How to Visit Cuba on a Budget

Havana Car Repair

This is all about how to visit Cuba on a budget (a very small budget). I will provide details that include maps, costs, logistical requirements and facts as well as links to additional details, photos and videos. This is a self-guided adventure on a shoestring. Follow the links to dig deeper into the adventure.

About Getting to Cuba

We booked this trip on an impulse from Tampa, Florida to Havana. Once the ticket had been purchased I started to dig into the requirements a bit more. First note that the rules are continuously changing if you fly from the US. Even if you are not a US Citizen, you will have to jump through hoops.

Difficulty Level:

This is an Easy ActivityAt the time, we had to select a government approved reason for going. This was basically a list of 7 items on a form that was handed to us at the airport in Ft Lauderdale by a Spirit Air representative. She informed us that we could pick any box because no one checked them any more. Since that visit in December 2016 – January 2017, I have been told that the form is once again being checked and that some options are not good to pick. Do your homework I guess.

I also had to obtain visa forms for Cuba. The airline provided a phone number to their affiliated agent for this purpose. I called many times and left messages. As the date for departure approached I stated to send emails. Finally got a reply. Fill out a web form. Pay $60 each, plus shipping and you get visa form in the mail. They don’t ask any specifics. Once the forms arrived via courier I found that the forms were blank. Fill them out yourself.

More monkey business at the airport. The agent (who gave us the checklist mentioned above) also gave us medical insurance paperwork that was classified as baggage handling fees on my ticket payment. Everyone must have Cuban health insurance to visit Cuba. But because of the lingering US embargo, the insurance is classified as baggage fee to the airlines.

Once on the mostly flight I noticed that Spirit baggage handlers got on board and took their seats. I found out why when we landed. Our bags took a long time to arrive at the carousal (I thought they were lost) but after talking to a passenger on a flight by a different US carrier (who did not provide its own baggage handlers) I found that she had to wait 8 hours for her bags to emerge. Ouch.

Customs & Immigration was easy if you only had one bag. Otherwise you were sent to a very, very long line for baggage inspection. This made sense because many returning Cubans had returned to Cuba with stacks of equipment (not just the usual electronics, but crazy stuff like Air Conditioning units, sets of car tires, household appliances).

Once in the public receiving area things got a bit more normal. Lots of people and lots of private taxi offers. There is no public transport from the airport in Havana and it is located way out in the middle of nowhere. The going price for a taxi to Havana was $30 or €25. Both US dollars and Euros are accepted (and desired).

A word about Cuban currencies. There are two in Cuba. One for the locals (since they pay tiny amounts for things) and a completely different currency for tourists (since we pay lots for the same items). Basically the 1 tourist CUC is equivalent to 1 US $.  There a money changing office at the airport near the baggage exit but it has huge lines and it takes forever to get money exchanged. Bring cash. Everyone takes $ or €.

Where to Stay in Havana (and Cuba)

We did not stay at any resorts or hotels. We are cheap. We always stayed at Casa Particular (homestay) locations. We booked our first night in Havana at a Casa Particular via Airbnb but the person renting the rooms is just an agent. We were in the Vedado neighborhood. The actual rooms vary and fluctuate. Still it is a good alternative if you want to be sure of a place on first night. The booking can include an airport pickup for the standard above price. Casa particular signOnce you stay a night the owner can set you up with more nights or you can walk around and find alternatives yourself. You will see the blue Casa Particular signs everywhere. Plus the owners of these private homestays also know other homestays in practically every town on the island. I most cases we simply asked the owner for a location in the next town we were visiting. In each case the owner called a friend and made the arrangements in advance for us. This was handy since it generally included someone waiting for us when we got off the bus. But it also limited our options since we were pre-booked into places. A few time we opted not to make advance bookings. We just got off the bus, hired a rickshaw and rode around and asked prices and checked out rooms until we found what we were looking for. A third alternative was to use one of the government Infotur offices (located in every town).

Accommodation Price Per Night:

We always paid 24 CUC ($25) per night, double occupancy, with breakfast included for two. Breakfasts were always huge. Sometimes we also asked for dinner which was always 10 CUC ($10) each. Also generally huge. There were cheaper and more expensive options, but cheaper was usually a room without windows and more expensive was more than necessary. For example, we got a 2nd floor apartment with balcony and private entrance for 25 CUC per night (breakfast included) on the beach in Playa Los Coco. What more could we ask for? Note that there was very little bargaining. The prices seems to be set and are registered with the government. At each place we stayed they registered our passports with the local authorities. Even when we cancelled a night it was updated in the government local registry. I think it is because the homestay owners pay 20% tax (big money for the government).

How to visit Cuba on a budget:
cost range

Total Cost Range of this Activity is: $$

Expect to spend the following per day: Room $25  (double occupancy & breakfast included), $5 lunch, $10 dinner, $10 drinks & misc ($50/day). Plus transportation and other package tourist items. This is the minimum and requires some bargaining and discipline.

Transportation

We took the tourist bus or shared taxis when moving from town to town. The bus was easy to book at one of the local hotels in Havana. Just walk into the lobby (even if you are not staying there) and ask for the travel desk. They are very helpful and will sell you tickets with assigned seats. Pickup is in front of the hotel. The option in Havana was the local bus station but it was a zoo with long lines and lots of confusion. Avoid the bus station.

cuba bus route map

Within towns and to get to the beach we took shared taxis (wait until full and bargain the price), rickshaws (bargain) and horse drawn wagons, etc. We never took an official tax. Sometimes we did take a private taxi exclusively for ourselves but this was only if we couldn’t wait or find extra people. At bus stations it is always possible to get shared taxis but usually there is a handler who is taking a commission doing the selling at the exit. He will always ask a super inflated price so you have to start at 50% of asking price or know the actual reasonable price.

