If you are looking for a Budget Travel Destination, look no further than Cuba. This Caribbean island where time stood still, speaks to the imagination. For such a small island, it offers a variety of activities and landscapes.
Compared to the other Caribbean Islands like St. Lucia, it is pretty affordable, yet more expensive than Mexico or other Central American nations. On the flip side, due to a special second currency just for tourists, you will be forced to pay tourist prices in most places.
Budget Travel – Money Matters
There are two currencies circulating in Cuba, Cuban Pesos (CUP) and Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC).
CUC (pronounced kook) is the currency most tourists will use in Cuba. CUC is accepted at hotels, official taxis, entry into museums, meals at restaurants, etc.
CUP are also known as local pesos and are referred to as Moneda Nacional? (National currency). There is a limited range of goods that can be bought using local pesos and are found in agricultural markets or from street vendors.
In Cuba, you can use some credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, Access, Eurocard) but I recommend always carrying cash.
Tipping in Cuba is important. Since most Cubans earn their money in CUP leaving a small tip of CUC$1 (MN$25) or more can make a huge difference.
When to go
The peak season for tourists is December to February while July and August are the peak holiday season for the locals. So, the cheapest months to visit Cuba would be October, November, and March to June.
Where to stay
When it comes to accommodation you have literally two choices – fancy hotels or Casa Particulares. Casa Particulares are guestrooms in someone’s house. The Cuban government allows some residents to rent the spare rooms in their homes for extra income, and as a traveler, you get a more local experience. Also, they usually charge per room rather than per bed so it can be better if you are traveling in a group and willing to snuggle up for the night.
Prices vary depending on the region and some places may include breakfast in their rates.
In Varadero, you can rent a holiday home with prices ranging from $20 – $250 per night. Similarly in Vi?ales, look for a holiday home or an apartment as it doesn’t have many hotels. If you stay in Trinidad (and you will), I recommend Memories Trinidad del Mar. Now, this may be a bit on the higher side but it definitely worth splurging on especially if you stay there at the end of your holidays.
Things to do in Cuba
It is impossible to skip Havana, the capital of Cuba on a trip (honestly, why would you want to?). The city is full of beautiful, frozen in time architecture, interesting people and of course, those incredible classic cars.
Highlights Of Havana:
- Rent a classic car for a tour through the city.
- Visit some of Hemingway’s old hangouts, like La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio.
- Climb to the top of the Camara Obscura in the Plaza de Armas
- Wander through the streets of the old town – La Habana is fascinating and filled with a wealth of crumbling buildings and interesting street art.
- Watch the sunset at The Malec?n
Varadero is a popular resort town located on the Hicacos Peninsula about 140 km from Havana. The ivory-white sand beaches are gorgeous! While many beaches in Varadero are part of private resorts, there?s a large free public beach section too, which is just as beautiful.
Highlights Of Varadero:
- Grab a beach chair, buy a few Cuba Libres, and work on your tan.
- Rent a kayak or sailboat and cruise down the coastline.
- Eat at one of Varadero’s amazing restaurants – try the pan con tortilla (omelet sandwiches)
From Varadero drive down to Trinidad. This picturesque colonial town lined with cobblestone streets and pastel-colored houses. It was the epicenter of the Spanish sugar trade in the 18th century built on the back of African slaves.
Highlights Of Trinidad:
- Spend a day at Javira waterfall
- Hang out on the steps of Plaza Mayor with a mojito to watch the sunset.
- Visit some art & history museums, like Museo de Arquitectura or Museo Romantico.
- Climb the bell tower at Iglesia de San Francisco for great city views.
- Rent bikes and cycle down the beach road towards Playa Ancon,
- Go swimming under waterfalls at Topes De Collantes National Park
Now on to the last leg of the trip – Viales! A small town located in a lush green valley west of Havana. If you are into nature, rock climbing or caving, this is a must-visit.
Highlights Of Vi?ales:
- Rock climbing on the karst limestone cliffs.
- Rent an ATV for an off-road trip through the valley.
- Go horseback riding, or join a cave tour.
- I am not a fan of any form of tobacco consumption but it would be amiss if you didn’t visit a tobacco farm and learn how to make Cuban cigars
What to Eat
Let’s talk about food. Most of the cuisine in Cuba revolves around eating pork. In fact, Cubans love their ham sandwiches. The most traditional sandwich is called the mixto, and true to its name, it?s a mix of different types of ham, pulled pork, and cheese!
The best and cheapest meals you will have in Cuba will come from the puestos that sell cajitas (takeout boxes), stuffed with rice and beans, salad and fried chicken). Cheap, filling and an easy way to introduce yourself to Comida Criolla.
If you’re a dedicated foodie and need more choices, you can find large plates of lobster, shrimp, crab, and fish for about $7 at restaurants near the coast. There’s also traditional Cuban cuisine called ropa vieja (old clothes) which is basically pulled pork with gravy, served with rice and beans for about $5. Larger restaurants are generally set up for tourists, with high tourist prices around $15-$20 for a meal.
Buses In Cuba
Cuban buses are cheap and pretty comfortable. hence they fill up pretty quickly. You will need to buy your tickets in advance either online or in-person at least a day to two in advance.
Taxis are available in the more developed cities of Cuba like Havana, Varadero, and Trinidad. Official taxis, in modern cars, will be marked and some even have meters. Old classic car taxis are more expensive, often with set rates of $8-$10 per ride. Try to negotiate a price before you get in.
Almendrons are local shared taxis that run in some cities, however, they aren’t easy to figure out if you don’t speak Spanish. They run on set routes, simply flag one down and jump in with everyone else. Usually old 50?s vans or Toyota Landcruisers.
Bicycle Taxis are another option. Officially they aren’t allowed to pick up tourists, but they still do. A ride costs about $1 CUC. You could get kicked off early if the driver notices police nearby.
Renting A Car In Cuba
Rental cars are quite expensive, and driving can be a challenge due to the lack of signposts and ambiguous road rules. If you wish to rent a car, you will need a valid international driving license and passport.
Travel to Cuba on a Budget
Finally, my biggest piece of advice for those wondering how to budget travel to Cuba is, don’t be discouraged! It can be affordable, as long as you put some planning into your accommodation, don’t always travel solo, and eat like the locals! Plus, by doing it this way you’ll end up with way more interesting anecdotes.
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