Those pictures of Cuba you see – the ones with the colonial buildings and cars straight out of the 50s, those relics of time gone by – are real. American-made cars straight out of the 50s (though now harboring engines from Europe and Japan) troll the streets, mixed in with Soviet-made Yugo-like cars. New cars are few and far between. Cubans really do still work small farms and harvest tobacco by hand. Cows, tethered by a rope, graze by the roadside. It’s these scenes tourists flock to Cuba to find (along with the crystalline sandy beaches and clear blue seas).
But just as Cuba harkens back to days-of-old, so too does it plumbing, road systems and some of its products and supplies. Consider Cuba a 2nd-world country with strong 3rd world influence. Step off the main road in many of the smaller towns of Cuba and you’ll find dirt roads, horse and buggies, roaming dogs and the occasional un-shoed child.
Here’s a primer on navigating the differences in Cuba, including the things they won’t tell you in the guide books.
It’s best to speak Spanish – even if it’s just a little, and especially if you want to explore Cuba “off the beaten path.” Many people in the tourist industry that you’ll encounter – taxi drivers, tour operators, hotel staff – speak at least a little English. But many of them do not. We found that the millennials of Cuba spoke more English than older folks, generally speaking. If you can master even just a few basic “good to know” phrases, you’ll be a leg up – and impress the Cubans you do interact with.
You will grow to miss American bathrooms. You won’t be able to sit down on a toilet unless you’re in your hotel or Casa Particular room. In our two week visit, only a very small percentage of public or restaurant restrooms we encountered had an actual toilet seat. Most of them don’t have things like toilet paper or soap for handwashing afterwards. And the bathrooms outside of the major tourist stops and restaurants are very far away from clean, indeed. We encountered bathroom attendants in some locales who, for a small tip, would give you some paper (no soap). But, toilet paper and hand sanitizer will become your best friends.
Skip the hotels and stay at a Casa Particular. Largely speaking, the hotels in Cuba, at least the ones in Havana and Varadero, suck. They tend to have plumbing problems, noise problems and old furniture. This is true of even the best state-run hotels in Havana: they just don’t match up to what we’re used to in the US or any first-world country. Perhaps even more importantly, you could miss out on gaining a glimpse into Cuban life. Cuba offers “Casa Particulars,” the Cuban equivalent of a B&B. These places offer rooms – up to 4 a house – and the hospitality of your host family. Situated in neighborhoods, you’ll usually have access to a sitting area/ courtyard/ kitchen. Breakfast and other meals are usually offered for an additional charge ($5 to $7 is what we encountered). And they are infinitely more reliably comfortable than hotels.
Booking can be a bit tricky: you can use AirBnB, though many Casa Particular owners
aren’t on that service yet, so you’ll miss the majority of nice spots. A travel agent could help you book, or you could just do Internet searches on your own. Our lodging was all pre-arranged – one through a travel agent, and the other a word-of-mouth recommendation from someone who had found the house on a previous trip. Another option is to book one night in a Casa Particular before you leave, then extend your stay when you arrive (if you can) or find another Casa Particular nearby that you like better or that’s available. One word of caution on this approach though: as tourist numbers go up, it may be hard to find a Casa particular “on the fly”, so act accordingly, depending on your threshold of risk.
Here’s the rub, though: currently you cannot pay for anything in Cuba from the US. You can use a European booking site to find and pay for your Casa (and yes, you will have to pay for the entire visit up front), or use a travel agent who has on-the-ground connections in Cuba with Casa Particulars (ie, they know the owners or have a way to check out the places they book ahead of time). If you DO use AirBnB or similar for booking a Casa (or a hotel, for that matter), it’s “Buyer beware,” says Paul Prewitt, owner of Hot Cuba Travel. He’s been running Cuba trips for the past 15 years, and recounts many times when folks booked online, only to show up and find the accommodations less than what was promised. “The government doesn’t have any regulations on what’s inside (the casa),” he says. “So you might find one that’s bare bones with nothing in it, bad paint, cracks, no hot water.”
