I visited Havana, Cuba, in January 2015. It was interesting timing, as about a week before I left, the US announced that it was working on thawing the 50-some year old frosty relationship it has had with Cuba. I am very glad I was able to see Havana before the American invasion, which I’m sure is imminent.
Many of my Canadian friends are eager to get to Cuba before the Americans invade, as well. It will change the country in many ways, expected and unexpected. The good: Cubans will be able to travel freely to visit their relatives in the US. The bad… well that remains to be seen. Cuba is currently the safest Caribbean country, they have free education and health care, and a character that could not have been invented. Where else can you go back in time like that? American tourism will greatly strain the infrastructure of Havana and the beach areas, and hopefully the government will ensure that the money gets distributed amongst the people and not to foreign investors. Ya, right Beth.
Okay so shut the hell up Beth, and give me some tips like you said.
Money: ATMs are few and far between. It is a cash-based economy, and credit cards are not widely accepted. I would recommend you get a butt-load of crisp $100 bills and hide them in your safe in your hotel, if there is one. Otherwise carry it around in your money belt I guess. Always carry around small change to tip the buskers / wait staff / maids etc. I found I spent a lot of coin on very small purchases. Everything seems to be one CUC (Convertible Peso), from wine to water to peanuts. It’s like the world’s largest dollar store.
Tipping: Cubans make $20-$40 per month. So tip the shit out of your wallet.
The Cuban “no”: The Cubans seem to be hesitant to admit they don’t know something. So they will make stuff up, or say “no” even if there is a positive outcome to something. For example, I asked the wait staff at my dinner buffet if there was butter, (I know the Spanish word for butter so it’s not like they didn’t understand), and I was told “no” by two of the wait staff. Then a third person (the manager), asked me what I wanted and then said “yes” and led me to the back table where there was heaps of butter.
Lower your first-world expectations: Cuba’s infrastructure is crumbling. They are doing their best but buildings are falling apart, there are shortages of various foodstuffs, bottled water comes and goes, water in your shower might come out in a dribble, it might be cold … etc etc. Just shrug your shoulders and say “whatever”. You are in an awesome country. Relax.
Cigars: Buy your cigars from a “Havana Club” outlet. They are government run and the real deal. The prices are the same wherever you go. Do not let anyone lead you up some stairs for some shady exchange. The big fatties are between $8-$10 apiece.
Rum: The legal amount you’re allowed to bring in duty-free is 1.14 litres. It is so cheap!! It still might be worth bringing in more. I’m not sure how much customs will charge for duty. I got away with bringing in over 2 litres without paying extra.
Photographing people: In Havana I saw some old ladies with flowers in their hair, smoking cigars. They are fake old ladies. Well, they’re not really fake old ladies, but they want you to take their picture then they will ask for money. If you’re okay with that, go ahead. Also if someone asks you to take their photo, they will ask you for money after. This is downtown Havana… in the residential areas, things are different. I took a cab driver’s photo and he was totally fine with it. He wanted our address but only to have a pen pal contact I think. We weren’t really sure what what happening but he was quite innocent and meant no malice.
Santeria: If you see locals walking around in full white costume, they are part of the Santeria religion. They sacrifice animals. Read more about Santeria. The park along the river in Havana has evidence of these rituals.
Car ride: Across from the Capitolio building, you can get a one hour tour in an old ’50s car for $30. If you feel like negotiating, you can probably get it down to $25. It’s fun. They’ll take you wherever. Don’t expect them to speak English tho.
Language: Many Cubans do not speak English. Try your best to learn as much Spanish as you can, to make your experience as fulfilling as possible.
Scams: Most scams I ran into were very minor, like people asking for money after I took their photo. My buddies on the photography trip were taken up some stairs to buy cigars… the whole scene sounded sketchy and when they left without buying something, they were harrassed. Avoid this situation.