English has been taught to a very basic level in schools in Cuba for many years now, and some Cubans in tourist environments may speak several languages. However, the majority of Cubans outside tourist settings will only speak Spanish. The Spanish spoken by Cubans is somewhat different from that spoken in Madrid, with a local accent (varying across the country), some important words that have different meanings, many Americanisms, and a strong tendency to swallow the last syllable of words, particularly those ending in ’s’. Nevertheless the basics are similar and you shouldn’t be afraid to use some Spanish if you have it. The most important things to learn apart from the basics of hello, thank you etc are the numbers – you will be in a much better position to avoid being taken advantage of in financial transactions by being able to count to 50 or so.
As a foreigner you will stand out as a tourist, and you are liable to be approached by a large number of Cubans who want to be your ‘friend’, arrange taxis, sell you cigars, drugs, girls… This can become a bit wearing after a while. There’s nothing wrong with using a firm “no, gracias”. Of course there is no harm in chatting with people and many people are genuinely friendly and interesting to talk with.
Unaccompanied women will attract a large amount of attention from Cuban men – it’s part of Cuban culture and no offence should be taken! Similarly foreign men are likely to attract attention from women, particularly in night clubs etc – consider it likely that they are more interested in the contents of your wallet than your personality and good looks!
Understandably when there is such a large economic disparity, there are some inventive scams going around. For instance, a woman will persuade you to buy her powdered milk or some other product ‘only available to foreigners’ for her baby – only to return it to the shop later and split the money with the shop attendant. It is very common for restaurants to make ‘mistakes’ in bills in their favour, and for incorrect change to be returned for any transaction. Also see below for more about different money types in Cuba, which make potential for all sorts of creative fiddles.
Violence against foreigners is almost non-existent. It is safe to walk almost anywhere at any time – you are far more likely to fall into a hole in the road than be mugged, even at night in the poorest parts of Havana. That said, petty crime such as pickpocketing and scams are common and and being under the influence of alcohol is obviously going to make you more vulnerable. Do also watch out for drinks being spiked in nightclubs.
Some homestays have a safe in the room. Otherwise you can leave cash in a locked suitcase, or with the owner – they are invariably honest as otherwise they would lose their licence to rent out rooms.
It’s best not to drink tap water – even Cubans usually boil their water since the minor outbreaks of cholera in 2013. However tap water is generally fine for brushing teeth and showering. Ice cubes – except in large hotels and top restaurants, these may be made with tap water. But, YOLO and you can’t not drink cocktails in Cuba…
Cuba uses mainly the North American style of socket (with two flat blades), occasionally the European style (with two round pins), and increasingly a universal style which accepts both. Voltage is a mixture of 110 and 220 volts, frequently unmarked. If your device has a protruding earth/ground pin then you will probably have to break it off to insert the plug.
Cuban electrical installations frequently defy western safety standards. It is probably best not to examine too closely the electric shower in your casa particular, and definitely best not to touch that or anything else that looks vaguely electrical, especially on lamp posts and in stairways.
Your mobile phone will normally work for calls and texts in Cuba provided you have international roaming enabled. (Exception: USA mobile networks won’t roam in Cuba). Prices will be very high however – calls to and from Cuba are the most expensive in the world.
Update October 2015: USA Verizon phones now work in Cuba, albeit with eye-wateringly high roaming charges!
Forget mobile internet in Cuba – it’s theoretically possible but very slow and ludicrously expensive. Wifi is available in some Havana hotels at a cost of $4.50 – $10 per hour; this is generally of an acceptable speed. Outside of the capital it can be much harder to find internet access. Skype may or may not work. Online financial transactions are liable to be blocked, particularly if a US institution is involved.
Virtually all transactions in Cuba are in cash in local currency. Any reference to dollars in Cuba refers to the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) unless otherwise qualified.
