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How to backpack Cuba on a budget

by cubapura

Cuba is one of the fastest growing travel destinations in the world. That being said, it is an island of paradoxes: despite the average salary being less than $50 a month, Cuba can be surprisingly expensive. If you want to understand, read why Cuba can be surprisingly expensive for tourists.  In this article will guide you on backpacking Cuba if you are on a low budget.

How much should I budget visiting Cuba?

If money is tight you can visit Cuba and have a good time on 30 dollars a day if you watch your expenses. If you are absolutely crazy you can probably do 15 dollars a day. For most people 50-100 dollars a day would be enough to have fun and not limit yourself. It depends on how you want to travel. This guide will show you how to have a good time on a minimal budget.

  • Food & Drink: 5-15 CUC a day
  • Accommodation: 5-15 CUC a day
  • Transport: 5-15 CUC
  • Recreation & other expenses: 0-15 CUC

Before you go: Planning your trip to Cuba

Preparation is key if you are planning to backpack on a tight budget.

Make sure you familiarize yourself with Cuban money as the double currency system can be confusing. It is also useful to read our guide on how to get cheap flights to Cuba.

Cuban Currency: The Definitive Guide (2019)

Using Cuban money one of the most confusing things about travelling to Cuba. In fact, many tourists who fail to…

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It is important to read about the different types of accommodation in Cuba, transportation and food because otherwise you might lose money, get frustrated and overall have a bad time. For backpackers used to cheap places like South East Asia, you’ll be surprised.

There’s a few things you probably want to bring from your home because chances are you won’t find many every day items you use in Cuba. This includes sunscreen, toothpaste, medicine and feminine hygiene products if you are a solo female traveller. Professional travel bloggers Megan & Mike recommend travelling with a water purifier to save money when travelling across Cuba.

Speaking some Spanish doesn’t hurt. You do not have to be an expert; a few phrases can make a big difference.

Finding Cheap Accommodation in Cuba

Accommodation will be one of your biggest expenses on your trip. Like everywhere, prices vary depending on season, location and conditions. Generally, Havana and touristy cities such as Varadero and Viñales are more expensive than the rest of the country, so if you are travelling on a low budget you should consider getting out of the capital as soon as possible.

Accommodation in Cuba

There are four main types of accommodation in Cuba; hostels, casas particulares, hotels and resorts. Each has its own advantages…

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It is worth booking accommodation in advance because the internet is notoriously bad in Cuba and you can see a wider selection of available options. Some platforms also don’t allow you to book if you are within the country (like Airbnb). On the other hand, if you do arrive without booking a place, there are a lot of people who will try to sell you accommodation, so it’s unlikely you will find nowhere to stay. That being said, if you get taken to a place by an individual that is not the owner, the owner will have to pay commission to the person that “found” you, which obviously gets added on to your price. Finding places to stay online in very remote areas might be impossible, so you’ll have to ask around. Expect haggling.

Warning

Many extremely budget conscious travellers try to message the hostels/casa particulares’s in advance and give them their phone number in a clever way (“305 followed by 55 and 555 after 5”) so that it doesn’t get blocked by the platform. Then they talk on WhatsApp and negotiate a price. That way they avoid paying the extra 15% that platforms like Airbnb/Booking.com charge. This is risky and many owners do not like it. As a traveller you are also at risk as you might end up moved on to an illegal hostel.

Hostels

Hostels in Cuba are the cheapest option if you are travelling solo on a budget. You can easily find rooms on Booking.com and HostelWorld as low as 5 dollars and book before you go. You do get what you pay for though. You can get hostel beds in shared dorms from 5-15 dollars a night in Havana.

Casa Particulares

If you are in a group you should consider getting a casa particular, as the prices can be cheaper per person than staying at a hostel. Cheapest decent areas in Havana are near Centro Habana. The easiest thing is to book them on Airbnb or Booking.com.

Campismos & Camping

Campismos are tourism sites mostly for Cubans. They resemble a camp site without any actual tents but rather small huts. There is a lot of misinformation about whether it is possible for foreigners to stay in a Campismo. Many foreigners have stayed in campismos, but you might be told no by if the manager is uncertain or in a bad mood. In general, the more you move away from the tourist path the more accommodating Cubans are going to be to foreigners.

Many people have camped in Viñales between two mogotes or somewhere along an abandoned beach. That being said, it is technically illegal/frowned upon, but growing more and more accepted. Locals do it all the time. At some locations, like highly deserted cayos, you have no option but to camp as there’s no other option.

How to get around Cuba on a budget

Transportation in Cuba can be expensive in if you don’t prepare. Transportation is practically segregated between locals and tourists, and tourists have to pay a lot more. In short, you have to travel like a Cuban if you want to save money. This generally involves less comfort, more waiting and more research, but the savings can be considerable.

