Cuba is on a two-tiered currency system and it can easily confuse people. One of my favourite moments in my friend Jovana paying for a round of drinks (at a bar where they charged in CUC, obviously) and mistakenly handing the bartender a 20- in nacionales (this is less than 1 CUC, much less than the bill the bartender wanted her to pay). She stood their impatiently, waiting for her change not realizing she had mixed up her currencies. It was funny.
Cuban convertibles are marked as CUC and are also referred to in Cuba as "divisa" or "fula". One CUC is a bit more than $1US and a bit less than 1 Euro. There are about 24-26 national pesos in 1 CUC. You can expect to pay for most things in CUC - anything from cover at bars, entrances at museums and national parks, tourist taxis, a night at a Casa Particular, basic groceries in a store, dinner at a paladar or a state-run-restaurant.
Pesos nacionales are generally used by Cubans in some of their every-day transactions and as a tourist, you will be limited to paying in nacionales: Cuban collective taxis, drinks in some Cuban bars, peso restaurant food and Coppelia's, some items in peso stores like t-shirts etc, fruit and vegetables at a market. You need to go to a Cadeca (change bureau all over Havana) to change from CUC to nacionales. Initially, you won't need much. Depending on your time in Cuba, $20 CUC into nacionales should be more than enough.
Fondest memory: Keep in mind that it can be VERY difficult to use bank and credit cards and travelers cheques in Cuba in general. If your card is American-issued, from an American bank or from a bank that has some ties to an American bank (as was the case with my Serbian friend), you will not be able to use it anywhere.
Canadians and most Western-Europeans should have no issues.
There are cash machines- even my Canadian credit card didn't work in them. NO MASTERCARD will work in a cash machine in Cuba. The Hotel Nacional has a change bureau in their basement near the pool that is open daily until 10 pm and you can take money out on your credit card there. They can use their computers to tell you whether your card will work in Cuba or not- cash machines (cajeros) are less reliable so I wouldn't bother. The advice: though its a bit sketchy, you should bring CASH with you to Cuba and make sure you have a good place to store it while you are staying in Havana. Canadian dollars and Euros are easily changeable in change shops, Cadecas and the bigger hotels (24 hours a day at the reception of the Hotel Habana Libre) but American dollars are either not changeable or you get a bad rate so DONT come to Cuba with US dollars.
Favorite thing: don't automatically change your currency in the hotel, not competative. We got a much better rate at the Cadeza, the one we used was in the historical centre, no queues or hassle involved. rate was very similar to the airport exchange which is situated in a corner behind the information desk near the exit. There is also one in the baggage collection area, same exchange rate and a bit quieter.
Favorite thing: I took my two year old daughter and we stayed in Old Havana. We had an extremely comfortable trip and there was no problem whatsoever. I did take some milk powder along with some tinned food with me - just in case. We were served fresh papaya everyday for breakfast and my daughter loved eating them with her hands.
Since the dollar has been made legal in Cuba in the 1990's most tourists find it difficult to spend anything else.
We tried hard to use pesos where possible as a point of principle, and for small purchases like drinks and transport it is possible.
Since we visited, the situation has become more complicated with the appearance of 'Convertible pesos'. I found the following website a useful and consise summary of the present situation.
I also note that a BBC report that virtually all of the 'dollar shops' selling luxury items havd been closed down for an indefinite period in 2004
Cuba is very safe and you can walk at night in tourist areas without worry. Police officers are posted at every street corner to ensure tourist security and they will never give you any trouble. However, pickpockets do exist, so please carry only small amounts of cash.
Assistance to tourists
Assistur is a Cuban company that helps tourists in need of assistance. If you are in trouble, you can call them 24 hours a day in Havana: (7) 33-8527, 33-8339, 33-8920, 57-1314, 57-1315. If you hold a gold or a platinum credit card issued by any bank, your card-assistance program is fully accessible through Assistur.
You can move around freely in Cuba. There are no travel restrictions for tourists and they may go wherever they wish. Planes, buses, trains, taxis and rent-a-cars are available. You should choose your modes of transportation before leaving home and book them in advance. The number of gas stations is limited, but you will always be able to find gasoline.
Taxis are the easiest way to get around any city. Havana's least expensive taxis are Fenix, Transgaviota, Panataxi and Taxi Havana. Beware of private taxis who are often more expensive than state run taxis. Always negotiate prices in advance when dealing with private taxi drivers. In state run taxis, ask them to use the taximeter. Don’t forget to tip.
A fairly good bus system links major cities in Cuba. Seats are limited and we suggest you book in advance.
