Budget Guide: Cuba, from West to East
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Backpacking Cuba: One Month in Cuba on a Budget
From one end of the island to the other!
Looking to travel Cuba on a budget? Need tips and advice on where to stay and what to do while backpacking in Cuba? Cuba is ridiculously cheap as long as you’re prepared to live it like a local. I had the cheapest beer I’ve ever encountered in Cuba (5c poured fresh from the back of a truck) and some of the cheapest meals. Sure they were just bits of ham on bread with no butter or sauce but they were, like, 20c!
Where to go in Cuba
I went from west to east and many places in between. I probably didn’t go to every single place that was recommended to me because I like to move slowly. But my top hits were Viñales, María La Gorda, Havana, Playa Larga, Trinidad and Baracoa. I also went to Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.
But can Americans even travel to Cuba?
The short answer is…. Sort of… The rules are constantly being updated and changed. For the most recent information and tips on how American’s can travel Cuba, Divergent Travellers have written a Guide for Americans Travelling to Cuba. It’s the best and most up-to-date one I found!
Accommodation in Cuba; Casa Particulares
For anyone who doesn’t know, there are no hostels in Cuba. This can make it pretty damn confusing for first timers because although there are hotels and resorts, you do not want to stay in them. Most are terribly overpriced, falling apart, damp and musky.
What you want is the authentic Cuban experience by staying in ‘Casa Particulares’. Casas are a type of homestay/hotel arrangement where you pay to stay in the homes of locals. The owners’ homes must be approved by the government so any of the authentic ones will have the sign on the right posted somewhere on the front of their house. This makes it easy to do “walk-ins” at the area that you like the feel of.
Staying in Casa Particulares is THE BEST way to get around Cuba! They are safe, comfortable, cheap and private, and best of all you will make friends with local Cubans.
Eating in Cuba
Like the accommodation, travellers in Cuba will find eating there an adventure in itself. The general understanding between budget backpackers is that to eat cheap, you either eat the food cooked by your host at your Casa Particular or at the “Cafes” (street food). The Casas are well-known to have the most delicious food.
However the Cafes are even cheaper, but the food found there is either margarita pizzas or ham sandwiches with no butter or sauce. Going to the restaurants is usually a disappointment. They are government-owned and owners get the same pay regardless of how many customers they have, so usually, they will serve sub-par food at a higher price.
PHOTOS: Moody photography of the streets of Cuba in black and white
Transport in Cuba
Getting around Cuba is an adventure in itself, and there are many different ways you can do it depending on your budget and ability to speak Spanish. Here’s a list of ways to get around Cuba using local terminology:
Güagüa (local bus): by far the CHEAPEST way to get around Cuba. But crazy and uncomfortable. Don’t expect a seat unless you want to partake in a scrum when getting on the bus. I loved it.
Camione (open back truck): imagine a cattle truck with seats. It’s amazing and so, so cheap. You will probably have to stand unless you were lucky enough to be one of the first people on the truck. But it’s fine because they provide bars coming from the roof to stable yourself.
Taxi colectivo (shared taxi): a taxi you share with strangers going the same way as you. You usually grab them on a main road, freeway or bus terminal. Just ask locals and they will now the best place to grab them. Always a fun, frenzy finding the right one.
Taxi: for the flashpackers among us. Usually a novelty because the taxis are old American cars.
Viazul (tourist bus): Probably the most convenient and popular form of transport among tourists. Viazul heads to most of the popular destinations usually twice a day.
Backpacking Havana (7 days)
Havana is a city of dreams, but not in the usual sense. More that you feel absolutely transported into a dream when walking the streets amongst the dilapidated housing, old American cars and salsa being danced on the streets. It’s surreal and addictive.
Things to do in Havana
Salsa Bars: I met with some locals through CouchSurfing who took me out to the salsa bars and clubs and danced with me all night. It was an absolute blast. People either come to Cuba for the music, the salsa or the culture, and in Havana you can soak up all of these until you overflow!
Playa Santa María: Just outside of Havana on public transport you can find possibly the most beautiful beach I have ever been on in my life. Palm trees slowly blowing in the breeze and the most vivid aqua water I have ever seen!
