NOTE: I last visited Cuba in 2013. The situation in Cuba is now changing rapidly due to the normalisation of relations with the US. Some of the info on this page may be outdated soon!
Cuba captures the imagination of many travellers. For Americans it is very much like a forbidden fruit, though and one that is actually there for the picking… (if you dare to). And travellers from elsewhere (like myself) will find it to be an equally fascinating destination.
I’ll be honest: Cuba is a little rough. I don’t mean in terms of safety (it’s very safe), just in terms of convenience. It’s very much a poor country with a difficult political system and so you may be dealing with long queues (at banks for instance), bad-to-average food, and low availability of some products and services. You just have to know to expect this.
Of course, this is also part of what makes backpacking in Cuba so interesting. Sure, Cuba may have beautiful national parks, good beaches, and interesting museums, but what you will probably remember most is simply seeing what life is like in Cuba. The culture of Cuba is fascinating and cities like Havana and Trinidad lend themselves extremely well to random exploration. If you stay in Casa Particulares, you will have end up having a lot of contact with locals to boot.
Since Cuba is not well-known as a backpacking destination, many people seem to think it’s not easy to travel in Cuba on a budget. Mostly the country attracts people who are on a holiday or regular vacation rather than low-budget travellers. Don’t be fooled however as it can definitely be done on the cheap (for me it was about $30 – 35 a day on average).
If you are American it is against US law to visit Cuba, though that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If you don’t mind breaking the rules, you can still visit Cuba without any problems. (For more details further down the page.)
Since Cuba is only a short flight from Cancun in Mexico, it connects rather well to the Central American backpacker ‘gringo trail’. I can highly recommend making the detour if you are on a larger Central American trip. However, those coming off the backpacker circuit should know hostels don’t exist, so at times you may find it more difficult to meet other people who are travelling the same way .
Note that I’ve not been further east than Trinidad, though the following highlights can easily keep you busy for two weeks. The following are some of the best places to see in Cuba starting in Havana:
Havana will most be likely your entry point into Cuba and your first encounter with Cuban life. The Old Havana area has been done up nicely for tourists, but don’t forget to explore the surrounding neighbourhoods as well. Watch people chat, barter, play chess, get a haircut or play baseball on the streets. Many places in Havana charge highly inflated tourists prices, but find a local dive and you might just be sipping $0.30 mojitos while having laughs with the friendly Cubans.
Typical buildings in Havana
Hike or cycle through the unique landscape around Vinales, a town that’s about a 5 hour drive west of Havana. Here you will see valleys surrounded by rugged limestone hills and filled with interesting flora and fauna. Vinales is also said to have an ideal microclimate for growing tobacco; visit a tobacco farmer to learn about the tobacco-planting and cigar-making process.
Some beautiful valleys around Vinales
Be sure to save money and skip the expensive organized tours. Instead ask your Casa Particular to set you up with a local guide: we paid $40 split amongst 4 people for a friendly local to take us around the area. (The organized tour would have cost almost $40 a person.) Our guide also introduced us to a local farmer who showed us his coffee and cigar making process, as well as setting us up with some invigorating coconut cocktails with rum and honey.
The World’s Largest Car Museum
Cuba is home to the world’s largest open-air car museum, with a 109,884 km2 exhibition space that is home to over 200,000 cars. Of course, I mean to say that all of Cuba is a car museum.
Cuba has heaps of fantastically-preserved old-timer cars. You will see many American-made cars from the ‘50s and ‘60s as well as plenty of communist era Russian-made cars, like classic Ladas.
Cuba truly is a time machine. One night I was watching an episode of Mad Men at my Casa Particular, then went outside for a walk and saw the exact same type of cars driving around everywhere… the transition was seamless and surreal.
About 4-5 hours east of Havana, this colourful coastal town may be rather touristy, but its historic centre as well as its poorer outlying neighbourhoods are interesting to see. Hire a bicycle or take a bus to the nearby beach for a nice daytrip, or visit the nearby national park.
At night, the Casa de la Musica in the center of town is the place to watch salsa and rumba music (though sadly with show-dancers, and not with general participation). For late night partying, try the Cave Party that usually kicks off around midnight. And yes, it’s actually in a cave…
Consider a layover in Santa Clara for some Che Guevara sightseeing: see his embalmed body at the mausoleum, marvel at his monument, or spend some time at the Che Guevara museum.
