The first few days I was in Cuba I spent not just sightseeing, but also just learning the ropes, the basic knowledge needed for traveling in this country. The things that are normally quite easy when we’re abroad, like simply going to get some money or connecting to wifi, are just not that simple in Cuba. So here’s your ultimate guide to the practicalities in Cuba.
In a nutshell:
- Join a queue anywhere by calling out “Ultimo” to establish yourself as the last person in line. Listen for the next person who comes to call out “Ultimo” so they’ll know you’re in front of them.
- Take your passport when doing anything to do with money, internet, or buses.
- Cuba has two currencies: the CUC and the CUP. You’ll mostly use CUC.
- There are 24 CUP to one CUC, and they can be obtained at a currency exchange office (cadeca).
- Make sure you have a few different ways to get money. A VISA credit card is best, and can be used in ATMs. Cash is also good. Debit cards are useless.
- There are wifi hotspots in most plazas and parks, and at some random spots on the street, but you’ll need a card to connect.
- You can buy Internet cards at ETECSA offices for 2 CUC per hour, or from a guy on the street for 3 CUC per hour.
- Make sure you have a browser on your device other than Chrome.
The hugely entertaining, detailed write-up:
I’m starting with queueing because, well, everything in Cuba seems to start with queueing. You have to queue for the bank, the ATM, the currency exchange, for internet cards, for buses, and for anything else even remotely official. And you need to know how, because Cubans have their own special queueing technique.
When you arrive at your target, (the bank, for example), you’ll see a big crowd of people outside waiting to get in. But what looks like the chaos you’d get in China where you have to use your elbows and just push in is actually very strictly organized, and you need to establish your place in the queue.
To do this, simply shout out “Ultimo!” This means ‘last’, and the last person to arrive (ie: the last person in line) will answer. They’ll probably be somewhere near the back of the crowd, so they should be pretty easy to find. By identifying them, you have just established yourself as the new last person in line.
Now you have to listen carefully for someone else coming up and shouting “Ultimo!”, and you have to identify yourself as the last person in line. This way everybody knows who’s in front of them, and there is a queue, whether it looks like it or not. This system actually works quite well.
Although Cubans have to line up for everything and are very used to it, that doesn’t mean they like it any more than we do. Thus they are very strict about keeping your place in line.
I got in trouble once when I went to an ATM to try to get money out. Someone was inside the vestibule, so I stopped outside to get my wallet out of my backpack. I could see a few people waiting in line there, but I thought they were waiting to go into the bank itself. When I straightened up again and made a move to go in to use the ATM, I got yelled at pretty quickly! I apologized profusely and went to the back of the line. Luckily they realized that it had been an honest mistake and we all had a good laugh about it.
Another time I had a big problem when I got in line behind a foreign couple. At the same time, there was an armoured car there with guards and big guns and they’d moved the queue from its normal position over to a different stairway while they were doing their jobs. Then they finished, and the bank guard moved the crowd back into the regular queueing spot. Just at this moment, the foreign couple’s guide came along and whisked them away into the bank ahead of everyone else, leaving me with no idea who was actually in front of me in line. Everyone else established themselves very quickly in a quite orderly looking queue along the railing.
What to do? I contemplated just going to the back of the line but it was quite long and I’d already been waiting for quite some time, so that didn’t seem fair. I decided to hang out near the middle of the line, acting like that was where I belonged when I really had no idea, kind of trying to wedge myself in between two people but not sure if they were actually the right ones.
In my experience up until this point the Cubans had always known where each person belonged in a queue, but I didn’t want to ask for fear of being sent to the back of the line, so I just hoped that it would sort itself out and sooner or later someone would tell me where my place was.
They didn’t, I think mostly because they didn’t realize that I didn’t know, but I just stayed where I was and managed to get into the bank with the people I was near. When it came time to go the teller I had to stand my ground a bit for my place, but then ended up at a teller in a separate section of the bank anyway! Lesson learned: If you can, also find out who is in front of the person in front of you in case the person in front of you disappears.
Note: The queues for banks and cadecas were often shorter or even sometimes nonexistent outside of Havana, and sometimes better later in the day. No guarantees on any of that of course, but you might want to consider waiting to do your money business if you can.
Cuba has two currencies: the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso), and the local currency, the CUP (Cuban Peso, also known as moneda nacional).
When you exchange foreign currency or withdraw money from a bank or ATM, you get CUC, and this is what you’ll mostly use as a tourist. You’ll pay for your Casa Particular, most restaurant meals, VIAZUL buses and taxis using CUC, as well as most purchases such as snacks and souvenir items.
You can change your CUCs for Cuban pesos in a cadeca (exchange office) at a rate of 24 pesos to 1 CUC. I advise that you don’t change too much at once because although you don’t want to wait in that line again, you also probably won’t use pesos as often as you think you will. I changed 50 CUC at the beginning of my trip and by halfway through I was using it at any opportunity I had, aware that I was not going through it at the rate I thought I would and not wanting to be left with it at the end.
