In the last few years after travel restrictions got lifted, Cuba became one of these hip destinations everyone wants to visit as soon as possible „before the crowds discover it” and “before it gets too touristy”. Well, I need to disappoint you – it’s too late. The crowds are already there and Cuba is full of (mostly European) tourists. So, are you too late to go backpacking Cuba? Absolutely not! While you will definitely see other tourists on your way, the country still has its unique charm, and the recent increase in tourists actually improves the whole travel experience by making the country more accessible and convenient for tourists.
Therefore, the best time to backpack Cuba might actually be right now! In February 2017, while I was doing a semester abroad in Mexico, I had some days off and decided to visit Cuba with two friends from university. I spent a total of 10 days in the country and while backpacking Cuba can be quite exhausting (more about this later), I certainly felt the unique flair and atmosphere of the country.
Here are some impressions about backpacking Cuba
Basic Travel Information
Let me give you some basic travel information about backpacking Cuba before I move on to a proposed itinerary.
It makes sense to organize your housing in advance. Especially if you don’t have that much time and if you backpack Cuba during high season since spontaneous online booking is not possible thanks to the complicated internet situation.
• While there aren’t yet many hostels around, most people stay in the so-called “Casa Particulares”. This is is basically the Cuban version of Air BnB. On the website (http://www.casaparticular.com), you can search housing options for specific places, see the reviews and finally send out a request for your picked dates.
• Be prepared to wait 1-2 days due to the internet situation in the country, until you will receive a confirmation or a decline in your request.
• A night in a Casa Particular will cost you around 20-25€ and since you’ll get a whole room, there’s enough space for 2-3 people. If you’re traveling in a group, housing is therefore quite cheap. If you’re traveling on your own, it can get quite expensive since you’ll still need to book a whole room
The lack of internet is one of the big pains when backpacking Cuba. Sure, being connected is not the most important thing while you’re on vacation, but it certainly is very annoying if you can’t do any research and if you can’t stay in touch with family and friends back home.
• There’s no existing mobile internet throughout the country
• Wifi is available only in certain places – mostly, there’s one “internet plaza” in every city with accessible wifi. You need to buy an internet card with login data, giving you access for one hour. This can be used over several days until you run out of time.
• You can buy these cards either in official stores, which are sometimes difficult to find and be prepared to queue up for some time. If you don’t mind paying a dollar extra, just walk around the “internet plaza” and sooner or later, a local will approach you selling one of the cards
• The connection on these plazas is sometimes good, sometimes bad. It’s fine to stay in touch with your friends and to check some social media, but don’t plan to do a lot online
For Germans (and most Europeans), there’s no visa required to enter Cuba. Nevertheless, you’ll need to buy a “tourist card”. I was able to buy it directly at the airport before departure at my airline’s office, but do some research before to make sure that you’ll have one – otherwise, you won’t be able to enter the country.
This topic is quite confusing since there are two existing currencies in the country – the local currency CUP and the tourist currency CUC. While paying in CUP is a lot cheaper, you’ll have a hard time to use any CUP as a tourist.
• On ATMs (taking out money works fine with international credit cards), you’ll only get CUC. To get CUP, you’d need to queue up for several hours at banks. For many tourists, exchanging CUC into CUP is the first thing they do when arriving, but I’m personally not sure if it makes a lot of sense. Especially if you don’t spend that much time in the country and if you stick mostly to the touristic places.
• The issue is that most people will refuse to accept any CUP from you when you’re a tourist. It’s impossible to use CUP for any accommodation and transport, same as for any restaurants, particularly in Havana, Trinidad, and Vinales. We got some leftover CUP from a friend and actually had a hard time to spend it during our ten days. The only places we’ve been successful was a cafeteria in Cienfuegos on our last days, where we actually had a very cheap meal thanks to the local currency.
• Unless you spend several weeks in the country and unless you plan to visit many places off the beaten path, I wouldn’t recommend exchanging any money, or at least not more than 10-20€. You’ll have a hard time to spend it and you also won’t be able to exchange it back when you leave the country.
Here is some good news – Cuba is one of the safest countries to visit, especially in Latin America! Thanks to severe punishment of criminals, crime rates are extremely low and you can move around the country without any fear. I even walked around Havana in the evening (which is super dark because of a lack of power) and always felt safe – no one ever told us about any specific precautions or any areas to avoid. The risk of any violent crimes is very low. That being said, there’s certainly a lot of petty crime and scamming happening, so take care of your belongings. Don’t buy any cigars on the streets – they will be overpriced and quality will be very bad. Also, make sure to always check your change money when you buy something – it’s quite common that people give you the wrong amount. Besides that, backpacking Cuba is very safe.
There are many reasons why you should go backpacking in Cuba – but the food is definitely not one of them. There’s just not a lot of choice and variety of ingredients in the country because of the system.
• Most meals were quite plain and simple (a piece of meat with some rice, vegetables, and beans).
