Cuba. Just the mention of this communist nation stirs up a whole range of opinions, thoughts, ideas and wonder about this fascinating country. For anyone who has backpacked around Central America, it also brings up another belief. That it is expensive! Luckily, I’m here to tell you that it needn’t be, and that you can easily spend a day in the capital city of Havana for $25 or less!
The Issue Of Money And The Double Currency
Cuba has a dual-currency system in place, which is very interesting and slightly confusing. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the money that foreigners will be dealing with (and that Cubans want to get their hands on), while the National Peso (moneda nacional or CUP) is what the locals receive most of their pay in and what they primarily use. 25 CUP’s is equivalent to 1 CUC. One convertible peso is valued the same as one US dollar.
Just about everywhere a tourist would need to make a transaction, only CUC’s are accepted. Most visitors to Cuba spend their entire trip only using convertible peso’s. The secret is that if you can get your hands on the moneda nacional, you will be able to purchase some items at a fraction of the cost!
To swap your CUC’s to CUP’s, you will need to find a bank that deals in exchanges. It shouldn’t be too hard to locate one if you ask a few locals, or check with your casa particular host.
Cuba doesn’t have a large number of backpacker accommodations. However you can still find dorm beds in Old Havana for $10 a night. But by far the best way to sleep in this country is in the “casa particulars” that can be found in every town. These are essentially people’s homes that have registered with the government to become a guesthouse. Staying in one of these is the most authentic way to experience accommodation in Cuba as you get to spend time with a local in their own home. They are slightly more expensive in Havana, usually around the $20 a night range. But if you can find someone to split a room with you, this is a great deal! Otherwise, a dorm bed is the next best option.
If you do end up staying in a casa particular, they usually offer the option of having meals in their house. Breakfast will be around $3 and this will usually be a massive meal!
With a fist full of moneda nacional, you can venture into the local markets and purchase some fruit for less than $1. Street food will bring you the likes of pizza for 50c or some pastries and sandwiches for around $2.
Our favourite place to eat however was across the road from the National Capital building, or El Capitolio. There are numerous restaurants along this street, but Los Nardos was the best! Don’t let the amazing ambiance, the piano player and the romantic setting fool you – this place is cheap! You’re looking at around $4 for a delicious, top quality meal that will be so large you will not need dinner!
Cuba is famous for its vintage American cars that roam the cobblestoned streets. Everyone wants a ride in one! Taxis cruise the streets looking for customers, and of course the vintage cars are going to cost more than the dodgy Russian Lada’s getting around. Luckily you can find a ride in a classic car around the city for less than a $1! In popular places (outside El Capitolio for example), simply flag down a vehicle with a “taxi” sign in the windscreen and ask if it is “collectivo”. If the driver says yes, then state your destination. If he agrees, jump on in. They usually have fixed routes and will only leave when they are full. The cost will be 20 CUP (just less than $1).
Another great way to get around town is the public bus. It truly is a great experience and you will very rarely find another foreigner on board with you. They are slow, smelly, hot and an authentic way to get around! They stop every few hundred metres, and the cost is so low (only in moneda nacional) that for the sake of ease, we’ll just round it up to $1.
Taking out your accommodation ($10), food ($7) and a ride in a collectivo and the bus ($2), that leaves just $6 for your daily activities! Luckily, this is plenty, as the most enjoyable thing to do in Havana is to get lost and explore!
An absolute must do is to check out Old Havana (La Habana Vieja – a UNESCO World Heritage Site). You could easily spend the entire day walking around its beautiful streets, wandering in its cool plazas and observing life unfolding in every nook and cranny. If you are lucky, you might even get to see a salsa band playing in a small bar!
Making use of the bus network, on the other side of town is the Plaza de la Revolución. This is another interesting sightseeing expedition and is worth a visit.
By now you will be getting thirsty, and there is no better way to quench your thirst then with a bottle of Havana Club rum! With that $6 burning a hole in your pocket, pick up a bottle for $4, some mixer for $1 and maybe some lime and walk along the Malecón – the long, seaside esplanade running along the edge of the Caribbean. Find a spot, crack open that bottle and pour yourself a drink while watching the gorgeous sunset over the sea. The people watching along here is amazing and no doubt you will end up making new friends with the friendly Cubans who are partaking in the same relaxed atmosphere as you.
If you want to skip out on the bottle of rum, a highlight of any trip will be the Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolución), costing 5 CUCs. Learn all about this fascinating time in history and study all the propaganda that is there to be viewed. You will walk away wondering which propaganda is true – The Cuban’s version or the American’s.
If you like ice cream (and who doesn’t?) then you cannot miss the Coppelia, one of the largest ice cream parlours in the world! Located in a park that occupies an entire city block in the Vedado district, this place dishes up delicious dairy products to 35’000 customers a day! They accept CUC and CUP (cheaper in the moneda nacional), and will cost anything from $1-3, depending on your selection.
Of course the biggest attraction in Havana is simply the city itself. You can (and will) spend days just wandering its streets, chatting to locals, listening to music and dancing salsa. All for $25! Viva Cuba Libre!
Have you been to Havana? How did you like your stay there? Is Cuba expensive in your opinion?
About the Authors:
Lesh and Jazza from NOMADasaurus are backpacking overland from Thailand to South Africa without using any air transport. Alongside their network of talented guest writers they aim to promote sustainable, long-term travel with the best first-hand advice possible. They are truly inspiring travelers who you can follow on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest.