Tips for Tourists

In this section we want to share some of our local knowledge o Cuba with you.

Below we have compiled a collection of pieces of useful information and practical tips to help you get the best possible Cuban experience.

If you have any questions, contact us. We'll be happy to help

I. Money

1. The exchange rates of Cuban money are based on the US dollar. But the US dollar is the most inappropriate currency to bring to Cuba. Because of the blocade there is a tax of 10% when exchanging US dollars. Euro, pound etc. are not burdened with a tax.

2. You can carry your money either in cash or in credit card. There are many ATMs in Cuba. Valuewise it makes no difference - through ATM you use the fixed exchange rate but there is a 3% taxation for each operation. You can not pay with a credit card, this system is not yet functioning in Cuba.

3. When using an ATM read carefully what writes on the top of it. Generally each ATM is issuing 40 banknotes at a time but some are issuing banknotes of 5 others of 10 CUC. The sum that you can withdraw within one day is 400 CUC.

4. The cash you can exchange in the CADECA bureaus or at the exchange office of your hotel. Avoid changing it on the street.

5. In Cuba there are two official currencies - CUP (moneda nacional) and CUC (convertible peso). The exchange rate is 1 CUC for 24 moneda nacional and you can exchange them in the CADECA offices. Moneda nacional is used in the public transport, in some of the shops, open markets, the street cafes and cantinas. Practically you can use the CUC everywhere but some products and services are so cheap that it will be confusing to pay with CUC.

When asking for a price do not forget to clarify whether it is CUC or moneda nacional. It is quite possible that in a restaurant some of the prices are in moneda nacional and others in CUC.

When using public transport bus (in Cuba they call it guagua) always prepare one peso moneda nacional because you just throw the fee in a box next to the driver and no change is given back.

6. At the end of your stay you can exchange back the Cuban currencies leftover. At different exchange rate, of course.

II. Security

1. Cuba is a very secure country and the chance to become a victim of an asault, burglary etc. is minimal. But there is crime although generally petty.

2. Pick pocketing, roberry of money and objects of any value is something that exists and is difficult to be persecuted. That is why better prevent it:

  • a/ avoid carrying large sums with you
  • b/ keep your money in pockets that are not easy to be picked
  • c/ do not tempt the "adventurous" locals with expensive jewalary especially if you are planning to walk through "romantic" places or in "romantic hours".

3. The Police enjoys serious respect in Cuba and very often in a "tense" situation the mere mentioning of the word "police" has a definitely cooling effect. So whenever you feel yourselvs menassed or unfairly treated do not hesitate to use the "Police shield".

4. The laws in Cuba are very strict. Do not get yourselves involved in infringments that can look not substantial to you. The tourist is enjoying a favorable and privilaged treatment in Cuba but not when the law is concerned.

5. For any emergency situation call the police.

III. Transportation

1. The prices of public transport for Cubans are very low but the access to it is difficult. For the tourists the prices are considerably higher that makes the problem with finding tickets easier to be solved but it is strongly recommendable to arrange your transport especially between towns and provinces in advance.

2. There are three main types of interprovincial transportation - airplane, bus, train.

  • a/ the most picturesque, of course, is the rail road but it is the most risky (there have been cases of delay measured not in hours). And there are no special trains for tourists so if you decide to use it you have to book a ticket more than a month in advance.
  • b/ the airplane tickets also need early booking. The home flights are from a different terminal in Havana - Terminal 1 and if you land at the International Terminal (Terminal 3) and want to go to Terminal 1 you will need a taxi. But the taxies at the queue prefer passengers to Havana (because of the higher fee) so you will have a chance to get a taxi if you go at the end of the queue. The normal fee from Terminal 3 to Terminal 1 is 5 CUC. The airplane is fast and convenient but you can practically use it if you are going to Santiago, Holguin or Barracoa
  • c/the bus is the most convenient way of transportation. "Viazul" is specialized in offering services that are used mainly by tourists. The fee is high for the Cubans but quite moderate for the tourists (Havana - Santiago is 52 CUC). Although it is easier to find tickets for these types of buses it will be more secure to book them in advance. Especially on the way back when you will have to catch your flight home.

