What makes Cuba such a great backpacking destination?
Could it be the white-sand Caribbean beaches, the charming cities with columned colonial-era verandas, or the beautiful tobacco regions dotted with knobbly karst mountains?
Yep, those certainly have a lot to do with it. But there is clearly something else that makes Cuba so irresistible to travelers.
After all, where else can you enter such a microcosm that’s been largely isolated from the globalized world (for better or for worse)? Due to a US embargo as well as a communist regime that has permitted only limited foreign trade, Cuba has been on a separate track from the rest of the world for over half a century.
It’s almost like Cuba has been inside its own bubble. This makes travelling in Cuba a fascinating and educational experience.
It’s especially true when you venture beyond the tourist enclaves of Habana Vieja or the resort town of Varadero—and especially when you use every chance to engage with the friendly Cubanos. You’ll no doubt come to admire the salsa-loving Cuban spirit, but also gain an appreciation for some of the problems existing within the country.
It’s long been said that you should “see Cuba before it changes”, and I highly recommend taking the opportunity as well. But do keep in mind that travelling in Cuba can be quite different from other countries—as I’ll explain here.
What’s it like to travel in Cuba?
Cuba is slowly evolving… but it’s still decidedly a communist country.
It often seems frozen in time.
When I first drove from the airport into the capital, it felt like a strange dream—simply because everything felt so different from anything I had seen before.
You probably already know that due to Cuba’s economic troubles and trade restrictions you can find many vintage cars still driving the streets. One surreal moment happened when I finished watching an episode of Mad Men in my hostel, then walked out into Havana only to see the exact same type of cars from the 60ies passing by.
But it’s not just the visual; it’s a fact of life that a lot of things work quite differently in Cuba.
To be honest, it has a poorly functioning economy and a lot of bureaucracy. As a tourist you’re not always going to notice this, though sometimes you have to queue a long time just to use an ATM or to get some terribly slow internet access. If you go to a local grocery store they usually only have a very limited selection of supplies (for example, just ten kinds of products).
Food can also be very samey.
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 this cheap grub too much and you will feel like crap at the end of your stay!
The situation is opposite from neighboring Mexico, where both the street food and restaurant food are out of this world.
You can still find some good restaurants in Cuba, and I enjoyed some of the home-cooked meals I had at the casa particulares. But the food tends to be very greasy, doesn’t have much flavor, or is just very repetitive. They say this is because people relied on government rations for so many years (and had little access to spices), so these days the best Cuban food is found in places outside of Cuba, such as in Miami. It’s just something to know.
Backpacking in Cuba can feel a bit more basic, but it’s not usually that difficult. It should also be said it’s an amazing experience. Cuba is a beautiful country with very outgoing people, big smiles, and lots of upbeat latin music. At the same time, the country has a strong melancholic character, with a lot of crumbling buildings and faded glory. There’s nothing quite like it.
Can you travel Cuba on a budget?
It used to be common wisdom that you could only go to Cuba if you had a lot of money, because you could only stay in expensive government-run hotels or resorts. But nowadays Cuba is much easier to travel independently on a budget.
It may not be known as an ultimate shoestring backpacking country, but you can travel around Cuba reasonably cheaply.
I spent about $35 a day in Cuba while splitting the accommodation costs with a friend.
The key to backpacking in Cuba is to use the casas particulares, which are family-run bed & breakfasts that are officially sanctioned by the government (it now allows some small businesses to exist within the communist system). Most casas particulares cost about $20 a night, which is usually excellent value for money.
If you’re travelling solo and want to keep your costs down then try to pair up with someone, as there aren’t really any backpacker hostels in Cuba. You can find a few casas particulares in Havana that have a hostel-like atmosphere, but they are not quite the same as the “backpacker hostels” you can find in other countries.
Something else to be aware of is the tourist economy, which has prices that differ enormously from the ones in the local economy.
Stay close to the ground and you’ll save yourself a ton of money compared to the average tourist. A mojito in the tourist district in central Havana might cost $10, but go to a local dive and it might cost less than one dollar. Be sure to also understand the dual currency system (see further below) as you can sometimes really use it to your advantage.
Knowing some Spanish will aid you a lot as well. When I first traveled Cuba, I had near-zero knowledge of Spanish and survived just fine, but it’s much easier if you speak the language at least a little bit. You can haggle better, get more information, and make friends.
