Cuba is a very odd place to backpack; our introduction to Cuba was a bit of a shock. Arriving in Havana from London in the early evening and finding ourselves at the back of a very long immigration line at the airport was a typical introduction to what was to come during our two weeks backpacking Cuba. We visited Cuba for fun, but as someone who is obsessed with information I couldn’t help but get myself completely involved in learning more about Cuban life.
An introduction to Cuba and the city of Havana for planning a Cuba trip
AN INTRODUCTION TO CUBA
Imagine visiting a place where society is exactly the opposite of everything you have ever come to understand and know about your own society and countries economics? Cuba is a place where things are structured differently and people live a completely different concept of life to what I have grown up recognising. At first, arriving in Cuba, it was very difficult for me to wrap your head around how far from conventional western living Cuba is. This becomes especially difficult when you’re backpacking Cuba and have experienced the ease of travel in Europe and Asia.
During my introduction to Cuba and the city of Havana, whilst backpacking Cuba we encountered many issues, heard things we wished we hadn’t and mostly had to come to terms with things we didn’t like. My boyfriend and I would be travelling Cuba for two weeks before moving on to Cancun and spending five weeks in Mexico.
ARRIVING IN HAVANA – BACKPACKING CUBA
From the second we arrived in Havana we immersed ourselves in the Cuban way of life and soon began to learn some desperately ugly things about the situation in Cuba despite the facade of sunshine and Latin charm. Because of everything I was able to experience during my time backpacking Cuba the memories I have will always be bittersweet my introduction to Cuba was a raw and I was able to explore a country that up until now, many people haven’t been able to.
Although I cherish the time I spent within this colourful culture on my backpacking trip to Cuba I still feel confused and frustrated. During my time in Cuba I often found myself wondering is Cuba ready for backpackers?
Now, I can’t say for sure that Cuba isn’t ready for backpackers but I can say that as a backpacker I definitely wasn’t ready for Cuba and the daily hustle I faced as someone who was looked at as wealthy tourist by all locals. If you plan a backpacking trip to Cuba this guide should help you understand the tourist and local relationship in cuba. This is my introduction to Cuba.
CUBA TRAVEL – ADVICE FOR ARRIVING IN HAVANA AIRPORT
Havana airport is very different to every other airport I’ve ever been to. Landing and going through immigration was pretty straight forward despite the delays and long queues of people we had already filled out our immigration documents ahead of landing.
For Cuban visas, as a UK resident, I didn’t have to apply. We booked our flight and checked with Condor the process. They said we’d need to fill in some documents ahead of our flight. We had to collect these from the Condor desk in Frankfurt airport. We flew London, Heathrow – Frankfurt, Germany and then to Havana, Cuba. Always check visa requirements before booking your flight.
Immigration can be quite strict but expect this part of your arrival in Cuba to take between 30 minutes to 1 hour – it could be longer depending on how many flights are arriving that day.
From immigration, you can collect your bags. This part of our arrival in Cuba took around 1 hour. For some reason this process took about an hour in total and an extra hour coming through immigration which meant our first two hours in Cuba were spend inside an airport.
THE POLITICAL SITUATION AND CUBA FACTS
There is so much to see and learn from the small Caribbean country of Cuba, its history and struggle is all part of the islands architecture and especially in the main city of Havana. Cuba has been ruled by the Communist Party of Cuba since the early 1960’s after several years of political unrest. Fidel Castro has been the head of this party since that time and still to this day the Castro family governs Cuba.
Communism is easy to understand in theory but seeing it first hand makes the concept hard to stomach in my personal opinion especially when you see the real life struggle of people. Communism, simply put, is the social, political and economic theory that everything should be owned and shared amongst the state. Meaning each person within the state contributes and receives the same.
Havana is a spectacular place to visit and Cuba in general as a destination is mesmerising. No other place I have visited or will visit will be as much of a mystery to me as Havana, a city I could spend months exploring, but that doesn’t mean to say the situation in Cuba is good. From my experience, most Cubans are very poor and live on basic rations and means. After speaking to some local Cuban people, it’s clear to understand that people are unaware of their situation.
