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More About Cuba

Legalities   •  What Changes Did You See?   •  Accommodations — Casas Particulares

The System   •   Money  •   Credit and Debit Cards   •   BicycleTouring   •   Swift Justice





Any American who wishes to visit Cuba legally must have a specific license issued by the Treasury Department. The only exceptions from this requirement are Cuban Americans with close family on the island, and people in special categories like journalists on assignment.

Don’t be fooled by recent loosening of restrictions on travel to Cuba. Several changes have indeed occurred: Cuban-Americans can now visit family in Cuba more often; it is easier to get licenses for educational and cultural visits or to study at a Cuban university; and there are now many organizations that can legally take Americans on tours. Among them are National Geographic, The Smithsonian, Road Scholars (formerly Elderhostel), Insight Cuba, and the Center for Cuban Studies. These tours can be tracked down easily on the internet, but they are often fully booked.

If you are a tourist and you go to Cuba on your own, your trip will still be illegal. (It is impossible to get a license for an ordinary pleasure trip.) The law, strictly speaking, does not forbid traveling to Cuba. Rather, it forbids spending money there. But you have to eat! You will then be in violation of the “Trading with the Enemy” Act. The purpose of this Act, as we understand it, is to prevent U.S. citizens from doing business with enemy nations – selling goods to Nazi Germany during World War II, for example. Cuba was designated a "hostile nation” back in 1963! If you were to go there, you could see for yourself how implausible this is today.

You can learn more than you want to know about the current regulations by visiting this website:

Be warned: this website can be terrifying! However you can find reassurance in the fact that tourists who somehow run afoul of the law are not prosecuted as criminals, though the law allows it. Tourists may be fined, but we don’t believe any tourist has ever been fined more than a fraction of the maximum provided by law. Furthermore, the Obama administration does not seem to be interested in prosecuting ordinary tourists. Of course that could always change.

We do not intend to encourage people to visit Cuba independently, without a license. Many people do, however, and if you are interested in doing so, you can use Google to track down plenty of information. Because Cuba does not stamp US. Passports, it is easy to go and difficult to get caught.





Many people have asked what changes we saw in Cuba since we were there last, more than ten years ago. This is a difficult question to answer.

There’s a problem of subjectivity. While Cuba may have been changing during ten years, we have been changing also. We’re ten years older. Our attitudes and expectations may be different than they were years ago, without us realizing it, and our memories of Cuba have surely been colored by time. It is sometimes hard for us to tell if changes we sensed are really changes in Cuba, or in ourselves.

Here is the example that bothers us most: When we first spent time in Cuba, we were awed by an energy – an ebullience, what the French might call joie de vivre – among the Cuban people. It seemed that Cubans could not simply sit on park benches and talk; they would flirt, and laugh, and joke, and gesticulate. This time in Cuba, we found people as warm and friendly as ever, but we were not sure if we could sense the same remarkable energy. But was the change in Cuba, or was it only in us?

We probably hoped that more would have been achieved to restore some of Cuba’s wonderful architecture and to repair infrastructure. While we certainly noticed some progress, we also saw further deterioration. Overall, we couldn’t decide if the country looked any better physically than it did a decade ago. Of course we’re going only by impressions, and they may not serve us well.

Trying to get away from subjective impressions, we simply asked a few insightful Cubans, How have things changed here since we last saw you? What changes are going on right now? Our comments below are based to a degree on these conversations, and also on or own observations and reading. We cannot be relied upon as experts or authorities. But we will say what we believe to be true.


There surely has been some “economic liberalization” under Raul Castro’s leadership, but what does that mean? It’s not just a matter of changing or relaxing some rules like those on buying and selling real estate. The changes go deeper.

A sketchy look at history helps make sense of the changes. In the early years of the revolution, some leaders – notably Che Guevara – were determined to build a new socialist society.  In order to create a new society of true justice and equality, Che believed it would be necessary to create “a new man.” By this he meant a person (regardless of gender) who was motivated not by self-interest, but by love – love of community, country, and humanity. To many Americans, this may sound hopelessly idealistic and unrealistic, but Cuba was trying to do it.

Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia in 1967. The influence of his ideas was still strong in Cuba at the time, and it remains strong today. However it is safe to say that Che’s work of creating “a new man” was unfinished.

Nevertheless, the Cuban government continued to nationalize industries and businesses. (Large commercial farms had already been taken over in the 1960s.) By the 1980s, even self-employment of all sorts was outlawed. Virtually everyone with a job worked directly or indirectly for government or government-owned enterprises.  All this was done, we believe, not out of lust for power, but from the conviction that capitalism leads inevitably to injustice and severe inequality. A majority of Cuban people believed, or at least accepted, this revolutionary approach. Many of those who didn’t left the country.

