Backpacking in Cuba – one month time travel (Part 1)

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On February 1st I started a trip with a one-way flight ticket to Central America to make one of my biggest dreams come true. The first destination is Cuba, from where I’m writing these lines to you.

This blog post – just like all the others – is completely subjective, based on my own experiences. Firstly I would like to share some general information which will be mainly useful for travelers, who would like to visit more destinations in Cuba with low budget and did not paid for an organized trip, just like me.

Travel: I was hunting for the best-price flight on Skyscanner and found a ticket at Thomas Cook for approx. 225 EUR (one way). They have flights from several cities, I flew from Manchester to Varadero. I traveled to Manchester one day earlier with Ryanair’s evening flight and spent the night at the airport. The journey is 10 hours long between Manchester and Varadero, which was surprisingly fast and convenient. (There is a lot of useful information about ticket booking tricks online, spend some time on it, you can save a lot.)

Tip for solo travelers: If you think that everyone has taken their seats on the plane and you see free seats next to each other, ask a cabin crew in a gentle way if the boarding is completed. If so, then you would like to change your seat and sit there. I traveled very comfortably near by the window in this way, and I could even lie down when I was sleepy.

Visaplease contact the Cuban embassy in your country.

Money: You will find two currencies in the country: peso convertible (CUC) and national peso (CUP). I just called them tourist and local peso.

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In February 2018 1 CUC was 25 CUP and around 0.8 EUR.

Credit card payment is not possible at most of the places and cash withdrawal can be difficult in smaller towns, so I suggest you take only cash with you. Euro is better because USD exchange is charged with a 10% fee.

If you plan to buy fruits, vegetables or eat street food, you can change some CUP as well (but not too much, especially because as far as I know they do not convert it back to EUR).

You can change money in the exchange office, so called CADECA (Casa de Cambio) and in banks. I do not have any information about the latter, but in CADECA the  exchange rates are the same everywhere from the airport to the city centre. No handling fee applies. In weekdays it is usually open until 5 pm, on weekends it is different in every place where I have been.

Accommodation: Apart from a very few exceptions, there are no hostels in Cuba. If you do not want to stay in a hotel you can rent a room from locals. These accommodations are called casa particular. In some parts of the island the price may vary, but on average for 20 CUC you can get very good room with bathroom. It is not necessary to book in  advance – especially in smaller towns  – just look for the houses with the below sign and knock the door of the one that you like.

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Tip for solo travelers: As the price is given per room and not per person, I searched for newly joined casas on Airbnb, which have no any or only few references yet on the site, so they provided the room cheaper (10 CUC). I stayed in 8 houses during the month and none of them were worse than the double priced ones. (In Cuba you can only book on Airbnb’s website, not via the application.) I usually booked one or two nights, one day before arrival, and in case of a longer stay, I paid the difference in cash. Even with the service fee of Airbnb it was worth.

Besides, sometimes I’ve shared my room with other travelers, so this amount has dropped.

If you do not want to deal with accommodation booking, taxis, bicycle hire or anything else, just tell your needs to your host. For sure he knows someone who knows someone who can provide you a room at your next stop or take you there. Negotiation is not so fair in this case.

Transport between towns and cities:

  • Viazul: a bus company operated for foreigners who visiting the country. I didn’t really meet with Cubans on these vehicles. It punctual most of the times and for the longer routes there are night buses which is a good way to save up some money and time. I suggest you to make a reservation  at least a day before your departure, especially if you are in a popular place like Varadero, Vinales, Trindad. You can find all the information you need on their surprisingly detailed website and at the bus stations.
  • Taxi collectivo: From normal cars for 5 pax to minibuses with 10-12 seats you will meet with different types of taxis. The main point is that the driver collects passengers who travels to the same direction and moves them from door to door. In the second half of my trip, when I made smaller distances and had less time, I did not want to depend on the bus’s schedule, so I started using these taxis.

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Tip for solo travelers: ​​Such as in the case of accommodation, solo travelers are financially disadvantaged, but if you do not mind a bit of bargaining and waiting, I suggest you NOT to book a taxi in advance. Firstly, find out from other travelers how much they paid for the transfer for the same route and then check how much the Viazul bus ticket would cost. When you want to depart, get your backpack and walk to the main square of the town or to the bus station. You will be questioned hundred times if you want to travel by taxi. Because you have the backpack, they know that you want to leave now and you are obviously going to pay for that to someone. These people get a commission when they take a passenger to the taxi drivers, so they will do everything to make a deal with them. If you cannot agree, just leave him, in 1 minute there will be 3 others next to you. Just like in the Grand Bazaar. Once the deal is made, phone calls are start to find a car with empty seat and then you are good to go. I usually managed to agree with them somewhat lower than the price of a bus ticket. Pay them upon arrival.

