Havana: Travel in Cuba on a Budget (Part 1)

11 Dec

So it’s cold old winter here in the Northern Hemisphere (ugh, I haven’t said anything like that in a few years) and people are occupying themselves with which flavor of lip-balm they’re going to use, what scarf best matches their jacket, what seasonal coffee they’re going to buy next and just protecting themselves from the cold in general.

There are also some people who just don’t want to deal with the winter and the chapped lips it inevitably brings, so they’re planning holidays away for some fun in the sun. Who can blame them?

If you’ve been following the blog (please tell me someone besides my mam reads it) you’ll know that I spent 3 weeks in Havana, Cuba in August/September on a quest to learn Cuban-style salsa and rumba. Winters in Cuba,I’ve been told, are apparently heavenly for those of us from the northern latitudes (although the locals will complain that it gets a little chilly… I personally don’t trust such comments from people who have never seen snow before!)

At this time of year everyone could do with a little bit of "Tropical Paradise". The cigar is just for added effect!

At this time of year everyone could do with a little bit of “Tropical Paradise”. The cigar is just for added effect!

I’m foreign, take my money
Now almost everyone I’d met who had gone to Cuba told me that, as a tourist, I was going to be financially fleeced by everything from accommodation to food. The impression that I got was that Cuba was an expensive holiday destination FULL STOP!

That was, at least, until I spoke with my lovely friend Sita (my partner in crime in this video here) who had been to Cuba and fallen in love with salsa there. She let me know that it definitely was possible to do Cuba on a budget and she gave me a few tips on how to do so. Thanks love 😉

I spent 3 full weeks in the beautiful city of La Habana, in private accommodation, ate well, took about 25 hours of PRIVATE dance classes, went out regularly to dance clubs and travelled extensively around the city… all for a little over $1000.

Now, to some budget travelers that may seem pricey but bear in mind the quantity of private classes I took and the fact that I like to have a very nice meal every now and then. I should also mention that I don’t drink so you should factor that in if you do.

Anyway, today’s post is going to be a very practical guide on how to have a great salsa vacation in Cuba without going broke.

I’ve tried to cover as much essential information as possible so I’ve broken this into 2 seperate posts (Part 2 will be published next week)  and if you are going to Cuba and want to do it on the cheap I recommend you read them both fully.

A few things to know
To enter Cuba you need to pay a US$25 entry/visa fee either at your departure airport or upon landing in Cuba. You only pay it once so don’t let anyone fool you into paying it more than that.
You will also need to pay a 25CUC exit fee at the airport when you leave so remember to keep that much Cuban currency with you for your return voyage.

Cuba uses a dual currency system
The C.U.C (pronounced “cook”) is the currency one receives when they change foreign currency for Cuban.

Remember that you can really only exchange the large international currencies in Cuba so make sure you bring your cash in Euro, Pound Sterling, Swiss Franc etc as you can’t change less internationally accepted currencies (like Colombian Pesos, which I found out much to my distaste upon arrival). I’ve had been told not to bring US dollars as there is apparently an additional charge for converting from them. Don’t change your money at the airport, the rate is pretty poor (read on to find out where you should change it). You should also be able to use your banks ATM card (provided it’s not an American bank) to take out money but remember you’ll have to pay a transaction fee.

1 CUC is equivalent to US$1 and is used in most tourist transactions which has led some people to mistakenly believe that it’s the only currency tourists are permitted to use. These people are idiots.

The other currency is the Moneda Nacional (MN) which is used by the vast majority of the population for day to day expenses like groceries, food, transport etc. The exchange rate is set at 1CUC = 24MN. You may change your CUC for MN at any “Casa de Cambio” around the city, just ask at a hotel where the nearest one is. The exchange isn’t free (nothing in Cuba is) so expect to get an exchange rate of about 21/22MN per CUC.