HAVANA, CUBA – ACCOMMODATION AND TRANSPORT
After my introduction to Cuba and two hour stint at baggage reclaim we took a taxi into downtown Havana, to the Casa Particular we had booked online the night before. This is recommended for anyone planning a trip to Cuba and arriving after dark.
Knowing we’d be arriving in Cuba after dark, we wanted to book an accommodation prior to our arrival, as honestly I wasn’t sure how easy or difficult it would be to find a room for the night. A Casa Particular is a common Cuban accommodation and is essentially just a room for tourists in a local’s home. It’s one of the best ways tourists can invest sustainably in Cuba’s development and is a great budget option for backpacking Cuba. All Casa Particulares have a blue anchor symbol above the door, you’ll get used to seeing these above a lot of buildings. The anchor will usually be followed by a name for example ‘Casa Rosa’ or ‘Casa Jose’.
Many Casa’s offer a free breakfast when booked online through Hostelworld like we did. If you just turn up to a Casa you’ll be able to book breakfast on top of your stay. Expect fruit and eggs and a small cheese and ham sandwich as standard this is an ideal addition to add on if you are backpacking Cuba on a budget.
There aren’t many Cuba backpackers hostels that I came across which would be my preferred accommodation. Therefore Casas are the best option for travelling Cuba on a budget.
If you have a hotel booked, that’s okay too. There are other ways you can help the locals although some of them I don’t necessarily like. Taxis are everywhere in Cuba and taxi drivers seem to set the price based on how they are feeling. Generally any journey you will take will cost $10. Although being hustled by taxi drivers isn’t my idea of sustainable tourism, it’s another way you can support the Cuban people through tourism, although not as sustainable as staying in a Casa. Another alternative is a collectivo which is a shared taxi. Think of it like Uberpool but a bit more random and usually way cheaper.
If you want to travel longer distances from Havana, you may struggle to take public transport unless you are a strong Spanish speaker. The Viazul is the ‘tourist’ bus that travels long distances within Cuba. The Viazul bus station is a taxi ride away in Havana. I recommend always booking your tickets the day before you decide to travel as spaces are limited and tickets are sold on a first come, first serve basis. Unfortunately, this services is very inflated and for tourists only. No Cuban people can travel on the Viazul bus service.
TOURISM IN HAVANA – RESTAURANTS AND AMENITIES
Havana, as capitals go, is the heart and soul of Cuba. It’s essentially everything good, bad, exciting and unknown about the country in one city. It’s big but it’s dirty. Havana is very polluted and unsanitary, especially Downtown Havana but that doesn’t stop the tourism here. Despite the pollution the streets of Havana are colourful and filled with character. This is what makes Cuba travel such a bittersweet experience. Beautiful colonial architecture that has mostly been neglected.
Havana as a city is stunning although in areas the colonial architecture is neglected and everything appears to be half finished and in need of love and rejuvenation. Old Havana is much better kept and has been reserved well compared to Downtown Havana where it’s not uncommon to see abandoned buildings and rubble.
Most tourists choose to explore Old Havana known locally as La Habana Vieja is where you’ll find the majority of tourist amenities such as restaurants, bars and any tour services. You’ll also find some tourist shops here, but stock is always limited and it is often difficult to get anything you are looking for. These are the only places you’ll find imported goods other than in hotels. You’ll be able to buy brands such as Pringles and M&M’s but expect to pay high prices.
Some of the more simple market type shops are generally filled with locals and you can purchase corn based snacks and Cuban fizzy drinks from here. The price is usually cheap (albeit a little more inflated for tourists) and you can stock up on snacks without paying the prices in the tourist shops.
Toiletries are difficult to come by in Cuba so make sure you have all these essential items on your Cuba packing list. Especially if you are backpacking Cuba on a budget as these items can be pricey.
For restaurants there are a wide range of different options in Havana but a lot of the time it’s the same thing on the menu, all meals come with a set price of $10. An average meal will consist of fish or meat (usually lobster, which is widely promoted to tourists) arroz (rice) and vegetables. You can also get a bowl of pasta and other rice and vegetable dishes. A standard veggie meal would usually be an omelette with rice and salad or vegetables. Snacks and lunches usually come in the form of ham and cheese toasties or sandwiches, this is typical of Cuban cuisine.
STREET FOOD AND DRINKING IN HAVANA
Street food in Havana, Cuba can be purchased across the city from vendors with fruit trucks or churro stands or through hatches and makeshift pizza places. This is the cheapest way to eat in Havana if you are travelling on a budget or backpacking Cuba. We’d eat pizza’s for $2-$3, corn on the cob for $2 and churros for $2. Other popular street food includes fruit, croquettes and ham and cheese toasted sandwiches. All of these things are widely available for travellers on a backpacking trip to Cuba.
When it comes to drinking in Havana Mojitos and beer are king. The local beer is Bucanero which is a strong lager. All bars in Havana serve a standard Cuban Mojito for anything between $1-$5. If you want to purchase alcohol then rum is also king in Cuba. Havana Club Cuban Rum is extremely well priced and large bottles can be purchased for under $10. We used to buy small bottles and cans of Cuban cola to drink whilst we sat along the Malecon on Havana seafront to watch the sunset and fish. This part of Cuba travel was my favourite, I loved the he simplicity of enjoying a Mojito in shaded a bar listening to Buena Vista Social Club or a live Cuban music performance.
Note that in most bars live Cuban performers will turn up to play some music, it is expected that tourists tip them afterwards. This isn’t something I always agree with, but it’s one of the small Cuban hustles you’ll experience. Another is paying to use the bathroom. This was a great annoyance of mine as someone who needs to go constantly when drinking alcohol. A toilet attendant will usually be sat at the entrance of the bathroom and you are generally expected to pay $1 each time you use the toilet. This isn’t ideal if you’re spending a couple of hours in the same bar and are travelling Cuba on a budget and need to spend as little as possible.
CUBA BACKPACKING BUDGET
To take you quickly through our two week Cuba backpacking budget we spent roughly $60 a day for two people most of the time we spent more than this at around $80 per day. This was a very strict budget for backpacking Cuba and I would recommend a bigger daily budget for two people. The reason our Cuba backpacking budget was so limited is because we were at the start of a six month trip and wanted to be very strict. The daily breakdown of our Cuba backpacking budget can be seen below.
Cuba backpacking budget breakdown;
Accomodation: $20 per night for two people in a Casa
Eating: $10-15 per day stick to street food and snacks
Drinking: $20 per day for Mojitos and beer usually $2 per drink
Taxis: $10 per day
Most of the attractions in Cuba such as churches and cathedrals are all free and we spent a lot of our time on the Malecon fishing. One big expensive for visiting Cuba on a budget is travelling from place to place on the Viazul. Remember to factor this into your daily backpacking budget for Cuba.
EMBRACING HAVANA, CUBA – TOURISM IN CUBA
The streets of Havana themselves are busy and bustling all the time, but not in the same way the streets of Barcelona or London are. The busy streets are full of a type of aimless and chilled busy. On the streets of Havana there are local people everywhere, the streets are literally alive with tourists and locals. There are Cuban locals around at all hours of the day, hanging around the busy tourist hotspots mainly. I would guess that a lot of locals are attracted to the idea of being close to tourists. This is all part of the hustle in Cuba.
There seems to be a lot of chilling in Havana from most of the locals this can be experienced especially outside the Central Parque which is opposite El Capitol, this isn’t exclusive to Cuban culture, throughout Latin America there is a very chilled and lethargic way of life and it always feels like there are a lot of locals just chilling on the streets and in public spaces.
During my backpacking trip to Cuba I found the atmosphere in Havana to be intriguing. It was my first taste of Latin culture and I really got to understand lazy afternoons in Latin America. For most tourists and locals alike the heat becomes unbearable especially in the Caribbean and Central America. The best time of the day to explore Havana is usually before midday and just before sunset to avoid dying in the Caribbean heat.
One of the big observations I made when exploring Havana was that although the majority of people in Cuba are in employment, many locals spend their days hustling tourists. I mentioned briefly earlier that there is a constant hustle in Cuba. This is extremely evident in big cities like Havana where locals try to help and often trick tourists for a couple of dollars, the concept of travelling Cuba on a budget isn’t that well known. This is all part of the negative stereotypes tourists have in cuba. These opinions have likely been created by wealthy honeymooners overpaying and over tipping. As a Brit tipping isn’t a big part of my culture and is not generally as big in Europe as it is in North America.
