Cuba is not one of those cheap backpacker’s paradises. You’re not going to get a hostel bed for a few bucks, catch free rides, or gorge on cheap delish food and cocktails. Everything has a price tag. It’s almost an art – that requires constant hustle and analyzing – to manage to travel Cuba extensively and cheap.
I traveled with a friend for 2.5 weeks, and we tried to see and do as much as possible, spending as little as possible. We’re not greedy, we just miscalculated how not so cheap backpacking in Cuba is. When we pooled all cash we had and divided by the number of days in Cuba, we ended up with a daily budget of $67 for two. That includes housing, food, entertainment and all transportation (and presents).
I wrote a separate article about staying in Casas Particulares here. In this article I also talk about how we did some fun things, like horseback riding, for cheaper.
All blogs will tell you to exchange in official banks only, and never from strangers on the street. Okay, the later is obvious. However, I never exchanged money in official exchanges/ banks. I was sure I’d follow this advise, but ended up in the houses of friends of friends who do currency operations (def illegally).
I’m talking about American dollars here. The official ruling, is that they take 10% as a fee. So, theoretically, 1USD = 1CUC (Cuban convertible peso, the ‘tourist currency’). But for 100USD you’ll get only 90CUC because of the fee. Through locals I met, I found people who’d exchange it for 0.93 rate.
Important finding: exchanging through locals, rather have bigger banknotes, like $100s. One time we only had $20s, and we got 0.9 exchange rate instead of 0.93.
CUP is the local (non-touristic) currency, cuban peso. You can exchange it through CUCs like this: 1CUC = 24 CUPs. However the calculation will always be 1CUC=25 CUP, when you pay/ get change in the store. You can mix and match, combine the two currencies. Pay in one, get change in the other. Really, before Cuba, I had an understanding that CUPs are not for tourists: bs! You can and should have CUPs, especially if you’re trying to eat cheap and local.
This is one of the biggest areas where you can save. Or splurge! On our 2.5 weeks journey we had both $40 dinners, and 50 cent dinners for two. With expensive dinners there’s no problem: go to Havana center and indulge in one of those tourist places. Go to the famous bar La Floridita (the ‘cradle of daiquiri’), where Hemingway used to get drunk, and order $6 drinks. In the mid range – have $5 breakfasts and $7-8 dinners (per person) at your Casa Particulares. However, there’re ways to go really cheap!
Walk a little bit off the main touristic streets, and you will see myriads of cheap local places. Some are just windows in the wall that sell simple sandwiches for like 10CUPs (around 40 cents). Go to fruit markets and buy giant mangos for 5-10 cents, water melons, papayas!
Look out for Comida Criollo places. Criollo – is one of the cultures/ religions in Cuba and they have amazingly hearty and cheap food. Usually – fried chicken, rice with beans, some local veggies (like yucca, cucumbers). All that for around $2 – and it’s more than enough for two!
Booze – a 0.5L bottle of Havana Club rum is $4.5. Get that, some limes from the market, a Cuban equivalent of Coke, ask for some ice from your casa – voila, Cuba Libre is served!
Water – this was trickier than I thought! So definitely don’t drink tap water, and whatever water/ice they serve in jars in local restaurants (it’s most likely tap). Get bottled water. However when we were there, they was some shortage with water, can you imagine? They linked it to the petroleum crisis. So we sometimes had to pay $2 for 1.5L bottles. Or one time we drove from store to store: no bottled water, only rum! And we ended up buying expensive $1 per 0.5L bottle on the beach. But it’s so hot, you need to drink and stay hydrated.
Some solutions: if only I knew… I’d have taken my hiking UV water purifier with me and just purify tap/ restaurant water. Some Casas Particulares have water filters, so we just filled bottles with that water and carried it around. In Viñales we actually found a giant water tank with cheap potable water (agua potable). So in one day we bought 0.5L for $1 and then 20L for some cents.
One of the biggest expenses in Cuba might be transportation costs. Once again, it’s quite astounding how different the prices for the same thing can be. Be ready to be hustled as a tourist: on bus stations and tourist points. There’re few methods of transportation that you could consider.
Taxi – you’d be offered to use taxis everywhere at any time and occasion. The only time when you absolutely need to get a taxi is when getting to and from the airport, and there’s not really a good way around that. In all other cases – use the means below.
Bus – It’s a good idea to travel by a tourist bus between the distant cities. The main company is called ‘Viazul’. It’s safe, air-conditioned and at least second cheapest option, usually. The drawback, is that you need to buy tickets in advance by physically coming to the bus station. In Havana – it’s far and inconvenient; plus as a backpacker you oftentimes don’t know where and when you’ll be going:) Sometimes, it’s possible to buy tickets at the time of the bus’s departure; but if it’s a popular destination, chances are, tickets are going to be sold out. This happened to us, for example, when we tried to buy tickets Havana-Viñales: everything was sold out.
Also I want to mention taking a public bus around Havana: do it! For who knows what reason, everyone was dissuading us from doing so. But these buses really okay! Crowded yes, but just fine. And the price difference is astounding: instead of $10 to ViaZul bus station or $7 to the fortress La Cabaña by taxi, you can pay 40 local cents (which is a couple dollar cents) per bus ride!
Taxi collective – another great option. Actually, usually the best one! It’s when you share a taxi with multiple people going the same direction. If the price (or cultural curiosity:) is more important to you than comfort, be prepared to have an old car that is somewhat falling apart; more people than expected; delays.
Obviously, the less middlemen, the lower the price. Often your Casa Particulares host would arrange a taxi collectivo, and they’d most likely get a cut. One time we were in a taxi with a bunch of other tourists, who had booked thru their casas. They all paid at least $40 from Viñales to Trinidad, we paid $35. On bus stations there’s a system of hustlers. After a while we figured: they get a group of tourists going the same place together, agree on a price, and only aaafter they start looking for a friend with a car. They don’t even have a car! So stories that some mystical car is coming in just 5 minutes are fairy tales:)
One time we agreed on a taxi collective with 4 people in a nice modern car with AC… In the end we took a shotgun ride on a local bus! It was a nice AC minivan, but it was still a public bus for locals. We still agreed to go and paid the price to the hustlers, whatever we had agreed on. It was a good price in general, and a good van and we didn’t want to wait. It was just interesting to learn: I paid the hustlers $18 for my ticket and they gave the driver $5! Now, how do you get on these vans directly?! The driver told us that yes, he can legally give ride to tourists, if there’re free seats left after the locals have boarded. Pay attention to the Transtur vans on bus stations, they usually park away from the big touristic buses. But it could be worth coming directly to the driver and negotiating.
MISCELLANEOUS THOUGHTS AND ADVICE ON SAVING IN CUBA:
– I found that it’s really handy to speak Spanish. I never really felt that big of a necessity to speak the local language before, in terms of saving money big time.
– Always always when you get to a new place ask about prices from different sources and compare. It’s best to speak to someone, who can’t or doesn’t need to profit from you. So they can give you real prices or advice. Casas particulares are not always so impartial when it comes to “selling” you taxis and tours; but you can ask them about public transportation prices, for example.
– Agh, learn the currencies, the conversion and what the bills and coins in CUCs and CUPs look like. Yes, this system is super confusing and even the locals are confused.But they can also trick you and give you change in the cheaper currency.
And don’t forget to enjoy, mingle and dance salsa! Showstring traveling could be annoying and tiring… Yet it’s a good reminder that the best things in the world are still free:)