Cash can be changed at the airport and in official government money changing offices in all cities, signposted “CADECA” – Casa de Cambio, and also in banks. These are all government run and scrupulously honest. The exchange rates at the airport and hotels is slightly poorer than in other places, but only by about a half percent – generally not worth the hassle of queuing in the blazing sun unless you are changing a large amount of money. Otherwise exchange rates are all the same. Most major currencies can be changed (EUR, CHF, CAD, GBP – English notes only; USD cash is subject to a 10% additional fee). Black-market money changing is virtually non-existent.
CADECAs and banks also allow cash withdrawals using a Visa or MasterCard and your passport – provided that the machine is working. If your card belongs to a financial institutions with a connection to the USA then they will probably block the transaction.
ATMs are reasonably plentiful in cities, and accept Visa cards (only). However, as with cash withdrawals, card issuing institutions may not allow transactions from Cuba, or machines may be down due to technical problems. Credit cards are accepted for purchases only in a few state-run shops and high-end hotels. All electronic transactions are processed in US Dollars at a 3% commission over the CUC value, plus the card issuer’s fees.
Confusingly, there are two local currencies in use in Cuba. The principal currency for foreigners is the (Cuban) Convertible Peso, also known as CUC (pronounced “cook”) or dollar. The CUC is pegged to the US dollar at 1:1. The banknotes are $100, $50, $20, $10, $5, $3 and $1. All are the same size, clearly marked “pesos convertibles” and feature pictures of monuments or structures. You may be asked to show ID and give your address when spending $100 and $50 notes. Coins are $1, 50c, 25c, 10c and 5c, all silver in colour and showing monuments or buildings on one side and the Cuban crest on the other.
The other currency is the Cuban Peso, known as Moneda Nacional, and sometimes marked as CUP or $ MN. The exchange rate is 25:1 or 24:1 depending on whether you are buying or selling, making CUP$1 = CUC$0.04 roughly. The banknotes and coins feature revolutionary heroes. Notably the red $3CUP note features Che Guevara and is often sold to tourists as a souvenir at an inflated price, and the $3CUP coin is almost exactly the same size as the $1CUC coin – but only 1/8 the value. CUP is the currency that most Cubans receive their salaries in, and that Cubans use for paying for basic things like staple foods, bus fares etc.
Many tourists come to Cuba and never touch Cuban Pesos and it is certainly possible to do this. However it can be fun to buy some things in Cuban Pesos and live more like a local – and much cheaper. During Cuban Pioneers group tours there will be chances to do this.
Official exchange rates are published here.
You may have heard of a $25 exit tax payable at the airport on departure. In an uncharacteristic move to streamline bureaucracy this was abolished in March 2015, and the tax is now included automatically in your airfare.
Health & Medical Insurance
For a tropical country, there are remarkably few dangerous bugs, animals or diseases in Cuba. Cockroaches are frequently found outdoors at night, and indoors in bathrooms. They look scary but are not dangerous, except that they can contaminate food. Unless you are Buddhist it is normal to crush them underfoot and throw them in the bin or flush them down the toilet.
The following are a few things to watch out for although all are rare. The most likely illness by far is a hangover…
- As with any visit to a less developed country there is a small risk of stomach upset resulting in short-term sickness and diarrhoea. The Dukoral vaccine provides some protection against this, and ciprofloxacin (broad-spectrum antibiotic) can provide treatment; both can be obtained from travel clinics.
- Dengue fever can be spread by mosquitoes anywhere in Cuba, and sand flies can be very unpleasant on beaches. On both counts it is advisable to take precautions against insect bites, especially outdoors in the early evening. Spray repellent is usually sufficient.
- Scorpions and centipedes are rare but very occasionally crawl out of their dark damp hiding places at night. Their bites can be very painful, and are cause for seeking prompt medical attention.
- A bite from a wild mammal (bat or dog) is very rare but should receive medical attention.
The website http://www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk/destinations/caribbean/cuba.aspx has useful and up-to date information aimed at UK people.
Foreigners will be required to pay for any healthcare in Cuba, and it is a requirement that all visitors can show valid medical insurance cover. If you get sick, you may have to pay the cost of any medical treatment upfront and then claim this back from your insurance company later.