Staying in Cuba
Lodging: Cuba isn’t a country you go to on a tight budget. Many people like to Couchsurf when they travel to save money. Unfortunately, that practice is illegal in Cuba (unless you’re a family member, they cannot invite you to stay in their home), and you can only stay in properly licensed facilities. However, your cheapest legal option most likely is to stay in a casa particular. These are private homes that are licensed to offer you lodging. In Havana, and most places within Cuba, it is almost impossible to find one for less than 25 CUC. Mostly this is because the government charges the host 200 CUC per month whether or not they have guests. They are inspected fairly often, are usually very clean, private, and comfortable. Many of the casas particulares will offer breakfast and/or dinner for a small fee (3 CUC for breakfast, 6 for dinner), and rarely it may be included in the total fee. If your host won’t budge on the price they aren’t trying to be difficult. Keep in mind that they have to pay 200 CUC a month, and most nonprofessionals earn about 15 CUC for month at their jobs. In Havana these are mostly in apartment buildings which give you a very nice feel of daily Cuban life. In other areas on the island, you may find yourself in larger homes.
There are plenty of hotels as well. Most are quite large and more expensive; however, there are smaller choices. If you’re into the all-inclusive type establishments, then you may enjoy the beach paradise of Varadero which has many rooms for as low as 75 CUC during the low season. If you stay in Old Havana, the Hotel Seville and Hotel Parque Central have excellent customer service and amenities as well as multilingual staff.
Food: It is difficult to find traditional Cuban food. The modern typical diet includes lots and lots and lots of pizza. Breakfast is not a big deal in Cuba. Usually people will eat some bread and have coffee. “We Cubans have grown out of the habit of eating breakfast because of lack of food.” However, you can find more filling choices for cheap at the peso shops. These are individuals who serve food and drink from a small window or patio of their home, and you can pay in Cuban pesos. A common item offered is pan con tortilla (an egg sandwich). If you’re used to the Mexican tortilla, keep in mind that in Cuba it’s a fried egg. Two pan con tortilla and 2 juices will cost you a whopping 30 cents USD. It is difficult to rely on the peso shops for every meal. For one thing the items are very small, more like a snack. Pizzas tend to be more filling, though, and you can often get an individual-sized pizza at a peso shop for around 15 CUP (~60 cents USD). Restaurants tend to run out of items, especially later in the evening, so you’ll save yourself time if you ask them if they have everything. If they’ve run out of something, you’ll save time by finding out what they actually have rather than having to change your selection 5 times. Portion sizes are larger in restaurants, and the quality of food is much better. You can keep to a tighter budget more easily by eating at least 2 of your daily meals at the peso shops. On average you can expect to spend about 9 CUC for an average restaurant meal for 2 people, including soda or water as drinks. Naturally there are more expensive places to eat as well. Almost every place has their menu available outside the restaurant so you can easily check out prices; however, you can also walk in and request to see “la carta.”
Other cheaper restaurant options include paladares which are small, individually owned restaurants most often found in neighborhood areas. Quality of food varies widely, but portion sizes also tend to be larger, and sitting space is much more . . . shall we say cozy?
Modern Cuban food tends to be fairly bland, and it’s hard to find places serving more traditional plates. International cuisine is becoming more and more common. Cubans are rumored to eat more pizza than Italians and Americans, and I’m inclined to believe that is true. If you enjoy ice cream, you’ll be happy to know it’s one of the inexpensive treats available.
Internet: If you need access to the Internet, you’ll have to pay quite a bit. Cubans are restricted in their use of the Internet and must be supervised, unless it’s part of their job or education, so it’s priced accordingly. Most Cubans only have access to some official sites and email. There are many Internet centers, at least in Havana. There are also long lines unless you go inside the hotels. The nice thing about the hotel Internet is that they tend to be air-conditioned and comfortable. You don’t have to be a guest of the hotel to use their computers or WiFi. It will cost you 6 CUC an hour, and wireless will set you back 8. If you go to a hotel, which I highly recommend, just go to the reception desk and ask for an Internet card. They’ll give you scratch-off tickets. There are only 7 hotels on the entire island offering WiFi, and 6 of them are in Havana. If you want to buy more time than 1-hour cards, you’re forced to stand outside in the lines at an Etecsa booth. Like many less-developed countries the technology is older, slow, and fickle. Hotel Parque Central has excellent WiFi, however. If you go there and are from North America, you’ll probably need to bring an adapter. Many places in Cuba use the same outlets and voltage as North American countries, but for some reason this hotel is set up on a European system.