Cuba is becoming a more and more popular destination for tourists and travellers (turista libre as a local called me, for staying in Casas instead of resorts). While there are a few beach resort towns with the biggest being Varadero, Cuba is an amazing country with so much more to explore.
Although this might be changing rapidly, there are not many hostels available yet. Even if this changes, the best option to me is to stay in casa particulares: renting a room in the home of locals. You can recognize these houses with a sign by the door that, to me, kind of looks like an anker, and usually the words arrendador divisa. You will see blue signs for foreigners, and red signs for Cubans. Depending on the season you will need to book in advance. I was there in low season and had no problems finding a decent casa, except for Havana which can be a bit more challenging. Usually I would ask my current casa owner if they knew someone in the next place I was visiting. Cubans always know somebody (who knows somebody..) and are happy to help you out. If you arrive to a city without a reservation, simply look around for the blue signs on the houses. I have paid anything between $15 and $35 per night. You can always expect a private room and private bathroom. Prices do go up in high season. Prices are per room, so sharing a room is very beneficial. Most Casas have only a few rooms. Often they also offer meals and laundry service. In Trinidad, my casa offered even tours, taxis, souvenirs and everything else a hostel would offer.
There are two local currencies in Cuba: CUC and CUP. CUC is the tourist money and is equal value to 1 USD. CUP is the only currency locals can get (unless they work with tourists) and 25 CUP equals 1 CUC. As the few available ATMs rarely work and if they do, only accept VISA cards, I brought enough cash for my stay of 3 weeks. Due to the long lasting embargo, the USD is still the worst currency to exchange in Cuba as they will charge an extra 10%. Canadian dollars have a decent exchange rate (I think because Cuba is a popular beach destination for Canadians) but you can also exchange euro, pounds etc. If you go to a casa de cambio do not forget to bring your passport. You will always get CUC for your money without questions asked. However, you can always ask to exchange some of your CUC into CUP. It is much easier to pay on the streets with the local currency.
At first I found it quite confusing to understand if a price was in local or tourist currency, since often they just use the $ sign. Casas always state their prices in CUC as do bus companies. Restaurants outside of tourist zones state prices in CUP as are all prices for food and drinks on the streets. Taxis usually state their price in CUC to tourists. Only Casas did not want to take my local currency, and cheap street food is definitely better to pay in local currency because they often do not have change.
Between most cities, it’s easiest and cheapest to travel by bus. If you get to the bus station the day before you are able to secure your ticket. These busses are pretty comfortable, toilet available and air conditioned. Especially during night busses the ac is set to level freezing so bring warm clothes. To get to your casa from the bus station you can expect to pay 1 or 2 CUC for a (bici) taxi. When you make your booking, ask how to get to the casa.
Cheap very fresh seafood is abundant in many places. Casas often offer meals for about 10-15 CUC which is not the cheapest option. Wander just outside the tourist area and you’ll be able to find cheap meals for less than 100 CUP. Lots of places along the streets sell fresh lemonade and snacks, don’t be fooled by the cheapness, those prices really are stated in CUP! In tourist areas all restaurants will state their prices in CUC. There are not many spices available in Cuba so food is often a bit bland. Bringing one or two of your favorite spices (and leaving them for your host) might be a good idea!
Where to go
I spent 3 weeks in Cuba and could have stayed longer! I prefer slow travelling, only if I do not like a place I’ll stay just for one night. I missed out on Santiago and Baracoa, but spent my time well in other parts of the country.
I arrived in Varadero, which is a resort town. The beach is very long and if you are not close to the resorts, very empty! It’s a nice place to relax on the beach, but the town lacks character and was my least favourite.
From Varadero I went by bus to Holguin, a city with much less tourists. I was visiting during low season and only saw a few other tourists. You can spend a few days in town and I really enjoyed it!
Close to Holguin I stayed some time in Guardalavaca, another beach town but much smaller than Varadero. I believe there are only about 5 resorts right on the beach. The town where all the locals live is a 10 minute walk from the beaches. My favourite was the far left beach, with no resorts I was about the only foreigner there. I also went diving here, which was nice but nothing spectacular. The town gets very quiet at night so don’t expect any parties.
Trinidad is the most famous place to visit next to Havana. It’s an old, colourful town with cobblestone streets. While it’s a gorgeous place to wander around, it was too touristy for me and I felt for the first time like everyone just wanted my money.
From Trinidad I shared a taxi that took us along the waterfalls of El Nicho (amazing) and Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos was interesting to see because the main plaza and blocks around are in beautiful well kept colonial style, where as everywhere else was pretty bland and grey. We ended the day in Playa Larga where I’ve spend another few days at the beach. Unfortunately there was so much sand in the water that the sea was brown.
Then it was time to visit La Habana. I’m not usually a fan of big cities and this was no different. I enjoyed a ride through the city, seeing all the highlights (I recommend the museum of the revolution! While basically full of propaganda it is also very interesting) and of course the old town is beautiful, but again very touristic.
I thought about spending my last week in Havana, but decided to go to Vinales for my last few days. Every house in this small town is renting out rooms, but at the same time you can explore the surrounding nature without running into any other traveller!