This is the second part of our of our series offering expert advice to first-time travelers to Cuba. As we said before, although visiting Cuba may (for the time-being) seem novel and exotic to U.S. travelers, everyone else in the world has been traveling to Cuba for decades. Consequently, there is a well-worn Cuban trail of tourist traps and pitfalls, but these can easily be avoided with some advance preparation. If you didn’t read the first part, go here.
Bring Plenty of Cash, either U.S. Dollars or Euros. Travelers checks are not accepted anywhere, and while some U.S. based credit cards are now usable in Cuba, many places lack the infrastructure to be able to accept them. We’ve seen too many travelers not bring along enough cash thinking they could use credit cards or ATMs, only to end-up having to curtail their activities for lack of funds.
Tip: If you travel to Cuba via a third country (Bahamas, Mexico, Canada), set aside $25 CUC per person that will be required at the end of your trip for airport departure tax. If you travel through us directly from the US, you don’t need to worry about this.
Currency exchange scams are common. Confusingly, Cuba has two systems of currency, the Cuban Peso (CUP) referred to as Moneda Nacional, and the Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUC is roughly equal to the U.S. Dollar and is the currency foreigners use most. At current exchange rates, $1.00 USD equals $0.87 CUC. The CUP can be used by Foreigners and Cubans alike to purchase goods and services outside the tourism sector, and is valued at 24 CUP to 1 CUC.
Tip: The 3 CUP note and coin have a portrait of Ché Guevara on them and make for nifty souvenirs. They are often “sold” to tourists at inflated values as a scam. The value of 3 CUP in U.S. Dollars is 12.5 cents. Here’s what a three CUP note looks like:
Negotiate cab fares up front and before you enter the car. A ride between La Habana Vieja and El Vedado should be about $6 CUC and a longer trip to Miramar around $8 CUC. No fare in greater Havana should be more than $12 CUC. The going rate to or from Havana’s José Martí International Airport is $25 CUC. When in doubt in Havana call a yellow government operated Cubataxi at 855-5555, and ask the driver turn on the meter.
As a general rule anyone on the streets of Cuba who greets you using this phrase is a street hustler (JINETERO in Cuban slang). He hopes to somehow make money off of you, usually in the form of commissions paid by Casas Particulares and Paladares he’ll tout. If you adopt the right attitude, dealing and talking with Jineteros can be amusing. When the amusement wears-off, politely but firmly ask him to leave you be. If he doesn’t buzz-off, flag down the nearest police officer and “your friend” will disappear.
When it comes to protecting tourists and travelers on the street, Cuban Police are very effective and NOT corrupt (especially in comparison to other Latin American countries). In all other matters, however, like filing out paperwork for a lost passport, or a crashed rental car, put all your plans aside and expect mind-numbing hours of delay. Never try to bribe a Cuban cop. Period. ‘Nuf said.
Compared to all other destinations in Latin America, Cuba is very safe when it comes to violent street crime against tourists. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, so be cautious and use common sense.
For travelers to successfully buy real brand name cigars on the Black Market is practically impossible. I repeat: All cigars you can buy off the street are F-A-K-E! And the cigars that your driver, tour guide, or new friend whom you met on the Malecón wants to sell you and swears are real, aren’t. Even if the box looks perfect and has the seals and everything. If you want real Cuban cigars, be prepared to pay handsomely for them, and only buy them from a Casa de Habanos, the official brand name of the Cuban Government cigar stores.
The most convenient place to buy cigars to take home to the U.S. is in the duty-free store in airport the departure lounge. They have all the popular brands and sizes, and you don’t have to lug them around your whole time in Cuba. U.S. travelers to Cuba may import to the U.S. up to 2 liters of Rum and up to 50 cigars for a combined total value of $100.00 USD.
All that being said, scoring cigars off the street can be a fun “clandestine” adventure. And they can often be good smokes. They’re still Cuban cigars, just not $400 Cohibas. If you decide to go for it, exercise common sense: be careful; bring a buddy; and assume what again?… that they’re not the real thing (no matter what the Jinetero selling them says). Spend only as much as you are comfortable LOSING. Around $25.00 per box is a good price.
You’re visiting one of the liveliest, most fascinating places on the planet. Keep a positive adventurous outlook. If you want to dance in the streets with a group of Rumberos you stumble upon, then shake your booty – even if you don’t know the steps. If you want to discuss Proust over a game of chess with an old man in the park, have at it. And if you want to dive into the water off the Malecón seawall go for it (just be sure you jump where the Cubans kids do – where the water’s deep enough).
That’s all for now. If you have questions after reading this post, check out our answers to you Cuba travel questions, or Contact us now to set-up you trip to Cuba.