Imagine a gorgeous tropical island home to a lush vegetation, surrounded by the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean Sea. Just by mentioning Cuba will inevitably make you dream. Here take a ride in one of the colourful old American Cadillacs, there, listen to the Salsa music and watch people dancing in the streets, smell the bouquet of Montecristo cigars and have a delicious worldwide famous rhum-based drink Mojito o Daiquiri. Everywhere you go, there is joy and time seems to have stopped somewhere in the fifties.
An icon among the icons, the island could almost make one forget the terrible trials that its inhabitants had to endure during more than five centuries and from which they’re just starting to see the end of the tunnel.

Cuba is a country of contrast and it is certainly one of its most fascinating features. Despite all the daily difficulties that Cubans still have to face, there is a certain joy. The vast majority of people are happy, you can easily see that, you can feel it and they willingly share their love of life. Here the resourcefulness and solidarity are key words. It’s also one of the safest countries I’ve had to visit so far, perhaps the safest.

MONEY

Like the other Caribbean islands, Cuba is a relatively expensive destination where the backpacker will have some difficulties to travel on budget. Essentially because since 1994, in order to compensate for the prohibition of the US dollar on the territory, the Castro government has put into circulation a second currency initially intended only for tourists:
The Convertible Peso, commonly called the CUC (pronounced “Say-Ooh-Say”) that comes from Cubano Convertible. Its value closely follows that of the US dollar.
The other currency is the Moneda Nacional or CUP (pronounced “Say-Ooh-Pay”), commonly known as Moneda Nacional or Peso.

The daily transactions between local are made in CUP (Moneda Nacional) while most of the consumer goods, except food, are bought and paid in CUC (Peso Convertible).
1 CUC = 25 CUP, sometimes 24.

And since tourists usually do not frequent the same establishments as the locals, the prices are considerably inflated for these first ones. A short coffee that will cost 1 CUP (US$ 0.04) on the street, will cost you in a tourist flow 25 times the price paid by locals, namely 1 CUC (US$ 1.00) or more. As a result, the cost of living for a tourist is far more expensive. This is also often the case for visiting historic monuments, museums, etc. for which distinctive locals and touristic entrance fees will be displayed. This is even more obvious for transport where tourists are required to only use the Viazul bus company or taxis (collective or not).
These differences can be explained by dramatically reduced buying power for most Cubans – the average monthly wage is around US$ 20.00 per month – while the government subsidizes various services such as public transport.

But with some resourcefulness, flexibility and time, it is possible to live and travel almost like a Cuban.

CHANGING YOUR CURRENCY TO CUC

So there are two currencies in circulation: the Peso also called the Moneda Nacional or CUP and the CUC, the « tourist » currency.

At Havana airport, when you have passed the customs and collected your luggage, at the meeting point located in public area, there are 3 Casas de Cambio (CADECA or Exchange Houses, all managed by the State).
One at the public meeting room and two just across the exit doors of the building. You can only exchange your currencies to CUC. The first CADECA is also equipped with ATM that accept debit and credit cards such as VISA and Mastercard. Here too, you will only be able to remove CUCs.

Preferably change Euros, Livre Sterling, Canadian Dollars but avoid American Dollars and Mexican Pesos that suffer from a miserable exchange rate.
For each US$ 50.00 (or equivalent), the CADECA will charge a US$ 2.5 tax; multiply the remaining balance by the corresponding conversion rate to get your final exchange rate.

It is quite common that the CADECAs but also banks don’t have small foreign denominations. It can therefore be difficult to partially trade your large foreign denominations.

Devise Buy Sell
EUR 1,17305 1,11025
USD 1,02750 0,97250
CAD 1,27553 1,34765
CHF 0,97699 1,03224
GBP 1,35073 1,26897
JPY 110,19891 116,432016
MXN 19,37984 20,47502
CUC 1,00000 1,00000
CUP 24,00000 25,00000

It is also possible to change foreign currency into CUC « in the street ». It is often more interesting than going through a CADECA. To do this, ask the locals to find out if they know anyone who could exchange your Dollars or Euros with CUC. Some individuals even display on their facade, but very rarely, a “Cambio” sign announcing the possibility of exchanging currency at home. In any case, the exchange will always be in the house of the person, out of sight. Have no fear. For US$ 100.00 expect at best 97 CUC. But the exchange oscillates more generally around 95 CUC.

