Backpacking in the Caribbean is both gorgeous as well as costly. With flights being rather on the expensive side of things money saving while being in the country and still having fun turned into my main priority. Most of the things I list here are not just great for shoestring travellers but also for everyone trying to get away from the all-inclusive crowds in Varadero and Cayo Coco. Before I start I’d like to say that I am well aware of the Cuban economic situation and the importance of tourism. Spending money obviously improves the lives of people working in these sectors but turning away from the beaten trek can actually bring money into the hands of people without regular access to CUCs.
Cuba has a two currency system. The CUC is comparable to the US dollar and used mainly in the tourism industry. CUP, the national currency, has a exchange rate of roughly 25CUP to 1CUC. You can get moneda nacional in all banks or ask your casa owner to exchange you a bit. It is always handy to have and will keep the prices down when paying for street food. Most paces will charge you say 10CUP but ask for 1CUC if you only have tourist money.
Cuban street food is stunning! Ok, it does not quite hold up in comparison with Thai street food but it is certainly better than the greasy doner kebabs you get all over Europe. Cheese pizzas are available at literally every street corner for as little as 10CUP – that is less than 50 pence. They might give any proud Italian a heart attack but hey are super tasty and very filling. My favourite street food was pan con tortilla – simple fried egg sandwiches beefed up with cheese, onions or ham. My favourite combination was cheese melted in the egg with grilled onions for all of 8CUP. Combine this with a 3CUC glass of freshly made guava juice and you have a semi-healthy and filling breakfast.
If you are looking for healthier options you can choose from plenty of fresh fruit including mango, bananas, mamoncillos and of course the tastiest avocados I have ever had the pleasure of eating. Bring a pocket knife and a bit of salt and you are sorted. Bread can be bought everywhere so homemade avocado sandwiches are a real alternative to expensive sandwiches at bus stations.
Water is sold in 0.5L and 1.5L bottles. If you know that you are staying for a few days in the same places grab a small bottle and try o get hold of a big 5L canister to refill it. Most supermarkets sell them for only a little more than the 1.5L bottles. Oh, and if water is not good enough stick to big bottles of rum – most local brands are just as tasty but way cheaper than Havana Club.
Share, Share, Share
Sharing is vital for any shoestring traveller and obviously a quick and easy way to make new friends. Casa particulars generally offer double rooms and even though you might get a discount if it is only you it is still quite expensive for a solo traveller. Finding like-minded backpacker is quite easy and saves heaps of money when you share a room. Also, there is nothing more depressing then sitting in your casa on your own reading your Lonely Planet every night.
Taxis are way overpriced in Cuba so try your best to find some travellers at the bus station that want to share a ride to the city centre. Some hotels and casas are really helpful and will ask around if any of their other guests needs to get a taxi to the same place as you. On my last day my casa owner presented me with three other girls al wanting to go to the airport, saving each of us 15CUC.
Avoid the crowds
It does not need to be completely leaving the beaten trek but some of my most rewarding experiences turned out to be the ones away from the tourist trail. Cocktails along the main tourist squares in Havana will set you back up to 4CUC and if you fall into the trap of visiting a Hemmingway bar you can say goodbye to 6CUC for a Mojito. Try the little side streets and leave Havana Vieja – you will be rewarded with tasty 2CUC Mojitos and an extra touch of local flavour. It is much more exciting to eat in a little Palader in someone’s living room then sitting in restaurants that you can easily find in any warm capital of the world. Yes, the food selection might be limited to two dishes but it will be home cooked and if you speak some Spanish you will certainly make some new friends.
Consider travelling in monsoon season – there will be fewer tourists and prices drop dramatically. The daily rain shower is something I actually enjoyed thoroughly. It cleared the air and the scenery was lush green instead of savannah brown. People in bars and restaurants are less stressed by all the crowds descending on them and it is much easier to get a bargain. Most hotels and casas offer off-season prices which is the only reason that I could afford staying in Maria la Gorda.
If you are into Scuba diving then Cuba is the right place for you. With some of the best dive sites in the Caribbean it sports various reefs, wrecks and caves that make my mouth water just thinking about it. The diving is a bit more expensive then in Central America but still loads cheaper than in Europe. I’d say the average I paid per dive including equipment was 35CUC ranging from 25CUC in Playa Larga to 42CUC in Maria la Gorda. If you know that you are staying for a few days definitely book a dive package. In Maria la Gorda I managed to get 6 dives for the price of 5 which was ok but still rather pricy. In Playa Larga we paid 150CUC and got 4 open water and 3 cave dives out of it. Generally I would recommend Playa Larga for the best dive sites and pest prices in Cuba. Try to get a package upfront as some places refuse to credit you for dives you have done before negotiating a package.
There is nothing wrong with asking your casa if they can include the price of breakfast in the room price or charge you 5CUC less for single occupancy. Most people are happy to help if you don’t bargain too hard and always remember that a smile goes a long way. Taxis are the one places where bargaining is a definite must if no you will be paying through your teeth. Try to figure out the standard prices in advance or ask your casa owner to book you a taxi. On a rainy day a taxi driver asked for 15CUC from the Viazul bus station to central Havana; a ten minute trip that normally costs between 5 to 7CUC. Do your homework and you will save heaps of money. If taxis are still too expensive try local transport. It is a bit daunting at first but once you figured out the way it works you can get to the Hemmingway house for a few CUP instead of 20CUC. There is also a CUP bus to the airport but I might be a bit hesitant trusting local transport when I got a flight to catch.
Bring Mosquito repellent and sun cream
Both are hard to get and ridiculously expensive in Cuba. Make sure you have a large enough stash before flying out. Same goes for conditioner and toothpaste. I love to travel light but did regret (and so did my hair) that I only brought a tiny bottle of conditioner with me. You can obviously buy it but for the quality you get you are paying over the odds.
Cuba is a stunning country and as long as you stay away from the all-inclusive places you can have a great time while still travelling on a shoestring. My budget was 10 Pounds a day for accommodation and food. Add 20 Pounds amusement money to that and you are guaranteed a good time. To be honest, if it wouldn’t have been for all the Scuba diving my amusement budget would have been less than 10 Pounds a day. Anyway, regardless of what your budget is just enjoy Cuba!