  • Omnibus: local bus company, as far as I know only Cubans can purchase ticket to these buses.
  • Camiones: seats on the platform of trucks, covered with tarpaulins. Price of the transport should be paid in CUP and it is much cheaper than any other type of transportation. I talked to some of the travelers who traveled around the island on these types of vehicles, and with some who made a shorter trip only for the experience. Cubans do not really like telling where and when the vehicle departs, so it’s almost impossible to get on without strong Spanish knowledge or local help. I did not try, but I heard different experiences and mixed feelings from other traveler’s who did.
  • Train: I like to travel by train, so I planned to try the Cuban railroad, but it didn’t happen. I heard that, departure and arrival times are unpredictable, so you should try it only if you are not hurry. It’s important to know that only a few tickets are sold to a foreigners for each train. I talked to a German girl who traveled from Havana to Santiago de Cuba with two other guys and she said that it was cool.

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  • Hitchhiking: All Cuban citizens who transport foreign person in their vehicle, must have a proper license for that. In the absence of this, it will be counted as an illegal activity and the driver can be seriously punished if he gets caught. I’ve heard stories of foreigners traveled in this way and got some free rides, but actually I do not recommend this type of travel in Cuba.

Transport in the cities:

  • Walk: My favorite urban transport type. I explored all cities (yes even Havana)  by foot, so I was able to take photos and viewed everything that I wanted in my own way. Comfortable shoes, lots of water and an afternoon siesta are the only secrets 🙂 On the streets the strongest wins so cars and motors are first, zebra and traffic light for walkers are simply not exist so be careful.
  • Rent a bike: there is bike rental service each and every town and city what I visited, however, I do not recommend this type of transport in big cities because of local driving style and smog. In Trinidad we rented a bike with an Italian girl to check around the area and to bike down to the beach. You can get a bike for approx. 5 CUC /day.
    Bici-Taxi: 3-person carriage, one makes it  move the other two travel. If you are lucky then you are the one who travels. Ok, I’m just kidding, but if you want to know how much effort is needed to keep the bici moving ask the driver for a little trial. Not an easy job for sure. In order to avoid any unpleasant surprises, make sure that the price is per person or per transport at the beginning.

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  • Horse carriage: cost-saving way of transport usually used by locals. Inside the the city and between the surrounding villages. (Except the downtown of Havana, where this is one of the way how they carry the tourists around, but this is another topic.) You will need some Spanish language skills, but all you have to do is just stop the amigo which goes on the same way as yours and ask how much the ride would cost.

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  • Hop On Hop Off: I think this does not require an explanation. If you don’t have much time or do not like to walk, but want to see the main sights then this is a good choice. I did not try, but I did not hear any complaints either.
  • Cubataxi: standard (public) taxi company, I did not travel with them, so I can not comment on it

Meal: Cuba is not the country where you just run down to the supermarket to buy something for breakfast and for a quick lunch, saving your restaurant costs in this way. Of course, there are shops and markets there as well, but with varying offer and prices per district or even per street. You can only buy a few products at a price comparable to European prices, or even more expensive, and, unfortunately, in a much worst quality. I decided not to spend time and energy on cooking there.

  • Breakfast: Most of the casas provide breakfast for 3-5 CUC. You can decide if you want to have or not upon arrival, but I would suggest to ask for the first morning, check it, and if you are satisfied order for the rest of your stay. The meal is the same everywhere: eggs (omelet or fried egg), fresh fruit, bread, coffee, milk, freshly made fruit juice, and sometimes some cheese and ham. Once I got homemade jam, and in another place, chocolate puding. This was usually enough for me until dinner, but I did not have breakfast in every casa and not every morning.

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  • Lunch, dinner: not Cuba will be my first thought if somebody asks me where I ate the finest meals, but I had some delicious meal in that month. Most restaurants offer chicken and fish with black beans and rice at different prices for approx. 3-10 CUC. And of course pizza and pasta for 2 to 5 CUC. If you see local specialties on the menu, for example ropa vieja, rather choose it. And finally, the omnivorous lobster you get anywhere under 10 CUC wherever you go, but try it out at a seaside location if possible.
  • Street buffets: if you get hungry during daytime, street buffets offer a quick and inexpensive alternative to you. Do not expect great culinary delights, they sell  typically sandwiches with cheese, omelet, ham or a mix of these, maybe pizza with thick dough, with a little topping on it. On the other hand, they do not ask for this more than 5-15 CUP. If you want to have some of these food, just look for the small wooden boards in the street. (Good to know that tortilla means omelet there.)
  • Vegetables and fruits: easy to find in the western part of the country, but I literally had to hunt the sellers in the eastern part, in smaller towns. If you order breakfast at your casa you will get fresh fruit every morning.
  • Drinks: bottled water is not a cheap fun in Cuba. 1.5 liter costs range from 0.7 to 3 CUC. Only foreigners buy it, so you will not find it cheaper. Milk is often prepared from powder mixed with tap water. I got sick only once during that month stay, most probably because they did not boil the water for the milk, so better to be careful with that. Anyway, in hot weather, you should drink a crystal beer or a cocktail in the evening! 🙂