Some typical costs in Cuba (converted to USD):
- Room in casa particular: $15 – $25
- Breakfast at a casa particular – $3 to $5
- Dinner at casa particular – $6 – $8
- Meal in normal restaurant: $10 – $15
- Coffee at a local place (CUP) – $0.10
- Cheap meal at a local place (e.g. pizza, spaghetti) – $3 – $4
For transportation costs, check out the website of tourist bus service Viazul.
How to use casas particulares
I love casas particulares. They’re one of the best things about traveling in Cuba.
Casas particulares can be found easily in pretty much any destination just by looking around for the sign. It is a kind of blue arrow on a white background. Any house with this sign is a casa particular; just ring the doorbell to see if they have a space available.
You don’t need to book in advance. It’s only fairly recent that you can book casas particulares through Airbnb, which is one of the very few online booking sites operating fully in Cuba.
But the much more fun and cool way to use casas particulares is to do it old school style by just showing up. What usually happens is that the first casa will then hook you up with your next one in another city (which will usually be run by some brother or aunt or friend of the family). You can make use of these informal networks of casas, though you can also just show up and pick one there.
Some casas particulares are simply spare rooms, while others have a separate entrance or annex (these are called cuartos independientes). Don’t expect extreme luxury as these are just some funky local places to stay. However, they all must have certain basic amenities, and they can usually provide you with a great breakfast or dinner for an additional price.
By the way, you might hear that the average salary in Cuba is about $30 a month, so these people running casas particulares must be getting totally rich, right? Actually, they only get to keep a tiny fraction of your money (the rest goes to the government), so your hosts are just trying to get by like anyone else.
How to book accommodation in Cuba
It is fun to use the casas particulares in an improvised way, but you may still wish to book something ahead in particular for your arrival in Havana.
Regular hotel booking sites like Booking.com unfortunately only have expensive resort hotels and zero options for a lower budget.
The best places to book budget accommodation by far are Airbnb and Hostelworld. The hostels you find on Hostelworld are actually casas particulares but rebranded as backpackers. They usually have just a couple of rooms. They are not really hostels as you might know them from other countries, but they are nice and homely places to stay.
Here are a few suggested places to book in Havana:
|Casa de Ania||I stayed in this cozy hostel a few years ago. It’s in a central but local neighborhood. Ana and her family do a great job of making you feel welcome!|
|Enzo’s Backpackers||Casa in a peripheral neighborhood of Havana with a panoramic rooftop view of the city. Friends stayed here and recommended it.|
|Anna Maria House||This casa particular is in a residential area and has a leafy courtyard. It’s the most highly rated in Havana.|
How to deal with the dual currencies
CUP? CUC? The two currencies of Cuba can quickly make you go coo-coo.
But it’s not actually that complicated.
Cuba has a special currency just for tourists called the CUC (or Peso Convertible). You will probably use this 95% of the time. The CUC is pegged to the dollar so one CUC is always worth one dollar.
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 carry only a little bit. As a tourist you end up using it only for the occasional street vendor or other non-tourist place. CUP is also often called ‘Mn’ for Moneda National.
In 2013 the government announced they were intending to scrap the CUC and use one currency only. In practice the two currency system is still in place and news articles point to the enormous challenges still to overcome if this transition is truly to be implemented. The system is likely to stay the same for years to come.
One of the odd things you’ll find is that tourists are usually charged in CUC, but local places charge in CUP, and this often ends up being way cheaper. It’s usually difficult to find these local places though. In Havana I met some locals who took me to a hole-in-the-wall bar where I could finally pay in CUP, which meant that my mojito cost just $0.20 (!). A coffee and a sandwich might cost the equivalent of just $0.40 if you can get it in a non-tourist place.
If you’re traveling on a budget, try to befriend any locals who can point you to these “peso places” (as we ended up calling them).
Getting money out in Cuba
There are some ATMs in Cuba but they are not always reliable and there may be long queues. Since some new rules were implemented under the Obama administration Visa and Mastercard (and related payment systems like Maestro) have theoretically become fully accepted now at ATMs. However, some travellers still report having difficulties with (some of) the ATMs.