3. In Cuba also is provided the Rent-a-car service at normal European prices.

4. Also there exists the option to hire a car with a driver for your whole trip but this should be a trusted person and there are additional expenses coming with the driver - accomodation, food, etc.

5. Once in the airport of Havana you should know that there is no other way to go to the city except a taxi. It is a long way and the normal fee is 20 CUC (There is a CADECA office at the airport and it is recommendable to change 100 Euro there to cover your immediate expenses).

6. The Cubans in Havana use two main types of transport - bus and the big old American cars that circulate as rout taxies. It is cheap, it is convenient but you have to know exactly what bus or rout taxi you need, where to catch it and where exactly to get off – something not very probable at your first visit to Havana.

7. Your transport is the taxi. There are two main types of taxies (with two different prices and two different objectives) – the luxurious, nostalgic, prehystoric Fords, Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles from the 50ties or the crippled Ladas from the later history. Whatever you choose we would recommend that:

  • a/ the taxi-driver is a trusted person
  • b/ the price is agreed in advance
  • c/ and is paid after the end of the tour

8. Once in Havana Vieja the best transport is your feet. Everything is at a walking distance, the cafes where you can make a stop and refresh yourselves are abundant. Of course you can hire some of the picturesque bici-taxies but have in mind that many of the streets and squares of the Old Town are closed for them.

9. At the side of the Malecon the usual crowd of taxies – Cadillac and Lada is waiting for you but the most attractive are the motorcycles with two sheltered seats that with plenty hum and buzz and the fresh ocean air running against your face can at a moderate price carry you along the whole Malecon until Vedado and further on. It is an entertaining adventure but if you prefer to stay at the safe side better arrange an hour when your taxi-driver will be waiting for you.

III. Drinks and Food

1. Safety first. Cuba is hot. That is one of the reasons why you are here. And soon you will feel the thirst. And at every corner tempting homemade soft drinks are offered at absurdly low prices. Paradise. But the chance some of these soft drinks to be prepared with water that has been boiled is minimal. And the water from the tub in Cuba can be dangerous.

2. So, better vote for the bottled drinks – you can find them everywhere, bottled in different sizes (from 250 ml to 2 L), cheap and secure. Mineral water you can buy in any CUC shop, café etc.

3. On the street a large variety of fast food and snacks are offered at very low prices – frituras, sandwiches, pizzas, cookies etc. Some of them are very tempting, like the Cuban sandwich that is made with meat from a freshly baked piglet or the full-scale Comida Criolla (rice with black beans, salad, fritura and pork cutlet) offered for a dollar per portion. I, myself, do not hesitate to enjoy the street food but we should have in mind that Cuba is in the classical tropical zone and the requirements of the Public Health are not so strictly followed like it is supposed to be in Europe or Northern America.

4. The fruits seem to be the best choice. They are juicy, tasty, exotic, unbelievably cheap and you can find them on the street and at the open markets. Just wash it and enjoy it.

IV. Accomodation

1. In Cuba, of course, there are lots of hotels and all inclusive tourist complexes. If you are fond of all inclusive services. I am not. That is why I strongly recommend the licensed private rooms for rent. They have lots of advantages:

  • a/ they are cheap – the normal price is 25 CUC for room for two
  • b/ they are neat, well-equipped - air-conditioner, refrigerator, TV set, hot water etc.
  • c/ usually they are near marking points or convenient transportation stations
  • d/ a big variety of private rooms for rent are offered all over Cuba and you can make your choice accordingly
  • e/ the owner can be very, very helpful – organizing your transfer from and to the airport, providing a trustworthy taxi-driver, advising your trips etc. In other words the owner is “Our Man in Havana”.

2. Being such an important person it is good if you choose an owner that was recommended to you by friends who had used his services or have heard about him and his rooms.

3. The hostals are practically rooms for rent but more impersonal and you loose the so important advantage of personal contact with the owner.

