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Cuba – The Cunning Person’s Survival Guide

I’ve just come back from Cuba and absolutely loved it.  I recommend everyone to go there, especially before the Americans are allowed in.  But, the country has its specific shortcomings, so I’ve compiled a survival guide so that you can be more watchful on your trip there.

  1. CUCs, convertible pesos, the official currency of Cuba for foreigners.  You’ll need loads of them.  Do not take US Dollars to exchange as they incur a 10% penalty charge at foreign exchange desks.  Take Euros.  And do not rely on the availability of credit card machines anywhere outside the banks.  Even DHL, the courier company present all around the world, insisted on cash as they did not have a credit card machine.  Exchange as many Euros for CUC’s as you’ll need for your stay at the first foreign exchange kiosk, else you might have to wait in interminably long queues to get your CUC’s, especially in Old Havana.  You want to tour, not queue.
  2. Deal only with official foreign exchange dealers.  There is a second currency that circulates in parallel with the CUC, also called the peso, that is not convertible and is worth 1/25th of a CUC.  A good con is for someone to approach a tourist with what seems like an incredibly good exchange rate, only to ply him with useless non-convertible pesos.  Convertible peso banknotes are clearly marked as such and have statues instead of faces on them – make sure you’re aware of the difference.
  3. Always, always, always, ask the price of anything first, from taxis to meals to a room to anything.  If you don’t you can really get drilled afterwards.  Agree very clearly to the exact terms of your deal, ensuring both parties understand what the terms involve.  Take along a sense of cunning and a hard bargaining stance, as taxi drivers and other vendors will try to err… tilt the deal to their advantage.  Cubans are sharp operators, having long since learnt to survive by cunning.
  4. A 220V/110V converter – your electric plugs will not work in most places.  Even better, take along a universal converter of one plug type to another.
  5. A money bag with a sturdy zip that you keep tied to your waist under your shirt, like a colostomy bag that spews out CUC’s.
  6. An electric coil to warm up water.  A lot of the casas and even hotels run out of hot water.
  7. A standard plug for washbasins, baths etc.  None exist anywhere.  I phoned housekeeping at the supposed five-star Habana Libre hotel to call for one.  The lady on the end of the line patiently and repeatedly explained that they did not have tampones (plugs), neither could they get hold of any.
  8. Order your taxi driver to completely stop when an animal crosses the road, and not to merely hoot wildly and slow down mildly.  Our taxi-driver knocked over a dog on a country road, killing it.  He turned around to my fellow-passenger and me with a shrug of the shoulders and a “no problem”.  We’re all right, Jack. She was inconsolable for the rest of the trip.  They seem to consider animals soulless beings, do Cuban drivers.
  9. Check your bills, always.  Humans do err when counting, marginally more so in Cuba I found.
  10. Understand that the law of universal price does not exist.  It’s a figment of theoretical economics. The same taxi journey can be quoted anywhere from 5 to 20 CUC’s, depending on what fancy the driver takes to your face.  The same Cristal beer can cost 1 CUC to 3 CUC’s at similar establishments…
  11. Take along a tough constitution.  The food is basic and good, but is overcooked everywhere.
  12. Know your cigars if you’re going to buy from the myriad unofficial vendors who will take you to their house or to the back of their curio shop to sell them to you.  Everyone seems to be on the make when it comes to cigars, and if you’re not careful you will end up smoking banana leaves.  I bought what I thought was a good box of Cohiba Maduros but had the gall to take them back as the lower level of the box was hard, fake and not smokeable.  Do the test (roll the cigar in a vertical position between your palms to see if small chunks fall out or the wrapper breaks.  If they do then it’s not tobacco but a cheap filler).  Check the quality of the labels – the labels of fake cigars are clumsily glued together and look shabby compared to the professional finish of an official cigar.
  13. Respect officialdom.  A lowly official can make life very hard for you.  I suffered at the hands of customs officials trying to send pieces of art off by DHL.  They have the power to call you off the plane five minutes before the flight closes to review your bags.  They did it to me.  It was nerve-wracking and I thought I’d lose my flight and the subsequent three connecting flights – I nearly did.
  14. Don’t insist on a receipt from officials putting you onto a bus if they don’t give you one.  If they hush up your ticket the money you pay supplements their err… bonus.  So be nice.  Help them by shutting up and getting onto the bus.  The money will be distributed along the usual chain of greased palms.  Be a nice, quiet, helpful tourist.
  15. Beware of taxi brokers and hold them to price, the type of car you’re paying for and the driver you request.  Make sure that the driver is an official taxi driver and speaks English if you so insist.  In Vinales and Trinidad you are approached by people with some English, like Carlos, who purport to be taxi drivers but who are actually taxi-brokers.  A fellow traveler and I agreed to purchase a trip from Cayo Levisa to Trinidad, a six-hour journey. We requested an English speaking taxi driver in a modern Hyundai, exactly like the one right there in front of our eyes.  150 CUC’s to be paid the next day and the deal’s done, said Carlos.  We shook on it.  The next day we were picked up at Cayo Levisa by two chaps who happened to be going to Havana.  Carlos must have cut a cheap deal with them to take us on to Trinidad.  The car was old and rickety and leaked asphyxiating petrol fumes into the cabin.  I nearly suffocated.  To drive to Trinidad for six hours in that would surely have meant death.  And the driver only spoke Spanish.  So where’s the modern Hyundai and the English-speaking taxi driver, we asked?  Oh, accident that morning, sorry.  We dropped the deal right there, firmly, and went by bus instead.  Insist on the terms of your deal, do not compromise.
  16. Those vintage cars are beautiful.  They make fabulous taxis.  Some are magnificently maintained and are worth every penny you pay for your fare.  Others are stuck together by masking tape and reek of petrol.  I wish you strong lungs, and not necessarily for cigars.
  17. If you stay in casas (private house) don’t expect luxury.  Take your own soap and bath oils with you as they are scarce commodities in Cuba.  And get used to low service standards.  After three days in a casa in Vinales I asked my amiable casa hostess whether I could have more coffee at breakfast.  The answer she gave me was a firm “no”.
  18. You’d better love songs like Besame Mucho, Guantanamera and Quizás, Quizás, Quizás as well as badly played Buena Vista Social Club tracks.  You’re going to hear them a lot, in hotel lobbies, in restaurants, in cafés, on street corners.  Survive this by being continually sozzled by an admixture of 10y-old Havana Club rum and the wafts of a good cigar.  Or better, get to the ballet or a classical music concert to break the monotony of this.  There is a rich cultural scene in Cuba.  They played Bach, my hero, at a concert I attended.  Bach is the man, JS Bach I tell you.
  19. Mind the broken pavements and flagstones.  Havana is being slowly and beautifully restored but I managed to sprain and ankle on a broken flagstone during a carefree amble.  Literally watch your step all the time.
  20. When you leave, remember to keep 25 CUC’s per person at the ready as that’s the airport tax, payable in cash at a kiosk at the end of an endless queue.  You don’t want to have to queue at the foreign exchange desk as well at that stage.  Arrive at least three hours before your flight as only one of two officials will be manning this queue, after which you’ll have the customs officials to contend with.