| 14 min read
Arriving in Cuba feels as if you’ve time-travelled to a fascinating past. Vintage cars, old colonial houses, overly relaxed people and…no internet. Considering the lack of wi-fi spots and the hassle of actually finding and using one, it would be wise to get your budget sorted out beforehand. How much can you expect to spend while independently backpacking in Cuba? The short answer is: unexpectedly little. Provided you go ‘local’. We discovered this beautiful island for about 5 weeks and even took an inland flight, which in total only set us back about 600 EUR.
- Cuba has a dual currency system: tourists use the CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) whereas locals use the CUP (Cuban Peso). Don’t mix them up, because the CUP isn’t worth much in comparison. 1 CUC = 25 CUP.
- Always keep in mind that 1 CUC equals 1 US dollar.
- Although you can only withdraw money in CUC, always trade some for CUP, which you can use for small exchanges such as foods, drinks and local public transport. As a rule of thumb, always carry about 1/4th of our cash in CUP and you’ll save up a considerable amount of money. Most larger expenses (housing, Viazul buses, excursions…) will be in CUC though.
- US dollars are accepted, but come with a flat 10% commission. Cards from American Banks aren’t accepted everywhere. One would end up believing that the Cuban government dislikes the US….
- Since a few years, ATM’s aren’t that hard to find anymore. Mastercard and Visa are accepted.
- Although you can convert money on the street, it’s best to go to a bank. Exchange rates are very reasonable. Cuban banks operate in a peculiar way, as you will find out. It’s strictly forbidden to use a cellphone, you need to bring passport and your hotel details, while only one person can go to the counter at any given time, even if you’re together. As usual, prepare to queue.
- Generally, only cash is accepted for transactions throughout Cuba. CUP will be refused for larger sums.
While in Cuba, you’ll probably stay in casa particulares, which are usually the homes of Cuban families who rent out rooms or even whole floors to tourists. As they have to comply with many strict government rules, these rooms are actually very comfortable and come equipped with a double bed, air-conditioning, a television and a fridge. Prices typically range between 15-30 CUC per night. Usually there is no need to book beforehand, as the abundancy of casa particulares results in a multitude of vacant rooms. We often lowered the price considerably by negotiating, especially in the evening. In a country where monthly wages average around 40CUC (which isn’t merely enough to cover the license to operate a casa particular), people don’t waste the opportunity to have guests over. We usually paid 10-20CUC per night, even in tourist hubs as Varadero. Higher prices usually equal English-speaking hosts and better lodgings.
The price doesn’t include breakfast, which comes at an additional 3-5 CUC and is made up of bread, coffee, some spreads, cheese, and fruit. Knowing that you can buy a full breakfast with fresh juice or coffee for 1 CUC in the street, this is actually quite expensive. As opposed to lodging, breakfast is a real source of income for Cuban hosts.
Some casa particulares are real gems and the social contact with the hosts and their culture will make up a big part of your Cuban experience.
You’ll recognize casa particulares by the blue ‘anchor’ sign on their wall. Sometimes you will see a similar sign but in red; these are for locals only and are charged in CUP
Couchsurfing is forbidden in Cuba, as the inhabitants need expensive licenses to accommodate foreigners
‘The more you travel around, the more you spend’ does not apply to Cuba. Getting around can be dirt-cheap, but it will cost precious time. A lot in some cases. Getting around Cuba is all the more challenging due to restrictions on tourists using local forms of transport which are, in theory, for Cuban citizens only.
Below are some indications on the current prices for the different types of transport. If you want to know the exact price for a specific journey, ask your host or another local, provided they don’t get a percentage of your fee.
Taxis are expensive compared to other means of transportation. A ride will set you back around 1 CUC per km within the city, and in Havana even more. You can be driven around in a classic American car in Havana for about 30 CUC per hour. Airport services are a different story. As airports aren’t always serviced by buses, taxis take advantage of their monopoly which results in fares of about 25 CUC per airport transfer for both Havana and Varadero. Don’t expect taxis to use their meters even if they have them, so agree on a price before getting in. Only use taxis for short distances, as buses or colectivos are the better option for longer distances.
LOCAL CITY BUS
Local city buses are called guaguas (pronounced as wah-wahs). They operate along fixed routes and stops. There is always a line, even if it’s not immediately observable upon arrival. Shout ‘el último?’ to find out who is the last in line and remember his/her face to board after that person.
When the bus (finally) arrives, you should pay the driver upon boarding. Given that the bus is likely to be jam-packed, you’ll have to find a way to cramp your way in. Getting off these outdated mobile saunas can be a bit tricky as well. If you find yourself at more than 2 meters from the rear door, it’ll probably be a better idea to just crowd-surf your way out. Or do it the old-fashioned way by saying ‘permiso’ to every person blocking the way.
The fixed price is 0.4 CUP or 0.05 CUC per ride. Yes, you read that correctly. The transport was so cheap we even got offered free bus tickets by locals. Or did they just wanted to see us suffer as much as they did?
