Despite what you might think, backpacking in Cuba is not exactly easy on the pocket. That’s why we’ve put together this lovely list on how to backpack Cuba on a budget!
Backpacking in Cuba is, without doubt, one of the most unique travel experiences you’ll ever have. You’ll get to ride around in colourful American cars from the 50s, sip on addictive mojitos, and perhaps even discover a hidden talent for salsa dancing. Sounds pretty good, hey?
Well, that was the good news. The bad news is that backpacking in Cuba is not cheap. If you’re not doing the whole resort or package deal thing, chances are backpacking Cuba on a budget will eventually get to you.
- The cheap food options are extremely limited and it’s actually quite hard to cut back on costs.
- The biggest culprit is accommodation which can easily soar to a whopping $30 per night for a not particularly fancy room.
- Your daily budget will end up at around $45 – That’s once you include transport, food and a few beers and you’ve been trying to be cheap!
But fear not, Cuba-bound amigos and amigas! We’ve been through the struggle of being on a tight budget in Cuba and have come up with 10+ life-saving tips on how to save some pesos. Memorise what you’re about to read – you’ll need it!
Our All-Time Cuba On A Budget Tips
In case it’s escaped your attention, we’re just going to state the obvious here: Cubans speak Spanish. English is not unheard of, but you’re setting yourself up for failure if you rely on it. Chances are casa owners in more popular cities will have some level of English going on, but if you’re looking to save some pesos, speaking Spanish is key.
Not only are Cubans likely to call you out for not speaking Spanish, it’s also a bit of an issue if you were planning on bargaining your way to lower prices. In other words, time to google un poco de español!
Further reading: The Ultimate Cuba Backpacking Guide
Speaking of bargaining
While we’re on the subject, Cubans are no strangers to the good old “dude, I don’t want to pay that” game. As long as you take on a laid-back attitude and remember to activate your natural charm, you should be able to work out some deals, especially with the casa owners. You’ll probably find that there isn’t much budging when it comes to room prices, but the owners often won’t mind throwing in a free breakfast or a discounted dinner.
Again, this is where speaking Spanish really comes in handy. It’s limited how much you can get across wit basic sign language.
Spend CUP – Not CUC
Now, if you’ve read our Ultimate Cuba Backpacking Guide, you’ll know that Cuba has two official currencies:
- The CUC
- The CUP
We won’t go into detail here, but the gist is that the CUC is a tourist currency only meant for foreigners and the CUP is the currency the Cubans are meant to use.
If it sounds confusing, well, yeah, it is at first. You’ll get the hang of it within a couple of days, but what you need to remember is that CUC prices are – not surprisingly – much higher than CUP prices. As in, 25 times higher. That means if you’re trying to do Cuba on a budget, you’ll want to pay CUP prices whenever it’s possible. Rest assured that goods meant for tourists will always be charged in CUC, but you’ll be able to pay for everyday things like, say, a bottle of rum in CUP.
If all if still confuses you, then this video might help explain the money situation a little better.
If you’re a solo backpacker, you’ll have a hard time doing Cuba on a budget. The reason for that is that casas particulares charge you for an entire room, not just for the one bed you’re going to use. The same goes for the taxis colectivos which are taxis that run between cities like small buses. When you jump in one of those bad boys, you’re paying for the entire car.
As you may have figured out by now, the way to save money here is to team up with other travellers. You’ll be paying less for the exact same thing and, as a bonus, you might even make some lovely travel buddies. If not, well, bring along a crossword puzzle for those long awkward silences.
Budget Cuban Food Tips
Eat Street Food
We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: Cuban street food SUCKS. Yeah, you heard us. Capital letters and all. The best way to describe it is an endless hell of dough in different shapes and sizes with a bit of tomato sauce and canned ham here and there. That’s literally it and it’s absolutely woeful.
