Cuba is not a pocket-friendly destination and while traveling through the world’s last time warped, heavily sanctioned country, be prepared to bargain for everything. It is not an easy destination either and there are plenty of factors which frustrate its tourists. So presenting a Cuba Travel Guide which includes first-hand tips and costs incurred during my 2014 trip.
No Cuba travel guide is complete without a mention of the hassles
The lack of easy public transportation is one such thing and everything is either overpriced or of poor quality. It makes sense to carry water purifying tablets, energy drinks, cereal bars etc from home along with toiletries, contact lens solution, tampons..just about everything you might need on the trip. Contact lenses and solution, if found, would cost a bomb and do carry an extra pair of sandals/floaters/crocs as the Cuban footwear includes mostly pointy toes and wobbly towering heels. Even swimsuits and sun hats are expensive and so are contraceptives, tampons, feminine washes etc.
Check out the rest of the Cuba series here.
Budget-friendly Cuba travel guide
To travel on a budget in Cuba, try eating at locally run paladares. Opt for the shared taxis, Viazul buses or split the cost of the vintage car ride with other travelers. Carry a water bottle with you and keep refiling it wherever you can. Heat in Cuba will make you thirsty and you save a lot of money by drinking lots of water. To experience the local life in Cuba and be on a budget, stay in casa particulares. Nowadays, you can book them through Cuba Junky. Be prepared to lug everything from home and for a reality check on Cuban life, visit one of their supermarkets. Cuba is poised for change and soon its timeless vintage quality will be lost forever. Visit the island before that happens and experience life as it had been at least 50 years ago. Here’s an attempted list of Cuba’s travel costs incurred by me in 2011. Hope it helps.
My 2014 Cuba Travel Costs
AIRPORT TAXI (Havana) got robbed off 25 Cuc but had done it for 10 Cuc one way later during my trip
(TIP -Bargain for everything in Cuba.)
AVERAGE TAXI COST (Not Cuba taxi) in Havana = 5-7 Cuc
SPANISH LESSON in Havana = 12 Cuc/2 hours
INTERNET (at MELIA HOTEL) = 5 Cuc/30 minutes
TU COLA (a local cola) = 1 Cuc
STREET FOOD LUNCH = 1 Cuc (plate of chicken rice and 1 glass of refresco/refreshing juice)
CASA (Santa Clara) = 10 Cuc with breakfast
TAXI To Viazul Bus Stop (Havana from Miramar) = 3 Cuc
DINNER (Casa in Santa Clara) = 5 Cuc
DRINK Alcoholic Pina Colada (street made but heavenly) = 1 Cuc
HIRED TAXI To Santa Clara from Havana = 40 Cuc
BUS TICKET (Santa Clara- Trinidad) = 8 Cuc
CASA (Trinidad) = 15 Cuc with breakfast
WATER (2 L) = 5 Cuc
BICI TAXI = 1 Cuc
NIGHTCLUB ENTRY CHARGE = 1 Cuc
CASA (HOLGUIN) = 12 Cuc with breakfast
TAXI (Holguin-Gibara) = 4 Cuc return
TAXI (Playa Ancon-Trinidad) = 5 Cuc
TAXI (Holguin-Moa) = 30 Cuc (star treatment)
TAXI (Moa-Baracoa) = 5 Cuc
WATER (2L from supermarket) = 2 Cuc
INTERNET (Intel shop) = 6 Cuc/2 hours
JUGO (ripped off by casa owner as free) = 4 Cuc but very yummy
BUS TICKET (Baracoa-Santiago de Cuba) = 15 Cuc
BUS TICKET (Santiago de Cuba-Havana) = 51 Cuc
LOCAL BUS (Havana..the weird Chinese ones) = 1 Cuc (Miramar-Centro Havana)
SHARED TAXI (Havana..the old ones with more than 2 people are these shared taxis usually plying fixed routes on fixed rates) = 1/2 Cuc..literally
WASHING POWDER (Vile) = 1 Cuc
And now here are some FAQs for a proper Cuba Travel Guide
Visas and Tourist Cards
- Every traveler needs to purchase a Tourist Card for $20 ($50+ if traveling from the United States) regardless of nationality. This is most commonly done at the departure airport itself, or online/through the mail with your airline. Indian Passport Holders have to apply for tourist visa at the Embassy of Cuba in New Delhi, which serves citizens of Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
- All visitors to Cuba must also have valid travel insurance for the duration of their stay, an address in Cuba where they will be staying, proof of sufficient funds in the form of a bank statement ($50 / day), and a return flight out of the country. Not all visitors are asked to show these documents at the airport, but it’s a good idea to have them just in case.
