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’s a video about my backpacking highlights in Cuba:
Basic Travel Information about Backpacking Cuba
Let me give you some basic travel information about backpacking Cuba before I move on to a proposed itinerary.
Accommodation in Cuba
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.
• 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
Internet in Cuba
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
Visa in Cuba
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.
Currency in Cuba
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.
Safety when backpacking Cuba
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.
Food in Cuba
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!
Transport options: How to get around
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.
Language barrier in Cuba
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. Have a look here for more things to do in Havana!
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 backpacking 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!
Cuba Backpacking Tips: Things to keep in mind when traveling Cuba
Make sure to keep the following travel tips in mind when backpacking in Cuba!
Don’t rely on the internet
Internet is still not properly available. Cuba – due to communism and the total isolation of the country, Cuba has until recently been cut off from the outside world and accordingly the Internet development is still in its infancy. In the larger or tourist places and cities you will spot the country’s so-called “Internet Plazas” – public places that are equipped with a hotspot. These are easy to recognize, with hundreds of locals and tourists usually sitting side by side, staring at their cell phones. In a few luxurious hotels or restaurants, you may also be able to find and use this hotspot, but this is (at least for the time being) rather rare. The provider is called ETECSA – so look for the ETECSA Wifi or the ETECSA stores for credit.
For internet access you need to buy an internet card with a code that allows you to surf the net for 60 minutes. You can get this card at the official stalls – but expect long waiting times here. If you do not want to waste time and have no problem to pay 1-2 € extra, it is worth looking for locals around the Internet Plaza. Because local people regularly sell tickets there and you will sooner or later be asked whether you need access to the Internet. The speed of the Internet varies a lot (probably depending on the number of users), and you can use your card for several days until the time credit is used up – then you need a new card. The Internet connection is usually sufficient for short WhatsApp messages, Facebook or e-mails. But do not expect to do any work. You should therefore do most planning before the backpacking trip to Cuba so that you are not dependent on the local internet.
Keep in mind that this situation (Spring 2017) might and will change with Cuba opening up more and more. As of 2018, there were also plans to set up a mobile 3G network around the country. Have you been to Cuba recently? Send me a message or put your experience with the recent internet situation in the comments and I’m happy to update the section in order to give up-to-date information.
Learn some basic Spanish
Personally, I had the experience that the locals in Cuba speak very little English. That’s why I recommend at least to learn a few Spanish words or to have a few sentences written down. Especially when it comes to negotiating costs and prices (such as taxi rides), basic Spanish skills will definitely help you. You will probably get on with English somehow, but do not expect that people on the street will understand you.
Be prepared for propaganda
Fidel and Che on every corner, on every souvenir, everywhere. In addition, there’s lots of proper anti-US propaganda around the country. This became particularly clear in the “Revolution Museum” in Havana. Nevertheless, it is worth a visit and it is very interesting to see. As a European or German I was always treated very friendly though and had no particular bad experiences.
Sleep in Casa Particulares
The Casa Particulares are the Cuban Air BnB – here locals rent rooms in their homes to tourists. This is often the cheapest and best way to travel to Cuba and meet friendly Cubans who often speak some English. The price is usually per room, in which two or three people fit. Solo travelers have a small disadvantage here and have to pay the full price alone. On our backpacking trip, we have probably roughlypaid between 20-30 € per night and room and since we were three people traveling together, it was a good deal. In the Casa Particulares you can usually get also a breakfast including omelette, toast, fruits and coffee for a few extra coins. Please note that it is best to book your room online in advance, as it is difficult to get internet in Cuba.
Bring everything you need from home
A look into a Cuban supermarket will show you that many products, which are absolutely normal for us and can be found on every corner, unfortunately are in short supply in Cuba. The shops are often half empty and basic goods like shampoo or toothpaste can be difficult to find. For example, once in Havana, I had to look for two hours for bottled water (!), because it was sold out in some shops. That’s why I give you the tip for backpacking Cuba to carry everything necessary such as cosmetics, medicines, etc. from home since you can not rely on finding it once you’re there. If you have some space in your luggage, the locals are also very happy about receiving small gifts such as shampoo or pencils.