Transportation in Cuba

You can find numerous means of transportation in Cuba: if you are short of money and prefer cheap transportation, you…

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Within cities

Buses

Known as gua gua by the locals, public buses are cheap and are fairly frequent. You literally pay with the smallest coin you can find, as in Havana a bus fare is 2 USD cents. Using the bus to travel is by far the cheapest option. That being said, the buses are crowded, and the schedules can be erratic. All in all, very good value for money.

Colectivos (máquinas in Cuban slang)

Another option is to take colectivos. These run along “roughly” predetermined routes and you can easily identify them for being almendrones. They generally cost 5-10-20 CUP to take, depending on the route and how long you take them for. If in doubt, just ask. Check out this guide for taking almendrones .

A new option is to take the taxi ruteros (route taxis) which also travel along predetermined routes for 5-10-15 CUP.  These are generally newer Asian cars such as Geely or Hyundai.

We advise getting the HABANATRANS app which has a wide range of information on routes within Havana.

Bicitaxis

Bike taxis cost around 5 CUP, depending on the route and distance. Obviously, this isn’t the ideal method to travel large distances, but can be convenient if you do not want to walk in the sun.

Taxis

Most vintage cars in Cuba are taxis or tour operators and are very popular choice with tourists. However, this is the most expensive option and probably not the best choice if you are travelling on a tight budget. A taxi (even the cute coco taxis) will set you back by more or less 10 CUC for almost all distances in Vedado, Centro Habana and Old Havana. More if you go further out.

Between cities

Renting a car

Forget about it if you are a budget traveller.

Bus

The majority of tourists travel between cities via bus in Cuba. The tourist bus line, the Viazul, has relatively new busses and is not that expensive if you are on a short trip. The prices for Viazul can be seen on their website.

However, if you are planning to travel across Cuba for a month, these Viazul rides can add up quite a bit.

If you want to save money on transportation, you’ll have to travel like a local. While it is very difficult for you to get on the local distance bus (called omnibus/ Astro) in a big city like Havana without a local ID, nobody will say anything in remote locations where you have no other choice. This is a sensitive subject, as many people worry the bus drivers will be personally liable for fines if you “trick” them on to letting you on.

Often you can take the smaller local omnibuses which operate only within a province and take money onboarding. There is no legal issue with doing so, you will not get in trouble with the police. But the drivers and the station workers will try to get you to pay CUC. BadPlanet says:

“Sometimes they are rude and ignorant and always finish their suggestion like ‘pay, or take Viazul’ , just ignore it and pay like locals. Normally it is 1CUP to 20CUP.”

Colectivos (máquinas in Cuban slang)

You’ll get a better deal by arranging a colectivo. Because omnibus/Astro tickets are hard to get, even for Cubans, generally bus stations have colectivos outside. These are big old American cars that fit in up to 7 people for a ride and have no set schedule. Enough people get there to fill the car they leave. The earlier you get there the better.  Wherever you are, ask around for where the colectivos out of town leave from.

Colectivos can be substantially cheaper than the Viazul. However, the colectivo drivers (and the herders that herd a group together) will know that you are a tourist, and will try to bring up your prices to match Viazul prices. Be prepared to haggle, and ask around other locals travelling what the fair price is. Moreover, if you take the colectivo at a Viazul station you’ll be in a worse negotiating position: drivers will insist on you paying the Viazul equivalent at least. Try to take colectivos where Cubans take them.

Keep in mind however, that certain routes have a lot more volume for tourists than locals and you’ll have trouble getting on a „local route” colectivo. For example, from Havana most (if not all) long distance colectivos westward will go to Pinar del Rio, the regional capital, not the small town of Viñales. Use this as opportunity to visit less frequently visited cities. Use common sense, and ask around as much as you can, preferably from people who don’t have an incentive to sell you something.

Camiones

Image result for camion cuba transporte

Camiones are old repurposed trucks made in the USSR or China which now transport people. It is not the nicest way to travel: it is cramped, seats are basically benches, people transport live animals, it moves extremely slowly, safety in case of accidents is negligible, and everyone sweats intensively under hot Cuban sun. But it is very cheap.

Camiones generally go along the highway which goes across Cuba, and will leave you on different points along this highway. Needless to say, this isn’t a scheduled super precise operation, so you might have to wait quite a while for the truck to get there.  I wouldn’t advise to travel like this if you are only there for a week or are otherwise in a rush.

A note on camiones, if you get a cheeky enough ticket collector they might try to get you to pay the Viazul price if you look foreign enough. If you are polite but confident enough they’ll realise quickly that it won’t work. Generally, confidence pays off, even if you have no idea what you are doing.

Read our practical guide on travelling with camiones for maps and schedules.

