Cuba on a budget

Cuba is one of the most interesting countries I have ever been. It is not only about cigars, beautiful antique cars that are leaving huge rey gas clouds behind, and Havana rum.

On our first day in Cuba my friend from the US and I walk along the coast of old Havana. A Cuban stops us with a big smile and asks for our names and nationalities. After he starts singing “Debora is good, United States is good. Debora is good…”. We are about to leave. Then he asks for money. 
Asking for money is one thing. But what was worse for me was his displeased facial expression of contempt after we said no. Like if we owe him money. I felt worthless.

This pattern repeated many times during our two weeks in Cuba. We started to be especially sceptical when a guy told us he is some kind of a teacher and wants to tell us something about the history. Even when we asked for the way we got asked for money. We met only a few people who did not ask for money in the end. And those are probably the poorest. True hospitability is an alien concept for most in Cuba and real friendship was hard to find.

I understand Cuba is a poor country. But I have been to many poor countries and never experienced that the people were like this. This made me want to learn even more about their situation. The revolution (1959) is still very present. All the advertisement is about the revolution and its heroes Ernesto Guevara (Che), Camilo Cienfuegos, and Fidel and Raúl Castro. Not so long ago (around 1993) Cuba went through a huge economic crisis after their most important trade partner (Soviet Union) ended. So I think now Cuba is in the process to build a new identity. Just because I had this experience it doesn’t mean it will be the same for you. So please visit this country if you thought about going.

The average monthly salary is around 25 USD. A doctor does not get paid much higher than other workers. Today the principal income is tourism. A night for a tourist in a casa particular is between 10 and 35 USD. The owners need to hand off 10% to the government. No surprise both doctors and teachers prefer to work in tourism. A big gab is developing between those who work in tourism and those who don’t. In a country that used to make sure that everybody got the same.

At the moment Cuba does have a lot of tourists. Many people want to experience Cuba before the US has too much influence. Already now many Cubans are wearing clothes from the US. Since a few months it is possible to fly from the US directly to Cuba. Since there is a constant need for material goods Cubans are very happy if you bring them something useful (colours, an instrument, clothes, a game, a toilet seat, spices).

Internet is only unlimited for students. Everybody else has to pay 1.5 CUC per hour (huge line to get the password) and find a spot with wifi (mostly in parks). There exists no free wifi. Yet.

Tips:

  • Download the app Maps.me (offline). Google maps does not work in Cuba.
  • Scams are common. Always count your change whenever you purchase something. It happened to us at least twice.

Havana

There is a Couchsurfing meeting every Tuesday from 21:00 to 23:30 where you can meet locals and other travellers.

Vinales

Great place for hiking. A very touristic city. In other places where we went it was easy to find restaurants and food stalls where locals go. In Vinales it was not.

Cienfuegos

We liked Cienfuegos the most. A less touristic city on the water.

El Nicho Parque

We took a truck early in the morning from Cumanayagua to El Nicho (5:10 am). The only bus back is at 6 pm. Entrance is 10 CUC. We spent a beautiful day in the nature. On the other side of the street is another waterfall where it is possible to swim.

Trinidad

It is touristic but the distinction between tourists and locals is not that strict. So there are many options to buy cheap local food. One day we rented bicycles and explored the beaches (4 USD each). It was also nice to walk up the hill and watch the sunset (mirador).

Food

Cuba has a shortage of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other healthy food (It is impossible to buy quinoa and very hard to find oats). The reasons are different depending who I asked: There are a lack of farmers, they do not make a lot of money, and if there is a bad year (e.g. hurricanes, torrid periods) the government does not support them. A lack of seeds, agricultural engines, fertiliser, and pesticides. The last two make Cuba coincidental to a global leader in organic agriculture.

The basis of most dishes are rice and beans. Our host in the vegan hostel told us that even if the food does not contain meat (e.g. beans) Cubans flavour them with bones or pork fat. We ate out once. Rice and salad was the only plant-based option we found. My rice contained meat. Even though I told the waiter that I do not eat meat. Maybe I should have told him that I am allergic to meat.

Since most casa particulars offer food for money (Breakfast 3-5 CUC. Dinner 3-8 CUC) they do not like if somebody uses their kitchen. Some people let us cook beans and a few places let us use the kitchen. So we precooked a lot and sprouted lentils.

Grocery stores do not have a lot of food options plus do not sell any vegetables and fruits. We bought beans (1.15-1.65 CUC) and water (5 liter are 1.90-2 CUC). At one point we started to boil tap water and drank that.

If you have CUP (just ask locals to exchange) it is possible to buy fruits and vegetables on stalls: E.g. 15 small bananas (15 CUP), 4 sweet potatoes (15-25 CUP), 2 tomatoes (3-20 CUP), 1 pineapple (20 CUP), 1 papaya (3 CUP), 1 onion (2 CUP), 1 pepper (1 CUP).

Many locals eat at cafeterías (very cheap, in CUP). They often offer sandwiches (10-15 CUP), pizza (bread with tomato sauce), spaghetti, and coffee (1 CUP, strong and sweet). I am wondering where this Italian influence comes from. Cubans even use the Italian coffeepot.