Transport
So, when you arrive at the airport and get through the tediously slow customs the first thing your going to want to do is get into the city itself. Outside the airport you will be greeted by your first amazing site in Cuba; an entire parking lot filled with the most beautiful selection of classic cars you will likely ever see. All of these beauties are taxis that will take you into the city center for a set fee of 25CUC. Do not pay more than this but don’t think you will be able to get lower by haggling… not gonna happen!

The car that was waiting for me at the airport. I knew this was going to be a good vacation!

The car that was waiting for me at the airport. I knew this was going to be a good vacation!

I really recommend that you ask your driver to stop along the way at a Casa de Cambio so you can change your money before you arrive at your hotel. Believe me, this will make things much easier for you and you want your first day to be easy. You can get him to go in with you if you don’t feel comfortable leaving your luggage with him.

When it comes to traveling around the city I really recommend that you use the coches (the big American classic cars). They can be used in 2 ways; you can get in by yourself and tell the driver exactly where you want to go and your fare will start at 5CUC. I recommend against this as it gets expensive.

The best way to use the coches is to use the ones that already have passengers inside. These operate on fixed routes around the city and cost only 10MN (so about 50¢ US) kind of like a public bus service, just in a car. You can ask the driver where he’s going and if it’s close to your destination you can hop on in. Speaking Spanish will help a lot so get studying.

The golden rule in Cuba
Here is one piece of advice that I highly recommend you follow while in Cuba: ALWAYS ASK THE PRICE FIRST!
If you don’t, less than honest people (and you well meet many who deal with tourists) will overcharge you at whatever chance they get. If you don’t ask the price before hand then you’ll have to pay whatever price they tell you at the end.
This goes for drinks, taxis, food, entrance fees… whatever. Always ask first.

Accommodation
Whatever you do, please book your accommodation in La Habana Vieja, the old town. Why? It’s by far the most interesting part of the city with the most things to see and do. The old town is relatively compact and makes for some great days of walking around aimlessly looking at all the old buildings and amazing architecture (much in disrepair) that Havana has to offer.

If you want to see spectacular architecture and history than you really should stay in the Old Town of Havana.

If you want to see spectacular architecture and history than you really should stay in the Old Town of Havana.

If you’re visiting Cuba to learn salsa, many of the dance schools are found in the old town so it really helps cut down on your transportation costs if you don’t need to travel from one part of the city to the other every day.

Another very practical point is that it is very, very humid in Cuba (at least it was in September) and air-conditioning is not as common as many North Americans are used to. In short you are going to sweat and it is nice to have a centrally located hotel or room so you can go home during the day to freshen up. Seriously, I was showering three times a day while I was in Havana so a close place to shower is a godsend.

To make life really easy for yourself (and to enjoy a little bit of luxury) you could book your first night or 2 in one of the many beautiful hotels in the the old town. They’re expensive but you can easily book them online and this will reduce stress on your first day or two.

However, to keep costs low you’re going to want to stay in a Casa Particular. These are “private houses” which have a license for renting accommodation to tourists. You can recognize them as they will have a sign, similar to that in the photo below, outside. You will see them everywhere.

This symbol indicates that the house is licensed to rent accommodation. You will see them all over Havana.

This symbol indicates that the house is licensed to rent accommodation. You will see them all over Havana.

Now, you could search for one online before you come or you could do what I think is even better: find one that you like that is near where you want to be in town. I’ll explain: you will see casas everywhere and you just ring on the doorbell, ask if they have a vacancy and see the room straight away. If you like it you can haggle over the price. The reason I recommend this method is because, if you know where your dance school is (or whatever particular area of town you want to be near), you can look in that immediate area for accommodation which will mean you have much more time to do other things as you won’t be wasting your time walking all over the city to get around. It also means you can haggle the prices in person which gives you a better chance of getting a lower price.

For a private, one person room with your own bathroom and air-conditioner in the center of town you should only have to pay 15CUC per night. For 5CUC extra you should get breakfast and maybe even dinner included. Talk to your host and see what kind of deal you can work out with them. (Please bear in mind that I was able to get these deals in September which is off-season so you may not be able to get such deals in during peak season).

