Cuba Travel Guide
Cuba is a country often overlooked as a backpacking traveling destination, ask anyone who has delved into this island nation and you will hear otherwise. From the dilapidated colorful neighbourhoods of Havana old town, tobacco farmers pushing their ox cart and plough beneath behemoth Limestone Mountains in Vinales, the stunning white sand and blue waters of Veradero, or the picturesque hill top colonial town of Trinidad; Cuba is without a doubt one of my favourite travel locations! Never has a destination captured its culture with a symphony of music, artistic style and hospitality quite like Cuba. So if you are ready for something new, surprising and wonderful dive into Cuba, you will not be disappointed.
Why Travel to Cuba
Cuba has something for everyone. If you are into architecture check out Havana’s old town to step back in time with swashbuckling pirates and colonial explorers. If you’re not a history buff then do not fret, Cuba also is the scene of a massive modern art movement with every 20 something year old reflecting their nations culture, history, and modern world events into some of the best art I have seen. Cuba also hosts some of the best (okay they are the best) beaches in the Caribbean. Whatever the case is, Cuba really does have something for every traveler, and it’s completely unique onto its own! So for once listen to the Cuba Authentica adds as they are spot on.
Language – Latin American Spanish
Visa – On arrival for most nationalities, Americans Visa is complicated
Religion – Catholic and Santeria Voodoo
Currency – Cuban Convertibles (CUC$) and Cuban Pesos (MN$)
Cell Phone/Internet – Very confusing and expensive to get sim cards, Internet is accessible in large hotels and public squares. Internet is accessed by 1.50 CUC$ scratch cards that you buy at Etecsa. Etecsa can be found in almost every place in Cuba. (Do not buy from the guys on the street, they charge double and sometimes the cards don’t work)
Daily Average Budget – 50 USD per day, Cuba is fairly cheap, there is plenty of budget accommodation and transport. Your biggest expense will be food unless you’re ok with eating fast-food every meal.
Best Time to Visit Cuba
High Season (Nov – Mar, Jul – Aug) – At this time of year the weather is generally the best in Cuba with little showers, and cooler days. Because its high season expect to pay higher prices in hotels and touristy areas.
Off Season (Apr & Oct) – Lower prices and fewer people make this time of year one of the best for independent travel. There is the risk of Hurricanes in October. Look for deals at this time.
Low Season (May, Jun & Sep) – Higher chance of rain and hurricanes, many hotels shut downs as well. It usually only rains for a few hours in the day making this a pleasant time of year to travel as you are often the only person around at times!
Arriving in Cuba
Getting to Cuba is becoming easier, but this could change with the current political issues with the United States. As a Canadian although it was very simple.
Flights and Havana’s Airport
Cuba has ten international airports making arriving to wherever you want first a synch. The easiest to book, and often cheapest (unless you are booking a resort) is from Havana’s Aeropuerto International Jose Marti. From Havana’s airport you can find a bank and ATM for money and plenty of cabs who can take you to Havana Vieja for about 25 CUC$. The journey will take about 40 minutes.
Make sure you bring a bit of extra cash as often the ATM’s at the airport do not work. In this case you can exchange US Dollar, Canadian Dollar, Euro and a few other currencies.
Read online and the visa for Cuba sounds quite confusing. This is due to the ever changing political situation with the United States. If you are a Canadian like me, or pretty much anything other than an American the visa is very straight forward. For most nationalities the visa is actually free, and is obtained on arrival at the international airport.
The process for the visa is also just like anywhere else in the world. You have to fill out an official Cuba arrival card, customs declaring card, and a visa card. The visa card will be stamped and you carry it with you through Cuba. If you lose it, you will have to pay a 25 CUC$ fine.
If you want to know more about the current situation for Americans check out my friend the Expert Vagabonds Guide for Americans Traveling Cuba.
Traveling Cuba Basics
As far as backpacking goes, Cuba is not a difficult place to do so. However with its government and embargo issues it does make a few things that should be simple a bit more complicated here. If you know these few tricks before going it will make your life much easier when arriving to Cuba.
There are two types of accommodation in Cuba. The first and most expensive is the government run hotels. These range from multimillion dollar resorts to beautiful historic hotels. These are great if you have the budget, but those looking for something a bit cheaper must dig into option two, Casa Particulars.
About ten years ago the government allowed private homes to open their doors to travelers. These are called Casa Particulars. They range from basic Cuban homes to elaborately decorated historical family homes. The money you spend at them goes directly to the families, and you usually get home cooked meals as well! The best part is Casa Particulars can be found as low as 10 CUC$ up to 40 CUC$ for more luxurious homes. Casa Particulars also give a great insight into Cuban culture and life.
Finding Casa Particulars couldn’t be easier as they all display the blue government symbol outside the house. If you just show up to any location there will also be home owners waiting at the bus stop looking for new guests. It’s a good idea to shop around a bit as quality and location can make a huge difference.
Getting from one location to another in Cuba is also quite easy as the country is very well connected. Your best option is to take the government run Viazul bus. Every town will have a Viazul bus station either found independently or attached to the local bus station.
Viazul buses are large, comfortable, and sometimes freezing from the AC. All of the major spots travelers will want to go are connected by Viazul as well. It is best you show up a day or two before to make sure you secure your bus tickets for where you are heading next!
If Viazul is booked up, or not going to where you need then you will have to take the collectivo taxi. Touts for the collectivo usually hang outside the bus station. Casa Particular owners also usually have a friend who is a collective taxi.
The downside with collectivo’s is that they often won’t leave until they are full, or take an hour just picking passengers up. My taxi connection actually broke down on way to Playa Giron adding an extra hour to the journey.
Collectivo usually cost about 5 CUC$ more than the Viazul, from my experience taking the Viazul is a much better option.
Cuba is one of the least connected countries on earth! It’s a great destination to get a digital detox. If staying connected is as important to you as it is to me than get ready because it’s frustrating and expensive.
All internet in Cuba is monitored and run by the government company called ETECSA. Whether it’s WIFI in a hotel, Casa Particular or Public Park, you will have to use ETECSA. To get internet the cheapest way is to locate the ETECSA office in any town you are in and wait forever in line so you can buy 1 hour scratch cards for 1.50 CUC$.
My biggest tip is to buy multiple cards at once. To find internet spots just look for public squares where many young local Cubans are sitting on their phone or find the biggest most expensive hotel in your area.
If you would like to make a video call then Facebook, Skype, and What’s App will not work. You need to download an App called IMO. The IMO App is great however! It’s free, and the video speed is wicked fast.
Money and ATM’s
When traveling to Cuba make sure you notify your bank, as many travelers run into problems here. But as long as you have a Visa Credit Card, and it’s not from an American bank you should be fine. If the ATM declines your card then just head inside the bank and do a cash advance. The staff in the banks are well aware that many of the ATM’s decline cards.
ATM’s are found everywhere in Cuba. The only place we couldn’t find one was in Playa Giron, but they did have a bank that could issue cash advances or exchange money. If the ATM is broken or down, then just ask where the next one is and someone will definitely point you in the right direction.
The official currency is the Convertible CUC$, but the old Cuban Peso often shows up when you buy small things like pizza or water from village vendors. Try to avoid the Peso as people will try to take advantage of the currency conversions with you.
Cuba’s Amazing Food
No matter what anyone tells you about Cuban food being terrible, they are wrong. My entire trip to Cuba I only had one bad meal. The food is absolutely delicious and diverse. I am sure that during the days of revolution or if you only stay in a resort it’s not great, but Cuba has definitely undergone a culinary revolution! Here’s a list of my favourite dishes.
Quite possibly the national dish of Cuba, Ropa Vieja is a tomato based shredded beef dish. Usually slow cooked for hours with complex spices and herbs, this savoury dish can be found everywhere! Goes great with fried plantains and beans! Price really varies depending on the complexity and location.
