Monthly Archives: July 2016

Cuba Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Cuba?

Trinidad Plaza MayorCuba’s architecture was a highlight for us and the colonial Plaza Mayor in Trinidad was a great example

How much does it cost to travel in Cuba?

Excluding our return flights from the UK, we spent £3,165 during our 45 days in Cuba – a daily average of £70.35 for two people (remarkably close to our two year trip budget!). The Cuban convertible peso (CUC) is pegged to the US dollar and the average exchange rate that we got in April/May 2016 was CUC$1 = £0.73.

We took the majority of our money in cash – either GBP or Euros are exchanged everywhere, US dollars have a 10% exchange surcharge so I wouldn’t recommend carrying those. Some money exchanges rejected notes which had writing on or were torn, but in the end we had them all accepted – the offices in more touristy cities (Havana, Trinidad) seemed to be less fussy. At the end of the trip we had to withdraw some cash on our credit card and discovered that Cuban ATMs don’t accept Mastercard (I think Visa is fine) and so we had to get an over the counter cash advance which was charged to our card in US dollars and hence was subject to the 10% surcharge.

Cuba expenses pie chart

Cuba budget info

  • We stayed in casa particulars (guesthouses) for every night of our stay, except one night spent in the shelter on Pico Turquino. The rate was a pretty consistent CUC$25 per night (room only) across the country except in Havana and Varadero where we paid CUC$30).
  • It’s not really possible to exist solely on street food in Cuba and so, in addition to taking breakfast in our casa particular (CUC$5 each) we often had dinner there as well which cost CUC$8-10 each. Restaurant meals were comparably priced though Havana was often much more expensive and we found that high prices rarely translated into high quality.
  • We found both the Viazul and Cubanacan intercity bus services to be a comfortable and reasonably priced way to get around the country.
  • Within cities we tended to walk everywhere so the relatively high spend for local transportation is taxis to and from bus stations which we found to be quite expensive (possibly because the scarcity of cars pushes up the price but no doubt we were charged tourist prices as well). This category also contains a few day trips that we took by taxi as there was no public transport option available.
  • Visas – we paid CUC$25 each to extend our 30 day tourist card (included in the cost of our flight) for another month.

Summarise Cuba in three words.

  • Dilapidated – from the buildings to the classic cars, it seems like a lot of Cuba has been barely maintained since the Revolution in 1959
  • Rum – made from the sugar cane which generated early wealth for Cuba, the national drink is everywhere and the base of many a cocktail!
  • Music – upbeat and very danceable, Cuba’s musical heritage is rich

You really know you’re in Cuba when…

.. your taxi is a 30 year old Russian model that needs a jump start!

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Cuba?

Plenty of patience for all the queues you’ll have to wait in – to exchange money, in shops, at the bus station…

Scams and annoyances of Cuba

We recommend visiting Cuba, but we feel it’s necessary to add a little caution to our enthusiasm for it as so many times our experiences were tainted by opportunistic ne’er-do-wells that, were it not for a sense of compassion, would have closed our hearts to other serendipitous encounters.

Beware the Buena Vista Social Club

Full Cuban band performing on stage in the Casa de la Trova in Camagüey

The main event at the Casa de la Trova (or House of Music) in Camagüey

We were approached a handful of times by very friendly older men with good English purporting to be musicians – and they’ll tell you their instrument too – so common is this introduction that we nearly collected the full band in Havana!

The first one we met walked us into the nearest bar with the suggestion that as he was playing tonight he’d get us in free – I’ll interject here and say that we were being open, friendly and curious, not especially after free entry, we’d been to many a Casa de la Trova already – as we sat down he ordered a round of drinks and at that point we saw the scam and declined the drink. The scam being that we’d be picking up the tab, likely at inflated prices. After we’d said ‘no gracias‘ to the drinks, the friendliness ended and he got up to leave.