There is a lot of require tipping in Cuba for almost everything. This can be frustrating if you are on a backpacking trip to Cuba and have a limited budget.
In Havana there’s always live music coming from somewhere, rum drinking (particularly mojitos) and the distinctive smell of a smoking cigar somewhere close by. I did often wonder if this was the real Havana or a tourist mirage that I’d been sucked in to. I really admire the laid back atmosphere in Havana; this feeling comes from Caribbean island culture as well as the Latin American influence here along with the high density of locals in the city of Havana. There are roughly 2 million people living in the city.
Where there are tourists in Havana there are hustlers, and friendly locals who are happy to share their knowledge of the best restaurant, the best mojito, the best taxi in town. Usually it’s their family owned restaurant or bar or one owned by a friend. Generally there is always something in it for them and this is something that as a tourist in Cuba you’ll get used to very quickly. This is where the tipping culture overload begins. Someone recommends you a restaurant and say thanks and they expect a tip.
This tipping culture in Havana and in Cuba has been born from two things. First of all, tourists over tipping and overpaying which has led Cuban people to form an opinion of all tourists and outsiders. And second of all the desire from Cuban people to be closer to tourism. Working with tourists is generally where Cuban people can make more money.
UNMISSABLE THINGS TO DO IN HAVANA
There are a few unmissable things to do in Havana that all tourists in Cuba should add to their Cuba bucket list.
- Visit Revolution Square and get a photo with the portraits of Cuban revolution fighters Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara
- Drink a Cuban Mojito or five in a traditional Cuban bar. If you don’t want a Mojito then try the local Cuban beer Bucanero
- Watch the sunset on the Malecon whilst locals fish from the sea walls. Do as we did and why not take some rum with you
- Explore Old Havana – La Habana Vieja and enjoy the beautiful colonial architecture and history in the cobbled streets
- Chill in Central Parque and enjoy the chilled but busy Cuban way of life. You can get some great photos of El Capitol from here
- Stay in a Casa Particular and experience life inside of a Cuban home
THE LOCAL PEOPLE OF HAVANA
In a city with 2 million residents is very easy to make friends and get to know the locals. I was so intrigued by the locals and everything they had to tell me. I spent as much time with the Cuban people as possible trying to get to know Havana and Cuba.
From hours spent fishing on the Malecon in Havana, to chatting on bus rides and in collectivos the Cuban people taught me a lot. From these exchanges I learnt many things about the Cuban way of life and it isn’t all cigars and rum and this is where I learnt that most Cubans want to be close to tourism.
If you are planning a backpacking trip to Cuba and want to get to know the locals then as mentioned staying in a local Casa Particular is a great place to start. It’s also recommended to do what the locals do, take collectivos and eat and drink where you see the Cuban’s eating and drinking. Aim to become a local rather than just a tourist in Cuba.
Havana is a truly captivating destination and a trip to Cuba can be really educational for backpackers and travellers. We were given an introduction to an island with so much flavour, and a country that is truly unique to the world and one so different to the place I come from. Often, my first hand experiences in Cuba left me dazed. At times I felt anger towards the lifestyle the Cuban people had been forced into. The poverty I witness was one of the biggest motivators for this feeling.
The sensory experience Havana has to offer is endless and that certainly goes beyond the standard tourist hot spots. Havana is dirty, raw and real at first you are introduced to a city that’s lost in time.
GETTING AROUND HAVANA, CUBA – THE HUSTLERS PARADISE
As big as it is the majority of Havana can be explored on foot although every taxi driver you meet will tell you otherwise. The old centre of Havana, I feel, has a lot to offer culturally and once you get used to the hustling and begging you actually begin to appreciate its charm. The cathedral is in a Old Havana or La Habana Vieja as the locals would know it, this area of the city is unlike Downtown Havana and is a surprisingly quiet and clean location.
During our time in Havana the pope was due to visit and lots of cleaning and maintenance was taking place in the majority of the locations we visited, especially around the cathedral and in Havana Old Town. Obvious interviews were being filmed in the cathedral plaza but it remained mostly uncrowded compared to the other residential streets. It was nice being in the heart of Havana’s Old Town and I’d recommend all tourists spending an afternoon exploring the cobbled streets.
Often, especially around the tourist areas of Havana people would stop us in the street and ask to take our clothing. As a backpacker this is something you are likely to experience. We spoke to a gentleman in his 40’s who told us clothing was a big problem in Cuba and I had no trouble believing that. Each of the Cubans we met hoped for a new standard of life, from a University student who stopped to practice his English to the restaurant hustlers and everyone in between. I can’t blame them but from what I saw I couldn’t stop feeling like they didn’t really help themselves.
In Cuba, they don’t produce clothing, that’s what the man told us. Therefore, the Cuban people look to tourists to provide clothing. This has been happening in Cuban coastal resorts for years and often toruists arrive with additional luggage that they can leave behind. To me, this is very unsustainable and it adds more pressure to the Cuban and tourist relationship. There becomes an expectation of tourists giving ad hand out to Cuban people.
Life in Cuba is tough we knew that because we had seen it first hand but when experiencing the Cuban way of life sustainability and ethics are two factors that all tourists should take into consideration. By leaving behind some cosmetics and clothing you may help a few individuals but you aren’t helping the country of Cuba and you are in fact creating more stereotypes of the outside world in Cuba.
Because of this attitude towards tourists the hustle was a daily struggle for us going about our regular day, it’s something all tourists in Havana will face unless more of an education for tourists and locals can be had. We were approached on many occasions to buy people baby milk, alcohol, food and our possessions. It’s obviously very saddening to see this but it does feel like this is what the Cuban local people expect from tourists.
IS TRAVELLING CUBA SAFE?
In a word, yes. It is safe to travel Cuba. From what I experienced travelling Cuba is safe. We experienced no crime during our backpacking trip to Cuba. The streets of Havana are safe to walk around and we even walked the streets of downtown Havana at night without any concerns for safety. Although there is a high level of hustling in Cuba and in Havana there is not a high crime rate in the country and mostly tourists can expect travelling Cuba to be safe.
Safety can always be a concern for travellers especially when travelling to a country where there is higher levels of poverty then what you are used to. It’s natural to question whether travelling Cuba is safe, but from what I experienced and from what other travellers have told me there should be little safety concerns. It is always recommended to still be cautious with your valuables though no matter where you are travelling.
The Malecon in Havana is nice to walk along for some escape and you can avoid the street sellers, hustlers if you can stand the un-shaded concrete long enough. It’s best to explore the Malecon at sunset when all the locals relax and it’s cool enough for you to enjoy being out in the open.
Obviously the Old Town of Havana has more charm than the other areas of the city, Jamie and I still chose to spend most of our time on Havana’s Malecon and seafront. Through the day we’d be hunting shade on uneven and confused cobbles and at night we’d fish, drink rum and learn Spanish phrases from our pocket Spanish language book.
The Malecon has its own charm though and especially during early evening if you can find a spot closer to Downtown Havana, you’ll be able to mingle with locals more freely. The reason the Malecon became my favourite place in Havana is because it’s the one place we felt we truly connect with the local Cuban people. Sitting sharing a drink of rum and swapping fishing stories we were able to get to know the locals with no false pretences, it seems that once they got to know us a little more we could get to know them.
THE LOCALS ON THE MALECON, HAVANA
On the Malecon is where I learnt the true meaning of Cuban life and the true hardships of the Cuban people. This was the highlight of my backpacking trip to Cuba. Most of evenings in Havana would begin with fishing on the Malecon whilst the temperature of the air was just right. Speaking to the locals here felt so authentic to me. It was different to the encounters between locals when a restaurant or taxi or service is involved.
During the hours we spent fishing we were able to meet a man named Alun who told us many compelling and fascinating truths about Cuba. On our final evening in Havana we met with our friend Alun from the Malecon one last time to spend our final evening drinking together in Downtown Havana on some plastic chairs in the middle of the road. Our friend talked hardships, hopes and dreams of travelling to other countries.