There are so many variations of the seafood pasta in Cuba but the one main idea here is to jam as much fresh crab, shrimp, lobster, and scallops into it as possible. Usually found for under 6 CUC$ this is an amazing cheap!
Ok pizza is from Italy, but Cubans are obsessed with it! For about 2-3 CUC$ you can find it everywhere, just look for the long lines of locals. It’s made from local fresh bread, and usually features an obsessive amount of cheese, fruit and processed meat. Honestly give it a go, you won’t be disappointed.
Pork Chunks with Mojo
Not the most appetizing name, but Cubans are masters of cooking pork. They marinate the meat with garlic and herbs and serve it with rice, beans, salsa, and fried plantains. The best part of the meal is Mojo.
Mojo – Mojo is a sauce is made from sour orange juice, garlic, oil, lime and onion. It is so incredibly delicious and should be put on absolutely everything! It’s very garlicy and intense get ready!
Check out my favourite Cuba Cookbook for more iCuba
My favourite destinations in Cuba
Timeless, Havana will change you. From the minute you arrive, the peeling paint, crumbly architecture, locals playing dominos in the streets, warm sea breeze from the Malecon, Salsa music being played on every street corner and the smells of frying pork in the apartments above will dazzle you. You can spend days just getting lost in the labyrinth of life in old Havana. Trust me it will get under your skin and stay.
There’s also a massive array of historical sights, trendy bars/restaurants, and experiences to be had here. Havana is, in my opinion, the most fascinating city in the region! Come here, get lost, and let Havana slowly seduce you into her whimsical beauty.
Tobacco and cowboy country, Vinales is where Cuba’s most famous export is grown, harvested and produced. The tobacco fields are not Vinales main draw however, but instead its stunning scenery which reminisces of South East Asia.
Come here, rent a scooter, and glide past farmers pushing their cow operated ploughs through Cuba’s most dramatic and beautiful scenery before stopping and having a Mojito and Cigar with a Local Tobacco farmer. Come to Vinales for one of Cuba’s slower paced and relaxing ways of life.
Every country has that one jewel they show off. This is Cuba’s jewel. This colourful hill top filled with historic masterpieces has been frozen in time. The cobble stone streets are lined with Spanish houses of every colour all whilst back dropped by lush green mountains and beautiful whites sand beaches. Trinidad really has it all!
Spend enough time stepping back in time in Trinidad and you will become a part of her, lost in a century long ago. Hosting plenty of great restaurants and Salsa bands crawling out from every crack in the street it’s hard to leave.
Cuba’s most famous beach! Many will tell you not to come here because it’s too touristy, but let them keep saying this as it keeps Varadero by far one of the best places to hit the beach. The 20km strip of pure white sand and bright blue waters will capture that perfect beach image your soul has been searching for.
The town of Varadero also has plenty of cheap Casa Particulars and restaurants making it a great budget beach destination. It’s a quiet place as well, not quite the massive tourist destination people describe it as.
Favourite Experiences in Cuba
Horseback Riding in Vinales
Vinales is easily one of the most beautiful destinations in Cuba, and to properly connect with the land you must do as the locals have for centuries, riding horseback. Atop of your steed you slowly move across the tobacco fields, rivers, and small villages.
You’ll be joined by plenty of other Cuban cowboys riding their horses to their fields. It’s essential you acquire a traditional Cuban hat so that you blend in of course, oh and puff and a big Cuban cigar as well, it’s all part of the experience!
Getting Lost in Habana Vieja
With its historic squares, dilapidated paint peeling buildings, smells of frying food, sounds of roosters and rumba music, Habana Vieja or old Havana is one of the most atmospheric destinations in the world to just get lost in.