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Hygiene: I’ve eaten or drank something at street buffets at least once in every city I’ve visited and I had no problem at all. They keep the restaurants and cafes clean. On the other hand, the public toilets challenged me sometimes even tough I am a frequent music festival visitor with the experience of toi toi usage 🙂 Especially in the eastern part of the country, but in a few places in Havana, there was no water in the tanks, instead of that a lady walked around with a bucket of water in her hand. That’s ok, but sometimes she just didn’t feel to walk around for a while… The handwashing tap was also dry, and once our bus stopped in village between Baracoa and Santiago de Cuba where the local ladies were selling coffee and garden toilet usage beside the road yay! So you better have wet wipes and hand disinfectant with you. There is no such a problem at the accommodations, the rooms and the bathrooms were always clean.

Entertainment: Cuba is the paradise for everyone who likes tough rummy cocktails and salsa. Sometimes I really had the feeling that everyone here gets drunk and dancing all the time despite from age, gender, and everything else. There is at least one place in every town where live music, good atmosphere and local dancers are waiting for anyone who wants to party in Cuban style. There are also standard nightclubs, clubs and bars in major cities and tourist destinations.

Security: I spent about half of my Cuban trip alone, the rest of my time with other travelers. I traveled by night buses and taxi collectivos only with locals, I walked back to the accommodation alone late night, but I never felt myself unsafe even for a minute. Before my departure I set up a priority list for myself for this trip and I put security on the first place. It’s overwhelming any adventure or experience which seems unforgettable or unique. Even like that, I can say that Cuba is a completely safe destination, also for solo female travelers.

(I wrote a story on Facebook about one of my friends who had been robbed at a Trinidad in a party. A bag left without attention in a crowded, dark place in the middle of the table would be in danger everywhere in the world, so I can only say that she was not enough careful. In addition to that approx. the 90% of the local police force appeared in a minute and at about a quarter of an hour the suspect was caught.)

Other:

  • Internet: Access is very limited, you can use it mainly in public areas, parks. At private homes very rarely. You will need a Wifi card, which you can purchase at the office of ETECSA. 1 hour of internet usage costs 1 CUC. You can buy 3×1 hour or 1×5 hour cards at once. Depending on the length of your stay, of course, but I recommend the second, because usually large rows and long waiting precede the to get the card. You can also buy a card from the locals at the parks if you do not want to wait. The price will be higher, of course but do not pay more than 1.5-2 CUC for it. (The hotels work with their own system, contact the reception desk if you want to connect.)

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  • Passport: you will need it for almost everything. At the accommodation (in casas as well) when purchasing wifi card, changing money, etc. you will be asked for your passport. I kept a copy in my wallet and they accepted it everywhere.
  • Offline map for your cell phone: I think it does not require much explanation. Especially when it comes to sightseeing, it is useful, but sometimes it was also good on the bus when I wanted to know where we are. Tip: https://maps.me/
  • Language skills: I think I will not tell a great secret when I say that the more foreigner visitor the better local English knowledge at each destination. I don’t say you must be able to tell long complex sentences, but you should learn at least the numbers and some basic sentences in Spanish. It will be very useful when you want to negotiate on something.
  • Waiting: I remember when I was spending a semester in Spain at first, this ‘mañana’ thing drove me crazy. I did not understand why everything has to be postponed. Let’s do it now, dude, then we’ll have a rest. Well, no amiga, it’ll be done tomorrow. In Cuba, this is complemented by the general lack of products and services (at least with European eyes) and by the fact that workers are not motivated to do their job quickly and efficiently, as their salaries and working time will be no less or more anyway. Password: tranquilo.
  • Route: I’ve read a number of stories and blogs before I planned my route, so I could select the destinations that I’m most interested in. Within 29 days I visited the following cities:

Matanzas – Varadero – Camagüey – Baracoa – Santiago de Cuba – Trinidad – Cienfuegos – Viñales – Havanna

My route on map:

Costs: Several people asked, “How much money do I need to make a trip like this?” I can not even say an approximate amount to this question, because it depends on a lot of things. The point of these types of travel is that it is completely unique. But I tried to give you a picture of the prices that you can calculate with.

I hope I could provide some useful advice to those who are planning a similar trip to Cuba. In my next post, I will share with you the experiences and adventures I have gained on each stop of my trip.

 

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