He had grown up and lived in Downtown Havana all his life and even took us on a tour of his neighbourhood introducing us to more family members and friends. The Cuban people are some of the most social people I have ever met this is so completely normal of Latin culture.
On the waterfront with our friend is where we learnt some hard truths and about tourism in Cuba. We learnt of trading rations with restaurants, we learnt exactly why lobster is so cheap and we also learnt of how the Cuban people’s lives are limited further by tourists.
Our friend from the Malecon talked about eating beef, something so trivial to you and I, but something so important to him. He had eaten beef once in his life. He told us that in Cuba the majority of beef was reserved for the tourists. He said, ‘It’s for the restaurants’. A tragic truth if you ask me. This is something that made me question the tourist and local relationship in Cuba even further.
CUBAN LOCAL STORIES
This wasn’t the only one of these stories we got to here during our backpacking trip to Cuba. In Havana we heard stories from a surgeon working as a restaurant hustler in old Havana who told us it was more profitable to be around tipping tourists than to be a doctor. We heard the same from a Geologist turned taxi driver in Trinidad, Cuba and the story was very much the same from a budding musician turned casa owner in Viñales.
Many educated and well trained professionals leaving their jobs as doctors, teachers and scientists to be closer to the tourists. Again, putting pressure on the tourist/local relationship in Cuba.
We met a local that talked of the national wage and work ethic in the country. He talked about the marginal difference between a bus driver’s monthly wage and a doctor wage and how the money was in tourism.
He told us that in Cuba, it doesn’t matter how long you work or how hard you work everyone gets the same. Do you really blame anyone who wants to leave that behind and work with tourism? It’s human nature to want better yourself financially. It has nothing to do with politics or communism or capitalism.
Cuba tourism can be difficult. Trips to Cuba should be met with a level of understanding about the situation in the country and I recommended to anyone hoping to backpack Cuba that they try to form opinions of their own based on the facts and stories of the local people.
CUBA TOURISM – THE CUBAN CULTURE
People in Cuba are always friendly even when they have ulterior motives which make tourism in Cuba friendly but frustrating. This friendliness is something engraved in the Cuban culture, something infections we witnessed all over the country and not just in Havana.
The limited knowledge of the outside world in Cuba makes the friendly people very interested and eager to learn. The Cuban Revolution and Che Guevara (a non-Cuban hero in Cuba and king of all revolutions) are always top of the subject list. Of course, everyone’s interested in what you know of the great Che.
As someone who is all about learning I found Cuba deeply fascinating, Havana being the very height of that fascination. Cuba is the kind of place everyone should see in their lifetime. From our first night on the Malecon along Havana seafront with the fishermen to each breakfast webackpack chose to have in our casa’s and each taxi ride in between. We met some truly charismatic individuals during our stay in Cuba. Every day was different, each filled with wonder, excitement and a new set of questions.
BACKPACKING TRIPS TO CUBA
To me Cuba is not just Mojitos, salsa dancing to Cuban music and sunsets. It’s entirely different. I got to see a a repressed nation crying out for change, unable and unwilling to do anything. The Cubans I met were desperate to tell someone of their story and their struggle and we were their to listen.
As a tourist and especially a budget traveller on a backpacking trip to Cuba we faced many difficulties whilst in Havana, this is normal for anyone experiencing an authentic Cuba and I wouldn’t let the idea that Cuba may not be ready for backpackers put you off exploring this incredible island. Day to day life backpacking Cuba wasn’t always easy and even buying water, the simplest of tasks, sometimes became a mission.
We also found that it’s a challenge to be a non-conventional tourist in Cuba. There is a tourist stereotype in Cuba and it’s not difficult to see why from the exploitative nature of tourism in the Old Town of Havana. The concept of a budget backpacking trip isn’t as well known as the honeymoon tourists in Cuba so the culture of tipping and over paying was something we faced a lot. The division of cultures from the locals to the tourists is ever present in Cuba starting look at the separate currency alone. I’d like to think that when I return to Cuba there has been more of an education of tourists who feed some of the exploitative tourist relationship and also a wider understanding of Cubans of the outside world.