In many cities you can find coches de caballo (horse carriages) that trot along fixed routes, very often between train/bus stations and city centers. These are an excellent option to avoid expensive taxis if you happen to go in the same direction. Expect to pay 1 CUP.
It’s easy to spot the pedal-powered bici-Taxi in the major cities. These tricycles provide room for two passengers (and their luggage), and are great for short distances. Always agree on the price beforehand, as some will try to charge you more than an actual taxi. Expect to pay 0,5 to 1 CUC per kilometer, although Cubans pay less.
This tourist-only long-distance coach service connects all major tourist destinations. It’s not very expensive and the service is basic but comfortable. Air-conditioning is provided, to such a point even that you should always keep a warm sweater nearby. We were freezing on our way to Viazul bus station.
Note: Although Viazul is more reliable than most other forms of transport, one of the few Viazul buses we booked, never showed up. No explanation nor refund was given and all passengers had to look for alternative ways of transport.
Some prices as of 2019:
- Havana to Vinales: 12 CUC, duration: 4 hours (183 km)
- Havana to Trinidad: 25 CUC, duration: 7 hours (315 km)
- Vinales to Trinidad: 37 CUC, duration: 9,5 hours (495km)
Works the same way as Viazul, but only for locals. These buses connect all major cities and provide a comfortable ride, but for a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately, they don’t accept tourists and we heard the driver could get in trouble if he lets you board. We tried to take these buses a few times while pretending to be Cuban, but were greeted with a polite ‘no’ in most cases. You could plead or offer to pay more than the normal fare (which will still be cheap), or just try your luck with the next bus with hopefully a more willing drive. Expect to pay up to 10 times less than the Viazul.
At every big bus station, you will find camiones that plough the road to and from nearby cities. They are a cheap way to travel short to mid-range lengths. Depending on the bus station, you’ll have to get a number at the counter or just queue in line by asking for ‘el último’. Upon boarding you’ll have to pay in CUP. Ask locals about the exact fare and hand over the exact amount.
Camiones run by a schedule, although it is not always strictly followed and buses not showing up are not exceptional. For many destinations, the time of departure is in the early morning. This is because camiones are not that fast and everybody can flag one on the way, which results in innumerable stops. Don’t be surprised if the driver -or anybody else- keeps everybody waiting while shopping for vegetables or fruit at a road stop.
As with the city buses, camion traveling is a crowded, hot and steamy journey in a diesel fumes-spewing old-timers. We encountered two types of camiones: one was fitted like a very basic bus, with actual windows and seats, and the other is basically a slightly modified truck, with benches on either side. The one you’ll end up enjoying is a luck of the draw. In theory, tourists are forbidden to use this type of transport, but you’ll find it’s not that difficult to board one and pay the same fare as the locals. If you fail, try again with the next camion or plead with the driver or other passengers.
These shared taxis connect all cities and are usually found near the bus station or major city intersections. Usually you can ask your host to book one to pick you up at the doorstep of your casa particular. These taxis are usually pre-1959 American cars with at least 2.000.000 kilometers of experience and it’s fascinating how beautiful they can be. They break down a lot, but don’t worry: other taxi colectivos will quickly stop to help out their stranded comrade. Prices are comparable to the Viazul fares. Keep in mind that the taxi colectivo will only depart when it’s fully occupied. Negotiating a better price isn’t frowned upon.
HIRING A CAR
Renting a car in Cuba provides more freedom and flexibility, but comes with a cost. Expect to pay between 60-150 CUC per day. Keep in mind that the roads are littered with potholes, and buy a good map beforehand.
As getting around takes up a lot of time, another option is taking a direct flight to get across the island quickly. We booked one flight from Varadero in the west to Baracoa in the east and paid about 150 EUR per person, which took us a few hours to reach Baracoa instead of two days by bus.
Although in theory, it is possible to travel cheaply by train, it’s not recommended if you have a set schedule. The trains are notoriously unreliable, usually delayed, very slow, and uncomfortable. Moreover, most tracks and carriages are out of use due to the continual streak of hurricanes pounding Cuba annually.
Hitchhiking is forbidden for tourists and no Cuban will pick you up, as they need an expensive license to transport foreigners.
Cuba won’t top the list of culinary countries. Most menus are remarkably similar and ‘international’ cuisine is rare. On the bright side, you won’t spend a fortune on food in Cuba as prices vary between 1 and 15 CUC. Depending on your budget and desire for proper food, these are your options:
Offering a decent meal for next to nothing, these restaurants are usually hidden away to discourage tourists to go there. Ask locals to point them out to you. Once you found them (behind a blind door of a seemingly normal house, cached in an alleyway, …), just walk in and have a seat. Don’t expect a good service or a nice atmosphere. As the employees make about 40 CUC a month, most don’t really care a lot about working. We even had one restaurant where they locked new guests out during opening hours, when the restaurant was only about 1/4th full. Although these restaurants usually have menus with set meals, they will only be able to serve a few of them, so inform beforehand what’s actually available. Generally you’ll be get rice with beans (Moros y Christianos), some pork or chicken, and a hint of vegetables or salad. In a few rare events, we were treated to seafood and once we even encountered a ‘Chinese’ restaurant (Cuban food clumsily disguised as Asian). We had some average and some good experiences. Expect to pay about 1-4 CUC for a full meal, but pay in CUP whenever possible.
