Backpacking Cuba: Budget, Itineraries, and Practical Tips (Updated 2019)

If you’re planning the budget for your backpacking Cuba trip, you probably have one question on the top of your mind: is Cuba expensive?

You’ll be happy to learn that backpacking Cuba can be done on a very reasonable budget. Here is everything you will know about backpacking Cuba in this article:

How Much Does It Cost to Travel to Cuba? Is Cuba Expensive or Cheap?

Naturally, how much you spend will be based on what kind of trip you want. Loading your itinerary with guided tours and expensive restaurants is going to be pricier than eating at down to earth paladares and free nature hikes.

Another factor that will impact your budget is where you stay. Big cities like Havana are costlier than more rural areas and smaller towns.

So, how much does it cost to go to Cuba? Here’s an approximate daily budget for a comfortable backpacking trip to Cuba:

50 – 70 CUC / day for solo travelers

60 – 100 CUC / day for a couple

Let’s break down these numbers.

Estimating the Budget for Backpacking Cuba

Cuba Travel Tips - Cuban Currency

First things first: understanding the Cuban currency

The Cuban currency system can be tricky for first-time visitors.

The island has two official currencies: the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUP is most often used by locals, while tourists typically use the CUC.

Exchange rates will vary depending on the type of foreign currency you plan to exchange. At present, the Euro and the British Pound Sterling are the two highest value currencies.

Exchanging American dollars, on the other hand, will incur a 10% exchange fee plus a 3% bank fee. Thus, you will receive 0.87 CUC for 1 USD.

To stock up on Cuban currency, you can exchange your foreign money at official currency exchange centers called CADECAs (Casas de Cambio). CADECA offices are located in airports, resorts, hotels, shopping centers, and banks. Since every major airport has a CADECA office, that should be your first stop when you step off the plane.

You can’t exchange Cuban currency in advance. Before you embark on a trip, you may like to plan ahead and exchange your currency in advance. This isn’t an option for Cuban currency. You won’t be able to do it until you actually touch down in Cuba.

Costs of flights to Cuba

Despite what travel agencies advertise, booking a flight on your own will always be cheaper than going through an all-inclusive package.

Despite air travel to Cuba becoming more popular, many flight search engines like Expedia and Orbit don’t carry flights to Cuba. Instead, use JetRadar or book your flights directly through your airline of choice.

Ticket price varies depending on the season you choose to travel. Cuba’s “dry” season is more popular than the “wet” season, so expect higher prices during peak tourist months. Flying from Miami to Havana can be as cheap as $230 per person roundtrip.

Accommodation costs in Cuba

Popular options for accommodations in Cuba include hotels, resorts, and private houses (casas particulares).

Renting a room in a casa particular is not only the most affordable option but also the most authentic and culturally immersive. Many casas also include a home-cooked breakfast each morning! You can compare listing prices here.

  • Casas particulares: 20-50 CUC/night
  • Hotels and resorts: 100-500 CUC/night

As you can see from the prices listed above, accommodations are a huge factor that weights into your trip to Cuba cost.

Transportation costs in Cuba

Transportation options in Cuba include taxis, buses, rental cars, and domestic flights.

Taxis and city buses are great options for traveling short distances. Longer distances can be covered by charter buses and domestic flights. Renting a car is also an option, although it’s by far the most expensive. Also, poor road conditions can make it difficult to drive.

  • Private taxis: 1 CUC/kilometer
  • Taxi from the airport to your accommodation: 25 CUC
  • Colectivos or almendrones with fixed routes: 0.50 CUC
  • Viazul charter bus: Around 4 CUC/hour
  • Rental car: 85 CUC/day

Food and drinks costs in Cuba

The cost of food and drink in Cuba varies quite a bit depending on where you choose to eat.

  • Breakfast at your casa is often as low as 3-7 CUC while a meal at a sit-down restaurant is anywhere from 8-20 CUC.
  • Snacks from street vendors can cost you from 0.50 to 2 CUC.
  • Bottled water is priced at 1-2 CUC while the price of alcoholic drinks ranges between 2 to 8 CUC.