Suggested hostels in Cuba
|Casa de Ania||Havana||I stayed in this cozy hostel which is in a central but local neighborhood. Feels like a family house, because that’s basically what it is!|
|Casa Caribe Havana Hostel||Havana||One of the other few backpacker-style hostels in Havana.|
|Casa Vista Al Mar||Cienfuegos||Private rooms with a waterside view of the Bay.|
|Eva Y Ernesto||Santa Clara||Cute and homely B&B with two private rooms.|
|Hostal Lucero||Trinidad||A 16-bed hostel around a central courtyard with hammocks and pool.|
Good food can be hard to find in Cuba. If you are a backpacker accustomed to living on cheap eats and street food you may be sad to discover your main cheap options in Cuba are pizza with cheese, spaghetti with cheese or bread with cheese. Indulge in the cheap grub too much and you will feel like shit at the end of your stay.
It’s better to budget a little more for food than you might in other countries. Try to eat at your Casa Particular as much as possible; it’s usually decent and relatively not too expensive.
Entering Cuba (for non-Americans)
Non-US travellers will have no issues entering Cuba. However be sure to buy a ‘tourist card’ (essentially a visa) before you go. If flying into Cuba you can usually buy a tourist card at the check-in desk. Once you get to Cuba, and after you have filled out a form or two, you will admitted entry.
Entering Cuba (for Americans)
Tourism travel to Cuba remains illegal for Americans, even following the easing of travel restrictions announced in December 2014. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
What many Americans do is go to Cuba by flying under the radar. You will have to go somewhere else first, like Mexico or Jamaica, and go to Cuba from there. Cuban immigration will let you through without stamping your passport, so there won’t be any evidence that you were there. As long as you don’t admit to having been to Cuba and don’t report anything to customs, you should be fine.
Bring all the cash you need (buy some CUC in your country of departure). While American credit cards are beginning to be accepted in Cuba, you might not want to leave a paper trail with your bank.
As far as Cubans are concerned it seems no one will particularly care that you are American. Some US travellers I met in Cuba preferred to keep their nationality on the down-low and referred to their ancestry instead (e.g. Italian instead of Italian-American) but they gave up doing this after a few days.
Cuba’s dual currencies
Cuba has a special currency just for tourists called CUC (or Peso Convertible). You will probably use this 90% of the time. There is also the local currency used by Cubanos called CUP. You won’t be able to use CUP in a lot of places, so it’s best to only have a bit of it. Change other currency for CUPs just $10 or $20 at a time.
- CUC: pegged to the dollar, so 1 CUC is always 1 US Dollar.
- CUP: 25 CUP equals 1 CUC. Also indicated as ‘Mn’ for Moneda National.
PRO TIP: Any conversations involving CUC and CUP will quickly make you go coo-coo as the two just sound way too similar. I found it helpful to agree with your travel partner(s) to refer to CUC as “cook” and to simply call the Peso National “peso”.
You will see lots of Ches and Fidels…
How to get money out in Cuba
Getting money with a bank card in Cuba is actually difficult. This does depend on which country you’re from; for example Canadians may have a much easier time. I’m from the Netherlands (living in the UK) and found the situation unlike any country I have been before… in hindsight I underestimated how difficult it could be.
- Any US-issued bank or credit cards will not work.
- Bank cards with the Maestro logo will not work.
- If you have a Visa card issued outside of the US you may be in luck; Cuba’s primary banking chain has ATMs that accept Visa credit cards. Visa debit cards (like the ones often issued in the UK) may not work however.
- Mastercards issued outside the US are accepted at a handful of banks, but only at the counter and not through ATMs.
It’s safest to assume that no ATMs will work for you; bring sufficient cash and change it at a bank or exchange office. Major currencies like USD, GBP, CND, AUD, and EUR are all accepted. Mexican Pesos are also accepted. USD can be changed anywhere but this will incur at extra 10% fee, so it’s better to bring other currencies.
Queues at banks can be very long. I had to wait over an hour at a bank in Havana before I could change any money.
If you run out of cash entirely, the best way to get money with a card is to go to the Hotel National in Havana. Go through the main entrance and turn left and go down the stairs, and you will find a small bank that will accept Visa or Mastercard credit cards. Getting cash here should be pretty easy, but they do charge a hefty fee.
