For decades, Cuba has been a forbidden place to go, due to political reasons since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. It has been more than half a century and many things definitively changed.
So, is this a good moment to backpacking Cuba? Many people are now permitted to go, but most of them still don’t know the right answers.
Yes, it is, as international data ratifies. Cuba´s homicide rate is the lowest in Latin America, even better than most Western countries. Firearms are strictly forbidden and terrorism does not exist. Minor offenses like burglary are more likely but still infrequent.
Before going on, let´s get some basics about the Cuban currency and its relation with the United States dollar (USD):
1USD=0.87 CUC (Cuban convertible peso). This absurd rate will change as soon as Cuba removes a 10% penalty against the USD. At least that´s what they have vowed.
1CUC=24 CUP (Cuban peso)
Although criminal activity has a very low rate in Cuba, as a traveler you must be aware of any kind of cheating. For instance, somebody could try to deal in items or services usually sold in Cuban peso for the same value in CUC or USD, making the fool about the exchange rate. Frauds on Cuban cigars habanos are classic. You could be buying a bunch of false tobaccos stored in a beautiful wooden-box by making deals with illegal vendors, very active around shops and restaurants in Havana.
In rural areas, a common destination for backpackers, being the victim of an offense is much less expected. These regions are rather depopulated and campesinos (local dwellers) are very friendly, welcoming people.
Can I travel on a limited budget?
First of all, let’s remember that no US credit card is still useful in Cuba, even after the recent soothing on the American financial embargo. Just take enough catch wherever you go (preferably CUC) and there will be no problem.
If you are to backpacking Cuba on a short budget there´s only one plan to share: to live and travel like local people. This way, things could turn out quite economical.
In rural areas and minor cities, by making the appropriate sacrifice, a solo trip to Cuba could rate as cheap as 150 to 200 USD/week. In Havana, everything is much more priced, but there´re chances you can still save some money…
What does “live and travel like local people” means?
Well, the first place you should stay in private houses (casas particulares) instead of the expensive first-class hotels. Depending on the city and province, a regular single-room at a casa particular may cost from 10 to 30 CUC a day, probably including breakfast without the meats. For 50% more you would be lunching there too, avoiding paladares (private restaurants), even if they are offering a wide variety of pricing options.
While backpacking Cuba you can also make use of cuentapropista cafeterias. You can take there a ham-pizza for 15 Cuban pesos (0.60 CUC), a fruity milk-shake for 5 Cuban pesos (0.20 CUC) and a cup of coffee for 1 or 2 Cuban pesos. Unfortunately, cheap coffees are mixed-up with roasted-peas to make it low-cost…. So better take it at hotels or hard-currency snack bars, where coffee would be genuine.
Public transportation, tough scarce and usually deep-drawn at the rush hours, is incredibly cheap: you can travel through the city for 0.40 Cuban pesos. You can also get a good ride (up to 10 miles) for 10 to 20 Cuban pesos on the old-fashioned private cars or almendrones . Antiquated Soviet, American trucks cover longer intervals, even inter-provincial ones. Please, be very careful with these low-cost wagons since they are usually involved in highway accidents, especially at night. You can find some private cars, including best-preserved almendrones, to go on longer distances too. A transfer from Havana to Varadero using the latter would be around 100 CUC per person.
Another alternative in Via Azul, state-owned carrier Company deploying modern buses throughout the country. Some rates: a trip from Havana to Baracoa (the easternmost town of the Island, a beauty by the way), sells for 66 CUC a seat, about 73 USD. Everyday, a lot of tourists board these buses, ready for backpacking Cuba.
An even more high-priced way for long traveling is Cubana de Aviación, yet reservations must be done long before departure. By the way, at this point, you are no longer living and traveling like local people anymore…. neither saving much money.
Where to go in Cuba?
Of course you can start from Havana, the city capital, where you will basically find a very well preserved Old Havana sector and a very much wrinkled, frequently grimy rest-of-the-city… exception made of its emblematic hotels, elegant restaurants and some unique places like Cabaret Tropicana.
