Cuba - introduction

(travel period: March 2003.)

How did I end up on Cuba? I wanted to leave for some ten days in this cold March and go somewhere where it's warm. So when I found a cheap ticket for an Air France flight Paris-Havana, the decision wasn't difficult. I bought the ticket, took my passport and went to the Cuban consulate to get a visa. Every tourist (with exception for Kazakhstan and a few similar countries!) needs a visa to visit Cuba. The visa costs 25€ (in Paris) and is delivered in form of a tourist card that is not stamped in the passport. It's valid for 30 days, counting from the date of entry in Cuba, and can be extended for additional 30 days. Those who buy tourist packages get a visa from their tourist agencies. I'm traveling as an individual who didn't pay in advance for anything but the plane ticked (and the visa of course).

Map of Cuba
Map of Cuba

A few words on the money

Three different currencies exist in Cuba: peso (moneda nacional), the dollar and the convertible peso. Peso is the Cuban currency that is of no use for tourists because almost nothing can be bought for it. The local "economists" have come to the idea that Cubans shall pay for a product in pesos while the foreigners shall pay the same amount in dollars. The same amount but not the same value, as on the black market 1$ equals 26 pesos. To create the complete confusion, the symbol used for the peso is also "$"! A tourist can completely ignore the existence of pesos and use the good old dollar. The convertible peso has a parity with dollar. It's mostly used in the form of coins returned as the change to foreign customers. A tourist uses it for small payments, but outside of Cuba it's worthless. It seems that paper notes of this currency exist and that they look like Monopoly notes, but I haven't seen them anywhere. Before arriving to Cuba, one has to provide a sufficient quantity of 5, 10 and 20 $ notes. In better hotels, rent-a-car agencies and at some other places it's possible to pay with Eurocard/Mastercard and Visa credit cards. American express is useless on Cuba, as well as any credit card issued by a US bank (due to the US embargo on Cuba). With EC/MC it's possible to retrieve cash in banks. In tourist ghettos like Varadero it's possible to pay with euro too.

About the economy

The Cuban companies are (with some exceptions in the tourism industry) state-owned and in bad shape. Every Cuban (man) must work, and the average salary is about 15$. The state provides jobs for all the citizens, meaning that many Cubans are employed on jobs where they have nothing much to do. A Cuban can't sell nor buy a house: all kids stay living in their parent's home, so there is not too much living space for everybody. In 1995 Cuba was approaching an economic collapse, so Castro decided to allow foreign investments and opened Cuba to foreign investors. Cuba produces the best tobacco in the world and also has a pharmaceutical industry (the working force is qualified and cheap).

I wake up in the morning and the first thing that comes to my mind is "is it too late for the beach"? Yes, it definitively is - it took me a few seconds to realize that I'm not on Cuba anymore, but I've had a good sleep so I can keep on with the story...

Next page
Cuba: Havana
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