When you think of Cuba, what springs to mind?
For many travellers, it’s a classic image of holiday relaxation; sipping on piña coladas on an empty stretch of white sand beach with a luxury hotel just behind the sun loungers.
But when I imagined Cuba, I saw cramped streets hung with laundry, stray dogs and rusting antique cars. I saw a fascination with Che Guevara, an inclination for shots of rum and smiling at strangers, loud music, peeling paint and illicit cigars sold on street corners: the trappings of an entire country beyond the self-contained resorts on the north coast.
Last summer I spent a month in Cuba, trying to explore as much of the island as I could: from the sensory bombardment of Havana to the sleepy village vibe of Viñales, and a number of cities, villages and landscapes in between.
As a solo traveller, I also tried to budget as much as possible. Although Cuba certainly isn’t a cheap country to travel through, there were a number of ways I managed to watch my cash.
Visiting Cuba through a tourist’s eyes
By the time I reached Cuba, I had been travelling in Latin America for eighteen months, my Spanish was the closest to fluent that it’s ever been, and my confidence in both the language and Latino culture was soaring. When I was talking to Cubans by myself, speaking only Spanish and carrying myself with confidence, I managed to convince a number of locals that I was from Colombia.
While it wasn’t quite as good as being Cuban, the possibility that I hailed from a similar culture meant more acceptance. Prices decreased, conversation flowed more easily. The only issue was having to invent a hasty backstory about why my accent didn’t sound quite Colombian enough…
Both your appearance and your mentality can make a huge difference to how Cubans perceive you. Most foreign travellers I met had flown straight to Cuba from their home country for a two or three week holiday, and weren’t planning to travel elsewhere afterwards either. They spoke barely any Spanish, weren’t used to the street hustlers, and though they knew they were probably being taken advantage of they didn’t really know how to prevent it.
To be a tourist in Cuba means experiencing the country in a way that the local people will never usually do. Tourists are hustled on street corners for souvenirs and taxi rides and cigars. Tourists take their own particular type of public transport. Tourists are charged inflated prices for produce and services; they even deal with a different monetary currency to local Cubans.
So why are there two sets of rules for tourists and locals? Well, because there are two separate economies in Cuba.
The two currencies of Cuba
The economy the locals use is heavily subsidised by the state – there’s a free health service, cheap transport, and various items are rationed. Their wages are paid in the local currency, called Moneda Nacional (MN, usually referred to as pesos) and they receive around 400 MN a month (about £10 or $15).
The second currency is the convertible peso (or CUC, pronounced ‘cook’), which is what you’ll receive when changing foreign currency for Cuban. 1 CUC (fixed at $1 USD) is equal to 24 MN, and tourists will use CUCs to pay for their souvenirs, accommodation (in both hotels and casas particulares), restaurant meals and long distance bus journeys.
The CUC is the currency that most tourists will only ever deal in, because they’re are often told they’re not allowed to use Moneda Nacional. This isn’t exactly true: it’s just a lot more difficult.
On my first afternoon in Havana, I paid with CUC for a bunch of bananas at a street stall and shyly asked the stall owner for my change in MN. He gave me a curious glance, then handed over a bunch of faded peso notes, silky to the touch with overuse.
Later that day, I boarded a ferry to go across the harbour and handed an MN note to the ticket vendor. He flat out refused to take it.
Throughout my time in Cuba, I only occasionally saw places that would accept MN. Most of the time it was a personal challenge to actively ask shop owners if they’d let me pay using it, and I often felt guilty for even trying, because many Cubans take offence at foreigners trying to exploit them.
Your immediate Cuban costs
- Entrance fee: $25 (25 CUC). Everyone arriving in Cuba has to pay a $25 entrance fee, whether it’s at their departure airport or on arrival in Havana’s airport.
- Exit fee: 25 CUC. There’s also a 25 CUC departure tax when flying out of the airport, so it’s sensible to simply put that money aside as soon as you’re in the country.
- Taxi to Havana: 20-25 CUC. The vast majority of tourists will take a taxi into Havana from the airport. There are lots of willing drivers waiting at the airport, and they’ll quote you various prices but the journey should never cost more than 25 CUC.
In Havana itself, the capital of the country and most tourists’ first experience of Cuba, anything that can be overpriced will be. Knowing your budget from the outset is the best way to keep costs to a minimum – that, and getting out early to start exploring the rest of the country.
How to access your money in Cuba
There’s a slew of online resources warning how difficult it can be to actually access your money in Cuba – and although I didn’t have much trouble, there was a constant nagging worry that I would.
Almost every transaction in Cuba occurs with cold hard cash. Credit and debit cards are very rarely accepted, and even then it’s only in tourist-exclusive places like Varadero. As a result, it’s recommended to take as much cash with you as you feel confident carrying – although because of the US-Cuba embargo, changing US dollars into CUC incurs a hefty tax and it’s only possible to change a handful of hard currencies into CUC (the most commonly accepted currencies are Euros, Pound Sterling, Swiss Francs and Canadian Dollars).