With government control came an economy driven by central planning rather than market forces. Undoubtedly mistakes were made, and in the 1980s, efforts were underway to readjust economic policies – the program of “rectification.” However, the dissolution in 1991 of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s chief economic partner, led to sudden economic collapse.

The Cuban people and government made many changes in the 1990s to cope with their ruined economy. Huge state farms were broken up and converted to worker-run cooperatives. Cuban agriculture shifted to organic production methods, and new marketing opportunities were created to give farmers incentives for increased production. In cities and towns, government licensed people to open very small restaurants in their homes (paladares) and to rent rooms (in "casas particulares," private homes.) In 1993 government began to accept private investment in state-owned enterprises.

Many of these changes in the 1990s were “economic liberalizations,” but they were little more than grudging concessions to economic necessity. There was still widespread disapproval of private business.

Now we can get to the nub of the changes in the last several years. We were told several times that things are better in Cuba now for small business, for the would-be entrepreneur. It’s not just a matter of regulations being further loosened. Rather, it is a deliberate shift in economic strategy, accompanied by efforts to change attitudes. The Cuban government is now taking the position that some private enterprise is not just a regrettable inevitability, but a desirable outcome. The idea, as we understand it, is to move to a mixed economy, one in which private businesses have an accepted place.

We were told, only half in jest, that Fidel may be privately whispering in Raul’s ear, “Hey, slow down!” However, Fidel is not being critical in public.

The move to a mixed economy is not meant to replace Cuba’s socialism, but to save it. (The converse of FDR’s New Deal policies being instituted not to destroy capitalism, but to save it?) Though there will be a tendency for more private enterprise to exacerbate inequalities that have never been entirely eliminated in Cuban society, this tendency will probably be checked to some degree by high taxes and by caps on the accumulation of private property. The goal, we have heard, is to move from an economy in which nearly everyone is employed by government to one in which up to a third of jobs might be in the private sector.

It’s clear that the Cuban government is serious about these changes because hundreds of thousands of government workers have already been laid off. Though the pace of layoffs has been moderated, private sector jobs will have to be found quickly for very many people. Hence there is already a proliferation of small businesses. We noticed some of them on our trip: people setting up tiny shops in the front rooms of their homes and opening restaurants like Havana Chef. Some of these new businesses will no doubt fail, and others will thrive. Many more businesses, and many more types of business, will have to be launched in the near future to absorb the newly unemployed workers. It’s an exciting and perilous time for Cuba.




In Spanish, “casas particulares” simply means private homes. However, in the context of Cuba travel, it is generally used to mean private homes that are licensed to rent rooms to tourists. Most casas particulares will also serve meals.

Our clear impression from this trip is that the number of rooms available in casas particulares has skyrocketed in the last ten years. Although they are neither advertised nor officially listed in Cuba, you can find plenty of casas particulares on the internet; once you are actually in Cuba, you can be taken care of by “The System.”

The quality of accommodation in casas particulares varies widely, but we have rarely found a licensed room that was not extremely clean. Licensed casas particulares have modern plumbing. Sometimes – more now than in the past – you can find casas particulares in gorgeous colonial homes. In any case, they are almost always better deals than hotels, and the opportunity to meet and interact with Cuban families makes them the best way to go by far.

Typically, a double room costs $20 - $30; breakfasts usually run $4 to $5 per person, dinners about double that. At least in 2012, a couple could estimate about $50 - $60 per night for dinner, bed, and breakfast in a casa particular. Obviously, this is much cheaper than similar arrangements in the U.S. and Canada, but considerably more expensive for budget travelers than many parts of Mexico and Central America. (These figures refer to Cuban Convertible Pesos, CUCs. However, they are very roughly equivalent to U.S. dollars.)




We mentioned in the journal that on the night we arrived in Bayamo near midnight, a complete stranger led us down a dark street to a room — and it was a very good one. If you visit Cuba, nearly every day you will be offered services of all kinds by strangers on the street. Often people will offer to provide a room or show you to one. Sometimes they will offer to be your guide or to sell you cigars. Sometimes, much less often than you may expect, you will be offered something illegal like sex.

Sometimes these "entrepreneurs of the streets" are called jiniteros, and the practice is jiniterismo — roughly, hustlers and hustling. The useful realization for visitors, we think, is that many of these folks are just trying to earn a living, or earn a little extra money, and the services they offer can be useful and legitimate.

This is especially true when it comes to finding rooms in casas particulares. As things stand now, everyone who offers rooms for rent has to pay a high license fee. The fee, believe it or not, is the rough equivalent of $150 U.S. dollars per month, per room. And it must be paid every month even if it's a slow season and the room is never rented! On top of that, people who rent rooms also pay a tax on the actual income each year. In many parts of Cuba, it is very difficult to hold onto a license let alone make any money with it. But no-one wants to lose their license.

