In mid-February, Elliott Young, professor of history at Lewis & Clark College, will carry tens of thousands of dollars in cash and travelers’ checks through Cuban customs. He leads a study abroad program where, in addition to surviving without the luxuries of capitalist economies (like banking), students take classes in Spanish and contemporary Cuban art, literature and politics.
“Traveling to Cuba is unlike traveling to almost any other country,” says Young. “You don’t see any advertisements other than for [the] government. You don’t have a lot of stores selling basic goods, like clothing.”
For many students, that’s all the more reason to go.
“The difficulty in some ways is the attraction,” Young says. “It’s taboo for Americans.” It doesn’t hurt that with loosened travel restrictions, U.S. citizens can now bring home up to $100 of famed Cuban rum and cigars.
If those sound like good reasons, Lewis & Clark, Harvard, Princeton, Tulane, Hampshire College and a number of other schools offer long-standing abroad programs to Cuba. Other schools are showing renewed interest in Cuban affairs with their abroad offerings this year. The second group ever from the University of Delaware is touring the country on a winter 2015 session. This spring,Princeton launches its second program, focusing on Latin American culture, politics and history.
As colleges bolster their study abroad offerings, they must prepare students for a country bereft of the resources Americans take for granted. Living for months in Cuba is exhilarating, but not carefree. Before you pack you bags, there are a few things you should know.
You have three options for accessing money. Wire it through Western Union at fees ranging from 7% to 20%, depending on the amount. Obtain a TransCard, which allows ATM withdrawals, but charges fees of up to 20%. Bringing a stock of cash or travelers checks, on the other hand, gives you accessible funds at no extra charge. The Lewis & Clark program recommends that their students carry $2,000 – $3,000 each.
Cuba runs on two economies: the convertible Peso (for restaurants and imported goods) and the Cuban Peso (for bus rides and some stores). One convertible peso is roughly equal to one U.S. dollar, or about four Cuban pesos. Some Cubans con tourists by pretending Cuban Pesos are convertibles. Study the colors and images on each type before you go.
In any case, it helps to be a shrewd negotiator. You can negotiate prices for almost any good or service, and to stay on budget, you have to. Some restaurants, for example, hand Americans a special menu with exaggerated prices. It takes a bit of haggling to uncover the real options.
In Cuba, it’s hard to tell if someone wants you or your money. Jineteros (jockeys) charm tourists and offer to show them around town in exchange for meals, clothes and gifts of cash. Some tourists develop long-term relationships with their jineteros, to the detriment of their wallets.
Young recommends making friends with Cuban students to experience local life and avoid Havana’s plentiful tourist traps.
“Stay away from anything that says Buena Vista Social Club,” Young says, “or anything expensive.” Cuban students might drink rum and play music on the streets, or attend a government-sponsored concert, while tourists lavish their funds on gimmicks and inflated prices.