Your guide to backpacking the island of Cuba
Backpacking Cuba is an incredibly unique experience. All-inclusive trips to Cuba are popular with Canadians in the midst of winter, so I had never considered budget backpacking the island. While in Central America I met a backpacker who insisted that Cuba has much to offer beyond resorts. He was right. Read on to learn about places to visit in Cuba, where to stay in Cuba, and tips for travelling to Cuba.
Your guide to backpacking Cuba needs some prefacing. Cuba is a diverse Caribbean island known for its live music, vintage cars, cigars, and rum. The influence of socialism very much characterizes the experience of traveling the island. As I was backpacking Cuba I couldn’t help but think back to the stories my mum has told me about when she traveled, a time before internet and Ubers, when backpackers relied on physical guidebooks. Backpacking Cuba felt like I’d gone back in time.
Before heading to the island I had many questions. What places to visit in Cuba? Where to stay in Cuba. And general tips for travelling to Cuba were difficult to track down. This guide will cover everything from budgeting to local customs!
Side note - curious about learning more about Cuba’s socialist history? Click here to listen to an episode of Alpaca My Bags that covers this history, and more!
Planning a trip to Cuba
Planning a trip to Cuba which ventures beyond the resorts can be daunting. Independent travel in Cuba is relatively new, meaning that it can be difficult to track down information about backpacking Cuba, and planning your trip in general. My tactic was to book my flight and first homestay (in Havana). From there, I planned everything through locals and my physical guidebook.
Flights to Havana, Cuba are the most convenient for beginning a trip. Although the Varadero airport is dedicated primarily to the resorts, flying into Varadero is often a bit cheaper. If you are backpacking Cuba, the trip from Varadero to Havana is easily done by bus or shared taxi.
Tips for travelling to Cuba
Backpacking Cuba, you will notice that Cubans enjoy a relaxed pace of life. Things will be slow. Expect meals to take time, and lines for banks to be long. No one is in a rush and no will assume you are, either. Siestas are cherished and so expect to have quiet afternoons.
If you are up for a social media cleanse, you can choose to disconnect in Cuba. Internet is accessible, but not readily. To access it, you need two things: a public park, and an access card. Government controlled internet is usually distributed in the town or city’s most central park - it is always easily recognizable thanks to the locals on their laptops. To get online, you’ll need an access card purchased from a storefront, or “under the table” from a local selling them in the park. Around 3.00 CAD will be one hour of access!
Where to stay in Cuba
Although things are changing now, Cuba has historically lacked tourist hotels. Instead, tourists stay in homestays, known locally as “casas particulares.” These homestays are simple rooms typically within a Cuban family’s home. Staying in a casa gives you a unique opportunity to observe Cuban life, and interact with locals. Families are usually very welcoming and always willing to arrange travel and activities.
Book your initial casa online (nowadays you can do so through Airbnb). You can find your subsequent casas through that first one! You will get better rates this way. Just tell the owners of the casa you are in the day you will go to your next destination and they call ahead and then write the address on a piece of paper for you.
Best way to travel around Cuba
It is possible to travel Cuba by bus, and while backpacking Cuba this is the most budget friendly option, but, booking buses must be done well in advance, and the trips will be long. Instead, consider relying on collectivos, which are car-shares. They can be booked on the street, or by your casa particular. Always be sure to barter the price, as it will start high.
Because they are a shared car, you can expect your car to fill up with locals or other tourists. Collectivos are usually fast (highways in Cuba are empty!) and will pick you up from the casa you are staying in, and drop you at your next casa (or hotel). The best part is, collectivos are typically the old, classic cars that have become so iconic to Cuba. While they aren’t especially comfortable for long trips, you’ll definitely feel cool cruising down the highway in one of these.
Hitchhiking in Cuba is completely legal, in fact it is an integral element of Cuba’s transport network. There are certain spots along the main transport routes known as 'Amarillo Points' where vehicles will stop, and an official there will take the details of where you need to get to, and you then wait to be called forward. You can also stick out your thumb or flag down cars, although on some locals will expect some pesos.
