After backpacking Cuba last month, I found the country to be unique in so many ways.
Some good and some bad, so I thought I would lay out the pros and cons of traveling to Cuba independently.
Some of the most stunning I have ever seen! In the old town of Havana just walking the streets, soaking up the colonial architecture and rich colors, one could easily spend a week there doing nothing but that.
It was like going to a car show every day. Again, classic shots for anyone and was a joy to see them running up and down the road.
Beautiful beaches with crystal blue water and the purest white sand make it hard not to just sit around all day and drink rum. I didn't do any scuba diving while there but I'm sure there are some gem spots to find.
I felt safe the whole time while there and never felt like I was going to be robbed or kidnapped just because I was a tourist. Unlike other Latin countries, you won't find high gates around houses or broken glass on top of walls.
Cheap Cigars & Rum
I got a box of Cuban cigars for $15 that I could easily sell back in the US for a huge profit… if I could smuggle them in.
There is no such thing as a 3 or 4 man band there. 8 is the minimum, and more than likely you'll see 10-12 people in a band playing salsa music everywhere.
One thing about Cuba is that everyone has a CD, and I mean everyone. If they play music, you can bet your arse they will try to sell you a CD afterward! You've been warned!
Nothing better than a hot Havana night and you can find a ton of hot chica's in the clubs. Just be careful though, because 1-2 are working (see below though for the rest).
It's a Communist Country
If you're American, remember you have no embassy and technically you're not supposed to be there.
That being said, expect to get drilled when going in and out of immigration about what you did, how much money you spent, where you stayed, etc.
If you're a blogger, don't tell them that.
They freaked out on me during the interrogation (basically that's what it was when leaving) because I said I had a website and I guess they thought that I was some kind of CIA spy journalist or something.
The government controls everything and the internet is outlawed except for a few special circumstances.
The only places that will have internet for tourists to use are the nice resorts.
It's big-time expensive, costing anywhere from $7-12 per hour and slow doesn't even describe it.
Forget about WiFi as I don't think they even know what that is… so bringing the laptop will be nothing but a paperweight.
It's next to nothing. The whole tourist industry is set-up for guided tours and not independent travel as most backpackers are used to.
One of the first things I noticed, once I got outside of Havana, was the line of people you would see standing along the highways trying to get picked-up.
The bus system is so horrible that it takes locals days to get from one side of the island to the other, sometimes even weeks.
Renting a car is possible but the costs are high. It's one country where it pays to be on a tour, but they still suck as you get fed the cookie-cutter guided package that we all hate and strive to avoid.
The Double Currencies
When in Asia, you have to deal with the double standards in costs, one for tourists and one for locals.
In Cuba, they simplified it by making you use a separate currency guaranteed to cost you double on anything a local would buy.
There are two types of currencies: Tourists use Cuban Convertibles (CUC) and locals use Cuban Pesos (CUP).
For example, we once went to get ice cream in a small town and paid 1 CUC per cone, but later found out if you're local you could get 1 cone for 1 CUP (Cuban Peso).
That ended out coming to 24 cones for a local, and 1 for a tourist, for the same price. To convert CUC and CUP click here.
Don't bother with bringing US dollars either, as the government slaps a 10% tax for any transactions with them and all American credit cards won't work their either.
If you're backpacking there and think you're going to stay at a cheap hostel to save money, good luck finding one.
Just go to Hostelbookers.com and try to find a hostel for Cuba. I'll give ya a hint, there aren't any!
All the major resorts and hotels are owned by the government, and it's pretty much illegal for locals to have their own.
I heard if you get lucky you can score some cheap accommodation by staying at a local's house, but these rooms rented out are illegal a lot of the time and you're on your own if caught. It's doable but it takes some looking around.
Che Che Che
The communist propaganda is everywhere and you can't escape it. After a few days of seeing Che everywhere, it just gets old. It's history and I appreciate that, but it's overbearing at times.
It was cool to see his face on every billboard on the first day. By the 2nd, it was ok. The 3rd bearable, and by the 4th you were sick of seeing his face.
Everywhere you went, that was all there was: Che this, Che that, Che pissed here once.
It would be like going to the USA and seeing nothing but Obama, Obama and Obama crap 24/7 (which we know doesn't happen).
Maybe I have been in South America too long, but paying more than a few dollars to get into a club is loco to me.
All the hottest clubs that anyone told us to see while there charged a minimum $10 entrance fee.
I tried to ask where the locals went, as I didn't want to party with a bunch of Westerners, but they all said the same thing “Everyone cool is going to Club _____” (ie; $10 cover fee).
Maybe I just had bad luck but it seemed the norm to me the 3 nights I went out while there for a week.
I think the only way to see Cuba (unless you know someone there) is by an organized tour.
I won't lie though, the last 2 days I was so sick of the resort-style vacation (which I've never really been a fan of) but it seemed to me that's how almost all the tourists were traveling.
I didn't see many young backpackers doing their own thing and I was actually trying to find a few to ask them some questions.
If you're going to Cuba and staying in Havana for a week, then, by all means, it's backpacker-friendly (minus the internet and lack of hostels), but anything else outside of Havana is terribly difficult.
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Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:
- G Adventures for small group tours.
- World Nomads for travel insurance.
- Hostelworld for booking hostels.
