A Budget Backpackers Guide To Havana, Cuba
What are the best things to do in Havana? Is Havana safe for a solo traveller? Is it easy to be a backpacker in Havana Cuba? Havana is one of the most unique cities on the planet. It’s grand buildings from Spanish colonialism in South America. Echoes of Stalinist architecture from Russia. Vibrant tastes of the Caribbean and a complex economical situation that makes Havana unique. It’s storied history with America has lent it’s eclectic retro cars while Russian relations have left an independent communist pride. Cuba is a difficult place to understand the first time you come here, even for the most seasoned backpacker. But it is possible to visit Havana on a budget as a backpacker.
Where to get WiFi in Havana
At any major hotel or main square WiFi is available but you need to buy a card from a hotel or casa owner. Hotels can be used by any tourist for WiFi and toilets (for the latter there is usually a lady outside, give her a CUC and ask “Puedo usar el bano?” and she will direct you). Never forget to log off the WiFi to save your credit as they come by the hour (1CUC p/h). Some great Apps to use are ‘Map of Cuba Offline’ and ‘AlaMesa’, an app with all of the best restaurants to try in Havana.
How to get around in Havana on a budget
Infotur desks are Cuba’s (laid back) equivalent of TripAdvisor when you are lacking WiFi. They are government run tourist information points to help you with anything you may need to know, without any pushy sales. The trouble is the staff aren’t always too bothered about selling you anything at all! It’s not an easy place to be a backpacker so the best advice is to be prepared. Book tours before you arrive to help you stick to travelling on a budget in Havana.
Yellow Cuban government taxi’s are generally no more than 10 CUC and are mostly used by tourists. Standard taxi’s as with anywhere in the world without meters will charge you however much they think they can get away with. Always ask “Cuanto?” and agree a price before using a taxi, you can offer a couple CUCs lower as bartering is the norm. Make sure to check the money you are giving them as a common scam is to switch the note claiming you handed them Pesos instead of Convertibles.
Coco taxi’s are just for tourists at around 5CUC a ride. Bici taxi are used by locals and generally cheaper at 2 CUC a go. Horse and cart rides can be found but I don’t generally recommend them anywhere due to animal welfare.
Collectivo taxi’s in Havana are beat up looking classic cars that run up and down certain streets. They are the best option for a budget backpacker travelling in Havana, but are cramped and confusing! Shared taxi’s are how many of the locals get around as the cost is just 0.50 CUC. Make sure to ask “collectivo?” when getting in and only pay the standard amount. You can get info for where to get them at Infotour desks.
Buses in Havana cost around 0.20 CUC generally. They are not always that easy to work out however. One that is super simple picks you up from Parque Central to the Fort, or on to Playa del Este for just 5CUC return. Bus “T3” is much cheaper than a taxi and runs 9:00am to 6:00pm every 40 minutes from Parque Central. See the schedule for how to get the bus from Havana to Playa del Este below (Jan 2020);
You can also get one of the open top tourist buses from here to most attractions in the city (10CUC day pass). I usually avoid buses of the big red variety as they are huge tourist traps. But buses are actually quite a convenient and cheap way to travel in Havana. Another example of how normal travel rules don’t apply in Cuba!
Where to stay in Havana
If, like us, it’s part of a bigger backpacker trip do some planning and book your stay in Cuba at least a month in advance. We left it until two weeks before (positively organised for us) and found all of the hotels on Booking.com were sold out leaving just Air BnB’s. Luckily casa particulares in Havana (rooms to rent) are the cheapest way to stay and you get to experience life with a local family.
The best Casa Particular in Old Havana
Casa Particulares are popular in Havana and great for a budget backpacker. I recommend Casa Colonial, Erik and Marionella are fantastic hosts that will make you feel like part of the family. Another highly recommended casa on Air BnB is Hostal 1900bis. With an English speaking host and lots of recommendations. At less than $20 a night for a casa with a private bathroom right in the heart of Havana you really can’t complain!
Staying in Havana old town is great as it has everything you need within walking distance and you won’t pay over the top taxi fees for every excursion.
