All you need to know for backpacking in Cuba
Cuba is a wonderful destination with a fascinating history, fantastic nature and gorgeous white sandy beach. But things do run quite differently there and can be confusing for first-time visits. Here are some tips to prepare your first trip to Cuba
There is no Visa on arrival for Cuba ,but most tourists can purchase a tourist card from the airlines they fly with. Sometimes it is even included in the airfares. We flew from Cancun and bought our tourist cards from Interjets’s service desk at the airport on the day. The process was straightforward. We needed to fill in a form and pay the visa fee which is around $20. It was very important not to lose the tourist card, as it is quite a small piece of paper. Keep it with your passport all the time.
The currency system in Cuba is probably the most confusing thing for tourists. Cuba has two currencies: CUC (Cuban convertible peso) and CUP(Cuban peso). CUC is used mainly by tourists and CUP is used by the locals. 1 CUC equals ~25 CUP, or $1.
Where to get CUC
ATMs can be found in Havana airport at the arrival hall. Outside the airport ATMs are hard to find. Although you might occasionally some tourist shops that accept credit cards, the country is mostly run on cash. We brought our money in British Pounds and exchanged them to CUCs in the local banks, where the best rate is offered. To change money you need to bring your passport to the bank. The cashier will ask for many personal details including the address of the casa you stayed in. Plan for plenty of time for this activity! Do not bring US dollars as the exchange rate of dollars is penalized in Cuba. Also be aware when you leave Cuba, CUC is not acceptable at Havana airport’s duty-free shops, but credit cards and CUP are!(as in 2019), So spend or exchange all your CUCs before you leave the country.
Where to get CUP
It is still very useful to have some CUPs with you. Street stands and local restaurants may not accept CUC. Public toilets and buses normally charge 1 CUP and they won’t exchange CUC for you. We got our CUPs by exchanging our CUCs with casa owners and local restaurants.
What to bring in your luggage
Bring major foreign currencies like British pound and Canadian Dollars and change them at banks. Our budget in Cuba was $15/pp for accommodation, $15/pp for food and drinks and $15/pp for activities.
The Cuban sun is strong and sun cream is not something local people use. So bring plenty of them with you.
First aid and essential medicine
The pharmacies in Cuba might lack supply so bring your first aid kit and all the basic medicines.
Toilet paper, tissues and hand gels
Public toilets rarely have toilet paper. The Casas usually provide a small roll during the stay but there is no extra. Bring some spare toilet rolls and hand gels.
You will not go hungry in Cuba, but shops and supermarkets in Cuba usually only have essentials, like water, oil, rum.. But rarely have snacks like biscuits and cookies. Even if they have, they will be the very basic ones. Bring your favourite snacks for the long bus ride.
Backpack, no trolley
Some pavement in Havana desperately needs maintenance and in old cities like Trinidad the streets are lined with cobblestones. Rolling a trolley around in Cuba can be quite painful.
From the airport
The only way to get into Havana city from the airport is by taxi. The fare is fixed at 25 CUC(as in 2019), at night they might try to add a few CUCs.
Long-distance travel between cities is dominated by Viazul, a state-run coach service for tourists. They are big modern air-conditioned coaches running on fixed timetables. We heard sometimes the seats can be broken (though we didn’t have any problems with the seating). As the journey between cities can be quite long so best to check the seats before sitting down. The tickets are in high demand and almost impossible to get on the spot. They can be booked weeks in advance on their website and more tickets are available in their ticket office at every bus station. The Viazul bus station(inside National Bus Station) in Havana is outside the city near Revolution Plaza Havana. In other cities, the bus station is usually in the city centre.
If you can’t get a Viazul ticket, a shared taxi is not much more expensive, especially if you can find other people to share the ride. Casa owners know whom to ask and you usually can spot touts near the bus station.
With an extensive road network and very few traffic, Cuba seems to be a good country for driving, the car rental seems to be expensive and the supply is limited. We were quoted for $100/day so didn’t spend much time to investigate further. If you are keen on cars, hiring a taxi for a day can be an alternative.
Getting around the cities
In Havana, transport for tourists by default is a taxi. The fare ranges from 6-10 CUC depends on the distance. The casa owner can book you a taxi in advance or you can hail one on the street. Many of the cars are restored vintage cars! I couldn’t stop clicking photos.
