Caribbean, Cuba, Tips

Travel Guide – Cuba on a budget

4 Jun , 2015   Gallery

Everybody who visited Cuba knows that travelling around this amazing island is VERY expensive. The average daily budget is usually around $50. I usually spend this amount of money in 2-3 days, not one. So, is a cheap travelling in Cuba just my secret wish or are there some ways how to achieve it? The answer is yes – there are many options for budget travellers. Unfortunately, the answer is also no – in some areas it’s simply impossible to save money. Read on.

Dual currency system – pure bullshit

Before I even start with all practical information you need to know what money to use in Cuba. There are 2 different currencies – Peso Convertible (CUC) and Peso Nacional (CUP). CUC was created by cuban government for tourist purposes and is used by (more or less) by tourists only. CUP is the currency used by local people. The exchange rate between them is 1 CUC = 25 CUP. To get better idea about CUC currency, 1 CUC is almost equivalent to 1 USD or 1.08 EUR.

To make things even more complicated both use symbol $ and both are called pesos. You simply have to spend some time in Cuba to recognise which prices are in CUC and which in CUP. Good advice – keep both money at different places in your wallet, at least at the beginning of your trip. They look quite similar and it can be quite painful to handover 20 CUC banknote instead of 20 CUP. The ATM will always give you CUC so you have to go to the nearest CADECA (exchange office) and get some national pesos. I usually exchanged 15 CUC as it was a lot of banknotes.

Anyway, as you can see it’s a big chaos. I am very glad we have common currency in Europe. Everything’s so much easier for us travellers.

Internet connection

Be prepared that there’s no mobile internet connection. In fact, there’s almost no internet connection in Cuba. Local people are not allowed to use it, they can only use very expensive email services. All provided by government, of course. The only places where you can find super slow connection are in hotels and some telecommunication shops. The price is usually 5-6 CUC per hour. As you can see, it’s better to make your research in advance at home.

Havana – how to get from the airport

Yes, I dedicated the whole chapter to this issue. The reason is simple – nobody at the airport will tell you the truth. I asked so many people (10-12) if there’s any chance to get to the city centre by public bus. The answer was always the same – no, only taxi. Fortunately you have me and I will tell you exactly how to use public transportation. But some facts first.

Public buses in Havana are modern Chinese buses but usually very overcrowded. The price is fixed wherever you go and it’s always 0.40 CUP (not CUC) per ride. I usually paid 1 CUP as it was so cheap. You alway pay to the driver or his assistant when entering by front door. So it’s a good idea to have some small banknotes when leaving the airport (ask in CADECA office). Bus stops are marked similarly as in Europe, nothing special about that.

Now to the airport issue. You arrive at the international terminal number 3. The truth is that the bus is really not stopping near the airport. It’s on the street called Avenida Rancho Boyeros which is approximately 1.5 kilometres from the terminal. When standing in front of the terminal (airport behind you) just walked on the main street which is maybe 200-300 metres in front of you and go to the right. There’s no path so walk on the street and always keep on the main road. This maps will show you where to go:

When you reach the avenue go to the other side of the street. If you have luggage or you just don’t want to walk you can take a taxi from terminal to this road, it shouldn’t be more than 3-4 CUC. Now the most important thing. There are 2 different buses going to Havana. Bus P-12 is going to Capitolio (National Capitol Building), the bus P-16 is going near Malecon where you can find very cheap hostel (my most favourite place to stay in Cuba, read bellow). The ride is very long, around 40-45 minutes so be prepared for that.

Well and that’s it. But I totally forgot to tell you the price of taxi. You probably guess it’s not cheap at all and you’re right. It’s around 25-30 CUC. Pretty good difference between 1 CUP and 30 CUC, right?

Havana – where to stay

Right now there are no hostels in Cuba. Right now you can count the number of hostels in Cuba on one hand. Take this as a fact. Everything has been made for rich tourists and backpackers are not very rich. Fortunately, some people in Havana realise there is a big potential in backpackers and created at least 2 hostels I know about. I stayed only in the first one and it was amazing. The price per night was 5 CUC which is super cheap compared to the average prices in whole Cuba (20-30 CUC per night). The only problem is that this place is quite busy and therefore the upfront reservation is recommended. Unfortunately for the reasons I described above, the only way is via phone.