Hotel Inglaterra is the oldest hotel in the city and although above most backpackers budget it’s a great place to get information. Head to the rooftop to find cheap cocktails in Havana (3CUC), WiFi and views over Parque Central and El Capitolio.
The top 10 things to do in Havana Cuba
El Capitolio Building – the seat of the Cuban government. It has recently been restored, with the help of the Russians, with a beautiful gold dome.
Museo de la Revolución (Museum of the Revolution) – There is an 8 CUC entrance fee but you can see most of the exhibition outside for free.
Grand Theatre – Watch a show at Havanas theatre. Sometimes it’s possible to buy tickets on the “black market” outside the theatre on the day (not legal). Theatre tours cost 5 CUC and run every half hour.
Grab an infamous Mojito at the Hotel National bar while taking in views over the Malecon. Floridita bar is the place to go for a Daquiri, famous for being Hemingway’s favourite in the city.
The Cathedral of The Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception (Havana Cathedral). You can pay 1 CUC to climb the old bell tower and get views over Havana old town. Nearby are some of the best Casa Paladares to try in Havana. La Bodeguita Del Medio, famous for Hemingway’s favourite Mojito, Paladar Doña Eutimia and O’Reilly 304 are some of the best restaurants in Havana old town.
Plaza de Armas, the oldest and arguably prettiest square in Havana. For 3CUC have a look inside the city museum for a taste of Havana’s colonial past. Great for people watching and starting point for a wander down the busiest commercial Street in old Havana, Obispo.
Along from the Plaza, Hotel Ambos Mundos is famous for being the temporary home of Hemingway. But jump in the old lift to the rooftop bar for a Pina Colada and you can enjoy great views over the old town. Don’t miss a quick bite at the beautiful bakery, a great budget lunch (see pic below). The Monastery of San Francisco de Asis is down towards Plaza Vieja and is now home to art and live performances.
Plaza Vieja has some of the most beautifully restored buildings in Havana and is a relaxed spot to have lunch. The Camera obscura is just 2 CUC and a unique look at Havana’s rooftops. The Havana Rum museum is a short walk away, as well as the ferry terminal to Casablanca. The ferry costs 10CUP, but it’s acceptable for tourists to pay the captain a CUC or two to help out with the running costs (note the boat is very basic, no toilets!).
Casablanca feels a world away from the old town, with wild undergrowth and chickens everywhere. Climb the stairs toward the Cristo statue for the best view over the city. Here you can also find the Che museum (6CUC entry, 9-6pm) and the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña (7 CUC) the biggest fort in the Americas. There’s not a lot else to do in the area though so come back at night to see the canon ceremony at 9pm (20:45 ceremony begins, weather permitting).
Where to eat in Havana and what Cuban food you have to try
A few years ago when I first visited Cuba, capitalist pursuits such as selling fruit or peanuts was a punishable crime. Now Cuban restaurant culture is having a renaissance with Casa Paladares popping up everywhere in Havana. But they struggle to meet popular demand. For some of the best restaurants in Havana you have to reserve months in advance. A good tip is to eat outside normal meal times between 2pm and 6pm. These are some of my favourite Casa Paladares in Havana Vieja and some must eat Cuban food;
Lamparilla Tapas y Cerveza – Adobo ribs, Torta De Maiz con Pollo, Pollo Al Curri.
El Bodeguita Del Medio – Ropa vieja (shredded beef or lamb stewed in a tomato sauce with green peppers, onions, garlic, cilantro and cumin and is served with rice). And a Famous Mojito!
La Pirata – Costillas BBQ (ribs), fresh smoothies and a killer Mojito.
Bar Cafeteria Lluvia de Oro – Gritty Cuban bar. Go for the music, dancing and cheap cocktails.
Sloppy Joe’s Bar – Sloppy Joe’s actually originated in Havana and this bar is an institution.
O Reilly 304- Plantain chips and empanadillas (meat pies). The bar opposite, El del Frente, has great rooftop vibes also.
La Vitarola- Americana food and the traditional Canchanchara cocktail made with aguardiente. The bartender is sure to tell you a story about it’s origins.
