Saturday, 31 January 2015

Cuba - Internet, currency, and other things

Just a month and a bit before the United States began to open up dialogue with Cuba, my girlfriend and I took a trip to Veradero and Havana. For years, we had discussed going there and I had been wanting to visit the country for some time (as Canadians, entering and exiting Cuba is fairly uneventful), so we decided that we'd finally go.

Me (back-facing, right) wandering the streets of Havana.

I highly recommend that if you get the chance to go that you do so. If you're American and can go now, I am also envious of your alcohol and tobacco allotment--I'll explain a bit later on.

Some of the photos in this post were taken by my girlfriend (included the above).

The Internet and Mobile Phones

At least for tourists, access to the Internet was rather easy to come by but on the flip side it was not cheap. No free Wi-Fi was readily available wherever we stopped as being that the market was in control by the state, so too were all the goodies.

The Veradero airport left much to be desired too. Also this is how the West protests.
For 30 minutes of Internet access, you had to pay 4 CUC (about $4 USD). Internet can be purchased either in 30 minute or 1 hour blocks. Only cash is taken for access as you are required to speak to a person to get an access card--it should be noted that I don't recall seeing a single vending machine for anything while there.

Typical 1-hour access card. (Source)
The access card contains a one-time code you scratch for and details on how to connect to the wireless network. Upon connecting and opening your browser, you get a standard pay-wall you require identifying to. You then enter your code and the clock begins to tick away. If you disconnect from the wireless network or sign out via the pay-wall, your remaining time is valid for up to 30-days. You cannot share the code either without having the previous device disconnected.

I had no trouble accessing any Western media outlets and nor did I run into trouble viewing my favourite websites. Connecting to my home computer via SSH did not create any troubles either. However, knowing the state that Cuba is, I would not be surprised if my actions were monitored the whole time I was signed in. Having said that, my name was never attached to that code that I purchased either so in some ways I was anonymous.

I did not investigate any further what sort of setup there was but the access points were from Huawei (much like a lot of equipment I saw in Cuba).

The price may seem expensive but it is nowhere near as bad as trying to use your mobile phone. Upon my landing in Veradero, I was sent a text by my carrier, informing me that calls would be $3-4 CAD per minute and that all outgoing texts would cost me $1.50 CAD. But then the data cost came up: $20 CAD per MB--to put that into context, an Ubuntu ISO would cost me $19,500 CAD just to download.

So yeah. Stick with using the Wi-Fi there.

Currency

Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban Peso and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The Peso in itself is really meant for the locals and cannot be converted to CUCs or any other currency, but CUCs themselves can be converted to Pesos (for nationals only) or a foreign currency--including American Dollars. When we were there, we were informed that the Peso would be retired in favour of the CUC much to the delight of Cuban residents--CUCs have incredible buying power there.

You'll need cash to buy hand-made goods.
That aside, I wanted to write about acquiring the CUC notes as it is different than anywhere I've gone before and I had made a quip last week about how it was less complicated than Bitcoin.

Before leaving the country, it's considered best practice to load up on whatever your local currency may be--assuming you have a reserve currency like a Euro, US Dollar, Canadian Dollar, or Pound Sterling. At the hotel, you can bring up your money to the front desk and they will record how much money, your name, and what hotel room you had in a ledger. The exchange itself would be whatever the CUC translates into from your currency plus a fee of a few percentage points--no more than 5% I believe. This is the easiest way to do this.

However, if you end up being away from your hotel, acquiring CUCs requires you to go to a Cuban state bank branch. Upon your arrival, you will wait in line and will require your passport to retrieve any cash. They'll record your passport number in a ledger alongside your name and the amount you took out, plus the aforementioned fee.

All of these prices are in CUCs and are more or less equal to the US dollar.
It's really just that and far simpler than Bitcoin. I do however suggest not exchanging your currency back from CUCs as you'll be doubling up your fees--I did spend the $450 CAD I brought with me but I didn't exchange it all at once.

One other thing: credit cards. If you have a credit union-derived credit card in Canada, it will work--this goes the same for most banks from my country as well. If your credit card is from an American-based network like Capital One or Chase for example, it won't. This is likely to change soon under the new relationship we're seeing between the United States and Cuba.

Alcohol and tobacco

Alcohol is dirt-cheap in Cuba.  How cheap? Well, a 750 mL bottle of Havana Club 7-Year Old costs $34 CAD for me in Vancouver, but was just 8 CUC (or like mentioned before, $8 USD) at the grocery store we went to in Veradero. Earlier, when I mentioned that I was jealous of the alcohol allotment that Americans were getting, I was not kidding about it. You can get a serious amount of decent rum for the $100 limit that is being set.

Having mojitos at the same hotel Jimmy Carter once stayed at
Rum is open-poured everywhere and they make it easily accessible for you if you're a tourist. Personally, I am not a fan of Havana Club now having tried other Cuban rums but anything from the island is still the most superior of the Carribean. If you get a chance, try Santiago de Cuba or Santero, which are both just as cheap.

Foreign liquor as you might not be surprised are not cheap and seem to match the prices here at home.

Cristal and Bucanero beer.
Beer in Cuba is also easy to find but admittedly not as good. Bucanero and Cristal are the most common and at the resort we stayed at, Cristal was dominant. Foreign beers just like foreign liquor is available but the cost is significantly higher.

One of many cigars I picked up.
Tobacco while plentiful in Cuba is not as cheap as the rum and beer. Twelve cigars will run you about 85 CUCs. Having said that, the smell is awesome.

Other things

There were a few other things I can remark on that were interesting.

The stage it was sitting on was of even worse quality.
Expect to find that everything in Cuba is either hand-made or made to at least be repairable at the cheapest cost. Electrics taken on a lassez-faire sort of approach wherein it was not uncommon to find things that otherwise would never pass code back here at home. My favourite was the wooden electrical strip (pictured above) which was being used by the DJ at the resort on random nights.

The "reader" made it look like a Japanese manga. I did not look at it.
Books that were available to tourists tended to be about Cuban revolutionaries and are usually in either English, Spanish, or Russian.

The airport's only highlight was literally this.
They're also a tad more liberal about acquiring pharmaceuticals. At the Veradero airport, I had the ability to purchase Valium or Viagra without a prescription. I have to wonder how Canadian customs would have felt if I had tried to bring that back home.

Closing

I'll close off with this:

The water is nice and warm too.
About 150-200 KM from where I took this photo lied the United States. It just seemed tragic that for over half-a-century, the two countries were not on speaking terms yet were so close physically.

If you get the opportunity to visit Cuba, go. You will not have a bad time and you will want to come back.

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