To get from Havana to Santa María beach grab either a colectivo or a güagüa from the Capitolio building. A colectivo is about $5 CUC, while the two local buses cost a total of 21c.
Take a ride in a vintage car: kind of an expensive activity but if you take a few
Learn Spanish: You’re going to find it hard to get around Cuba on your own without ANY Spanish at all. Even if you know a little, the Cuban accent is really strong and you’ll probably find it hard to understand at first. But it’s easy to find cheap Spanish classes for around $5 an hour to freshen up on your Cuban Spanish, plus the teachers will even come to you! Just organise it through your Casa Particular or Hotel and set a time – it’s as easy as that! And before you go; here’s a list of essential Spanish phrases to get you started.
Where to stay in Havana
Old Havana: The most expensive but most central place to stay. It’s also the most picturesque. I spent hours wandering this area making friends with locals and taking pictures.
Hamel Hostel: If you’re after a cheap, homely ‘hostel-like’ Casa contact Hamel Hostel in Central Havana ($5 pn), I loved staying there and kept coming back every time I returned to Havana.
How to get to around Havana
Taxi colectivo: The easy way to get around. Head to a main street and start hailing, yelling out your destination and hoping for the best. I really loved the efficiency of colectivos in Havana.
Backpacking Viñales (3 days)
Viñales has a really cool vibe. It’s the small town most people come to see the tobacco farms and buy cigars. But there’s a lot more to this edgy town; jutting limestone cliffs, crazy outdoor bars, sunsets over the mountains, and a lot of people will stay longer than planned.
Things to do in Viñales
$5 horse rides: And not even ones packed with other people. I actually got a one on one ride on a healthy horse with a local farmer for a total of $10 ($5 per hour). He took me around all of the tobacco farms, through rivers and valleys, across farmland. I smoked cigars with an old farmer in his technicolour cabin and I galloped on the horse as fast as he could go.
Jardin Botanico de Viñales: I wandered the dusty streets for hours coming across a garden full pretty flowers. The sign on the gate told me I could come inside and check it out. The flowered garden was littered with dolls heads and other strange objects that made photographing the place an absolute delight!
Where to Eat and Drink in Viñales
Lobster: Ask for lobster from your casa particular. It should cost around $6 for the meal, yum, yum.
Centro Cultural Polo Montanez: The awesome outdoor bar at Polo Montanez costs $3 to get in. Worth it as they do live shows every night. It’s also a great place to get to know and become friends with the Vinales locals.
How to get to and from Viñales
Taxi Colectivo: If you’ve decided to do Cuba by taxi colectivo (and I highly recommend this but you may need basic Spanish to get by) then Viñales is pretty easy to get to from Havana. Get a colectivo from the Terminale de Ómnibus to Piñar del Río ($5, 2 hrs), walk about a kilometre to the crossroad toward Viñales (ask directions) and catch another colectivo to Viñales ($1, 20 mins).
Güagüa: You can also get a local bus from Havana to Piñar del Río for wayyy cheaper but they only have a few per day so you might have to wait a long time. Return to Havana is the same.
Backpacking María La Gorda (1 day)
The most Southern tip of Cuba, and one of the most difficult places to get to, sits María La Gorda. Meaning Fat Maria; the name of a woman once stranded there. This place is gorgeous, rural, white sand beaches and THE best scuba diving in Cuba, and some of the best diving I’ve ever done in the world!
Due to the isolation of this place, there really isn’t much to do here other than beach-bum and dive. Which really isn’t a bad thing.
Things to do in María La Gorda
Dive: If you are into scuba, go here! Black volcanic rock shelves with caves to dive through only 10m down, and the most gorgeous drop off you’ll ever see. Dive through a cave and when you come out the other side you’ll be suspended on the edge of a drop-off surrounded by colourful fish and coral. It’s bloody breathtaking!
Most people who make the trip are serious divers and stay for a few days, combing through all the dive spots. I couldn’t afford to stay the night so we just came for a day trip and one dive.
Beers on the beach: Once you’ve finished a dive or two, buy a beer and relax on the amazing white sand beaches knowing you are in f***king paradise!