Remember that if you’re planning on staying a week or more you might be able to ask for even more of a discount. Ask them if the can provide you a laundry service too (if you’ll be there long enough to need it).

One little deal you can also try on negotiating into the price of your accommodation is a few bottles of water daily. Every Cuban household boils and filters their own water for drinking so they’ll definitely have plenty for you. Otherwise you’ll be buying a lot of bottled water.

So you’ll have a hotel for your first night or two and then you can move into your much cheaper (and conveniently located ) casa for the rest of your stay. This will help cut cost significantly.

I’ll leave the rest for Part 2
There’s a whole lot more to cover when talking about Havana but I’ll leave this as a start and I’ve covered the rest in Part 2 (which is online now). Stay tuned.

Until then take care and if you’re up in the Northern Hemisphere at the moment, like me, stay warm.

Keep dancing folks.

**********************************************************************

Have you been working-out lately? Because you look spectacular 🙂 If you liked this article go ahead and share it with your friends via the Facebook or Twitter buttons below and if you use Stumbleupon please give it a “Thumbs Up”I’d really appreciate it 😉

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6 Responses to “Havana: Travel in Cuba on a Budget (Part 1)”

  1. saira777 December 11, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

    great post – those taxis are beautiful!

    • The Dancing Irishman December 12, 2013 at 1:03 am #

      Thanks Saira,
      Yeah they really are beautiful but the also make you grateful we have suspension systems in modern cars haha

  2. Hundemer, Marion December 11, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    Hi Richie,

    How are you in the cold of US? I am leaving for Cuba again this Sunday, for 4 weeks and can finally escape our temperatures of around or below 0C.

    I liked your latest blog, however, I have one comment one of your tipps.

    I would not recommend anybody to bring their cash in US dollars, as they will be charged with an extra fee of (I believe) 18%. As this might cause a big hole in their budget, I would inform to refrain from carrying dollars and woul rather mention to bring other ‘internationally traded’ currencies. E.g. also the Swiss Franc works very well. For the ATM cards, it would be helpful for travellers to be a bit more specific and to mention that VISA cards work with the ATM machines, while Mastercard can only be used inside the Casas de Cambio.

    One more thing to manage expectations of your readers: I suppose that negotiating a price of only 15 CUC for a night in a Casa Particular in Havana (with private bathroom) is only possible for the low season, while in the high season from Nov. to May this will probably be rather around 25 CUC, as the availabilities in most Casas is limited.

    In your second part of your blog one potential topic might also be how people can be invited to private parties or a ‘free’ evening of dancing salsa :-). In the context of this, I would like to mention the new entry of ‘Salsabor a Cuba’ in Tripadvisor again. Would be great if you could also leave a comment – here is the link again:

    http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g147271-d5498757-Reviews-Salsabor_a_Cuba_Day_Classes-Havana_Cuba.html

    Have a great time in US despite the cold (your planning was somehow strange – passing the summer in Cuba and autumn and winter in US ???). I look forward to continuing reading your blogs.

    All the best and kind regards Marion

    On Wed, Dec 11, 2013 at 7:09 PM, The Dancing Irishman

    • The Dancing Irishman December 12, 2013 at 11:34 am #

      Thanks Marion,
      Those are some great tips and I’ll make sure to update my post with that information. I’ll be including information on socializing in the second article next week. I’m also sorry that I forgot to write that review about salsabor, it’s been a little crazy since I came to the U.S.
      Have a great time in Cuba and say hi to everyone in salsabor for me please.
      Hasta pronto.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Havana: Travel in Cuba on a Budget (Part 2) | The Dancing Irishman - December 18, 2013

    […] I have a whole post about that little adventure coming up but this week I’m going to continue with my travel post on what to do in Havana, Cuba and how to do it without breaking the bank. You can find the first part of this post right here. […]

  2. ヘミングウェイゆかりの地キューバ・ハバナのおすすめ観光地 厳選5選 - September 14, 2016

    […] 画像出典:https://thedancingirishman.com […]

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