Cuba’s idiosyncratic monetary system can be daunting for first time visitors but it’s much simpler in practice than it might first seem.
Cuban currency is a closed currency, which means it cannot be purchased outside the country and neither can they be exchanged for other currencies outside Cuba. The government runs a dual system: CUPs (pesos nacionales) for residents and CUCs (pesos convertibles) for visitors. CUC notes have “pesos convertibles” written on them. In practice, most of the time you’ll just use CUCs and prices will be referred to as pesos. In some shops, you may see dual prices displayed, but if in doubt, just ask. Be careful though not to get fobbed off with pesos instead of CUCs as they’re worth a lot less. One of the best ways to avoid being scammed is never to change money on the street. Instead use a Cadeca (exchange bureau) or bank, though you will have to queue on the street to get in. Rates in hotels tend to be lower.
Which currency should you take?
Euros and pounds are easy to change once you arrive. If you’re arriving independently into Havana’s Jose Marti airport, there are two choices. Inside the arrivals hall (but after you’ve cleared immigration and customs) you’ll find a couple of ATMs next to the information kiosk. To find an exchange bureau exit the arrivals hall and turn immediately left once you get outside. Dispense with the taxi touts with a polite “No, gracias”. You can change your currency at the official desk here and will be given a receipt.
What about US dollars?
The dollar isn’t king here like it is elsewhere in Latin America. The uncomfortable relationship between Uncle Sam and Cuba adds a 10% additional commission fee to any exchange transactions, making it very poor value. You also won’t be able to use any credit card issued by an American bank, though MasterCard and Visa issued outside the US are OK. If you’re unsure whether this affects you, check with your issuer before you leave home.
Can you rely on credit cards?
In short, no. It’s wise to keep a store of cash on you just in case you struggle to find an ATM. Few places accept credit cards – this is a cash based economy. If you haven’t prepaid your accommodation, you might find that you can’t pay by card, so double check well before you’re due to check out to avoid any problems. However, if you’ve made an internet booking, you’ll have been able to pay by credit card in advance. Independent travellers should carry proof of this paid reservation as the internet can be unreliable in Cuba – your accommodation provider may not have access to emails or booking systems when you arrive.
Have you seen my blog about using the internet in Cuba?
When I made my first visit to Cuba fifteen years ago, outside Havana I was pretty much incommunicado. My phone didn’t get a signal and internet was non-existent. Travelling as a solo female, it felt pretty isolating. Fortunately, in the intervening period, things have changed. Telephone service is via Cubacel and there is one internet service provider in Cuba – Etecsa.
Etecsa’s often as creaky as an octogenarian’s arthritic knees but that’s all you’ve got. While some hotels will offer WiFi, you’ll still need to log into Etecsa as well to get connected. To do so, first you’ll need a scratch card or “tarjeta” which is issued by Etecsa outlets. You’ll usually find there’s a crowd at the door, with a bouncer strictly controlling who gets to enter and join the smaller queue inside. Be polite and keep your cool unless you want to be sent to the back of the line.
Cards cost 1 CUC, about 70p at current exchange rates. They have a number on the back and a scratch off panel which will reveal a password. Though you can sit in the Etecsa internet lounge, in practice that’s dearer and you should expect to join most people on the street. If you spot a crowd of people sitting on the pavement in a huddle, chances are you’ve just found the Etecsa WiFi hotspot.
Enable your WiFi and select Etecsa. You may have to be patient to get it to connect if it’s busy. When you succeed, a screen will pop up automatically. Enter the card number and the passcode that you’ve scratched to reveal. If you’ve connected, a new screen will show the amount of time you have remaining for that card. They last one hour and you can log in and out to use it on several occasions.
Social media junkies will be relieved to know that Facebook, Twitter and the like are all permitted in Cuba, unlike the situation in some other one-party states. So long as you have a strong enough internet connection you’ll be able to bombard your friends with images and tales regaling your Cuban exploits. In practice my ability to do so varied considerably. Sometimes I had an excellent upload speed, other times I could barely get it to connect. But honestly, that’s probably a good thing – time we thought more carefully about wasting precious holiday time staring at a screen.
Have you seen my blog about Cuba’s dual currency?