At the same time, owners of casas particulares cannot advertise, and there are as yet no central registries or lists of available rooms to help the traveler find them. Therefore, ever ingenious, Cubans have developed quite an elaborate system to help guests find their way to rooms for rent.

If someone finds a tourist and brings him or her to a casa particular, he generally earns a small commission. This is quietly paid by the owner of the casa particular. It isn't coming out of the guest's pocket; generally speaking, a room costs the same whether someone guides you to it, or you find it on your own. This is why so many people on the street will offer to show you a room.

Another part of the system is referrals. Under pressure to find guests, North Americans might compete with one another, and the competition might even be cutthroat. In Cuba, on the contrary, owners of casas particulares usually help one another. If you are staying in a home in one city, and you tell your hosts where you are going next, they will be eager to fix you up with a room. Even if you have found a room somewhere and you do not like it, your host will usually be willing to show you a neighbor's place that you may like better. Again, the owners of the casas either pay each other small commissions or return the favor.

We find that this "system" works very much to the traveler's advantage. You can enjoy staying with families, move from town to town and from room to room, with arrangements made for you as you go along. Now that so many people in Cuba have cell phones, the system works very well.

As far as jiniteros in general are concerned, it's easy to lose patience when these folks approach you so often, but nicer not to. Once we liked a casa particular so much that when we left town, we tried at the bus station to persuade arriving tourists to try this great place. We were rejected or ignored over and over again. It's not easy being a jinitero!





The curency situation in Cuba has always been confusing. Cuba has a “dual economy” with (at least) two different currencies in circulation. It helps to look back a few years.

From the early 1990s until 2005, the two most important currencies in circulation were the Cuban peso and, surprisingly, the U.S. dollar. In fact, the U.S. dollar was demanded in tourist resorts, tourist-oriented restaurants and services, and many stores, so-called “dollar stores.” (The U.S. dollar came into use because the Cuban peso had been pegged to the ruble. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was extreme inflation of the peso, so Cuba adopted the U.S. dollar as a more stable medium of exchange.)

Cuban pesos, or moneda nacional (national money) were and are useful for buying from vegetable markets, roadside vendors, some restaurants, and shops that do not cater to tourists. Cubans themselves are paid in Cuban pesos, they pay their bills in pesos, and those without access to foreign exchange can buy only what is sold for pesos.

In addition, there was (and still is) a currency called “convertible pesos.” From the 1990s to 2005, these Cuban-issued bills were treated as equivalent to U.S. dollars. Until 2005 they were exchanged for U.S. dollars at 1-to-1 and could be used like U.S. dollars in resorts, dollar stores and so on. Importantly, at the end of a trip, convertible pesos could be converted back to dollars. Since U.S. cash could also be spent, there wasn’t much reason for visiting Americans to buy convertible pesos. However, tourists from other countries might find them convenient to buy if they hadn’t brought U.S. dollars with them.

Now the situation has changed radically in two ways.

First, U.S. dollars are no longer a legal means of exchange. All foreign visitors who want to rent rooms in hotels or private homes, buy meals in tourism-oriented restaurants, or shop in the former “dollar stores,” must use convertible pesos. They are now generally abbreviated as CUCs, (short for Cuban Convertible Pesos.) CUCs (pronounced "kooks") can still be changed back to foreign exchange at the end of your trip.

Second, there is a surcharge for buying CUCs with U.S. dollars. On top of the new exchange rate (1 CUC = $1.08 U.S.) the Cuban government has imposed an extra 10% charge that applies only to exchange of U.S. dollars. It is therefore much more economical to buy Canadian dollars or Euros before going to Cuba.

We believe these changes came about in response to hostile practices of the G.W. Bush administration, particularly efforts to prevent foreign financial institutions from providing U.S. dollars to Cuba. (For example, the Bush administration fined the Swiss-based international bank UBS $100,000,000 for trading with Cuba in U.S. dollars!) Also, the extra 10% charge provides revenue to the Cuban government when Cuban Americans remit money to their families back home.

Currency exchanges happen at banks and Cadecas, which is short for Casas de Cambio, literally, exchange houses. Cadecas are found all over the place; there’s at least one in any town of substantial size. The lines at Cadecas are generally much shorter than those at banks. At Cadecas, you can buy both CUCs and Cuban pesos (moneda nacional.) For a visitor, CUCs are essential, but it’s useful to carry some Cuban pesos, at least for buying fresh fruit and vegetables in local markets, snacks, and more.

If all this seems confusing, don’t worry about it – unless you aim to actually visit Cuba. In that case, read it again until it’s clear! Of course you should also read an up-to-date guidebook like Lonely Planet.





When we travel in the U.S., Canada, or Mexico, we never carry large amounts of cash. Instead, we generally rely on debit cards. We withdraw money from ATMs as we need it. On occasion we use credit cards.

