Cuba really is an incredible place. With a rich culture and history, it’s current situation is the only thing stopping flocks of backpackers flooding the country. Politics play a big role in tourism and right now they’re not keen on hostels and all the traditional features you might expect in a backpackers country, meaning you won’t have the same experience you might have in the rest of Latin America. The travel books are solid, but fail to answer many of the questions you might have.
Here is some advice and tips I learnt in my month long stint on the island, but if you have any questions comment below or if you have any more points, do the same:
1. Know what to expect
In terms of backpacking, Cuba is in its infancy which means, don’t expect Full Moon Parties (I don’t know why you would), fully developed hostels with pools and beer pong or hundreds of like-minded tourists filing on some well-defined gringo trail. None of these things exist.
Don’t let that put you off though! Cuba is a beautiful, diverse island with a well-developed transport and affordable lifestyle. As laws change, which currently prohibit the creation of said hostels, it is likely that Cuba will become similar to other Latin American countries, but for now embrace it. It is a refreshing change from the organised fun of some places.
2. Learn some Spanish!
I’m not saying learn Spanish fluently or even moderately well, but a few phrases (and their answers) will help. English speakers are few and although you might find the occasional casa particular owner who does understand you, don’t count on it. Rule of thumb: the further you get from Havana, the less English they’ll speak.
3. Embrace the culture
Like any country in the world, you will find the foreigners hanging out in one place, particularly in Havana, Trinidad, and Viñales. This is great, as it gives you the opportunity to meet new people, but in some towns you may find it difficult to see another white person around. Don’t threat, embrace it and head to any bar in the city, order a mojito and listen to the amazing music which fills the streets.
If you can, plan your visit around some of the festivals which Cuba is famous for. We missed it, but we heard that the Santiago de Cuba festival is only second to Rio’s in Latin America.
4. Money problems
One thing all of the guides are useless with is how money works in the country, no more so with information about taking out money once you’re there. Your best option is to take enough money in cash to survive by for a week (or even the entire duration of your trip), but that much money can sometimes feel like a huge burden to carry round in your backpack.
If you want to take out money whilst there, don’t worry, it is far simpler than the guidebooks imply. When you head to la cadeca – the Cuban style bureau de change found in pretty much every town you go to – take your debit/credit card with you and simply dictate the amount you want out. Cash machines also work, but watch out for your bank blocking your card. If you have problems either phone your bank or try another machine. Remember though, no American cards (Mastercard, AmEx, but Visa is fine).
5. Talk politics
You would think with the reputation Cuba has for being a dictatorship, talking to foreigners about the daily trials and tribulations might be taboo for the locals. It is certainly true that some might stray from the conversation (it was only a few years ago that it could land you in hot water), but after a sufficient amount of small talk a lot of Cubans will have plenty to complain/laud about. I learnt loads of fascinating things and the country’s unique political situation is one of the reasons that makes Cuba such an interesting place to travel right now. Beware: once they start, they won’t stop! However, if they don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to talk about it.
The Lonely Planet suggests 30-60CUC a day, but you needn’t spend that much. A room in a decent casa particular shouldn’t cost more than 10CUC a night, a meal around 7CUC (or 3CUC for breakfast) and a guided tour or trek around 20CUC. On average I spent around 30CUC a day, but less on other days, and more on others. A big chunk of money goes towards transport (53CUC for the bus from Havana to Santiago) and, of course, you can’t forget the tedious amounts of taxes.
7. Travel in groups
If you’re alone, a great way to save money is by grabbing a couple of other backpackers to travel with. Casa particulares charge by the room, not the individual, so if you fit three people in a room which costs 30CUC, you will pay 10CUC each. If you convince them to put four in the room, it’s even less!
As I said, there are no hostels, so it could be difficult. However, Havana Backpackers in Havana (obviously) is the closest you’ll get to one and we met plenty of people who teamed up from here and travelled around the country together.