That is the question that has provoked a storm of impassioned comments this week after the Telegraph announced that British Airways was introducing 35 new planes on its short haul routes with non-reclining seats. Here’s the original article:
The ensuing headlines screamed that BA was fast turning into a low-cost carrier, but that’s not what people have been arguing about. A survey by Skyscanner in 2013 claimed that 91% were in favour of banning reclining seats on short haul flights:
Reclining seats on long haul planes are a boon, particularly on overnighters. Economy class is cramped, and let’s face it, we’d all happily upgrade if funds permitted. But for many of us, the choice is to fly economy or not fly at all, so we fold up our legs and get on with it. It’s one of the few times when I wish I was young again. The ability of millennials to tuck themselves up and nod off to sleep for eight straight hours is something I now struggle to achieve in a full sized double, let alone a tiny aeroplane seat.
But that whole cramped arrangement gets a whole lot worse when someone in front reclines their seat into the space in front of my knees. I’m not especially tall, but I do have long legs, so a battering to the kneecaps is a real possibility. I pity 6 footers. I read this week that one man was left with bleeding knees after someone reclined without warning. It’s all very well saying that you have the right to use the space – after all, you’ve paid for that seat, recline and all – but if someone is going to get hurt in the process, surely there’s room for some give and take?
In the States, planes have even been forced to divert over legroom wars. This report from the Telegraph written in 2014 refers to the Knee Defender, a product that’s still on sale, as the trigger for an air rage incident that necessitated an unscheduled landing.
Surely it’s better to put up with a bit of discomfort than to have your travel plans severely disrupted – and even face charges? It’s a shared space; there has to be a bit of give and take. I don’t expect someone to turn round and ask my permission to recline, but but I do appreciate it when they do so slowly so I have chance to grab my drink and rearrange my legs first. Likewise, while it’s perfectly OK in my book to recline on a long haul flight, I don’t expect to be eating my meal with no space for a tray table and so always ask the flight attendant to have a word with the person in front if they haven’t yet reclined.
But on short haul flights, is it really even necessary to have the facility to recline? Perhaps I’ve been conditioned after years of flying with Ryanair, but I just don’t even think about it on a short flight. I’m hopping over to Amsterdam this month and there’ll barely be enough time to sit down, let alone recline. Even on the longest short haul flights of around four hours, it’s not really a hardship to sit up straight. If I’m stiff, I can walk around the cabin to stretch my legs. However, for those hubbing through Heathrow, they’ve already come off one flight and don’t need the discomfort of a cramped second leg.
So this news isn’t a deal breaker for my relationship with BA. And of course, no one’s forcing anyone to fly BA. You can choose not to do so and opt for a different carrier. That said, you probably won’t find yourself sat next to me on BA any time soon, not least on one of their short haul routes. It’s not the cull on free food or even the IT disasters that have left passengers stranded. No, it’s price. The budgets are still usually cheaper, even more so for me when I factor in the additional cost of getting to Heathrow over Stansted.
But for those banging on about reclining seats, well, I think it’s the shape of things to come. Airlines have been forced to change to stay in business. The rise and continued popularity of the low cost carriers prove that people are happy to unpackage their fares and pay only for what they need. I think BA’s making a smart decision to ditch the reclining seats and make room for additional paying passengers. But will you be one of them?
Why visit Abkhazia?
Country counters are always on the lookout for opportunities to add to their total, hence a visit to Abkhazia is on many a bucket list. It’s no longer an active conflict zone, though banditry at the border is reportedly still an issue, particularly after dark. Gal, the scruffy border town near the Enguri crossing, still bears the scars of war in the form of burnt out and abandoned homes, but though it does have something of a reputation, I didn’t feel unsafe as I travelled through. Sukhumi, the capital, is also only part way through reconstruction. The hulking Government Palace is the most noticeable landmark to await renovation, overgrown with weeds inside and riddled with concrete cancer. I visited a couple of hours after a summer thunderstorm and the sound of percolating rain water only added to the atmosphere.
But the Botanical Gardens were pleasant and down by the waterfront of this Black Sea resort, you’ll find pavement cafes and ice cream sellers with plenty of family-friendly attractions to keep the kids happy. Many of those who visit Sukhumi are Russians, coming across the border from nearby Sochi. Arriving from Georgia, I was the only visible tourist. Most of those crossing are local. Some are returning to Abkhazia with purchases from Zugdidi – I saw one rotund lady struggling in the heat pushing a trolley loaded with a refrigerator. Others cross daily for work.
Securing a visa
At least a week or so before your planned visit, you’ll need to apply for a visa. No payment will be necessary at this stage. It’s a simple form and can be downloaded from this website:
The only thing to be careful about is specifying exactly which dates you intend to travel as these will be fixed. You don’t get an open-ended month long visa for example. Email off the form together with a scan of your passport. In about a week, you should receive a letter of invitation. You may need to check your spam folder; the email that popped up into my inbox was headed simply “clearance” with the sender’s name in Russian and I almost deleted it. You’ll need to print off a copy of this letter and carry it with you. Some bloggers suggest you might require two copies but I needed only one.
Getting to the border
The easiest route to the Enguri border is by taxi from Zugdidi which should cost you 10 GEL (Georgian Lari, about £3.30 at current exchange rates). It’s also possible to travel by marshrutka. I speak no Georgian or Russian and taxi drivers didn’t see to understand border or even Abkhazia. Drop into the tourist information office on Rustaveli Street and pick up a regional map; you can then point to the border if necessary.
Before you set off, stop at one of the exchange places on Kostava Street to get some rubles. They don’t all stock rubles and again you might have trouble being understood; I ended up taking a photograph of a sign marked “Rub” and showing that. $100 was plenty to cover mid-range accommodation, food and transport for a couple of days. I didn’t see anyone obviously changing rubles at the border and you’ll need small notes (50s and 100s) to pay the marshrutka drivers once you arrive.
At the border
I made the mistake of arriving early, figuring that as I had read online about lengthy waits at both ends of the bridge, I should give myself plenty of time. There was a flaw with this plan and that was that the Georgian police official who could authorise my transit didn’t arrive until 10am. From 8.20am when I arrived, I was given a frosty but polite welcome by the police manning the exit booth. I was held for around an hour and a half. Technically. In practice, what this meant was that they waved me in to sit and wait in their office where they were watching Ultraviolet, a really bad Milla Jojovich vampire movie. Fortunately, they also had unsecured WiFi so the time passed quickly. When the boss arrived, I was processed without a single question and pointing to the door, pronounced good to go.
The walk across the bridge took around 15 minutes, as I had luggage, it was hot and I made frequent photo stops. Mostly no one seemed to mind that I was taking pictures. There are horse and carts which can be hired, but no one seemed to be that bothered about picking up a fare so shanks’ pony it was.
At the other side, a cheery official in army fatigues studied my passport and on learning I spoke no Russian, ushered me to sit down on what looked like it had once been a 1970s British bus seat. Lots of smiles, lots of “Hello, American? ensued” Ten minutes later, another soldier arrived, this time he knew some English. I was asked where I was from, my job, how long I planned to stay in Abkhazia and what I wanted to visit. I made sure I was very positive, smiled a lot and concentrated on the places rather than the politics. Satisfied with my answers, I was passed to the customs hut who processed me with a minimum of fuss.
It was then time to find a marshrutka heading for Sukhumi. I’d read that you could get a direct minibus but the only labelled marshrutka was for Gal. The name is easily recognisable in the Cyrillic: a back to front 7 followed by an A and a 3. The minibus was nearly full and left almost immediately, charging me 50 rubles theoretically but in practice, as I had no change, 100 rubles in practice. It took just half an hour or so, maybe less, to reach Gal and then circle around dropping people off, picking up flour and then, eventually, handing me over to a minibus driver bound for Sukhumi. The ride to the capital took under two hours, by which time the heavens had opened and I stepped out into torrential rain. That ride cost me 200 rubles. I was let out in the centre, saving me the fare from the train station where the marshrutkas terminate.
After the rain eased, and not before I was soaked to the skin waiting for my hotel owner to deign to come to the gate or answer the phone, I headed down to get my visa. For this, I needed to visit 33 Sakharov Street, an easy to find building set in a small but well maintained garden.
Inside, there was a gloomy corridor with a sign for consular services which led to a poky office. I was seen right away. Not only could I process the letter here, but I could also pay. The official asked if I wished to pay with a credit card and the chip and pin machine accepted my British Visa card with no problems. My overnight visa cost 350 rubles, though I’m not sure if a longer stay would necessitate a higher price.
Having thoroughly explored, I caught a taxi to the train station (150 rubles) in time to get me there for 11am, about the time my Lonely Planet said the border-bound marshrutka would leave. In fact, it was scheduled for 12.30pm. A shared taxi took a group of about six of us to the border. The fares were the same, 250 rubles in total. Crossing the border was much quicker than before. A few questions from the Abkhazian authorities about where I’d been and much smiling as I said I’d very much enjoyed Sukhumi and I was on my way. Aside from being asked to turn back and use the pedestrian path rather than the road the other side of the wire fence, it went without a hitch and after a cursory inspection from the Georgian police, I was back in. Another 10 GEL taxi ride took me to the centre of Zugdidi from where I was to catch my overnight train to Tbilisi.
If you’re thinking of visiting Abkhazia yourself and have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment.
Armenia claims to be the oldest Christian nation on the planet so it’s hardly surprising that you’ll encounter plenty of monasteries. Most feature a “gavit” or entrance hall, where the floor is often spread with graves. A few steps will lead into the church proper. As a woman, covering your head isn’t required as it would be in Georgia. You will see the faithful reverse out of the church so as not to turn their back on God; even those who aren’t regular churchgoers sometimes do this out of respect. Here’s a brief guide to eight of its most commonly visited.
Located in the Debed Canyon, this is for many visitors their first monastery in Armenia as it lies on the way to Yerevan from the Georgian capital Tbilisi. This imposing mediaeval complex was built in the 9th century, a sprawling delight of building added on to building, the grey stone set off perfectly by the terracotta of the roof tiles. Inside, one of the rooms has a series of holes in the floor, once used for storing wine.
Why should you visit?
As it’s quite a distance from Tbilisi to Yerevan, this is a great way of breaking the journey.
Twinned with Haghpat, this one means “older than that one” though it’s not as attractive from the outside. The cavernous interior is fascinating, with plenty of tombstones on the floor. Step on them as it’s commonly held that if you do, you’re freeing the dead of their sins – and fortunately not taking them upon yourself as a burden in the meantime. And you’ll learn how to recognise whether a monastery is a functioning church or not – if it has a curtain that can be pulled across the altar, it still hosts regular services.
Why should you visit?
While you’re in the Debed Canyon, you may as well visit both the monasteries.
A party of schoolchildren were visiting at the same time, so for me, this monastery lacked the serenity that some of the others offered. It was a good opportunity to watch the priest deliver a blessing and to hear the acoustics as the children sang inside the chapel. Look out for the whole in the floor which allows you to peep down into the church from above. There’s also a spring inside which is believed to be holy.
Why should you visit?
If you’re in Yerevan and your time is limited, this is an easy excursion from the city and together with nearby Garni temple, doable in just a few hours.
To reach Sevanavank, located above the shoreline of Lake Sevan, you’ll need to climb a lot of steps: 243 to be precise. The reward, though, is a panoramic view of Armenia’s largest lake and its environs. Again it’s a double church site plus plenty of khatchkhars to admire in its cemetery. Those are the standing stones which you’ll see at all religious sites. The largest concentration can be found further along the lakeshore at Noratus cemetery. But it’s that vast expanse of blue that will draw your attention away time and time again.
Why should you visit?
It’s all about that spectacular view – and the satisfaction of making it up the steps without collapsing.
This monastery, built out of tufa, also lies on Lake Sevan, but this time occupies a less lofty position. Its alternative name is Aghavnavank, meaning “church of the human pigeons”. The connection refers to a legend associated with Tamerlane, whereby the local population were turned into pigeons to keep them safe from the invaders – a deal had been struck that anyone who could fit into the church would be spared and of course birds are smaller than people.
Why should you visit?
If they’ve gone to the trouble of coming up with such a fantastic legend, you’ve really got to see how big the church is from the inside.
This one’s all about the setting, and what a setting. The road curves on approach offering the picture postcard image of the monastery perched to the right of a backdrop of Mount Ararat, the mountain where Noah’s ark came to rest. From the rear of the monastery, you can climb a small hill – look for the cross on top of it – and you’ll have a similar view, but this time the monastery will be on the left. Inside, you’ll see a steady stream of people descending a narrow stairwell at the doorway to the church – it’s a well, and it’s a dark and shaky climb down.
Why should you visit?
The setting is special, but pick a clear day so you get the panorama of Ararat at the same time; you’ll have a better chance of good visibility in the morning.
Tucked away up a narrow canyon, Noravank is another site that feels special as a result of its location. There are some wonderful carvings, including one of Jesus with Peter and Paul. What you’ll remember, though, is the scarily steep and narrow stone block steps that lead up to the second storey of the church. Take it from me, it’s much worse coming down. But from the restored cupola to the view across to the other chapel from up high, it’s worth dealing with the fear. After all, you can always come down on your bum!
Why should you visit?
The vertiginous steps up to the second level of the church might be scary, by the view from the top is splendid.
This one is reached by the world’s longest ropeway (that’s cable car to those of us who speak the Queen’s English). If you don’t believe them, there’s a sign which claims Guinness has officially recognised it as such for their Book of Records. The column allegedly predicts earthquakes and approaching enemy armies.
Why should you visit?
With such an awesome approach, this one’s a must-see.
Of course, that’s not all. But even spreading these across a week, I was beginning to feel monasteried-out by the end of it. My advice would be not to feel like you ought to see every major monastery in the country, just pick a few and enjoy the view. If I had to pick a favourite, I’d probably say Sevanavank, as its lofty position represented not only an impressive feat of engineering but also felt remote despite the visiting tourists. Norovank, with those crazy steps and beautiful carvings, came a close second, though perhaps it was a little too perfectly restored to claim the top spot.
It’s been a long journey involving an overnight train and a four hour ride in a marshrutka, but I’ve finally reached Svaneti. My base is in Mestia and I’m writing this holed up on the hotel balcony overlooking three of the famous towers that dot the village. The birds are chirruping and the neighbour’s dog is letting me know if anyone walks up the rutted and very steep road that joins us to the main drag. The sun is valiantly making an attempt to break through today’s persistent low cloud, but tomorrow’s forecast promises sunshine and blue skies.
I spent yesterday travelling along the Georgian Military Highway, the route linking Tbilisi to the Russian border. The epithet “military” conjures up all manner of images, but you won’t see tanks or soldiers, just great scenery. I travelled with Envoy Tours in the capable hands of their guide Beqa. He was great fun, doing everything he could to ensure my Singaporean travelling companion and I had a fun day. From tour guide to chef to toastmaster, there was nothing he couldn’t turn his hand to.
Our first stop was on the edge of the Zhinvali reservoir built in the 1980s to supply water to Tbilisi. It’s a picturesque addition to the landscape, though one that necessitated drowning several villages. The water level was high enough to conceal them yesterday, but when the water level is low, sometimes the tops of churches can be revealed.
We skirted the edge of the reservoir to reach the fortress complex of Ananuri, where they were selling these fabulous sheepskin hats. Once, there was just a tower here on a hillside; now there’s a cluster of buildings with defensive towers and a 17th century church featuring ornate carvings.
It was the first time I’d been asked to wear a skirt over my trousers as well as the headscarf I’d been expecting. Not the most elegant of looks, of course, but when you’re in someone else’s country you play by their rules. Inside the church walls bear a few faded but interesting frescoes. When Georgia was under Russian rule the frescoes were whitewashed and are slowly being restored.
While the tallest tower was off limits, it was possible to climb the smaller one. I’ve no head for heights, so the narrow, worn steps missing a handrail had my heart missing a beat. With plenty of encouragement, my two younger companions got me to the top. Inside, each level was surprisingly spacious, with a fireplace and plenty of room to live. These towers would have been hiding places when the area was under attack. The castle’s dungeon was quite claustrophobic in comparison.