It’s a good idea to bring along cash in a major currency such as Euro or USD so you can exchange them for CUC if needed. You may not be used to doing this as most countries around the world have ATMs and banks that are fully plugged into the international systems, but this is not always the case in Cuba so having some cash (even as a backup) is still a great idea.
Is there internet in Cuba?
Yes, there is internet in Cuba, but it’s limited in many ways.
Access to the internet is highly controlled in Cuba. Online communication is censored and limited and it might be that some of your favorite websites are blacklisted.
A handful of free WiFi hotspots do exist but don’t count on them. Some casas particulares may have WiFi, but don’t count on this either. Hotels and other places may offer internet access at relatively high cost (billed per hour).
It’s possible to buy a SIM card which will give you 3G mobile data, but again, you should probably expect coverage to be weak.
Since your access to the internet is likely to be spotty at best, you might want to turn this into a positive and treat your trip in Cuba as an internet detox. Maybe it’s disappointing that you can’t live-stream your holiday or anything, but maybe it’s also a great way to better experience your trip in the moment.
Everything in Cuba works offline, so if you need a tour or a bus ticket just buy it in person. One of the cool things about Cuba is that—perhaps because of limited internet and only having a few (terrible) TV channels—there is quite a buzzing street life as well.
Can American tourists travel to Cuba?
Officially? And just as a random tourist? No.
Americans are only permitted to travel to Cuba under certain specific circumstances, which don’t include normal tourism. You have to declare a reason why you’re going to Cuba other than just travelling for fun. For example, one of the valid categories is ‘Support For the Cuban People’ and you’ll have to create an itinerary to match. Blogger Matthew Karsten has done an excellent job of explaining how this works.
Thawing of relations under the Obama administration appears to have been partly reversed under Trump, so the rules aren’t likely to loosen up anytime soon.
Unofficially, there are plenty of Americans travelling around Cuba without an official license. I’m not saying you should break US law, but it does happen that American backpackers will enter Cuba via Mexico or Jamaica. Cuban immigration will then let them through without stamping the passport (they will happily forego this if asked), so there won’t be any evidence that they were there. As long as they don’t admit to having been to Cuba and don’t report anything to customs, it’s like they were never even there.
I’m European so entering Cuba was not an issue for me anyway, though understandably for Americans it’s a tricky issue. Some renegades simply skirt around the law for a chance to see a place that’s normally forbidden to them.
What are great places to see in Cuba?
I only had time to see about half a dozen places but there are three hotspots that are easy to recommend:
Havana is an obvious starting point for any Cuba trip. The Old Havana area (Habana Vieja) has been done up nicely for tourists, but once you’ve explored elsewhere you’ll realize this is quite an artificial place that isn’t quite typical of Cuba. It’s highly worth exploring some random neighborhoods and just taking in the street life. Watch people chat, barter, play chess, get a haircut or kids playing baseball on the streets. And don’t miss your chance to dive into the Cuban coffee culture.
Vinales is a popular town in Cuba’s tobacco region about a 5 hour drive from Havana, and it’s possibly the favorite place I saw. 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.
You can hike or cycle through the unique and picturesque landscapes around the town. I have some good memories of Vinales as here I met some great people, among them a Cuban photographer who was working on a book about the tobacco growing history. I also went to a fantastic reggaeton party inside a cave (this cave bar is called Palenque).
Trinidad is a popular stop further to the east. This colourful coastal town may be rather touristy, but it’s a fun and interesting historical place. Hire a bicycle or take a bus to the nearby beach for a nice day trip, or visit the nearby national park. At night, the Casa de la Musica in the center of town is the place to see salsa and rumba dancing.
I also liked the lakeside Cienfuegos a lot, albeit in an understated kind of way. Santa Clara made for a nice stop as well. I was less into Varadero, which turned out to be a fairly generic resort town mainly for Canadian families and retirees. If you’re after a beach, I’d recommend trying somewhere else that might be more authentic.
These are some useful or interesting posts about Cuba on other blogs:
- The 10 Coolest Neighborhoods in Havana, Cuba – The Culture Trip
- Everything You Need to Know About WiFi in Cuba – Two Scots Abroad
- A Budget Guide to Casa Particulares in Cuba – DIY Travel HQ
- How to Travel to Cuba: A Guide For Americans – Expert Vagabond
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