by Al Dieste
Having just returned from four weeks in Cuba, three of which were spent in Havana, I would like to share with your readers the wonderful opportunity to enjoy and discover a rich and diverse culture, at less-than-Motel 6 prices! Consider an alternative title to this article as “Vacationing Like a King in Havana for $50 a Day!”
One can spend less in Cuba, if the old college hippie backpacker, sleep-on-the-floor days appeal to your sense of nostalgia. One can certainly spend a lot more, if the days of decadent Mafia-Tropicana-drinking-gambling-sin-and-sun-days appeal to your bulging wallet. However, $50 a day in Havana can provide a very comfortable vacation, in a style which will not only appeal to your needs for North American creature comforts, but also allow you to get a taste of the true Cuba of today.
Ah, that can be tricky. While it is not illegal for Americans to visit Cuba, it is illegal to spend money there, as that is a violation of the trade embargo. (Did you know that John F. Kennedy stocked his humidor full of Havana cigars the day before the embargo was to begin!?!) It certainly pays to plan ahead in Camelot.
Going in the front door, I was able to get to Cuba legally by obtaining a State Department authorization for Cuban-born American citizens to visit family. Other legal avenues include medical and missionary trips, sports and cultural exchanges, authorized university classes, etc. All of these can be expensive, as much as $2000 per week.
Going in the back door is cheaper, but riskier. A $250 round trip flight from Cancun could end up with a $5,000 fine from the feds. Caveat emptor!
Al Dieste is a 48 year old native Cuban, living in Sonora, California. A retired elementary school principal, he is currently employed as an at-risk pupil classroom teacher, and an educational consultant. He is also a very active part-time musician, playing horns, keyboards, and percussion in several groups in the northern California area. He is married to his beautiful wife Amy, who is also an educator. Their children are Isabel Maria, 7 years old, and Alberto Joaquin (Beto), 4 years old. He says, “My visit to Cuba in the summer of 2002 was the first since having left in 1956. I look forward to visiting again, perhaps as a tour guide for visitors interested specifically in education and/or traditional Afro-Cuban music in the Havana area.
What To Take
Advice abounds regarding what to take to Cuba, so I’ll offer just tidbits of advice.
Clean out your closets, medicine cabinets, and desk drawers of the clutter, and take it to Cuba. Some things can’t be found, while other things, even a 25 cent bar of soap, are very expensive for the average Cuban.
Take pictures of your family, friends, home, etc. They make for great conversation, and the Cubans are starved for any and all uncensored information about America and Americans. They really do love us over there.
The Swiss Army can always be called upon to slice that ready to be eaten mango or avocado, and help fix that perpetually broken down “whatever”.
Pepto Bismol taken every day, whether one needs it or not, is great insurance. Kaopektate will be needed, regardless of how much Pepto one consumes.
Along the same lines, bring moist baby wipes. 99% of Cuban bathrooms have no toilet paper, and the wipes, carried in a small zip lock bag, are compact, convenient, and oh so cool…
Zip lock bags help keep the moisture out of your expensive camera, CD player, etc.
A bandana, soaked in water, helps you cool down regularly. Also, many funky restaurants have no napkins!
Good walking shoes, a good sense of humor, and a good attitude, as things are very different in Cuba!
The Value of the Dollar
Currently, there are three types of currency in circulation in Cuba: the Cuban peso, worth about 4 cents; the “divisa,” a Cuban monetary equivalent to the dollar; and the US dollar itself. No other currency, not even Euros, are accepted anywhere on the island. The current exchange rate is 26 pesos to the dollar, but for convenience sake, paying for peso items on the street will result in a 25 peso per dollar rate. Despite many recommendations against it, I think it wise to change about $1 per day into pesos, so that you can pay the Cuban price of $1 MN (moneda nacional, or peso…4 cents), for what tourists often have to pay $1 USD. Many examples to come, so be patient!
Where To Sleep
Let’s start with rooming accommodations. The Cuban government allows private individuals to rent bed and breakfast rooms in their homes, for a considerable monthly fee. The going rate in Havana is $20 to $30 per night, depending upon the season. Avoid “casas particulares” (private homes) in Havana Vieja (old town) or central Havana, as they are much older, probably lack air conditioning, and are located in neighborhoods suffering from deteriorating conditions. Miramar was, and continues to be, the Beverly Hills of Havana, but is located inconveniently far from the heart of the city. I recommend El Vedado, which was the upper middle class neighborhood in the pre-revolution days, and today offers the best value for the dollar.
While there are numerous good casas in El Vedado, I give a five-star-plus recommendation to the $25 per night Casa Antigua, the home of Horacio and Marta Santana (contact them via the link in Additional Resources above), located just off 23rd street (the main drag of Vedado), on 28th Street. I visited both the National Hotel in El Vedado, the grand dame of pre-1960’s Havana, as well as the elegant Conde de Villanueva Hotel in the pricey tourist section of Havana Vieja. Casa Antigua offers 90 percent of the amenities at 10 percent of the price!
