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 paper weight.
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 tourist 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 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 pee'd 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.
Have you traveled Cuba independently? If so, tell us what experience you had while there and the pros/cons of it.