Travel to Cuba is every sound and shade of Caribbean beautiful on the surface – famed for its world-class cigars, infectious street music, vintage Cadillacs and pastel-hued decaying mansions. Beneath that, it’s an island unlike its neighbours – fractured by Communist rule and archaic social systems that makes travelling here frustrating.
A source of fascination and media frenzy that was once only accessible to outsiders via its paradise beach hubs and neighbouring cities, travel to Cuba has been open to wider exploration for quite some time. Independent travel in Cuba, away from cruise ship excursions and resort holidays, isn’t at all easy, but worth the challenge if you are curious enough to dig deeper. It’s one of the most captivating places you will ever visit, and deemed the most fascinating of all the Caribbean.
Cuba is a country whose slow climb to normality is what many foreign visitors inadvertently come to see. Its people are welcoming and will greet you with a smile, yet most are struggling. The retro cars and crumbling buildings may be kitsch and step-back-in-time, but they are a reminder of the thwarted growth of the country. This is just some of the many contradictions you will face while travelling here.
There’s a much bigger picture that you do not see until you are there.
Beyond the usual Introduction to the Cuba travel circuit of Havana, Viñales and Varadero, I spent a month travelling further afield with two friends, venturing beyond to Matanzas, Santa Clara, Remedios, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Camagüey, Santiago De Cuba, Sancti Spiritus and Baracoa.
We were a team on a mission to uncover Cuba and its multi-layered landscapes and regions, knowing full well it wasn’t going to always be easy. It’s hard to put into words the things we saw and the things we heard. It was hard work to even find out information needed to get a clearer picture. The things we loved, and loathed and found confusing. The things which were heartbreaking to see. The first-hand lessons of history, found in every town and city and quiet street corner, those of which summon almost daily debates over dinner about what aspects of this communist society work… and those that don’t. Travel to Cuba soon shatters a lot of dreams.
For now, here is my complete guide to how to prepare for independent travel to Cuba, and the things you will encounter on the ground. Travel extensively, and you’ll soon see that change is more important than those selfishly crying out, following the recent death of Fidel Castro, to get to Cuba before it does.
Get a Map of Cuba & Prepare for Last Minute Changes
Cuba is huge – its 15 provinces span over 110,000 square kilometres and getting from one end to the other of this long island is a journey of over 1,100 kilometres! Destinations may look close to one another on a map, but can take many more hours than imagined. Getting from A to B isn’t always simple – you can’t plan your days according to rigid timetables.
Roughly plan where you want to go on a map that you can keep with you. Highlight the places you want to visit and start planning your first two or three stops. It’s hard to plan beyond that, since you can’t always get the bus tickets where and when you want. A map will be useful for when you need to switch routes and see where the next nearest city is, or the next best place to pick up a bus or a shared taxi.
Our plan was to catch a bus from Varadero that makes it route all the way down the National Throughway road towards Santiago De Cuba in the east of the island. Except we couldn’t get bus tickets for days, and nor could we afford to lose time waiting. That meant not even being able to get a ticket to Santa Clara along the way, from which we could easily get to Cienfuegos and Trinidad before venturing eastwards.
Our plan then changed to using a different bus route that would take us from Varadero to Cienfuegos and to Trinidad, and when we couldn’t get a bus to move further east (and would have to go back to Cienfuegos to easily travel to Santa Clara) we got a taxi to neighbouring Sancti Spiritus where we picked up another bus on the its way to Santiago De Cuba. From there we travelled to Baracoa at the very end of the island, where we formulated a new plan and worked backwards towards the capital, taking in the cities on the main National Throughway road: Baracoa – Camagüey – Santa Clara – Havana.
Rule: there’s no one set easy route to travel around Cuba. Don’t plan too much and take it all as it comes.
Our plans changed so many times that I lost count, but we were quickly able to work out a plan of action by referring to our giant map. I got mine, by Auténtica Cuba’ at a travel show, which is more detailed than their Cuba cities map online.
