning for the sheer fact that tourists and locals can meddle there. Sadly for us, we came by that piece of info too late.
Stating the obvious here, but it’s difficult, close to impossible, to find a bad cigar in Cuba: it’s a very strictly regulated activity for one, but more important are the soil and climate, some of the best on Earth for cultivating tobacco! The Pinar Del Rio region, next to Vinales, is the main area of production.
You can pretty much find a guide anywhere, willing to take you on a visit to witness the production of Puros (Cuban cigar) with your own eyes, but also to various other touristic sites. This is likely to be the best way to go about it. With a group of 4 -the other couple being our Mexican friends- we paid 11€/person for half a day worth of visits.
Havana is best discovered in an old american convertible (30€ for 2 hours), and you’ll easily find a guide speaking your language. You’ll find some of the best restaurants/concerts/bars while taking a stroll in Obispo (the main pedestrian street in Havana).
Cuban cocktails pack a mean punch. Don’t be afraid of overpricing, the only thing getting ripped here will be the alcohol level in your blood. Tasty? Maybe not. That slap though.
After a few cocktails and a new liver, we got to discover the Cuban "mythical" jazz scene. To be honest, 3 days are more than enough to be fed up of the famous trio "Guantanamera", "Hasta siempre [Che Gevara]" and "Rico Vacilon". So unless you have contacts in the underground jazz scene, you may end up disappointed. Or crazy. Or both?
If you seek paradise beaches, you’ll most likely end up in an all inclusive resort, which ironically doesn’t include:
Musicians’ salaries, playing the (in)famous trio over and over again during your meals, asking for money afterwards.
Cocktails nor drinks in general, obviously (?)
After a 2 hours bus trip, 30 minutes of waiting in front of a bar/hotel selling you water bottles at 20 times their actual price in grocery stores (4€, I wasn’t kidding), 1h of boat trip, and tada! here you are, stranded on a "deserted island", where sits an old resort undergoing renovations, with a private beach. Activities get cancelled because it’s too windy, so a young man becomes an impromptu salsa "teacher", and you start questioning a few life choices. This happened to us on the Cayo Levisa island, on the northern coast, after leaving Vinales.
If you need it, you may access the Internet in dedicated areas signalled by a "WiFi" logo.
Sometimes luxurious hotel have the exclusivity of that service. These are easy to spot: look for Cubans leaning on a outdoors wall, fingers running on the screen of their smartphones.
As a tourist, it’s even easier. Get inside like you own the place (or well just a room) and you can even ask Security for direction. They will probably want to know if you have a room there, or if you will buy a drink, etc.."Fake it till you mean it" proves to be helpful here.
Otherwise you can get a (sometimes) decent signal at the ETECSA antenna in town, or at the tourist office in villages. You can find more about the location of said areas.
ETECSA is the only provider, and as stated previously, expect -sometimes- decent signal. The price is set at 2CUC/hour, and you’ll need an ETECSA card you can buy in their selling point around town, to get your login info. If you choose to leave before your hour is over, fear not, you can use the rest at a different spot.
Bring a healthy amount of patience with you when buying the card in big cities though, you’ll sometimes wait in line for 1 hour. You may want to grasp this as an opportunity to chat and laugh with the locals. In small towns and villages, you won’t have to wait.
We also bought paper version of said login on the black market, sold by a (smart) man right outside the ETECSA building in Havana. They worked perfectly and cost 2,5 CUC, sometimes a small price to avoid the endless wait.
We were baffled. 1500€ for 14 days for two people, and that’s not even counting the plane tickets here. Cuba is NOT cheap, at all. When compared with other places of South America, and for people like us not looking for luxury trips, justifying the visit becomes quite hard.
And to answer the question about the US incoming : we guess that it will not change anything. The game is already set and the Cuban will just have to upgrade their quality.
The unpleasant sensation of visiting a bad movie set has stuck with us throughout the entire time we were in Cuba.
Being a vegan made our stay that much more disappointing, and it wasn’t brilliant to begin with. Indeed, being branded as tourists, with all the implications, made us feel lonely and sad. In the end, we did meet nice people, but they were all tourists too.
But let us not dwell on the bad, and rather end up on a good note, because that is what Tatup is all about.
Luckily, we ended our stay in Baracoa, 2 days before leaving Cuba.
We became fast friends with a local woodworker, and amazing man who took us to his village, his home, where we met his family.
He fed us one of our best meal in Cuba for a handful of CUC.
Thanks to him, we realised how life is hard for people not leaving on the touristic paths, and how tourism affects the locals way more than we want to admit, often in a bad way.
Yes, your money may be a godsend for some people. For others, it just means they can’t really afford things they used to, because the prices climb up at a frankly insane rate. (I mean, 4€ for a bottle of water, in Cuba, speaks volumes.)
We would more than gladly send you the coordinate of this very kind man, just poke us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Indeed, we dare not write it here in plain view, fearing for his safety.