Let’s not beat about the bush; Cuba is NOT a cheap destination for foreigners. It seems that the Cuban government are very savvy about the revenue they gain from tourism, and although crime is rare & foreigners are officially very well looked after, it can be hard not to feel like a walking wallet, especially in Havana. After spending three and a half weeks in Cuba I was tired of the constant battle, so I decided to put together some helpful tips for how to travel cheaply in Cuba, and how to enjoy backpacking in Cuba on a budget!
Want to see the REAL Cuba? Then Don’t Forget to Move’s Authentic Cuba Travel Guide is for you!
Backpacking in Cuba on a Budget: Bargaining and haggling
I often felt like people involved in tourism, i.e. taxi drivers, tour guides and salesmen were trying to squeeze the last penny out of me. This isn’t because they are bad people, but because they have very little, even if they get a few extra dollars a day out of a couple of tourists it makes a huge difference for them. The downside is though that they think every tourist is rich, and unfortunately for budget travellers this can cause an issue as we have to be very careful about what we spend. Somehow you can find a middle ground where hopefully you’re happy and they are too!
That said, there are very few things in Cuba who’s price is non-negotiable. Usually, if you look & behave like you have a lot of money you will be charged more, as it looks like you can afford it. Make it clear from the start that you are a backpacker or a student and don’t have much money.
Remember though, it isn’t about driving down the price so low that they earn nothing, it’s about finding a win-win for you both. Cubans are a resourceful bunch, and, in my experience, they still manage to make more money from tourists than I am sure they declare to the government. Of course, this isn’t the only country where this happens – in South America my friend & I named this the Gringo Tax. I don’t mind paying more than a local would, but when it gets to double or even 3, 4, or 5 times the price I don’t like being ripped off! Bargain hard with taxi drivers, bici-taxis and tour guides, who are no doubt charging you way more than they would a Cuban.
If you are backpacking in Cuba alone, you will have better luck reducing prices if you join forces with other travellers and bargain for ‘bulk’ buys for two or more people instead of just one.
Cuba on a Budget: Cheap Accommodation in Cuba
By far the best way to reduce accommodation costs is to find travel buddies. If you are travelling with a friend or as a couple you will split the costs, so for any solo travellers, making friends early on can save you a great deal of cash.
Casas Vs Hotels
Casas Particulares are much better than hotels, as you stay with a Cuban family, and experience a more authentic Cuba. The price of casas range from $15 to $30 in general, and many casas will have a double bed and a single bed in the rooms, meaning they can sleep up to 3 people if you don’t mind sharing beds. Some may have 2 double beds although this was much less common in my experience. Check with the casa before you book to confirm how many people can stay in each room. I didn’t book any casas in advance, but in peak times you may have to. The more expensive casas are listed on Airbnb which means you are guaranteed a reservation if you book in advance, but would mean you miss out on the cheapest deals which are through word of mouth. However, if you’ve never used Airbnb before by signing up here you will get $32 of credit to use – every little helps!
Cheap places to stay in Havana
The cheapest place to stay in Havana is the Casa de Magnolia Hostel, also known as Hamel Hostel. You can book here online through Hostelworld, or call or email Magnolia or her husband Wilfredo directly to avoid paying commissions. The hostel has 12 beds, in two rooms, although to reach the second room you have to walk through the first. I got a night here for $5.20, and paid $1 CUC for breakfast, of bread & butter, fruit, omelette, juice and coffee.
This is a great place to meet fellow travellers, and to enter into Magnolia’s network of cheap hostels throughout the country. She has a shoebox filled with cards from other Casas Particulares in most destinations in Cuba, where she can call and make a reservation for you. Many casas will offer a room for $15 CUC, which if you are travelling with someone can be split as needed. Magnolia connected me with a casa in Viñales where on the first night I paid $15 for a room on my own, then the following night another traveller from Magnolia’s arrived and we shared the room for $8 CUC each.
However, there are some destinations like Varadero where it is practically impossible to find rooms for less than $25 CUC – so you can look at alternatives in nearby towns, such as Matanzas in the case of Varadero, or see if you can join with another person or two to split the price.
