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Cuba Libre: High-end hotels and money in Havana
We arrived at 1 p.m. and were already pretty spent from such early wake-up time, so Lora and I spent the day tanning and resting the immense pool. At around 5:30 p.m. a synchronized swimming team came by to practice in the pool. We took that as our cue to prep for dinner, which we had in the hotel's Italian restaurant. There are a network restaurants in the basement, all situated around the waterfalls and pleasant, lagoon-like courtyard. There's also a cigar room, which we intended to try out at some point during our stay.
Gallery: First Impressions of Cuba
Lora and I collectively paid an extra $10 per night for a view of the ocean and were quite pleased with it. Our "twin" beds were actually double beds. We had a little patio, along with couches in our tiny lounge space. Our marble bathroom even had a badet (that weird toilet you use to wipe your butt). I was eager to see what kinds of television programs were available on TV, and was quite surprised to discover half of our 40 channels were American. I got excited when I flipped past a Spanish-dubbed episode of "Alias." (I also watched "Alias" in Spanish when I was in Villa de Leyva, Colombia – go Sydney Bristow!). About ten channels are in English. There are also French and Chinese stations. I paused briefly when I saw an advertisement of some sort that depicted the Cuban flag in chains and locked by the United States flag. Interesting...
I do not want to be misleading, however. The Melia Habana is one of the nicest hotels in the city, and we were fortunate to score a great package deal. If you are not vacationing in Cuba and do not plan your trip through a travel agent, you will likely find yourself in a casa particular, which I will describe in a later post. For a general differentiation between hotels and casas particulares, please read the "Where to stay" section of my Travel Guide to Cuba.
Now, a word on changing money in Cuba. I was warned that there are two currencies here in Cuba and that one is practically useless to tourists. This is indeed true: tourists use "convertibles" (or CUC); locals use "pesos" (or Nationales). I was SHOCKED to find that the conversion from convertible to Western currencies QUITE steep here (not in our favor, either) – particularly at the Melia hotel in which we stayed, where I've exchanged $400 Canadian dollars for $280 convertibles. When I researched it online before my departure, it seemed the convertible was roughly equal to the U.S. dollar, but upon arrival, one will find the conversion is very askew! One convertible is 80 U.S. cents - and 70 Canadian cents here at the Melia. I was much better off (as I had suspected) spending my Canadian money first before my U.S. dollars, as the Cuba-Canada money conversion is far more favorable.
I have a feeling the Melia hotel (or the Cuban government) is raking in a significant amount for exchange transactions. Exchanging money is an unfortunate but necessary for most travelers. Whether they do it at the bank, via an ATM, or through a hotel, the conversion is the same. This is a very frightening thought, and I still don't fully understand how Cuba runs on a dual currency, but the reality is that Cuba is finding a way to reap the benefits of being under-commercialized and anti-capitalist. Exchanging money with a vendor or independent changer on the street is pretty much unheard of (because it is extremely illegal) and also not reliable for tourists. On the bright side, at least they accept U.S. dollars, as Cuba could (as it should if it were fully adhering to the embargo) not allow the exchange of U.S. currency at all.
I brought a total of $1000 U.S. dollars to Cuba, and basically resolved to spend $40 convertibles (about U.S.$48) a day while traveling with Lora, Peter, and Frank, and $80 (U.S.$96) when I'm on my own. As I said before, this means Cuba is NOT a cheap travel destination by any means! I had been so used to traveling in developing countries for less than $50 a day, and while that had been my initial goal, I spent roughly on average U.S.$25 per day for bus transport and U.S.$25 for accommodations at casas particulares each night, which already comes to $50 a day. Add food and other expenses, and it is easy to find yourself over budget and out of cash.
For a complete listing of my Cuba Libre posts, please click HERE.