Note that we had no problem finding rides or buses heading east but as our holiday drew to an end we needed to get from the extreme east side of the island (Santiago de Cuba) to the west (Havana) and no buses were available. We either had to get on waiting lists or show up at the bus station at off ours in hopes of getting a seat (and not necessarily all the way to our destination). We had bumped into the end of the local holiday season and everyone who had two nickles to rub was on a bus (both local that we could not take and tourist which anyone with cash can take). We had our homestay owner call someone (who turned out to be a crook) and we haggled for a private shared taxi to Havana overnight (a 12 hour drive at breakneck speed). We shared the ride with another couple who paid twice as much as we did for half the distance. Buyer beware. And naturally the driver only got a small fraction of the price.

Our Route

Our Travel Log

Cuba – December 14, 2016 – January January 11, 2017 (28 days)

Havana 12/14 – 12/18 – 4 nights
Vinales 12/18 – 12/21- 3 nights
Trinidad 12/21 – 12/26 – 5 nights Parque Natural El Cubano (Topes de Collantes)
Camaguey 12/16 – 12/29 – 3 nights
La Boca – Playa Los Coco 12/29 – 01/02 – 4 nights Camagüey, Playa Santa Lucia
Parque Nacional de Turquino 01/02 – 01/04 – 2 nights Pico Turquino
Bayamo 01/04 – 01/05 – 1 night
Santiago de Cuba 01/05 – 01/10 – 5 nights
Havana 01/10 – 01/11 – 1 night

Communications

Internet is available if you buy Internet use cards at $2 each from the local phone company offices. However, they never have any. Each month the entire allotment is purchased by locals who resell them on the street for double the list price. Ask any local or your homestay owner where to get them. The street price is non-negotiable. You will only be able to use them at specified hotspot locations in each town. They are easy to find since you will see tones of people sitting around the square using their phones. The local phone company offices also have shared computers available for rent to access the Internet (but you need your own Internet use cards generally). Note that most of these computers are broken, don’t have fully functional keyboards or printers.

I also opted to also get a local phone sim since my mobile phone is unlocked. I went to the phone company office and went to the front of the line (for new purchase you go to the front). Showed my passport and handed over 45 CUC. The sim came with 20 CUC of service. We used it for booking ahead but in reality the homestay owners did most of this (they have landlines that are very cheap (free) to use.

Our Adventures

 

Self Guided Havana Walk

We walked all over Havana and occasionally took the public buses or a shared taxi. The public bus cost 20 cents of  a CUP (the local peso). You will have to make and effort to get some local currency (CUP) since most things you buy will be priced in tourist currency (CUC) and cost more. Having the local currency let us ask for local prices and pay local sometimes. Shared taxis usually cost us 5 CUC to cross the entire city. Mostly we walked. See Self Guided Havana Walk post for details.


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Hike in Viñales National Park

Viñales National Park is next to the sleepy cowboy town of Viñales. It is an easy bus ride from Havana and new popular tourist destination. The town is expanding at a rapid pace. Although this means that most existing houses on the one main road are simply adding more rooms. Note a retired couple can earn an entire month’s pension in a single night of rent, so the incentive is high. The town also has a few shops (selling whatever they get) and there is a cluster of stores at the gas station east of the town center. There is also a very good Italian restaurant in town. The park is walking distance from the town. It’s borders are pretty much undefined so check out the Hike inViñales National Park post for more details.


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Viñales Cowboy Ride

Viñales town sells its image as a cowboy town and it really is. Most locals ride a horse or use a strange horse drawn wagon for transport. Their big tourist sell (besides homestay) is horse rides. However, the standard 3 hour rides is mostly a hard sell to buy local farm products or pay more to visit added locations (caves, swimming holes etc). There is a hotel located a bit of a walk out of town that has a pool. Visitors welcome for a fee. Check out the Viñales Cowboy Ride post for more details.


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Hike El Cubano Park, Trinidad

El Cubano Park is located within Parque Natural topes de Collantes. It is located just outside of the town of Trinidad. There are local package deals that take tourists on day excursions within the larger park (and may include the smaller park but we opted to simply walk on our own). El Cubano contains a restaurant at the entrance and a number of trails and swimming holes. There is a 9 CUC fee to swim in the waterfalls swimming hole. The other locations were free. See Hike El Cubano post for more details.


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Playa Los Coco Watersports

Playa Los Coco was our way of enjoying the Cuban beach life without paying high resort pricing. We did look at some cheaper packages but were not satisfied. So we Visited Camagüey and booked a homestay on Playa Los Coco beach, in the one-horse town of La Boca, north or Playa Santa Lucia, east of Camagüey. Yes it was a remote location but the beaches were worth it. Plus two tourist restaurant-bar buildings were located a short walk away. These were visited by bused in tourist during the day and added a bit of life to the remote location. We could also walk 8 km (or take a horse taxi) to the nearest tourist resort area if we wanted to indulge.  See Laya Los Coco Watersports post for more details.


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Summit Pico Turquino – Sierra Maestra National Park

My number 1 objective was to summit Pico Turquino (1974m) while in Cuba. It is within a National Park, located within a bigger National Park. No private summit allowed. We joined a package group by booking at a government Infotur office in Camagüey a few weeks in advance, but I think you could signup at the park entrance if you didn’t book in advance. It took two days to summit and exit the park. Although not extremely high, the mountain is located in a tropical forest so it is sweaty and steamy, even in January. It is also generally all up hill. The overnight cabin sucked, the food sucked but it was still worth the 65 CUC price. See the Summit Pico Turquino post for more details.


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Road Map Cuba

cuba road map

Do You Like Classic Cars?

 

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Photos

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