Built in 1940, this house has two floors, the top of which is Casa Antigua (see link in Additional Resources above - look for an English version on their page). Your host Horacio, a mechanical engineer, has completely renovated the home in eclectic styles, and provided it with up-to-date conveniences. Completely furnished in antiques, each room features a different period, be it Neo-classical, Sheraton, Romantic, etc., yet is very Cuban in its unique way. Marta, an economist with a masters degree in sociology, is the hostess, and shares in the interior decorating, as well as the cooking and other household chores.
Consider the following amenities one receives for $25…
An open air veranda with tropical plants hanging from the archways, and wrought iron rocking chairs to enjoy a daiquiri or mojito, a Cuban espresso coffee, or an authentic “Habano” cigar;
Formal living/sitting room featuring a fully mirrored wall, and a baby grand piano (Horacio is a classically trained pianist, and when the mood strikes, will entertain you for hours at a time!);
Elegant stain glass windows, antique furniture, paintings, prints, vases, and other collectibles throughout the home;
Formal dining room, for your breakfast and/or dining pleasure;
Full kitchen with modern western appliances, such as a color TV, microwave oven, coffee machine, Sparkletts-type spring water dispenser, etc. (a rarity in any home in Cuba);
Bedrooms furnished in antiques, with mini fridges, radio-tape-CD players, Panasonic air conditioners (not the omnipresent and inefficient Russian models);
Oversized fully tiled bathroom with tub and shower…you Americans, enjoy experimenting with the bidet!
Pretty outdoors sculpted, bird feeder-style fountain with tropical gold fish;
In-house laundry facilities (pay the maid a couple of bucks to do all of your washing and ironing);
Free phone service (only about 10% of homes in Cuba even have a phone);
Computer room with limited, but free, internet email access (cost $5 per hour anywhere in Cuba);
Complementary babysitting services, along with Spielberg, the friendly non-biting, non-scratching cat;
Free referral services for accommodations, buses, taxis, tours, restaurants, night clubs, etc., anywhere in Cuba. Always talk to Horacio before making any substantial purchases or reservations. He can always help you get whatever you want for lots less money, and never charges the buyer or seller a commission or bird-dog fee!
A warm, friendly, intelligent, liberal, educated family with whom to become friends (if one wishes to do so).
I spent three weeks with Horacio and Marta, and became intimate friends during my visit. Their gracious hospitality, sense of humor, and eagerness to please cannot be described in words. Moreover, their bedrooms alone would cost $150-$250 in an elegant Havana tourist hotel. Okay, so you don’t get a swimming pool…
So we’ve spent $25, or 50% of our budget at Casa Antigua. Can we survive on just $25 per day? Sure!
Where to Eat
Casa Antigua offers breakfast for $3 per day. You can get it cheaper on the street, but the convenience of rolling right out of bed into a formal dining room three steps from your room is a bargain. Breakfast includes a fresh fruit plate of bananas, mangos, guava, watermelon, and/or pineapple, eggs, ham, cheese, bread with butter and guava marmalade, fresh mango or guava juice, coffee and milk. Try getting that at you local Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfast for $2.99!
You’ll be playing tourist, so lunch on the street. Nothing fancy, just eat as do the Cubans…ham and cheese sandwich (40 cents), small cheese pizza (20 cents) “Cristal” draft beer (60 cents), ice cream cone (4-12 cents). By the way, every evening, stop by the corner “bodega” (market) and buy a 60 cent 1.5 liter bottle of water. Freeze it overnight, and you’re ready to hit the hot streets the next day.
Dinner at any number of middle-of-the-road restaurants anywhere in town costs $3-$6 for chicken, pork, or fish, usually coming with rice and black beans, small salad or French fries. Every once in a while, splurge for dinner at a nicer restaurant, with air conditioned comfort, linen table cloths and napkins, and attentive waiters, for $10.
As you can see, without being overly extravagant, one can eat for $10 per day. So, that leaves us with $15.
Where To Party
There may be shortages of certain items in Cuba, such as American cars built past 1959, but one thing of which there is an abundant supply is music, dancing, beer and rum! Just get out of your car anywhere in the city, and follow your ear to the nearest restaurant or bar with music. As a musician, I brought along my horn and sat in with a minimum of 60 Cuban bands, and didn’t even scratch the surface of the city’s music scene. Cubans love their music, and even if they can’t afford the $1 USD beer in the club, they will dance and party outside, listening to the bands through the open windows.
“Cristal” beer is the national favorite, along with “Tropical” and “Buccaneer”. Store bought beer is 75 cents, pay $1 in most restaurants and bars, $1.50 in a more upscale restaurant, and $2.50 for a Hotel Nacional splurge.
“Havana Club” is the national rum of choice, a bottle selling for $3 in the store. As with beers, daiquiris and mojitos start at $1, depending on the club’s atmosphere and clientele. Anyway, $5 per person goes a long way if you are not a heavy drinker. Even if you are, a store-bought bottle of rum, and a couple of Cokes at the club go a long way!
Important note…musicians, bar tenders, and waiters earn about $12 per month. Budget $5 per day for tips!!!