Che for a CUC

Cuban 3 Nacional Peso banknote featuring Ernesto Che Guevara

The Cuban 3 Nacional Peso banknote, worth about £0.09 GBP and a great souvenir

We’d read about this one before we arrived and were only offered it 3 or 4 times during the 6 weeks we were there, but it’s worth including. The scam essentially is the sale of a 3 National Peso note for 1 Convertible Peso, or 8 times its face value. They do make nice souvenirs, but banks and money exchanges (CADECAs) will change CUCs for National Pesos and you can ask for 3 Peso notes as part of the denominations. Speaking of CADECAs..

Don’t trust the official CADECA

Specifically the one just north of Plaza de San Francisco de Asís in Havana’s Old Town. We changed £600 GBP for CUC, and the majority of the notes we received were in 20 CUCs. The lady on the desk entered the amount and pointed out on the computer screen that we’d get 28 20CUC notes, counted out the 28, and the rest of the smaller notes, then printed the receipt and handed over the money. Except the receipt said 30 20CUC notes. She’d re-entered the proper amount into the computer after counting out the money.

Take your time – Cubans are used to waiting! Use your phone or their calculator to check the exchange rate (which is printed in the window outside and at the counter) so you know roughly how much you’ll get and always check the count of notes against the receipt at the desk before you step away – it has the breakdown of each denomination on it.

A fellow tourist told us a similar story.. they’d been asked if they wanted some of the change in coins and agreed, then the lady at the desk handed over all of the notes and the receipt and waited to see if they remembered they’d asked for the coins. He said he counted the money 3 times at the desk before the lady offered up a handful of coins.

25 times the price. Because you’re a tourist

Andrew having his hair cut in Trinidad

I only argued with him about the price because he had a signboard with the prices listed!

In our discussions between ourselves about Cuba, we’ve laid a lot of the blame for the country’s ills at the dual currency system. There are 25 National Pesos for 1 Convertible Peso, and in our experience we found it is separating the population into those who work in tourism and those who don’t. It is all too common as a tourist to be charged the same price in CUC as a Cuban National will pay in National Pesos – that’s an astounding 2400% price hike – and while we don’t mind paying a little more for some things (entrance to museums for example), there’s no arguable difference in the service we’d receive in a colectivo or a haircut that warrants the backsheesh-like expectation.

The result, according to one taxi driver we spoke to, was the Cubans realise there’s more money in tourism so the educated are leaving their jobs in hospitals and universities to drive taxis or work in bars and cafes, which made him worry about a deterioration in the quality of healthcare and education.

Bags and handling are included

We travelled around Cuba in the state-run Viazul and Cubanacan coach services, they’re very good and the ticket price includes you and your luggage. However, once you have your ticket there are a few opportunistic baggage handlers who will try to extract a fee for carrying your luggage to the bus or withholding the luggage tag until you pay. The worst one was in Trinidad where a big guy in a separate office had a little dish and demanded 1CUC per bag. I felt intimidated but stood my ground and refused to pay it.

In Santa Clara an older gentleman withheld the luggage tags until we paid, but as we’d already put our bags on the trolley we just said no and walked away. 5 minutes before the bus arrived he walked over and gave us the tags anyway!

Handouts and bad beggars

By far the most common annoyance was people just asking for money or gifts. Most of the time they were content when we politely refused but occasionally some would say something impolite back which left us with a bad feeling for Cuba. We understand these people are relatively poor, we empathise as best as we possibly can about the extremely hard times that they’ve lived through, but by visiting their country we are helping – they don’t know that we choose to stay in the spare rooms of local people, and deliberately search out street food not only for the variety but because it puts money directly into the hands of the people.

We have a saying in the north of England that we tried to remind ourselves of after these encounters: shy bairns (get nowt) – which means if you don’t ask you don’t get.

I think I read in the Lonely Planet that just when you think you understand how Cuba works, it’ll turn around and surprise you again. We’d just sat down in a back-street locals bar at the end of an exhausting day of sight-seeing and fending off scams in Santa Clara feeling a bit sorry for ourselves, when a very jovial deaf man with a group of friends started up a conversation with us. Over 4 beers José told us about his life and it remains one of our fondest memories of Cuba.