The Cuba Lonely Planet guidebook, also with useful maps, was handy to scribble down points of interest and have for quick referral when booking transport and making last-minute plans.
Cuban Money – The Two Currencies
In Cuba there are two currencies:
- The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) – the exchange rate being approximately 1:1 with the US Dollar
When you travel to Cuba, the first thing you need to do when you step off the plane is secure a good sum of cash to travel with. Since you cannot buy Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) outside of the country, you will need to bring Dollars or Euros to exchange at the airport when you arrive, and at the banks in all cities.
- The Cuban Non-Convertible Peso (CUP) or Meneda Nacional (MN) or National Peso – the exchange rate being 24 CUPS/National Pesos to one CUC.
The bills are very similar, so be sure to look at the wording closely, especially when getting change from a CUC bill. Don’t be surprised if someone has tried to give you the change in CUP notes and coins, as it’s a common scam.
Still, knowing these exchange rates is helpful, as you may, in rare circumstances, have to convert in order to pay for something. Examples include at local ice cream vendors or street food stands, where 5 CUP can be paid using a 20 or 25 CUC cent coin and for the toilets at bus station stops and elsewhere. The standard price for using the toiler is 1 CUP, so keep 5 CUC cent coins handy for those moments. Many tourists hand over 1 CUC ($1) not knowing.
National Pesos / CUPS can also be used at local markets, street stores and food shacks, and colectivo taxis.
For further information on Cuban money and the differences in notes, alongside current exchange rates, check out this Cuba Currency website.
Spending CUPS / Cuban National Pesos
Tourists are not ‘supposed’ to use the Meneda Nacional CUP, because having our own imposed currency to use means we can be charged inflated prices. It was once only the governments who used to run local businesses including restaurants, and despite local people being granted the rights to own and run their own businesses, they are still heavily monitored.
However, it’s not illegal and nor is it impossible to dabble in local currency. The likelihood being that you will find it hard to a) exchange CUCs to CUPS, although some banks do b) find people willing to take it, since the CUC is worth more to them.
I’m not going to lie, spending local money became a joy, not only because it made a standard expensive Cuba trip more budget, but because we got to find tucked-away stores in quiet neighbourhoods and hole-in-the-wall vendors where we could hang out with the locals.
We would exchange money (sometimes just two or three CUCS at a time) with local friends or the Casa owner and save every National Peso coin we were given in change when paying for something in CUCs where exact change couldn’t be given.
One of my most treasured memories was stumbling upon a small shop in a backstreet in Trinidad where my friend and I spent two hours eating ham sandwiches and drinking Cuban rum and coffee, before buying wine and cigars to take away with us. Our afternoon set us back around $10, which is just under half of what a Cuban makes in one month. We got a chance to experience the real Cuba, as well as give back to a local business directly.
A Cuban friend in Santiago de Cuba took us to a Cuban restaurant set-up that was inside a house – a place with no sign and known only to locals. This was a special experience and one certainly attributed to being with a Cuban who know about it and could get us in.
How Much Does it Cost to Travel in Cuba?
Despite being Socialist, high prices are enforced across the entire country, where capitalist commercialism and tourist prices are in place for visitors making it fairly expensive.
It’s a contradiction for sure, but don’t assume travel to Cuba is cheaper just because it is communist it therefore cheaper. You may be bringing in a stranger currency, but it’s not converted to a local one.
While the country used to only be set up for visitors in relation to coastal resort packages, over the years a chaotic and inflated pricing system has sprung up all over. Most local restaurants will even hand you a specific tourist menu – one with less options and incredibly inflated prices. This also means you are likely to be ripped off often, especially where pricing isn’t clear regarding the CUC and the CUP and it comes of no surprise to hear that a black market is in firm force for locals, who often has to pay CUC prices for luxury goods.
Overall Costs of a One-Month Trip to Cuba
Backpacking Cuba is not as budget style as Asia, but can be cheap if you keep a tight eye on your expenditure.
In one month I spent a total of £1500, plus £700 on flights from Europe to Canada return and internally from Toronto to Cuba.
