It’s been well over a year since Brett and I went backpacking through Cuba for our honeymoon. I still reminisce about mojitos and the pristine Caribbean beaches. However, those were definitely not my favorite parts of the trip.
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Brett and I were married in July 2016, and with moving to Edmonton; we didn’t have the time to go on our honeymoon right after we were wed. In fact, 6:00 am the morning after our wedding, Brett and I made the 15 hour drive from Vancouver to Edmonton. Needless to say, we were both still a little bit tired. The thought of a honeymoon spent backpacking through Cuba was far from our minds.
This trip was so unique! We went off the beaten path to do things most vacationers never do when they visit Cuba. And backpacking through Cuba was nothing like what we are currently doing in Costa Rica. In Cuba, we didn’t have the proper backpacks we do now, so we made do with a day pack, and a duffel bag. Brett and I got fitted for our Gregory backpacks that we’ve brought to Costa Rica, and it was money well spent. Seriously, these backpacks are amazing! They are comfortable, and come with a day pack, are light weight, and water resistant!
In this travel post, I wanted to share a few tips about what we learned backpacking through Cuba. This was far from your 7 day all-inclusive Varadero trip, and if you want to do the same, read these tips!
5 Tips for backpacking through Cuba
1. Stay in Bed and Breakfasts – Traditionally called a Casa Particular or Hostales
The only way to plan a backpacking through Cuba itinerary, and get a truly authentic experience, is to stay in a Casa Particular. These are bed and breakfasts that are run in the home of a Cuban family. Often there are a few rooms in the casa rented to travelers for cheap. You can expect to pay roughly $15-$55 USD per night. Even on the cheaper end of that spectrum; I have never stayed in a casa where the room wasn’t spotless, well maintained and comfortable. But do not expect a luxurious hotel or even airbnb experience; if that’s what you want, head to an all-inclusive! Staying in the casa particulars are very popular and is a great way to meet other travelers backpacking through Cuba.
With that being said. Airbnb is not really a “thing” in Cuba yet. Even though there are places on the website, it is recommended across the board, that you do not pay in advanced for a Casa. If you do want to check out Airbnb, use my link when you sign up, to get $45 off your first stay!
Staying in the casas, you will feel like you are a relative coming to visit. Almost all casas will offer a menu; so you can have your meals at home if you want. These are usually amazingly cheap and delicious alternatives to dining out as you usually will not have access to a kitchen! Some casas even include their breakfasts in their prices. Make sure you take them up on this opportunity, so you are fueled for a morning of exploring! Save your CUCs for lunch and dinner if you chose to venture out. Most breakfasts include eggs, tortillas, cheese, fruit, tomatoes, strong dark coffee, juice, water, tea, milk, toast, etc. You can expect to have a very authentic Cuban dinner in the casa, if you so choose!
Now you are probably thinking, “backpacking through Cuba sounds lovely Megan, but where do I find a Casa Particular?”
Great question. So the Internet and all of its glory is still a relatively new thing in Cuba. Not many places have websites or social media pages for individual casas. But some do! You can only find these casas online by going through a few databases online. These are websites that have compiled lists of casas throughout the country, with as much info as they can.
Here are a few we used frequently:
–My Casa Particular – this is a really great database for many of the well known casas in Cuba.
–Casa Particular Cuba – is also great for making reservations. This website offers lots of information about other services such as taxi reservations too.
–Casa Particular – is also one of my favorites because it goes over a lot of the different regions in Cuba. This is one of the resources I used to map out our travels!
So with these tools available to you, you will be able to find several great options! Our favorite Casa that we stayed at during our trip, was Maria Y Jesus, in Old Havana. I’ve stayed at this casa during both trips I’ve taken to Cuba. On our second trip, it was by complete fluke that we ended up here! This place books up fast as it is in a popular area. So don’t be surprised (as with all casas), that when you get there, you might be shuffled over to a neighbors, “reservation” or not!
Tip: do not give your credit card number online. Majority of casas only take cash. When making a reservation online, make sure you have the contact info of the casa owner. All have phone numbers, most have emails. Send them an email and confirm that they have availability and coordinate your arrival. When you make your reservation, they don’t take a deposit since you pay in cash. It is common courtesy to notify them if you are canceling your reservation if need be.
2. Cash is King – not many places take credit cards, and the banks are always busy
Take out cash before you get on your flight to Cuba. You cannot take CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) out in your home country as it is not traded internationally. If you are flying into Varadero, immediately to your left when you exit the airport, there is a bank teller. Exchange your money here. This is the most economical way to get CUCs. You’ll need it for the taxis (who conveniently wait right out front and will harass you to ride with them), unless you’re taking a prearranged ride from the airport. Regardless, unless you want to pay the fees to use your credit card at an ATM machine, or you want to wait in line at the Cadeca in 35 degree weather, then I suggest you make your conversion at the airport.
You can exchange almost any currency at a Cadeca (bank), or exchange office. But do not expect to use any other currency other than CUC or CUP on the island. You can have both currencies, but most places only accept CUC.
