Cheesin it up
Backpackers, lefties and dirty hippies beware: Cuba is not cheap. And despite any romantic revolutionary visions, it’s got tourist traps, just like everywhere else. They’re just filled with Che shirts instead of fanny packs.
Several factors might lead one to logically assume Cuba to be a budget-friendly, independent travelers’ paradise: it’s a dirt-poor Latin American country, enamored in the hearts of liberals, intellectuals and military-cap-wearing undergrads. So when you hear that your low-to-mid-range daily budget for Cuba should be around $100/day, it comes as a bit of a shock.
Here’s the deal: after the sugar industry collapsed in Cuba, there wasn’t much left to keep the island afloat. Keen eyes turned towards tourism. Not only does Cuba’s larger-than-life lore hold particular allure for the left-leaning, it’s got an undeniable romanticism—old cars, crumbling buildings, rum and Rumba. Couple that white people’s insatiable lust for balmy Caribbean getaways, and they had the perfect cocktail on their hands—muddled with Euros instead of mint sprigs. Tourism today is “the most dynamic sector of the Cuban economy.”
If you’ve traveled to other places where tourism is a mainstay of the economy, you’ll know what this means: high prices and potential hassle. From Moroccan medina touts to San Francisco’s 14% hotel tax, economies that rely on tourism milk it. In San Francisco, the hotel tax goes to fund all sorts of cool arts endeavors and social programming that other US cities don’t have; you could argue (depending on your politics) that Cuba’s dual currencies are an extension of that. And in Cuba you don’t really have to worry about hustlers and pick-pockets (though they do still exist); tour companies take care of that.
Let's play "Spot the Tourists"
You wouldn’t initially think it, but Cuba’s got a resort, package tourism industry up to snuff with any Caribbean destination. A Hungarian friend won a Cuban vacation as an incentive prize at work; all he saw of Cuba outside of his resort was through a tour bus window. Combine the package factor with the absence of youth hostels and backpacking networks, and the prospects can seem pretty dismal for DIY cheapstakes like me.
But independent, budget travel in Cuba can and does happen. There’s just some special tricks you have to be hip to. My travel companion and I managed to squeak by on $75/day, well under the Lonely Planet budget (but then again, we were both surviving at home on less than $2000/month, so cheap living wasn’t anything new). Here’s what we learned and how we did it.
My two biggest resources for independent, budget travel to Cuba were Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum, and Cuba Junky, a comprehensive, Cuban/Dutch-run website for travelers (with endearingly odd translations and misspellings). At these two sites, you can find info all sorts of great information, and on the forum you can trouble-shoot and get advice (and suffer through the occasional political debate).
Cuba operates on two currencies: the Cuban peso (CUP), the money of the people, and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), the money of tourists.
Why? As tourism grew, American dollars began to wiggle their way into the country—hotels and tourist restaurants charged foreigners in dollars, while charging locals in pesos. (Considering the average monthly salary for a Cuban doctor is about what I make in thirty minutes, it’s more fair than it seems.) In addition, “dollar-only” shops emerged, where scarce and coveted items like dental floss could be had for a a high price. The influx of money was good, but the presence of American dollars was kind of slap-in-the-face to the government, wouldn’t you say? The government thus created the CUC to keep US dollars out; they did, though, base the exchange rate on the US dollar. Tourists pay for things in CUCs, while locals pay in pesos.
Whenever you exchange money, you’ll be given CUCs, and the majority of places you spend money will accept only CUCs. Invariably, however, you’ll get your hands on some pesos. It’ll probably happen like this: you get seduced by the wafting smell of cooking meats, and buy some street food. You hand the guy your CUC note. He digs around his pockets, shouts over at some other vendors; no one has the proper CUC change. He shrugs and gives your change in pesos. You’ve now got a pocket full of notes and coins, and can pay for small items like coffee and ice-cream with pesos—dropping the price from a couple bucks to a couple cents (literally).
