Over the past two years Cuba has become one of the bucket list places for people to visit. Whether it is to visit the beach, immerse yourself in the beautiful culture, visit one of the famed buildings or tourist attractions, explore the multi-cultural surroundings, or visit a local farm where cigars are made by hand, your first visit will probably change your previous impression of the country. Anyone who has taken the time to do any level of research prior to their first visit understands that while Cuba has an excellent educational and healthcare system, there are some economical challenges facing the island. For most places you would expect a lot of “state supported” price gouging; however, that is not the case here.
Cuba has two different currencies CUC and CUP (click on the links to view each currency); most tourists will receive CUC when exchanging money at the airport or in hotels. As of this post, one CUC is equal to 25CUP. Unlike many other caribbean islands I’ve visited, the us dollar does not hold a lot of weight in Cuba. 98% of my purchases were with the local currency. Only one transaction involved american cash and that was… Well, let’s just say it was off the books, but a good souvenir for someone. So, in order to purchase food, rent a room, ride in a taxi or purchase gifts, you will need to pay in the local currency. As a tip, exchange the minimum amount required to get you through your first day and one-half at the airport and then find a local bank or hotel that will exchange the rest of your currency. Keep in mind that there is an automatic penalty of 10% on us dollars.
La Comida y bebidas (Food and drinks)
Food is inexpensive in most parts of Cuba. You an expect a dish of pork, chicken, or seafood, accompanied by a salad and arroz y frijoles negros to run between $10-15CUC. That is actually on the moderate side of things. You can also find some local spots that have local specials running $6CUC per meal. Typically the places that have the more inexpensive dishes are the truly local spots and prices will be listed in moneda nacional (MN) where the CUP reigns king. So your math skills will need to be on point in it is recommended that you ensure that you use the smallest CUC bills possible.
With respect to drinks, water and soda will typically run 1CUC; a local juice runs 5CUP on the street. If you are looking for something more mature such as a mojito or frozen daiquiri, it will run between 3CUC and 6CUC depending on where you dine. The famous Floridita charges roughly 6CUC for their frozen drinks. Quite pricey compared to some of the other local spots, but this is one of Hemingway’s haunts so you are paying for nostalgia.
Cuidado – Beware of overly friendly locals who want to take you somewhere great to eat. While some people can be genuinely friendly and welcoming, know that others are getting a bit of a kickback for steering you to a particular dining establishment. Can I blame people for doing this, especially when the average family income is $25/month? You have to do what you have to do to survive, but just know that this may happen to you at some point during your trip if you are traveling solo and not with a tour group. The other thing to be aware of are the “free” beverages. If someone asks you if you want a drink and you do, pay for your drink immediately. Insist on it. They my tell you that it’s okay, you don’t have to pay now; however, please know that (behind the scenes), they may have added a drink on your tab. So, if you are traveling on a budget, order your own food, your own drinks, and eat where you want to eat (if there is room full of tourists, it’s a tourist trap).
La Casa (House)
While there are hotels and resorts in Cuba, most visitors opt to say at a casa particular. With this type of lodging you essentially are renting a room in someone’s home. In my casa, I had my own room with a two beds, a bathroom, television and refrigerator. I brought my own breakfast food for the trip; however, the owner offered to provide breakfast for me at a cost of 5CUC. My casa was located in Vedado, an area located approximately 10 minutes away from Central Havana by taxi. The nightly rate for my CUC was $35; however, you can find units as cheap as $20/night depending on where you stay.
There are a number of options to help you navigate the Vedado/Havana area. The most economical of them is the local bus which will run 40CUP. Please know that the buses run often; however, they are very crowded. The next alternative is the colectivo taxi where you will share a ride with a car packed with locals. There are no set routes, so once you flag a cab, you need to ask if they are headed in the direction you need to go. If so, hop in and pay 1CUC. The final option is the “tourist” taxis. Rides start at $5 up to $15. I highly recommend you “exercise” another option and just set out on foot. Cuba is a very safe, even at midnight, so if you want to burn some calories while enjoying the beautiful sun, strap on the tennis shoes and keep moving.
Just as everyone’s experience in Cuba will be different, everyone will have varying needs when it comes to budgeting for the trip. I stayed four days and spent less than $300 (that included my housing, food, two taxi rides, and some souvenirs). But unlike most people, I do not eat meat and I didn’t drink a lot of alcohol. My recommendation would be budget between $50-100/day depending on where you stay and what you plan to do while visiting.