Places in Cuba
In Cuba there are two currencies. One for tourists and one for locals. Be sure to read this article in which I try to clarify it as easy as possible.
Tours – Day trips and organized tours are regulated by the government or by government approved companies. Thus you won’t find a lot of price differences.
A day tour starts at 60 CUC (or 45 CUC for a child). A two-day tour begins at 155 CUC (or 117 CUC for a child).
Online you will also find a few opportunities to make a fully organised tour of one or two weeks. These start at around 1,000 dollars but can be considerably more expensive.
Arranging them yourself is much cheaper and actually not hard to so, using the Viazul buses or taxis collectivos.
Accommodation – In Cuba, you have only limited possibilities to make a reservation in advance for your accommodation. The tense relationship with the United States is slowly changing for the better, but do not expect too much from your online search for accommodation.
For larger cities you can use sites like Hostelworld and airbnb. For most other small towns you will need to book once you are there.
Personally, I thought that would be very stressful, but you can find dozens of accommodation options in every street, wherever you go.
You have two options for accommodation in Cuba: either you stay in a hotel owned by the government. Or you stay with locals in their casas particulares.
The hotels ran by the government often cost a lot of money and are not necessarily better.
For a three-star hotel (Cuban stars …) you pay between 30 and 40 CUC per night.
A five-star hotel will cost you considerably more. About 100 CUC per night.
The casas particulares are actually B&Bs. In most cases, you’ll sleep in the homes of Cuban families. For an extra fee they provide breakfast, lunch and dinner. They can also help you with arranging tours or transport.
The cheapest casa’s ask 15 CUC per room, or 8 CUC per person (usually a double room).
More luxurious casa’s ask 20 to 30 CUC per night.
Varadero is the most touristy place and thus also the most expensive. Prices start at 20 CUC a night.
For breakfast you pay between 3 and 5 CUC per person. For dinner between 6 and 10 CUC per person.
Food – Food prices vary greatly from city to city. On average, larger cities are a lot cheaper because you do not need to go to the tourist center to eat.
In Havana, for example, you can eat a spaghetti napolitana for 15 CUP (Local currency! In dollars this would be +/- 0.65 cents). For one CUC (less than one dollar) you can get a full plate with rice, pork, beans and vegetables.
In the tourist center of Havana you pay a lot more. An average of between 6 and 10 CUC per person.
A cheap meal in other parts of Cuba will cost you between three and five CUC. On average you will pay between 6 and 14 CUC per person per day.
Instead of expensive coca-cola, Fanta and Sprite, you can also purchase the cheaper Cuban drinks. They taste pretty much the same but are cheaper. They are called the ‘bebidas nacionales‘.
A large bottle of water (1.5 L) will cost between 0.7 and 2 CUC. The tap water is not drinkable in Cuba.
Transportation – Although Cuba is in fact a cheap country, cheap transport is quite difficult to find.
A taxi from Havana international airport to the center will cost you between 12 and 25 CUC per person. From Varadero to the center will cost between 25 and 40 CUC per person.
Try to drive together with someone if you are traveling alone, then you are guaranteed a better price.
To move from one city to another in Cuba, you have several options.
The comfortable Viazul buses are owned by the government. They bring you from station to station.
The taxi collectivos are less comfortable cars or vans from locals who take you, for about the same price as the Viazul bus, from accommodation to accommodation. A nice experience, and convenient that you no longer have to go searching for your accommodation!
In larger cities like Havana, Cienfuegos, Santiago and Varadero there is also a well -but painfully slow and always packed- network of public buses. These costs only one local pesos per person and are without doubt the cheapest way to explore a city in Cuba.
Travel in groups – Two or more people get a better price almost anywhere. You can share the cost of a casa, the price of a taxi is cut in half, or a taxi collectivo will give you a big discount. Often you also get extras at restaurants. A free mojito for example!
Eat outside the tourist area – This applies especially in larger cities. In the more local areas you can find a lot of restaurants that serve your food from 15 CUP (+/- 65 cents). A drink will cost you only 6 CUP.
In the more touristy areas you will not find anything cheaper than 6 CUC for the meal alone.
Only use WiFi ETECSA – In Cuba there is no place for locals -or very limited- internet. To give tourists a slightly more pleasant experience, the government does offer several WiFi hotspots. Avoid the hotels, it’s not uncommont to pay 10 CUC an hour there.