Hostal Hamel – 5 CUC per night

Magnolia Y Wilfredo, Hospital #308 (between San Lazaro Calle and Hamel Calle), phone: +53 873 4222

Hostal Mango – 8 CUC per night

Carlos Y Nelly, Calle Damas #709 (between Luz and Acosta), phone: +53 786 755 08, http://hostelmangohabana.weebly.com

I haven’t tested the second hostel and it was recommended to me by 2 backpackers I met in Baracoa. The good thing about Hostal Hamel however is that it’s located 2 streets from the last stop of P-16 bus. Can you imagine something better? The atmosphere is amazing, there is a big terrace on the roof and many cool people.

Accommodation in general

Okay, now stop thinking about this paradise I just described and prepare for the tough reality. Because we are backpackers and we don’t stay in hotels the only affordable way in Cuba are casa particulares. To describe it simply – you stay with local people at their homes. The rooms follow the standard – you always have private bathroom and air-condition.

There are 2 types of casas. Those marked with blue anchor are for tourists, with red anchor are for Cubans only. Of course the latter ones are much cheaper and you pay in CUP. Unfortunately, the owners of them are not willing to take the risk and will probably not accommodate you. The reason is very simple – they could loose the license. Nobody will take such risk (believe me, I tried).

As I already mentioned the price is usually somewhere between 15-30 CUC per room. So the rule is very simple – more people, less money per person. All rooms usually have 3 beds.

If you’re a solo traveller then you’re in a more difficult situation. You have to bargain with owner to get a price 10 CUC per night. That was the lowest I was ever able to get. However, my friends told me they were able to bargain even 8 CUC per night. It’s only about the luck and your willingness to walk around each city and talk to the people. What might help you a lot is when you stay more than 1 night. It’s much easier to get lower price.

Another very important rule to remember is that all these casas are somehow interconnected between each other. So when you’re leaving one city the owners can recommend you another casa in your destination and even make a reservation for you. This has pros and cons. The pros is that you don’t have to do anything, only find the casa. You will be expected. The cons however is that it will be very hard to get a better price than in previous casa. Of course, they talk about this. On the other hand, if your first place was cheap then there’s a big probability the next place will be, too. I personally always preferred to find my own casa in each city. This way I could always bargain my price.

Accommodation will be probably the biggest expense every day. There’s not much you can do here. I haven’t tried sleeping in the tent, maybe it’s cheaper but probably not legal.

Transportation

This is definitely my favourite topic. There are so many ways of transportation in Cuba. From super expensive touristic buses to the super cheap local trucks.

  • VIAZUL buses – the evil first. Modern air-conditioned very comfortable buses just for tourists. Of course you pay in CUC and prepare for big numbers. You will not meet any local people here as the prices are usually bigger than average salary in Cuba.
  • ASTRO buses – this is the equivalent of Viazul buses but for Cubans. They are quite cheap but it’s almost impossible to get into them. To buy a ticket the official way you need to have Cuban ID. You can try to ask driver directly but they usually say no as they can lost their job for this.
  • TRANSTUR buses – this looks like private travel agency which transported mostly tourists but I didn’t get the point how they work. I once stopped this bus on the highway and it took me couple of CUP to my destination.
  • Trains – quite comfortable, you can meet many local people here as they use the same trains. However, not very cheap for tourists. Local people pay in CUP, we pay in CUC extremely high prices. There’s even one special train called Tren Frances between Havana and Santiago de Cuba. It’s even more expensive and you get the air-condition as bonus.
  • Private taxis – don’t even thing about that
  • Shared (collectivo) taxis – they can be very cheap and you can find them everywhere. The only problem is that driver will charge you much more than local people.
  • Trucks (camiones) – my favourite way of transportation in Cuba. Imagine a truck for animals, add couple of benches and you get pretty good idea how these vehicles look. They are very cheap, you always pay in CUP and are exclusively used by local people. To be honest, I have never seen any gringo in them. Forget the comfort, they are overcrowded and it’s insanely hot in them. If you want at least a little comfort you can ask driver if you can sit with him in the cabin. Most of time it won’t be possible as other people think this way, too. But you can at least try. Remember, it’s not officially allowed for tourists to travel in these trucks but drivers take them anyway. Sometimes you have to bribe them with couple of CUC but it’s still incomparably cheaper than any other way of transportation described above. So, what are the downsides except missing comfort? Problem #1 is that they stop everywhere and the journey takes very long time. Problem #2 is that there are no terminals for trucks like for buses (except in big cities). There are usually multiple departure points within the city depending on your destination. I sometimes had to travel across the city by public bus to get to the stop. These places are not documented and you have to ask a lot. Problem #3 is that they usually wait until the truck is full, so forget about any timetables. Problem #4 is that sometimes they don’t go directly into your city but drops you off in the middle of highway and you have to hitchhike to get further. Otherwise, the most amazing thing I have ever seen. You have to try.
  • Hitchhiking – it’s not only legal but also officially supported by government. Because not many Cubans have car they have to utilise the existing ones. You can see so many people waving with money along the highway. It’s like a national sport and they are very good at it. There are even special places on highways where government employees stand, stop each car and put people into them. This way you can stop trucks, private cars and even luxury buses. It’s either free or you agree some small amount of money with driver. The best advice I can give you (and it also applies to trucks) – don’t travel with big luggage. It’s very uncomfortable and you will be pretty nervous. Believe me that.
  • Che’s dredger – it’s parked in Santa Clara but I don’t think they will let you to take it 🙂