Our average daily budget in Cuba was 50 – 60 CUC ($50), including food, accommodation and entrance fees.
Exchanging Money in Cuba – Banks and ATMs
We brought in mix of US Dollars, Canadian Dollars and Euros, and changed them at banks – Casas de Cambio SA (CADECA) – all over the country. I took 700 US Dollars and 500 Euros in hard cash with me, but it was far from being enough. I ended up withdrawing over $1,000 from ATMs in four separate transactions (luckily I have an international Caxton FX card that doesn’t charge me fees for withdrawals).
You’ll find ATMs all over, including in the small town of mountainous Viñales, but individual ATM machine fees apply so it’s best to carry as much hard cash with you as possible.
Standard Travel Costs In Cuba
Accommodation: 25 CUC ($25) per room, per night in a Casa Particulares (see below). An extra 5 CUC ($5) is charged for breakfast and a meal at the home stay will set you back around 10 CUC ($25).
Food: You can spend anywhere between 20 cents on a local ‘Peso Pizza’ or ham sandwich, to 15 CUC ($15) on a three-course meal at a local restaurant.
Drinks & Alcohol: A spirit and mixer could set you back as much as 5 CUC ($5) in some bars, and beers a little cheaper. We found it cheaper to buy a bottle of rum for the same price (or beers from the local store for 1 CUC), which we often drank on the street and shared with locals. Cue guitars, and lots of sporadic singing and dancing. A one litre bottle of mineral water should cost you less than 1 CUC.
Entrance Fees: You will notice the inflated prices between the tourist entrance fee and the local fee at museums and sites of historical interest, where a 4 CUC entrance for visitors is only 4 CUP / National Peso price tag for locals. That’s $4 vs. less than $0.20 cents for locals – over 20 TIMES the price.
There were times where we pushed our luck, like at a Salsa stage show bar in Trinidad where there was a 3 CUC charge for tourists ($3) and a 3 CUP/National Peso charge for locals. Sometimes they let us get away with it, admiring our audacity in the face of tourist inflation at government-run establishments, whereas others simply gave us a hell no.
Extra Costs in Cuba
Buses: Ranged from 11 – 25 CUC ($11-$25) one way
Taxi hire: Prices for day trips worked out between 40-60 CUC for a round-day trip
Colectivos: Set prices ranging from 10 – 20 CUC depending on distance. Find out the set price from locals before embarking on the trip.
Local buses: Which you can catch to the beach in towns close to the coast (such as Trinidad) cost around 2 CUC ($2).
Internet cards: A one-hour card costs 2 CUC ($2) and five-hour card costs 10 CUC ($10). See below for further information.
Airport Departure Tax: Keep 25 CUC ($25) aside for when you leave.
Getting a Tourist Visa for Cuba
Check with the airline if a visa is included
In most cases, it is. I travelled with WestJet from Toronto and despite it not being a part of a package holiday, I was given a visa slip free of charge. That was after getting a Cuba visa at the embassy in London as precaution, at the cost of £15. Check with your travel agent or airline before you leave.
Remember to keep 25 CUC ($25) for the Airport Departure Tax, which you will pay officials at passport control as you are stamped out of the country.
Can Americans Travel to Cuba?
It’s always been effectively illegal without going through the proper license channels, but there were ways around it without any serious repercussions. Americans have been entering Cuba for years in organised tour groups or with a special license following written permission.
Most of the American travellers I met got around such restrictions by flying via a non-US Gateway, such as Canada or Mexico. To avoid any trouble with US authorities when going home, their visa card (which they purchased at the airport or which was given to them on the flight) was stamped instead of their passport or (with some discussion with officials), no passport stamp was given at all.
However, a lot has changed for travellers from the US wishing to travel to Cuba.
Changes in Rules for American Travellers
In December 2014, President Obama announced plans for the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba, ending trade embargos, which have been in place since 1960.
Since January 2015 the US Department of the Treasury announced amendments to the sanctions, where Americans can be granted ‘general licenses’ if they fall under one of 12 categories of travel. These include family visits, journalistic activity; professional research, educational and religious activities; public performances and humanitarian projects and support for the Cuban people.