You don’t actually have to have pesos; you can use CUC anywhere and the Cubans are happy to have them. Just keep in mind that in cases when pesos are normally used you’ll probably be charged more (I met two men on a ferry in Havana who’d paid 2 CUC each for the 10 minute ride, while I’d paid 8 pesos). You’ll also probably get your change in CUP (pesos), and depending on how good your math skills are, working out what the change should be can be tricky.
Use your Cuban pesos for cheap snacks and street food, produce from a fruit stand, and for máquinas (collective taxis). I also used them to tip street musicians, impromptu tour guides, and basically anyone else who asked me for money that I felt like giving it to.
When you want to get money you have a few choices. I highly advise that you have multiple possible ways of getting money, because what you think will work might not! Check with your bank at home, but don’t necessarily believe what they say. My bank told me my VISA debit card would work; it did not.
Ideally, you have a Visa credit card and you can just go to an ATM, which usually have shorter lines than the other options. ATMS do not take Mastercard or any debit cards (although this may change soon). The ATMs only dispense CUCs and I was told that they will dispense different denominations of currency. So in a bank of ATMS there might be one that only dispenses 5 CUC notes, another that gives you 10s, and another that gives 20s, etc. Look for the one you want!
If you just want to exchange cash you can line up separately at a cadeca (currency exchange). If you only have a Mastercard you have to line up at the bank (or sometimes a cadeca will do it) to go inside and withdraw from a teller. It can help to ask the door guard at the bank if they’ll let you withdraw with your Mastercard before you line up, because sometimes they’ll say no and send you somewhere else!
Whatever you do regarding money, take your passport, even if you’re just going to the ATM. The first time I used one it ate my card and I had to go back to my hostel to get my passport before going back to line up at the bank for an hour to get inside and retrieve it! (I realized later that had I asked the door guard I might have been let in ahead of everyone else to get it) And after that I made a point of only using ATMS that were connected to an actual bank and only during the bank’s opening hours!
Not so long ago Cuba was an internet dead zone, a black hole where you would go and be disconnected for your entire trip. This is not true anymore, and the internet revolution is taking over the country. Back in July the government set up 35 wifi hotspots in major cities, and suddenly Cuba is online.
Now when you walk down a street everything will look normal but then you’ll suddenly see people standing all over the sidewalk, sitting anywhere nearby that they can, all staring at their phones. The benches in plazas, squares and parks are occupied by happy Cubans Skyping friends and family overseas for the first time, joyfully chattering away on their headphones.
So how do you connect in Cuba? First, you need a card. And guess what? This means queueing again.
At your local ETECSA office you can line up to go in and buy a card for 2 CUC per hour. You might have to be persistent when lining up for cards as it seems that official people do not always want us gringos to get what we need. I lined up at an ETECSA office in Baracoa for an hour only to get to the front of the line and have the guard tell me that they did not have any Wi-Fi cards. When he tried to send me away I asked, very flustered and annoyed, “Then where am I supposed to get a Wi-Fi tarjeta (card) from?” and he relented and let me into the office. It turned out that while they didn’t have any one hour cards they did have 30 minute cards and 5 hour cards. I happily bought a 5 hour card for 10 CUC and it lasted me the rest of the time I was in the country.
But there is another way. If you really want to save yourself an hour of queueing up you can buy the cards from a man on the street. Just walk around the area where people are staring at their phones and listen for a man saying quietly “tarjeta, tarjeta” (card, card). Tell him you want one and for 3 CUC per hour you can avoid that lineup. Totally worth the extra CUC.
It’s worth checking the office though; in Camaguey I walked right in, waited about 2 minutes, bought my cards, and walked out again. Again, as with money, it’s a good idea to have your passport with you, although for wifi cards if you don’t have it they seem to find a way around it.
Major hotels sometimes have a wifi connection, on which the same cards should work, and if you can find one you can have a much more comfortable and private spot to conduct your business. In Havana I recommend going into the Havana Libre Hotel in Vedado and sitting on the sofas just inside the window, where you can access the Wi-Fi from the street but in the comfort of air conditioning!
Make sure you have an Internet browser on your phone or device that is not Chrome. It took me a couple of weeks to even get online on my phone because I could never get Chrome to work. I finally discovered a mini app browser on my android phone, which worked just fine.
There are computers available for use inside the ETECSA offices but again, you’ll have to line up for them and I don’t know how much they cost.
So there you have it: the travel practicalities in Cuba. Because really, if you know how to queue and you can get money and internet, you can sort out everything else, right?
Well, ok, so other things are difficult too. Coming up soon are a guide to transportation, a guide to accommodation, and read here to find out where to eat in Cuba!
This was a lot of information! Have you been? Do you have anything to add? Or do you have any questions? Feel free to post in the comments or to email me your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org