Money and holding on to it!
"One day money will have no value" Castro once said. He got that one right. Cuba, like other communist countries in the good old days, has a two-tier economy: the fairy-tale socialist peso economy and the real-world capitalist dollar economy. The Cuban peso is worth the same as the American dollar in theory. But try paying for anything in pesos at the 1:1 rate and you will provoke disdain. Even the beggars look twice at them and usually chuck them in the gutter.
The system is simple. Anything Cubans want is either rationed or out of stock. With pesos, Cubans can get coffee (often mixed with black beans) or very basic food from state canteens. Bare state shops sell high-tar, un-tipped cigarettes (the best tobacco is reserved for the foreigners) or rum. They also sometimes stock plain biscuits and huge tins of frankfurters or luncheon meat bought in job lots from Canada or Europe. Many neighbourhoods have fruit shops, usually a dank, filthy garage into which a truck-load of oranges has been dumped, with maybe a few bananas for variety. Pesos also buy drinks in peso bars.
To buy anything worth having Cubans have to change their pesos on the black market. The rate is now around 26 pesos to 1 dollar. But the Cuban government has also got the message. They now cash in on the black market through their own chain of exchange booths. The state also runs dollar stores, which are sometimes reasonably well-stocked with food.
There are 100 centavos to the peso, but you will almost always use dollars in Cuba. Hotels always charge foreigners in dollars, as do tourist shops, dollar shops and most state restaurants as well as private ones. Official cabs charge in dollars and unofficial ones will expect to be paid in dollars too, or if in pesos at the 26:1 rate.
This can be confusing to say the least and many Cubans will be delighted to take advantage. Key things to remember are:
Peso prices in peso shops and restaurants are usually written with a dollar sign very helpful! This causes confusion. If in a peso restaurant or shop make sure you check the price first and don't be taken in by self-serving professions of ignorance. If it is a peso place and you only have dollars, expect the 26:1 rate, though you may have to take pesos as change.
Don't worry about accumulating a few pesos because you can use them in the fruit markets, peso shops, peso bars and sometimes for cabs.
However, some peso coins are now no longer legal tender don't be fobbed off with these. New peso and centavo coins look like American coins just to add to the fun, American coins used to be accepted, but now are not always.
As if that's not enough, there is a third currency in Cuba the convertible peso, which theoretically has the same value as the dollar. You can tell these as they state that they are convertible and the notes are newer non-convertible peso notes are always filthy. However, never accept convertible pesos as change for dollars as they can only be changed back to dollars in Cuba, and then with difficulty plus not everyone likes accepting them in payment.
Most Cuban hotels and many tourist shops take Mastercard and Visa, but you should aim to bring a good stock of dollars with you. Do not bring other Western currencies to change into dollars in Cuba as this will cost you in commission with the exception of euros which can be used in Varadero, but not elsewhere. Travellers cheques can be cashed in some banks and hotels, but again bring dollar denominated cheques.
A good way of getting money in Cuba is on a credit card. Small exchange offices in the Havana (Vedado) Hotel Nacional and Hotel Gran Caribe will give you cash on your card. There is also a state bank on Neptuno in Havana Centro, just off the Parque Central, but there are often queues; and a small change booth in the peso cafe off Parque Central on the opposite side from the Hotel Inglattera also with queues. Expect to wait for 30 mins or go late afternoon. A couple of Canadian banks in La Habana Viejo, just off Obispo, take cards. Remember to take your passport as well as credit card only Visa and Mastercard work. Amex and debit cards aren't accepted.
Beware of ATMs there are one or two which sometimes work, but they may dispense convertible pesos. Note that the tempting ATM at the business centre in the Hotel Golden Tulip Parque Central plays this trick.
Another good place to get dollars on your card is the exchange booth by the baggage reclaim at Havana airport on the way in. There is also a bank at departures. Santiago de Cuba has several banks close to Parque Cespedes which will give you cash on your card and there are several banks which will give you cash in Varadero, as will one or two of the hotels. Don't, however, count on getting dollars on your card in the smaller towns and cities.
Cuba is not expensive, but you'll still have to work hard to hang on to your dollars.
We have had reports of a general increase in hustling recently, as tourism increases and Cubans become more confident and sometimes aggressive. Santiago de Cuba is getting a bit of a reputation. Remember that the Cuban government depends on tourist dollars for its survival and the plods take a dim view of the locals hassling Uncle Fidel's cash cows a tourist is almost always considered to be in the right and attacking a tourist carried a mandatory two year sentence. So if pushed, threaten to call the police (they're everywhere), but don't do it too lightly - you can imagine what Cuban prison food is like
"Chica? Cigar amigo?" are words which visitors to Cuba can expect to hear a lot. The Cubans have a well developed genius for getting you to part with your readies. Castro himself was a dab hand. In 1940 he wrote congratulating President Roosevelt on his re-election, adding: "I am a boy, but I think very much. If you like, give me ten dollars bill green american in a letter, because I have not seen a ten dollars bill american and I would like to have one of them." It never came. How different history might have been but for ten dollars green american?
