Great Time in Cuba
A Comprehensive guide to a vacation in Cuba
Having just returned
from four weeks in Cuba, three of which were spent in Havana, One can
spend less in Cuba, if the old college-hippie-backpacker-sleep-on-the-floor
days appeal to your sense of nostalgia. One can certainly spend a lot
more, if the days of decadent-Mafia-Tropicana-drinking-gambling-sin-and-sun-days
appeal to your bulging wallet. However, $50 US a day in Havana can provide
a very comfortable vacation, in a style which will not only appeal to
your needs for American creature comforts, but also allow you to get a
taste of the true Cuba of today.
Getting There Ah, that can be tricky. While it is not illegal for Americans
to visit Cuba, it is illegal to spend money there, as that is a violation
of the trade embargo. (Did you know that John F. Kennedy stocked his humidor
full of Havana cigars the day before the embargo was to begin!?!) It certainly
pays to plan ahead in Camelot. Going in the front door, I was able to
get to Cuba legally by obtaining a State Department authorization for
Cuban-born American citizens to visit family. Other legal avenues include
medical and missionary trips, sports and cultural exchanges, authorized
university classes, etc. All of these can be expensive, as much as $2000
Going in the back door is cheaper, but riskier. A $250 round trip flight
from Cancun could end up with a $5,000 fine from the feds. Caveat emptor!
What To Take Advice abounds regarding what
to take to Cuba, so Ill offer just tidbits of advice.
Clean out your closets, medicine cabinets, and desk drawers of the clutter,
and take it to Cuba. Some things cant be found, while other things,
even a 25 cent bar of soap, are very expensive for the average Cuban.
Take pictures of your family, friends and home. They make for great conversation,
and the Cubans are starved for any and all uncensored information about
America and Americans. They really do love us over there.
The Swiss Army can always be called upon to slice that ready to be eaten
mango or avocado, and help fix that perpetually broken down whatever.
Pepto Bismol taken every day, whether one needs it or not, is great insurance.
Imodium will invariably be needed, regardless of how much Pepto one consumes.
Along the same lines, bring moist baby wipes. 99% of Cuban bathrooms have
no toilet paper, and the wipes, carried in a small zip lock bag, are compact,
convenient, and oh so cool
Zip lock bags help keep the moisture
out of your expensive camera and CD player.
A bandana, soaked in water, helps cool down regularly. Also, many funky
restaurants have no napkins!
Good walking shoes, a good sense of humor, and a good attitude, as things
are very different in Cuba!
The Value of the Dollar Currently, there
are three types of currency in circulation in Cuba. The Cuban peso, worth
about 4 cents, the divisa, a Cuban monetary equivalent to
the dollar, and the US dollar itself. No other currency, not even Euros,
are accepted anywhere on the island. The current exchange rate is 26 pesos
to the dollar, but for convenience sake, paying for peso items on the
street will result in a 25 peso per dollar rate. Despite many recommendations
against it, I think it wise to change about $1 per day into pesos, so
that you can pay the Cuban price of $1 MN (moneda nacional, or peso
cents), for what tourists often have to pay $1 USD. Many examples to come,
so be patient!
Where To Sleep Lets start with rooming accommodations.
The Cuban government allows private individuals to rent bed and breakfast
rooms in their homes, for a considerable monthly fee. The going rate in
Havana is $20 to $30 per night, depending upon the season. Avoid casas
particulares (private homes) in Havana Vieja (old town) or central
Havana, as they are much older, probably lack air conditioning, and are
located in neighborhoods suffering from deteriorating conditions. Miramar
was, and continues to be, the Beverly Hills of Havana, but is located
inconveniently far from the heart of the city. I recommend El Vedado,
which was the upper middle class neighborhood in the pre-revolution days,
and today offers the best value for the dollar.
While there are numerous good casas in El Vedado, I give a five-star-plus
recommendation to the $25 per night Casa Antigua, the home of Horacio
and Marta Santana (http://geocities.com/casantiguacu
), off 23rd street (the main drag of Vedado), on 28th Street.
I visited both the National Hotel in El Vedado, the grand dame of pre-1960s
Havana, as well as the elegant Conde de Villanueva Hotel in the pricey
tourist section of Havana Vieja. Casa Antigua offers 90 percent of the
amenities at 10 percent of the price! Built in 1940, this house has two
floors, the top of which is Casa Antigua. Your host Horacio, a mechanical
engineer, has completely renovated the home in eclectic styles, and provided
it with up-to-date conveniences. Completely furnished in antiques, each
room features a different period, be it Neo-classical, Sheraton, Romantic,
yet is very Cuban in its unique way. Marta, an economist with a masters
degree in sociology, is the hostess, and shares in the interior decorating,
as well as the cooking and other household chores.
