How To Travel To Cuba On A Budget
Travelling to Cuba on a limited budget can feel a bit daunting, given its limited hostel options and restrictive, as well as expensive, transport system. All the typical ‘Things to do in Cuba’ searches tend to turn up the same answers, which are often tourist traps and not all that cost effective – any bar that Hemingway ever frequented, I’m looking at you! Basically, it can be quite frustrating to know just how to travel to Cuba on a budget. With that in mind, here are my top suggestions for quirky, cheap and slightly less tourist oriented things to do and try in La Habana, Artemisa, and Trinidad.
HOW TO TRAVEL TO CUBA ON A BUDGET
Let’s talk food. It’s not exactly an activity, but most of us spend a good portion (see what I did there?) of our budget on food. Eating as the Cubans do – that is to say, from the hole-in-the-wall vendors – means you’re going to save a lot of money on food and get to see a slightly more authentic side to a country that often seems to stick very much to a mentality of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The majority of the hole-in-the-walls sell pizzas with a variety of toppings to choose from for 10-15CUP, and sandwiches – often made with bizarrely yellow bread – with various fillings for 5-10CUP. Don’t be alarmed when either your sandwich or pizza is handed to you on a piece of cardboard, embrace it!
However, the best and cheapest meals you will have in Cuba will come from the puestos that sell cajitas (takeout boxes), stuffed with rice and beans, salad and fried chicken). I cannot recommend these highly enough. Cheap, filling and an easy way to introduce yourself to comida criolla.
For something less savoury, more snack, I suggest you try the mani bars (bars of peanut butter, albeit more solidified, wrapped in waxed paper). So. Good. And they’ll only set you back 5CUP each!
Peso places tended to be much more accessible in La Habana, with Calle San Rafael and Calle O’Reilly absolutely filled with them. For pizzas, I’d recommend ‘Las Delicias’ on Calle San Miguel between Belascoain and Gervasio, opposite Rolando’s Backpacker Hostel. However, if you fancy mixing it up and branching out beyond a cheese pizza, then Baracoa on Calle Belascoain between San Miguel and San Rafael, offer cajitas with a variety of different options for 25-35CUP.
However, if you fancy something to take the sting out of the Cuban humidity – that is, if you are anything like me and decide to go during in June – most vendors also sell some of the most insanely thirst quenching juices I’ve ever tried. Guava juice with tiny ice chips for 3CUP is the perfect size to keep you hydrated whilst you explore the city. And the 1CUP coffee. Cubans know their coffee, and these teeny tiny shot sized servings of coffee are perfect if you’re flagging in the Cuban heat.
In and amongst all your wining and dining I imagine you might want to slip in an activity or two though. In La Habana, one of my favourite cheap activities was climbing to the top of the Camara Obscura in the Plaza de Armas. The 2CUC entrance fee was well worth it for the explanation (in both Spanish and English) of the camera, as well as the real time views of the entire city it affords you. Oh, and the actual view of the plaza and La Habana from the rooftop when you leave the camera room is nothing to be sniffed at either. The only downside? The 160 stair climb to reach the top.
If you’re just wandering about, exploring the streets of the old town and enjoying the sights, definitely duck into Museo de Naipes at some point. In the same plaza as the Camara Obscura, it’s free to enter and pretty small, but has a very varied collection of playing cards. Sounds boring but is actually weirdly fascinating.
You can’t exclude just wandering through the streets of the old town either. La Habana is fascinating and filled with a wealth of crumbling buildings, interesting street art and cool snapshots of everyday Cuban life that’s just waiting to be soaked up (for free!) by you.
Another great budget travel activity in La Habana is the obligatory visit to the Malecón at sunset. I specify sunset because whilst it’s beautiful in the day, it offers absolutely zero respite from the beating sun and it is a long, and I mean a long walk from end to end. I accept that this is not exactly free from tourists or ‘quirky’, however it is completely free and one of the best things about La Habana. Although, what doesn’t seem to ever feature in bloggers’ descriptions of the Malecón is the range of art installations that run the whole length of it, including a wooden tower that I tried to climb before getting scared of the ominous wobble it had in the sea breeze and a giant cooking pot stabbed with rusty forks. In real life, it looks way cooler than whatever image just popped into your head, I swear!
