There is a mistaken belief that traveling in Cuba cannot be done on the cheap, with some sources even claiming you need at least $100 a day to survive there.
While it is true that Cuba is mostly interested in attracting upscale resort tourism to boost its fragile economy, it is in fact possible to backpack in Cuba on a budget. For example, I traveled in Cuba on about $35 a day.
But… if you want to backpack in Cuba without breaking the bank, you need to be a little smart about it. Here are the best ways to keep cost down:
1. Avoid hotels; stay in Casa Particulares
Looking for cheap hostels in Cuba? You can stop looking immediately because hostels do not exist at all in Cuba (at least as we know them in other countries).
Travel guides typically list only the government-owned hotels, which aren’t cheap.
The solution is to stay in private homestays called Casa Particulares. These casas are privately managed but government-sanctioned, with rooms typically costing $20 – 30 per night.
You will be staying in someone’s house, but this is typically in a separate floor or section with your own room. Some casas have essentially evolved into small guesthouses with 2 or 3 rooms.
Casas can be found very easily: they are absolutely everywhere, and you just need to look for the blue sign outside. Locals will also often be waiting at bus terminals to find customers for their casa.
2. Pair up if you are solo
There is no dorm-style accommodation in Cuba (with only one or two exceptions in Havana), so if you are a solo traveller it’s best to pair up with another solo traveller and share the cost of a room.
3. Find ‘peso places’
Cuba has a dual currency system. CUC is the ‘tourist money’, and CUC places are more expensive. CUP (peso national) is the actual local currency. If you can find local places that accept CUP, you can eat and drink very cheaply.
A mojito in Havana can cost anywhere between $3 and $7, but find a local bar accepting CUP and you might be drinking a $0.30 mojito.
Small cafes and street food stands will sell sandwiches, pizzas or spaghetti for around $0.50. A glass of fresh fruit juice there will cost about $0.08.
Keep in mind that tourist-oriented places will be much more expensive. ‘Peso places’ can be hard to find sometimes, but keep looking!
(Note: there is word the CUC may be phased out some day, but it remains in use for the foreseeable future.)
4. Eat dinner at your Casa Particular
Cheap dinner can be hard to find. However, most casas will offer home-cooked dinner for about $6 – 8. Portions are typically generous and you will probably be given more food than you know what to do with.
It’s a more affordable option than eating out in a restaurant, where basic meals often start around $12.
5. Use local transportation
Tourists are expected to use official tourist buses, but if you are a savvy traveller you can cut transportation costs down by using local buses or by hitchhiking.
Cuba has a semi-institutionalized hitchhiking system; ask around for Amarillo points (“el punto amarillo”) where cars are required to pick up passengers.
Since it’s a little unusual for tourists to do this, it can help to say you are a student. If you know some Spanish, this will also help a lot.
6. Avoid bank charges
It’s best to bring foreign cash into Cuba and change it at a bank or exchange office. ATMs are very unreliable.
Avoid bringing US Dollars – while you can change them just fine, exchanging USD incurs an additional 10% penalty. Bring another major currency like EUR, CND or AUD instead.
Avoid having to use a credit card for cash advances or payments. The fees are usually quite hefty!
Cuba is not always the most convenient country for the budget traveller, but be a bit savvy and you can make it work for you. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need to spend fortunes there; be sure to discover this fascinating country for yourself!
For more Cuba tips and info on cost of travel, check out the guide I wrote at IndieTraveller.
About the Author: Marek Bron blogs at IndieTraveller, focusing on low-cost travel in Asia and Latin America. Want to travel the world worry-free? Check out his in-depth Backpacking Preparation Guidebook.