Entertainment costs in Cuba

Entertainment costs will, of course, vary depending on what exactly you have in mind. Here are average prices for a couple of popular activities:

  • City tour of Havana in a classic car: 30 CUC
  • Tickets to a baseball game: 3CUC/each
  • Admission to museums: free to 10 CUC/person
  • Show at Cabaret Tropicana: starts at 75 CUC/person

Internet costs in Cuba

Internet in Cuba is very unreliable, but you’ve got a couple of options to get connected in Cuba:

  • Using a NAUTA card: 1 CUC/hour
  • Using a desktop computer at a hotel: 2-10 CUC/hour
  • (International roaming) AT&T: $3.00/minute for calls; $0.50/text; $2.05/MB for data
  • (International roaming) T-Mobile: $2.00/minute for calls; $0.50/text; $2.00/MB for data

Tipping in Cuba

In Cuba, tipping is very common and you’re encouraged to tip people who have performed a service for you–especially if they did an awesome job! Who should you tip in Cuba:

  • Hotel maids: 1 CUC/night
  • Restaurant waiters and bartenders: 10% gratuity
  • Tour guides: 3-5 CUC
  • Street musicians: 1 CUC
  • Bathroom attendants: 0.25-0.50 CUC

Money Saving Tips for Backpacking Cuba

Cuba travel tips - Jar to save money

Stay in a casa particular

Casas particulares (“private houses”) are the most affordable accommodations in Cuba. There are over 14,000 on the island to choose from!

Casas are run by Cuban families who can offer great suggestions about interesting things to do and see in the area. Plus, they cook wonderful home-cooked meals.

The price of renting a room in a casa can be as low as 20 CUC/night and as a high as 50 CUC/night at luxurious casas. Most of the time you can also snag breakfast for 3-7 CUC. You can check out the latest listings here.

Keep in mind: it’s illegal to crash at someone’s place for free, even if they invite you!

Eat at paladares and cafeterias

Paladares (private restaurants) and cafeterias are restaurants where you can get authentic Cuban cuisine at an affordable price.

Thanks to Cuba’s relaxing restrictions on private businesses, there are now over 2,000 paladares to choose from. Paladares offer a wealth of menu options and great service at a reasonable price. Meals typically cost between 6-8 CUC.

Take a look at some of Havana’s best paladares in the Lonely Planet Pocket Guide of Havana.

Share urban taxis

Shared taxis–also called colectivos or almendrones–are taxis that travel along a fixed route. They stand out because they look just like vintage American cars from the 1950’s!

Flag them down by standing along the route and raise your hand. If there’s room in the taxi, the driver will stop and let you hop aboard. The standard cost to ride is 10 CUP (about 50 cents USD).

Book tours directly from local guides

Tours are an excellent way to learn about authentic Cuba from a seasoned, knowledgeable guide.

However, recent changes in travel regulations have created a tourism boom in Cuba, and illegitimate “tour guides” are looking to make a profit. Hiring an illegitimate tour guide is not only a waste of money but could also be dangerous.

Don’t put yourself at risk. Instead, book all your tours through well-respected local guides available in marketplaces like Tour Republic. You can book experiences all over the country, ranging from museum tours to urban cuisine and horseback riding.

Haggling and bargaining

Almost anything you pay money for in Cuba can be haggled or bargained for. Exceptions are certain restaurants, casas particulares, and the Viazul bus.

You should absolutely haggle with taxi drivers (unless you’re comfortable paying full price, of course!). Talk to the owner of your casa particular so they can fill you in on what a fair price is for the area.

Backpacking Cuba Activities

Backpacking Cuba - Backpacker in Cuba

Wild camping in Cuba

Outside of Cuba’s large cities are miles and miles of wilderness and smaller villages waiting to be explored. If you choose to travel with a tent, you can set up in a location of your choice.

Be aware that although many locations are safe to camp on, private landowners might not appreciate you pitching a tent on their property. If you’re unsure, it’s better to ask so you don’t run into an awkward situation.

Keep in mind that camping at higher elevations is more comfortable than sleeping in the lowlands or near the coast. Cuba is hot, humid, and filled with mosquitos. Higher elevation areas like the Sierra Maestra mountains offer cooler air, breezes, and fewer insects than the low lands.

And wherever you choose to camp, follow the “leave no trace principles” by cleaning up after yourself and leaving no trash behind!

Horse riding in Cuba

Horseback riding is an extremely popular activity in Cuba, especially as you leave the lights of the cities behind and venture deeper into the countryside. The activity is also affordable at 5 CUC/hour.

Keep in mind that the season you travel during may affect horseback riding; Cuba experiences heavy rainfall during the rainy season, so tours may have limited hours during that time.