If you meet one of these 12 categories you do need to apply for a license to travel to Cuba. Recent travellers has stated they simply declared their reason for visiting Cuba at passport control.
On 31st August 2016, the US Department of Transportation announced that only 20 daily non-stop flights would operate from the US to Havana, 14 of which will be from Florida. Operators include Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, and United.
As part of the changes, travellers can now use U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba. Still take cash a precaution.
Stay up to date with developments on the website for the US Embassy in Havana.
Travel Insurance for Cuba is Mandatory
The Cuban government announced in early 2010 that all foreign visitors who wish to travel to Cuba are required to have a travel insurance policy that covers the full duration of their trip, before they enter the country. I was never once asked to produce my documents upon arrival, although I had a printed copy just in case. Regardless, you shouldn’t travel without travel insurance. Some policies do not cover Cuba, but World Nomads does. Medical assistance, in particular, can be very expensive in Cuba.
Where to Stay in Cuba – Casas Particulares
A ‘Casa Particular’ is a Cuban homestay, and the best and often the only option, especially in smaller towns. You occupy a bedroom in a local house, which has been transformed into a little guesthouse. Often you get your own bathroom, or you share with the family. The beauty of this is living local, having a Cuban on hand to help you and being right in the centre of each destination where the Casas are often situated. Just be prepared, in the majority of cases, to live simply.
Don’t be alarmed at having to hand over your passport at each Casa Particular. The owners have to apply for a special government license in order to operate this business and have to log each visitor and declare all income every day. Despite this, your money is directly in the hands of the locals (despite the high taxes), and you will be well looked after. Some of our Casa Mama and Papas made us dinner for an extra price (around 10CUCS) and a hearty breakfast of eggs, bread, fruits and coffee for 5 CUCS. This is offered to you upon arrival so they can pre-plan what foods they need to buy.
We found our Casas on CubaJunky, calling those listed in the Cuba Lonely Planet guide book and largely from the recommendations of Casa owners who would call through to their contact (often family members) in the next city, who would be there waiting to pick us up.
AirBnb in Cuba
Hostels in Cuba
While there’s not a huge amount of options for hostel set-ups in Cuba, there are some larger casas with multiple rooms, and some with dorms. Hostelworld lists options in Havana, Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba and Varadero.
Food in Cuba – Lower Your Expectations
Outside of Havana, where international cuisine is prominent, Cuba is not a huge foodie destination. Let’s not forget that this is a country whose citizens survive on meager rations, so always bear in mind that as a visitor in a home stay, you are on the tail end of this, and that supermarket offerings are limited.
Cuban Dishes to Try
However, signature Cuban dishes to indulge in are ‘Ropa Vieja’ (shredded beef), normally served with rice and fried plantains (the latter of which I never got bored with); fresh lobster when on the coastal fringes and ‘Arroz con Pollo’ – the simple but tasty chicken and rice, best served from a local BBQ joint.
Food at a Cuba Casa Particular
Breakfasts at homestays are normally an extra 5 CUC ($5) and are plentiful, consisting of bread and an egg, jams, fresh fruit and coffee. We often took some of it away for snacks. Casas on the coast offered Lobster for dinner, which was a real treat, which came with dessert and a glass of wine for around 10 CUC ($10).
Cuban Restaurants & Street Food
Paladares (house restaurants), which are privately run from a family home, are also a great for local dishes, and where profit goes straight into local hands.
Look out for locals queuing at a hole in the wall where you can pick up the infamous ‘Peso Pizza’ and local pizza and pasta places where you can get a meal for 1-2 CUC and save on budget, but know that spam (processed ham) is a filler in most foods and can quickly get boring.
Pre-Book Popular Restaurants in Havana
If you want to try out one of Havana’s restaurant highlights, or a venue putting on a seasonal event or dinner setting (such as New Year’s Eve), it is advised to book several days in advance. My friends booked one or two restaurants before our month-long trip even started.
