Cuba is special. It’s fascinating. The beaches are breathtaking, the architecture is astonishing, rumba is enchanting. And if you want to dig a little down beneath the surface, Cuba reveals so much more.
But is it cheap? Before taking the trip to Cuba^[Because I knew there was almost no Internet in Cuba.], I looked around the web for budget traveling tips in Cuba, about hitchhiking, wild-camping and stuff like that. But all the articles were talking about a budget of $20-$25 per day. Yeah…
I’ll give you tips about how to travel in Cuba with $10 a day. I won’t talk about beaches to visit, places to stay or food to try, only about how to enjoy Cuba on a shoestring. Remember, it’s budget traveling, so don’t expect to be vacation. But in exchange you’ll stay off the beaten path, meet Cubans away from the big resorts and see some hidden bits of real Cuba.
Money – Double Trouble
Okay, this is the first tricky part. There are two currencies in Cuba, the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).
CUC (locals pronounce it “kook”) is the currency used by tourists to pay for hotels, museums, official taxis etc. It’s on par with the US dollar, and it’s worth 25 CUP. CUP, also know as “moneda nacional” (national currency), is the one used by Cubans in their everyday life to buy fruits, vegetables and snacks from street vendors.
So if you’re on a budget, the best way to survive is to find shops and food vendors in CUP. These will not be aimed at tourists and therefore are much cheaper.
Many places, including all tourist facilities and some shops with imported goods, actually don’t accept CUP. For example, buying bottled water can only be done with CUC, as it’s considered as a luxury (locals either drink tap water or have a special water truck coming every other day to fill up the water containers). On the other hand, it’s very easy to exchange CUCs to CUPs, even in the street. People are always delighted to exchange their CUPs for your CUCs.
So the CUC is way more powerful and useful then the CUP. When I retrieved money (in offices called Cadeca which are all over Cuba), I usually took 80% of the amount in CUC and 20% in CUP. But when I tried to buy things, I always looked for CUP vendors first.
Careful though, as both currencies are called pesos in Cuba. Just use your common sense, if they ask 10* pesos *for a small pizza, you have to remember that Cubans aren’t able to spend 10CUC ($10) for that, so the guy is asking for 10CUP. And don’t mess up between the banknotes!
Eating – For Every Price
Eating in Cuba can be really cheap. You can find small pizzas for 10CUP ($0.40), with two of them you’re really full. And the great thing is that those pizza vendors are everywhere, plus the pizzas are actually quite good. Sandwiches with ham or egg or cheese cost even less. A glass of juice or soda is usually 1CUP (4 cents), but sometimes you don’t have the choice of the drink. They usually only propose one type of soda or juice in each snack stand, remember, Cuba is everything but a consumerist country, and that’s what makes it so charming. Just ask for a refresco and see what you’ll get!
There are a couple of restaurants which offer dishes in CUP. Generally a meal costs around 30-50CUP (less than $2), the quality of the food can vary but at least it makes your stomach feel better.
And the good restaurants only accept CUC, anywhere from 5CUC to 15CUC (so $5 to $15). If you’re reading this article, you probably don’t have a lot of money to spend, but don’t fall to the extreme of being too cheap, go a couple of times to these restaurants the food is really delicious.
Transport – Hitchhiking is Special
Yes, hitchhiking in Cuba is special. Standing by the road sticking your hand out doesn’t work so well, it’s apparently illegal. And when a car does stop, the driver always ask you to pay something for the ride. And seeing that you’re tourist, the amount can actually be pretty high. I managed once to get out without paying, it was because I invented a story saying that I had no money and was earning it by the day playing ukulele; but at the end it doesn’t make sense to invent yourself a story just to save $1 which could be so helpful to the family who just gave you a ride. Some people even recommended me to wave some 1CUC notes by the road instead of just sticking my hand out.
Then there’s the “official” hitchhiking. At every exit of cities and towns, there are specific spots to hitchhike. You’ll often see 10 or 20 people waiting there, and a officer dressed in yellow, called amarillo. You go there, tell the guy where you’re heading, and wait in line. The amarillo then stops the cars passing by, and when there’s a car going your way he puts you inside, and you pay him something like 5CUP. The wait is generally quite long though.
