How do I prepare for Cuba and what should I see?
February 20, 2008 11:05 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to Cuba for a week at an all-inclusive resort in Varadero, and I'd appreciate practical advice on how to prepare (should I buy pesos or U.S. dollars ahead of time or when I arrive?) and what to see on a day trip to Havana.

A few specific questions:

How much money should I take and in what currency? I'm Canadian. Are pesos or U.S. dollars my best bet? Should I bring traveller's cheques or cash with me on the plane? How much? Will it be impossible to access my bank account once I'm in Cuba?

Also, we're planning on a day trip to Havana. Any tips on what to see when we're there?

Any other tips (best cigars to buy, whatever) are appreciated.
posted by Dasein to Travel & Transportation around Cuba (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
A recent article in Esquire suggested that Canadian Dollars are the best bet as US Dollars get a horrible exchange rate there.
posted by sharkfu at 11:13 AM on February 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

This info seems to support the article:

"the Cuban Central Bank (BCC) resolution 80/2004, establishes that from November 8/2004 onward, the exchange of US dollars for Convertible Pesos will bear a 10 per cent tax."
posted by sharkfu at 11:14 AM on February 20, 2008

Traveler's cheques aren't honoured in Cuba.
posted by rocket88 at 11:23 AM on February 20, 2008

Have you looked at the Cuba Tourist Board in Canada website? They've got a lot of good info.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:48 AM on February 20, 2008

Traveler's cheques aren't honoured in Cuba.

According the the previously mentioned website, they ARE, but only from Canadian banks.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:48 AM on February 20, 2008

Outside of government-run establishments, you'll find that all those "down with imperialism" signs aside, everyone will be asking you for U.S. dollars. I wouldn't bother with traveler's cheques unless you want to use them at the resort. Within 30 seconds of walking anywhere, people will immediately recognize you as an American and will be looking for your dollar bills.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 11:59 AM on February 20, 2008

You can't get Cuban Pesos in advance, so you need to travel with USD or CAD. The underground economy will take USD, but official tourist agencies, etc are supposed to take pesos, but I don't think anyone will turn down US dollars.

As the CUC is pegged to the US dollar, your best bet might be to convert CAD when you arrive - (don't let the porters rush you past the exchange if you can help it - the rates at the hotels are worse) - and convert back to USD when you leave, since they won't give you loonies or toonies, and you'll have to keep the pesos. At Varadero airport, there is a second currency exchange past security - the line ups there are a lot shorter than the exchange on the main floor.

You can get advances on a non-US based credit card at the banks, but I don't know what rates they give. If you buy any trips through a resort, they'll accept credit cards.

There was an article in the Globe (or Toronto Star) on the weekend about art trips in Havana, it should be online, otherwise the usual tours include a cigar factory, the museum, the cathedral, and the Malecon, and usually a bar where Hemingway hung out. Depending where you're based, (Varadero? Jibacoa?) you may be able to ask around and find a taxi driver who'll take you for longer and for less than the official tours.
posted by Chuckles McLaughy du Haha, the depressed clown at 12:01 PM on February 20, 2008

The Museum of the Revolution is strange and interesting. So is Hemingway's finca (but it might be closed for repairs).
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:09 PM on February 20, 2008

Oh, and go to a baseball game, of course!
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:10 PM on February 20, 2008

Thanks for all the responses so far. It looks like the best thing for me to do in terms of buying pesos is to take Canadian traveller's cheques with me, so I will do that and change them at the airport. Should I also bring U.S. dollars to give as tips?
posted by Dasein at 12:21 PM on February 20, 2008

You want neither pesos nor US dollars. You want Canadian dollars, cash is best, and your hotel or resort will exchange them for "convertible" (ie tourist) pesos. Or for that matter, just use a (Canadian) credit card. Govt run cambios, including the one at the Veradero airport, will give you tourist currency from your card at a fair rate. Do not change money on the street. Cubans are generally honest but creative salespeople, especially in tourist trap areas like Old Havana.

No, Cubans do not want US currency anymore as tips (guidebooks and such that suggest this are very out of date) since they are subject to the tax. Tourist-pesos will do, Canadian dollars are fine too. The most day to day useful thing you could give locals as tips would be local-pesos (different than the pesos you will use), but those are difficult for a tourist to get without a local friend.

In Havana, a stroll through old town Havana is recommended (the camera obscura in Plaza Vieja is a great early visit, as it gives you an amazing view of the entire city, and you'll understand the layout much better after the 10 minute experience). I think it costs a dollar.

Also required is is a nice walk up the Malecon. If it's a Sunday (strongly recommended) a walk up Prado is best, from the central park out toward the Malecon. The street is taken over by a weekly artists' market (NOT a tourist trap market) that is an amazing day-in-the-park experience. Jugglers, fire eaters, children running around singing, barbeques... the whole deal.

