In April 2016, I traveled Cuba independently for 11 days. About half of that time was spent in Havana, and the rest in Viñales, Trinidad and one day in Varadero. Cuba is a massive island, so 11 days was barely scratching the surface.
Cuba is easily one of the best places in the world for street photography. The streets of Havana, in particular, are unique and full of energy, life and culture, which make it an absolute must while visiting Cuba. One of my favorite things to do was walk around Havana, observe life around me and take photos. It will inspire you. But this would all be missed with an all-inclusive vacation.
If you split accommodation and transportation costs by not traveling completely solo (or travel solo, but meet people along the way, like I did), if you’re decent at bargaining and eat where the locals eat, traveling Cuba independently is much cheaper and more authentic. It’ll be less relaxing, but it’ll be so much more adventurous and rewarding.
HOW TO TRAVEL CUBA INDEPENDENTLY AND WHAT TO EXPECT
*Information is current at the time, but certain things will change as relations between the US and Cuba continually improve*
BEFORE YOU LEAVE
Everyone needs a tourist card to travel to Cuba. If you fly to Cuba from Canada, the tourist card will be included in the airfare and you’ll receive it at the time of boarding. For flying from everywhere else, check before you leave for your trip, but they’re typically very easy to obtain. Tourist cards are $20USD at the airport in Cancun and Mexico City if you fly from Mexico, like I did. The tourist card is valid for 30 days (90 days for Canadians) and it can be renewed for another 30 days (another 90 days for Canadians) for $25CUC/USD.
Along with any international travels, buy travel insurance before you leave. Cuba may ask for proof of your travel insurance and if you don’t have any, you will be required to buy theirs, which won’t have the same benefits and coverage. I personally wasn’t asked for proof of travel insurance. And healthcare is good in Cuba, if needed.
Also download the XE currency converter app and have Cuba’s two currencies, along with your currency, loaded before you leave. This will make for much easier currency conversion and calculations.
You’ll need to show proof of exit at customs or they’ll force you to book an onward ticket before letting you through customs (this happened to the two people I had befriended on the flight from Mexico to Havana).
You can exchange some of your money for Cuban pesos at the airport, so you can pay for a taxi to your accommodation.
There aren’t many ATMs (cajero automaticos) in Cuba. ATMs work for some, but cash is king. Many nationalities can use Visa cash advance at an ATM or you can try a Visa or MasterCard cash advance within a bank if it doesn’t work in the ATM. But it’s highly recommended to bring all of your spending money to Cuba, if possible. I went to Cuba with the expectation that the ATMs wouldn’t work for me, so I brought all of the cash I thought I would need, plus extra, just in case. I traveled to Cuba from Mexico after traveling Central America for 2.5 months, so I brought Mexican Pesos, which were equal to about $800USD and I definitely did not use it all. No, it’s never ideal to carry this much cash on you anywhere in the world, but luckily, Cuba is a safe country. Another piece of important information to note is that if you’re not going to Cuba straight from home and already with cash, like I was, you’ll likely need to withdraw your cash over a few days, depending on your withdrawl limit.
There are two currencies used in Cuba- Cuban Pesos (CUP) and Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Locals call CUP “Coop” or “moneda nacional” and CUC “Cook”. CUP is meant for Cubans and CUC is meant for tourists. Contrary to most information, you can use CUP as a tourist, but you can only obtain it at a casa de cambio (exchange house), not the banks. Don’t exchange too much money into CUP because you will use it less than CUC and the things you can buy with CUP are extremely cheap (ie. street food can cost the equivalent to 10 cents).
Exchange your foreign currency for CUC at a bank for the best rate. Some banks won’t accept bills with small rips or tears. Expect long lines at the banks and exchange houses and always bring your passport.
Use CUC for taxis, buses, accommodation and tourist stuff. Use CUP for street food, local stores and local restaurants.
If a price is listed in CUP, you can also pay in CUC. But this doesn’t work the other way around.
Make sure you count your change and pay attention to which currency you’re receiving any time there is a money exchange. Sometimes people will try scam you by switching the currencies (i.e. you pay in CUC and they give you CUP as change). 1 CUC = about 25 CUP, which is a huge difference. CUC is on par with the US dollar, so when you see CUC, think of the USD exchange.
