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Where drinking rum is cheaper than food, all fruit & vegetables are grown organically and safety is higher than in most developed countries. This is Cuba.
Our 3 weeks spent in this interesting country, mostly spent staying with locals has still left us with mixed feelings, but without a doubt it is our recommendation that you discover this place locally, not only from all inclusive hotels, rented cars and restaurants with international cuisine to see the real Cuba and life for real Cubans.
Here are a few tips before you head over to make your life a little easier, as you will need a lots of patients and a positive mind.
Our travels started in Havana and continued through Varadero, Trinidad, Playa Ancon, Cienfuegos, Playa Giron and Viñales.
Staying with locals and eating as locals do helped us to understand their habits and customs as well as saved us a lot of money. Cuba is not cheap, for a budget traveller, your daily costs in Cuba are comparable to countries like USA or some European countries.
Meeting people is the highlight of the our travels in any country, but meeting Cubans is a special thing. From welcoming, generous faces to grumpy, lazy and flat out being ignored. Be prepared for situations when waiters won’t serve you, shops won’t give you change, they will regularly serve locals before tourists and will probably give you a different price than to a locals or just say “no posible” because they just can’t be bothered.
On the other hand, everything is possible in Cuba. That’s a local motto. And on many occasions they will do anything to find you a place to stay or transport with a friend or relative.
So our FIRST ADVICE is SPEAK SPANISH (click here for amazing online course), even just the basics is better than not trying at all, people will be much more approachable and open to helping you.
In Cuba there are 2 official currencies CUP (Moneda Nacional) a currency used by locals and CUC, a currency created for foreigners.
1 CUC = 25 CUP = 1 USD
Our SECOND ADVICE: CONVERT SOME MONEY TO LOCALS’ CURRENCY (click here for live conventer).
Find a cambio (currency exchange) where you can change your CUC to Moneda National (CUP). You can than search for locals stalls, locals restaurants and your travelling suddenly becomes way cheaper and your life happier.
Cuban locals specialty Pizza costs in locals area where you pay with “locals’ “currency 10 CUP = 0.40 CUC = USD 0.40cents
If you pay in CUC in a more touristy area pizza will cost you 2-3 CUC = $2-3 USD Still pretty cheap hey? But, this is an example of what difference in prices you may have. And if you are traveling long term, you will be super excited about deals like this.
Most of the services are divided by locals and foreigners use. Viazul is a national bus service for foreigners providing transport pretty much all over the country. Service is reliable and prices are in CUC only. You won’t spot a local Cuban on your bus. A few locals bus companies are in different towns. We tried to get on one of those buses but the answer was “no possible Cubans only”.
THIRD ADVISE: STAY CALM and PATIENT.
If you can’t get a bus ticket on your desired day due to it being full, try to get down to the station half an hour before bus departure. There are regularly a few cancelations or no shows. We got on the bus like this three times without booking our transport ahead of time.
Traveling with taxis is another possible way.
FOURTH ADVICE: AGREE ON A PRICE before you get in. Drivers are making a fortune on foreigners lack of knowledge.
Taxi Colectivo – is when you share a taxi with different people and is a cheaper way to get around the town or even travelling to different cities. In a private taxi you should get anywhere within Havana for 10 CUC or less. From Habana Veija or Centro to The Viazul terminal will be between 5-10 CUC depending on your bargaining skills.
Havana Taxi Colectivo, point A to Point B on one street (no turns) shared with locals = 1 CUC (I’m sure locals pay much less)
Taxi to/from the airport = 20-25 CUC, whether or not you’re alone or with 3 other people, so it pays to team up with other travellers.
Renting a Casa Particular (click here or here for homestay), a room in a locals’ house, is the cheapest way to accomodate yourself in Cuba. Not only is it cheaper but you get to explore some beautiful old homes, have a chance to talk to locals and taste their food. Prices vary in each town but the range is between 15-30 CUC.
FIFTH ADVICE: TRY NEGOTIATING THE PRICE, be nice, smile and speak Spanish. Prices will drop
Most of the casas provide breakfast for 3-5 CUC and dinners for 10CUC. Try to experience at least one brekkie and one dinner especially in small towns with a lack of food options. Portions at casas are very generous, actually enormous, there are always left overs.
Our biggest issue in Cuba was food. The Country itself suffers from a lack of food and its diversity is not very big.
Of course Havana and a couple of bigger towns have options with more international restaurants (mostly Italian cuisine) but generally stores, markets and local restaurants provide basic food items and simple meals.
Typical Cuban dishes are mostly meat and vegetarians or vegans will struggle. The standard options are chicken, pork, fish/seafood accompanied with rice, beans and a little salad made of raw cabbage, tomato and cucumber. Look for the prices between 4-10 CUC
Strangely the Cuban version of pizza has taken a place in Cuban cuisine. Do not expect Italian thin crust, but oily cheesy bread which is actually not too bad and definitely a cheap options.
Again in small streets you can find breakfast food in CUP, which can be pan con tortilla (bread with omelet) for 7CUP = US$0.30 and great Coffee for 2CUP which is about 10 cents.
Finding a salad in a restaurant may be a problem as their vegetables sources are limited to the season and made up mostly of the mentioned cabbage, cucumber and tomato.But the highlight is, everything is organic as the entire country uses natural pesticides only.
SIXTH ADVICE: EAT LOCALLY
Finding fruit and vegetables in local markets is a great way to save money and eat healthy. Again, the selection is not big, plantains (bananas), piña (pineapple) and above mentioned veggies can save you from hunger.
If you crave sweets, try Dulce de Mani, a sweet peanut bar made of crushed peanuts and sugar sold as well in locals stalls, or markets.
Drinking in Cuba is cheaper than eating.
Cuba is famous for its rum and every restaurant, bar, casa, souvenir store, and random windows in houses, offers famous cocktails such as Mojito, Cuba Libre and Piña Colada for 1-3CUC
Drink, dance, swim, hike, snorkel, scuba dive and explore.
Cuba has so much to offer.
Havana and Trinidad were the towns with the most live music and salsa dancing.
If you are a beach bum, Cuba has a few beautiful beaches and it’s not only the big resort town of Varadero. We loved Playa Los Cocos next to Playa Giron and Playa Ancon outside of Trinidad.
The best places to hike we experienced are in Viñales area. A beautiful valley full of tobacco and coffee plantations surrounded by jungle covered mountains.
The highlights of Cuba can be found here.
And our LAST ADVICE:
Go to Cuba with a lot of patience and acceptance as you will come across certain issues you may not entirely understand. Breath in and think that what you are experiencing is something new worth of a good story.