This is the ultimate guide to Cuba on a backpacker budget. In the following text, You’ll get to know a couple of things I would’ve liked to know before starting my Cuba adventure. I hope this information comes in handy no matter how you plan on vacating in Cuba, but especially if you plan on traveling Cuba on a budget!
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After my visit to Cuba, I found that there is a bunch of things I would have liked to know before I went. So why not write a post about it? That way other people have the chance to arrive a bit more prepared then I was. This is a post for everyone, but especially for backpackers traveling Cuba on a budget.
Traveling Cuba on a budget, an introduction
Cuba is an island (plus a couple of small islands close by) in the northern Caribbean. It’s is full of beautiful sights, from rolling hills and countryside vibes in Trinidad and Pinar del Rio, beautiful beaches in Varadero to big city life in Havana.
Although Cuba is absolutely stunning and with a colorful culture, it’s also a communist country and has been so since back in the 60s. Communism is a protest to the capitalistic system and was created with the idea of correcting the problems caused by capitalism. In capitalism, you can strive and earn money with hard work as recourses and means of production are owned privately. In capitalistic countries, the economy is largely run by the state which owns or controls all means of production.
Other communist countries in the world are North Korea, China, Vietnam, and Laos. They are all communist countries but to different extents. Examples of what communist states does is; China limits what the population can access and see online and even how many children they are allowed to have. North Korea strictly limits its population’s contact with the outside world.
Communism strives to make everyone equal. For example, in Cuba, most businesses is state-owned, if not, you’re obliged to pay most of your profit to the state. The problem is that the salary the government pays is not enough for most Cuban families to get by.
However, a positive thing that can be said about Cuba as a communist state, is that all education and health services are free. However, Cubans are quite restricted in their life.
Why visit Cuba now?
After the Cuban revolution in 1959, were Fidel Castro and his communist movement took leadership over the country. The USA basically as good as cut all its tied to Cuba. With the USA as a major contributor to tourism, resources and general help in basic needs, Cuba found itself almost stuck in the 60’s since then. The ties to the world, and especially the USA have been closed off.
This isolation from the world results in people still driving around in old American veteran cars, lots of them with improvised, homemade parts. Walking down the street you’ll see no commercials or signs of international chains like Starbucks and McDonalds. It had also made them able to keep their culture with less influence from the outside world. Cuba has, generally speaking, kept their culture, good and bad, with little international influence.
In 2016 the Obama government issued various licenses for visas to Cuba. This made it possible for a lot of US citizens to visit again. For that reason, at the end of 2016, it seemed to me as if the whole world was headed for the island. Cuba has always been a place I wanted to visit, preferably before it became modernized, touristified and changed. For that reason, and with that in mind, at the beginning of 2017, I decided to kick off my backpacking adventure in Latin America. I prepared for Cuba as good as I could from Norway, but found that there are some things that are not that easy to figure out online. Therefore, here is my guide to traveling, and more specifically, backpacking in Cuba.
Even though Cuba has seen more tourism in the last couple of years, it is still very much an amazing and special travel destination with its special history and limiting politics. Prepare yourself for an experience you will not soon forget.
PS. This post is in true “traveling Cuba on a budget” style, as I was robbed one of my first days in Cuba(hey, can happen everywhere. Right?). So all my photos are from kind people who took photos for me and sent them to me afterward. So photo quality, really rustic, low solution… Bear with me. When it comes to the robbery part, I was never in any danger but had a guy rip my backpack out of my hands in the outskirts of Havana. So the take away is, keep a good grip on your things.
So now I’m putting on some Buena Vista Social Club and I suggest you do too, as I dream myself back to my first weeks in Latin America. And my first weeks on this beautiful Latin America adventure, I called life for about 2 years.
A little about Havana
Havana, in general, is a story in itself, this city is BIG in comparison to the other cities in Cuba. An old town full of beautiful architecture and old American cars with additions of the occasional LADA and so on.
Centro Viejo is a beautiful area and it’s not hard to get why this is where tourists mainly spend their time in Havana. It has, amazing old hotels and bars, beaches just a short bus ride from the center, clubs, live music everywhere and mojitos on every corner.
But it also has its sketchy areas, in general houses falling apart all around the city. You’ll be amazed to see people still living in these houses. A grandma standing on the balcony on the 3rd floor, humming some Spanish song while putting the laundry to dry. And you just want to scream, “get out of there” cause it looks like what’s left of the building is going to crumble any minute. But, this is also what stole my heart.
Currency in Cuba
Cuba has two official currencies. The CUP, the Cuban national peso, and the CUC the Cuban convertible peso. Be careful not to mix them up as 1 CUC is about 25 CUP. The CUP is the local currency and the CUC is kind of the luxury one or the one intended for tourists. The two currencies keep prices low for locals and tourists spending more money.
Cuban Convertible Peso, CUC
The CUC is the currency used when trading luxury goods, accommodation, tours, furniture or other things that are on the pricier side or things. If you now wonder what a 1 CUC is equal too, it’s basically the same value as the US dollar. That means that 1 dollar is about 25 CUP.
Cuban National Peso, CUP
When I was in Cuba I used the CUC to pay for my hostel/casa particular(read more about this further down in the article), transportation in the tourist buses, as well as food and drinks. Especially when I found myself in the old town or in general the touristic area of Havana. CUC is also used to pay entrances at clubs, museums, tours, and rides in an American car if that’s on your to-do list. So, in general, all things a little more costly or “luxurious”(from a low budget backpacker perspective haha).
ATMs in Cuba
In the ATMs I used in Cuba, which was basically whatever ATM I came across first, when I needed money, they don’t give the choice between CUP and CUC. They just give you CUC, so if you want CUP you have to exchange it in an exchange office. Before going to Cuba make sure to check if your cards will work there, or bring cash. Cards from American companies like MasterCard, doesn’t work. I have Visa cards and they worked without any problem there.
Another thing with the ATM’s in Cuba that I wasn’t used to, is that your card is the last thing they give you there. In other words, you’ll get your money and your recite before you get your card. Just a heads up, so you don’t leave your card in the machine. Another lightly distracted traveler might have done so*ehem*…
How to get CUP in Cuba
I recommend bringing some Euros and changing them for CUP at the airports exchange office on arrival. You have to specifically ask for CUP in the exchange office. You don’t have to bring Euros, GBP or Canadian dollars are good options too. Just make sure to bring any other currency that the American Dollar! Due to the bad relationship between the USA and Cuba, you get horrible exchange rates.
I think I exchanged around 200 euros worth of euros for my 2 weeks stay. I never found myself in need of exchanging more CUP, but here were exchange offices in town too. You can also ask your casa particular host to change some currency for you. Just make sure you get the right amount of money back. And with that said, you can use CUC basically everywhere.
To me, however, it seemed as if you get a better exchange rate/more for your money if you pay directly with CUP in the places that charge in that currency.
As a backpacker, I found that I used the CUP way more than the CUC. If you’re not the kind of traveler that seak out nice restaurants every day and rather eat locally. So if you opt for the shabby place on the corner, get some street food or cook yourself, look into getting some CUP too. CUP is also the currency used on the local buses.
Getting to and from the Airport
So before I when to Cuba I checked out how to get from the airport into town. Everywhere I could find some information it said that you had to take a taxi into the center. There was supposedly no other way to get to Havana center, from the airport.
So basically if you want to do it easy, you should go by taxi. Ask around with the taxi drivers cause they WILL give you different prices. I got everything from 35 – 20 CUC for the car to the center of Havana. I asked some German guys standing around if they wanted to share a taxi, so in the end, the price turned out to be ok.
Collectivo or bus
There is, however, another way to get from/to the airport. You should preferably have some basic Spanish language skills for this, but it’s not necessary. This way is definitely preferable for us traveling Cuba on a budget, and a bit more adventurous I guess. When I left Cuba my Spanish was almost no existent, but I still made it to the airport this way.
So, walk or take a cab from the airport to the main road, should be about 1 CUC or 20-25 CUP. From there wait for a bus or a collectivo to pass. The bus is usually 1 CUP or 25 cents CUC, but might cost a bit more as it’s a long ride.
Collectivos in Havana are 10 CUP, but when on longer distances they can charge a little more. I paid 20 CUP to get from the center to the road that takes off to the airport.
If you go from Havana center, the collectivos leave from Calle Simone Bolivar on the side of Parque El Curita. The bus M-2 also leaves from here and should take you down the same road. Ask though, cause who knows if the change the bus numbers and stuff. In this park, there are a bunch of collectivos leaving to around Havana and some people may try to rip you off or tell you some bullshit. So be aware. I ended up asking a woman who was going the same way for help and we caught a collectivo in the end.
