Hacks For Americans Visiting Cuba
For some reason, my mind seems to function better when I am in another country. It’s like the distance from my normal routines allows my mind body and soul to expand and I feel more free.
For this reason alone, I have come to discover that travel is essential to my well-being and for those whom interact with me. Recently I went on a vacation to Cuba!As I toured the land, my heart encouraged me to take notes on the unspoken encounters to help others prepare for this vacation.
These hacks will be helpful for any American traveling to Cuba for the first time. The purpose is to help you acclimate to the Cuban culture and fully enjoy your trip. For added creativity each hack is labeled with a song title that popped into my head. Enjoy!
For more pictures check out our hashtag on Instagram #3ChicasDoCuba or follow me @DivinelyTy
Park it like it’s hot (JFK) edition
If you are leaving from JFK you can find affordable parking with free shuttle service on the website Way.com. Make sure to read through the reviews before booking, some reviews about parking lots under $10.00/day reported getting tickets as a result of attendants leaving their cars on the street and having empty gas tanks upon arrival.
We paid $79.00 for five days at Crown Plaza hotel. There was a coupon online for $5 off, a simple google search of coupon codes for the website produced this discount. In hindsight the parking is way cheaper if flying out of Newark. If flying out of Newark, NJ is an option, take it!
Go get the money, go get the money
To exchange or not exchange that is the question? Many people advised us to convert our money from USD to EUR to CUC. On the topic of currency exchange. Let me explain mathematically how my exchange went. I wanted to take $400 for 4 days
- $464.12 USD = $400.00 EUR (Euros)
- $400.00 Euros = $406.12 CUC (*Cuban Convertible Peso)
Even though the EURO is worth more you will still incur a currency exchange fee which was about 6% for this transaction. When we went $1 EUR = $1.07255 CUC so the market value would have been $429.02 CUC (400.00 EUR x 1.07255)
In the exchange process $1EUR = $1.01664 So I received $406.12 ($400.00 x $1.01664)
This is where the above 6% comes into play ($1.07255 — $1.01664 = .05591 or roughly 6%) per EUR or net loss of $22.90 ($429.02 market value — $406.12 what I received).
If I’m honest I believe we were cheated on the initial conversion above however when we left we got a higher exiting rate so it evened itself out.
If you exchange USD to CUC there is a 3% currency exchange fee plus a 10% penalty for exchanging USD to CUC; for this reason, although the market value is $1 USD = $1 CUC due to the exchange penalty and fees (13%) $1 USD = .87 CUC.
*Make sure to know the visual difference between a CUP and CUC (image above) to ensure you are receiving the correct currency at the airport or upon purchase. CUP’s are worth less money and are used by Cuban natives.
Also make sure to request small change because lots of restaurants and merchants will say they don’t have it (side-eye).
Twice I was told “no change”, from merchants and they tried to give me CUP’s instead which are worth less than CUC’s, to which my response was “hoy no” aka not today.
If you decide to exchange USD to EUR to CUC get your euros from your bank they normally have a better rate. I did mine last minute and paid accordingly.
For more information check out this article on Currency exchange
Sit Down, Be Humble
This is not the U.S I repeat this is not the U.S! Therefore, it’s unrealistic and slightly arrogant to expect everyone to speak English, remember you are the foreigner so it would behoove of you to learn some basic conversational Spanish. In my group, I was the go to translator; at the point of travel I was not 100% fluent but I was resourceful.
The “Say It Right in Spanish” book by EPLS was a wonderful tool. This book teaches you how to phonetically pronounce the words and is very user friendly. I’ve used the French version when traveling to Martinique so I knew I could trust it for Spanish; it did not disappoint.
You can go to Cuba without speaking any Spanish…but making a small effort will be beneficial to you and the people you interact with especially in negotiations or in asking for information.
I got five on it!
Negotiate everything! This will begin as soon as you seek a cab from the airport. We stayed in Old Havana so $30 CUC was the most reasonable price going and coming. When getting a taxi or purchasing something don’t ask the price, tell them what you want to pay.