So why are we telling you to eat it anyways? Because of one reason and one reason alone: it’s dirt-cheap. A chewy mini pizza-like thing will cost no more than 15 CUP which would be a bit of a steal it if wasn’t so urgh. You can say many things about carbs, but if there’s one thing they know how to do, it’s make you feel full. As a backpacker trying to do Cuba on a budget, that’s a win-win. Let it be known that you will reach new lows in terms of food tantrums. In fact, there probably will be tears at some stage. But, you know, if you’re looking to save some pesos, this is one – very painful – way.
Eat At Paladares
These places are heaven-sent breaks from the street food hell. Paladares are privately-owned restaurants that charge prices in CUP which, as we all know by now, means the food is incredibly cheap. There’s normally not more than 6-7 basic dishes on the menu, but believe us, you’ll take anything that doesn’t involve chewing through more dough. Most meals are around 60 CUP and you’ll often find traditional Cuban dishes like ropa vieja.
Further Reading: 9 Things To Know About Backpacking In Cuba
Drink rum – not fancy mojitos
Let’s not try to fool anyone here – a good chunk of the money you’re saving on food will probably be going into delicious drinks and some of those world-famous Cuban cigars. Don’t get us wrong, we think those are some excellent priorities to have in life. All we’re saying is that you might as well try to save some pesos here, too.
See, in Cuba, you can get national alcohol and tourist alcohol. A fancy mojito in a bar in Havana’s touristy Habana Vieja district will cost you the same as an entire bottle of national rum from the shops. Granted, the first sips of national rum on the rocks might burn a little, but hey, at least you get to drink it wherever you want. Such as down by the boardwalk while watching the sun set over the Caribbean. Doesn’t get much more epic, does it?
Bring snacks from home!
With this less than ideal cheap food situation in Cuba, chances are you’ll be tempted to splurge and treat yourself to a meal at one of the expensive tourist restaurants. And while that’s understandable and completely okay every now and then, it can quickly eat into your travel budget.
To make sure you don’t give in to unnecessary temptation, you can bring some of your favourite snacks from home. Put them in your daypack and dig them out when you feel your mental strength is about to run out. Tap yourself on the shoulder for avoiding an expensive meal and head to a paladar ASAP.
Cuban Accommodation Budget Tips
Steer clear of casas that are mentioned in guidebooks
For the vast majority of Cuba’s casas particulares, online booking still isn’t a thing apart from one or two new websites. To this day, the main way to book a room in the next city is to have your current casa owner phone one of his casa friends and book you in that way. Because of that, the few casas that are mentioned in guidebooks or have their own websites have an advantage when it comes to attracting tourists. And, as the law of budget backpacking states, that means those casas are considerably more expensive than the rest.
But don’t worry – there’s more casas particulares in Cuba than teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert. Unless you have specific requirements for your casas, you’ll be able to find something decent without booking online. Go with the flow, leave the casa booking to the Cubans, and you’ll be absolutely fine.
Don’t get caught in the jinetero trap
If you choose not to have your casa owner book you a room, there’s only one thing you need to look out for when you’re walking through the streets trying to find a casa yourself. That thing is the jineteros which are the guys that will come up and offer to take you to a good casa. What they don’t mention is that for this noble deed, they’ll charge you a commission once you arrive which is normally around 5 CUC. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book but because there really aren’t many scams to look out for in Cuba, you might inadvertently lower your guard and walk straight into this little sneaky trap.
Stay away from touristy areas (…..duh)
Alright, so we’re not re-inventing the wheel with this last tip. But yeah, if you want to find cheap accommodation, you probably shouldn’t look smack bang in the most touristy area. Cuban casa owners, like the rest of the hotel and hostel owners on this planet, have figured out that’s where people are willing to cough up with a little more. If you want to save some pesos (or just have more money for your rum and cigars), spread out a little. And who knows, maybe being away from the tourist hoards means you’ll get an extra nice casa owner!
That’s it, amigos and amigas. With these 10+ tips in mind, you should be able to shave some pesos off your budget while backpacking in Cuba. And remember: as long as you get to ride in at least one 50s car and smoke a couple of cigars, you’re not doing too bad!
What was your experience backpacking in Cuba? Do you have a great tip for doing Cuba on a budget? Or do you just want to say hola? Drop us a line – we love making new friends!
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