Where to stay in María La Gorda
I wanted to try to hang my hammock up in the bush and I asked around to see if I could, but it’s all national park and actual Maria La Gorda is almost impossible to get to so there were costs involved with that as well.
Villa María La Gorda: This resort is the only place to stay in Maria la Gorda. It’s expensive with prices starting at $82 per night for a standard room.
How to get to and from María La Gorda
Güagüa then Tour: As I mentioned above, there are no public buses to María La Groda. You can catch a bus to the nearest town Sandino for relatively cheap (you can also stay in this town for normal Casa Particular prices, but then getting to the beach is a whole other matter). I was told you need to hire a private tour as there are no taxi’s or buses that will go out there.
Taxi: 3 friends and I hired a personal taxi colectivo for the day from Viñales and back for $80 total / $20 each. This ended up being the easiest and cheapest option I found.
Backpacking Matanzas and Varadero (2 days)
Matanzas is not particularly pretty, or charming. But a lot of travellers come here to get to Varadero beach; the longest stretch of beach in Cuba. I imagined it to be a paradise. It most definitely wasn’t. Covered in all-you-can-drink resorts and catering to hordes of Eastern European tourists, Varadero has become somewhat of a cesspool in my opinion. One of those places you come just to say you went there.
Things to do in Matanzas
Beach Bum: Although I don’t have much good to say about Varadero, it’s still a beach, and we like beaches. Plus the ride to the beach on the back of an open truck is pretty fun!
Where to stay in Matanzas
So Matanzas is the cheap place to stay when you really want to stay in Varadero. But Varadero is full of resorts, which are expensive when you compare them to how cheap the rest of Cuba is. So it’s up to you.
Casa Particulars: There are no Casa Particulares in the main part of Varadero, but there are some on the beach on the way there for about $20. If you want cheap beachfront accommodation, I’d try and get one of those. Just grab a taxi from town and drop in to see if they have space!
Where to Eat and Drink in Matanzas
El Pekin: Matanzas has this crazy cheap Chinese restaurant, where the food actually tasted GOOD. It was so amazing we tried to go there every single night, lining up at the front door to wait for a table. It was all very exclusive and strange, like a speakeasy club. You had to be persistent to get in.
Supermarkets: We very much enjoyed sitting at the Supermarkets at night drinking bottles of rum neat on their metal tables. There were no nightclubs in Matanzas so this was the cheapest way to meet people and have a drink!
How to get to and from Matanzas
Taxi Colectivo: Being the next major city to Havana, it’s really easy to get here by taxi colectivo. Head to Capitolio in Havana and ask for a colectivo to Matanzas. It will take about 2 hours to get there. A colectivo should cost $5 direct.
Güagüa: Slightly more difficult but far, far cheaper way to Matanzas is by public bus. Head to Capitolio in Havana and ask directions to the guagua to Semaforo. Semaforo should cost 1c and take 30 min. Then change buses to Matanzas (20c, 2 hrs). This crazy bus was the one where I witnessed a criminal being apprehended by police.
Backpacking Playa Larga (2-3 days)
A quaint chilled coastal town where you can get a cheap Casa on the beach and order a mojito next to the water. The beach itself isn’t really that impressive, but the vibe of the town is relaxed and friendly. It’s also a great place to meet other travellers. Getting in and out of town, however, is another matter.
Things to do in Playa Larga
This is where most people come to see The Bay of Pigs. The ill-fated CIA-backed invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro exiles in April 1961. A patriotic place for Cubans indeed. There isn’t really any tours to do here, just a museum that I didn’t manage to get to. But the food is cheap, the beach chilled AF and the vibe is cool.
How to get to and from Playa Larga
Matanzas to Playa Larga: From Matazas get a taxi colectivo to Jaguey Grande ($2, 1.5 hrs) from here get a horse and cart to the freeway (Autopista Jaguey), then swap to another colectivo to Playa Larga ($1, 40min).
Playa Larga to Cienfuegos: Getting to Cienfuegos on the Viazul Tourist Bus is super easy, one way and I wish we had done it that way, but instead we tried to do it cheap… We caught a taxi colectivo to Autopista Jaguey 3cc then a güagüa (local bus) to Aguada de Pasajeros (the edge of two connecting freeways) (20c, 1hr), where we changed to another güagüa to Cienfuegos (15c, 40min).