Leave your American food expectations at home. Most sit-down dining experiences took two hours, so we usually found ourselves eating out only once a day to leave more time for activities. This is another reason to stay at a Casa – they provide breakfast in the AM (quickly) and there’s often a kitchen you can use or a fridge in the room so you can provide your own meals. There are two type of restaurants in Cuba: state-run and privately—run. The state—run restaurants usually have nice linens, candles, and decent food for a very decent price. Hotels provide buffet dining with unremarkable food. The privately-owned restaurants can be hit or miss: some might not have many menu items, or they might have lackluster food, but mostly it’s the privately owned restaurants that provide the most ambiance and the best, most authentic Cuban food. For some reasons, most places we encountered had a hearty offering of Italian food: Pizza, pasta. Hamburguesas are just that – Ham burgers. Seafood is plentiful on the coasts – and fresh.
But we found the best food by heading to the local markets where the Cubans buy their supplies. A bevvy of fresh pineapples, bananas, garlic, onions, squash and meat greeted us at each one. And they cost pennies on the dollar for what you’ll buy in a restaurant. Navigating the market is best done with a little bit of Spanish though – or at least the ability to point and then be able to hand over money, trusting that the vendor is taking what it costs (and they are – by and large Cubans aren’t into ripping people off). A note on this: if you do head into the local markets, or go to local stores, you’ll be dealing in Cuban PESOS, which are different than Cuban CUCs (Convertible Cuban Pesos). More details on currency are below.
A few other handy things to know…
A quick currency primer. Cuba has two different currencies: the Cuban Peso, which is what all Cubans use, and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). All tourists receive CUCs when exchanging (and by the way, exchange rates for dollar-to-CUC start at 10%, with resorts and hotels often adding an additional 2 or 3 percentage points) currency, and that’s how prices are listed in tourist areas. But step into the real Cuba, the one where Cubans work, live and play, and you’ll encounter prices listed in Pesos. As of February, it was 24 Pesos to each CUC, and this rate tends to stay pretty stable. By and large, when you see Pesos listed on menus and price sheets, you’ll end up paying less – think non-tourist rates. If you want to convert any CUCs into pesos (for use at the markets, in the local taxis, etc), find a “cadeca.” These are local exchanges and will turn your CUCs into pesos. We exchanged 20 CUCs into pesos used those to pay for six round-trip bus rides (buses only accept pesos) and stock up on fresh food during our trip – and still had a few dollars’ worth leftover.
Take extra toiletries, small soaps, shampoos and various US snacks – energy bars, prepackaged granola etc. These are good leave-behinds at Casa Particulars in lieu of, or in addition to, tips. The travel-size soaps, shampoos and conditioners are hard to get in Cuba, and so Casa Particular owners like to have these little extras that they can leave for future guests. The snacks are just good “nation-building” giveaways.
Bring and always carry lots of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. You’ll just be glad you did……
Have patience. Everything takes a little longer in Cuba – getting food at a grocery store, mailing postcards, and dining.
Be situationally aware at all times, especially with anyone who approaches you on the street. Know that if they offer you a “deal” – on Cuban cigars, rum, touristy items, a place to eat, etc. – they are likely getting a “cut” for bringing you in. You may end up paying more for something that’s not as high-quality as you’re being told it is, for example with Cigars. Or you might end up paying more for a typical drink, for instance, if shown a different, “neat little locals spot.” You shouldn’t ditch the experience just for that, but just know that you might end up paying more than it actually costs.
Negotiate. This is true for any taxi ride, taxi-ride tour of Havana or touristy item you might want to buy. For example, a dozen of the 1950s Chevy model cars line up in Old Town Havana to take tourists on a spin of the highlights of Havana in a two-hour private tour in the car. The cost listed on the laminated brochure one driver threw in our face was $65 CUCs. When we shook our head at that and said it cost too much (“Pero, es mucho dinero!”), he discounted it to $50. More pushback from us eventually had him down to $35 CUCs. A small $10 hand-carved wood box, on push back, went down to $5, and when I told the vendor I only had $3, he picked up a slightly smaller one and handed that to me as an option at that price.
What’s not negotiable: Your Casa Particulars and most menu items.