I spent three weeks in Cuba travelling solo in January 2016. I did relatively little research before going and next to no planning. I learned some things along the way, normally the hard way. So hopefully this post will help you make a few less mistakes than I did. But really, travelling Cuba is never going to be mistake free, what would be the fun in that?!?!
My Tips for Independent Travel to Cuba
(Based on my Mistakes!)
Pros and Cons to Travel in Cuba: An Overview
Cuba was gorgeous, with friendly and helpful people, as long as they didn’t work for the government. The food was good (contrary to widespread travel talk, the foodie scene of Cuba is starting), the rum was cheap, and the beer was great! Dogs were cheery and puppies were cute. Music was everywhere, dancing was so hot.
The buses were comfortable, and most of the casas I stayed in were great! The classic cars were everywhere so make sure you are ready for blast from the past photo ops. Beaches were lovely, day hiking was awesome, and wandering the cities was amazing. Men were so, so cute.
Downsides: Cuba was a lot more expensive then I thought it would be. January is definitely high season and the growing tourist economy is significant. Costs in Cuba are more than in your typical developing country, so budget more than usual, especially if you are a single.
There are definitely frustrations and difficulties about traveling in Cuba, and they are going to vary for every different traveler depending on where you go and how you decide to try to get there.
Accommodation in Cuba – Casa Particulares
Most people travelling independently in Cuba stay in what are called casa particulares. Casas are basically Bed & breakfasts. They are homes of people who have a spare room or two and are taking advantage of the loosening free enterprise laws to make some cash. Some casas are truly the spare room, others are verging on legit hostel status. The run of the mill room will have a double bed, a private bath, and air conditioning. Some rooms had a bar fridge, others had a television I couldn’t understand. If you do not have a separate exit, you will get a key to your room and to the house.
Casas charge per room, not per person, so I was paying the same amount (between $25 and $35 per night) as the couple next door. Breakfast used to be included in with many stays, it no longer is. It’s normally $3-5. Most casas will also offer to cook lunch or dinner, which can run up to $10 per person. I recommend this if you’re staying in places you don’t feel totally great about walking around at night by yourself or if there is literally nowhere else to eat!
If you are going in high season or if you don’t have much time and have a planned out schedule, book your casas before you leave home. It’s just easier. Many casas have Facebook pages or email addresses, or if you have a guidebook and can speak some Spanish, just give them a call! I definitely hit some trouble getting a room in Trinidad and Havana, even though there are many many places, they fill up!
Staying in casas is great. You stay with Cuban families and get a great taste for how the family works, you can practice your Spanish, you have peace of mind that you are probably pretty safe, and most places are clean and in good shape. Casa owners take pride in what they do and they are working hard. Support the casa owners, you can stay at a huge government-run resort and eat crappy food anytime! I found casa owners truly warm, welcoming and helpful. I think they also took pity on me because I’m not married, wahhhh (<<JK!!) I was given random gifts, like a coconut or a ride to the bus, as well as a lot of advice and direction, because I need it.
Transportation in Cuba: How to do you get around Cuba?
Getting transport was a pain in the neck, as well as the feet because it meant standing in lines and going back and forth to the bus stations. As foreigners, at this time, you must ride government transportation, aka Viazul Bus line, though a couple new bus lines are starting to offer limited service. Depending on what you look like and how your Spanish is, you may be able to get yourself on the much cheaper, more flexible, and more frequent local buses, but I’m the whitest girl ever and my Spanish exemplifies that. You can book your Viazul buses online from home before you leave, pay with your credit card, and avoid a lot of crap. You can not book through the Viazul website after you arrive in Cuba, I know, it makes no sense.
Many people bike Cuba. Totally realistic. I clearly did not do that as I hate sitting on a bike longer than a couple of hours. But more impressive people than me do it! I encourage it. Do as I say, not as I do.
Many people who have more money than me rent a car and drive themselves. This will help get around to more out of the way spots, as the Viazul bus routes are set and didn’t get me everywhere I wanted to go.
You can also fly between most of the centres in Cuba, so this is definitely an option as the distance from Havana to the Eastern point is, well, FAR!
I took the Hershey Train between Havana and Playa Jibacoa. My experience was great! My parents, who visited Cuba in 2011, were warmed frequently to avoid the Hershey train due to breakdowns. I had no problem, but I’m sure many people do. I still encourage it. Plus it’s cheap!
If you want to go to Isla de la Juventud, book return flights from Havana well before you leave your home country, Cubana flies there. Trying to take the boat just makes you hate other humans. I am still shaking my fist at that guy. You will have to read multiple Cuba blogs to get the full story of my run around trying to get to this elusive island. I encourage you to do this 🙂
It is illegal for Cubans to pick up foreigners in their car. Foreigners are not legally allowed to ride in cars that are not licensed to carry them. I think this excludes casa owners, but whatever. So don’t expect to be too successful with your thumb, though I kind of still love to do it.