Backpacking Cienfuegos and Santa Clara (2-3 days)
I really didn’t get Cienfuegos. Sure it’s pretty, but not as pretty as Trinidad. Sure it’s cheap, but all of Cuba is. The best thing about Cienfuegos was the mojitos we found at an awesome restaurant bar, the cheapest and most delicious mojitos I’ve had in my entire life!
Things to do in Cienfuegos
You could head to the beach; Rancho Luna, which I heard was kinda hard to get to and covered in rubbish. OR you can flip the place off and head to Santa Clara for the day to get your Ché Guevara fangirl on.
Santa Clara: The home of all things Ché. There’s his tomb/remains, at least 3 statues in his honour and two museums, including the train museum dictating how he single-handedly brought down the train that was full of ammunition destined to Batista.
Where to Eat and Drink in Cienfuegos
BEST mojitos ever: I know you want to know where we got these mojitos… The BEST Mojitos of my life! And believe it or not it was at another Chinese restaurant, El Mandarín (god I love those government-owned Chinese restaurants in Cuba). It was tiny bar separate from the restaurant that we just sat in until wayyyyy past the closing time of the restaurant. The barman was having so much fun he kept the bar open just to drink with us!
Discotec: There is also a discotec on the water which was really busy. However, we paid to get into then left promptly after due to being overrun by prostitutes.
How to get to and from Cienfuegos / Santa Clara
I explained how to get to Cienfuegos from Playa Larga in the section above. ↑
Cienfuegos to Santa Clara: To get to Santa Clara from Cienfuegos head to the Terminale de Bus and grab a taxi colectivo ($5 each, 1.5hrs) to return, head to the same bus terminal the colectivo dropped you at and get another back to Cienfuegos.
Cienfuegos to Trinidad: Cienfuegos to Trinidad can be an absolute adventure if you want it to be. We decided to go by Camione (truck) which was fricken crazy, but for the price (25c, 1.5hrs) it was totally worth it! Catch it from the Terminale de Bus. Alternatively, just catch a Taxi Colectivo (boring!).
Backpacking Trinidad (6 days)
What can I say about Trinidad when it left me speechless? On paper it sounds average, yes it’s a Unesco world heritage site, yes its very pretty. But there’s an unspeakable magic that lives in Trinidad that only people who have been will understand.
Each afternoon I would leave my hostel during golden hour to capture some of that magic with my camera. Dancing and chatting with locals in the streets as everyone escaped their houses while the temperate cool down.
Playa Ancón: While in Trinidad, make sure you head to Playa Ancón at least once, preferably a couple of times. It’s a gorgeous stretch of beach a half an hour on the bus from Trinidad. And it’s beautiful. A great place to meet people or just chillax on the sand all day.
Wander Trinidad: Wander the streets, become engulfed in the history, head to museums, walk to the waterfalls… There’s lots of walking you can do here!
Where to Eat and Drink in Trinidad
Street Food: The food here is pretty expensive, but if there’s a festival on in the Plaza (likely, since they love festivals in Trinidad), you can find really good street food. Think pulled pork buns for 20c and jerk chicken with rice for $1.
Las Cuevas: As for a night out… Seriously, head to Las Cuevas (The Caves) at least once. It’s a 3-tier nightclub inside of a cave system. Yep, I know. It costs $3 to get in and it will blow your mind. Why don’t we have clubs in caves everywhere?!
How to get to and from Trinidad
Trinidad to Santiago de Cuba: Santiago de Cuba is 11 hours on a bus, and although there are places to stop in between, if you’re stuck for time you’ll probably want to skip them. This was the first time I got a Viazul, because by going on public transport it would take days (my friends did this, stopping at towns along the way). The bus leaves at 8am and costs $33.
PHOTOS: Check out these stunning photos of Cuba, arranged into a rainbow for your viewing pleasure!
Backpacking Santiago de Cuba (3 days)
From Trinidad to Santiago was a bit of a disappointed. Now back in a big city, and an industrial one at that was a shock to the system. Santiago has sort of a sinister feeling to it, but going out at night was always a blast. Music here is king, and everyone is encouraged to partake.
