We have just returned from a week in Cuba. We have always wanted to visit Cuba to experience and understand the culture and, yes, to see the cars. We traveled with CubaExplorer on their Cuba Introduction Tour, described by them as “The trip Americans pick to witness authentic Cuba.” This tour is centered in Havana, with one excursion outside the city. It would not be possible to experience all of Cuba in one week.We wholeheartedly recommend this tour to any American wanting to experience Havana before the tourists (who will be coming in droves, due to the warming of relations between the U.S. and Cuba) overwhelm the city. The maximum number in any group taking this tour is 24, and our group had 13 members.
Our experiences will be posted as a daily diary for the eight days we were there. Since our usual pen names in India and Southeast Asia (Pati and BeeBee) didn’t seem appropriate in Cuba, we will be Lazaro and Caridad (Cachita to her friends) for Cuba. And, who knows, maybe they will travel with us to other places.(We thank our tour guide for suggesting these names as authentically Cuban.)
Although we were traveling with a small group, we will not identify anyone else by name. This blog describes what we (Lazaro and Caridad) did and saw, and the other group members will have their own, additional and/or different memories.
The rest of this post provides some practical observations about money and costs that might be interesting to anyone considering a trip to Cuba.
There are two types of money in Cuba: the “regular” peso (National Cuban Peso, or CUP) for those who live here, and “convertible pesos” (Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC) for tourists. “CUC” is pronounced “KOOK.” At this time, the CUC is worth 24 CUP. An internet search will show pictures of each type of paper money; they are easy to distinguish between. We saw 1, 3, 5, 10 and 20 CUC notes. In addition, we saw CUC coins of denominations 5 ,10, 25, and 100 centavos (but no 1 or 50 centavo coins). These coins are similar to American coins, e.g. a Cuban CUC coin marked 5￠or 5 centavos (cents) is worth 5/100 of a CUC.
The 1 CUC note is hard to get, but is the most often needed note for tipping. It is a constant struggle to collect 1 CUC notes. The most valuable coin is the 25 centavo, used mostly (and frequently) for toilets in restaurants, museums, etc., anywhere but in your own hotel room. (Bathrooms are serviced by mostly women for whom this is their livelihood.)
In selling CUCs for US dollars (USD), the Cuban government collects a 10% fee and hotels collect a 3% fee, resulting in an effective exchange rate of 0.87 CUC per 1 USD. (Banks do not charge the 3% fee, but they have limited hours, are not open on weekends, and the actual passport must be presented.) Other currencies have much better rates. The European euro is supposedly almost on par with the CUC; we experienced a euro exchange rate of 1.02 CUC per 1 euro.
Before we visited Cuba, I read an article that suggested converting US dollars to euros before getting to Cuba, and then buying CUC with euros (to avoid the 10% fee). Here is the math, using exchange rates we experienced.
100 USD buy 87 CUC
100 euros cost 121 USD
100 euros buy 102 CUC
To buy CUC with USD alone:
100 CUC cost 114.94 USD
To buy CUC by converting to euros first:
100 CUC cost 98.04 euros which cost 118.63 USD
Therefore, using the exchange rates available to us, it is cheaper by 3.69 USD to buy 100 CUC directly by using USD, or cheaper by about 4 cents per CUC.
The tour price was $1659 per person (double room). All expenses were covered except for two dinners, taxis for personal transportation, shopping (souvenirs), and tips.
The tour suggests bringing 100 USD per day each for personal spending, but we did not spend anywhere near that much. It is necessary to bring enough cash money, because charge cards do not work here.
We spent conservatively, and the total amount we spent in Cuba was 549.45 CUC. Of this, the major categories of expenses were food and drink (212.20 CUC), tips (197.45 CUC), souvenirs (77.75 CUC), and taxis (40 CUC). In USD, this is roughly:
Food and Drink: $250
Airfare on American Airlines charter flights both ways between Tampa, FL, and Havana, Cuba, totaled $1138 for the two of us.The charter cost included the Cuban visa, health insurance, and the $25 departure fee. The rules and fees for luggage for our flight were (per person):
- 1 personal item (free to carry on)
- 1 carry-on bag (luggage) not exceeding 20 pounds
- 44 pounds of luggage (checked plus carry-on) free
- $20 fee per checked bag
- $2 fee per pound beyond 44 pounds of luggage
Luggage fees are collected only for the (inbound) flight to Havana. We think this is because Cuban citizens regularly bring in large, heavy items such as tires, engines, building supplies, and other items scarce in Cuba. (We saw tires wrapped in heavy plastic.)
Since we each had one personal item and one carry-on bag weighing less than 17 pounds, we paid no luggage fees.
We flew to Tampa a day early and spent the night in a hotel there, in order to be sure to be there early enough for the flight to Havana. These flight, hotel, and meal expenses are not included here.
The total costs for both of us are therefore:
Tour price: $3318
Personal expenses: $645
And now, for the next set of posts, Lazaro and Caridad will be telling you their experiences in Cuba.