Somehow I’ve written two full posts and haven’t really discussed anything other than the flight and hotel. Oops!
One thing that catches people off guard as they prepare for a trip to Cuba is that the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is a closed currency. What this means for your average traveller is that there’s no way to buy pesos in advance you’re forced to purchase them when arrive/during your stay. Coupled with the Cuban government’s tight control over the exchange process this is a giant pain in the ass. Though once there appear to have been foreign exchange booths like you see elsewhere, these must have disappeared when the USD stopped being accepted as legal tender. For a current visit there are three places to change money: The Airport, A Hotel, The Bank. All three are terrible in different ways.
The Airport: Apparently offers rates comparable to the bank.Where once the booth was apparently in the arrival hall it’s now inexplicably located in the departure hall. My only guess is that this is to facilitate things for people who have forgotten their $CUC 25 departure tax but why they could not have just opened a second booth just seems to be one of the Cuban ‘Why would we do anything that makes this process easier’ things.
The hotel: Happy to exchange foreign currency for you but likely to do so at a ridiculous unregulated markup. Seriously, do so if you have to, but only enough to take you to the bank.
The Bank: Best rates but a total ordeal.
When we eventually decided to head into town to get some pesos we pretty much did it entirely wrong (if you’re going anytime soon, learn from our mistakes.) We started off by converting a bit of money at the hotel in order to take the bus to town. We had literally no idea how far we were from town and had been told that taking the bus was a reasonable way to get into town (wrong.) In the end we sat at that bus stop for an hour in the hottest part of the hottest day of our stay never to see the bus go by (we thought, though in the end I think we’d been misinformed as to what we were waiting for) only to find out in the end that we were only about a 10-15 minute walk from the outskirts of town, though of course the bank ended up being on the far end of town.
The bank is a squat, unimpressive building though perhaps painted a little more impressively than others in town. Outside sit two ATMs of which only one was working on our arrival. It had a long line and we’d bought Canadian cash to convert so we stood in line to go to the bank. I’d been warned before departing that the bank was quite the experience and sure enough we experienced Cuban rules galore. If you’ve never been there it’s difficult to describe the stupidity of the process.
We joined the back of a queue of roughly 6 people waiting to be admitted. A security guard (of the Cuban rentacop variety) stood at the door latching it every time he let someone into the bliss of the air conditioning. Because it was around noon there was a steady line of Cubans depositing half-day takings from businesses (gov’t and non) and they were admitted and served with priority. Once admitted to the bank proper (half an hour later) there were comfortable arm chairs and another long wait. Chatting in the bank or using a raised voice at all as a visitor is strictly forbidden. Anything to do with money is serious business. Standing at one teller is an elderly man apparently depositing his life savings recently rescued from his mattress. Stack after stack of weathered, ancient bills, carefully counting each one top to bottom before handing it over and watching the cashier’s moves carefully as she did the same. I’m guessing these were the old style pesos by sheet volume and the man had brought a giant sack full. I half expected there to be a dollar sign on it and for federales to burst in looking for someone who had robbed a train. Eventually we emerged with our cash but based on our spending habits the rest of the trip I’d probably make a few recommendations.
- Bring an amount of cash (say $200) that you won’t convert except in case of emergency. Leave that and a credit card in your room safe. Since it stays in CAD, it’s not a big deal if you bring it home untouched.
- Just hit the ATM and take out enough cash for your week, you don’t want to have to make a second bank trip.
- Immediately set aside your 25CUC per person for departure tax and leave it with your passport/immigration card in your hotel safe.
Varadero itself is pretty much a nothing town. It’s mostly one strip of some of the older/cheaper resorts, a few market type areas and a collection of restaurants seemingly owned by the same company (most likely the government organization in charge of Varadero proper.) According to what I’ve read and from speaking from an older guy during my diving trip once upon a time the town was more of a cultural center but the increasing number of all-inclusives has killed a lot of that off. Further back it was apparently one of Al Capone’s favourite getaway destinations and a favoured spot for a number of wealthy folks both American and not. Most of these estates were later seized by the new government and became museums (not much sign of those now) or the foundations for parks like the one where we grabbed lunch that day.
A motley mix of Spanish influenced older buildings, brutalist communist designs and more modern touristy establishments compete for space with more handmaid looking places. It’s clear that almost everyone who has property with access to the main avenue uses it for some sort of commercial purpose even if it’s just letting a vendor set up a hat stall or pina colada stand. Based on a later discussion with a tour guide my understanding is that for the most part property has been mostly inherited since the revolution and it’s only very recently that any sort of free market real estate business has started to be introduced.
Of course the other big attraction for some people is the one many people know about. Due to the US embargo there are not really any American cars from the past 50 years on the road in Cuba. While to some extent this means cars imported by the government/for businesses rule the road (mostly of eastern bloc make though now shifting to be European in general) there are still a large number of gorgeous old American cars on the road, mostly serving as taxis. Since spare parts are difficult/impossible to come by most of these cars have been held together by bodged parts and Cuban ingenuity until some point where the owner either replaces the engine with a repurposed engine (often diesel,) parks the car to repair later or sells it for parts (a veritable gold mine.) At one point walking down the street I passed in quick succession a Studebaker, early 50s caddies, Chevies and Pontiacs and a converted 30s Ford Hot Rod. This is unfortunately one tradition that will die off quickly once exports are possible to the US as any number of American car collectors are salivating over the opportunity to buy these old beauties and restore them. I only hope that when that happens their owners get every dollar they’re worth. They are beautiful cars, lovingly maintained for the most part and truly a blast from the past for someone who lives in a part of the world where salt insures that anything over 20 years old is a smoking heap of rust.
Almost without exception the Cuban people were lovely and friendly with us and for the most part it seemed genuine. There was very little of the “I’m smiling because I want your money” vibe, especially in Varadero and in fact that most people we met were intent on making sure you were enjoying and admiring their beautiful home. Because Varadero caters almost exclusively to the tourism industry (though another big local employer, Oil, brings in a number of foreigners as well) almost everyone you meet speaks at least some English and between that and my sadly dwindling spanish knowledge I never had any trouble being understood.
To be continued…