Food

Again, as with everything it has 2 different faces. Luxury and expensive touristic restaurants can be found everywhere. But this is not how local people eat. With prices higher than in Europe they simply cannot afford it. I always tried to eat as cheap as possible and good news is there are many places.

The easiest way is to eat pizza or buns with cheese and ham. There are small cafeterias everywhere, usually in form of a small window looking into street. The offer is very limited but it tastes very good. The second option is to find local restaurants. They are just like the touristic ones but very cheap. For 30-40 CUP you can get full plate of rice with beans and chicken. The portions are big and food is delicious. The only problem is they are not so frequent. You can’t even find them in smaller cities.

Of course I cannot forget the ice cream. It’s everywhere and almost for free (1 to 5 CUP). I haven’t eaten so much ice cream in past 5 years as I ate in 3 weeks in Cuba. So many different kinds and flavours. Mandatory for everyone.

Regarding fresh fruits and vegetables – always buy them from local people. There are many of them in each city, walking or standing on the streets. I ate the best bananas and mangos of my life in Cuba. All is cheap and local, what else can you wish for?

The best advice I can give you

I always said that I am backpacker (mochilero) and student (which is/was true). This is like a magical phrase. Suddenly people stopped bothering me with expensive taxis and even tried to help me find my truck or cheap place to stay. They understand that not every gringo is a tourist.

What were my real expenses?

So how much did I spend in Cuba? Well, it depends on the location. In Havana with 5 CUC for hostel and 100 CUP (4 CUC) for food I spent less then 10 EUR per day. In other cities with accommodation for 10 CUC, food usually 40-60 CUP (2-3 CUC) and transportation 20-50 CUP (1-2 CUC) I totally spent under 15 EUR per day. Please remember that I was solo traveller for the second part of the trip. When I was travelling with 2 of my friends Ada and Mirec first one and half week my total expenses were more or less the same as in Havana thanks to the sharing of accommodation. I always use iPhone app Trail Wallet to record all my expenses.

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  • Pán Miroslav

    Pekne si to napisal, Ty Solo Traveler 🙂 Som dal na share tvoj clanok na FB Nomads stranku. Pekny den Expert 🙂

    • igorlopasovsky

      Dakujem Mirec 🙂 cital som komenty. Vela z nich je konstruktivnych, tak opravim niektore veci. Haha a nie som expert, snazil som sa vynechat nase osobne zazitky a tak, to dam do ineho clanku. Uz bude o chvilu aj video, ale neviem najst vystiznu hudbu 🙂

  • Great post!

    • igorlopasovsky

      Thank you, hopefully it will help a little 😉

  • Lydia Green-eyed

    Thank you for the useful info, Igor! It will make my trip to Cuba a lot easier and cheaper, especially that part about hostels!