• Pizza is quite common as well, but don’t expect too much.
• Furthermore, you also won’t find any street food or any kiosks – sometimes, it’s even a challenge to find a simple convenience store. And if you do, chances are high that many shelves are empty. Once, it took me almost two hours to find some drinking water!
There are plenty of different ways to get around the country; with Collectivos (shared taxis) being the most convenient and budget-friendly solution.
• When planning our trip, we were considering renting a car on our own; but quickly realized that the costs and the risks involved with it wouldn’t be worth the hassle. Therefore, we relied completely on public transport.
• If you’re a group of people, it might make sense to consider renting your “own” taxi driver for a journey. You might pay slightly more, but you’ll also be completely independent of other people when it comes to your departure time. You can even pick one of the fancy retro cars (although some of them are horribly slow!)
• If you’re looking for a Collectivo, you can either ask your casa owner to organize your transport (more convenient, but you might need to pay a little bit more) or you just look around in the city center and at major touristic sites. You’ll always find drivers offering you a ride. Just try to organize it a day in advance and bargain as severely as possible. Make sure to do some research about fair prices for certain journeys – drivers continuously tried scamming us, which was quite annoying.
English is not widely used and while you’d probably somehow get around. But it definitely makes sense to know at least some basics in Spanish – especially if it comes to bargaining with taxi drivers etc.
My suggested itinerary for backpacking Cuba
To get a nice impression of the Cuba, I’d suggest you spend 10-15 days in the country. This should be enough to cover the major sites. If you got more time, there are certainly more places to discover, but because of the above-mentioned travel pains in Cuba, 10 days were enough for me. Here’s my suggested itinerary!
Your flight will arrive in Havana – a city which I actually liked a lot. Spend 3 days here to recover from jetlag and to get your first feel for the country. Walk around the streets of “old Havana”, take pictures of the super-cool cars, visit the old castle at the coast and stroll down the Malecón. Visit the famous “Museo de la Revolucion” to learn about Cuba’s past (and the propaganda which is still happening), go to the rooftop bar of the Hotel Ambos Mundos for sunset and enjoy a Cuba Libre and live music in one of the plenty bars in the city center.
From Havana, take a Collectivo to Viñales, a small village surrounded by beautiful rock formations and tobacco farms. This was probably my favorite place in Cuba! Spend 2 full days here to enjoy the countryside. Take a tour around the tobacco farms, hike to the colorful “Mural de la préhistorie” (and hike up to the top of the wall for an amazing view). Walk up the street to the “Hotel Jasmin” for another viewpoint on the surroundings.
From Vinales, you need to get back to Havana to access the east of the country. Depending on how much time you spent in Havana at your arrival, you could break up your journey for another stop in the city or continue directly further east to Trinidad (this might take you a full day though).
Trinidad is another must-see with its colorful streets and its beautiful colonial architecture. Visit the Palacio Cantero with its history museum to get the best view of the city on the observation deck. There’s also a tobacco fabric in town, which you can visit to watch the workers producing the cigars. While the city center itself is quite small, you can hike up to the top of the radio tower hill to get a beautiful panorama. From Trinidad, you can also easily access the beach (Playa Ancon), which is only a quick taxi ride away. Spend 2 full days in Trinidad, which will give you enough time to visit the city and to relax at the Caribbean sea.
From Trinidad, take another Collectivo to Cienfuegos, which should only take 1,5 hours. From all the above-mentioned places, Cienfuegos is probably the least touristic. Take a day to walk around the city center, climb to the top of the church for a great view and walk around the coast. 1 day should be enough to see most of the city. From Cienfuegos, we hired a Collectivo to take us directly back to Havana airport for our flight back to Mexico.
What if you got more time to visit Cuba?
• Plan some extra time at the beach! For me, Cuba was more about culture and experiencing the country, but you might want to add some extra days to relax on the Caribbean Sea. Just be warned that there’s a lot of all-inclusive resort tourism happening at some places (especially Varadero), which I’d avoid.
• Go further east! Add Santa Clara if you want to see yet another city. Or if you got a lot of time, make your way over to Santiago de Cuba!
What I liked about backpacking Cuba:
• The atmosphere – back in time!
• The cars – a dream for every photographer
• The friendly Casa Particulares owners
• No extreme poverty (no beggars, no homeless people)
• The high level of safety
What I didn’t like about backpacking Cuba:
• The plain and boring food
• The lack of convenient stores
• Getting ripped off and scammed all the time by locals (especially when it comes to transport)
• The rude and unfriendly attitude of some locals
• The lack of internet
• The issue about the two currencies
• The costs – Cuba is not cheap! Check out how to backpack Cuba on a budget!
As you can see, Cuba is probably not my favorite country. It’s also certainly not the most convenient and easiest country (especially if you attempt to backpack solo). But after all, Cuba is UNIQUE – and this is the reason why you should visit!