What You Need to Know About Backpacking CUBA | Visas, Accommodation, Money, Transport & Top Tips!
Updated: Apr 20, 2019
Cuba is not really one of the most logistically-easiest countries to visit as a backpacker. Cuba is still virtually cut off to the modern world by way of trade embargos and internet access and it doesn't help that the country has two currencies and a commonly-confused visa process. Safe to say, before visiting Cuba I was slightly overwhelmed. I've written this blog post to include information on everything you need to know before backpacking Cuba - so you can start exploring this wonderful country sooner!
I recently spent a week backpacking in Cuba and visiting Havana, Vinales and Trinidad:
In this blog post I cover a number of aspects of travelling Cuba including:
Visa / Entry & Exit Requirements
Places of interest
People and culture
Safety/travelling as a solo female
Visa / Entry & Exit Requirements
Everyone entering Cuba is required to have a tourist visa before they arrive in the country. You cannot get the visa on arrival - you need it before you board the plane! You can get one of these 'tourist cards' through your travel agent or airline, or through a Cuban Embassy. I bought my visa from my hostel in Cancun, Mexico for $25 USD. Some resellers will charge a commission, so you could expect to pay slightly more, depending where you get yours from.
It is commonly confused that tourists aren't able to enter Cuba direct from the US. However, there are daily direct flights from places in the US e.g. Miami, NYC to Havana and you can obtain your Cuban visa from your airline's desk.
The Australian Government's Smart Traveller website cites that international tourists entering Cuba are required to present proof of comprehensive travel insurance to enter Cuba. I was never asked to show this documentation even though I obviously did have travel insurance.
When you enter Cuba immigration officers will keep one side of your tourist visa slip. Hold onto the other side because you will need it for when you exit!
My Cuban visa / tourist card
Places of Interest
Some of the top destinations frequented by tourists in Cuba are Havana, Vinales, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Santiago De Cuba, Santa Clara and Varadero.
Havana is the country's capital city - full of colourful, classic cars, historic museums and vibrant architecture
Vinales is home to the country's tobacco fields and is popular with rock climbers
Trinidad is a colourful, UNESCO World Heritage colonial town with cobblestone streets
Cienfuegos is a French-colonial town with an interesting historic centre
Santiago De Cuba is Cuba's second largest city and played a crucial role in the revolution
Santa Clara is known for its revolutionary landmarks and is home to the Guevara Mausoleum - the resting place of Che Guevara
Varadero is a popular beach resort town
During the week I spent in Cuba I visited Havana, Vinales and Trinidad which felt quite rushed. I would definitely recommend allowing more time if you are wanting to visit more than one destination!
There are multiple ways to travel around Cuba including bus, colectivos, taxi, car rental or train.
Viazul is Cubas tourist bus network which connects to the most popular destinations on the island. Travel is slow on Viazul - I got stuck on the side of the highway for three hours when our bus broke down - as the roads are bad and the busses aren't well maintained. Tickets aren't particularly cheap either. A nine hour bus ride between Vinales and Trinidad cost me $37 USD. However, this option was best suited to me as a solo backpacker and I used Viazul to get around the entire time I was in Cuba. You can purchase tickets up until two weeks in advance or you will need to go to an outlet to buy a ticket any sooner to your departure date.
Colectivos are shared taxi services that offer tourists transport between towns and within cities. Their prices can rival that of Viazul if you can get a group of people together to split the cost.
There are no shortage of taxis in and around Havana and other popular tourist destinations in Cuba. There are no meters on taxis in Cuba - you should agree on a price before you get in. The fare to/from the airport cost me $25 USD each way.
There are multiple government-run car rental companies in Cuba. If you are open to braving Cuba's poorly maintained highways and forking out some extra cash in exchange for the freedom to explore on your own, this option may be perfect for you!
Cuba does have a train network well renowned for its delays and track interruptions - if they even run at all. Tourists are usually advised not to travel by train in Cuba because its so unreliable.
Our Viazul bus broken down on the side of the highway for 3 hours
The most popular type of accommodation in Cuba are Casa Particulars. Casas Particulars are a kind of homestay arrangement where locals rent out spare rooms in their houses to tourists. The rooms will usually have one or more beds and a private bathroom and the hosts will usually make you breakfast in the morning. Casa Particulars are a great way to immerse yourself in Cuban life and get to know the locals.
You can find a small selection of Casa Particulars listed on booking sites like Airbnb or booking.com. However, there are many that aren't listed online as it it difficult for owners to access these sites due to the internet restrictions in Cuba. Many tourists just arrive in Cuba and wander around until they find the sign denoting a Casa Particular - a blue upside down anchor - and walk in to see if a room is available.
I had great experiences staying in Casa Particulars in Vinales and Trinidad. Often your host in one destination can refer you to a friend/family member with a room available in your next destination.
Hotels are government owned and are generally run down and expensive.
A casa particular in Havana
Cuban food has a reputation for being bland and underwhelming. As an effect of trade embargo and the nation's poverty, there is often food shortages. I went to a cafe and was told that eggs weren't available because they had used up their allocation. At my homestay in Trinidad we were told that we couldn't have bread for breakfast because there was a shortage of flour.