V. Restaurants and Bars

The restaurants in Cuba present a curious mixture of private and state-owned, expensive, moderate, cheap ones, luxurious, modest, basic etc. Let us start with the privates.

1. The private restaurants (usually known as "paladars") normally offer good food, good bar, normal service. The prices are high for Cubans but normal according to the European standarts. The problem is that usually those private restaurants are done with quite a limited resource and are far from what you would call luxurious.

2. The state-owned restaurants are of three major types - luxurious and expensive that are for tourists; exotic and cheap that are for Cubans; cheap and boring where you can fill in your stomach and nothing else.

3. The most interesting, of course, are the exotic and cheap ones. If you are lucky or have a good guide you can visit a really luxurious place, with really luxurious dishes, listening to the divine Cuban music alive surrounded by interesting people from the everyday Cuban life. Of course, the service can be somewhat slow, some of the items in the menu will be absent etc. but these trifles will be overcompensated by the typical Cuban friendliness and hospitality.

4. Of course you can always go to a "tourist" restaurant (provided you have the stomach for the typical tourist surrounding). There are many, some of them are really good and especially in Havana you can find yourselves in the middle of an interesting mixture of widely international and typical Cuban surrounding. But you need a good guide to take you there.

5. There is one more type of Cuban restaurants that are really interesting for me but to enjoy it you have to forget your European ideas about how the environment and the public of decent restaurant is supposed to look like. These are pubs, beer gardens, coffee shops where you can find representatives of the Cuban everyday and somewhat marginal life are sipping their cheap beer, rocillo de gallo (coffee with rum) or just rum straight from the bottle. Not that it is exactly dangerous to go to such a place by yourselves but better go with somebody from the locals that you can trust.

6. These, of course, are schemes and the real Cuban restaurants present mixture of the characteristics just mentioned but, anyway, you have the picture and you can decide what exactly you want to see, taste, try.

7. You can have a cheap, tasty and interesting lunch in the Patio of Casa Canarias just opposite one of the marking points of Havana - Edificio Bacardi; in one of the restaurants at the seaside of Havana Vieja; down the Prado, near Hotel Sevilla there is a small cafe once visited by the baseball fans, where my wife and I had a seafood lunch with beer and mojito for 10 CUC. At the next corner they are offering Comida Criollo for dollar per portion.

8. Along the main touristic street, Obispo, you also can find good food, interesting places at moderate prices. I would strongly recommend to try the production of the Bakery that is situated on Obispo, near Plaza de Armas - it is tasty, it is exotic, it is cheap and you can sit and let Havana pass along you while enjoying some of the specialties there.

9. But if you want a lunch to remember spend some more money and visit the "El Patio" at Plaza de la Catedral. The founder of the restaurant was the personal cook of Emperor Napoleon III. Just imagine.

10. The most famous bars in Havana are "Bodegita del Medio" and "La Floridita". OK, I say nothing but somehow I cannot get rid of the idea that in fact they are selling Hemingway (and Nat King Cole in "Bodegita"). Not that I don't like Hemingway but I don't expect to find him in my "Daiquiri" and that's what exactly happens.

11. For me the bars are "Sloopy Joe's", the bar of Hotel Sevilla (they are selling Al Capone there, but this is a different story) and "Louvre" at Hotel Inglaterra. "Sloopy Joe's" is rich, exhuberant and deserves every inch of its ancient fame, and without Heminway its cocktails are 1 CUC cheaper. Hotel Sevilla is exoticly tropical still not loosing the Andalusian colors, the music is nice and the athmosphere is reminding you "The Godfather II". My favorite is "Louvre" - the music is fine, the surrounding is rich and colorful, the cocktails are yet anothe dollar cheaper but the most important is the story. Once, during the Spanish times, there used to sit the young liberal discussing the future independance of their beloved Cuba - the so cold "Muchachos de la Acera" (The Guys from the Passage). "Smart asses" - you would say (at least this was what I said to myself). But there is a plaque there with the names of fourty of these "smart asses" that gave their lives in the Independence Wars. Real liberals, real heroes. So rare nowa"smart ass"days.