There are of course more nefarious ways to get your hands on pesos, but you wouldn’t do that, now would you? Tourists aren’t really supposed to use pesos, and I have to say, I felt pretty guilty paying the equivalent of 5 cents to someone who makes $10/month—even if I am just a waitress living in a run-down North Oakland Victorian. I don’t recommend trying to use pesos as a way of cutting corners and stretching your budget, but it’s something that will happen at some point.
The single biggest way to save money in Cuba is by staying in casa particulares. State-licensed rooms for rent in private homes, casa particulares will also be one of your best glimpses into Cuban life.
Huge-ass main course served at a casa particular
Here’s how it works: individuals apply for a license, which is expensive; they must pay a monthly tax whether or not they have guests. The government approves them, and they can rent rooms to foreigners.
Expect to pay 15-30 CUCs per night (as opposed to 50-100 Euros and upwards on a hotel). Plus, as everyone knows, homestays are a great way to experience the everyday life and culture of a country; we stayed with hosts in Vinales whose teenage son showed us plenty of hip Cuban dance moves (which we were incapable of replicating). Hosts will usually offer to cook you meals, for an additional 5-15 CUCs. This may not be cheaper than eating at a budget restaurant or food stall, but they’ll stuff you silly.
The Cuba Junky site has gotten much more spiffy since I went to Cuba, and you can now book a casa particular room via the website. I did it a semi-old-fashioned way: I got ahold of Potato’s email address on the Thorn Tree forum, sent him an email, and he booked a room for us. He gave us his address; once we landed in Havana, we went to his apartment, enjoyed a cup of tea and chatted (he’s a really cool dude), and he walked us a couple blocks over to a lovely elderly couple who we stayed with for four days (and whose toilet we later busted—more on that later).
I like to have my accommodation arranged for my first couple nights when I arrive somewhere new, but the rest of the casa particulares we stayed in on our trip we booked ourselves. Most people will display their license logo prominently, so you can just knock on their door and ask if they have room (really, Cubans are insanely friendly and won’t turn you away). If the one you go to is full, they’ll for sure have a dozen friends with licensed rooms, and will help you find one. It sounds like a hassle, more for them than us, but I swear it works: a cab driver drove us all around Vinales while neighbors tracked down an empty room.
Bring Every Last Toiletry You May Possibly Need
Basic medical supplies are both costly and in short supply, or nonexistent, in Cuba. Pack all the sunscreen, aspirin, contact lens solution and insect repellent you might need—or risk shelling out painful amounts of money in a poorly stocked dollar-store. Even an extra roll of toilet paper isn’t a bad idea—unless you like wiping your ass with day-old news.
Tours and Entertainment
Cuba has a fairly well-beaten path, and if you stick to the neighborhoods and activities tourists are routinely funneled into, you’ll bleed CUCs faster than you can say “revolucion.” But get a little intrepid and a little chatty, and you’ll stretch your budget big-time.
Everyone knows that Cubans party, and party well, so you can be pretty sure that any club charging a hefty entrance fee is geared towards tourists. And as cool as a Hemingway tour or trip to the Tropicana might sound right now, you’ll quickly realize that they’re the Fisherman’s Wharf of Havana. Get friendly and ask your casa hosts (or random folks on the street) for tips on where to go and what to do. Less tacky companies like San Cristobal Agencia de Viajes are a good bet for more offbeat tours.
Food, Transport, and the Likes
There’s no real trick here: just do what you do in other countries.
Dinners at tourist-geared restaurants will set you back much further than paladares (mom-and-pops) and street food stands. Snack foods can actually be pretty hard to come by, so bringing along some biscuits, nuts or, for the homesick Yankee, peanut butter isn’t a bad idea. You can skimp on transit, but be prepared to pay the price: low-cost buses break down and hitch-hiking isn’t fun anywhere (in my opinion). Walk and take local buses within big cities, as opposed to cabs, and of course, the less you move, the less you spend on bus tickets, trains, etc. Cut down on souvenirs (really, how any Che hats do you need?), and do free stuff like strolling and lazing on the beach.
So, as with the last post, any seasoned Cuban travelers or recent returnees wanna share their experiences? We’re all ears…