Everything is negotiable and there is always someone willing to meet your price or at least come down from their initial offer. We also negotiated souvenir prices.
Straight out of America…or nah?
Ok you’ve made it and now it’s time to explore Havana! Upon arrival, the Cubans we encountered were enamored by Americans especially NEW YORKERS. They think we are all rich so they get excited when they see a foreign face. In most of the bars/restaurants in Old Havana the bands will sing American songs.
This is a sign of the tourism influx. Being American in Cuba is a gift and a curse, while some are enamored some want to take advantage due to the perception that all Americans have money. After a while we started saying we were from Canada and Jamaica just so we could walk in peace and not get so many questions.
It’s raining men
In Cuba, every woman is incredibly sexy!! Seriously cat-calling hissing blowing kisses and sexual stares will happen in abundance! My crew and I were often offered “free boyfriends” to which we generously declined. One guy actually tried to kiss my shoulder in the streets and almost caught a smooth elbow to the nose, but I quickly moved like the matrix and all was well. I was not a fan of this aspect of the trip, but I didn’t let it deter my fun.
I got beans greens potatoes… you name it
(if you sang that you’re my kind) Overall the food was good and very affordable! The service was nothing like America and that’s ok. At one point I asked the waiter what was on the menu and he bluntly said “didn’t you see the menu at the door” and awkwardly encouraged me to get up and go view it while he took care of someone else. His counterpart was nice enough to actually tell us the specials, LOL.
No harm done. He advised us that the first man didn’t speak English well and misunderstood. Things to try: street churros, corn with mayonesa (my cousin raves about it), seafood all BEFORE NIGHTFALL. Trust me late night churros or food in general definitely tastes like the last of the last. Many restaurants run out of things the later you eat.
Salad in Cuba is more of cabbage than lettuce and the dressings are limited. The Canchanchara (pronounced Con-Chan-Chair-Ra) is Divine! It’s an alcoholic drink made with citrus juice, honey, and heaven. Some places may not have it, but the search is worth it.
Bow wow wow yippy yo yippy yay
There are hella stray cats and dogs in the streets of Old Havana but they are not aggressive or even concerned with you in the least bit. They mind their business and appear to be well fed, so don’t be afraid.
I believe they are the reason you don’t see rodents or insects to which we saw none on our trip outside of gnats. You may see little lizards though, also harmless.
Ran off on the plug twice
One would assume that Cuba is overflowing with cigars and that they are readily available everywhere. Not so, mi amigo. At least if you are looking for full sized Cohiba’s or certain other specialty brands.
We searched high and low and were often redirected to different hotels and back alley or hidden locations to no avail. The mini cigars were everywhere in abundance. Your best bet may me a cigar tour (not the Viñales one) or finding a plug.
We be clubbing
Ready to back that thing up? Remember this isn’t America and it’s also not a resort town so many of the night clubs are only open Thursday — Sunday. Bars are open every night.
Also in some of the clubs you will be told you cannot record or take pictures such as in Sarao. When we went to Sarao there were quite a few women of the night or Mujeres de la noche as they are called.
A few guys thought we were Mujeres de la noche; that was wild hahaha (Awkward pause)! The cost to get into most of the clubs is a couple of CUCs some only charge if there is a band and if you purchase food or drinks. Your experience will still be a lot cheaper than most American clubs!
We’ve come to the end of the road
Well reader we’ve come to the end of this post. On this trip to Cuba, I learned that I could live off of less money than I thought. I also learned that I can make more money than I’m making through a conversation I had with an eccentric millionaire who was on a self-discovery vacation with his father.
Being in a country where time has essentially stood still and things are still very natural such as their foods and past times really put me in an introspective mood. Even our beach day at Santa Maria was full of purpose as we hung out mostly in silence and laughter.
Not having internet access for me was a blessing because it showed me how much time I waste. Speaking another language gave me more compassion and appreciation for people who don’t speak English fluently yet bravely create new lives in America.
One thing is for sure, the energy that we project is understood in every language and I’m grateful to have traveled with and met some people with great energy!