You can’t buy or exchange CUC outside of Cuba either, so it all has to be done in-country.
Of course, most people don’t want to carry much cash, which means they have to either exchange their traveler’s cheques or try to withdraw money. There are two options for the latter: visiting the bank, or going to a cadeca. Both require your passport as proof of identity, and it’s a good idea to check the exchange rate and count your money before leaving.
There are also issues with which cards the banks will accept. From different sources I heard that basically every type and brand of card might face problems; I had two debit cards which were MasterCard and Visa, and was able to withdraw cash from each. But it pays to check up on this specifically before you arrive in Cuba.
Finally, always change or withdraw a bit more than you think you’ll need. You don’t want to get caught with no money in a town where they’ve decided to close the bank on a Wednesday…
Budgeting on your accommodation
All the hotels in Cuba are government run and when I visited in 2014 there weren’t many hostels for budgeting travellers, so the government allows locals to rent out their spare rooms.
The biggest benefit of staying in these ‘casas particulares‘ is that it allows you to actually spend time with Cubans in a pseudo-normal environment and hear their stories.
I’ve gone into the casa system in much more detail here but in budgeting terms, most casas will charge you for the room, not the amount of guests staying in it – and there’s usually a couple of beds, meaning enough space for four or even five people in one room.
When you think that a night in a room can cost anywhere between 15 CUC and 30 CUC, there’s a huge saving to be made if you’re travelling with other people. The only sacrifice to be made is giving up the chance to sleep in the nude, which in the Cuban heat, I’d be unwilling to do.
I only shared a bedroom for a few nights in my month of Cuba travel, but it was enough to see the benefits. Just remember to pack your ear plugs to combat the noise of the air conditioning and other people’s snoring.
Coping with the Cuban weather
Cuba is an unapologetically hot and humid country. Cars and taxis open their windows for ventilation; museums and art galleries are strewn with standing fans; and checking whether your casa bedroom has air conditioning is of the utmost importance.
One casa I stayed at only had a small tabletop fan and I spent the night sleeping an inch away from its whirring insides.
Visiting Cuba in June meant I caught the rainy season, enjoying a sudden downpour every afternoon. Depending on which part if the island you’re in it’ll happen at different times, but it’s quick and fierce, coming from nowhere and leaving just as suddenly.
The heavy clouds followed me around the island, and after the first few days of soaking hair and clothes I began to notice that many Cubans carried umbrellas around as a multi functional item: protection from the rain as well as the burning sun.
So when your casa owner offers you an umbrella in the mornings, for god’s sake take it.
How to get around in Cuba
Each day, I left my casa in the early morning when it was still relatively cool outside, and walked around until midday or 1pm. I chilled in the a/c of my room until about 4pm and then carried on exploring when the hottest part of the day was over.
To actually travel around the island though, there are a number of transport options:
- The tourist bus. The two main bus companies are Viazul and Transtur, and there’s little between them. Both have air conditioning, reclinable seats, take direct journeys, and they have connections in all of the major cities and smaller towns that tourists might want to visit. Tickets should be booked ahead of time at the bus station.
- The local bus. Whether tourists are ‘allowed’ to travel on the extensive (and much cheaper) Cuban bus network is a bit hazy. Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get different answers – but regardless you’ll probably find it extremely difficult to actually board one. From the outside, these metal trucks look like converted cattle transporters, and are one of the most obvious inconsistencies between tourists and locals in Cuba.
- Trains. Train travel is a possibility, although I never managed to ride on one. The timetables change often and routes run on different days, and after I spent a long time researching the possibilities, I eventually gave up trying.
- Bikes. Cycling is more accessible: there are a few casas that will have bikes for hire, and much of the country is flat with roads that aren’t too busy.
Eating and drinking in Cuba
As a tourist, eating in Cuba is a strange business. Most casas offer to make their guests both breakfast and dinner for an additional cost, and the huge delicious portions they serve up each day make it a very sensible idea.
Most mornings I awoke to a groaning table of fresh fruit, eggs, bread, biscuits, coffee, and fresh juice. I’m not a big eater in the mornings, but I tried my best to eat as I didn’t want to waste anything.
In the early evenings I sat down to rice, black beans, plantain, salad and whichever meat I’d requested that morning: usually a choice between chicken, pork, fish, shrimp or lobster, at varying prices.
I’m not a huge eater so I was often unable to finish these platefuls. But when you’re confronted with a giant lobster, it feels almost insulting not to try.
If you get peckish during the day though, the food on offer is pretty hit and miss. The tourist restaurants are overpriced, and I didn’t like eating three big meals a day.
I also noticed that Cubans don’t seem to eat anything other than peso pizza for lunch, and after trying a few alternatives I can see why. Try heading into an average looking diner, ordering tuna pasta, and seeing if you can stomach eating this…
I found it pretty easy to skip lunch as I breakfast kept me full for so long, but budget wise, you can grab a peso pizza and pick up fruit and nuts cheaply at market stalls. There are also numerous house fronts selling little cups of ‘tinto’ coffee.