Consider the following amenities one receives for $25
An open air
veranda with tropical plants hanging from the archways, and wrought iron
rocking chairs to enjoy a daiquiri or mojito, a Cuban espresso coffee,
or an authentic Habano cigar Formal living/sitting room featuring
a fully mirrored wall, and a baby grand piano (Horacio is a classically
trained pianist, and when the mood strikes, will entertain you for hours
at a time!) Elegant stain glass windows, antique furniture, paintings,
prints, vases, and other collectibles throughout the home Formal dining
room, for your breakfast and/or dining pleasure. Full kitchen with modern
western appliances, such as a color TV, microwave oven, coffee machine,
Sparkletts-type spring water dispenser, (a rarity in any home in Cuba).
Bedrooms furnished in antiques, with mini fridges, radio-tape-CD players,
Panasonic air conditioners (not the omnipresent and inefficient Russian
models) Oversized fully tiled bathroom with tub and shower
enjoy experimenting with the bidet! Pretty outdoors sculpted, bird feeder-style
fountain with tropical gold fish In-house laundry facilities (pay the
maid a couple of bucks to do all of your washing and ironing) Free phone
service (only about 10% of homes in Cuba even have a phone) Computer room
with limited, but free, internet email access (cost $5 per hour anywhere
in Cuba) Complementary babysitting services, along with Spielberg, the
friendly non-biting, non-scratching cat Free referral services for accommodations,
buses, taxis, tours, restaurants, night clubs, etc., anywhere in Cuba.
Always talk to Horacio before making any substantial purchases or reservations.
He can always help you get whatever you want for lots less money, and
never charges the buyer or seller a commission or bird-dog fee!
A warm, friendly, intelligent, liberal, educated family with whom to become
friends (if one wishes to do so) I spent three weeks with Horacio and
Marta, and became intimate friends during my visit. Their gracious hospitality,
sense of humor, and eagerness to please cannot be described in words.
Moreover, their bedrooms alone would cost $150-$250 in an elegant Havana
tourist hotel. Okay, so you dont get a swimming pool
spent $25, or 50% of our budget at Casa Antigua. Can we survive on just
$25 per day? Sure! Casa Antigua offers breakfast for $3 per day. You can
get it cheaper on the street, but the convenience of rolling right out
of bed into a formal dining room three steps from your room is a bargain.
Breakfast includes a fresh fruit plate of bananas, mangos, guava, watermelon,
and/or pineapple, eggs, ham, cheese, bread with butter and guava marmalade,
fresh mango or guava juice, coffee and milk. Try getting that at you local
Dennys Grand Slam Breakfast for $2.99!
Where To Eat
Youll be playing tourist, so lunch on the street.
Nothing fancy, just eat as do the Cubans
ham and cheese sandwich
(40 cents), small cheese pizza (20 cents) Cristal draft beer
(60 cents), ice cream cone (4-12 cents). By the way, every evening, stop
by the corner bodega (market) and buy a 60 cent 1.5 liter
bottle of water. Freeze it overnight, and youre ready to hit the
hot streets the next day.
Dinner at any number of middle-of-the-road restaurants anywhere in town
costs $3-$6 for chicken, pork, or fish, usually coming with rice and black
beans, small salad or French fries. Every once in a while, splurge for
dinner at a nicer restaurant, with air conditioned comfort, linen table
cloths and napkins, and attentive waiters, for $10.
As you can see, without being overly extravagant, one can eat for $10
per day. So, that leaves us with $15.
Where To Party There may be shortages
of certain items in Cuba, such as American cars built past 1959, but one
thing of which there is an abundant supply is music, dancing, beer and
rum! Just get out of your car anywhere in the city, and follow your ear
to the nearest restaurant or bar with music. As a musician, I brought
along my horn and sat in with a minimum of 60 Cuban bands, and didnt
even scratch the surface of the citys music scene. Cubans love their
music, and even if they cant afford the $1 USD beer in the club,
they will dance and party outside, listening to the bands through the
Cristal beer is the national favorite, along with Tropical
and Buccaneer. Store bought beer is 75 cents, pay $1 in most
restaurants and bars, $1.50 in a more upscale restaurant, and $2.50 for
a Hotel Nacional splurge. Havana Club is the national rum
of choice, a bottle selling for $3 in the store. As with beers, daiquiris
and mojitos start at $1, depending on the clubs atmosphere and clientele.
Anyway, $5 per person goes a long way if you are not a heavy drinker.
Even if you are, a store-bought bottle of rum, and a couple of Cokes at
the club go a long way! Important note
musicians, bar tenders, and
waiters earn about $12 per month. Budget $5 per day for tips!
