Nick and Dariece | August 31, 2015 9:00 PM ET
5 Downsides of Traveling in Cuba
Photos courtesy of Goats on the Road
If you've read our recent articles about traveling independently in Cuba, you'll know that we absolutely loved exploring this unique Afro-Latin nation. But it wasn't all mojitos, monuments, museums and Merengue music. Some aspects of traveling Cuba were difficult and frustrating, but none of them could possibly ruin the extraordinary experience of our visit. For sure, the pros far outweighed the cons, but we'd like to share some of the less enjoyable aspects of Cuba so that you can better prepare yourself for a trip here.
In our experience, we didn't feel like the Cuban people were out to take us for all of our money, but during our time spent in Havana, it was obvious that there were a few jinteros (street hustlers) that were hoping to get a buck or two from tourists.
This can be a bit frustrating because you really want to meet and connect with people, but in Cuba (particularly Havana), it's better if you just ignore those who approach you on the street. These hustlers will lead you to their favorite restaurant, show you an "authentic" Cohiba cigar, or offer you a guided tour, but more often than not the products and services offered are far below what they're touted to be and by the end of the day, you may end up with far less money in your pocket and a bad taste in your mouth.
It's not just jinteros that will try to take a few extra CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) from you either. When you purchase water or snacks from the store, you'll likely be charged double the actual price, or your change will be incorrect. A common scam is being given back change in CUP instead of CUC. The key to dealing with scams while still enjoying your trip is to understand that life in Cuba is hard and these guys aren't picking your pocket — they're working the street and they're just trying to make an extra buck. Joke with them and have fun with it... but don't fall for it.
You may think that Cuba's Dual Currency is a method of tourist pricing in itself, but you'd be incorrect. The Cubans also have to deal with this frustrating and often confusing reality. Generally, if you pay 5 CUC for a meal in a restaurant, a local citizen would be charged 5 CUC as well.
But when it comes to government controlled entrance fees, like those charged at museums, forts and historical monuments, you'll soon find that tourist pricing in Cuba can really add up. With entrance fees, tourists are charged the rate in CUC, and locals are charged the same rate... but in CUP. That means it is 25 times more expensive for foreign visitors.
While this may be annoying after a day of sightseeing in Havana, just keep in mind that wages in Cuba top out at around $25 USD a month, so it's still comparably more affordable for us to see the sights than for Cubans.
The worst kinds of tourist pricings are the unofficial ones. You'll be charged more for everything from bottled water to taxi rides, so be prepared to bargain and again, keep it light and have fun with it! It's all a part of the experience.
These guys are usually a little different from your average jintero because they're actually providing a legitimate service, like horse rides, taxis, walking tours etc. The problem is in some cities (particularly Trinidad and Havana's old town), they can be relentless. On every corner you'll hear "taxi, moto, coco-taxi, horse ride, walking tour, guide?" They'll interrupt you while you're in the middle of a conversation and they'll invade your dining experience to try to sell you their tour.
If you want to avoid these guys, consider booking through Infotur or Cuba Tour offices. Unfortunately these are state-run, but booking through them will urge the street touts to find a less invasive mode of marketing.
When you head into a restaurant in Cuba, don't expect speedy service with a smile. The truth is, after a short period of time traveling here you may start to feel like the concept of smiling doesn’t exist during Cuban working hours.
Of course, some touristy places have managed to train their staff very well and you can find some great waiters in Cuba, but in general you'll receive abrupt and sometimes even rude service. The annoying part is that a 10 percent service charge is often added to the bill at restaurants which are frequented by gringos, but the tip is hardly ever earned. This bad reputation can be found all over the service industry in Cuba and you'll notice grim welcomes at restaurants, bars, state hotels, cafes and even at dive shops.
We learned that if you're overly nice to the waiters and bartenders in Cuba, eventually they give in and show a lovely smile. You just have to win them over! Don't let the servers in Cuba change your opinion of the Cuban people either, because they are very friendly, loving and hospitable... just not while they're at work!
The Dual Currency
Having to deal with two types of currency is frustrating and confusing. We have no idea how the locals manage to do this on a day-to-day basis, but if you want to get over this annoyance in Cuba, then you better start studying the bills and practicing your divisions by 25 before your trip. There are two currencies here, CUC and CUP. CUC is what you'll likely use for the duration of your trip and it's pegged equal to the USD, while one CUP is the equivalent to just 4 cents U.S. Sound confusing? It is. For more, check out this article.
Other Than That...
These 5 small annoyances really didn't take away from our amazing experiences in Cuba, and if you deal with them with some humor and acceptance, you'll have no problem. Cubans are famous for "making it work" and while you're there, you should take on the same life motto. It will ensure that you have a much more relaxing and enjoyable trip.
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