CHANGE CUC IN MONEDA NACIONAL (CUP)

It’s impossible to trade your CUC with CUP (the national currency) at the airport. You will only be able to do it in Havana city but also in the main Cuban cities.
The official way is to go to the CADECA, the State exchange office. Normally, 1 CUC is bought at 24 pesos, less the taxes collected by CADECA.
But more and more small businesses that display their prices in CUP, also accept CUC. Usually they will give you change in CUP but it can also happen they give you the change in CUC.
It is also possible to simply exchange small CUC amounts in CUP in the shops without making any purchase. Nevertheless, in most cases, merchants will not be able to make the change on more than 5 CUC (US$ 5). The exchange is 24 CUP (Pesos) for 1 CUC.

The CUP will allow you to access more easily the consumer goods intended for Cubans, mainly food sold by individuals, small traders, street vendors, street food but also to Cuban public transport like the Guagua (pronounced « wawa « ) and the Camiónes; the former are generally intra-provincial state buses (1 CUP/trip) while the latter are private collective « buses » generally operating at greater distances (at least 20 CUP/route).

Confusion
The term « Pesos » is used for both CUP and CUC. But although it generally refers to the Moneda Nacional (CUP), some traders will play this confusion with tourists. Most of the time, it is really obvious whether prices are in CUP or CUC. But in case of doubt, do not hesitate to ask.

TRANSPORTATIONS

FROM/TO THE AIRPORT

OFFICIAL TAXIS

There is no public transportation from the Havana international airport. Taxis are therefore the only way to reach Havana city directly.
And it won’t be possible to miss them, the drivers are firmly waiting for you at the exit of the arrivals. Yellow and black vehicles lined up right in front of the building.
Price: ~ 30 CUC (US$ 30.00), for the trip, whether you are alone or 4. If you are traveling alone or in pairs, it will be interesting to try to find companions – on the plane or in front of CADECA/exchange offices – with which you can share the taxi ride. Be aware that the taxi will generally only accept one destination for the entire group.

NON-OFFICIAL TAXIS

They are safe and cheaper than the official ones. You won’t find any in front of the Airport Arrival exit doors as they are not allowed to carry passengers from and to the Airport. They’re just about 500 ft away.
Exit the airport building, turn right and follow the wall to the end; there you will find unofficial taxis parked under the ramp from the departures hall. In one of these beautiful old American Cadillacs called Almendrones, their drivers will bring you to your destination at a cheaper price.

BUSES

Near the National Airport Terminal, which is about 1,25 miles away from the International Airport Terminal, you can find the local buse going to the city center: the MetroBus P12 – an articulated bus for Cubans that will bring you to the City Center (Parque El Curita). They are very frequent.
Price: 0,40 CUP (0,34 €).
Duration: between 30 to 60 min depending on the traffic.

To reach the MetroBus P12 stop, there are a few options:
– Take the shuttle bus that travel between the two terminals (0,40 CUP),
– Take a tuk-tuk (1 CUC),
– Walk along the road. It will take you about half an hour (free),

In any case, you will first have to join the Carretera de Murgas.
For this, when leaving the airport, take the sidewalk on your right to the end of the building. At the end of it, a path continues almost straight, passing the unofficial taxis and then along a small restaurant « La Casona”, until reaching the « Carretera de Murgas.
This is where you will find the bus shuttle stop and the tuk-tuk. Walkers will continue on Carretera until Avenida Rancho Boyeros. The MetroBus P12 stop is a little further on the left, on the opposite sidewalk.

Note that to take the bus, you will need CUP (the local currency). Ask a local if he can change you a CUC with CUP, or with some luck, as I did, a local will pay the ride for you.