Bring Your Own Snacks to Cuba
Bring snacks with you for sustenance – cereal bars, cookies and other such snacks are hard to find and three times more expensive than home. Also bring ketchup, Tabasco sauce and other flavourings, as a lot of food can be mightily bland.
Cuba Transport System – Tourist Bus
The cheapest, quickest and most convenient way to travel around Cuba is by the Viazul bus network. Try and reserve in advance or buy tickets at least the day before you travel, either online or in person, as the buses fill up fast – especially the route from Havana towards Santiago de Cuba (going in the opposite direction is not so crowded). Where possible, and if you know your dates, ask if you can book more than one destination ticket at the station you find yourself at. We were able to do that on a couple of occasions.
Not that often we found the buses were overbooked, resulting in some travellers sitting on the floor or not being allowed on. As much as you may relish the politeness in queuing, be sure to nab a spot closest to the bus door while you are waiting. If you are with others, set a system like we did where one was responsible for loading the bags, and the others were responsible for running on the bus and holding seats!
Cuba Transport System – Colectivos and Taxi’s
Colectivos are shared local taxis – a taxi in Cuba is an old American car – and often the better choice if travelling to a neighbouring city. They are slightly more expense on average, but cut out a lot of the hassle with booking and waiting for the big buses for such a short journey. We took one from Havana to Vinales and it cost 20 CUC ($20) per person.
The cars should have a taxi sign in their front window, and all routes have a fixed price, so it’s worth asking your Casa owner what this should be for your desired route. If you have space in the car, expect Cubans to jump in along the way – this is course, being the convenience of this kind of taxi set up.
There were times that we often hired a standard taxi, not a colectivo, for shorter distances such as Varadero to Matanzas, Cienfuegos to Trinidad and Trinidad to Sancti Spiritus.
The one ‘consistent’ of travel to Cuba is that you will find that your plans quickly change. Plan as you go along according to what buses are available for your desired route and time. Be open and aware that you may have to spend more on a taxi just to get to where you need to be, or for an open bus connection, which is why we ended up in Sancti Spiritus.
Car Hire In Cuba – Consider Hiring a Driver
We often found it cheaper to hire a driver for the day in all Cuban cities, getting out to the coastal fringes and lookouts, than to hire a car and drive ourselves. A taxi for the day may seem expensive but is the best option, especially when sharing the cost with another or a small group – cheaper than hiring a car AND paying the fuel on top. One litre of fuel costs just over 1 CUC ($1) and private car hire can be around 70 CUCS ($70) for the day.
An average cost to hire a taxi for the day was 60 CUC ($60) inclusive, where around two-thirds of that money went to the driver and the rest spent on fuel.
Internet Availability in Cuba is Limited & Costly
Internet is only available at the public plazas (squares), or within the big hotels set on the plaza.
ETECSA buildings (blue logo) are at each plaza, and can’t be missed with their stupidly long queues. It’s here that you can buy a 1-hour card for 2 CUC ($2) or a 5-hour card for 10 CUC ($10), each with a code that you enter on your phone. Your details are often logged at the time of purchase next to the individual card number. Some of the hotels also sell these cards, and are happy for you to lounge in the foyer while you surf the web.
Each log-in code has a visible timer, so that you do not lose any minutes if you log out before your time is up. Therefore it is easier to buy 5-hourly cards to avoid long waits in line. Street hawkers will try to sell you the cards on the street, often with no discount or nothing that amounts to little more than a CUC. It’s not worth the risk.
Internet was only introduced in the middle of 2015, so once pensive open squares are now crowded with people with their heads in their phones. The only app available to Cubans on their phones two years ago was e-mail, and now the internet is more available another world has opened up to them (despite being monitored and limited). A waiter told us that the youth no longer socialise, and many Cubans who do make it abroad download what they need before coming home.
Annoyed by the price? In a country where the average monthly wage is $25, you can only imagine how much of an expensive indulgence the Internet really is.