Keep in mind, that while Cuba’s economy and infrastructure is underdeveloped, that doesn’t mean it is cheap! There are two types of currency in Cuba. The CUC which is widely used, and really the only recommended currency in Cuba. And there is the CUP (Cuban Peso). Both have the same denominations, 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, however the CUC is 1.00 to 0.25 CUP. Be extremely careful when exchanging currency from anyone other than at an official exchange office. If you are not careful, you could get scammed into “getting a better exchange rate” from someone on the street, but they give you CUP instead of CUC! Carry many different CUC bills with you at all times, and familiarize yourself with what they look like.
Tip: no one will do something for free. Bring a lot of small bills with you. The funky lady sitting on a bench in a festive outfit smoking a cigar- do you think she just happened to be doing that? Hell no. If you want her picture, be prepared to pay for it! And don’t ever trust someone who says they are going to give you a drink for free, or anything along those lines. You’ll end up paying for those “free” drinks, and the ones the bartender made for himself and his friend while they chatted with you and tried to sell you cigars.
3. Dukoral – do everyone a favor and just pony up the cash to prevent any sickness
It is no secret that Cuba is not known for the amazing food (but there totally is!), and travelers sickness is all too common. If you’ve ever experienced getting ill on a trip, you know, it is not something you’d wish on your worst enemy. And there is NOTHING worse than spending what was supposed to be your exciting weekend bar hopping in Havana; locked in a bathroom, holding each others hair (yes, it happened).
We learned our lesson from that unfortunate weekend in Havana, and took Dukoral before we left for Costa Rica. Although, Costa Rica is not necessarily associated with travelers sickness, we were not taking any chances! And to no one’s surprise, neither of us have been sick yet *knock on wood*!
There isn’t much I can go into detail about this, other than, just take it! Or something like it, there are many different options. And just like any preventative, vaccine, etc, there is no guarantee. It’s like getting a flu shot. There are tons of different flu strains, and there is no way you will be protected against all strains. With travelers sickness, most of the time it is the food handling (unwashed hands, utensils, etc), that get you sick, not the food itself. Ask your pharmacist to order in which ever product you decide to take, 3 weeks in advanced before your trip. Most have similar, strict instructions on how to take the medication, and it is necessary to have taken it at least a week in advanced.
4. Learn Spanish – or at the very least a few phrases to get you by
Even in the major areas like Havana, Varadero, etc. Do not expect that locals know English. Despite years of busy tourism, you will often encounter several awkward situations where you regret not taking grade 10 Spanish. If you can, practice in advanced. There are several apps you can download that will help you learn some basics. My favorite is Duolingo. But if you can’t be bothered to do that, Google has an amazing app called Google Translate. It works offline, and you can speak into it, so two people can have a conversation using this app! You can also take a picture of something, and Google will translate it for you.
But come on. If you’re going to “rough it”, and venture off the beaten path into a foreign country hoping to experience the amazing culture, then don’t be lazy. The surprising and reassuring thing about Cuba, and most Spanish speaking places, is that the locals are super helpful. If you are trying to converse in their native tongue, even if it is broken and embarrassingly horrible, they are so happy with your efforts! This breaks huge barriers with your non-english speaking casa host, when you butcher “caballo” and you can both laugh over your charades for horse.
5. Take the road less traveled – piggy pack a ride with a tourist, and go with the flow
When I was booking our honeymoon backpacking through Cuba, I really only set us up for the first 3 days in Varadero. We flew red-eye to Toronto, had a 3 hour layover at 6 am, and had worked very late the night before. I knew we would want to veg, drink mojitos by the beach and relax before the rest of our trek. You need all the rest you can get before you start backpacking through Cuba.
I booked our casa which was on the main beach road, a 5 minute walk from the center of Varadero. There was a tiny little window with a man selling cold drinks and sandwiches right in front of our casa. We would grab a couple beers and walk down to the beach if we didn’t feel like walking to the center. We enjoyed the sun, sand and cool drinks and prepared for the rest of our trip.
Tip: If you don’t want to pay an arm and a leg for a 1950’s taxi; walk over to the bus depot and look for other travelers willing to ride share. This cuts the cost down, plus you can exchange traveling war stories on your 2 hour trip from Varadero to Havana.
We’ve done it all. We’ve ride shared, bused, and ponied up the cash for the scenic road trips through Cuba. If you do the latter, your driver will act as your tour guide. Stop for a beer (and buy your driver one of course) at the look out point at Bacunayagua Bridge, the tallest bridge in Cuba, and soak up the views. He will be more than happy to point out different historical sites along your travels.
No matter how you plan on backpacking through Cuba, do not expect everything to go as predicted. Especially on a self guided tour of a foreign destination, you cannot expect things to happen as you would have hoped. That’s why I didn’t book any other casas for our trip other than the first in Varadero. We knew we would spend time in Havana and Viñales, but we didn’t know when. On our way back from Viñales, we were scrambling to find a casa in Havana, and notified our driver of our unplanned travels. He got on his phone, and drove us to what would turn out to be the casa I had stayed at during my previous visit to Cuba.
Viñales was our favorite part of the trip, and Havana was our least. There is so much more to explore in the country other than all of the expensive tourist geared excursions. If you’re going to go backpacking through Cuba, do it right. Avoid the tourist traps, avoid Varadero if possible, and take an adventure!
Have you been to Cuba before? Would you ever consider backpacking through Cuba? Let me know in the comments what your favorite part of Cuba was, and if you’d go again! I’d love to travel through the South Eastern part of the country, and I hear Trinidad is historically beautiful!