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12 Things You Need To Know Before Backpacking In Cuba

12 Things You Need To Know Before Backpacking In Cuba

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Backpacking in Cuba was a dream come true. Exploring this beautiful country was everything I had hoped it would be. With classic cars, friendly people, beautiful architecture, cool cigars, and the country’s unique history, everywhere I looked I was amazed.

However, backpacking around Cuba it wasn’t without its challenges.

A backpacking trip in Cuba has a lot more challenges than a typical “resort stay” type of holiday, and there are a few things that you should know about before you go.

You see, backpacking in Cuba is only just starting to become popular and that can bring a few problems especially for those on a budget. Things like getting money from ATMs, access to WiFi, and even medical supplies can become problems if you’re not prepared.

After arriving in Cuba and I was shocked at how “back in time” the people in Cuba live. I felt as if I had stepped into a different era and the serious lack of modern amenities was a big change. While this was one of the reasons I visited Cuba, it took some extra planning. I now have a huge appreciation for those who traveled back in the days without the 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 setting off on my trip to Cuba.

1. Your bank card might not work in the ATM

An old car drives past the La Bodeguita del Medio bar in Havana
This is the bar made famous by Hemingway

There can’t be anything worse than arriving in a new country and finding out your bank card (debit or credit card) doesn’t work there. Well, in Cuba this is highly possible!

I have heard horror stories from people stuck in Cuba without money as their bank cards 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. Canadian bank cards and European bank cards generally due work though.

On top of this, Cuba’s spotty internet and outdated technology means most places won’t accept your card anyway. Cash is king in Cuba!

So, instead of risking being without money, it’s best to bring enough cash with you for your trip. USD, Euros, Canadian Dollars, or Mexican Pesos will get you the best rate and you can get it exchanged once you arrive in Cuba at a government bank (not before.)

Because I was only in Cuba for 10 days, I brought all my money in cash. If you are going longer, then maybe triple check with your bank ahead of time if your bank ard will work.

Worst case scenario, there a Western Union in Cuba, although the fees are expensive.

2. Exchanging currency is a long process…so do it at the airport

Old Havana from above at night time
Beautiful Havana!

Exchanging money (currencies) around town is a long process in Cuba.

To avoid this, you should try to exchange your currency at the airport which is the most efficient way. There is a CADECA (official) currency exchange booth on the ground floor of the airport. Otherwise, you can only exchange money at banks around cities like Havana, and let me tell you, going to the bank is a pain!

To visit a bank in Cuba 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.

Please note: You cannot get Cuban currency before arriving in Cuba as taking the currency out of the country is illegal.

3. There are two official currencies in Cuba

Bailey riding a horse in Vinales, Cuba
Enjoying the Cuban countryside in Vinales!

Yep, you read that right, Cuba has two currencies. The first is the “local currency” which is called the CUP. The second is the “tourist currency” which is called the CUC (pronounced “cook”.) Both are referred to as pesos to the locals.

The CUP is worth drastically less than the CUC. In fact, 1 CUC is worth 25 CUP!

The truth is that one isn’t actually tourist currency and the other local currency. The CUC is basically for luxury and tourism-related items (because it’s worth more) and the other is for things like street food and things locals generally 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, 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 CUP (“local currency”.) I exchanged $60 USD over to CUP and ended up with a stack of cash 1 inch high, so CUC is really the best to use.

For more info on Cuba’s currency check out this guide to currency in Cuba.

4. People will try and short change you with the two currencies

An old car drives through Havana, Cuba while on our backpacking trip
A typical view in Havana

Because of the two currency system in Cuba, it’s very easy to get short-changed. Locals will sometimes try to give you CUP as change when you paid in CUC. Although the amount will be the same on the bills, the CUP is worth so much less than the CUC, so you’ll be given much less change.

Some people are masters of this in Cuba and even I got fooled once. Honestly, during your time in Cuba, you may also get fooled. It does become hard once you have two different currencies in your wallet all the time.

When buying goods the easiest way to tell the difference between the bills is the CUC doesn’t have faces on them and the CUP does! So if you pay with a face, expect a face back and vice versa.

5. WiFi access is very limited

three old Cuban men sit of a step in the city
Some of the locals!

