37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Friday 18 December 2015
Sat in a fast food diner right in the heart of downtown Havana, I ordered a beer and a Cuban sandwich. The latter, for those who’ve never tried one, is like no ordinary sandwich – it comes in a baguette, Cuban bread stuffed to the brim with roasted pork, ham and salami, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. This one was served with a salad and greasy fries. The beer, when it arrived, was an ice cold Bucanero – a strong, dark lager with an agreeably malty taste to it.
Later, I got the bill and would be pleasantly surprised when the whole meal came to less than 5 pesos; which works out about the same in US dollars.
It was my first afternoon in Havana, first time in Cuba, and my initial impressions of the place told me that this was going to be a very cheap trip. Looking back now though, it’s funny to think I could have been so naïve. What I didn’t realise then – and what a lot of tourists to Cuba never realise – is how much cheaper still the place can be, when you’re not paying tourist prices.
Of course, there are plenty of countries where the concept of ‘tourist price’ applies; from the Balkans to Mongolia, raising your prices for more affluent-looking customers is Capitalism 101. No one seems to have mastered the trick better than the Cuban government though, who’ve gone so far as to establish a dual currency system – tourists don’t just get separate prices, they get a whole system of notes and coins to themselves.
The currency in Cuba is the Cuban peso (CUP), though as a foreigner you’ll likely only see the ‘convertible peso’ (CUC). This dual system was developed in order to help maintain a socialist, planned economy while getting around the restrictions placed on Cuba by foreign trade embargos. From 1993 until 2004, the CUP was used for regular domestic trade and essential items while the US Dollar could be used to purchase non-essential goods and in facilitating international trade. Cubans would be paid their wages in regular pesos (sometimes referred to as ‘moneda nacional’) and encouraged to spend it within their own economy; but for a price, the convertible peso was established to act as an exchange certificate in acquiring US dollars for luxury, or international spending.
The CUC is pinned to the dollar in value, and in 2004 – when the Cuban government withdrew the dollar in retaliation to new US sanctions – the convertible peso became a fully functional currency in its own right. The divide between the two makes it difficult for regular citizens to take their money out of Cuba’s planned economy; while tourists equipped with convertible pesos have no choice but to pay ‘tourist prices’ wherever they go in Cuba.
Read the travel guides, and most of them will tell you that it’s virtually impossible for foreigners to get their hands on moneda nacional; forbidden, even. During my Young Pioneer tour of Cuba though, the reality I saw was quite different… and while a tourist might not be able to simply walk into a bank and withdraw the Cuban peso, it certainly isn’t difficult to come by.
There were times during that tour when we’d pay for something in CUC, and ask for the change to come back in CUP. No particular proficiency in Spanish was required, just an innocent smile and, “Moneda nacional, por favor?” Seven times out of ten, we’d be given a fistful of local currency back.
The YPT tour finished with a bang – International Workers’ Day, the streets of Havana packed full of revellers and floats – and afterwards, I decided to stay on in Cuba just a little longer (it tends to have that effect on people). It was on one of those days towards the end of my stay, that I was sat chatting to Gareth, our tour leader, about the Cuban currencies. By now I had already spotted a few discrete price lists in shops and bars, written in Spanish and displaying figures very different from what I’d been charged. I asked Gareth just how much of a difference there was between the two currencies.
“You want to put it to the test?” he asked; and right then and there we planned an experiment, to see if we could pass a whole day in Havana using nothing but moneda nacional: and in doing so, explore the reality of just how cheap a visit to Cuba can be.
Not every bar in Cuba will accept the national money… well, not from the hands of a tourist, at least. You probably couldn’t spend it in the hotels, nowhere flash or busy. But when it comes to local drinking holes however, supermarkets, street food or out-of-the-way petrol stations, most Cubans are happy just to take your money without any questions.
Our first move then, was to get out of the city centre. From Vedado, the downtown district of Havana, we walked along Calle Neptuno in the direction of the Old Town. We found a proper dive bar not far off: buzzing flies, wooden stools that smelt of beer and old Cuban men sleeping over their drinks in the afternoon heat.
Gareth nodded to the barman, and placed the order. We got two bottles of beer in there, paying 12 pesos each – in US terms, that’s about 45 cents. It was a reasonable beer too, a local brand I’d never heard of that packed a decent punch at 5.2% ABV.
After that warm-up round we took to the back streets, heading south towards the busy Avenida Salvador Allende. Somewhere along the way, we passed a simple wooden hatch set into the wall beside a supermarket. Inside, there was a woman selling snacks and juice drinks. The Caribbean sun was pounding down on us, so we decided to grab a couple of ‘limon refrescos’ – sugary, gloopy stuff, that nevertheless seems to work quite nicely for the heat. That round came to 2 pesos (8 cents) each for a glass. We drained them, passed the glasses back and carried on walking; the woman behind the window didn’t so much as wipe them before stacking them back up on the shelf.
The day continued in that fashion. We’d walk a few blocks, then grab a sandwich. Drink fruit juice on the go, or stop off in dingy backstreet bars for a proper, sit-down beer. Somewhere near the port, we ate hamburgers for 3 pesos – just 11 cents – apiece. To be fair, they weren’t great burgers… but flies and gristle aside, they made for a substantial snack. On another street corner we found a hatch opening onto a miniature bar complete with beer taps. For half a pint of lukewarm lager in a dirty glass, we paid just 5 pesos – that’s 19 cents – each.
Of course, this constant walking, eating and drinking began to take its toll on us in the end. We were full to bursting with bad burgers, soggy sandwiches, and with perhaps more beer inside us than was strictly sensible given the extreme heat of the sun.
By the end of the evening, we found ourselves in the Old Town sipping iced daiquiris at El Floridita: Ernest Hemingway’s drinking establishment of choice. We tried passing off our moneda nacional in there too, but by now we were well and truly back into tourist territory. The waiter looked at the notes in my hand, and shook his head – the game was up.
Still, it wasn’t a bad innings. We’d eaten more than our fill that day; and while the quality wasn’t always great, I was astonished at just how little it cost for a filling meal at these backstreet cafes. Meanwhile, we’d washed it all down with such a regular stream of beers that it seemed I’d had a glass in my hand more often than not. And the final price? We’d barely broken the $5 mark… between us.
The next time someone tells you Cuba is cheap, remember this: there is cheap, and then there’s CHEAP. The majority of tourists in Cuba never realise just how different life is for those living on moneda nacional… and you won’t get to see it either, unless you’re quick. At the rate things are changing with Cuba’s international relations, the chances are this unique and fascinating dual-currency system won’t be around for very much longer.
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