By Al Dieste
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 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.
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.
What To Take
Advice abounds regarding what to take to Cuba, so Ill offer just tidbits of advice.
your closets, medicine cabinets, and desk drawers of the clutter, and
take it to Cuba. Some things cant be found, while other things,
even a 25-cent bar of soap, are very expensive for the average Cuban.
Bring those little bars of soap that you get for free in any hotel, for
example, or a pack of lightbulbs or batteries. You'll be amazed at how
much this can mean to the average Habanero.
Army can always be called upon to slice that ready to be eaten mango or
avocado, and help fix that perpetually broken down whatever.
bags help keep the moisture out of your expensive camera, CD player, etc.
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,
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-1960s Havana,
as well as the elegant Conde de Villanueva Hotel in the pricey tourist
section of Havana Vieja.
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 stained glass windows, antique furniture, paintings, prints, vases, and other collectibles throughout the home
room, for your breakfast and/or dining pleasure
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)
babysitting services, along with Spielberg, the friendly non-biting, non-scratching
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 dont get a swimming pool
So weve 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 Dennys Grand Slam Breakfast for $2.99!
Youll 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 youre ready to hit the hot streets the next day.
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.
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.
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.
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 clubs 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!
Taxis are everywhere in Havana, but can be expensive for the average tourist. But you are not the average tourist, you are a GoNOMAD reader...
any American 1950s 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 drivers 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
(the capitol building, 5-15 minute walk from everything) or La Rampa
(hip Vedado area)
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 want to be a real Ma-and-Pa-Kettle-Bermuda-shorts-with-black-socks-and-sandles-Hawaiian-shirt-wearing-camera-around-your-neck-Toto-I-dont-think-were-in-Kansas type tourist, 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 horse may have been fed Beefarino!
Average Prices, Occasional Splurges, and Souvenir Ideas
Listen to music, dance to you hearts 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 Cubans 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, and its win-win for everyone, except the state!).
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 rockn 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 wooded 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
an even 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 destination.
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 bands bongo player).
guided day trip to famous Varadero Beach in air conditioned van, lunch and changing room included.
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.
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