While backpacking in Cuba one thing that’s hard to come by is WiFi. You won’t find WiFi at any hostel or Casa, only in the designated parks or very fancy hotels.

In the 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.)

When buying the WiFi from the park ensure that the password scratchpad is still covered as they may be trying to sell you a used card.

In addition, certain websites won’t work. YouTube and Skype are not allowed and will not work in Cuba. So, don’t plan for any Skype conversations while in the country.

Please note: There is no data available in Cuba. You cannot buy a phone plan that will give you access to the internet. In order to access the internet you will need to connect to WiFi.

6. Downloading Maps.Me is a great idea 

Bailey enjoying a cocktail in Vinales, Cuba
All that hot weather makes you thirsty!

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.

Another great app is Google Translate. You can also download entire languages so you can use it offline.

For more, check out our best apps for travel blog.

7. The cheap street food isn’t very good

A pasta dish at Venami Pasta y Pizzas in Havana, Cuba
Yum! Food at Venami Pasta y Pizzas

While backpacking in most countries, travelers rely on cheap local street food to get by on a budget. Most of the time you can eat delicious food at a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately, while backpacking in Cuba I found this to be untrue.

Basically, the local street food is not tasty (and I’m not a picky eater by any means.) The local street food is not healthy and it tastes terrible.

So, if you’re on a tight budget and can’t afford to eat at nicer restaurants, then a good idea can be to pick a hostel or casa that offers cheap home-cooked meals.

One really good restaurant in Havana we recommend is called Venami Pasta y Pizzas, this place was absolutely amazing! Here you can get a great pizza or pasta for $5 USD! Other restaurants were a lot more expensive but we had to eat at them as we simply couldn’t stomach the street food!

8. Change your money before you leave Cuba

An old street in old Havana Cuba outside of the tourist district
An old street outside the typical tourist area of Havana

Cuban money outside of Cuba is worthless. In fact, you won’t be able to exchange it for another currency anywhere outside of the country.

For this reason, if you have Cuban currency left at the end of your trip that you want to be changed back you must do it before you leave. As I mentioned above, you can do it at the airport or exchange it with other travelers in your hotel!

Once you leave Cuba, you’re Cuban currency is only good as a souvenir!

9. Bring a water filter with you

Two cuban men have a beer in downtown Havana while leaning on a car
Pretty cool to photograph the locals

If you want to save money and plastic it would be beneficial to purchase a water bottle with a built-in filter for use in Cuba. During my travels there we solely used our Life Straw water bottle and saved tons of waste and money.

The water from the tap isn’t drinkable for most westerners becasue you’ll likly get sick. But with the Life Straw water bottle we had zero problems and we met others who did the same.

Buying bottled water will be one of your biggest expenses in Cuba. 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.

So, in order to save money and the planet, it’s a pretty good plan!

10. Never buy anything from the salesmen on the street

An old car sits at the lights in Cuba with beautiful buildings in the background

I’m not going to lie, when I first got to Cuba I almost got scammed right away.

This friendly Cuban approached me and being new to the country I was a little naive. I’ll admit it, he charmed me! Basically, he began chatting to me and Bailey for a while welcoming us to Cuba. It was really cool.

Then, however, the conversation changed to cigars. He had the best in Cuba and today was our lucky day. He told us he could get top quality cigars at the local Cuban price. Before I knew it he had run into a store, bought cigars, and then ask for $50 USD. I obviously refused.

He then told me he couldn’t return them and that he was poor so I had to pay him. Knowing he was a scam artist I refused again and walked away. This scam is typical in Cuba.

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. 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 at an unfair price. Unfortunate, but true.

11. Bring any medicine you need with you

A group of cars used to tour tourists around sit empty in downtown Havana, Cuba

Whenever you travel you should bring along any special medications with you. However, in Cuba, you should also bring the basics.

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 even toilet paper!

12. Book buses in advance

A man dressed up on the streets poses for a photo in Cuba

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. There are local buses, however, tourists will get fined for using them as they are for locals only.

Before you go…

Bailey and Daniel take a selfie in Cuba
Thanks for reading!

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 American 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 these related articles below:

Things to do in Havana

Things to do in Vinales