Every corner you turn you will be greeted by domino playing men, elderly women with hair curlers, youth blasting reggaeton music, and cigar puffing Santeria practising locals. Wherever you end up it will be a dizzying shock to all of your senses. Be sure to have a day with no plan so you can dive into Habana Vieja.
Smoking Cigars in Vinales
No visit to the most famous cigar making regions of the world is complete without visiting a tobacco farm to see how the famed Cuban cigars are grown, harvested, and processed. It’s fascinating seeing all the tobacco drying in the sheds, and even if you’re not a smoker, it’s well worth understanding the passion that goes into making Cuban cigars.
At the end of visiting any plantation you are offered a cigar to sit back and puff on one of the world’s most prestigious products and share conversation with the men and women who dedicate themselves to making it all possible!
As you leave the plantation you are politely asked if you are interested in purchasing any of the cigars, if you do indulge in the occasional puff I encourage you to buy direct from the farmers. They sell their high quality cigars at a low price and buying direct offers an authentic story to share back home.
If you love Cuban Cigars as I do be sure to read the Cuban Cigar Handbook before going to Cuba so you too can be a cigar snob.
Riding Scooters in Cuba
From Vinales to Cienfuego, through Trinidad, and Varadero we rode scooters through the jaw dropping Cuban countryside. Having your own wheels allows you take Cuba’s parts unknown at your own pace. Costing about 25 CUC$ per day, you can explore remote communities, empty beaches, or farms where locals will wave you in just for a conversation! The roads in Cuba are pleasantly quite as well, making it easy for beginners or those nervous about riding enjoy the scooter at ease.
Exploring and Shopping in Colonial Trinidad
Trinidad is Cuba’s most beautiful, and perfectly preserved colonial town. Exploring the cobblestone traffic free streets you can step back in time to when the Spanish first came to Cuba. Trinidad is also home to some of Cuba’s best shopping. Here local artist create original art that is deeply connected to the history, and culture of Cuba.
Outside Trinidad is the Valley of Sugar. Here, one of Cuba’s most picturesque valleys you can see where another of Cuba’s largest exports is harvested, or just take in all of the beautiful lush mountains.
Budget Travel Tips for Cuba
Cuba is a fairly cheap destination to travel, but there is defiantly a few tips to keep prices down. Here’s a list of a few items I ran into that could potentially raise the prices of your trip here!
- Prices for food vary greatly, for the same dish you can pay 3 – 10 CUC$ depending on which street you are on. Be sure to look around.
- Set meals are usually a bargain. For 7 – 10 CUC$ you can get a 5 course meal that usually includes drinks.
- Rum, Beer, and pretty much any alcoholic drink is insanely cheap at super markets. I bought a litre of Havana Club rum for 6.50 CUC$
- Casa Particulars are a huge bargain, but shop around as quality really varies. I found anywhere recommended in Lonely Planet was overpriced and not worth it.
- Only buy internet from the ETECSA office. Its 1.50 CUC$ per hour, hotels and touts charge 4-5 CUC$.
- Taxi Collectivo’s are often more expensive and do not save you anytime, not to mention they are not the most comfortable.
- Learn basic Spanish, it can really help you negotiate. Cubans are not huge on bargaining, but always try!
- Asking for more rum at the bars usually gets you double or triple the rum for no charge!
- Renting a scooter will save you a lot as taxis are very expensive, and usually try to rip you off.
- DO NOT buy cigars off the street. Anyone who says they have cheap Cohiba’s will sell you fake low quality cigars. Cigars from the farmers in Vinales however are cheap and great!
- Lonely Planet’s prices are not correct, always try to get things a bit cheaper. I got taxis half the price that Lonely Planet quoted at.
Useful Cuba Information
Books to Read: Lonely Planet Cuba, Lonely Planet Latin America Spanish, iCuba Cook Book, Cuban Cigar Guidebook
Documentary and Movies: The Cuba Libre Story on Netflix, Che Movie
Apps: Maps.Me – It’s a free offline GPS. Imo – The only video chat app that worked here for me.