A lot of this likely won’t make much sense until you arrive in Cuba. It is confusing at first, but you will get used to it.
It’s very easy to show up in cities and towns in Cuba without booked accommodation.
Casa particulares, which are similar to homestays, are the best places to stay while traveling Cuba. When you stay at a casa particular, you can expect a private room in a family’s home and sometimes a private bathroom, but sometimes you can rent out an entire apartment. There is no shortage of casa particulares in Cuba. The sign with a blue anchor on a white background on a building means it’s a casa particular and you’ll see these everywhere.
Staying at a casa particular is awesome because you get a Cuban mom or grandma as a part of the deal! All of my Cuban moms at the casas I stayed at were such lovely people. Staying in a casa is a much more authentic experience than staying at a hotel and it provides an extra and necessary source of income for Cubans (and they still pay a fixed fee to the government regardless of how many or how little travelers they receive). Whereas, if you stay at a hotel, it’ll be ridiculously overpriced, a less authentic experience and the government will receive all of your money paid, so it’s an all-around waste.
Expect to pay around $10-12CUC per night if you have or if you can find someone to share with, or $20-25CUC per night if you’re traveling solo. Sometimes you can bargain with the price. When sharing with others, I paid $10CUC per night for accommodation in Havana, Viñales and Trinidad (so $20CUC for a room), and I paid $35CUC for one night in Varadero, where I was alone (that hurt).
When you have a private room, you’ll get a key to the room, but you don’t often get a key to their home. If you’re sharing a room, you will likely have to get used to sharing a bed. There typically aren’t any safes in the rooms, but it’s safe to leave your valuables. It’s extremely unlikely that your hosts would steal from you because tourism is Cuba’s bread and butter, but still exercise caution.
Breakfast (around $3-5CUC) and dinner (around $7-10CUC) is provided for an extra charge upon request, but you need to tell your Cuban mom in advance so they can buy the food. Don’t expect to have access to the kitchens in the casa particulares.
If you’re looking to meet other travelers, hostels aren’t really a thing in Cuba except for one or two in Havana, so Cuba can be somewhat difficult to meet other travelers. Because of this, I highly recommend to start your Cuba adventure in Havana and stay at one of the hostels so you can meet other travelers to travel Cuba with.
You can also stay at a hotel, but it’s a more expensive, overpriced and inauthentic experience. And all the money you pay for a hotel will go straight to the government, instead of being an extra and necessary source of income for the Cuban people.
Your options for transportation are bus, taxi or colectivo (a shared car or taxi). For a budget traveler, transportation is pricey so it will be one of your biggest expenses in Cuba.
Viazul (the tourist bus between cities), or taxis and colectivos are all around the same price if you have enough people to split the cost of a taxi or colectivo (you can fit 5-6 in a taxi/colectivo). Omnibus is the bus between cities that Cubans use, which are slightly cheaper, but slightly slower. So which is best to use? Buses require more planning because they often only have 1-2 per day and they can sell out, so sometimes you need to book a few days in advance. With taxis and colectivos, you have more flexibility with leaving when you want, but it can take time to find a taxi driver who will drive to your destination and agree to a reasonable price. If you take a colectivo, it can take time to find enough people to fill every space in the car. If you have lots of time and are on a super budget, use Omnibus.
If you take a taxi or colectivo instead of the bus, the money goes directly to the driver instead of the government. But taxis and colectivos can be hit and miss- sometimes they’re faster and cheaper than the bus, sometimes they’re the same, but sometimes they’re slower if you have bad luck. And sometimes you get hustled by your driver and he’ll take you to the nearest town before your destination and demand you pay an extra $100CUC to take you to your destination, or to get out and still pay more than the price you agreed upon (a scam I had become accustomed to after traveling Central America for a few months).
The taxis are the old cars from the 1950s! They’re huge, so you can typically fit five, and sometimes up to seven, passengers, so you’ll pay less to get around with a big group. Get used to inhaling some aggressive exhaust fumes in these cars. You can go to the bus station to find taxis and colectivos between cities.
Approximate taxi and bus costs and travel times (you’ll need to practice your bargaining and your Spanish):
Havana to Trinidad- $100-120CUC by taxi. $25CUC by bus. About 6 hours.
Havana to Viñales- $80CUC by taxi. $12 by bus. About 3.5-4 hours.