You can ride horses in many parts of Cuba, but the Viñales national park has the best. Trinidad is a close second though, thanks to its beaches, waterfalls, and the unbeatable views in Valle de los Ingenios.

Rock climbing in Cuba

Cuba’s landscape features beautiful, unique rock formations that make for a truly memorable rock climbing experience.

You can find Cuba’s best rock climbing at the legendary Viñales national park, a World Heritage Site located in the mountainous western province of Pinar del Rio. Viñales’ combination of high-grade limestone, accessibility, and stunning views secures Cuba’s designation as the best Caribbean country for rock climbing.

Hiking in Cuba

Hiking in Cuba was once heavily restricted, but the government has recently opened up the scenic countryside to hikers and adventurers. Until recently, visitors weren’t allowed into nature reserves and national parks, but all that has changed in recent years.

However, guides are still necessary for most areas with the exception of Viñales. Many of the trails are still quite rugged, so expect a challenging infrastructure with natural trails and not much in terms of signs or information.

Adventurers will enjoy the challenge of the Sierra Maestra mountain range which boasts the highest peaks on the island in addition to its historical legacy during the Cuban Revolution. The best place to access the mountains is at Turquino national park near Santiago de Cuba.

Bird watching in Cuba

As the largest nation in the West Indies, Cuba is home to over 372 species of birds, 26 of which can only be found in Cuba.

The huge variety of bird species can be attributed to Cuba’s many habitats, ranging from tropical to wetlands and forests. Cuba’s bird watching hotspots include La Güira national park, the Las Terrazas eco-tourism reserve, and the biosphere reserve at Ciénaga de Zapata.

Scuba diving in Cuba

Cuba is a scuba diver’s paradise. Due to its history, Cuba is less developed than neighboring islands and has many pristine scuba diving spots to explore.

Cuba’s fishing industry is not as intense as other islands in the Caribbean, so you’ll encounter many more native species of fish in their natural habitats. Cuba’s untouched reefs are truly dazzling!

Here are the top 6 scuba diving spots in Cuba:

  • Diving in Maria la Gorda
  • Dive Along Punta Frances: Cuba’s Fabled Pirate Coast
  • Jardines de la Reina Marine Park
  • Scuba Diving in Cayo Largo
  • Jardines del Rey and Cayo Coco
  • Bahía de Cochinos (Yes, that Bay of Pigs)

Cycling in Cuba

Biking is a great way to experience Cuba since taking taxis can start to add up.

Visitors to Cuba use bikes for both transportation and entertainment. For example, cruising around in Havana on a bike can help you cover ground faster than walking. But also gives you a great opportunity to check out many of the sites in the city. If you prefer guided activities, you can also join a bike tour group like these offered by Tour Republic.

Sancti Spiritus is a small town that doesn’t get much tourist traffic but is the starting point of a beautiful bike trail that heads towards Trinidad. It puts you in the shadow of the Sierra del Escambray mountains.

Holguin balances grassy hills and idyllic fields with stunning beaches. Highlights include the port town of Gibara and the beaches at Guardalavaca.

Backpacking Itineraries for Cuba (From Havana)

Backpacker in Cuba consulting travel guide

Weekend itinerary in Cuba

With just a weekend in Cuba, there is plenty to explore in Havana. Since you only have 48 hours, be sure to focus on quality over quantity!

Places to visit during a weekend in Havana:

  • Parque Central y El Capitolio
  • Habana Vieja and surroundings (Plaza Vieja, Convento de San Francisco de Asís, Plaza de Armas, Catedral de La Habana)
  • El Malecón
  • Ceremonia del Cañonazo en la Fortaleza de San Carlos de La Cabaña
  • Plaza de la Revolución
  • Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum)
  • Fusterlandia
  • Explore the nightlife: Fábrica de Arte Cubano

1-week itinerary in Cuba

If you have a whole week in Cuba, you can get a taste of Havana in addition to having enough time to exploring nearby areas of interest like Viñales and Trinidad.

Havana -> Viñales -> Trinidad

1) Havana:

2) Vinales:

  • Horseback riding
  • Tobacco farm tour
  • Hiking or mountain climbing in the limestone mountains

3) Trinidad:

  • Waterfall hikes
  • Playa Ancón for beach time!

2-weeks itinerary in Cuba

A full 14 days in Cuba means you have enough time to explore cities, beaches, and mountains.