Best Time To Visit Cuba
- The best time to visit is arguably from December to May. The wet season is between June and October, with the heaviest rain & hottest temperatures in July & August. Hurricanes are also a threat at that time. December through March are the peak tourist season in Cuba and if you want a shoulder period with decent weather, and fewer tourists, April, May, and November are good choices.
- I flew into Havana with Air Cubana from Panama City. After a break of more than half a century, in summer 2016 scheduled flights re-started between the US and Cuba, connecting various cities in the two countries. Eurowings and Condor operate flights to Cuba from various cities in Europe. Indian citizens can fly into Sao Paulo in Brazil with Qatar Airways or Emirates Airlines and take a connecting flight to Havana from there.
- Flights – Cuba has two major airports and they are in Havana (HAV) and Santiago de Cuba (SCU). Domestic flights are available to various destinations including Baracoa.
- Buses In Cuba – Bus travel in Cuba, although a bit unreliable is pretty comfortable. There’s one main bus line called Viazul. Cuban buses are cheap and the seats are quickly sold out. So you need to get your tickets in advance either online (this has started after 2014) or in person at least a day or two early. In Havana, local buses are available for travelling within the city. Just wait in a queue, buy a ticket in CUP (Cuban Pesos), and be prepared to travel like a local. Under no circumstances, think of jumping a queue in Cuba.
- Cuban Taxis – Private taxis are available in big cities like Havana, Varadero, and Trinidad. Official taxis are usually in modern cars, will be marked and some even have meters. Old classic car taxis are expensive, often with set rates of $8-$10 per ride. As usual, bargain to negotiate a price before starting the journey.
- Local Shared Taxis – The local shared taxis that run in some cities are called almendrons. It is the cheapest option at 0.50 CUC per ride. But you need to have a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish to easily travel in one. They run on set routes, so simply flag one down and jump in with everyone else.
- Bicycle Taxis – I rode on them in Santa Clara and Baracoa. Officially they are not allowed to pick up tourists, though they still do. A ride costs about $1 CUC.
- Car Rental – Renting a car in Cuba is not easy. Since the online car rental systems are not available to foreigners, it makes sense to inquire by email or phone about a rental a month or so before the trip. You will be most probably disappointed if you expect to book a car upon arrival at the airport.
Many fancy hotels are available in Havana with a sprinkling of all-inclusive resorts in Varadero. However, the best accommodation option in Cuba is called the casas particulare. Casas particulares are local guesthouses which the Cuban government allows. The residents usually rent the spare rooms in their homes and they are marked with a special sign that looks like the alphabet “I”. Prices vary according to the region.
- Cuba has a dual currency system; the CUC (Convertable Peso) and CUP (National Peso). CUC (Convertible Pesos)is the currency you will be using most to pay for restaurants, hotels, transport, souvenirs, alcohol, etc. The CUC is calculated to equal to the USD and can be obtained from ATM machines, or via Cadecas (Cuban money exchange booths) around the country. CUP (National Pesos) is used by the locals and they get paid by it. You will not be able to withdraw CUP from local ATMs with a foreign debit or credit card. It is sensible to pay for cheap produce, street snacks, local transport and eat at basic restaurants with CUP. Approximate Exchange Rate: $1 USD = 1 CUC $1 USD = 25 CUP
- The cheapest food options in Cuba are the local sandwiches or pizzas available at street-side stores called “paladares”. For the foodies who can spend a bit, opt for the traditional Cuban cuisine called ropa vieja which is basically pulled pork gravy, served with rice and beans for about $5. Tourist-oriented restaurants come at hefty prices of $15-$20 for a meal. I recommend eating at your Casa Particular. The food is home-made, fresh, and delicious.
Internet and WiFi in Cuba
- Contrary to my 2014 experience, now there is internet access in Cuba. It is still not available everywhere but you can find it wifi spots in most major hotels, large public parks, and some casas particulares. You need to buy an internet scratch-card from ETECSA (Cuba’s national telecommunications company) to get online and it costs around $2-6 for an hour of service. These are available in front of the airport in Havana, at major hotels and at ETECSA kiosks. For a list of wifi spots in Cuba, click here.
Beware of Scams in Cuba
- Aside from giving your change back in the wrong currency when you buy something, Cuba is riddled with many ingenious scams. So do not forget to count your change whenever you purchase something. Make sure to always check your bill before paying, as there will nearly always be extra hidden charges, for example, the glass of juice served with your lunch etc. Scams are far more common in Havana than compared to the rest of the country. There are also cigar, antique, and other scams which are quite rampant in Cuba.
My Cuba itinerary
- Havana – Santa Clara – Trinidad – La Boca – Holguin – Gibara – Baracoa – Havana
Cuba is one of the most unique travel destinations and though the things are changing fast, this island nation is still time-warped. It is one of my favourite places to date and I hope this comprehensive Cuba travel guide will help you with your trip planning.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE