There is no internet in Cuba. If you believe those who say there is limited access depending on where you are, you will waste a lot of time trying to connect to systems that have the broadband width of a human hair. Turn your devices off, bring a book to read and try not to think about it. Leave a phone number to be used in case of emergency—there probably won’t be one.
We went with a tour (see US Citizens, below). I have no useful information about either air or ground travel to or in Cuba because we had pre-arranged transport. Taxis are relatively expensive in Havana ($15-20 each way to the Tropicana and more if you take a vintage ride). As I mentioned in a previous post, we went with Insight Cuba and were very satisfied with the Cuba portion of our tour, and had excellent guides. We were less than satisfied with our pre-tour contacts, orientation and information.
Cuba is schizophrenic right now. Some items are inexpensive, such as souvenirs at the many kiosks around interesting sites and in downtown areas like Old Havana or Trinidad. Souvenirs purchased during visits to artist’s studios are enormously overpriced and rely on captive tour groups to purchase them before they find out that you can purchase a similar item for 2/3 less elsewhere. Art purchased from studios also varies wildly in quality and price. Artists who have been “discovered” by the outside world ask high prices, while undiscovered artists have more modest prices.
We visited a gallery where the artist recently returned from a successful show in Minneapolis and tripled his prices. He is still selling and his work is very skilled—can we begrudge him this good fortune? Beware the artist who has merely tripled his prices without displaying commensurate skill!
Cuba has an unattractive exchange rate. Each Cuban convertible peso (or “kook”) costs US$1 plus 13%, or US $1.13=CUC $1. There is no legal alternative to this exchange rate and it seemed unwise to inquire about a black market of currency. Cuba also has a currency called the Cuban peso (or CUP) that is not technically available to foreigners. US $1= CUP 23. A foreigner can possess this currency but it cannot be used in most places tourists visit. These CUP can be used in some stores and ice cream parlors where subsidized goods are sold. Thus nine of us ate ice cream one evening for CUP 24.50 or slightly more than US $1. We didn’t realize that the ice cream place only took CUP when we went in and we were amazed by the price (Our Cuban guide came along and paid our bill). On the other hand, there was only one flavor. Everyone in Cuba receives a ration book for highly subsidized food products each month with prices payable in CUP. That effectively eliminates hunger in Cuba because everyone gets rice, beans, oil, coffee, sugar and a few other things at minimal cost. There is probably a lively black market in these items, but our tour guides didn’t discuss it.
An unanticipated outcome of the currency system is that tipping itself is a major industry in Cuba. We were told that a typical salary in Cuba is US $20 per month, or 460 CUP. A US $1/1 CUC tip therefore amounts to 5% of a regular Cuban salary and consequently even the woman who tends a restroom and receives twenty-five cents CUC per person has the potential to make far more money than a person at a salaried job. Restroom attendants clear away all the small change and leave 1 CUC coins in their little dish so that if you are confused about the cost of a pit stop you can feel free to leave them a dollar/CUC.
There were also musicians everywhere, in the street, at every site, at every restaurant, even at the hotel’s breakfast buffet! Musicians offer you the opportunity to purchase a CD for about 8 CUC, or to give them a tip.
Everyone would like a tip. Normalizing relations with the outside world will require some difficult changes to the monetary system. NB: Our local tour guide had been a teacher, but realized that his income would be far greater as a guide. Cuba has a really admirable history of teaching everyone to read and write, as well as providing excellent low cost health care. Can this be sustained when all the teachers and doctors realize that they can earn a lot more money as restroom attendants, waiters and tour guides?
If you are NOT a US Citizen
Go to Cuba—now—prices are only going up. Head to the beach spot of your choice and any side trips you want based on your own interests. In addition to the civic orchestra that plays community concerts twice a month in Trinidad, I enjoyed visiting Hemingway’s house outside Havana, and Carlos Fuster’s crazily mosaic-covered fantasyland and studio. The show at the Tropicana was also a lot of fun (skip the dinner). You might want to take a ride in a vintage convertible. Have a great time.
Was our trip to Cuba wonderful? Should you book a trip to Cuba right away, “before it all changes?”
There are things to consider before you rush off to Cuba. The most important issue applies only to US citizens. You cannot go to Cuba for a beach vacation until the embargo is lifted. If you’re thinking of a week or two in the sun, forget it. US citizens must go on a “culturally meaningful people-to-people exchange” program. We had a good time, but only had one noontime opportunity to swim in the gorgeous warm Caribbean water.
We did have the chance to visit a polyclinic, listen to the adult choir at a geriatric center, visit an animation studio for a short film, and see the Bay of Pigs museum for the Cuban side of the story. We saw a wood carver’s studio, a print studio, and a ceramicist’s studio. We heard the civic orchestra in Trinidad, and they turned out to be a passionate, wonderfully skilled group of eight professional musicians who filled a concert hall all by themselves. They even had a handsome young violist as spokesperson. Cuba was interesting and surprising, but not relaxing, because the US doesn’t allow it, yet.
You should book your tour to Cuba if you are avidly interested in a) the history of Cuba’s wars of independence, the Cold War and the Bay of Pigs, or b) Cuban baseball, or c) automobiles from the 1950s that survive in Cuba (approx. model years 1947-1961). Otherwise, I suggest you wait until the US embargo is lifted, possibly in 2017. (It didn’t get lifted). Then book yourself a beach vacation, whether at a resort in Varadero or an AirBnB anywhere, and enjoy sitting in the sun and staring at the impossibly beautiful water, because the ocean is one of Cuba’s greatest resources. It’s worth waiting for.