From the City Center to the National Airport (1,25 miles from International Airport), the P12 bus leaves from Paraque El Curita. They are frequent but expect to queue on rush hours.
From National Airport, you can reach the International airport with the Shuttle bus, in Tuk-Tuk (1 CUC) or by walking.

GETTING AROUND

INTRA/INTER-CITIES

For intracity travels, there is no public transport provided for tourists, except taxis and Tuk-Tuk.

Almendrones
In Havana, these old American cars also called máquinas run along fixed routes. They actually stop anywhere to pick up or drop off passengers.

Guaguas
As for the locals, they use massively the Guagua (pronounced Wahwah), city buses and regional inter-city.
You will find many stops generally indicated by a simple pole surmounted by a blue sign with the lines served.
The « Wawa » is without a doubt one of the most economical ways to get around a city or around.
It will normally cost you no more than 1 CUP, to deliver directly to the driver. Know that he does not have to give you change. Have the right account, unless you want to make a small tip.

Nevertheless, for some popular tourist destinations, such as Playa Rancho Luna south of Cienfuegos – which is served by a ferry but also by a Wawa – as a tourist, you will pay 1 CUC (US$ 1.00) for the trip; unless, of course, you can pretend to be a Cuban…

INTRA/INTER-REGIONAL

For intra/inter-regional travel, tourists have essentially 3 options: taxis (collectivo or not), buses Viazul and trains.

TAXIS

Wherever you are, you shouldn’t encounter the slightest problem to find a taxi, they are (virtually) everywhere. In the most touristic cities, local will even approach you to offer you their service.

Official taxis
They are easily recognizable by their yellow and black colors and are equipped with a taximeter.
You can still try to negotiate the price before you hit the road.

Unofficial taxis
You will also find many unofficial taxis which are usually collective taxis — shared so, unless you agree otherwise — widely used by the locals. Some work in a cooperative, but the vast majority of them work individually. Collective taxis are a fast, often comfortable and reliable alternative to other means of transport. A said, they are also widely used by Cubans who earn their living well enough but do not have a personal vehicle.

Price
Non-collective taxis charge about 0.50 CUC/km.
Collectivo Taxis’s prices are obviously cheaper. Although they’re usually slightly more expensive than Viazul fares — the bus company for the tourists; you’ll get the extra pleasure of a trip aboard a beautiful American Cadillac (but not always).

Havana – Viñales (183km/114 miles)
• Non-collectivo: ∼ 90 CUC
• Collective: 15 to 25 CUC
• Viazul: 12 CUC.

Remember it is always possible to negotiate the price while remaining polite and comprehensive.
Do not forget that for most Cubans who can not leave their island, if you can pay for a flight from your home country to Cuba, you should be able to pay US$ 20.00 for a taxi ride.

Collectivos are found in different places. They’re often located at the exit of Omnibus Nacional bus terminals (exclusively for locals), but in some cities, they have their own terminals.
Here you will travel in a beautiful American Cadillac and there, you’ll board a jeep.
In any case, the vehicle will only start when it is full. Which corresponds to 5 to 10 passengers depending on the type of car.

Taxis Door-to-Door Service

Some collectivo drivers dedicated themselves in connecting some tourist cities, with door-to-door service. You can book your taxi colectivo directly from your Casa Particular or even on the street – it won’t be rare that a local comes to you to offer you this service.
The departure time is usually fixed and the destinations are the main tourist cities of the country.
Here, the service is supposed to be door-to-door, which means that we will pick you up in front of your casa particular and will be dropped off in front of your next home.

On the trip Havana – Vinales, the taxi will even stop in a tobacco plantation where you will be presented, for free, the process of making the cigar.

AUTOCARS VIAZUL

From Viñales in the Far West to Baracoa, in the Far East, all the tourist destinations of the islands and even some that are less so, are served by the state-owned company Viazul. These are the only public transport with the train, which tourists are officially allowed to take.

Tickets can be bought at the Viazul terminal or on the internet www.viazul.com.

At the counter, tickets are paid in CUC. The Viazul fleet consists of relatively new and comfortable (Chinese) coaches with AC (which, by the way, blows a Siberian wind).