- Rail Europe for train passes.
Thursday 31st of December 2015
Man, I hated that place! Cuba sucks big time for backpackers (and it sucks big time, in general).
I was going to spend one month there but I gave up after 9 days. It took me only 2 more days to change my flight and I was sooo happy to get the f*** out of that sh*thole!
Cuba is probably the only place in the world I do not want to visit ever again!
I can confirm 99% of what you wrote in this post and I admire the objective and diplomatic way you describe certain issues that can become very annoying. I could not have written this post without swearing in every sentence - that's how I feel about the place.
My advice to backpackers: you get more value for your money in so many other countries of the world = go elsewhere than Cuba. :-)
Thursday 12th of September 2013
I was there 5 times, years ago. You leave out the best thing about Cuba - CUBANS!!! Architecture and old cars are boring. Cubans are extremely friendly and many want desperately to be your best friend and companion. More-so any country I've ever been to. They will abandon their job to travel with you. They will show you how to get around. There is some risk to them because the authorities forbid it - but it is a risk they choose to take. Just try to keep a low profile and have an excuse as to why you are together, if questioned.
Hitchhikers with cash will always find a ride. Do not rent a car - find a local with a car or motorcycle. If you see a cycle in parking lot, you just tell the owner where you want to go. There is a train that goes from Havana to Cienfuegos and Santiago/Guantanamo. Cheap. Also are cheap flights to various cities. Baracoa is maybe the best little city on the island.
Tuesday 27th of August 2013
Hi, backpackers. First off all I found this post reallly organized and well written. Is interestig the way the author "writes" his mind and explains the pros and cons of traveling to Cuba. My experience was totally different from his and its amazing how an entire travel can change if you experience it from another point of view. I´m not going to lie, somethigs are expensive and most of the technological luxuries are non existent, but I really enjoy the experience. Also this post is a little outdated. Casas particulares made everything cheaper for me and the part about the propaganda, well I guess that has change a little bit too. If you want to buy a T-shirt with Che´s picture on it you can, but if you want to buy one with a coconut tree, you can. They are just souvenirs they dont represent a people or a culture so they souldnt categorize either of those. Mainly if you wan to mingle dont stay in a hotel because that´s boring most of the time and you won´t be knowing special people. And about the clubs and everything else, I guess that depens, like everything, on where you go. No country is perfect, so.... The double currency is a little annoying, I agree with that and learning how to handle it s a little tricky but you can change your money to CUCs and you should be good to go anywhere, buy anything you need. I recommend this guys: https://www.facebook.com/goingtocuba, goingtocuba0.webnode.es- they really helped me and made everything easier. Is alway good to find good and nice people who can make you change your mind about most of the bad things you hear about cubans, also they give you pointers so you can get through your trip without so many bumps in the road.
Tuesday 22nd of January 2013
I’m heading to Cuba early march,…aiming to stay 3 weekish. I’m thinking of renting or even buying a motorcycle when i get there and just sell it or trade it for few free nights of accomidations before i leave. Good idea or bad idea, possible or not???? If good, what is the best way to make this hapen?! Also I am thinking if once i get there i might wanna check into an all inclusive for a weekend when i get there. Is it possibe to find a resort that looks good walk in and stay for a resonable price?
Tuesday 8th of January 2013
I agree with most of the points.
just remarks travel: bus: there are bus services (viazul) but of course it is not as sophisticated as in mexico for example. 4 hours cost about 10 $, a fortune for locals. A friend of mine tramped and enjoyed, but then you need a lot of time and it is hard to plan in advance
crime: while there are no gun related crimes, you have to be careful about pickpockets. but it can happen anywhere, but still nothing compared to some other countries in that area.
pro: casa particulares hotels: a great alternative are private owned casa particulares where locals can rent their rooms for tourists. sometimes they cook too. about 20-30 $ a night they are very very friendly and some houses are really cool with old colonial style. in no other country you can learn more about the people private restaurants are (mostly) awesome too. and you'll do something good for locals, not staying in major chain hotels
pro: language while in many areas in latin america it is hard without spanish knowledge, cubans are well educated (and dependent on tourism, so a lot of people speak English or French.
con: expensive as toursim is the only money income for a lot of cubans, they need dollars to survive. so it is more expensive for example than mexico, especially day tours or taxi
con: supply of products. as there is an embargo and so on.. it is hard to get everyday necessities. there are no supermarkets or something like that to buy a toothbrush or new clothes. that you need to take into account while packing as you cannot go to the next store and just buy it.
con: some toilets and showers were older than the revolution, even in 4 stars hotels sometimes
con: no ATMs/ visa not everywhere you can withdraw money with your (non American) creditcard, so bring a lot of cash with you. in retrospect, I would have spent a lot more money if I had used my visa
pro: cocktails (alkohol to soft drink ratio in a cocktail is great :-) rum is cheaper than milk viva cuba libres :-)
and next time: bring some stuff as a present for the locals, your landlady or cleaning lady, esp. children: pens, soap, and sweets. they need them.
hard to imagine for westeners, but everyday necessities like aspirin (it is so expensive in cuba) or soap are unaffordable. so a lot of people will be grateful for medicine (I know you have some to spare), old tights or clothes or shoes. children liked hairclips for example. share please!