There is also an exchange office near the Hotel Havana Libre that apparently accepts Visa/Mastercard at the counter, but queues here seemed to be extremely long when I checked on several occasions (it always had a long line of people waiting outside on the street).
To change money or to get cash out you typically need to show your passport.
December 2014 update: as part of President Obama’s announcement of the easing of restrictions and re-establishment of diplomatic ties, it’s been confirmed that US credit cards will now be allowed in Cuba. This means that Mastercard and non-European/non-Canadian Visa cards will be accepted at some point, though I wouldn’t count on this becoming the case straight away.
We met this tobacco farmer in Vinales.
Backpacking Cuba on a budget
While Cuba may be primarily interested in attracting luxury tourists and holidayers to its resorts, it does not mean you can’t travel in Cuba cheaply. Here are a few tips for backpacking Cuba on a budget:
- Stay in Casa Particulares. This is a sort of national bed & breakfast system whereby you can rent a room with a family. This typically costs $20-$25 per room. You can easily recognize these places by the blue sign outside.
- Pair up if you are solo. There are no hostels in Cuba, though occasionally there is some dorm-style accomodation. Solo travellers might want to try Casa de Ania in Havana (where you can pay for a bed instead of a room), and there may be a few others like it. Otherwise, pair up and share rooms to save money.
- Eat dinner at your Casa Particular. This will typically cost $6 – $8 and will get you some great home-cooked food, and you will get more food than you’ll know what to do with. It is often tastier than what you will get at many restaurants as well.
- Have breakfast and lunch at ‘peso places’. You can get a coffee and a sandwich for as little as $0.40 in places where Peso National is accepted.
- Use local transportation if you can. I personally used Viazul tourist buses, but if you have time and perseverance you can save money by finding national buses or by hitchhiking (which is semi-institutionalized in Cuba). A traveller I met who was in Cuba long term said he had much success asking at bus stations where trucks depart, and then hitching rides on trucks for some national pesos.
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Cost of travel in Cuba
I spent around an average of $35 a day while travelling in Cuba. (I shared rooms with a friend; those travelling alone may have to budget more.) The determined may find it possible to travel in Cuba for about $20-25 a day, though you have to be willing to eat bad/average food or be very patient when using non-tourist transportation.
Cuba can be relatively expensive in one place and obscenely inexpensive in another. Go to a tourist bar and a Mojito can cost 7 or 8 dollars; go to a bar that only locals go and you may be paying just $0.30 for that same drink. If you know Spanish or know someone who does, you may have more luck in finding ‘peso places’ than others.
Here are some average prices as I found them in Nov 2013:
Accommodation: $20 – $25 a room in a Casa Particular
Breakfast at Casa Particular: $3 – $5
Dinner at Casa Particular: $6 – $8
Hamburger/spaghetti/pizza/sandwich from ‘peso place’: $0.40 – $1 (10 – 25 pesos)
Burrito at sit-down ‘peso place’ in Havana: $3
Meal in restaurant: $10 – $15 (non-fancy dinner, e.g. a grilled fish with rice and vegetables)
10 min taxi ride in Havana: $5
Internet at hotel in Havana: $10 per hour
Internet at an internet café outside Havana: $5 per hour
Can of beer from a store: $1
Can of coke (local brand): $0.40
Mojito at local dive: as low as $0.30
Bottle of rum: starting at about $5
Viazul tourist bus from Vinales to Cienfuegos: $32
Viazul tourist bus from Cienfuegos to Trinidad: $6
Viazul tourist bus from Trinidad to Santa Clara: $8
Large cup of Nestle icecream: $0.75
Homemade icecream: 5 pesos / $0.20
Coffee at local place (small cup of espresso): 1 peso / $0.04
Glass of fresh homemade juice or lemonade: 2 or 3 pesos / around $0.10
More info on Cuba: check out the WikiVoyage page for some more destination info. Looking for a more comprehensive guide? You can grab the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba right here, available in book form or as PDF which you can use at home or consult on your smartphone or tablet while you travel.
Related Posts Around The Web
- Incredibly Detailed One Month Itinerary For Cuba – Hippie On Heels
- Photo Gallery: Street Life and Vintage Cars in Cuba – some of my favorite photos from Cuba
- More useful links as and when I find them!