Moving away from La Habana and down to Trinidad, rent bikes and cycle down the beach road towards Playa Ancón, but instead of going all the way there (it is really far away, especially when you’re on an old bike in the midday heat), stop at any one of the more private, secluded beaches along the way. I feel like this one needs no explaining. A private, tropical beach all to yourself!
Top tip: buy your pan con tortilla (omelette sandwiches) from the peso stalls before you go and get them wrapped up in paper, because you won’t find any cheap food once you get onto the beach road.
Also in Trinidad, instead of going to the popular Javira waterfall, find some locals to point you in the direction of a pozo (pool) where you can take a free dip in peace. We ended up in a beautiful, secluded pool surrounded by libélulas (dragonflies). However, I wouldn’t recommend trying to find somewhere like this either on your own or without knowing the language, because you will run into difficulties. Having said that, if you don’t fall into those two categories, go ahead and see where you end up!
Finally, visit Las Terrazas in Artemisa and camp by the lake. A fairly popular guidebook destination, everyone seems to skirt over the fact you can camp lakeside for a ridiculously low price. Each tent you pitch will cost you 3CUC, but if you don’t have one they’ll throw in a rental for the same price! Add to that the fact that there’s also a shower block, and 24/7 security – the guard patrols the camping area all night and you can even ask him to keep the floodlight turned on if you’re iffy about the dark. What more could you ask for? As far as activities go, you can opt to swim in the lake for free, but the much better option would be to walk through Las Terrazas village to the Baños del San Juan. As a paying camping-by-the-lake customer, the 6CUC entrance fee per person is waived and you can enter for free!
Bonus: collect all the fallen mangos you find along the way and eat like a king beside the outdoor swimming pools of San Juan.
While I’m on the subject, what about accommodation? Despite being such a well-loved holiday destination, it can be notoriously hard to find cheap, backpacker/ traveller oriented lodgings. You’re usually faced with the choice between a fancy hotel or a casa particular (a private room in someone’s house). If you’re travelling as a pair or a trio, definitely hunt down a casa, because they charge per room rather than per bed. Sometimes you’ll have to snuggle up in a double bed together, but you’ll also be able to at least halve the average cost per night of 25-35CUC!
Travelling alone? No problem – but only really if you’re in La Habana. Hostels, contrary to popular belief, DO exist in Cuba. I recommend Rolando’s Backpacker Hostal on Calle San Miguel, in easy walking distance from the Malecón and Habana Vieja, which costs ~10CUC per night. You’ll be bunking with fellow travellers, but each room has its own bathroom and air conditioning, a true necessity in such a humid climate.
Finally, a surprising number of travellers I met had no idea about the difficulties of using the internet in Cuba. It is accessible, but if you’re not in a fancy hotel, the chances are you’re going to be paying through the nose for it. I recommend using the Park Central Hotel internet room. After entering the lobby go straight up the central staircase and turn left. You’ll find a man sat at a desk surrounded by a swarm of hotel guests trying to activate their wifi. However, if you ask him nicely, he’ll sell you an internet card for 4.50CUC which you can then use in the hotel computer room (normally after a 5-15 minute wait), as well as other ETECSA buildings around Cuba. Although it’s still expensive for an hour’s worth of internet, it is the cheapest deal you’re going to get I’m afraid.
Finally, my biggest piece of advice for those wondering how to travel to Cuba on a budget is don’t be daunted! It can be affordable, as long as you put some planning into your accommodation, don’t always travel solo and eat like the locals! Plus, by doing it this way you’ll end up with way more interesting anecdotes than your all-inclusive amigos in Varadero.
If my one-stop shop of haphazard advice only left you wanting more comprehensive information, let me point you in the direction of How Not To Travel Like a Basic Bitch, who’s well-versed in all things Cuba.