In Havana, buses are useful and much cheaper (single ride costs 1 CUP!) If you can get some locals to point you to which bus and where the bus stop is, taking the bus can be more fun and save you tons of CUCs.
Outside Havana, cities like Trinidad and Vinales are much smaller and explorable on foot or bikes, especially if you want to visit the nearby countryside.
The Internet is still very limited in Cuba and international roaming can be very expensive. Cuban sim cards are also expensive. For affordable options hourly internet scratch cards can be purchased at ETECSA booth, which cost 1 CUC per hour. Some tourist restaurants do offer free WIFI if you eat there, especially the ones in Vinales.
Having a few essential apps loaded on your phone can make the trip so much easier. As the internet is limited in Cuba, all the apps need to be downloaded and made offline before you arrive in Cuba.
As non-Spanish speaker, I used Google translate everyday during my stay in Cuba. It helped me to communicate with my hosts, asked for directions and understand what is on the menu 🙂 Make sure to download the offline dictionary.
I had both Maps.me’s and Google Maps’ offline map for Cuba installed. Maps.me was able to locate more places and had more detailed route maps. It is quite useful for finding cycling paths, although they both failed to find some restaurants. Always double check with the locals!
Casa Particular or homestay
The best way to experience the authentic Cuban hospitality is staying at one of the Casa particulars run by the local people. They are usually the spare rooms of a family home, which are spotless and usually come with private toilets and air conditioning. The hosts try their best to make sure you are comfortable and they can arrange everything including breakfast, dinner, taxi, bike, horse, tours…They usually cost 15-25 CUC/per night + 5 CUC/pp for breakfast. There are two types of Casa Particulares in Cuba. The blue anchor sign is for tourists and the red ones are for locals. Some Casas in Havana Vieja are more like hotels now and can go for 50+ CUC/night.
Some casas are listed on Airbnb, convenient if you arrive late, but much more are only to be found once you are there. We found amazing accommodations by knocking on doors and talking to the owners at bus stops. Be aware Airbnb service is blocked in Cuba so note down your booking details and communicate with your host before you arrive (I think the casas on Airbnb get friends’ help outside Cuba)
During my research I read state hotels are not well maintained and lack service so we didn’t stay at any hotels. Although I did find some beachfront hotels with great views, it might be worth checking if you are looking for a resort.
Food and drinks
Food at Casa
All the Casas offer a full Cuban breakfast for 5 CUC/pp which includes toast, ham, eggs, fresh fruit, juice and coffee. They were so huge that we never needed lunch. The only downside was the breakfasts were almost exactly the same food regardless where you go in Cuba… But there were no real alternative breakfast options unless you happen to have a good restaurant nearby that opens early for breakfast.
There are two types of restaurants in Cuba, the private and the state-run. The private restaurants cater mainly to tourists, so the taste of food and the service is quite good. But they do charge tourist prices and you are expected to pay around 10-15 CUC for a main and 3-5 CUC for drinks. The state-run restaurants are much cheaper and mainly accept CUP or both. The food and service are not comparable to the private restaurants(with some exceptions) but much cheaper.
The grocery shops are normally quite empty in Cuba, so don’t expect to find anything more than essential. We brought plenty of biscuits and snacks into Cuba for the long bus journeys. But Cuba’s staple, rum, can be found reliably in every corner shop and supermarket. As tap water is not drinkable, buying water is a daily activity and can be a puzzle. We found the best price for water is in state-run supermarkets, where 1.5L water costs 0.8 CUC(as in 2019) and 5L cost 1.9 CUC. In private shops, the price can be doubled. In Vinales the state-run supermarket is on the main street and in Havana, I found some in the old city.
Cuba’s staple, rum, can be found reliably in every corner shop and supermarket. The most common brand is Havana Club, which costs around $6 for a three-year white rum bottle. For some truly local brands like Santiago de Cuba, bigger state-run supermarkets and speciality shops in Havana are good places to look(see my Havana post).
Unbranded cigars are offered for 3-5 CUCs per piece on the tobacco farms in Vinales. In Havana, branded cigars in boxes(costs 6 CUC- 20 CUC per cigar ) are reliable to buy at state-run tobacco shops.
We found the best souvenirs on Vinales and Trinidad’s street markets, like handmade wooden spoons and linen tablecloth. Options in Havana are very limited.
Hope now you feel more prepared to travel to Cuba! If you need more inspiration, check out my posts for Havana, Trinidad and Vinales.