Of course, the stifling Cuban heat tends to sap your hunger levels – it’s much more important to keep guzzling down the water. At least 3 litres a day is advisable – and if that sounds like a ridiculous amount, just wait and see how much you sweat.
Most tap water in Cuba isn’t potable so Cubans will boil all their drinking water first, and unless you’re able to do the same throughout the day, you’ll be buying bottled water.
This is where the costs can really add up: a 1.5 litre bottle will be sold so often for 2 CUC that you can easily assume that’s the standard price, however expensive it sounds. However, with a bit of searching, you’ll find the corner stores and little markets where it costs 1 CUC instead – and then you’ll strike gold when you find the first dusty mercado which sells a 5 litre water container for 1.90 CUC.
I bought one of these every few days, lugged it back to my casa and decanted it into 2 litre bottles. The ‘Caribe’ chain of stores sell all kinds of products, segregated by store (ie. electronics in one, hair and beauty products in another) but all will usually sell 5 litre water containers.
Tip: Unfortunately, some places with fill water bottles from the tap then reseal them. If the water tastes strange then throw it out and buy some more.
The museums and towers of Cuba
Apart from simply wandering the streets and people watching in whichever places you go to, visiting museums is one of the most common pasttimes for tourists in Cuba.
Every city seems to have a number of dusty rooms filled with bloodstained uniforms and mysterious relics of Che’s era and the wars before. There’s also no shortage of creepy religious paraphernalia.
Most museums charge a nominal entrance fee of 1 CUC, and then charge again to climb the accompanying tower. I’ll inform you now: there are a lot of buildings with towers in Cuba, and sitting in the top of them is a wonderful way to catch a longed-for breeze.
Also bear in mind that visiting the bathroom in museums and galleries won’t necessarily be covered by your entrance fee – there are usually women waiting inside to stare you down until you place a few coins in their tip tray.
I’m not sure if they’re employed separately from the museum/bus station/restaurant staff, but I always felt guilt tripped into contributing.
The nitty gritty money breakdown
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You might also be after some hard numbers – so this is how my finances looked throughout my 27 days in Cuba.
Daily budget: 53 CUC (£35)
Before arriving in Cuba, I aimed for a daily budget of 59 CUC (£40), and when I left, my daily average spend was 53 CUC (£35). I averaged 23 CUC (£15) on accommodation, and 13 CUC (£8.50) on food (5 CUC for breakfast, 8 CUC for dinner).
Amount spent altogether: 1435 CUC (£948)
After 26 nights and 27 days in Cuba, I left the country having spent a grand total of 1435 CUC (£948), excluding flights. Out of this, 300 CUC (£200) was spent on food, and 605 CUC (£400) paid for my accommodation.
Now, this was excessive budgeting. With the exception of often paying for a double or triple room entirely by myself, I was very careful with the food I bought and the sights I paid to see. It helped that I spent much of my time with a Swedish couple who were equally money conscious: we were working to averagely the same budget, and it became a game of sorts to keep costs down.
So did my budget travel in Cuba pay off?
I faced a few problems during my time in Cuba. First off, I didn’t bargain for casa prices as much as I probably should have (I blame my distinct inability to disappoint someone when I’m staring them straight in the face). Second, I completely underestimated how much things in Cuba actually cost, meaning the amount of cash I brought with me wasn’t enough.
A lot of my time in Cuba was spent worrying about whether I had enough money. There were days when I went way over budget, which were invariably followed by days where I barely did anything to try and make up the difference.
I was also overtly aware that many of the experiences I could have in Cuba were not available to Cuban locals. The prices were too high, the establishments too ‘exclusive’ – and that was very difficult to deal with. I started out attempting to see Cuba as locally as possible, but I soon realised it’s a difficult thing to manage.
Know before you go: what kind of trip do you expect to have?
Cuba is one of those countries where I’d actually advocate travelling with somebody else. I was lucky to meet a couple who wanted to travel with me, but when I was by myself I found it quite hard to meet anyone, and that made my costs – and my loneliness – go up.
It was strange, too, coming from a year and a half of travel in South America and meeting tourists who were enjoying two weeks of fun in the Cuban sun. While they obviously had more leniency with their money, they also behaved a lot more like they were on holiday – something of an alien concept to me by that point – and it took me a while to settle into the same frame of mind.
Was I in Cuba to relax and actually enjoy myself? Seriously? Luckily the close proximity to beaches from almost every city in Cuba meant I could easily while away a day just basking in the sun if I felt like I needed an excuse to do nothing.
There’s no doubt that Cuba is an excellent place to practice your budgeting skills. It becomes something of a challenge to find the cheapest ways of doing things, and you feel a certain amount of pride that you’ve somewhat beaten the system. Of course, you then run the risk of feeling terrible that you’re not providing Cubans, who are famous for living in a poverty stricken society, as much money as you potentially could.
But there’s a difference between paying what’s fair and being taken advantage of, in my opinion, and after my month was up, I felt like I understood the system well enough to gauge how to save a little. Not to undercut the money that many Cubans clearly need, but simply a way to make your money last longer.