OMNIBUS NACIONAL

Cubans use companies that are, at least officially, reserved for them. The equivalent to Viazul are the state-owned bus company Omnibus Nacional. These buses usually have their own terminal and when shared with Viazul, the ticket offices and waiting rooms are well separated.
Tickets are sold at the counters and are paid in CUP. A priori, no clerk will ever sell you a ticket for a Nacional Omnibus.
On the other hand, it is possible in certain terminals to access the Omnibus boarding platforms and thus to discuss with the driver(s). Nevertheless, especially it is obvious that you are tourists, expect to pay a significantly higher price than a local or even a price close to those charged by Viazul. Be aware however that this money goes directly to the driver’s pocket (which will be a nice bonus) and therefore it gives some room to negotiation.

CAMIÓNES

For intra-regional and inter-regional journeys, the Camiónes are without a doubt the most economical means of transport!
They are literally van-type truckloaders whose loading volume has been summarily arranged for the transport of passengers. Undoubtledly it’s spartan and uncomfortable but this way the immense majority of the Cubans travel across the country

Theoretically, the camiónes are supposed to deserve the villages and hamlets that are on the road between the largest cities, in support of Omnibus Nacional coaches which, contrary to what their name might indicate, are not supposed to stop at every turn.

Travel time in Camiónes can be two to three times longer than by bus or taxi.
On the other hand, camiónes do not have fixed schedules. They usually leave their point of departure when the driver feels that his vehicle is sufficiently full. Which makes the trip a bit more uncertain. Nevertheless, whether you are at the starting point of the camión or on its way, the wait rarely exceeds the hour.
In medium and large cities, the camiónes generally share their terminus with the Omnibus Nacional. But the access to the platforms is distinct because it usually takes a valid ticket to access the Omnibus bus platforms.
But the starting point can be a simple highway parking area: this is the case of the camiónes from Havana to Pinar del Río whose departures are at the highway interchange A4 and Calle 100.
Price: Depending on the distance, the trip will generally cost between 10 and 40 CUP.

TRAIN

The trains are operated by the national company Ferrocariles de Cuba whose network covers a very large part of the country, from west to east, and from north to south.

If traveling by train will probably be the most unforgettable transport experience that you will have to live in Cuba, you will nevertheless have to be very patient as totally impassive, as during this adventure, literally, absolutely anything can happen.
Between the dilapidated network and wagons; the frequent stops — practically at each village —, the long breaks in the big cities to allow you to stretch your legs and to buy a snack, the landing of outrageous passengers by the police or the evacuation of suffering people, be assured that a myriad of more or less predictable events will induce a significant lengthening of your journey.

There are mainly two types of train: the Especiales and the Regulars:
Especial: they make fewer stops, therefore they are faster and furthermore they have air conditioning. But their departure is also less frequent, usually every 3-4 days.
Regular: they make more stops, do not have air-conditioning but usually have daily departures.

Ticket
Getting a train ticket in main cities is generally not a problem, as a number of seats are assigned to tourists. But it happens, if you buy your ticket on your departure day, in an intermediate station, that the clerk won’t able to tell you if there are still availabilities. This, because they don’t have a ticket management system, which make it difficult or even impossible to know in real-time the seat availability situation. You will then have to wait until the train arrives to know whether seats are available or not.
But be careful, it might also be a way to sell you a ticket under the table.
When the train arrives, you might be told that the train is complete but that a seat could be found if you pay the attendant the full ticket price, cash! A way for many Cubans working in state services to round off the end of the month.

To avoid all this, buy your train ticket at least one day before your departure and preferably from big cities stations. If you had to do it at the last minute and/or from an intermediate station, and you had to deal with some uncertainty about seat availability, wait until your train arrives: considering the price of a tourist ticket, it is certain that you will get a place, whether by getting a ticket on a regular basis or not.

In major train stations, especially in Havana, go get your ticket at the ticket counters before it opens to avoid long queues.

Havana
The Estación Central is undergoing major renovations that are not nearing completion. In the meantime, you can buy your ticket at La Coubre station – adjacent to Central Station. It is also from there that the trains leave and arrive.