Emily’s Cuba Reading List
Travelling solo, I had a ton of downtime in Cuba, so I went through many books. My favourite technological advancement, after fire and sliced bread, are book apps that you can download from your home library to borrow free e-books while you are abroad, on your tablet. Hence going through 14 books… Click on any to Check them out for yourself!
Internet Access in Cuba
Internet access is tough in Cuba. Despite loosening Privacy laws, wifi is not widespread, unless you are in all-inclusive resorts. To get online, you will need to buy an ETECSA wifi card, either for 30 minutes, 60 minutes, or 5 hours. With this card, you will be able to get onto wifi when you are in wifi zones, aka some major hotels or sitting outside the ETESCA stores. You can normally spot if you are in a wifi hotspot if there are a bunch of people leaning against a building swiping through their phones.
Wifi access isn’t totally cheap, but it’s not crazy expensive either. It is becoming easier to get online if you put the effort in. Which I did, cause this girl has to read books yo! Still, let your people back home know you will probably not be online everyday, and definitely not all the time.
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The Hershey Train, Cuba’s Slowest Moving Form of Transport
How do you take out cash in Cuba?
Another necessary evil is dealing with money. Cuba is very much a cash economy, so unless you’re staying in a major resort or fancy hotel, assume you will be paying cash for pretty much everything. As a Canadian, I was able to go to local bank machines and take out Cuban CUCs. Arrive with some cash in either Canadian currency or Euros, to get you through the first few days before you hit a bank machine.
Americans can not do this, not yet anyways, so Americans must arrive with wads of either Canadian or Euros and then exchange it. I can only imagine this is a hassle, but at this time it’s the only way. Do not arrive with American dollars. You will pay monster exchange rates.
Actually, Americans have a whole other set of circumstances when it comes to travelling in Cuba. If you’re looking for some info as a Yankee, check out this great one-stop shop travel guide for Americans travelling in Cuba.
3 Week Cuba Itinerary, for your planning purposes…
Havana: 4 nights (don’t need this much time but the bus issues hit me hard)
Trinidad: 3 nights
Sancti Spiritus: 2 nights
Havana: 1 night
Soroa: 2 nights
Vinales: 4 nights
Havana: 1 night
Playa Jibacoa: 2 nights
Matanzas: 3 nights
Do’s and Don’ts of Travelling in Cuba
Hitch hike (I know, I know)
Book buses ahead of time online
Eat at small Cuban cafes for much cheaper meals, or at least get out of major touristy neighbourhoods.
Think about what you pack. I didn’t see much in terms of laundry facilities, but you also want to be able to get around easily enough. Check out this excellent Cuba Packing Guide!
Go to smaller towns and villages. Authentic Cuba is well within your reach, even staying on those government buses
Know your numbers and simple phrases in Spanish. English is a major language in Cuba, but still, if you get off the tourist trail at all, you need some local language.
Take a rain jacket and/or buy an umbrella, even in high “dry” season. I was rained on multiple times.
Pet dogs, they’re just so cute! I’m pretty fancy free though as I have the rabies vaccination. Use discretion.
Load your e-reader with books before you go, though you can get online if you put an effort in to get books on your library app.
I hate saying this on principle (I can hear my Mom saying “I told you so…”), but take snacks, aka granola bars, nuts, dried fruit etc. Convenience food isn’t much of a thing in Cuba.
Take metro buses to get around Havana; they are not that complicated and taxis are bonkers expensive. It is very easy to get a bus out to the Viazul bus station (with about a 10 minute walk) from Central Havana and it costs you about a quarter.
Take Canadian or Euro currency to get you going.
Use the hop on hop off tourist buses around Vinales and Trinidad. They are great deals to get out of the city centers without using a taxi!
Eat avocados. And shrimp. Smoke cigars, like this guy…
Expect to take the boat to Isla de la Juventud. Book return flights, well in advance.
Try to go too far, I saw a lot of the Western half of the island as I didn’t want to overextend myself this trip. I want to return to see the Eastern, but it is really far unless you splurge for flights.
Ask too much from the bureaucrats. My mom calls it the ‘white shirt syndrome’. People working in government establishments have a lot less reason to help you, provide decent or timely service, or serve yummy food. Private casas and cafes are run by enterprising Cubans trying to better their incomes. Help them out! And if you need directions, don’t ask anybody at a desk. Ask the lady on the street bench, she’ll be more helpful.
Encourage catcalling boys/men/slime balls. Ladies, it’s not a compliment, it’s harassment. Reacting with some specifically learned for this purpose Spanish isn’t rude, it’s deserved.
Depend on book exchanges, I saw very few…like one, I saw one book exchange. And most of the books were in German. Boo.
Drink wine. That phrase was really hard for me to type. But yeah, don’t. Stick to beer and rum!
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