Drinks in Santa Clara with José

The handful of bad experiences make the good ones all the sweeter

Cuban Food

Before we visited we’d heard that Cuban food is not very exciting so we didn’t have high hopes. There were high points, mostly in the dinners that we had in our casa particulars, but for the most part we found the food to be fairly dull and certainly not a highlight of the trip as it has been in so many of the countries that we’ve visited. We were surprised that, compared to their neighbours (either the surrounding Caribbean islands or nearby Mexico), neither chillis nor other spices were commonly used. It is perhaps telling that the best meal we had (by a long way) was at a Spanish restaurant – Castropol on the Malecon in Havana which is run by the local Spanish Asturianas society.


Breakfast in casa particulars is very standard and although priced separately to the room it seems to be expected that you’ll take it – fresh fruit (some combination of papaya, pineapple, guava or mango), freshly made juice (usually papaya or guava, on good days mango!), coffee (filter, pretty strong, never instant and we were very rarely offered tea), eggs (fried, scrambled or omelette as you like), bread (always white, sometimes dried out and crispy), sometimes cheese or ham (both processed) to go with the bread, or as a sandwich. It was tasty enough but got to be pretty boring by the end of 6 weeks!

Casa particular breakfast

Street food and snacks

It’s fairly easy to find a bite to eat when you’re wandering the streets in Cuban cities. Pizza shops are everywhere and, while it’s not what an Italian would recognise, the pizzas are served hot from the oven, the puffy dough topped with a slick of tomato paste and a sparse sprinkling of cheese, handed to you folded in half with a small piece of cardboard or paper to protect your fingers (asbestos hands required!). They became our go-to lunchtime filler, not so healthy, but Andrew would have had at least one a day if I’d have let him… At MN$5-10 each (about £0.15-0.30) Cuban pizzas are delicious and cheap.

Peso pizzaAndrew looking very happy with his first Cuban pizza even though he had to deploy his handkerchief to protect his fingers from the steaming dough!

As an alternative to pizza, sandwiches are the other lunchtime option, also sold from little hole-in-the-wall shops. The bread is always soft and white with highly processed ham and/or cheese to fill it (interestingly cheese was often more expensive than ham). Sometimes we had bread with mayonnaise (i.e. a mayo sandwich, better than it sounds), or bread with tomatoes (the best option if it’s available), and occasionally fritters of savoury dough or mashed potato. If we were very lucky we found a stall selling pan con lechon, roast pork sandwiches.

Street food vendorWe bought sandwiches and cake from this friendly vendor in Bayamo

Cuban street foodStreet food (clockwise from top left): peso pizza; ham sandwich; pan con lechon; fritter sandwich

Cuban sandwichIn bars and cafes sandwiches were often toasted. The ‘Cuban sandwich’ contains roast pork, ham and cheese and somehow manages to transcend all three


Chicken and pork were the most common options, usually just fried with some garlic or onions, but the best meals we had were beef and lamb. Ropa vieja literally means ‘old clothes’ but it’s a lot tastier than that sounds, imagine pulled pork but made from beef in a sauce made from tomatoes and peppers. We were served lamb casserole a couple of times in different casa particulars and each time it was meltingly tender and deeply flavoured – why don’t they do something like this with all the chicken and pork?!

Cuban meatsClockwise from top left: fried pork with garlic; Ropa Vieja is not pretty but it is tasty; chicken leg; lamb casserole for dinner in Viñales

LiverWe didn’t come across much offal but when I saw the unfamiliar word ‘hidalgo’ on a menu and found in our dictionary that it was liver I knew what I would be having for lunch! The liver was sauteed with onions and green peppers and made a nice change from the more usual options

Seafood and fish

Cuba is a long, narrow island which means that you’re never far from the sea and so it’s hardly surprising that fish and seafood are readily available. We had various kinds of fish as well as prawns, lobster and even octopus. Again we found that they would most commonly be prepared quite simply by either frying or grilling perhaps with a little garlic or a tomato based sauce.

