Americans can finally fly directly to Cuba again! As U.S. residents begin planning your trips, you’ll naturally have a lot of questions about exchanging currency, finding lodging, arriving at the airport, getting around by bus and taxi, finding good food, and dealing with crime concerns.
Read on for the ultimate guide to visiting Havana as an American with answers to your frequently asked questions!
PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED CUBA POSTS:
–Cruising through the streets of Havana in a 1956 Chevy convertible
–Discovering the remote beaches of Cayo Jutias
–Cave bars, scenic valleys, and colorful houses: 7 reasons to visit Viñales, Cuba
–Is Cuba dangerous? Crime and scam concerns in Havana
–Finding lodging in Cuba with the casa particular system
–Photo Essay: Images from Cuba
What’s the deal with Cuba’s two currency system?
Cuba currently uses two currencies, one for locals and one for tourists. For years, they’ve been saying that they’re going to switch to a one-currency system, but it hasn’t happened yet, so you’ll need to educate yourself.
The CUP (Cuban peso) is the currency that locals use for buses, food markets, and so on. The CUC (convertible peso) is the tourist currency. When you arrive at the airport, you will be given CUC at the currency exchange.
Tourists can use CUP if they wish, though aside from buses and small markets, there’s really no advantage for you as a tourist to have CUP. Locals do try to get their hands on CUC whenever possible because it is the more valuable currency. One CUC is the equivalent of one American dollar, while one CUP is the equivalent of about 4 American cents.
Most shops and restaurants that you will visit display their prices in CUC, but some may also show CUP. Be sure to take note of which currency you’re being charged in, and make sure you get the correct one back in change. Scams involving currency switching are not uncommon.
How can you tell the difference between CUP and CUC? The CUP bills all have faces on the front. Like this $3 bill with Che Guevara, which I acquired as a souvenir.
The CUC bills all have monuments and buildings on the front, and they all say “pesos convertibles.” Here’s a glimpse at some CUC bills:
What is the money exchanging process like at the Havana airport?
After you arrive in Cuba, you’ll have to convert your money into Cuban CUCs. There’s a money exchange just outside the main terminal. Be prepared: You may have to wait in line a long time to get your turn. This will acclimate you to the slower pace of life in Cuba.
If you’re exchanging American dollars, you will be hit with a 10% penalty upfront, in addition to the exchange fee. That’s why many Americans bring Canadian dollars or Mexican pesos to Cuba. Those currencies are not subject to the 10% surcharge.
I did not have time to switch my money to Canadian prior to arriving in Havana, and I paid for it big time. The $400 USD I brought turned into $338 CUC after the penalty and exchange fees. That’s a huge loss. Learn from my mistake and bring Canadian dollars instead!
One other tip: Get as many small bills as possible. I was given $50 and $100 bills from the currency exchange, and it was a hassle trying to get change for these as the week went along. Taxi drivers do not have any change (or at least that’s what they claim), so if you do not have small bills for the exact fare, you could be stuck paying $50 or $20 for a $4 taxi ride.
Do American credit and debit cards work in Cuba?
No! Cuba does have ATMs, and some European credit cards will work. But as of autumn 2016, zero American cards work in these machines, and no merchants will accept the cards.
Bring cash, more than you think you will need. You don’t want to run out of money before the end of your trip (and remember to save $20-25 for the return trip to the airport.)
Is it safe to carry around hundreds of dollars of cash in Cuba? For the most part, yes it is. See this related post on crime, scams, and safety concerns in Cuba.
Do you need to pay a departure tax when leaving the Havana airport?
No. Jose Marti Airport no longer collects a departure tax when you leave the country. This cost has been folded into the cost of your ticket.
Can you take a bus from the airport to central Havana?
Nope. There’s no Uber or Lyft in Cuba either. There is only one way to get from the Havana airport to the city itself, and that’s by taking a taxi. You’ll have to negotiate a price, but expect to pay around $20-25 CUC for the ride.
I was informed by locals that there is one bus that goes from the city to the airport, but it is for local airport workers and it does not stop at the passenger terminal, as of summer 2016.
What is food like in Cuba, can you drink the water?
For the most part, the food in Cuba is nothing special. You will find cheap, not-so-great pizza and spaghetti on many restaurant menus. You will also find the ham & cheese Cuban sandwich for which the country is known. Otherwise, expect a lot of chicken and rice. The food generally does not have many spices or seasonings.