You may return to your hotel room one evening to find a strange and unsettling sight. On the bed is an evil looking doll propped against the pillow. It's fashioned out of hotel towels and quite likely wearing one of your favourite T-shirts. Or you may find a swan made from rolled towels with an oddly phallic neck and the outline of a heart. The whole ensemble can stretch the full length of the bed. Next it will be a hand-written note: "Dear X, peoples of the world can be brought together by visiting our country. Have fine stay in Cuba. Love, Beatrice, Maid."
Not some manifestation of santeria, the witchcaft supposedly still practised by the Cuban descendants of West-African slaves, but rather an outlandish and desperate attempt to elicit a few dollars tip in a land where there is plenty of competition for that prize.
Some Cuban street touts have well-developed routines for establishing contact. One ploy is to ask if they can practise their English, or to say that they have a good friend in an obscure part of England Ealing seems to be a favourite for some reason. Of course some Cubans are genuinely trying to be friendly. But if you are in a major tourist area, chances are they are after your dollars rather than your friendship.
Remember, though, that most Cubans are paid about $10 a month, so don't be too hard on their pestering. A polite smile and 'no molestare, por favor' usually does the trick. Girls travelling alone, however, sometimes have a harder time getting rid of the local touts and may need to be firmer! Or try just ducking into the lobby of a hotel where they can't follow. Remember, too, that letting go of a few dollars here and there can seem generous, but the Cubans who scam you are not always the most deserving and pretty soon all of those dollars can add up.
"Cigar, amigo?" a slightly barmy and very crinkly looking man sidled up to us below the monumental stairway to the Capitolio. He held a battered wooden humidor full of fat Monte Christos and was sucking on a soggy, frayed cigar. As he spoke, jets of smoke puffed from the corners of his mouth.
"From the fabrica, si" he assured us. "I have good friend in the fabrica."
Everyone in Cuba has a 'good friend' in a cigar fabrica or works there or so they would have you believe. Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas, one of the oldest Havana cigar factories, is on the west side of the Capitolio. 400 mainly female workers each roll 100 cigars a day no, not on their humid thighs. For this they are paid 50 cents a day.
The results of their labour are then sold by the state for export, or to tourists from government shops, for between $3 and $10 each. That is some profit margin. A gross margin, in fact. Appropriate, perhaps, that Cuba's most sought-after export is also the enduring symbol of both sleek, top-hatted capitalists and well-padded communist leaders.
Street cigars are usually fakes or home-made roll-ups, occasionally made from dried banana leaves. Supposedly the Cubans joke that it matters little as most gringos can't tell the difference. One quality-controller from one of the big cigar houses told us that the workers are paid so little that they make ends meet by smuggling out labels and packaging which are used on inferior, home-rolled cigars. That is why street cigars look so genuine.
Columbus expected to find gold when he discovered Cuba in 1492. Instead he met Indian medicine men who used a reed pipe called a tobago to sniff smoke from the dried leaf of what they called the cohiba plant. For the Indians this was strictly part of a fortune telling ritual. But the Spaniards liked the aroma, began rolling their own and puffed these vestigial cigars through their mouths. Inhaling, of course.
Cigars are now one of Cuba's biggest industries and although other countries make good cigars, Havanas made in the Havana factories from Cuban tobacco are reckoned to be the best. Supreme are the Cohibas, Castro's own brand made specially for him, but now also available for general sale.
Tempting though it is to buy street cigars, you may end up with poor quality apart from inferior tobacco, they are often dry and not rolled tightly enough, though prices are less than half the official rate a box of 25 medium-sized 'unofficial' cigars cost around $15-$25. Hustlers will often tempt you to their homes where boxes will be produced after a few minutes, often from a central pool elsewhere. Do not feel obliged or intimidated to buy. Just say 'no thanks' politely and leave. If you do want to buy, negotiate hard. Factory tour guides will also sometimes offer you good deals. They may be a better bet as they often have access to the real thing. Also beware accepting a sample from a box this may oblige you to buy the lot.
Genuine Havanas can be bought from government stores at the factories, at the airport and in the main hotels. Prices tend to be around a third of the UK price, but most of the difference is accounted for by UK duties and taxes the Cuban government still makes a massive profit. If you buy too many, you will, of course, be liable for duty when you get home which will bring the price closer to UK retail prices.