A guide to travelling on camiones in Cuba

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Examples:

How to get from Havana to Viñales

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Standard tourist route: Havana to Viñales

To get to Viñales from Havana like an average tourist, you’d get a taxi from Old Havana to the Viazul bus station for 10 CUC. Then (assuming you manage to get on a Viazul) you’ll take the bus to Viñales for 12 CUC. Or organize a colectivo from your accommodation in Havana to Viñales for 20-30 CUC.

Total cost: 20-30 CUC one way.

Savvy Backpacker:

If you want to save money, you take a bus early in the morning to the Astro bus station where the colectivos leave. Get a colectivo to Pinar del Rio for 5 or 6 CUC. Walk across town to take the colectivo from Pinar del Rio to Viñales for 1 CUC. It’ll take more time, but it costs less than half.

Budget Adventurer:

Wake up early to get to the highway via bus (5 cents). There take a camion to Pinar del Rio for 1 or 2 CUC. Start walking towards Viñales and try to hitchhike. Total cost: less than 3 dollars. This would be rough though.

Food & Drink

Food again, you have to eat like a local as much as possible. Most Cubans get their subsidized food at a local market and cook at home. Of course, this isn’t possible for budget travelers, but there are a few alternatives.

Your solution is to find a good cafeteriaplace where food boxes (called cajitas) are sold.

Image result for cajita cuba

Look out for restaurants on the street with a lot of volume during lunchtime. These are places where professionals are grabbing a meal during work, not relatively fancy locations where Cubans go for special occasions. You will be able to get a very friendly portion for 1-2 CUC. Here you’ll get moros y cristianos and other traditional Cuban dishes.

Typical examples in Havana are:

  • Cafeteria de Infanta y Neptuno (map)
  • Cafeteria La Favorita (map)
  • Cafeteria Los Primos (map)
  • Chaplins (map)

Another option is to eat junk food. The tourist favorite is the peso pizza. It is generally not particularly tasty and filling, but you might want to eat some if you’re tired of rice and beans. You will find them close to bus stops, near cinemas, they are ubiquitous. A relatively good one is Pizza Loca (map). They cost between 10-25 CUP.

In terms of breakfast, it isn’t really a Cuban thing, although casas particulares will make you an amazing breakfast if you ask. What you can do is grab a small coffee for 1 CUP with some bread or fruit, in small places which are confusingly also called cafeterias.

As for alcohol, the cheapest thing you can do is not to drink. If you will drink alcohol anyway, go for rum. You can get a bottle of rum for less than a bottle of water. Spending money of mojitos and other cocktails is a great way to go over budget (and end up with a hangover). A local favourite is the Ron Planchao, which costs 1-1.5 CUC and is of surprisingly good quality considering it comes in what resembles a juice carton.

Image result for Ron Planchao

There are also local regional beers which cost half what the Crystal that gets peddled to tourists costs. Examples of these the Mayabe and Cacique. As well as the tasty Tínima from Camaguey, which can be found in diverse regions of the country.

Cultural events and museums

Image of El Capitolio and a blue Cuban car

The good news is that Cuba is really rich in terms of culture and that the government does a good job at subsidizing it. The bad news is that often (but not always) they’ll try to charge you 25 times the price for being a foreigner by having you pay in CUC instead of CUP.

This depends on location. If you go to the Coppelia in Santiago or the Cabaret in Camaguey they’ll charge you the local rate in CUP. If you try to do the same in Havana you’ll be asked to pay much more in CUC.

An exception is the cinema. It generally costs the same for foreigners as for Cubans: 3 CUP (yes, that’s 12 cents USD). You might be thinking: who wants to go to the cinema on a holiday? But going to the cinema in Cuba is a very different experience, mostly because of the lack of influence of Hollywood.

There are two ways around this. On one hand you can try to convince a Cuban local to buy you a ticket. More often than not they’ll empathise, and you can always buy them a beer for gratitude. Of course, you might get caught by the ticket inspector on the way in if you look obviously foreign, but chances are they do not really care.

On the other hand, you can stick to open and free cultural events. The streets in Cuba are generally bustling with activity, much of which is free. Ask around for events going on, or read up on our events section.

Internet

Internet is expensive, there is no way around it. For more detailed information, check out our beginner’s guide to internet in Cuba.

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Overcharging and Scams

Generally, most people that approach foreign looking individuals want your money. This is less true in places less frequented by tourists and small towns, but almost always true in touristy areas of Havana.

If you want to meet nice, helpful people you’ll have to approach them yourself. Ask many locals what the fair price for something is (e.g. a meal whilst standing in line, or the colectivo from a particular location to another). That way, when its your turn to order you’ll know exactly how much to pay and will be in a better position to bargain.

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