Taxis are everywhere in Havana, but can be expensive for the average tourist. But you are not the average tourist, so…
Look for any American 1950’s classic car on the street, as it is a “colectivo” (communal) taxi. While they are not supposed to transport tourists, you will never be refused a ride, unless the driver’s route does not coincide with your general destination. Simply hold out your hand on the street, and practice saying one or two words indicating your destination…“Capitolio” (the capitol building, 5-15 minute walk from everything) or “La Rampa” (hip Vedado area)…10 pesos. If you pay $1, expect 15 pesos change. Share the ride with Cubans who will be polite, yet wonder why you are riding with them! Chat with the driver in your best broken Spanish, and he’ll tell you all about his cousins living in Miami. Back and forth around town for the day…2 bucks.
Late at night, when the bars close down, “los colectivos” no longer run, so the price for a private cab back to your Vedado casa is $3. They may quote you more, but when you indicate that you know the price, they will gladly drive you home for that amount.
For an occasional change of pace, take a “bicitaxi” (rickshaw-like bicycle taxi for 10 pesos), or a cocotaxi (tourist motorcycle-type coconut shaped contraption for a couple of bucks).
If you’re a real “Ma and Pa Kettle” type tourist with Bermuda shorts, black socks and sandles, wearing a Hawaiian shirt with a camera slung around your neck muttering, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas Anymore!” expect to pay 8-10 bucks for a horse and buggy ride down through Habana Vieja or El Malecon. However, beware of any drivers who look like Cosmo Cramer, as their horses may have been fed “Beefarino”!
Average Prices, Occasional Splurges, and Souvenir Ideas
Listen to music, dance to you heart’s content, people watch, communicate with Habaneros in any way you can. Take along small gifts for the poor people on the streets, such as motel size soap, a small tin of aspirin, a pencil or a pen, photos of you and your family back home, etc. The average Cuban simply cannot afford what you and I take for granted, and they will instantly repay your kindness with a warm and broad smile, and a broken English “thank you.” They will also be thrilled to have their picture taken (except for the “professionally picturesque”, who will expect a tip);
1 peso (4 cents):
authentic Cuban cigar (bought in a locals-only bar), long thin cone of peanuts sold by street vendors, fresh ripe avocado from a “pregonero” (street wandering merchant), Dairy Queen style ice cream, general admission to a world class sporting event (baseball, volleyball, etc.), rest room attendant tip;
2-5 pesos (8-20 cents):
personal size cheese pizza, a bag full of fresh mangos, bananas, or guava pasteries, Cuban citizen price to enter any national museum or attraction (The average price is $5 USD for tourists. Offer to pay a Cuban’s entrance if they will buy your ticket for you, and do all the talking. Keep your mouth shut, look straight ahead, hide your camera so as not to look too conspicuous;
10 pesos (40 cents)
communal taxi ride, ham and cheese sandwich, good tip at a funky restaurant or bar, cover charge to hear a Cuban rock‘n’roll band at the National Arts Center (across from La Plaza de la Revolucion);
beer in restaurant, tip for the band (they play up to 10 hours per day!), great tip in a funky restaurant or bar;
hand-crafted wooden items, such as figurines, ash trays (they travel well and generally will not break in your luggage) authentic Cuban claves (hand-held percussion instrument…talk a deal 2 for $5, learn the basic clave beat, and sit in with every band you hear!), authentic Cuban cigar bought in a government store (prices are fixed, and anything on the street is guaranteed to be counterfeit) There is no such thing as a $1 Cohiba or Montecristo!, dinner at a “paladar” (private home restaurant), one or two drinks at the Hotel Nacional (but hanging out with the internationally rich and famous, in the comfort of luxurious surroundings is an affordable splurge for a few afternoon or evening hours), bottle of “Havana Club” rum (impossible to get in the US, and a bitter corporate enemy of Puerto Rican-based Bacardi!);
Dinner at a nicer, air conditioned and comfortable restaurant (possibly with drinks and tip included), buggy ride through Habana Vieja (a really affordable splurge for a party of four), bottle of “Havana Club Anejo” (seven year aged) rum, tour of the Partagas tobacco factory (or avoid the camera-clicking tourists, and watch it being done outside the tobacco shop of the Hotel Nacional for free), CD of your favorite Cuban bar band;
dinner at a nicer, air conditioned and comfortable restaurant (definitely with drinks included);
private car and driver for a full day and night of personalized city touring to those hard to reach destinations;
concert ticket to hear Polo Montanez, Compay Segundo, or any Buena Vista Social Club artist;
pair of professional level, authentic Cuban bongos (talk a deal with any band’s bongo player);
guided day trip to famous Varadero Beach in air conditioned van, lunch and changing room included;
round trip across Cuba, from Havana to Santiago, in air conditioned Viazul Greyhound-style bus, stops along the way are prorated proportionally – prices for sleeps and eats in the provinces are always less than in Havana.
Well, are you convinced yet? All things considered, you can experience “La Habana Real” for a fraction of what you’d pay for the admittedly more comfortable and civilized, yet North Americanized and homogenized Miami version of “Little Havana.” Viva Cuba Libre!!