So, you will survive with English, but you will be more likely to have to pay more in most places. I myself didn’t speak Spanish when I was there, but I stuck to people that spoke fluent Spanish to get around easier. There are people that do speak English, and pretty well too, especially in the touristic areas. With a smile or your face, with or without Spanish I’m sure you’ll have an amazing experience!
How to stay in Cuba
So, what type of accomodation should you choose in Cuba? When I travel I love to meet locals and try to get a glimpse into how it is to live in the cities and towns I’m visiting. For that reason, I try to stay through Couchsurfing or do couchsurfing meetups when I travel. Couchsurfing is illegal in Cuba. With that said, Cuban law states something like, it’s illegal to host foreigners in your home without them paying and without getting their passport info. So, let’s check out the options you do have when it comes to accomodation in Cuba.
Hotels, Casa particulars’, and Hostels in Cuba
There are a lot of hotels around, especially in Havana, and in Varadero, you even have the all-inclusive hotels with private beaches. But the most common form of accommodation in Cuba is in casa particulares, this is most of the time also the most economical option.
In casa particulars, you rent a room in a house where the host family usually also live. The prices start at about 20-25 dollars/CUC with 2-3 beds in the room. They usually don’t charge per person, but just for the room, so if you’re a solo traveler it’s cheaper if you find someone to share the costs with. Most casa particulares offer to make you breakfast or dinner for an additional price, price ranging from 5 CUC and up. This is a great way to get some delicious homemade Cuban food! You can find casa particulares on Airbnb or other booking pages online before your trip. It’s also very easy to find something by just walking on the streets and asking people.
Havana has a bunch of hostels, and hostels are an even cheaper option then the casa particulares, and it’s a great place to start off your journey as you’ll be able to meet other travelers there too. Look through Airbnb and booking pages like Hostelworld to find hostels.
Where to eat
Cuba has a bunch of good restaurants and some of the hotels are also famous for their good food. But in this post I’ll just mention the budget friend alternatives you’ll learn to love, or at least your wallet will.
Paladares are self-owned eating places owned by Cubans where you usually find super affordable food. A couple of years back the legal restaurants were all state-owned. But in the 1990s paladares where legalized. You can find much more variation and homecooked meals in these kinds of restaurants. Keep an eye out for the word Paladar, so that you can get a nice affordable Cuban meal!
The street food in Cuba is also affordable, and I liked it a lot. Of course, it’s not gourmet, but it’s filling and good. Perfect for when you’re on a tight schedule and don’t want to spend time sitting down to eat, of perfect for when you’re on a tight budget.
My favorites were the street pizzas. They come in all kinds of flavors, but the 3 most common ones were margarita, pepperoni or ham and are the perfect portion size for one person. The price for the street pizza was around 70 CUP, in other words, less than a dollar.
They also serve spaghetti in a lot of corner places. It usually works in the way that they give you a plate filled with pasta, sauce and topped off with cheese. Then you have to find a doorway, curb or just the pavement to sit on. Finish your meal and then return the plate. You might be lucky to find a table or two in some of these places, and even luckier if the tables are free. A lot of places also sell sandwiches with egg, cheese or/and ham for less than a dollar. These places made breakfast on the go super easy!
So, even traveling Cuba on a budget, there is no need to walk around hungry in the streets of Cuba! Quite the opposite.
What to drink in Cuba
So, when it comes to what to drink in Cuba, I think we can all agree we’re thinking of the famous Cuban rum. However, I’ll start with something less intoxication hehe.
You’ll find people on the street selling all kinds of delicious refreshing drinks from Cana de azucar(sugarcane juice), to jugo de maracuja(passionfruit juice). Definitely try it all hehe.
Other than that we can’t put under a stone that a few mojitos might be in their place. Make sure to try out the Cuban drink Canchánchara too. Made out of rum with honey and lime.
Transportation in Havana
To get around in Havana is pretty easy, and there are 3 main ways to get around.
Buses in Havana
The buses leave from all over the place and people are usually really helpful when it comes to giving directions. I ended up mainly moving around by bus. The cost is 1 CUP or 25 cents CUC/$.