Instead, buy a WiFi ETECSA card. For half an hour, you pay 1 CUC.
Ignore banks as much as possible – If you are always getting money from ATMs, keep in mind the costs that will be charged.
Depending on your bank, a single transaction costs between two and ten dollars extra on top of the costs charged for the money exchange.
Use public transportation – Taxis cost quite a lot of money. Especially if you use it as your only source of transportation.
The buses cost only one CUP per ride and are ideal for exploring cities. Most of the buses are overcrowded, so they might not be as comfortable…
Explore Cuba – Don’t just stay in one place. There is a lot to see in Cuba. For beautiful nature, head a few days into Viñales. This is also the place where cigars are made and where you can buy some nice souvenirs.
Havana is of course the heart of Cuba and an absolute treasure for people who want to know more about the colonial and more recent history of the country.
Cienfuegos is another big city where you can easily spend a day. Trinidad is a small but very touristy town that perfectly reflects Cuba’s daily life.
For the most beautiful beaches in the country, you must go to Varadero.
Plan ahead – Try to look up as much as possible what you want to do in Cuba. Besides sights and activities, I also recommend to print out time tables (and pricing) from the busses. Try to take a map with you, or download a couple of offline apps on your smartphone.
It’s certainly not a bad idea to take a comprehensive travel guide with you.
Bring reading material – Magazines, newspapers, books … Try to have something to read in Cuba. Just like in the past, when we couldn’t spend our days behind screens all day. Especially when you are traveling alone, you could get struck by boredom.
Drinking mojitos – The mojito is the most famous drink from Cuba. You can not leave the country without at least having drank one mojito! A mojito costs between 2 and 6 CUC. Feel free to pay more for a fun but tourist, experience in well-known bars such as La Bodeguita del Medio.
Smoking cigars – A Cuban cigar is another product that has become world famous. You can buy these healthier alternatives for a cigarette everywhere in Cuba, but the best place to find them is in Viñales. This region is known to produce millions of cigars of the best quality. You can visit this area to have a more personal encounter with the Cuban cigar, since you see how they are made and learn a little more about their history.
Salsa dancing – Enjoy Caribbean music and try some salsa dancing! If it really doesn’t work out, the owner of your casa wouldn’t mind helping you in this emergency. Try to go to a typical salsa club, or a bigger club. Cuban parties are amazing!
Ride in an oldtimer – A typical sight in Cuba are of course the brightly colored vintage cars. Why would you only look at if you can sit in one?
The drivers take you around the city and love to use their car’s funny honking noises. Definitely take notice of the gearshift. Often these are very original.
For a ride of about an hour in Havana, you will pay between 30 and 35 CUC.
Exchange CUC for CUP – Often you get a worse exchange rate if you pay only in CUC. For certain things such as bread and fruits, you’ll pay more in CUP. Definitely try to change some tourist money into local money!
One CUC equals 25 CUP.
Getting agitated – Cuba is definitely a communist country. Wherever you go, 90% of the stores and restaurants that serve you are painfully slow.
To wait for an hour or longer for your food is not unusual.
The same applies if you want to exchange your money. There is usually enough staff, but they are just too busy with other matters such as looking and complementing each other’s nails or just chat a bit with each other.
Leaving basic items at home – Toothpaste, soap, even sunscreen are often hard to find in Cuba. Take a small amount with you so you do not have to search half Cuba to find this stuff.
Hand sanitizers to quickly wash your hands is also a good idea. I regularly entered a toilet with no available toilet paper or soap.
Go out alone in the evenings – I have never encountered any problems, but I did hear of two girls who wandered off alone that they were robbed.
If you want to go out (alone), try to stay in the tourist areas or go out together with some other people.
Only speaking English – Try to learn some basic Spanish. I noticed several times that the Cubans gave me a cheaper price because they saw that I made an effort to speak Spanish.
Drinking tap water – The tap water in Cuba is not very clean and would give a stomach or intestinal infection if you don’t watch out. Avoid the water and always buy bottles.
Trusting all locals – Of course they are not all bad, but sometimes it’s a little hard to know who you can and can’t trust.
Sometimes it seems like you’ve met friendly Cubans who want to take you on a stroll and show you around, but eventually they just want money. In most cases, they simply ask that, but sometimes they get a little more aggressive.