I’m watching the news today about the Canadian dollar reaching a new low, something I admit I didn’t think about when I was planning my trip to Cuba.
This is a very practical post — the costs of vacationing in Cuba in light of the plummeting Canadian dollar, especially if you’re not going on an all-inclusive trip at a resort. Then at least you know what it’s going to cost you before you get on the plane.
Cuba is cheap by Canadian standards and although the amenities aren’t always what you might hope for, there are many services that are efficient and well worth what you pay.
All the information in guide books and on the web talk about CUCs (what all the foreigners call ‘kooks’) which is the tourist dollars you buy when you land in Cuba — $1 Cdn for $1 CUC which means that when a private home advertises a room with private bath for $30 CUC (breakfast extra), I expect to pay $30 Cdn per night.
Reality hit at midnight when I woke up a dozing clerk in the currency exchange office (cadeca) at the Havana airport. My $500 Canadian netted me $406 CUCs, which immediately raised my holiday budget by 20 per cent. I exchanged Cdn dollars a couple of more times in the two weeks that followed, but of course, it didn’t get any better.
However, $30 a night for a room with private bath — all of them extremely clean and outfitted with fans and air conditioners — is very reasonable. Breakfast is always the same — juice, eggs if wanted, bread and cheese, perhaps ham which can range from slivers of cooked ham to slices of canned ham, butter, jam and pitchers of wonderful coffee and hot milk.
I had budgetted for some excursions — a tour in a classic car, a day at Veradero beach, a night out — and for the most part the agencies charged about what I expected, although I didn’t think it was always worth it.
One of the things I didn’t allow for is how much it cost to get anywhere, especially if you stay outside of Old Havana.
Every time you talk to anyone about some place to visit or where to eat or anything you might want to see, the advice is always the same. “Take a taxi. It’s only about $5.” The problem is that in a day it’s not difficult to rack up $20 or $25 worth of taxis, and it turns out that a lot of taxi drivers don’t think $5 is enough.
I took a taxi from my casa to Hotel Nacional, a trip of about 10 blocks. Not far, and the driver charged me $5. When I returned, a doorman had arranged the taxi and I didn’t bother asking how much it would be. We got to my place and the driver said $20. (I refused and we settled on $10, which was still too much.)
It’s the kind of minor scam that every tourist runs into in every city in the world. It doesn’t happen a lot in Cuba, but it happens.
Eating out is also a challenge. A lot of restaurants typically serve complete meals that run between $10 and $15 with drinks extra. Upscale restaurants can be twice that. I was always looking for places where I could eat smaller amounts. The town of Vinales has a lot of restaurants, including a vegetarian one, where you have more options. Those meals, even with water and/or coffee, would run between $5 and $10.
The other cost I wasn’t prepared for was water. You drink bottled water in Cuba and it comes in plastic bottles. A 500 ml bottle is $1 in a casa particular — every room has a little fridge in it with soft drinks, beer and bottles of water in it — and $1.50 in a restaurant. I spent $3 to $5 a day just on water.
And lastly, the Internet. It doesn’t exist in the casas, only in hotels and the Ectesa office, which is the telecommunications office in every centre. You buy a card that gives you a username and password that logs you in for up to an hour. The cost is $6 to $8 and hour in Havana and Cienfuegos, only $4.50 an hour in Vinales.
Some hotels have sold all their cards that day and won’t have any until the next day. There’s always a line up where you have to wait for 30 or 40 minutes for a turn at a computer. Sometimes the card doesn’t work and you have to exchange it for one that does. And the connections are almost always really slow. Accessing email, reading an email, replying to an email can take 5 to 10 minutes. Very quickly you decide that it’s not worth the hassle.
The prices I quote, of course, are in CUCs. Add 20% to get the equivalent in Cdn dollars.