Getting Around Taxis are everywhere in Havana, but can be expensive
for the average tourist. But you are not the average tourist, so
Look for any American 1950s classic car on the street, as it is
a colectivo (communal) taxi. While they are not supposed to
transport tourists, you will never be refused a ride, unless the drivers
route does not coincide with your general destination. Simply hold out
your hand on the street, and practice saying one or two words indicating
Capitolio (the capitol building, 5-15
minute walk from everything) or La Rampa (hip Vedado area)
pesos. If you pay $1, expect 15 pesos change. Share the ride with Cubans
who will be polite, yet wonder why you are riding with them! Chat with
the driver in your best broken Spanish, and hell tell you all about
his cousins living in Miami. Back and forth around town for the day
Late at night, when the bars close down, los colectivos
no longer run, so the price for a private cab back to your Vedado casa
is $3. They may quote you more, but when you indicate that you know the
price, they will gladly drive you home for that amount.
For an occasional change of pace, take a bicitaxi (rickshaw-like
bicycle taxi for 10 pesos), or a cocotaxi (tourist motorcycle-type coconut
shaped contraption for a couple of bucks). If you want to be a real Ma-and-Pa-Kettle-Bermuda-shorts-with-black-socks-and-sandles-Hawaiian-shirt-wearing-camera-around-your-neck-Toto-I-dont-think-were-in-Kansas
type tourist, pay 8-10 bucks for a horse and buggy ride down through Habana
Vieja or El Malecon. However, beware of any drivers who look like Cosmo
Cramer, as their horse may have been fed Beefarino!
Average Prices, Occasional Splurges, and Souvenir Ideas
Listen to music, dance to you hearts content, people watch, communicate
with Habaneros in any way you can. Take along small gifts for the poor
people on the streets, such as motel size soap, a small tin of aspirin,
a pencil or a pen, photos of you and your family back home, etc. The average
Cuban simply cannot afford what you and I take for granted, and they will
instantly repay your kindness with a warm and broad smile, and a broken
English thank you. They will also be thrilled to have their
picture taken (except for the professionally picturesque,
who will expect a tip).
1 peso (4 cents):
authentic Cuban cigar (bought in a locals-only bar), long thin cone of
peanuts sold by street vendors, fresh ripe avocado from a pregonero
(street wandering merchant), Dairy Queen style ice cream, general admission
to a world class sporting event (baseball, volleyball, etc.), rest room
attendant tip 2-5 pesos (8-20 cents):
personal size cheese pizza, a bag full of fresh mangos, bananas, or guava
pasteries, Cuban citizen price to enter any national museum or attraction
(The average price is $5 USD for tourists. Offer to pay a Cubans
entrance if they will buy your ticket for you, and do all the talking.
Keep your mouth shut, look straight ahead, hide your camera so as not
to look too conspicuous, and its win-win for everyone, except the state!)
10 pesos (40 cents) communal taxi ride, ham and cheese sandwich, good
tip at a funky restaurant or bar, cover charge to hear a Cuban rocknroll
band at the National Arts Center (across from La Plaza de la Revolucion)
$1 USD beer in restaurant, tip for the band (they play up to 10 hours
per day!), great tip in a funky restaurant or bar $2-5 USD hand-crafted
wooded items, such as figurines, ash trays (they travel well and generally
will not break in your luggage) authentic Cuban claves (hand-held percussion
talk a deal 2 for $5, learn the basic clave beat, and
sit in with every band you hear!), authentic Cuban cigar bought in a government
store (prices are fixed, and anything on the street is guaranteed to be
counterfeit) There is no such thing as a $1 Cohiba or Montecristo!, dinner
at a paladar (private home restaurant), one or two drinks
at the Hotel Nacional (but hanging out with the internationally rich and
famous, in the comfort of luxurious surroundings is an affordable splurge
for a few afternoon or evening hours), bottle of Havana Club
rum (impossible to get in the US, and a bitter corporate enemy of Puerto
$10 USD Dinner at a nicer, air conditioned and comfortable restaurant
(possibly with drinks and tip included), buggy ride through Habana Vieja
(a really affordable splurge for a party of four), bottle of Havana
Club Anejo (seven year aged) rum, tour of the Partagas tobacco factory
(or avoid the camera-clicking tourists, and watch it being done outside
the tobacco shop of the Hotel Nacional for free), CD of your favorite
Cuban bar band
$20 USD dinner at a nicer, air conditioned and comfortable restaurant
(definitely with drinks included) $25 USD private car and driver for a
full day and night of personalized city touring to those hard to reach
$30 USD concert ticket to hear Polo Montanez, Compay Segundo, or any Buena
Vista Social Club artist
$40 USD pair of professional level, authentic Cuban bongos (talk a deal
with any bands bongo player)
$50 USD guided day trip to famous Varadero Beach in air conditioned van,
lunch and changing room included |
$100 USD round trip across Cuba, from Havana to Santiago, in air conditioned
Viazul Greyhound-style bus, stops along the way are prorated proportionally
- prices for sleeps and eats in the provinces are always less than in
Well, are you convinced yet? All things considered, you can experience
La Habana Real for a fraction of what youd pay for the
admittedly more comfortable and civilized, yet Americanized and homogenized
Miami version of Little Havana. For more information, please
© Al Dieste October 2002
Viva Cuba Libre!!
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