Cuban seafoodClockwise from left: At St Pauli I had octopus salad and Andrew had prawns cooked with garlic; a mackerel like fish in tomato sauce; lobster in Baracoa

Rice and beans

The standard starch with a meal is rice, either plain white or the rather politically incorrectly named ‘moros y cristianos’ (moors and christians), a mix of rice with black beans which was our favoured option. I really enjoy bean soups and I think they’re probably a staple of Cuban home cooking but we hardly ever saw them on restaurant menus – I suspect it’s considered poor people’s food. We did sometimes get bean soup as a starter for dinner in casa particulars and when I requested it for dinner from our casa in Camagüey she looked very pleased to be asked for it. The beans are usually either black or kidney beans and the soup might also contain bits of ham, peppers and pumpkin.

Black bean soupBlack bean soup in Camagüey – delicious but not easy to photograph!


A salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and white cabbage was the customary accompaniment with dinner. If we were lucky it had some grated carrot, beetroot or cooked french beans on the side too. Otherwise the only vegetables that we were served, apart from a rare bowl of pumpkin soup, were plantains or green bananas. Plantains seem to fall somewhere between vegetables and starch in terms of how they are used in Cuba. Sometimes deep-fried until they are crispy (chicharritas), sometimes fried but soft in the middle, sometimes baked into a tart shell and filled with prawns or meat as a starter, they seemed to function a bit like potatoes.

Cucumbers and tomatoesWhen we didn’t feel like pizza or a processed cheese sandwich for lunch we bought a handful of tomatoes and cucumbers and a loaf of bread.

PlantainsPlantains in their various guises (clockwise from top left): this market stall gives an idea of how much plantains are used; fried plantains as a side dish; plantain shells stuffed with prawns and cheese as a starter; plantain crisps


Satisfying your sweet tooth in Cuba is easy and cheap. Cakes, biscuits and pastels (little pasties containing guava jam) are available from street vendors and hole-in-the-wall shops and generally cost MN$1-3 each (£0.03-0.09). The cakes are heavy on the icing which looks like swirls of cream but is actually marshmallow fluff! We found quite a lot of sweets made from nuts, as well as the coconut based cucuruchu in Baracoa, we saw bars of pounded peanut in several places and cones of caramelised peanuts were for sale in all of the main squares on an evening. In restaurants flan (Spanish creme caramel) is the most common option.

Cuban sweetsCuban sweets (clockwise from top left): cakes with a generous swirl of marshmallow fluff; bars of ground peanuts and guava membrillo for sale; flan; a cake vendor roams the streets in Matanzas

Ice cream cafeCubans love their ice cream and there are cheap ice cream cafes in every city


Soft drinks in Cuba fall into two categories: freshly made fruit juices or cans of Cuban made fizzy pop. Alongside the usual cola, lemonade and fizzy orange options is Malta, a malted soft drink which smells exactly like a Soreen malt loaf – too sweet for me but Andrew liked it. At peso food stands what looked like squash was served by the glass but as we weren’t sure about the water used to make it we never tried one. Coffee is also available at peso food stands and usually cost MN$1 (~£0.03) for an espresso size cup poured from a Thermos flask. Tea is practically unknown so if you’d struggle without it I would advise you to pack some teabags!

Cuban soft drinksMalta, natural lemonade made from lime juice and sugar topped up with mineral water and tuKola

Sugar cane juiceSugar cane juice (guarapo) in an idyllic setting near Viñales

As sugar is a major crop in Cuba, it’s unsurprising that the most common alcohol is rum which is distilled from sugar cane juice. Rum based cocktails, e.g. mojito, daiquiri, piña colada, were the order of the day if we weren’t sampling one of the various Cuban brands of lager-like beer. In Havana, there’s a micro brewery in Plaza Vieja in the heart of the old town. We tried one of their brews and really enjoyed it but sadly the service was so awful that we couldn’t bring ourselves to go back.

Cuban alcoholClockwise from top left: daiquiris; mojitos; Cristal was my favourite of the local beers; piña coladas