After completing the activities mentioned in the 1-week itinerary, you’ll strike out to see Cienfuegos and Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata.

Havana -> Viñales -> Trinidad -> Cienfuegos -> Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata

4) Cienfuegos:

  • Castillo de Jagua
  • Teatro Tomás Terry
  • Cementerio La Reina

5) Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata

  • Hire a guide and some horses to immerse yourself in this legendary park.

3-weeks itinerary in Cuba

Three weeks in Cuba is enough time to explore a huge portion of the entire country.

Havana -> Viñales -> Trinidad -> Cienfuegos -> Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata -> Bay of Pigs -> Rancho Luna -> Santa Clara -> Santiago de Cuba

6) Bay of Pigs:

  • Playa Máquina
  • Snorkeling at Cueva de los Peces
  • Península de Zapata (National Park)
  • Criadero De Cocodrilos (Croc farm)

7) Rancho Luna:

  • Rancho Luna beach
  • Guanaroca lagoon

8) Santa Clara:

  • Parque Leoncio Vidal
  • Teatro La Caridad
  • Catedral de Santa Clara de Asís
  • Mausoleo del Che Guevara
  • Fábrica de Tabacos Constantino Pérez Carrodegua

9) Santiago de Cuba:

  • Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca
  • Parque Céspedes
  • Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia
  • Plaza de la Revolución
  • Day trips to La Gran Piedra and Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre

Transportation Options for Backpacking Cuba

Cuba travel tips - Urban taxis in Cuba

State taxis (short rides)

Cuba’s state taxis are official taxis owned and operated by the Cuban government.

You’ll notice that there’s a difference in quality among state taxis. “Newer” state taxis are typically Asian imports and have modern amenities like air conditioning in addition to providing smoother rides. Old model taxis are older Russian imports without the advantages of modern vehicles.

While both old and new taxis will get you to your destination, newer model taxis may charge a bit more.

Private taxis or almendrones (short rides)

Cuba’s private taxis, also known as almendrones, are owned and operated by private taxi drivers instead of the government. They’re the colorful vintage cars you see cruising up and down the streets.

Although many almendrones typically follow a fixed route, you can hire a driver to take you anywhere in the city. Rates usually fall anywhere between $10-20 CUC.

Buses (intercity rides)

Viazul buses are a simple, affordable way to get around in Cuba. You should get your ticket well in advance through Viazul’s website. Please, print your receipt and arrive at least an hour before departure!

Domestic flights

If your trip includes traveling long distances within Cuba, like from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, then domestic flights may be your best option.

Most flights connect in large cities like Havana or Santiago de Cuba, but you can still reach smaller cities by plane like Baracoa Bayamo, Guantanamo, and Nueva Gerona.

Ticket prices can cost from $90 USD on the low-end to $140 USD on the higher-end. You can compare prices and book tickets here.

Trains

Trains are also an option for getting around Cuba, but they’re not as reliable as busses or domestic flights.

Passengers report widespread delays due to fuel shortages, aging trains, and old infrastructure. If you’re not in a huge hurry to be in a particular place on time, then trains are still scenic and affordable, but most of them are really in bad shape.

If you choose to travel by train, keep in mind that you need to pay for tickets in cash and that most trains (even overnight trains) don’t provide meals or snacks. Check train timetables here.

Hitchhiking in Cuba

Hitchhiking is a popular way to travel around Cuba (for locals). Low crime rates and low vehicle ownership have created a thriving hitchhiking scene. Hitchhiking is so common that in large cities like Havana you can find “amarillos” (traffic controllers) organizing hitchhiking.

Hitchhiking in Cuba is legal and relatively safe, as long as you follow your common sense. Rides typically cost 2-20 CUC depending on how far you need to travel.