Havana to Varadero- $10CUC each by taxi, 2 hours. Or 3 hours on a bus.
If you’re looking to disconnect from the digital world, your devices and social media etc, Cuba is a great place to do this because wi-fi is very rare. If you’re a digital nomad, Cuba is not the place for you.
In the cities, you can find wi-fi in some parks and some hotels. You’ll know you’re in a wi-fi park when you see 100+ anti-social people immersed in their phones. You can buy a wi-fi card and pay $2CUC for one hour if you stand in a long line with your passport at the official store or you can pay $3CUC for one hour if you buy the wi-fi card off a dealer in a wi-fi park (which is worth the extra $1 to save an hour of your time). It seems like a shady transaction and it looks and feels like a drug deal, but it’s normal, legit and safe.
You don’t have to use the full hour at once. You can disconnect and use the remaining time later. Wi-fi cards are easier to get in Havana and Varadero and more difficult to get once you leave for the smaller towns, but wi-fi is also harder to find in smaller towns, if you can find it at all.
FOOD AND DRINK
Starting with the good news first- the drinks in Cuba are amazing! The Cuban national cocktails include the Cuba libre (rum, cola and lime) and mojitos (white rum, soda, mint, sugar and lime). You can find rum for as cheap as $3CUC for a 26oz bottle and you can find cocktails for $3CUC at tourist bars. You can find even cheaper drinks at the bars for locals, but only beer, rum and soda. The local bars are decrepit, quiet and depressing places, but they can be a great way to talk to locals, if you can.
You’ve likely heard that the food in Cuba is abysmal and that’s no joke. I didn’t think it could be that bad, but the food is often a crime against humanity. It’s difficult to get many things in communist countries, so expect very bland, greasy, simple and low quality food. I’m curious to know how the food was in Cuba before its communist days.
Outside of Varadero, the tourist mecca, it’s often a struggle to find food and water. You cannot drink the tap water in Cuba, so Cubans boil it for their own consumption. Bottled water is very expensive for Cubans, so only the tourists buy it and it’s hard to find and stores, restaurants and bars often run out.
Cuba is very difficult for eating healthy, dietary restrictions and vegetarians. Even the rice and beans (a Cuban staple) is often cooked in pork fat and you’ll often find bits of pork in it. You’ll find a lot of pork in Cuba.
As with any country, I always recommend to look up the names of a country’s dishes before you leave. Even if you speak Spanish, the names of the food won’t necessarily translate.
Some typical food you’ll find in Cuba:
- Cerdo de criollo is like pulled pork
- Rice and beans are called congri, moros y cristianos or simply just moros. It’s a safe, cheap option and you’ll find it everywhere. When cooked separately, it’s called arroz con/y frijoles” (rice with/and beans).
- Ropa vieja is tender, slow-cooked stewed beef, which directly translates into “old clothes”. This has the potential to be decent.
- Batidos are like milkshakes
- Emparedados are sandwiches
- Tortillas are omelettes
- Ham and cheese sandwiches
- Guarapo is a very sweet juice made from sugar cane, ice and lemon
- Baked goods on the street for $1-5CUP ($0.04-0.20CUC)
- Delicious tropical fruit that you can buy from street vendors with CUP. It’s helpful to pack a small knife with you to cut the fruit or you can borrow one from your casa particular
- Ice cream is a popular treat, with 3-4 flavours to choose from
- The milk in Cuba is often UHT and therefore awful, so maybe just don’t
I predominately ate where the locals ate and I never found a “Cuban sandwich”. The real Cuban sandwich appeared to be the ham and cheese sandwich, which you will find everywhere, along with pizza. The pizza is always soggy and I never found pizza by the slice, so you have to buy a whole pizza and it will take forever to make. The ham in the sandwiches is very poor quality, like spam; the cheese is sometimes awful; don’t expect any sauce or mayo on the bread and the bread is almost always stale. It’s an unusual and pleasant surprise when the bread isn’t stale. So sometimes you end up eating only cheese and bread, and other times you end up eating stale bread. Sometimes you can find these sandwiches for $5-15CUP ($0.20-0.60CUC), so they’re cheap and already pre-made, so you don’t have to wait forever to eat.
Outside of Varadero, you cannot find chocolate, except for chocolate ice cream. Gum is also very difficult to find. I met some Cuban ladies and shared some of my non-Cuban gum with them and I became a hero.