Collectivos in Cuba
Collectivos are basically cars, usually old American cars. Yes, the characteristic ones that you’ve seen on pictures(love them). In general, these cars are about to fall apart. With at least 5 parts customized as access to car parts is basically nonexistent in Cuba. So when something breaks they, fix it or makes something similar that will work. I love it, as every car is unique and has a characteristic to it.
Anyway, the collectivos goes up and down specific streets and Havana and the area around. The cost is 10 CUP or, if you go really far, f.ex to the airport 20 CUP. To the airport was the only time I paid more then 10CUP in a collectivo. Be aware that collectivos might try to charge you more when they get that you’re a tourist. So ask before you get in, and in the beginning, it might be hard to know where the collectivos stop and how far down a street they go and so on. The only thing I can say is, ask(sorry).
Taxis in Cuba
As in any city, the taxis are all over the place, and the key word here is bargain, cause they are most likely to overcharge you. But its easy and fast and will get you to the exact point you want to go. If you choose to go buy collectivo or bus you might have to walk a bit.
How to go in-between cities in Cuba
When it comes to going from town to town in Cuba there are a couple of options. The most popular ones being by the official busses or by taxi.
Buses for locals and for tourists
There are buses that only locals are allowed to get onto, that cost a fraction of what the tourist buses cost. Getting onto one of these buses is possible, but a bit difficult. The official tourist buses are bookable in the bus stations in every town. Be smart about it, cause they book out quickly. When I was there many people had to take taxis from town to town as the busses were all booked out. The taxis are usually 5 CUC or so, more expensive than the official tourist busses.
Alternative ways to get around
If you get to know some locals they usually know other ways to get to towns or knows somebody that can take you for a better price. When a friend and I wanted to go to Viñales to check out nature and the famous tobacco plantations The owner of the hostel we stayed in knew another way to get there. We ended up going via Piña del Rio, by bus, truck, bus, and bus again. This for the cost of 2 CUC/dollars instead of 12 dollars. Just to give you an impression of how affordable you can actually travel around Cuba.
Internet in Cuba
Internet in Cuba is restricted and you’ll find yourself a little more disconnected from the outside world during your stay. With that’s said there is no shortage of public hotspots around the towns. They are easy enough to spot as you’ll see large crowds sitting around, all on their phone.
Hotspots are in a lot of parks and squares, and if you stay in a nice hotel they usually give you internet access for free. Sometimes when I wanted a more comfortable seating and a stable internet connection, I walked into the hotels and found a seat there. I still had to use my internet card there though.
Where to buy internet cards in Cuba
You can buy internet cards in some hotels, in the official offices for internet called ETECSA. People also sell them in the hotspot area(illegally). You can buy cards with 1-10 hours of internet, and you basically just log in every time you’re at a hotspot. Once you have an internet card you can use it all around Cuba where they have internet hotspots and in hotels with internet as well. REMEMBER to log off internet physically, from the connection page in your browser. If you don’t you end up spending data even if you’re not connected.
Is Cuba safe to travel as a solo travler?
So, I traveled Cuba alone, but as always when backpacking, you’re never alone unless you really want to be. At my hostels I met some nice guys that where going the same way as me. I also met people on the street and it made it easier to get around when you were a couple of people. That way we shared the price of the cabs. This applies especially to outside Havana, like in Trinidad and Pina del Rio. It’s also easier to get around, especially on a budget, if you speak a little spanish. However, I don’t think it’s dangerous to travel Cuba alone. Of course bad things can happen, as anywhere else in the world.
There where quite a few instances where people were tricked to pay more, or someone ran off with their phone. Be smart, don’t let a stranger hold your phone, no matter how friendly they seem.
As a lady, prepare yourself for some serious catcalling. I’ve traveled to over 50 countries, but I’ve never been catcalled as I did in Cuba. They comment or whistle as you walk by, they try to touch your shoulder to get your attention, they hang out the window yelling comments at you. I hated it, I felt angry, tried different strategies to show the men that I didn’t think it was ok. I, however, never felt threatened or scared.
With that said, follow your gut, take normal precautions and don’t do anything you wouldn’t have done at home and you’ll have a great time!
Hope this gave you a practical overview of how some of the things work in Cuba. Traveling Cuba on a budget is really not that hard. With all this in mind; I would love to go back again, especially now that I speak Spanish fluently!