A fun way to travel through Cuba is by train. However, we must caution you that the train system is not reliable. If you are traveling for 10 or fewer days, avoid using the train.
Everybody we know who travels to Cuba ends up leaving gifts. We bet you will too! Cubans are so friendly, but short of many things. The best advice we can give you is to bring your old clothes and hand them out at the end of your stay. For kids, candies are a great gift! If visiting a school, bring erasers and pencils
Tickets are picked up at a designated check-in desk at the airport. Accommodation and flight confirmation are sent by e-mail or fax.
Only one suitcase per passenger is allowed free of charge; it must not exceed 20 kilos (44 pounds). One small piece of hand luggage is allowed in the cabin. This regulation is strictly enforced.
Cuba is usually very hot. However in winter, especially January and February, some warmer clothing (e.g. a jacket) is recommended, especially if you are traveling in the western part of the island. Nights can sometimes be cold. Casual dress is accepted in most tourist areas. Cubans are very proud people and during the evening, more formal attire is expected in restaurants and dance clubs. No shorts are allowed at night in public places. Bring all personal-care items with you. Many products are sold, but purchasing them is generally annoying and inconvenient, and your favorite brand-name will not be available. We also suggest you carry a roll of toilet paper with you. Women should also bring paper toilet-seatcovers. Tourist are encouraged to carry a pocket flashlight, as Cuban streets are not well lit at night.
No inoculations are required before visiting Cuba, as the country presents no major health risks for travelers. Tap water is generally safe to drink, but bottled water, which is easily accessible, is recommended. Doctors are on duty 24 hours a day in all major hotels. One Havana hospital is entirely reserved for foreigners and several international clinics are located in the most popular tourist areas.
GENERAL INFORMATION: Travel Tips.
Fondest memory: Travellers's tips
You must be aware of some customs regulations before you travel to Cuba, for example: no weapons, explosives or pornographic magazines are allowed in the country; those tourists arriving from the States, either directly or from a third country, are not permitted to bring videocassette players. Tourist are allowed to bring, tax free, two bottles of liquor, one carton of cigarettes, personal belongings and jewels, photographic and video cameras, typewriters, sports and fishing gear. You can bring, duty free, up to 10 kilos of medicines in their original packaging.
Clothing should be light, mainly during summer, so it would be best to wear shorts, cotton and flannel outfits and sandals. As for winter, a light jacket or a fine wool sweater and closed comfortable shoes would do, mainly at night. You should also bring sunglasses, and a bathing-suit and so that you can take a refreshing swim, and don't forget your sunscreen.
The voltage in most residential and trade areas, offices and hotels is 110 V / 60 HZ, though some facilities already have 220 V / 60 HZ. Wall outlets are for flat plugs.
You should not take urban transportation - like the 'camel' -, they are always crowded and unreliable. You should take taxis or tourist buses instead, or walk when it's short distances. If you want to go on a tour of the island, your best option is to rent a car. There are several car rental offices at the airports, hotels and tourist spots providing high quality cars and services.
You must show your passport and driver's license in order to rent a car. The driver must be at least 21 years old; the license could be international or from your country but at least a year old. It is not advisable to drive at night. You must also watch out for animals on the road and cyclists in urban areas when you are driving. Park the car in a safe well-lit place and do not leave anything valuable in it. You are liable for traffic fines, failure to pay would mean incurring a debt with the State. We recommend you buy a 'Road Guide of Cuba' which is very helpful for finding your way around on the roads.
There is no need to be vaccinated to come to Cuba. Most hotels provide 24-hours health care services with specialists and nurses. There are specialized clinics for tourists in the main cities.
Though tap water is drinkable, we advise you to drink bottled water to avoid tropical illnesses.
Even though Cuba is a safe and has a low crime-rate, you should take some precautions to avoid being caught out by petty thieves, who are just waiting for the chance to grab any belonging such as wallets, photo and video cameras, pieces of luggage, handbags or shopping bags. Public peace is ensured in streets by lots of young police officers always willing to help in case you need them, though they do not speak english. You should take note of the following advice: do not take more money with you than you need; do not be careless with your belongings and purchases; take good care of your wallet and passport in crowded places, we suggest you keep them in your front pocket; check the bill at restaurants; get rid of so-called 'tourist guides', they are not professional and many are not aware of Cuban history and culture, they just pretend to be nice to tourists in order to fool them; keep your jewels and valuables in the room safe.
Most hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, etc., take Visa and Mastercard credit cards, as long as they are not issued by American banks. However, you should have some cash on you just in case the machines are not working.