Upscale cuisine is slowly spreading across the island, so you can find some fine dining with quality local ingredients if you seek it out. As for the tap water, I was advised to stick to bottled water, which is reasonably easy to find. Spend your week drinking $2 fresh mojitos instead!
How can you find cheap lodging in Cuba?
Use the casa particular system. Individuals rent out private rooms in their houses as a way to make extra income. They are usually very nice rooms with air conditioning. It’s like Airbnb. You can book these in advance, or you can just wander the streets looking for houses with this symbol on their door:
Knock on the door, ask if their room is available, and negotiate the price. We found rooms for $20-25 CUC per night for two people, though you can pay even less if you are willing to put in the effort.
Do you need to speak Spanish in Cuba?
As with any country, you can probably get by without speaking the local language. However, knowing at least a basic amount of Spanish is a big help. Do not expect taxi drivers, restaurants servers, and other folks you encounter to speak any English, because most will not.
The small amount of Spanish I knew was invaluable in helping me converse with locals, negotiate with taxi drivers, and ask questions of merchants.
If you do not speak any Spanish, I recommend downloading Google Translate. This phone app does not require an internet connection. You can speak English into the phone and it will automatically translate it to Spanish on the screen.
Is there Internet access in Cuba and are any websites blocked?
Yes, as of 2015 Cuba has limited wifi. Major cities have one or more hotspots where you can sit around the building and access the wifi. You will have to pay $2-3 per hour of use.
Visitors might assume that Cuban government would block some websites, but during my few hours of internet access, I saw no evidence of this. I was able to access American news sites like cnn.com with no problem, and I could easily access dating apps like Tinder (I was curious.) It seemed like every local was accessing Facebook, so obviously there are no social media restrictions.
For more info, see my post on Wifi and Internet access in Cuba.
Which Havana neighborhoods are worth checking out?
Old Havana (Habana Vieja) is definitely worth a visit. This is where you’ll see many of the oldest structures in the city, including attractions like the Museum of the Revolution.
Centro Habana is a residential area with narrow streets and very old apartment buildings. It’s a good to place a spend a couple days in a casa particular if you want to get a feel of real Cuban life.
Vedado is the modern neighborhood. Vedado is Havana’s version of a trendy area, with restaurants, nightclubs, and movie theaters on Avenido 23. It’s also the best place to hang out on the Malecon to people watch. You should spend at least a day in this neighborhood if possible.
What is the bus system like in Cuba?
You can travel from city to city using the Viazul buses. They are large, coach-like buses with comfortable seats and air conditioning, and prices are reasonable (about $12 CUC from Havana to Vinales.) They can sell out so you may want to book in advance, though I managed to snag a last-minute seat.
There are local bus routes that travel around the city of Havana. These are unreliable and extremely crowded. You will likely see dozens of Cubans standing at bus stops around town waiting for buses that may or may not come. Unless you’re extremely adventurous, there is no reason for you to use the local bus system. Stick to taxis, which are affordable enough.
How much do taxis in Havana cost?
The going rate is basically whatever you’re willing to pay. Haggling is expected, and you should always agree on a price before getting into a cab. Some taxi drivers were asking as much as $10 CUC for a ride across town, but I usually ended up paying $4-5 from Old Havana to Centro Havana and from Vedado to the bus station.
Now that Americans can legally visit Cuba and the masses have begun descending upon the island, I expect taxi prices to rise. Many visitors will be unable or unwilling to negotiate prices, and thus taxi drivers will start realizing they can charge more.
In addition to the tourist taxis, there are unmarked local taxis that charge much less. I’m not sure if these are legal. They might just be local car owners trying to make a few bucks on the side. We used a couple of these, but only because our local host flagged them down for us.
Can you ride in a classic car in Havana?
Of course! Cuba is famous for its vintage cars. See my post about riding around Havana in a 1956 Chevy convertible for all the details regarding price, location, and the like.
What are the Cuban people like?
A question like this obviously requires some generalizing. For the most part, Cubans are friendly, and they are welcoming to Americans. The people I encountered were curious to talk to me about our respective countries, our cultures, and our politics.
I was told something which was accurate: “Cubans are friendly but they are always hustling to make a buck from tourists.” If a stranger approaches you on the street and starts a conversation, he will probably try to sell you something or offer his services as a tour guide. Live bands perform in many restaurants and will try to sell you their CD or solicit a tip. Other people try to hustle by selling art or drawing sketches for tourists.
Average wages in Cuba are very low, so you can’t blame residents for doing what they can to get by. As long as you understand this reality, chances are you will enjoy interacting with the Cuban people and getting to know their country.