A special mention goes out to the national ice cream vendor Coppelia. These huge government-operated ice-cream restaurants have branches in all the major Cuban cities. At about 1 CUP per scoop or 0,03 EUR, prices are extremely low. It is no surprise that Coppelia is extremely popular among locals. In Havana, we even witnesses a waiting line of about 200 meters.
It is fairly easy to find private-run restaurants such as the restoran or the paladar, with the latter being a bit more expensive. In general, they offer the same food as the government restaurants while adding some ‘exotic’ options like spaghetti and pizza. Although their fancy menus sound appealing after eating local-style for a while, don’t be too excited. The food is still rather bland and unoriginal.
There are exceptions though. Outstanding private restaurants are easily recognized by the queue of Cubans waiting for a table. Our best meals were actually served in private restaurants, such as on the beach of Baracoa.
Street vendors sell all kinds of sandwiches (with ham-like meat, bland cheese, egg, pork, chicken, sausage… or a combination), hamburgers, hot dogs, coffee and juice. Prices are in CUP. You can easily have breakfast for under 1 CUC on the street, which would cost 7 CUC in your casa particular.
You’ll find tourists restaurants in all major tourist destinations. They are usually recognizable by the prominent Tripadvisor sign on the outside and the lack of Cubans on the inside. The tourist-oriented menus will offer a mix of Cuban and international food. The quality of the food isn’t always guaranteed, although the chef is not to blame. A large deal of the ingredients has to be imported or comes in cans. Expect to pay around 10-25 CUC per meal. We had mixed experiences, as some dishes were of the same quality as the much cheaper government restaurants, while others were clearly superior.
IN THE CASA PARTICULARES
Your hosts will sometimes offer you a nice and varied meal, but it comes at a cost. Expect to pay around 8-15 CUC for a meal. Odds are it won’t disappoint, and it’s a great way to connect with your host.
- Sandwich with eggs, ham or cheese: 2-5 CUP
- Pizza or spaghetti with cheese: 5 CUP
- Pizza or spaghetti with ham or other toppings: 7-12 CUP
- Soft serve ice-cream: 1-3 CUP
- Hot-dog: 10 CUP
- Hamburger: 10-20 CUP
- Cigars: starting from 1 CUP
- Lunch/dinner at a government restaurant: 2-5 CUC
- Lunch/dinner a cheap private restaurant: 2-5 CUC
- Lunch/dinner in an average private restaurant: 4-10 CUC
- Lunch/dinner in a tourist-oriented private restaurant: 10 CUC and upwards
Prices are generally the same throughout the country. Below is a list of indicative prices for drinks on the street and in bars or restaurants:
- Coffee on the street: 1 CUP
- ‘refresco’ (cold drinks) on the street: 1-3 CUP
- ‘Jugo’ (juices) on the street: 2-3 CUP
- ‘Guarapo’: sugar cane juice on the street: 1 CUP
- ‘Batido’ on the street : Milkshakes or smoothies : 3 CUP
- Soft drinks in cans: 0.5 CUC
- Beer (canned): 10-15 CUP for local beers, the Cuban Bucanero or Crystal for 1 CUC
- Assorted cocktails: 1-4 CUC
If you want to curtail your expenses while still enjoying the great drinks Cuba has to offer, you can go to any supermarket and buy your soft drinks, beer or rum there. Chances are you have to queue to get in, but don’t let it stop you. Expect to pay around 1 CUC for a 1,5 liter bottle of local soft drink. Prices for a 0,75 liter bottle of rum start from 3 CUC. There is no point in buying food in the supermarkets as most foodstuff is imported, and generally the prices are the same or higher than in your home country. The sad truth is that only rich Cubans can buy things like cookies, wine or even milk (2 CUC per liter).
It won’t take long before you forget all your social media accounts and indulge in the unconnected Cuban lifestyle. We went cold turkey and managed to survive 5 weeks with only a few hours of Wi-fi. Having access to Wi-Fi was still a bit tricky. The Cuban government only sets up Wi-Fi connections in the public parks of larger cities. The Wi-fi parks are easy to recognize by the scores of cellphone-wielding youngsters occupying every square inch of seating space.
You can connect to the world wide web using a prepaid card, which you can either buy directly in the public parks (street vendors will find you before you find them), or in the official Etecsa shops. One hour of internet will set you back 1 CUC. Prepare to queue.
Since a short while, the Cuban government allows people to set up private modems. Expect to see a huge stride in (free) Wi-Fi coverage over the next few years.
Have you got questions? Did you experience something similar? Did you notice a mistake? Please share!