Cigars, rum, horses, and caves
Backpacking Cuba is not complete unless you’ve tried all of the above. Cigars and rum are easy to check off your itinerary. A visit to a certified cigar factory is a great way to learn about how they are made, and purchase high-quality cigars.
Rum? You’ll find it everywhere. Be sure to try a mojito (of course) but cuba libres are delicious as well. If you find yourself in Trinidad, have a “canchanchara.” This is a rum-based cocktail served always in a terracotta cup. It is made of honey, rum, lime juice and soda. The cups are typically handmade in Trinidad, and make a great souvenir to bring home.
Horse are a popular activity for tourists, especially in the Viñales region. This is a great way to spend a day exploring the countryside. Just beware, these horse tours are very hands off, so be prepared to teach your horse who is boss.
Go to a cave party! Just ask a driver, "Donde esta la fiesta de la cueva?" We found cave parties in both Viñales and Trinidad. What is a cave party you ask? Lights, bar, DJ, video screens and dancing. In a cave.
Delicious Cuban food!
Eating in Cuba has a bad reputation, specifically on resorts. When backpacking Cuba you will have access to truly local Cuban dishes. Because of lack of foreign trade, access to ingredients for cooking in the country is limited. Much of what is eaten in Cuba is made of local produce. The Cuban core diet consists of rice, chicken, beans, fruit and ...sandwiches. Cuba is known for its sandwiches, and for good reason. You will find sandwiches available a plenty: from street vendors, in restaurants, and in your casas. The classic Cuban sandwich is sometimes called a mixto, and will contain sliced roast pork, thinly sliced ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, and yellow mustard sandwiched in Cuban bread. While the sandwiches are great, Cuban breakfast was my favourite part of the day.
Cuban breakfast is usually light, and homemade by your casa family. Eggs, bread, coffee and an abundance of fruit, from coconuts to papayas, is typically on the breakfast menu. The families will typically charge extra for their Cuban breakfast. It is worth it. Some casas also offered homemade dinners, which almost always were far better than meals had in restaurants. No matter what, you will have some delicious Cuban food!
How much is a trip to Cuba?
Backpacking Cuba can be done on the cheap! Flights from North America and Central America are low compared to other Caribbean destinations, especially if you travel in off-season (summer and fall). Once you have arrived on the island, food, transport and homestays won’t break the bank. I spent between 20.00 - 50.00 CAD per day (30.00 - 70.00 USD). It is important to barter prices when they are not set (for example, menus in restaurants have set prices). The first price offered for a homestay or shared taxi (collectivo) will always be high, be sure to challenge the price at least once. The maximum we paid for a homestay was 30.00 CAD per night, for two people. For more on cheap travel, check out how to budget travel!
Places to visit in Cuba
There are so many incredible places to visit in Cuba, it is difficult to narrow down. It is important to remember that Cuba is a large island, and so travelers with limited time should choose one “side” of the island to travel: the western half or the eastern half. I spent three weeks on the western side of the island, and this was my itinerary: Varadero, Havana, Viñales, Bay of Pigs, Cienfuegos, Trinidad. When backpacking Cuba be sure to bring on your trip a guide book, and a basic Spanish translation book (or app on your phone). You can also download the app Maps.Me for offline maps! While one could easily spend a month or more exploring the island at a slow pace (there are so many places to see in Cuba!) if you are pressed for time, one or two weeks spent backpacking Cuba will do.
How safe is it to travel to Cuba?
Planning a trip to Cuba will include some considerations regarding safety. Perceptions of safety can differ amongst travelers. From my Canadian, female-identifying perspective, it was safe. Yes, female-identifying visitors who are alone might experience a whistle or two on the street, and men might be very forward with you (especially when it comes to salsa!) - but overall, I never felt threatened.
While I was backpacking Cuba, I met many solo travelers who told me they were having a fantastic time, with no issues. If traveling solo is something you’ve considered, give a shot in Cuba! And be sure to read my guide about the empowerment of solo travel.