If you wish to leave the central part of Havana (take one of the yellow coco taxis whenever possible, a few dollars), Coppelia is perhaps the best ice cream shop in the world, truly, and one of the must-experience parts of Havana. However, tourists cannot easily gain access to the main (preferred) building... which also doesn't take tourist money. Again, a local friend -- even a borrowed one -- is recommended, else as a tourist you will be ushered to the less-authentic outside section. You may know this shop from the movie Fresa y Chocolate. The neighborhood around Coppelia is also quite attractive and interesting, full of shops and bars and such.

I'll also second the Museum of the Revolution in Centro (it's run down but fascinating), though the "CIA Museum" way out in Miramar (six dollar coco taxi, yay) is even more fun. It contains such items as the deadly slippers that the CIA used to try to assassinate Castro in the 70's.

Mail me if you need more help. I travel to Cuba very often.
posted by rokusan at 12:45 PM on February 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Check out this past question on tipping/currency. I commented on it after I went to Cuba (all inclusive in Cayo Coco) in late 2006. I think it would be easier to take CAD than travelers cheques but that's just my opinion.
posted by impactorange at 12:50 PM on February 20, 2008

I have to disagree with the idea of using Canadian dollars as tips, unless you tip in bills only.
Canadian coins can only be exchanged with other tourists, they can't be converted at banks or wherever Cubans convert their dollars/convertible pesos.
posted by Chuckles McLaughy du Haha, the depressed clown at 1:50 PM on February 20, 2008

Be sure to take any OTC medications that you might require, such as Gravol, decongestants, painkillers, etc. When five of us stayed at Varadero a few years ago, the three carnivores got deathly ill (watch out for pink hamburgers, btw - the hotel we were at was full of sick people that week!) and there was no gravol to be found. Also, upon running out of sunscreen on the last day, we found that the hotel had none. And do take your own snorkel gear, if you plan to do that.
posted by fish tick at 2:07 PM on February 20, 2008

Gravol might have been in short supply, because it's only called that in Canada. (Look for Dramamine, or Vertirosan)
posted by blue_beetle at 2:12 PM on February 20, 2008

Cuba officially interconverts with the Euro, and unofficially you get better rates.
posted by meehawl at 2:27 PM on February 20, 2008

We went in December 2006 to Cayo Coco. We didn't go through the Varadero airport, but as others have said, you can get your CUC at the airport. The exchange rate was not as good at our hotel. We took $500 Canadian cash and had no problem. At our resort, we were able to pay for excursions with credit card at a decent rate, so we actually ended up having too much cash on hand. On the way back, the smallest denomination we could get in Canadian dollars was $20. I'm not sure about bank accounts, but I remember hearing about some problem with President's Choice financial bank account access. I'm not sure if there really was a problem or not. We tipped frequently and exclusively in convertible pesos, and had great service.
posted by flying kumquat at 2:57 PM on February 20, 2008

US dollars are accepted (and desired) for any tourist services. Bring CRISP new bills and you'll be well-appreciated. It's very possible to travel without ever using the local currency. In fact, a lot of prices are posted in US dollars.

They have two local currencies -- local pesos (hundreds of them to the US dollar) and convertible pesos (fixed exchange to the dollar). You'll need at most a handful of local pesos unless you get pretty far off the beaten track. Things priced in local pesos tend to be extraordinarily cheap (pennies for ice cream) but it's hard to convince locals to let you buy in local pesos if they know you have hard currency with you. A local guide (paid in dollars) will help get things at local prices rather than foreigner prices (like getting into a baseball game for $0.15 instead of $1.50).

Things have been changing with respect to the convertible peso, but in general the US dollar is just as effective. It's probably technically illegal for residents to accept dollars, but they'd much rather have the hard currency in most cases than the convertible peso. There is very little you can't buy with US dollars. You might need convertible pesos for official uses, but the US dollar will buy you anything on the street.

Since you're Canadian, your credit card will work at major resorts, but don't expect local restaurants to take plastic. Again, US dollars are accepted. A lot of things are priced in US dollars.

I don't know how widely accepted the Euro is. It's quite plausible that it would be taken, but I just don't know.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 3:10 PM on February 20, 2008

Update -- my knowledge is from a "friend" from 2004 -- things may have changed since then.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 4:12 PM on February 20, 2008

Gravol might have been in short supply, because it's only called that in Canada.
Actually I asked for anything that would stop queasiness and vomiting.
posted by fish tick at 6:54 PM on February 20, 2008

Chuckles is right: I meant bills, though of course that means $5 (the smallest Canadian bill) which is a very big tip indeed. :)

As in many nations, foreign coins are not easily convertible.
posted by rokusan at 11:14 PM on February 21, 2008

Indeed, devil, the info you mention was accurate a few years ago, but today the US dollar has almost completely vanished from both the official and underground Cuban economies. You won't see a US dollar in Cuba anymore.
posted by rokusan at 11:21 PM on February 21, 2008

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