Remember to keep receipts for cigars. To protect their very lucrative business, the Cuban government is rigorous about letting cigars out of the country. You can export $2,000 worth of cigars with documentation per person. If you don't have the receipts, your cigars will probably be confiscated, as will any fakes. You can try packing them in your check-on baggage, but this is also sometimes searched and cigars just taken. A lock helps, but it is not unknown for travellers to be summoned back from the departure lounge. Remember, too, that US Customs will confiscate Cuban cigars if they find them so beware if you are travelling on to the United States via Mexico.
One cheapo alternative is to buy the inferior, but passable cigars available to ordinary Cubans who cannot afford to pay in dollars for top notch brands. These are usually available in plain white paper packs of 25 or 50 from small state shops selling basic supplies in Cuban pesos. The correct peso price is about 50 pesos for a pack of 25, or $2, though vendors will usually try and sting you for as much as $10. Or, if you visit Pinar del Rio, the main tobacco growing area, local farmers often offer you their own roll-ups. These can be excellent. Pay around $1 for 5-10. Don't be conned into paying a dollar per cigar. Farmers around Santiago also make good roll-ups. To export these try packing them deep in your check-on baggage and hoping for the best.
Cuba is famous for its beautiful girls. But in country where most people are desperately financially poor, many girls become chicas, Cuban slang not so much for a prostitute, but rather for a girl of relaxed virtue who will use her body to earn a few dollars if she can. Of course like most countries Cuba also has its hard-line hookers in the main tourist areas. These are sometimes called jinterinas jockeys.
Chicas are everywhere. Some are just regular girls who see an opportunity or need a bit of money, but the girls in the main tourist areas are more likely to be professionals with pimps lurking somewhere in the background. Men will be coyly propositioned with a muted hiss in the street, in Salsa clubs, on the beach, in bars and occasionally in hotels if the girls have managed to evade security.
Chicas can be good fun just to go out with, speak a little Spanish and dance some Salsa especially if they are not the hardened pros. They will expect a meal and a drink and to be treated with respect. After that it is up to you and them but $20 is usually appreciated if matters progress, though some of the more experienced chicas will also try and get commission on drinks, meals and cabs.
Hotels for westerners will not allow chicas into the rooms, though some security guards can be persuaded for $10; the few mixed Cuban/foreigner hotels may be more relaxed. Generally, though, your chica will take you to a private room in some-one's house expect to pay $15-20 and for the chica to take her cut.
Remember, though, that not all Cuban girls are up for it and do not assume they are. Particularly in small towns off the beaten track you may have luck with the girls if you see them for several days, but not every Cuban girl will sleep with foreigners for money.
There are also, of course, chicos and Cuba has become quite a destination for Western ladies looking for a bit of fun with a good looking Cuban guy.
The most Cuban of scams is to 'Mojito' tourists. It goes like this: an amiable looking local will amble up to a foreigner and strike up a conversation. Pretty soon the tourist will be invited for a drink - usually a Mojito cocktail. At the end, the bill will be presented and the tourist will be expected to pay - but the price will be high. $2-3 for a cocktail or beer may be the going rate in a smartish hotel, but in a cheaper hotel or a dollar bar it should be closer to $1-2 - and in a peso bar a rum, rum cola or beer should cost far less than $1.
However, typically the foreigner will be charged $3 a drink, with commission going to your new friend. Always check the price of drinks, don't be fobbed off by confused looks - they do understand - and you can always threaten the police if you're really being ripped off. Fidel doesn't like the idea of his capitalist dollar cash cows being hassled and the police are very tough on Cubans scamming tourists.
Maids and Voodoo dolls
Don't be surprised to find your hotel towels twisted into vaguely disturbing doll-like shapes and dressed with your clothes, accompanied by a sweet note from your maid welcoming you. Cubans earn around $10 a month and although foreign hotel companies pay the Cuban government more like $5,000 a year for each staff member, they still only get $10 pm in wages. The reason tourist jobs are so sought after is tips and these weird towel art forms are one of the less subtle attempts to get some cash from foreigners. If your maid is good, you may want to leave a dollar or two - and if you want late check out, the maids are also often the best bet and $5 will usually secure a few extra hours without the front-desk buzzing your room.
The Cuban government has a quaint notion that all Westerners are super-rich - which they may be by Cuban standards. However, this leads to the mistake of massively over-pricing tourist goods. Fairly ordinary T-shirts can be on sale for $15 and Salsa CDs often cost more in Cuba than in the West remember that a CD costs around 50 cents to produce and the rest is profit and tax. As a result there is a flourishing black market in bootleg CDs you will be offered them in the street and by hotel employees. This can be a good way to get some good, cheap Salsa, but remember that these will CDs be made on CD-Rewriters, so quality may be fine but check. Also, don't feel obliged to buy CD's bought to you after you agree to consider buying some, despite protestations that they have already been paid for by the middle-man etc. You are under no obligation and the middle-man will very rarely have paid for these in advance. Also, insist on listening before buying and never pay more than $4 a disk.