What is the food like?
It is safe to say that Cuba is not renowned for its local cuisine, – that is not to say that it isn’t tasty, indeed it is often delicious, however there is not a great deal of variety in what is available, primarily, chicken, pork, rice and beans, and you do need to know where to go.
Restaurants in Cuba are either government owned or private establishments run from the propietors’ home, known as a ‘paladar’ and these are highly recommended if you wish to experience some delicious home-cooked cuisine. In Havana, new restaurants and paladares are opening up all the time, a number of which have built up an excellent reputation for their innovative and tasty dishes.
What is the main currency?
Cuba has a dual currency system: the Cuban Peso Convertible (CUC) and the Cuban Peso or Moneda Nacional (CUP). The exchange rate between the two: 1 CUC = 24 CUP’s. Tourists always use the CUC currency and virtually all services are priced in that currency. There are very few opportunities for tourists to use the CUP other than perhaps buying fruit or fast food from street vendors or using the local transport. In any case, the savings between the two is minimal and not really worth the hassle. If you do come across something priced in the CUP currency you can always pay for it using CUC, just be careful you are paying the correct amount! If you happen to see a street side vendor selling sandwiches or pizzas with prices shown at what looks like $10 or $20, this ALWAYS means CUP, and in CUC would be the equivalent of around 50 cents. The only places you would pay for a pizza at that price in CUC would be at one of the 5 star hotel restaurants.
Is it easy to take money out using cards?
Cuba has very few ATM machines, and the ones that are available do not always work or can on occasion run short of money at inconvenient times. It’s therefore best to bring out as much money with you in cash, preferably Stirling which has the strongest exchange rate, followed closely by the Euro. The USD should be your last option as it carries a higher penalty on the exchange rate. Cash can easily be exchanged upon arrival at the airport, banks or at any of the CADECA exchange offices dotted around Havana, where you can also withdraw money over the counter on your credit or debit cards. One important thing to make sure of is that your credit card or bank has no association whatsoever with any American bank. (Virgin, Egg or American Express will not be accepted and do not work anywhere in Cuba).
What is the shopping like?
Anyone coming to Cuba for a shopping spree will undoubtedly be disappointed at the variety and quality of goods available. Havana offers the best opportunities for shopping by far but even here the products that are available are primarily geared towards tourists, a small community of foreign diplomats and workers and the small minority of Cubans with the means to earn hard currency. Your best bet for the very few luxury stores that do exist is in the old town on Calle Obispo and around the Plaza Vieja. In short, you should expect any spending to be focused almost entirely on local handicraft souvenirs and Cuba’s main exports; rum, cigars and music, however it is safe to say that you won’t go wrong here given they are of world-class quality.
What is the Cuban nightlife like?
Cuba is famous for its long and rich musical history, as essential to life as eating and breathing and you will hear it pouring out from virtually every restaurant, bar and home on every street. Music and dancing runs in the blood of every Cuban and is a natural form of expression here, even down to the way people move and talk. Even if you are a complete novice to Cuban music it is virtually impossible to sit still and not feel happy when you listen to this uplifting sound that is so full of energy. The main concentration of nightlife on the island is centered in Havana, followed closely by Santiago and Trinidad and there is no shortage of places to go to listen to live music or go dancing.