Use Colectivo Taxis (Almendrons) to get around
Especially if you are traveling alone, private taxi rides can often be very expensive. Here it is worthwhile to use Colectivos (“shared taxis”). This is how the locals travel, and you often get from A to B for just a few Euros. Note, however, that these shared taxis are often less luxurious, and people are literally crammed in with limited space and legroom. For short trips this is okay for me, but I would be reluctant to spend 10 hours like this. Since I was traveling with two friends, we often rented private taxis to be a little more flexible. Of course we had to pay a bit more for that. If booking a ride, it is also important to clarify the conditions in advance. For example, on our trip from Viñales to Havana, we were scammed: We had negotiated a private ride with a driver in advance, but in retrospect we were squeezed into a much too tight Colectivo with other tourists. This was pretty annoying and shows again that you have to negotiate and be very clear in Cuba.
Negotiate and bargain about prices
I had the experience that the locals consider all prices to be very flexible and especially as a European or American tourist, you regularly pay a multiple of the normal price. Here it is essential to negotiate and to do some research in advance to get a rough idea of how much a particular service (such as a taxi ride) should cost. This will help you avoid being ripped off and having negative experiences during your Cuba backpacking vacation.
Don’t buy cigars on the street (they are fake!)
This is probably one of the classic tourist rip off: Cheap cigars with poor quality are sold to unsuspecting tourists on the streets of Havana and Trinidad are full of those vendors. Avoid it. If you want to buy cigars, you should do so only in official shops with official seal, or directly at one of the tobacco plantations in Viñales.
Make sure to have the right budget (Cuba isn’t cheap)
This has surprised me a bit, the country is considered incredibly poor and underdeveloped. Nevertheless, travel costs of Cuba are not cheap for tourists. Although I was traveling with two friends, and thus we could always divide all costs for taxis and accommodations by three, I spent on average about 50 € per day. The reason for the increased costs were probably the often overpriced travel expenses (despite hours of negotiation), the expensive and bad food as well as the tourist currency CUC. As mentioned above, at least in tourist locations, payment in cheaper, local currency is not accepted in hotels, taxis or restaurants. Note, by the way, that in smaller places you may not find ATMs and you should always have some cash with you. At the same time, you have to keep in mind that you cannot (at least not officially) exchange your local currency back in Euros or Dollars, and you may have difficulty getting rid of the remaining CUC and CUP at the end of the journey.
Here is an overview of a few typical issues of a Cuba vacation:
• Overnight in a Casa Particulares: 20-30 CUC
• Breakfast Casa Particulares: 4-5 CUC
• Essen in the restaurant: 8-15 CUC
• Bottle of water: 1 CUC
The tourist crowds are already here
Many tourists and backpackers want to experience Cuba before “the masses” discover the country. Unfortunately I have to disappoint you – you are too late, the masses are already there. Especially the tourist centers around Havana, Trinidad and Viñales are already very touristy and full of tour groups and backpackers. Of course, this also brings with it the advantage that the country slowly builds a proper tourism infrastructure and traveling is not quite as difficult anymore as probably a few years ago.
Keep the seasons and climate in mind when visiting Cuba
Cuba is located in the Caribbean and is therefore prone to tropical hurricanes, storms, heat and rain. Therefore, you should research for the right travel time for a Cuba backpacking trip, so you won’t have negative experiences. Since European summer is considered to be the rainy season in the Caribbean, you should avoid these months. For a Cuba trip, the months from December to May are the best time of the year – here you have dry, cooler weather. During my visit in February I did not have a single rainy day! Note, however, that during this time most tourists travel the country and you will see the beaches and attractions of Cuba often flooded with tourists.
Conclusion about traveling Cuba as a backpacker
Let’s some it up! Here are the things that I liked and that I didn’t like so much about my time in 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 my Cuba backpacking adventure
• 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!
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