Couchsurfing in Cuba
Couchsurfing, and other internet based social or volunteering networks like workaway.info are still in their infancy in Cuba – I believe it is still illegal to host foreigners in your home without an official license. Perhaps if the internet becomes more widely available & reduces in cost then these will become more popular, depending on the legality, but it’s still worth checking out to see if anything new has popped up. There are some Couchsurfing events in Cuba, that are a great way to meet other travellers, and locals, if you’re not staying in a hostel.
Camping in Cuba
From what I could find out, a lot of campsites in Cuba are only for Cuban’s use. Some are for a mix, but you will need your own camping gear and tent. I also read a variety of opinions on whether wild camping is legal or not, and honestly I’m not sure! I didn’t visit any campsites but this seems to be a good resource for camping in Cuba.
Backpacking in Cuba on a Budget: Food in Cuba
I had low expectations of Cuban food, but was pleasantly surprised. You can get cheap and tasty meals such as fried chicken or pork and rice, spaghetti and sauce or pizza for $2 CUC and under, although if you can stretch your budget further you can dine well for $5-$8 CUC. From my experience, once you hit the $10 CUC mark, the food and portion size doesn’t improve, so there is no need to stretch your budget beyond $10 CUC for dinner. The exception to this could be lobster – relatively expensive by Cuban standards but stupidly cheap compared to American and European prices. You can dine on lobster in many restaurants for $12-$15 CUC if you have a special celebration or if you get tired of spaghetti! I chose to have lobster in my casa in Viñales, and wasn’t disappointed! Dining in your casa can also be a great budget dinner option too, I paid $10 for my lobster feast at the casa.
Street Food in Cuba
Street food isn’t as common in Cuba as it is in other countries, due to the restrictions on personal businesses. However, you may find carts selling fruit & vegetables, I even saw a churros stand in Trinidad. More likely though are people on bicycles selling ice-creams, empanadas and other snacks, and men wandering the streets with cloves of garlic around their necks, conjuring up images of France more than Cuba! Peanuts (Mani) are a common snack, and are served in a cone of rolled paper, and are frequently sold for a few CUP.
What you will find in every town though are ‘hole in the wall’ café’s offering snack food such as pizza’s for as little as $.25 cents CUC, soft drinks and beers. These are take-away joints and are the cheapest way to eat in Cuba, although if you can afford to spend a little more to sample more complex dishes such as ropa vieja, it is well worth it!
Cheap Eats in Cuba: Markets
Markets will sell fruit and vegetables for next to nothing, and you can pick up rice, eggs and meat too – but not all casa’s will let you use their kitchen for cooking, so ask them in advance if you are relying on that. You could bring a camping stove and rustle up basic meals that way if you prefer, but part of the fun of any destination for me is trying the local food, so I usually prefer to eat out if I can.
Cuba on a Budget: Drinking in Cuba
By far the biggest money saver for buying water is to purchase a Lifestraw water bottle with an in-built filter. It isn’t recommended to drink the tap water in Cuba, and buying bottled water can set you back several CUC per day. With the Lifestraw you can fill up your bottle from any tap, even rivers or streams, safe in the knowledge it will filter out any unpleasant bugs which play havoc with your stomach.
Usually in a restaurant you can get beers and soft drinks for $1-2 CUC, so if you can do without then that can save you plenty of money too – just take your Lifestraw & slurp a drink when you need it.
Beer and rum are the alcoholic drinks of choice in Cuba, and for good reason. The two beer brands (Cristal and Bucanero) are brewed by the same government run brewery, and are found in almost every casa, hole in the wall café, restaurant and supermarket. Buying a bottle of rum in a supermarket is the cheapest way to get a taste of Cuba, with a litre bottle of Havana Club 3 Years costing around $5 CUC.
In a bar too it will often work out cheaper to buy a bottle of rum to share with your friends than buying individual cocktails like mojitos. The cheapest mojito I found was in Trinidad, for $1.50 CUC, but it really wasn’t very good. $2-$3 CUC is a usual price for a mojito or cuba libre in restaurants, bars and clubs.