Heading north from Ananuri, the road took us past the ski resort of Gudauri and over the 2379m Jvari Pass. Next stop was the Georgia-Russia Friendship Balcony.
Our guide, no fan of Russia, was quick to point out that it was built in 1983 when Russia was still in charge and Georgian independence was eight years off. Despite its name, the monument was very tastefully done and its multiple balconies were perfect for capturing a shot of the dramatic mountain scenery which formed its backdrop.
Our last port of call was right near the Russian border near the town of Kazbegi in a little place called Gergeti. Lunch had been arranged: my first experience of a Georgian stupa or feast. First, though, we had to make the local dumplings known as khinkali. Pastry had already been made and rolled; a spicy lamb filling had been preformed. All we had to do was assemble it, which involved lots of pinching of pastry and some rather dodgy looking shapes. Our hostess demonstrated a far higher level of skill, putting together a double decker khinkali quicker than we could pick up our cameras. They were delicious, though I resorted to using a fork instead of eating them the traditional way – bite off the top, drink the juice and then munch on what’s left. Beqa proved to be a good toastmaster too, ordering us to raise our glasses at regular intervals through the meal to God, peace, ancestors and women.
A hike had been planned. The Tsminda Sameba church, also referred to as Holy Trinity, is perched high on the mountain pastures above Kazbegi. Apparently there was once a cable car (those Russians again!) but the locals were none too impressed at having a sacred place defiled so they tore it down. A bumpy road led up to the church, but, said Beqa, it didn’t take much longer to walk up. Yeah right, if you were a goat maybe. The others walked, but told me later – as I’d suspected – that the path was pretty much straight up to the church and not an easy hike.
I took the minibus option, to my later relief, though that in itself was a hair-raising experience. Deep ruts characterised the gravel track for much of its length. In a couple of places the road had fallen away altogether. At the top, heavy rain made the pastures soft. I held my breath as we screamed across the grass, deep in some other vehicle’s tracks. How we didn’t get bogged down I don’t know. That fate was to befall someone else later, much to everyone else’s amusement.
The church was as impressive as its setting, though cloud obscured the 5047m Mount Kazbek which can be seen on a clear day. Inside simple candles stood in sand illuminated the icons and other works of art that adorn this simple church. Despite the constant tramping of tourists’ feet (including mine, of course) it had a spiritual feeling, perhaps not surprising as it is a working church to this day. The forecast rain that had held off all day materialised while we were at the church and so we all headed down by minibus. Come down on foot when it’s slippery like that and you may as well be on a toboggan.
For more information on Envoy Tours and to book this Embracing Georgia tour, please visit their website:
While parts of Central America have been blessed with direct flights from Europe for some time, others have been a bit more disconnected. Honduras is one of those places. But now, with the launch of a weekly flight from Spain, it’s possible to get there a little quicker. When I visited Honduras a few years ago, getting there involved an overnight layover in Houston, adding both considerable time and expense to the journey. Air Europa’s flight from Madrid at first might appear to be less than ideal, arriving shortly before 5am in what was once the world’s worst hotspot for murders. (San Pedro Sula has now passed the Murder Capital of the World crown to the Venezuelan capital Caracas.) But this late departure means that a connecting ticket from the UK is possible and you no longer have to lose a day of your holiday just to get there.
Honduras might not be the first place that springs to mind if you’re looking to holiday in that region, especially in terms of safety. But it’s easy to get straight out of San Pedro Sula and the early arrival means you’ll have plenty of time to reach somewhere both safer and more beautiful well before nightfall. Copan Ruinas is one such place. I spent a pleasant time there in 2014, riding horses out to the Guatemalan border, drinking the excellent locally-grown coffee and exploring some of the least crowded Mayan ruins in the region. Visitors were outnumbered by scarlet macaws by some considerable margin.
While I’d still be loathe to recommend spending any more of your time in San Pedro Sula than is absolutely necessary, the country’s Caribbean coast is as laid back as they come. It’s well worth risking the journey back to San Pedro Sula’s airport after your Copan Ruinas sojourn to make the short hop to Roatan Island. It’s the perfect place to unwind in the sunshine, sink your toes in the sand and sip a cocktail or two.
When are we going?