Accommodation

  • Couchsurfing is illegal. Cubans use this website to promote their casa particular or hostel. That is how I found a vegan hostel in Havanna (10 CUC per person. Breakfast, dinner, and water included. Address: Máximo Gomez 913, top floor).
  • A casa particular is the most common place to stay. It is a private room in a house of a Cuban family. Recognizable by a blue anchor. In bigger cities are many. Prices vary between 10 and 35 CUC per room for one night. Pretty soon we realised that we can make our own price. So 15 CUC was the most we payed. 5 CUC each was the least (Cumanayagua, unofficial). Unofficial means that our host did not ask for our passport and visa to report us to the immigration.
  • Hostels are rare. The cheapest I found is 5 CUC per person in Havana (Hamel Hostel: 308 hospital street).
  • Independent room. Like an apartment with a kitchen to use. A bit more expensive than a casa particular but less than a hotel.
  • We met some people who did free camping
  • We met a girl who had a hammock and just asked Cubans if she can hang her hammock at their place

Transport

  • Hitchhiking is possible but Cubans are used to asking for money. Sometimes there is a man in a yellow jumpsuit who stops cars.
  • Most tourists take a bus called VIAZUL (very expensive).
  • Mostly we used the local bus. Since most bus terminals refuse to sell tourists a ticket we just went to a bus station on the way. You lose time but also save a lot of money. It was a good way to practice our patience.

Transport we took:

  • Taxi from the Airport international to Havana city centre: 30 CUC per taxi. We shared a taxi with two other people. On the way back we took the bus P12 from the city center to the bus stop “Estación General Peraza” (0.50 CUP) and walked from there 40 mins. It is also possible to take a taxi for 1 CUC from there.
  • Havana to Vinales: Bus P12 to bus stop 100 y Boyeros (1 CUP). Go upstairs and walk to A4 (5-10 mins). Take a bus to Pinar del Rio (30-50 CUP). From there a bus to Vinales (2 CUP). Total duration: 5 h 30 mins.
  • Havana to Cienfuegos: Bus P8 to Vibora (1 CUP). Bus P3 to Barrio Obrero (5 CUP). Bus to Cienfuego centro (6 CUC. 3h). Total duration: 4h.
  • Cienfuegos to Cumanayagua: Truck (camión) to Cumanayagua from terminal de Omnibus (1 CUC, 1h).
  • Cumanayagua to Trinidad: Truck (camión) at 4:40 am to Topes de Collantes. Since it is a very touristic place the trucks didn’t even stop for us. In the end we hitchhiked and payed 5 CUC to Trinidad for both.
  • Trinidad to Cienfuegos: First place where we could not buy a ticket for a local bus. So we went to the end of the city (bus stop for locals) where a man in yellow stops cars. We got in a open dirty truck (90 mins, 50 CUP).
  • Cienfuegos to Havana: Bus to Aguada de Pasajeros (autopista A1, 5 CUP, 2h 30 mins). From there we stopped a bus towards Havana (40 CUP).

Money

Cuba has two currencies: The Cuban Convertible peso (CUC, replaced 2004 the USD and is therefore equivalent to the USD, used for imported products and superior facilities, is not a tourist currency) and the Cuban Peso (CUP, pesos nacionales, for locals). We used the latter kind to buy vegetables and fruits on stalls and for the local transport.

At the airport it is possible to change EUR, Mexican Peso, CAD, CHF, GBP, and USD (10% fee) to CUC (not CUP). CUP we changed with locals. Not all cards (e.g. those from the US) work in Cuba.

Safety

Other than petty theft (e.g. shoes of my friend while we took a short nap in the grass), violent crimes are not common in Cuba. I have read that many Cubans tell you about an awesome party happening at a restaurant or bar. They will take you there and in the end will make you pay for them as well. Walking around at night is safe in most areas.

Health care

Medical treatment is free for Cubans. But they have to pay for medication from the pharmacy. Cuba is famous for having one of the best health care systems in the Americas. But the quality is questioned increasingly. Many medical facilities are decrepit and some medical utensils are outdated. Frequently important medications are missing and waiting time can be long since many Cuban doctors are sent abroad. Cuba (the government) demands a lot of money from the host country (between 2’500 and 4’000 USD per month). The doctors themselves receive often less than 10% of this money. No wonder some Cuban doctors disappear suddenly and never return back to Cuba.

Education

Education is free and school attendance is compulsory. But after university the students have to work in social services for three years. Since the government exchanges teachers to neighbouring countries there is a shortage of teachers.

Weather

  • Coolest and driest season: Middle of November to April
  • Rainy season: May to October
  • Hurricane season: July to November

Visa

My tourist visa at the airport in Cancun, Mexico (flying with InterJet, Swiss passport) was 20 USD (only cash). My friend from the US bought a visa online for 65 USD. Best is to write the airline if it is possible to buy the tourist visa at the airport.

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