I know some pretty different places around the world, but I can´t say that I´ve ever been to one as peculiar as Cuba. The idiosyncrasies of the country go beyond the cultural aspects and are blended into the politics and economy. Then again, what could you expect of a communist country in the middle of the Caribean? To help those who wish to visit Fidel´s island, I prepared here a list of tips and explanations, so you won´t go through some of the problems I had to go through.
Money – Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban Peso and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The first is the currency used by the local population, and has a really low value. One Euro is worth around 25 Cuban Pesos. Just to give an idea, a can of Coke or beer costs 1 Euro. For the average Cuban, who earns around 25 Euros a month, the beverage costs a real fortune (and yes, you can find Coke everywhere in the island). The Cuban Convertible Peso, known as CUC, is the international money, the currency conceived by Fidel´s regime to contain the devaluation of the nacional currency. One CUC is worth the same as American Dolars and a bit less than the Euro.
(Read more: The adventure of studying English in Cuba)
Where to buy CUCs and Cuban Pesos?
I´ve never seen a currency exchange house in Brazil selling Cuban money. I don´t think you will find that in the States either. I don´t know about Europe, but I find it rather difficult. So the best thing is to exchange your money upon your arrival in Cuba. There are also currency exchange offices in almost every town you go to. With two currencies coexisting in the country and a lot of people receiving money from family members abroad, exchanging is a part of Cuban´s lives. Also, the exchange rate is fixed, so you will get the same price for your money everywhere you go.
Which currency should I take to Cuba?
Forget the American Dollars. Fidel doesn´t like them and created a series of measures to prevent its circulation (or at least profit from it). The Dollar is worth the same as the CUC, but you have to pay an extra fee of around 15% to exchange it on the Cuban offices. The best thing is to take Euros or Canadian Dollars.
How much should I exchange?
It depends on the way you travel and what you are going to do in the island. If you are going to Varadero, staying in hotels and eating on the good restaurants of Havana, than you can calculate the same amount you would spend on a trip to an European city. The prices for tourists are all in CUC, so just imagine as if you were spending in Euros or Dollars. Now, if you want to travel on a shoestring, stay in private houses and use the almendrón (the Cuban colective taxi), than you can calculate 50 CUC per day, including meals and lodging.
Where should I use each of the currencies?
The restaurantes that take the national currency will immediately charge you more once they see that you are a tourist, so you might as well pay with CUC. You will be able to use the local money on the little pizza and sandwich vendors around the cities, in small towns, in buses and on the almendrons. That´s why you shouldn´t buy too much of it. To give you an idea, crossing Havana in an almendrón costs 15 Cuban Pesos and a slice of pizza costs 3 Cuban Pesos.
Where can I use the credit card?
In over a month in Cuba, I didn´t go to any place that accepted credit cards. They told me they exist, but I didn´t see. Maybe in Varadero.
One curiosity: the 3 Cuban Pesos bills and coins have the image of Che Guevara and are highly disputed by the tourists. There are people selling this coins in Havana Vieja (the touristic part of town) for 1 CUC. Avoid buying it and just wait that you are bound to receive one of those as exchange.
Baño Cubano (The Cuban bathroom)
Ok, so lets change from the monetary subject to a more basic, but not less important, one: the bathrooms. Maybe bathrooms in Cuba deserved a post of its own, but I’ll try to summarize it all up here. Something as basic as going to the bathroom shouldn’ t be something difficult.. but just remember that you are in Cuba, in a socialist regime tied to an economic embargo. Well, with that in mind, the first tip I can give you is to always have a roll of toilet paper with you. Doesn’t matter where you go. If you are not wearing a purse or a backpack, just put a little bit in your pocket. That takes us to the next subject: if you see a newspaper sheet in the bathroom, know that they are not there to be read… if you know what I mean. Toilet paper is a luxury item that you are only going to find in good restaurants and luxury hotels (and not in all of them). Oh… and toilet seats are also not very common there. Its a good idea to try the procedure at home before going to Cuba.
If you are going to stay in a Casa Particular (the private homes where Cubans rent rooms) and they say there’s only a baño cubano (or Cuban bath) just know that there will be no running water. This is another luxury for them. I went to some friends house, people who would be considered middle class in a capitalist environment, and there were some buckets with water to flush and some to wash our hands. Tip: take some wipes.
Also, always have some 0.50 CUC coins or Cuban Pesos bills at hand. The bathrooms there may not have running water, toilet paper or toilet seats, but there’s always someone taking care of it and expecting that you leave a tip for their services (sometimes that even gets you a little piece of paper to dry your hands).
Well, despite all this things, I didn’t run into dirty bathrooms in the country and didn’t have any problems with it.