Learn Basic Spanish for Travel in Cuba
Knowing basic Spanish is essential for travel in Cuba, or at least have a Spanish phrasebook or a means of translation available such as Google Translate or a language app on your phone that can work offline. You can travel to Cuba with no Spanish skills, but your time will be highly frustrating or filled with mime! English is not as widely spoken in Cuba as you may think, especially when you move outside of established destinations on the tourism route.
Bring Medication & Essentials – Cuba is Limited on Supplies
Cuba may have one of the world’s best medical systems in practice, but it doesn’t have the resources. What medications exist are limited to locals (and rightly so) and big pharmacies are very rare to find.
Bring Imodium and flushable toilet tissue wipes for bad days, baby wipes, Pepto-Bismol, travel anti-bacterial hand-gel, painkillers, natural deet-free mosquito spray, sun cream (the once a day sun protection can be handy for busy sightseeing days) – all the essentials. If you do stumble upon a store that contains any items with resemblance to medicines at home then you will be paying ridiculously high prices – likely three times the amount.
Laundry is something that comes with an inflated cost, especially since detergent is expensive for locals. Therefore the costs at a Casa come in high (up to 6 CUC / $6). Consider bringing travel wash with you for hand washing.
Consider leaving anything you have left over behind. The local people will appreciate it.
Bring Items for Donation – Cuba is a Ration Nation
A life built on a ration system and low wages means the things we take for granted are hard to come by or expensive for the local people. For example, there is no soap and toothpaste included on the monthly ration list.
Consider bringing things like soaps, general cosmetics, pens and notebooks that you can donate or give to your Casa owners to distribute. It’s very likely you will be asked often on the street for clothing.
Is Cuba Safe?
Cuba is considered safe to travel in, even for independent travellers. Petty crime and pickpocketing can be common, but easily avoided by being streetwise. The only bad attention we ever encountered was from professional street beggars who got aggressive when we said no and from a local we were hanging out with one evening who proceeded to continuously ask us for money. Therefore the main interference you will encounter in Cuba is opportunism.
Cuba’s ‘Committees for the Defence of the Revolution’
Cubans lives under a system of surveillance that you will see by the hand-painted CDR signs on houses, walls and fences in every neighbourhood you walk through. CDR stands for the ‘Committees for the Defense of the Revolution’ – a form of secret police that monitors the livelihoods and actions of the people. Others argue it as force for social good that brings the community together. The CDR, however, is not in force for travellers, and nor will it affect your travels in the country.
Solo Female Travel to Cuba – You Will Get Attention
However, it is not dangerous. Cuban men are open; the culture passionate, and it is not uncommon for wolf whistles and unsubtle looks and glances to be bestowed upon you. I walked around the backstreets of Havana, solo, for days and the best thing was to ignore it so as not to incite or give a false impression. Often you can answer back sarcastically and it breaks the ice. Cubans live outdoors, with families hanging out on their street, sitting on the porch watching the world go by or playing board games. You are never really alone.
Don’t be alarmed if men come right up to you and ask you to Salsa at evening events and street gatherings. Dancing is everything and if often with no other intention other than to express yourself the way Cubans know best – music and moves.
Pack a LOT of Patience for Cuba Travel
Cuba is a beautiful as it is heartbreaking, as random as it is challenging. Your senses will be in overdrive and not everything will appear as magical as you assumed, especially once you dig deeper into exactly what is happening there. However, such realisations soon put you back in your place – we were told Cubans are taught from a young age that, “everything takes time.”
Solo Travel vs. Small Group Tours in Cuba?
Not sure about solo travel in Cuba? Would you rather a route plan be taken care of and to travel in a small group with fellow adventurers? I recommend this 15-day Cuba tour with G Adventures, which takes in a lot of the country’s key cities in a big loop from Havana to Baracoa.
Suggested Books to Read for Inspiration
- The Other Side of Paradise
- My Life – Fidel Castro
- Motorcycle Diaries
- Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba
- Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life
- My Life With Che
- Slow Train to Guantanamo
- Last Dance in Havana
What other tips and insights do you have for those planning on travelling to Cuba?