The Backpacking Checklist for Cuba: Basic Gear and Equipment

Backpacking checklist for Cuba

Like with any other of your backpacking trips, you have to stay organize and prepared. Here are some essential items that should be part of your backpacking checklist to Cuba:

Additionally, you should consider installing some offline apps that will make your days easier in Cuba. This is especially important because you can’t rely on Internet connectivity in Cuba. Here are a few useful offline apps for your backpacking Cuba adventure:

  • Google Maps: You’ve almost certainly used (or at least heard of) Google Maps before. But did you know you could use the GPS tool offline? Just download the offline version of the app and you can use it to navigate around Cuba without WiFi!
  • A La Mesa: Cuba’s version of Yelp! Check out menus and reviews for local paladares.
  • Kindle: The Kindle app lets you access books, audiobooks, magazines, and even games. Perfect for your day at the beach!
  • Audible: Audible is an app just for audiobooks. Using their offline app, you can download a few audiobooks ahead of time and listen to them as your backpack around the country.
  • Amazon Music: Cuba is a country that loves music so your Cuba trip wouldn’t be complete without a playlist. Amazon Music’s offline app lets you put together the perfect Cuba playlist and listen to it (offline!) during your trip.
  • AccuWeather: Cuba has good weather year round, but depending on when you travel, you may encounter lots of rain and humidity. Let AccuWeather keep you updated on the latest weather reports in Cuba.

Essential Tips for Backpacking Cuba

Backpackers Hipsters

[For even more travel tips for Cuba, make sure to read our 50 must-know practical facts about traveling to Cuba]

Get travel insurance

All visitors to Cuba are required to have traveler’s medical insurance. Beyond simply fulfilling a requirement, travel insurance also keeps you covered in case of a medical emergency, injury, or illness.

Don’t rely on the Internet

In today’s high-tech world, people are used to having internet everywhere they go. Cuba is a different story.

Cuba technically has internet, but Cuban internet can be difficult to access, limited to certain locations, slow, and expensive. Expect to rely on old fashioned paper maps, travel guides, Spanish phrasebooks, and word of mouth from trustworthy locals. Check out our Cuban internet guide to learn more!

Don’t drink tap water

Avoid drinking tap water during your stay in Cuba.

Cuba’s drinking water, like almost any other foreign country, is home to its own native bacteria and microorganisms. A visitor’s stomach won’t be attuned to the native bacteria and could become ill from drinking the water.

Tap water from upscale resorts might be alright, but don’t try your luck at a small cafeteria. Instead, stick to bottled water or pack a bottle with a built-in filter.

Protect against mosquitoes

Cuba is known for it’s hot, humid, damp weather. This type of weather, while great for swimming and adventuring, also leads to heavy insect activity.

Mosquitos and flies are common across the island. They can be vectors for diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and the Zika virus. To avoid getting eating alive by insects, bring a powerful insect repellant with you.

Keep your luggage locked

During your stay in Cuba, you’ll probably leave your luggage in your room at a hotel or casa familiar. While Cuba’s crime levels are low compared to other countries in the Caribbean, thefts still can and do take place from time to time.

To avoid returning to your room to discover your belongings have been picked over, secure your bag with a TSA lock.

Be aware of currency scams and pickpockets

Cuba’s crime rates are low, and some of the most common crimes (especially those that target tourists) are scams and pickpockets.

Scams often involve tricking tourists with the confusing Cuban currency system. When you purchase anything in Cuba, double check to make sure you received the correct currency. The CUC is much more valuable than the other CUP!

Avoid slums

Like all countries, Cuba has its nice areas and its not-so-nice areas.

Slums can be dangerous, especially for tourists, since you can fall victim to crimes more easily than nicer, better-policed areas.

Slums are most common in large urban cities like Havana. In fact, if you visit Havana, avoid rough neighborhoods like Guanabacoa, Centro Habana, and Marianao.

If you do find yourself in a bad situation, a handy travel whistle can summon help!

Share your trip with trusted locals or reputable guides

Cuba is filled with guided tours and excursions, but only some of them are legitimate. To avoid getting scammed, only hire guides through reputable tour groups and travel agencies.

Learn some Spanish

Cuba is a Spanish-speaking country so you should expect to have many opportunities to speak some Spanish of your own. Plus, Cubans appreciate when visitors put in the effort to speak the local language.

You don’t need to be fluent in Spanish to navigate Cuba. Instead, you can pick up a Spanish-English phrasebook and dictionary to guide you.

Are Your Bags Packed Yet?

Backpacking Cuba is a simple, safe, and affordable way to get around the island. All you have to do is pack up your essentials and you’re ready to explore Cuba’s many cities, national parks, beaches, and more.

Are you planning a backpacking trip to Cuba? Let us know in the comments!

Post Author
Tour Republic
Tour Republic is a travel marketplace where local entrepreneurs offer memorable experiences in Cuba. We also write about our passion for Cuba, from in-depth travel guides to myth-busting articles. Some articles may contain affiliates links at no cost to you.

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