Peso shops are around everywhere, generally for locals they are a great way to get a budget meal for a backpacker. Buy pizzas for only 10 CUP and juice for just 1 CUP. Tostones (fried plantain patties) and tamales are also a must! Eating in the local cafeterias is an experience to say the least. It’s cheap to eat ike a local in Havana, with a meal costing just a couple CUC, but you pay for it with your patience.
How to get from Cancun to Havana
Flying from Cancun is a short and cheap flight as many travel through here from the US. We used Interjet. You have to get a Cuban visa at the airport before departure. At Cancun you can pick it up at the airline service desk for 400 pesos.
What’s the cost of travelling in Cuba?
You can only get Cuban currency in Cuba. There is a 10% fee to exchange US dollars but any other currency doesn’t have a charge. All exchanges are government regulated so exchange at Havana airport or in the city. Queues are long and slow, try to do everything you will need in one trip!
CUCs and CUPs are Cuba’s curious way of trying to confuse the world. CUCs are the tourist currency and tied to the dollar (1CUC = 1$) while CUPs are what the locals use. Everything meant for tourists will be in CUCs but it is useful to have CUPs to buy small things like drinks and street food. Be careful to know the different currencies as the difference is high and scams involving change in the wrong currency aren’t uncommon.
A breakdown of the costs of travelling in Havana
Breakfast 5 CUC
Lunch / dinner at a Paladar 5/15 CUC
Mojito, beer, rum 2/5 CUC
Taxi 2/10 CUC
Museum/ theatre entry 2/10 CUC
Internet card 2 CUC
Casa Particulares 30 CUC pn
25 CUC taxi from airport to center
Free walking tours are such a great tool to get to know any city a bit more in depth from a local. Havana tours leave from Parque Central 9:30am and 4pm. Tipping is standard, as tours are between 2-3 hours they definitely earn their money!
How to find a classic car tour in Havana
One experience not to miss in Havana is a tour in a classic convertible car. At 40 CUC an hour it’s not part of a budget trip to Havana, but it is a lot of fun. Pick your favourite car from Parque Central, chat to the driver to see what kind of tour he is offering (English/Spanish/Strong silent type) and cruise around town in style.
Is there a departure tax when leaving Cuba?
As of May 2015 there isn’t a departure tax when leaving Havana. Make sure to spend all of you Cuban money before leaving, the exchanges in the airport are busy and very slow and you can’t exchange/ spend air-side or outside the country (spend it all = save a load of hassle).
Is Havana safe for a solo traveller?
Locals and tourists alike will tell you Havana is one of the safest cities on the planet. Apart from the odd CUC/CUP scam and not flashing your valuables around in busy areas (common sense for a backpacker in any city) there shouldn’t be any problem. Bring snacks, particularly if you have dietary restrictions. Bring patience too, it will be tested.
Do you need to plan a trip to Havana?
Havana is a city not to miss, but my best advice is to do plenty of research before you come as a backpacker. Sure you can wing it but the top things to do in Havana often require a little organisation. Booking a last minute trip to Havana can mean you might miss out.
On the ground in Havana it’s difficult to book anything without paying hefty tourist prices or finding decent WiFi. But staying in a Casa Particular in Havana can help with booking most things. Practice your Spanish and ask locals as much as you can. Free walking tours in Havana are excellent for this. The first time you come to this city can be pretty bewildering and you are sure to leave with a lot of questions. The second time around? Not much better it turns out, but it sure is an adventure.
How to travel better for less
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Air BnB – Sometimes you can find great local places to stay on Air BnB. In some countries, like Cuba, it’s the only way to book!
Transferwise – A debit card you can use all over the world and get great exchange rates with no hidden fees. This bank has saved me £100’s in bank fees!
Monzo – A similar travel card to the above with additional features like joint accounts and bill splitting.
World Nomads – Travel insurance is one of the most important things you can have while travelling. Don’t leave home without it! World Nomads provide the very best cover.
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G Adventures – A sustainable, fun, responsible travel company. I’ve travelled with them many times and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of their amazing trips of a lifetime.
Contiki – Group travel for 18-35’s. A lot of fun and great memories ( it’s also my day job).
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