Things to do in Santiago de Cuba
Cayo Granma: It was important for us to head to Cayo Granma, a small fishing island, to see the destruction left by hurricane Sandy in 2012. The entire island was flattened and almost no one had the funds to be able to build the place back to it’s former glory, most houses being put back together from the debris left after the hurricane.
Museo del Carnival: There are a lot of museums in Santiago, the most quirky being Museo del Carnival.
Viewpoint: Head to the rooftop of Hotel Casa Granda on Parque Cespedes to watch the sunset over the city (but just buy a drink since it’s super expensive).
Where to stay in Santiago de Cuba
The most central place to stay is anywhere near Parque Cespuedes. You’ll find most of the Casa Particulares are around here anyway.
Where to Eat and Drink in Santiago de Cuba
Restaurante San Fransisco: We found a restaurant that did whole lobster for $6, and it was delicious. A lot of the cheap lobster you find around Cuba will be overcooked or in some other way a bit disappointing. But Restaurante San Fransisco was flipping amazing. Go there.
La Claqueta: For an awesome and authentic night out head to La Claqueta ($2 entry). However, if you’re a lady, prepared to be bombarded by smooth, sexy Cubans insisting on teaching you how to salsa. It has no website but find it by heading to Parque Cespedes and asking a local for directions. It’s less than a minutes walk from the park.
How to get to and from Santiago de Cuba
Viazul bus: Annoyingly, we are in Viazul territory now. You can still get around locally but it starts to get difficult. We wanted to bus it to Guantanamo to try to peek inside the detention camp, but ALAS we could not. Instead we got the darned Viazul to Baracoa ($15, 4 hrs).
Backpacking Baracoa (3-4 days)
I LOVED Baracoa. It’s a really cool, coastal town with sweet Caribbean vibes. An awesome nightclub, a short walk to national parks and hidden beaches and surrounded by rainforest. It was natural, exotic Cuba isolated on the Eastern tip.
Things to do in Baracoa
Playa Blanca: Head to secret Playa Blanca, a 6km walk from Baracoa main area. Nearby is a national park with a viewpoint and caves you can swim in. There are Hotels on the edge of the mountains to watch the sunset from and other picturesque beaches a taxi drive away.
El Yunque National Park: An awesome day hike to the top of El Yunque tabletop mountain through cocoa farms. It’ll cost you $13 each for entry into Parque Campista with a guide included. Be wary of the touts in the Plaza, they will offer you
Where to stay in Baracoa
The best Casa Particular: Our Casa Particular was on point. We had a granny flat 50m from the water for $7.50 each per night and she served up REAL GOOD food for cheap. Epic. If you want to try to stay in the same place it was Onildas House on Calle Martí 346.
However, it appears to have shut down now. But you can actually find great Casa Particulars on Airbnb. Search here.
Where to Eat and Drink in Baracoa
El Colonial: A real yum place to eat fresh, cheap delicious seafood, head to El Colonial. Otherwise, your Casa is probably going to cook you up some epic local seafood for cheap.
El Ranchero: You’ll be sure to hear it, but for an epic night out head to El Ranchero club at the top of the hill. Complete with a huge dance floor and endless persistent men bugging you for a drink and a dance.
How to get to and from Baracoa
Viazul Bus: That darned Viazul! I tried so hard to find local buses going from Baracoa back to Havana, to the point where I would line up at the terminal and try to pretend I was a local. But something was going on there and tourists weren’t allowed on the local buses. So I got an overnight Viazul for $66, 12 hrs.
|Place (per day)||Daily Average in CUC||Daily Average in USD|
|Playa Larga||17.88 CUC||$17.88|
|Santiago de Cuba||36.07 CUC||$36.07|
|Average Daily Expenses for Cuba||28.51 CUC||$28.51|
Currency: 2 Currencies – Peso (CUP) and Convertible Peso (CUC)
$1 USD = 26.5CUP or 1.00CUC
I was here: January 2015
Post Updated: 22 Aug 2017
Have you been to Cuba? How did you get around the country?
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