Backpacking in Cuba on a Budget: Cheap Transport in Cuba
I found travelling around Cuba to be quite expensive. The transport designed for tourists is Viazul buses, which are relatively comfortable and air-conditioned. However, the bus stations themselves are often located outside of the city centre, and can cost you several CUC just to get there. The Viazul terminal in Havana is especially inconvenient. It is a good idea to check the prices and times of the buses online before you plan your travel, their website www.viazul.com is quick and easy to use to check the timetables. I didn’t purchase any tickets online though, as you had to do so at least 7 days in advance and I prefer to be more flexible. During peak season it is advisable to book tickets in advance as the buses sell out, which unfortunately requires a visit to the bus station a day or two before your trip. During the quieter times though you should be fine to just turn up at the bus station an hour or so before your bus to buy a ticket.
Between many towns there are colectivos available, often matching the price of Viazul, and taking much less time. For example, between Cienfuegos & Trinidad I shared a large colectivo car with 7 others and paid $5 CUC instead of Viazul’s $6 CUC. Again, haggling is vital here, as you will pay much more than the locals anyway, so try to get as fair a price as you can.
Don’t bother with hiring an expensive private car to drive around Havana if you’ll be travelling outside the city. A lot of taxis and collectivos are old ‘classic’ cars too so somewhere along the way you’ll get your photo opportunities! Although some of the taxis we took were also sh*tbox ladas too, so you can’t win em all!
Cheap Transport for Cubans
There is plenty of transport around for Cuban people, which is obviously very cheap. Trucks, camiones, and gua-guas (pronounced wah-wahs) bump along the roads with dodgy brakes and basic benches for seats, I took one of these for a 2 hour journey from Cienfuegos to Santa Clara and did not want to repeat the experience! It was more like being in a cattle truck than a bus, but you can’t beat the price. Foreigners aren’t really allowed to take these, and you may have varying degrees of success, depending on the route and your level of Spanish – and how gringo you look. If you can pass as a Cuban you have much more chance of being accepted on these cheap forms of transport. Many times they will let tourists on, but will often charge a higher price than the locals. The only transport I am aware of that foreigners definitely can’t take is the Omnibus, as you need a national id card to board. Ask at your casa for the cheapest options, although they will often talk you out of taking the train, and other cheap but uncomfortable forms of transport like camion buses. Make it clear from the very start that you are on a tight budget & backpacking, and they will do their best to help you out where they can.
Taking the train can be a very cheap way to get around between major cities, but they are notoriously slow, frequently delayed and apparently very uncomfortable. Every time I mentioned taking the train to a casa owner they fervently told me not to bother! Don’t Forget to Move offer more information on taking the train in their E-Book The Authentic Cuba Travel Guide.
Cuba on a Budget: Cheap Activities in Cuba
Official tours arranged by government bodies like Cubanacan and Infotur generally have set prices and can’t be negotiated. It is always worth trying though, especially if you are travelling in a group. Privately organised tours and excursions like horseback riding are worth haggling hard on, but make sure you agree on exactly what is included, as some may fail to mention additional entrance fees to national parks, or other extra charges along the way.
You will find plenty of free entertainment on the streets of Cuba, from live music and spontaneous salsa dancing to catching a game of dominoes and simply watching the world go by in a shady plaza. They say the best things in life are free, and some of my most memorable experiences in Cuba didn’t cost a penny. That said, a little cash can go a long way, and sometimes it is worth the money to visit harder to reach places.
Overall, Cuba isn’t a cheap destination, but with careful negotiation and savvy decisions you can avoid spending too much. I hope these tips will help you to enjoy backpacking in Cuba on a budget!
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If you would like more information and advice on how to experience the REAL Cuba, I wrote a chapter for Don’t Forget to Move’s Authentic Cuba Travel Guide which is full of great tips from getting a tourist visa to safety and avoiding scams – and where to find the best authentic experiences in Havana & beyond.