This is a copy of a post that we put on the Lonely Planet Thorntree travel site for anyone who wants some Cuba tips and a recommendation for a Casa Particular in Havana.
We have just spent the last 10 days in Cuba and since we got a lot of help from the information on this site, we thought it would be helpful to post some thoughts on costs and other issues that we have come across.
We are an Australian couple on a low budget backpacking trip throughout latin america, so cost was a big thing for us. We spoke basic backpacker Spanish and although this was our first time in Cuba, we have spent close to a year in total travelling through all of Central and South America so we are quite experienced travellers. We only travelled for 10 days in Havana and Vinales so please don’t take it that we are Cuba experts. These tips are only based on what we experienced.
COSTS IN HAVANA
We managed to score accomodation in a non-government registered casa (in other words an unofficial casa) from a post from Nikki on this thorntree which was CUC15 for the room for 2 people and that included breakfast for 2 and free dial up internet. So that’s CUC7.50 per person including breakfast so being a couple definitely helps in keeping costs down here. Dinner at the same place which was very filling and tasty was CUC4 per person.
Taxi from the airport is normally CUC25 but the casa organised a private car for CUC15 (unofficial again). Most taxis around town were CUC3-5 but we rarely used these. To keep costs down, staying in the Centro area near Hotel Colina allowed us to walk to the 4 big areas for tourists being Habana Vieja, Plaza de la Revolucion and Omnibus Terminal and the Malecon and the area around the Coppelia Ice Cream park.
Lunches were CUC 0.20-0.50 for a ham and cheese sandwich, soft drinks from minishops and drink machines CUC 0.50, hamburgers CUC 1, Coffee CUC 1.25, Mojitos and other alcoholic drinks CUC 2. Mineral water 1.5L CUC 0.70 – 1.50
Buses were priced as per what you will find in the Lonely Planet guide which was accurate for these costs.
Entrance fee to museums and sights was about CUC 1- 10 with CUC 5 being the average.
So as you can see, the basic costs of accomodation and food adds up to under CUC 30 for 2 people per day with alcohol and tourist stuff on top of that. A lot cheaper than some of the other estimates on the thorntree if you play your cards right.
COST IN VINALES
Accomodation seems to be a standard CUC 10 for an aircon room for 2 people. Breakfast was CUC 3 per person and dinner at our casa was a whopping CUC 7 per person (illegal lobster one night, beef another night) but of course you can eat out. All other costs were similar. Motor bike hire CUC 28 per day and cycle hire CUC 6 per day. Horseriding CUC 5 per hour.
Lines at banks can be horrendous so you need to go first thing in the morning. Visa cash advances were converted to USD for withdrawal. We had no control over that despite having an Australian bank account. We took out CUC500 which cost us USD565 so that is a commission to Fidel of 12.5%. We can’t comment for European credit cards but I was told by the teller that all transactions are converted to USD first, so drawing on CUCs is actually drawing USD on your account at home. We used the bank in the Habana Libre building. Bringing Euros and converting them at Cadeca offices seemed to be the best bet if you don’t mind carrying large quantities of money. We didn’t use Cadeca for withdrawals. I can’t comment on ATMs, but there were none within easy walking distance outside Havana Vieja.
JINETEROS AND SCAMS
Perhaps we are more experienced than most, but we really didn’t find the jineteros to be that bad in Havana. Most of them are polite and easy to get rid of and nowhere near as bad as in Asia or other places we have been to. We weren’t constantly hassled to the point of getting pissed off and most jineteros would back off when we said we weren’t interested unlike other places in the world.
We actually felt bad because after reading all the stuff about jineteros, on our first day we acted really nasty when approached, but mellowed out at the end of the first day.
Eating at home meant that we didn’t go to fancy restaurants, but we also never got a padded bill at places we drank at, although we did see a lot of short changing so check your change. We did get a lady add in random prices into the calculator as she totalled our bill. I double checked her and pointed out to her that she was wrong. She recalculated and apologised, no big hassle, but it’s good to know to expect miscalculations.
We brought in a video camera with 10 DV tapes, a laptop, 2 digital cameras, a large underwater camera case, some rockclimbing equipment and a portable DVD burner and we didn’t even have anyone look at us at all. The only hassle I got was because I am Asian and some Chinese folk had been caught importing drugs, but when they saw that I was Australian, they changed their attitude and relaxed.
OFFICIAL VS UNOFFICIAL
We had no problems using an unofficial casa as it was cheaper for us and it was also good for the family as they didn’t have to pay commission to the government or to jineteros because we organised it on-line. In actual fact, they really look after you because if there is any trouble, then they get in trouble, not the tourist so we didn’t have to worry about safety, scams, theft or poor treatment. They treated us like family and this was a really nice way to experience the life of the locals.
I noticed Nikki an aussie girl also, who helped us organise this on-line copped a lot of flack here on this branch as this branch definitely has a feeling of negativity and paranoia, but it was a great experience and no hassle to us whatsoever. In actual fact it was a cool way to stay here as I think the experience was more genuine and educational than when we stayed at an official casa as they were happy to tell us about all the good and bad about Cuba.
I am expecting some nasty replies from all the people on this branch that help push their cuban friend’s casas, and I fully understand that the official casas and their friends feel ripped off that unofficial casas exist. However, we really liked the family we stayed with unofficially, and can vouch that it was safe for us and a great experience. The risk is all theirs.
If you are reading this and thinking a cheaper unofficial casa may be what you are looking for, then please be aware that there are a lot of people on this branch that will give you negative advice based on the fact that either they or their friends have official casas and hence see unofficial casas as unfair as the official casas have to pay the government whether they have guests or not.
They are of course correct that it is unfair and morally some of you readers will not be interested, but when you are a cost conscious backpacker, it is well worth considering so don’t be put off from some of the negative people as the only people here who are negative are the people who have a reason to be negative about it.
The best advice I can give you is just always have a think about where people are coming from when they give you advice on these forums which is why I put a bit about us at the start of this post.
CUBA GENERAL FEEL
We thought we would finish up by saying that it is worth pointing out how the information on this Thorntree affected our trip.
In general after reading all the scams and opinions from some of the longtime Cuba experts, we got a really negative feel about the place in that we would be overcharged and it would be difficult to do anything and that the people have become less friendly etc etc.
This was to the point where we actually cut time out of our Cuba trip in favour of more time in Colombia as Cuba didn’t seem as inviting.
In contrast, we have had a great time and the people we met have been friendly and the scams are nowhere near as bad as other places we have been to.
We suspect the reason is that some of the long timers to Cuba who write on this branch have probably seen Cuba worsen over the last few years and their opinions on this are good observations and very valid and of course extemely helpful, but also can be very off putting to the non-experienced people.
However, for the first timer who has nothing to compare to in the past and who just sees Cuba as it is today, it’s still a great place and still very enjoyable.
Hope all this helps you guys organise your trip a bit better.
RECOMMENDATION FOR HAVANA ACCOMODATION
If you do want to stay in the same casa, we can thoroughly recommend staying with Joel and Ania. Ania is a fantastic cooks so we ate at home most nights. We found them to be a warm and friendly household and it was a great experience learning about how they live. The unofficial thing was not a concern with us as we mentioned above as they really look after you as the last thing they want is any trouble also. Knowing some spanish is a good idea as their english is basic and also realising that this is not a hotel so you will be living in the same conditions that the locals live, although the house is very comfortable. They also teach spanish but best if you already have a basic grasp of spanish. We saved heaps of money staying here. Good luck.
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