That’s why I quickly stopped hitchhiking in Cuba, it was too much time and effort for not so much money saved compared to the alternative solutions: trucks (camiones) and trains. Just don’t take the big Víazul buses with TV and air-conditioning, they’re quite expensive.
Trucks are basically big trucks with wooden benches on the back for people to sit. In every city there’s a place (la salida) from where they all leave. They wait to be full to bursting before departure, are very slow and you might have to experience a 3-hour bus trip standing on your foot. Yet the experience is amazing: you’ll get to talk to Cubans and see the island at its most intimate.
Trains are similar, unbearably slow and quite uncomfortable, but at least there are schedules for them. There are generally two ticket prices: one in CUP for Cubans, and the same amount but in CUC (so 25 times more expensive) for tourists. The trick is to ask any Cuban in the train station to buy the ticket for you, with the local price. In the train, the controller only checks that you have a ticket. It may not work on the touristy “French” train which goes from Havana to Santiago, but for all smaller trains between towns it worked for me.
Sleeping – Bring a Tent
This may be where most of your budget actually goes. Hotels are really expensive so forget about them. There are no hostels in Cuba (apart from a handful in Havana). Internet is not common^[Only in very few specific places you’ll find Internet. And it costs $4.50/hour.] so no Couchsurfing. The only more-or-less budget choice is called casa particular or guesthouse. It is clean, comfortable and the owners are always nice, I haven’t met an unpleasant one. The only problem, it costs minimum 15CUC ($15) per room per night.
I traveled with an Argentinian girl in Cuba, so we shared the price in the casas particulares, so at the end it didn’t turn out to be too expensive. A couple of times I also managed to negotiate down to $10 for a night. But for a non Spanish-speaking solo traveller it’s a budget to take into account.
Fortunately, there’s another great place to sleep: in your tent! Cuba is a really safe country, so putting your tent on beaches, along the road in the countryside or anywhere else you could possibly imagine is totally fine security-wise. It’s forbidden by the law to wild-camp though, so don’t get caught by the police. But I never got bothered at beaches or in the countryside. I wouldn’t try to wild-camp in cities or near cities or along the road though. Instead, I tried parks, football/baseball stadiums and gardens behind restaurants, and they all worked great because there was always a night guard watching the place. So just go and talk to him, hand him 1CUC ($1) or a pack of cigarettes he’ll gladly show you the best place to pitch your tent in the park/stadium/garden. Have a small chat with him at night and go to sleep without worries since he’ll watch the place for you. But be prepared to wake up at 6am, like local people.
What I did was camping for 1 or 2 nights and going to a casa particular the following night for a good shower and a decent night sleep, it was totally acceptable for my budget and travel style. And I had some really thought-provoking conversations with night guards about how they struggle to live their everyday life.
It’s illegal for Cubans to host foreigners in their house (unless they buy an expensive license), but I still got hosted by Cubans a couple of times. They are very hospitable people that would risk breaking the law to try to help you. Smile and chat with people, it can get you very far!
Final Word about Cuba on a Budget
I wouldn’t say that Cuba is a country suited for budget travellers, compared to some Central American countries where you can travel more or less effortlessly with the same budget. In Cuba you need to struggle a little bit to get what you want, converse with people, negotiate with them, give out free cigarettes. Also always say that you’re a mochilero (backpacker) or student, it’s like a magic phrase and people will stop bothering you with overpriced stuff.
But it’s totally doable. And I had fun doing it. I’ve been there one and a half months, and while writing this article the memories seem so fresh and pleasant. Admittedly I smelled bad at times and woke up at 4am to catch a camion, but I got to learn how Cubans live everyday with the communist system or what they thought about the revolution, stopped at small towns in the middle of nowhere and appreciated beaches not written in the Lonely Planet.
And that was really enriching.
Please comment below if you have any questions!