How not to do money logistics in Cuba as a gringo, or the many problems with Western Union in Cuba

CategoriesCuba, Travel

Let me tell you just how much effort it took me to get the money operations straight in Cuba. So overall I was prepared so-so: everything went overall great, but for example I didn’t have a single pair of shorts, and absolutely nothing for the beach. A day before the trip I went to the bank and did a maximum withdrawal, something like $400. That was all the cash I was bringing with me for 7 days. Upon arrival, I called my bank to place a travel note. Of course, at that time they told me none of my cards will work in Cuba, at all. I should have made the call while at the airport on the US side, to quickly make an ATM withdrawal at the airport and lose $5, not $100 as I did. Anyway, so word for word it turns out that my best bet is to have someone from USA send me the monies via western union. I make a few calls, and eventually 3 days later receive the money, and continue to party. The total cost, other than inconvenience, was $100 and one day I was below budget and didn’t party as hard as all the other days. And now let’s look at the impossible steps it took me to get the money.

First, you can’t just call people from a phone from Cuba. There is no internet at the hostel, and you have to walk to a hotspot place, where you can connect, from where you can call. And before you do that, you have to buy a wifi card, because it’s not sold at the wifi spot. And you have to find a wifi spot that doesn’t such, so maybe walk a little further from the hostel. So I go to the hotspot to call my friend, to tell him what I need, and in the middle of our conversation the power goes out in the city – so I walk back… then walk back to the hotspot again… which only takes 20 minutes of walking one way.

Next, since I know how things are, I tell my friend to do two transactions instead of one: a small test transaction, and the whole amount after the test transaction is really confirmed. Keep in mind that it takes me 40 minutes: 20min walking to, and 20min from the hotspot, to make a single call.

Okay, the test transaction goes thru, and I tell my friend to send the whole amount. Of course, when I get to Western Union, they “cannot find” my transaction. The very thing I designed to avoid by having a test transaction, happened: the test went thru, but the actual transaction got lost somehow. Amazing. So I walk back to the hostel… then walk back to the bank to literally try again. Lo and behold, they find the transaction this time, but it was canceled. They tell me that i should tell my friend to call the western union supervisor (?) to see what happened. So I walk back and forth to call my friend and he tells me that the transaction was indeed canceled, by western union, for security reasons. So I tell him to split it into two smaller transactions.

Next day, I go to the bank, and they say they don’t have the internet connection this day. No problem, I walk some more to the next branch, where the lady is out for lunch. No problem, I walk back to the hostel, talk around… then go back to the 2nd branch, and they finally give me my money!!! Only these steps were necessary to receive western union monies in Cuba, as an american. The moral of the story is: (1) don’t be an american in Cuba, (2) bring cash but preferably Euros or Mexican Pesos because US dollars lose 10% of value right away, on top of 3% here and 3% there on various transactions, (3) everything is unreliable in Cuba, and furthermore be prepared to stand in lines, like in good old communism.

I should also note, in conclusion, that I love Cuba and had an overall remarkable experience there, and hope to come back.

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