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Tips for travelling in Cuba

Over 1 million Canadians visit Cuba each year. Here are some handy tips if you're going to be one of them.
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Robin Esrock, June 14, 2013 12:59:24 PM

Over one million Canadians visit Cuba every year, making up 40% of all visitors to the country. We enjoy Cuba’s weather, its people, beaches, and an unusual break from our Americans neighbours who are still forbidden to visit the island. If you’re planning your Cuban holiday, here are some handy tips.

The dual currency

Cuba’s dual currency is confusing for everyone. Tourists use the Convertible Peso (CUC), while locals use the Cuban peso (CUP), which is valued almost 25 times less. Tourists can’t buy in local stores at local rates, while locals are effectively frozen out of the tourist economy. U.S. currency is subject to surcharges and lower rates, so only bring Canadian dollars. Be sure to watch out for the common scam of being charged in CUC, but given change in CUP.

Your convertible peso goes far

Locals working in tourism have a distinct economic advantage. Tipped in CUC, they’re effectively earning 25 times more on the peso. A few convertible pesos in tips are greatly appreciated, and often lead to significantly better service.

Save $25CUC for departure tax

Come back to Cuba, but before you leave, don’t forget to leave the entire country a nice tip with this $25CUC departure tax. Make sure you have cash as no credit or debit cards are accepted.

Close but no cigar

Cuba famously makes the best cigars in the world. They cost a fortune at home, and only less so in Cuba. Watch out for counterfeits, typically sold with the line of “my brother works in the factory.” Top brands – Montecristo, Cohiba, Romeo y Julietta – are expensive even at the source.

If you’re taking an informal tour, agree on price first

Tourist dollars are the prize. Separating you from them is the contest. Always agree on prices beforehand for sightseeing, boat and snorkelling trips or prepare for extreme gaps in what you thought you had to pay, and what you actually do.

Bring gifts for organizations

Many Canadians bring toys, stationery and clothing to give to locals. There is lots of controversy as to whether this does more harm than good. Best advice I got: tip for good service; give gifts to friends; donate to charities and organizations.

Internet is slow and not always available

For a country that prides itself on education, the lack of Internet access is disappointing. Some hotels have slow, expensive access. The Good News: the Cuban government recently announced it has set up 118 internet providers around the island. The Bad News: it will cost around $4.50 an hour – way beyond the financial reach of most locals, and wildly expensive for tourists too.

Tip according to local standards

Here’s a guide to how much to tip:
Taxi drivers: 15-20% of the fare in CUC
Porters: CUC 1.00 or more if you have lots of bags
Waiters: 15%
Chambermaids: CUC 1.00 per day
Guides: CUC 1.50 per day per person (if you’re with a group)

Eat in somebody else’s home

Part of Cuba’s economic reform has been the opening of private restaurants, known as “paladares.” With tables set up in living rooms, patios and gardens, local chefs and homely service are wowing tourists in Havana. Cuba Absolutely has compiled an excellent list of paladares in Havana.

Don’t take any local money home with you

Unless you want the money as a souvenir, or plan on going back in the future, try not to leave the country with any Convertible Pesos. The currency is not accepted outside of Cuba, and no bank will change it for you.

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Robin Esrock

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