None of this works in Cuba for Americans. Debit cards and credit cards issued by American financial institutions are not accepted in Cuba. This is because the U.S. does not allow financial institutions to remit funds to Cuba. If a Cuban bank or business were foolish enough to accept a U.S. card, they would never get paid!

Some folks who visit Cuba simply carry enough cash for their stay. However, that would make us nervous, even though there is amazingly little crime against tourists in Cuba. If we carried so much money, we’d probably lose it!

There is a solution that works well. Caribbean Transfers is a Cuban/Canadian company with offices in Havana and Montreal. As a client, you can open an account online. Then you send a cashier's check for either U.S. or Canadian dollars to Montreal. When you arrive in Cuba, you receive a debit card that works at currency exchanges, banks, and some stores for getting either CUCs or moneda nacional. Caribbean Transfer's rates are fair, and if you lose your card, it can be  replaced in Cuba.

Normally your Caribbean Transfers card will be waiting for you at the currency exchange when your flight arrives at Jose Marti Airport near Havana. We’ve always felt that the real test of a company’s reliability is what happens when something goes wrong. Through a simple mistake, our card was not at the airport. Gulp! The next morning, we called the Havana office, and our card was delivered to the front door of our casa particular less than an hour later. After that, not another problem.

For traveling in Cuba, we think the Caribbean Transfers service is great. (Another company, Transcard International, used to offer the same kind of service. Transcard is still in business, but they aren’t providing debit cards, so Caribbean Transfers is now the way to go.)




Cuba is a wonderful country for bicycle touring. Besides the beautiful scenery and friendly people, there are particular advantages that Cuba has over many other countries. Outside of a few major cities, traffic is light — often practically nonexistent. Also, bicycles have been widely used for practical transportation ever since the collapse of Cuba's economy in the early 1990s. This means that there are facilities like special parking areas for cyclists, and drivers expect cyclists to be on the roads. Drivers are remarkably considerate. Perhaps most important, traveling by bicycle makes it easier to meet and relate to Cuban people, especially as compared to traveling with a tour group or in a rented car.

Great as Cuba is for bicycle touring, there are two important caveats: Renting a good bicycle for a fair price, while not quite impossible, is very difficult in Cuba. It is generally better to bring your own bike, but this involves extra baggage charges on the plane. Second, spare bicycle parts are difficult to find in Cuba. It is wise to bring your own tools and spares. That said, the ingenious mechanics of Cuba have found ways to keep 60-year-old American cars on the road. Cobbling together some way to keep a bicycle running should be child's play to them.




We may have mentioned that there is little crime in Cuba, and even less crime against tourists. We've seen many examples of Cubans' concern to protect their visitors. Once we briefly left our bikes unlocked on the street while buying something and then returned only to find them gone — not because they'd been stolen, but because a nice family wheeled them into their living room so nothing would happen to them! They were watching for us, and as soon as they saw us, they called us in to get the bikes. On another occasion, we hung a shirt out to dry behind our room at a small hotel, then went out for a couple of hours. We returned to find someone on the staff sitting quietly, watching our shirt, to make sure no-one took it!

The most recent example occurred on this year's trip in San Diego de los Baños. In the journal, there's a photo of the old hotel where we stayed, El Mirador, a place we've known and liked for a long time. As we probably mentioned, it's quite inexpensive.

When we arrived, I stopped by the poolside bar for a beer. The bar was closed, but a hotel worker quickly appeared, unlocked the bar, and gave me the beer. When he gave me my change, I saw that he had charged me $3 (CUCs). That's about double what we'd been paying in Havana! I was surprised but didn't say anything, figuring that the hotel might no longer be as inexpensive as I thought. Later, at the hotel's rather nice outdoor cafe nearby, I noticed that beers were just $1, about what I'd expected.

Obviously I'd been shortchanged. The question was whether to say anything about it. I didn't want to complain or get someone in trouble, but the whole business bummed me out, took away a lot of my pleasure in returning to this place, and I also didn't like the idea of this man doing it over and over again to other people. So finally I said something to the nice woman at the front desk who had checked us in.

Later that afternoon when I was down for a swim, the manager of the poolside bar told me how sorry he was that this had happened. He insisted on giving me back my $2. He took resposibility himself, saying it was all his own fault because he'd gone out for a while and asked this other fellow -- the one who shortchanged me -- to watch things. He said that THEY HAD ALREADY HAD A MEETING ABOUT THE INCIDENT! As for the man who shortchanged me, we did not see him again during our stay.

There is no way in the world that I wanted someone to lose his job over $2, but I realized that's exactly what might have happened. They don't fool around with crime against guests in Cuba, even the most petty ones. I hope the man is ok. In fact, I wish that I'd never gotten the beer.



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