If you prefer smaller urban places, you must visit Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Matanzas, Cienfuegos or Pinar del Rio, all of them lovely towns, better organized and cleaner than Havana, though largely lacking the latter level of services and night attractions. Anyway, these inner cities are much closer to the natural places you would probably love to go as a Cuba backpacker.
Mountainous regions are amongst the more attractive sites to go, beyond the beautiful northern-coast beaches like Varadero (Matanzas), Guardalavaca (Holquín), Cayo Coco (Ciego de Ávila) or Santa Lucía (Camaguey). Even some places conjugate both, highlands and seashores. One of the most remarkable ladnmarks is the Baconao Park, in Santiago de Cuba. For a better spatial orientation you can take a look at this online Cuban map, containing useful information too.
TIP: Advice, information, and tips can help you choose where to go in Cuba. But, what if I tell that there is a place where you can book anything you want to do in Cuba? Meet Tour Republic.
What´s the best time of the year for backpacking Cuba?
Climate split up in two yearly periods: the dry season (November to April) and the rainy season (May to October). The rainy season gathers 70% of yearly rains, the hottest temperatures and a greater chance for tropical twisters with female names like monstrous hurricane Sandy (2012). Anyway, such an extreme situation is not frequent at all. Besides, in those cases, you will be safely kept by the efficient national civil-defense services.
In any case, the best time for backpacking Cuba is the dry season (November to April): less humidity, moderate temperatures, and placid weather. In fact, this period is historically considered as the top tourism-season all over the island. For those who love to walk and camp, there is no better time to backpacking.
Is there any natural threat in the countryside?
There are usually local rainstorms in the afternoon hours, especially at summer. You must be very careful of thunderbolts since they are very dangerous. By the way, never stop under a tree during a storm because trees attract lightning. Just try to stay at your tent if you are camping or, better yet, ask for shelter at some campesino house. You´ll be very welcome for sure.
There are not deadly-dangerous animals in mainland Cuba. You could randomly meet up with a scorpion called alacrán, or even make out a harmless -though-impressive black tarantula. The Alacrán will only sting you in case of self-defense (causing no more than intense, local burn), while the huge spider will run away faster than you grow panicky.
Mosquito is for sure the most disturbing pain in the butt at the Cuban fields. They come usually in hordes, and won’t let you sleep if you lack the adequate repellents or a fly-net at night. Some bites might suddenly turn into reddish welts. Do not over alarm, just take your allergy pills and do not scratch. Mosquitos are vectors for some tropical illnesses, but those are much under control in Cuba. Anyway, staying saved from them is always a good idea.
Would my cellphone operate in Cuba?
By now, Sprint and Verizon offer roaming services in Cuba. Otherwise, it is convenient to rent a SIM card at any ETECSA points of sale to make local and international calls. A 3 CUC daily rent adds to a pre-paid card from 10 to 40 CUC. A minute-talk with the USA costs about 2.50 CUC. There are still a few cellular-silence zones, especially in very far places. Consider this if you are for backpacking Cuba through remote zones.
Just in case, please enter up the following urgent-numbers in Cuba:
Toxicology Service: 72743008 (Only in Havana)
On the other hand, Internet service is still very slow and scarce. Beyond selected hotels, a bunch of Wi-Fi urban-parks and a few cybercafés, you can’t hit the web at all. Connection charges are overpriced, ranging from 8 CUC per hour in tourist courts to 2 CUC in public places. You can only access the Internet by creating a Nauta account at any ETECSA points of sale.
(TIP: Connecting to the Cuban Internet could be very tricky, especially for foreigners. Check out our guide to access the Internet in Cuba for tourists)
Just do it
No doubt this is a great moment to know Cuba. Things are on the change for well. An emerging private sector will make you feel better served. On the other hand, Nature keeps as amazing as its friendly people, though some sectors of Havana are literally pulling to pieces. Anyway, even Barack Obama and The Rolling Stone have been around these days… so why don’t you?
(TIP: Ready for backpacking Cuba? Review the things you must bring to Cuba for your vacations)
So these are our recommendations for backpacking Cuba. Any other concern you want us to clarify? Leave your comments below.