Breakfast at our homestay
However, in most of the major tourist towns there is decent food available at restaurants as the government prioritises the country's food production for tourists. I would recommend searching places on Trip Advisor and saving those places in an offline maps app like Maps.Me in case you don't have internet access.
I did really struggle finding decent food in roadside eateries/bus stops. Often there would be a whole shelf stocked full of Cuban rum and a tiny selection of food that actually looked barely edible. I would definitely recommend bringing snacks like peanut butter, fruit, muesli bars etc with you! I found there to be a few small 'convenience stores' in Havana which had very empty shelves and limited variety - but plenty of rum and cigars!
A store in Havana
Navigating the currency in Cuba can be really confusing. Cuba has two currencies - CUP: the currency Cubans use and CUC (nicknamed 'cook'): the currency for tourists which is tied to the USD. This ultimately means that there is one price for Cubans and a different, more expensive price for for tourists.
When I first arrived in Cuba I was able to exchange the Canadian cash I brought with me to CUC. I brought CAD because (1) I was living in Canada and already had Canadian dollars and (2) The Cuban government charges an additional tax for exchanging USD. I believe there is also an ATM in Havana airport so you can get money when you first arrive.
When I realised I would need more cash than what I'd exchanged, I went to the Metropolitan Bank to try to withdraw more. My cards wouldn't work at any of ATMs out the front of the bank, I found that the transaction needed to be done at a teller rather than and ATM. They require you to present your passport and details of your accommodation in Havana. My Australian Citibank card wouldn't work because Citibank is an American company and all American credit card companies are blocked in Cuba. Thankfully, my Canadian visa debit card worked! I also talked to other Australians who said their Commonwealth Bank cards worked while in Cuba.
Cuba was more expensive than I anticipated - it's definitely not a South-East Asian kind of country in terms of costs. Also, the fact that the Cuban currency is tied to the US dollar makes it less favourable for us Australians.
During my time in Cuba I spent roughly $60 USD / $85 AUD per day. The majority was on accommodation, food and transport. I usually opt for public transport over taxis to save money when I travel but the public transport in Cuba is really not set up for tourists (especially non-Spanish speakers like myself!), so there were many times I was forced to take a cab - which really added up! I stayed in hostels or Casa Particulars, caught Viazul busses between destinations and ate at fairly low-cost restaurants.
The following is a breakdown of my expenses while in Cuba (in USD):
Mojitos $15 - a necessity while in Cuba...
Taxis $77 - the majority of this was paying $25 to/from Havana airport
Busses $74 - I caught Viazul busses everywhere
Wifi Cards $4 - you have to pay $1/hour to connect to wifi hotspots
Toilet $2 - many roadside toilet stops will charge you $1 to use their facilities - this price doesn't even include toilet paper!
People & Culture
Culturally, Cuban people are friendly, passionate and diverse. Much of Cuban people's daily lives happen in the streets where they gather to hang out. Although many people are very poor, they will often smile and greet you in the street. Many people in the tourist industry speak English. However, it is worthwhile if you try to learn at least a little Spanish. I found it difficult to communicate with the host families I stayed with as they only spoke Spanish.
Safety & Travelling as a Solo Female
Source: Smart Traveller
I felt extremely safe as a solo female traveller the entire time I was travelling in Cuba. However, I did find that I received quite a bit of attention (and even a marriage proposal!) from the men in Cuba. However, the extent of this attention was limited to them blowing kisses or calling out. While this was annoying, I didn't feel harmed or in danger at any point.
Cuba has very restricted internet access. You will not find open or free wifi anywhere, nor are you able to purchase a local sim card. The only way for tourists to access the internet is by purchasing wifi 'scratch cards' from an Etecsa outlet. These wifi cards costs $1 CUC each and each have a unique code which allow the user 1 hour of browsing when connected to a Etecsa wifi point. Many public parks and some restaurants, hotels and casa particulars have a hotspot. You can always tell where a wifi hotspot is because there will be a crowd of tourists with their heads in their phones!
Surprisingly, I found the internet speed to be fairly fast. However, actually obtaining these wifi cards can be a challenge. There is only one Etecsa outline in Havana and every time I walked past there was a massive line out the door. However, there were plenty of guys selling wifi cards in parks/outside the Etecsa outlets for a slight markup of $1.50-$2.00.
Etecsa internet access portal
My Top tips
Bring plenty of snacks with you - snacks are very difficult to find or expensive!
Bring a guidebook like Lonely Planet, Moon etc with you as they help a lot for obtaining information on the go when you don't have access to the internet.
Download the app Maps.me and the offline map for Cuba - it works great throughout the country and doesn't need an internet connection to work!
Learn some basic Spanish phrases - locals will appreciate your effort
Bring multiple options for accessing money. Bring cards from different banks and backup cash (USD/CAD/EUR) in case your card doesn’t work.
There are many tourist scams in Cuba. Do your research on current popular scams to learn how to avoid them
Do research on restaurants/activities before you arrive in Cuba as you will have limited access to the internet
Don't feel like you need to book everything before you arrive in Cuba, it's easy to be flexible and talk to your hosts for accommodation recommendations - I only booked my first night in Havana and was glad I did!
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