Backpacking in Cuba is only just starting to become popular and that can bring a few problems especially for those on a budget. There very are limited hostels, practically no budget-friendly tourist restaurants, and WiFi access only exists in select parks. When going backpacking in Cuba it is important to be prepared for a trip that will be different than any other Latin American country.
I just got back from a short trip in Cuba and I was shocked at how “back in time” the people in Cuba live. I felt as if I was looking back into a different era and I now have a huge appreciation to those who traveled back in the days without internet (I guess those Lonely Planet books were worth their weight in gold back then!) Due to this, I have put together this list of tips that would have saved me a lot of hassle and money had I known them before I started my trip backpacking in Cuba.
Not all bank cards will work in the ATM’s in Cuba
I have heard horror stories from people stuck in Cuba without money as their bankcards would not work at the ATM’s. I have an Australian bank card and I heard that they are underwritten by American Banks and therefore may not work. So, instead of risking being without money I just brought enough cash with me to change when I arrived. Euros, Canadian Dollars, or Mexican Pesos will get you the best rate. Because I was only there for 10 days this was possible. If you are going longer, than maybe triple check with your bank ahead of time if you card will work. Worst case scenario, there is Western Union in Cuba, although the fees are expensive.
Changing money is a Long Process
You can change money at the airport which seemed to be the most efficient. Otherwise, you can only change money at banks. Going to the bank is a process. You must not be wearing sandals or be showing your shoulders. You must also bring your passport and address of where you are staying with you. The lines at the bank will always be very long (especially on Friday which is the government workers’ payday.) Expect to spend an hour or so in line at the bank. They also won’t exchange damaged bills.
There are Two Official Currencies in Cuba
The “local currency” which is called a Peso and then the “tourist currency” which is called the CUC (pronounced “Kook”.) The truth is one isn’t a tourist currency and one isn’t a local currency. One is basically for luxury and tourism related items and the other is for like street food and things locals purchase on a daily basis. However, they are both easily interchangeable and you won’t get a better or worse deal by using one over the other. The Cuc is most useful for tourists as your accommodation and tours and most restaurants prefer this currency. I got both currencies when I arrived but practically only ever used the Cuc. Also be aware that paying for items that are expensive would require large stacks of the “local currency” (I exchange $60 usd over and ended up with a stack of cash 1 inch high) so CUC is really the best to use.
People will try and Short Change You
They are master of the short change in Cuba, but they also take advantage of the two currencies and people who seem new to the country. Basically if you pay for something in CUC they may try to give you change in Pesos and this is a big problem as one CUC equals 25 pesos. Make sure you study the money and familiarize yourself with both currencies before doing too much shopping. The easiest way to tell them apart is the CUC says “convertible peso” on one side.
WiFi Access is Very Limited
You wont find WiFi at any hostel or Casa, only in the designated parks. You must buy a Wifi access code from one of the ETECSA buildings or from one of the guys reselling them at the park. These guys will charge you double the normal price of $1:50 per hour but will save you waiting in line at the official ETECSA place (the lines can be an hour long wait) . Ensure that the password scratch pad is still covered as they may be trying to sell you a used card.
In addition, certain websites won;t work. YouTube and Skype is not allowed and will not work in Cuba so don’t plan for any Skype conversations while in the country.
Download Maps.Me App
Since WiFi is so limited I would recommend getting the app called MAPS.ME and downloading the map for all of Cuba in advance. This app shows the locations of anything tourists would want to know and works offline perfectly. It will be a lifesaver especially if your Spanish isn’t the best.
Food is a Serious Issue
Basically the local street food is not how you say “tasty” (and I’m not a picky eater by any means.) The local food is slimy ham and cheese sandwiches or extremely greasy pizza (if you can even call it a pizza…think of chewy dough covered in cheap cheese.) So if you are on a tight budget and can’t afford to eat at restaurants a good idea can be to pick a hostel or casa that offers cheap home cooked meals. We have one really great restaurant to recommend called Venami Pasta y Pizzas, this place was absolutely amazing! Here you can get a great pizza or pasta for $5 usd!
Change your Money Before You Leave Cuba
There is many places to change money at the airport.You must do this there because no other country will exchange Cuban money. Also be aware the airport shops only except the CUC and not the Peso.
Bring a Water Filter With You
If would be beneficial to purchase a water bottle with a built-in filter for use in Cuba. Buying bottled water will be one of your biggest expenses. At small shops and restaurants expect to pay $1 USD for a 500 mL bottle and $2 for a 1.5L. It is slightly cheaper to buy water in the government run grocery stores, but their opening hours and locations tend to be less than convenient. In the Cuban heat you will be drinking a lot of water. Some days I was spending $5 USD just on water! We met some other backpackers who had the water filter and said it worked great and saved them lots of money.
Never Buy Anything from the Salesmen on the Street
This seems obvious, why would you buy something from a street salesman anyways? These guys are good at what they do. They approach you and will spend ten minutes or more talking with you about random things. Then, they will eventually slip in that they can get you real Cuban cigars at a local price however they will rip you off with low quality cigars. These guys sell everything from cigars, to accommodation, to taxis, to literally anything you need. Just don’t trust them. Some will even pretend to be your friend and then ask to go for a beer with you. They will take you to their friend’s store where the end bill will be upwards of three times the normal price, and you won’t have a choice but to pay it all. Your “new friend” will not only get free drinks but will also get a hefty commission from the shop owner.
Generally, the rule of thumb when walking around Cuba is if someone approaches you speaking English and seems overly friendly, they are trying to sell you something. Unfortunate, but true.
For tips on checking for low quality cigars see my blog on the best things to do in Havana here.
Bring Any Medicine You Need With You
Pharmacies are not very frequent in Cuba and most of them sell only natural products. Good luck finding as much as an Advil or Cold and Flu tablets. Stock up on medicines before you leave for Cuba along with any toiletries, they sometimes run out of basic things like toothpaste or toilet paper.
Book buses in Advance
Cuba was different in terms of bus transport than most Latin American countries, buses are few and therefore they book up quickly. If you need a bus to Vinales, Trinidad or anywhere long distance you should be booking 2 days in advance. The best bus companies are ViaZul or Cubacan. You can buy tickets directly at their offices, online, or at most hotel tour desks.
When backpacking in Cuba there will be some challenges, but these challenges make the journey more fun. One day I expect backpacking in Cuba to be much more mainstream, and a similar experience to the other Latin America countries. But for now, be grateful for the differences and unique culture of Cuba. You will literally feel like you stepped back in time and it is great!
Hopefully these tips will help you prepare for any trip backpacking in Cuba. If you want some more information on Cuba check out our guide to Havana here, our tips for visiting Vinales here, or our best photos of Cuba here!