Casa particulares typically have the best food. They’re huge meals, but they’re overpriced in comparison to what you could find in the local restaurants. Expect to pay around $3-5CUC for breakfast and $7-10CUC for dinner, so they’re definitely reasonable prices if you’re not traveling for a long period of time and/or on a budget.
In some ways, it’s harder to meet people in Cuba as a solo traveler due to the lack of hostels, but in other ways, it’s easier to meet people because the lack of internet means more social, quality time with people.
Learning some basic Spanish would be very useful. But I found the Spanish spoken in Cuba is difficult. They often drop the “s” and the last consonant at the end of a word and they kind of slur their words. But a surprising amount of English is spoken in Cuba. However, taxi drivers and the Cubans at the casa particulares typically do not speak English.
Everyone in Cuba is good-looking! Cubans are a very beautiful mix of people- black, hispanic, European, etc and mixes of everything.
Cuba reminded me of Brazil because of the demographic of people, the fun culture and the dancing and the partying. But Cuba is much safer and cheaper to travel than Brazil.
Cuba is one of the safest countries in Latin America for tourists, including female tourists, as a result of the secret police network. But still exercise regular precautions.
As a female traveler in any Latin American country, you will get hit on ferociously in Cuba. Cuban men are very forthright and they do not care about age, height or size differences.
Buy cigars and rum to enjoy in Cuba and to bring home.
Cubans love to dance and they especially love to salsa.
You can drink in public.
Cuban men and women will hiss to get your attention. It feels a little offensive and rude, but it’s not meant to be.
You won’t see any advertising anywhere. The few billboards you’ll see are communist and revolution propaganda.
You’ll see many communist buildings to remind you that you’re in a communist country. Many buildings in Cuba reminded me of Russia.
Taxi drivers make the highest wages. Much more than doctors.
Some locals are fairly miserable, especially in the state-run restaurants. Don’t take it personally.
Cuba is like a prince in a poor man’s coat; behind the sometimes shabby façades, gold dust lingers
THE UGLY SIDE OF CUBA
Like many developing countries, these countries are great to visit as a tourist, but understand that to live there is a completely different, and sometimes negative, experience. Remember that what draws us to their “culture” is the fact that they’re stuck in the 1950s, which is a cool, novel flashback for us, but for them, it’s a rough way of life. Cuba is a communist country and communist countries have very dark sides to them and dark things happen behind the the scenes that tourists don’t see. Their lives are under constant surveillance.
Almost everyone will try to hustle you. The communist system does not provide Cubans with enough to get by, so everyone needs to have a side hustle and anything involving tourists is a money maker for Cubans. Even an official bank purposely tried to short change me a few dollars. Always count your change and don’t be afraid to call them out if something is wrong.
The Cuban government puts on a front to the rest of the world that it’s LGBT friendly, but in reality, it’s not. It has come a long way, but it still has a very long way to go.
Beef and lobster are controlled by the government and they’re saved for tourists (and government officials), so they’re illegal to sell outside of state-owned hotels and restaurants. The government will come into people’s homes to see if they have lobster and beef. If they do and they have tourists staying with them, then it’s ok, but if they don’t have tourists staying with them, they’ll be fined.
Do not bring up politics, communism or the social situation in Cuba. Politics can only be discussed if a Cuban brings it up. There are informants everywhere. I had a few locals tell me they hate life in Cuba and how they want to leave. One Cuban told me his plan to go to Mexico in a few months. We both knew he would never come back. A young Cuban guy approached me on my last night in Cuba and told me how desperate he was for an escape.
Prostitution as a side hustle is common, for males and females. Sometimes grandmothers will pimp their granddaughters and husbands will pimp their wives. People are desperate for money and a way out of Cuba. It’s an unfortunate reality and way of life. Varadero (and anywhere else with all-inclusives) is a major hotspot for this because it’s the tourist mecca.
Timeworn but magnificent, dilapidated but dignified, fun yet maddeningly frustrating – Cuba is a country of indefinable magic – Brendan Sainsbury
I highly recommend you to travel Cuba independently. It will be a raw and challenging experience, but also an amazing and unforgettable experience. Writing and reminiscing about Cuba makes me want to book a flight back immediately. Cuba will capture your heart.