Cuba is not like any other country in the world. The many years of communism and its dramatic history have made it quite unique. I have been to Cuba many times now, getting to know its people and their way of living, and I still get puzzled at the many complexities and contrasts, which makes no sense to a western mind like mine.
I am not going to get into politics; such a heated topic is never wise to touch, especially in Cuba. Nonetheless, I am going to burst some myths so you can know what to expect when visiting the island.
Myth: Cuba is cheap
No, it isn’t. Well, if you’re Cuban, you can get your necessities covered for almost no money (The average salary here is 20US$, and yes, they can make it to the end of the month with it). However, as a tourist, that will not be possible. The reason is that one of the primary income sources for Cuba is tourism. In fact, Cubans will try to charge you as much as possible to get some extra cash, and you will usually be directed to the touristy and costly alternatives for any need you may have. I know what you’re thinking, but why do they need extra cash when they can live with 20US$? The answer is, EVERYTHING else that is not survival stuff costs the same as in any other country or more.
Here are some price examples per 30.12.16:
One night at a B&B (Casa particular): between 20 to 35 Euros
Breakfast: 5 Euros or more
Dinner: 7 Euros or more
Taxi from Jose Marti Airport to Havanna city: 20 euros or more.
Viazul intercity bus: depending on the stretch 30 euros or more.
When coming to Cuba, you have to calculate at least 50 Euros per person per day. I remembered I said this to my American friend, and she couldn’t believe me. She spent over 1000 US dollars on our three-week trip, and that is, we were always trying to go for the cheapest alternatives.
Fact: Cuba has two currencies
There is a Cuban currency: Peso Cubano, and a tourist one: Peso convertible (CUC). 25 Cuban pesos make 1 CUC, which is approximately one Euro. Cubans are so used to handle both currencies simultaneously, that you can pay with one of them and get your change in the other one. You will definitely get good at mental math during your trip to Cuba.
(Tips: don’t come with American dollars, as they will pay you less for them.)
Myth: You can hitchhike in Cuba
Well, you can try it, and the car will probably stop, but you will be charged for the service. Remember, Cubans are always trying to make some extra cash, and I don’t blame them. That extra money means a new pair of shoes or a needed gadget. As a foreigner, you will be seen as rich, and it doesn’t help explaining you’re a student, or you’re country is having a financial crisis, or you’re just a poor hippie. If you’re able to travel, you’re rich, as simple as that.
Myth: you can stay over at your friend’s home
I tried this one on this trip. Unfortunately, as I am writing this article, I am about to move to a bed and breakfast…
Cubans are naturally warm and friendly; when they become your friends, they will not hesitate to share with you the much or little they have. Some weeks ago I was asked by a good friend of mine to come over for Christmas. Since my reply was: I would love to, but I can’t afford a trip to Cuba right now, he rapidly offered me to stay home with his family. It was very hard for us to discover that we were doing something illegal, that he would have to pay a fine of 600 CUC or more, lose his home and I could risk being deported. Fortunately, this didn’t happen since we reported my visit to the immigration authorities one week after my arrival. However, my friend and I had to sign that we had violated the law and a compromise of not doing it again.
Myth: you can stay in a tent on the beach
After I had come out of my shock of being illegally hosted in a Cuban home, I did the math and came up with the idea of camping on the beach to save money. What a perfect solution for the problem, right? Wrong! When I asked the immigration officer if I could then sleep on the beach, he replied: you have to be registered (and pay) at an authorized house for tourists, after that you can sleep in a tent if you want to…
Fact: Cuba is very safe
It is (that’s why I thought about sleeping on the beach!). You can walk butt-drunk at 3 am perfectly safe. Criminality is extremely low compared to the rest of the world. You can lose your stuff like mobile phones and such if you’re absent minded, but nobody will aggressively rob you on the streets.
However, beware of scammers. Usually, they hang out at touristic places and clubs and appear very “friendly” to foreigners. These people will try to get into your pocket or your heart (or both!) to get money and a way out of the country. As a rule of thumb, honest, hardworking Cubans usually don’t care about tourists: they are too busy with their lives and problems. Unless someone is in the tourist business, a random Cuban approaching you on the streets to help you is looking for something…
Myth: things are changing in Cuba
Not really. Remember that Cuba and the U.S. have restarted diplomatic relationships and some agreements are being signed with the European Union. However, the blockade is still up, and the daily lives of the people are still difficult with lots of scarcity and trouble. I was honestly excited about all the news about Cuba and expected to see changes on this last visit… so far; the only difference is the bunch of Americans visiting the island.
Fact: you will have a fabulous time in Cuba
Damn you will! That’s why I keep coming back again and again to this island. Despite all the above mentioned, this corner of the world is the funniest, noisy, groovy, lovely, sexy, and joyful I’ve been to. It is just impossible to be sad here. You can get angry, frustrated, annoyed…but never sad. Cubans have developed a way of laughing about anything and everything, and their mood is pretty contagious. There are music and dance literally everywhere. The beaches are ravishingly beautiful, and the sun shines every day. Culture, art, and history permeate this Caribbean island from end to end. There is always a reason to celebrate.
So now you’re warned. Coming to Cuba will not be cheap, and backpacking here will not give you the same experience like in other countries. However, I highly recommend experiencing this little, unique country by yourself, and maybe you will learn to appreciate life a bit more.