Thanks to the dual-currency (one for locals, one for tourists), Cuba is deceptively hard on the wallet. Wildly unlike other Latin American nations, basic services and rustic surrounds don’t equate to cheap living. If you are intent on getting the most out of Cuba, the following advice is a mixture of sound tips and common sense;
$ Leave Havana.
It can be hard to believe that cheap Cuba exists when you’re paying a fortune for bottled water and taxis in Havana, but beyond the capital’s city limits, there’s an island that’s infinitely gentler on the wallet. Westwards of Havana, Pinar del Rio makes an appetising destination, while Cienfuegos is an interesting stop-off to the east, and Trinidad is a deservedly popular destination. In these smaller towns, accommodation is considerably cheaper, food likewise (and rather better) and budget-shredding transport is largely unnecessary. Havana’s certainly an interesting place to be, but you’ll get much greater value for money the moment you leave.
$ Stay in Casas Particulares, easy to find either in guidebooks/internet or in person.
The familiar blue logos that signify Casas Particulares mark accommodation that is really the only way to stay affordably in Cuba. Fortunately, they’re also the best way; exercise a bit of choosiness in deciding where to stay and you can find some absolute bargains – elegant colonial villas built around lush gardens and terraces, with an inevitably warm welcome to boot. Expect to pay around 25-30 CUC for a decent room, often with en-suite bathroom. All up-to-date guidebooks will give you some nice options to start with, but if these are full – and thanks to their printed prominence, this is often the case – there are plenty of other, often equally agreeable options. Look and/or ask around, and you’ll find somewhere decent.
$ Likewise, eat in your Casa; the food is likely to be substantially better and cheaper than in a restaurant.
Alongside the pleasant lodgings, Casas Particulares also offer the chance to eat extremely well for a modest supplement; 8 CUC or so for dinner, half that for breakfast. In a country not especially well-noted for its cuisine, eating in your Casa makes for a cheaper and better alternative to so-so restaurants. The abundance of fresh fruit from the surrounding countryside typically features prominently on the menu, along with a simple, tasty meat or seafood dish and some variation on a rice/potatoes theme on the side.
At the particular Casa we chose in Trinidad, the owner also served up some delicious soup whenever it rained – which, tropical showers being what they are, was just about every day. Although we normally ate outside, rain meant being ushered inside and having piping hot soup dished up to chase away the chilly airs. Even if it was still thirty-five degrees outside.
$ The more Spanish you speak, the better - the ability to negotiate is crucial.
As black and white as the Cuban/Foreigner cleavage may appear to be, there are considerable shades of grey seeping in-between, and as a rule, the more Spanish you speak, the easier you’ll find this muddy, beneficial stream. Although, as a visitor, you’re expecting to use only the Convertible Peso, there are some circumstances when this can be side-stepped – see below.
Of course, speaking Castilian Spanish is no guarantee of being able to comprehend the Cuban variety with any great ease – mixed with a rapid-paced, lilting Caribbean influence, everything seems to run together and blend into an indecipherable mess. Still, the more you can communicate, the more you’ll get out of Cuba. As much as this is true of any destination, it’s doubly applicable for a country as complex and multi-faceted as this.
$ Carry some normal Pesos alongside your Convertible Pesos, useful for spending at food stalls/markets.
That current of grey that runs through the tourist rules can at times be exploited, and where possible, this saves a fortune. Although most places will only accept Convertibles from visitors, individuals, market stalls and hole-in-the-wall shops will often accept the national currency, of which there are currently 27 to the foreigners’ currency. If you can use the Peso for small purchases – water, lunch on the go and the like – it’ll make your CUCs go a little further.
$ Try to avoid using the internet - likewise taxis drain resources at an astonishing rate; bikes are cheap to hire, and Cuba's empty roads (outside Havana at least) are ideally suited.
In a country where telephones are a luxury many don’t have – we witnessed the low-cost alternative for ourselves when a message was relayed down to the other end of the street by a series of neighbours lounging in doorways – the internet is both difficult and prohibitively expensive to access. It’s possible in a number of locations in Havana, if pricey (six pounds an hour), but outside the capital, it may be next to impossible. Save time, bother and money by arranging anything you need before arriving in Cuba.
With taxis little better value, get on your bike to explore Cuba. For all the cars in Havana – some the celebrated American classics, most not – there’s barely any traffic on the island’s roads, and cheap-to-hire (3 CUC per day) bikes enable you to get around at leisure. They may not be wonderfully-maintained – check your brakes before agreeing to take your ride – but provided you’ve got the time (and why shouldn’t you; adapt to the local pace!) it’s a relaxing way to see the surrounding sights. In Trinidad, for instance, the beach is comfortably reached on two wheels.
$ Be careful where you change your money
The maxim of money-changing may be "Never, never, never use the airport!", but Cuba is characteristically happy to buck the trend. Unusually, the airport offered one of the better rates of exchange we found, and was a refreshingly hassle-free experience. Hotels are likely to offer the worst rates; we got a fraction of the value from ours, and it’s a theme which seems to be repeated.
Debit Cards, contrary to popular belief - and there seems to be much heated debate about the issue - do work in Cuba - Cadeca Banks will certainly allow you to draw money out, but be prepared to queue. The banks don’t do things quickly, and you’ll want to keep withdrawals to a minimum, such is the difficulty involved.
Although it’s a challenging place to see on a budget, it’s worth making the effort. Staying in Casas Particulares makes for a great way to see the country and get some sort of feel for the reality of Cuban life – and it’s all to easy to miss out on this the longer you spend in Varadero (the distinctly un-Cuban beach resort on the north coast) and, in a way, Havana – especially if you’re sheltered in a luxury hotel. There’s something to be said for these comforts, though – insomuch as they allow you to explore the curiosities of the capital from a pleasant base – and perhaps the best option lies somewhere in the middle; that wonderful grey area again.