Backpacking in Cuba is not easy and it can be quite expensive if you are a solo traveller. There are many aspects about Cuba that make backpacking a bit different than other countries.
Finding hostels in Cuba is difficult because websites like hostelworld or booking.com are not available in this country. When I planned my trip, the only hostels in Cuba that I could find online were Cuba Backpackers and Enzo’s Hostel, both in Havana. Furthermore, there is not much information or reviews about these. They are in fact two double bedroom apartments in the same tower building, with their owners living in different apartments.
Cuba Backpackers has 10 beds in total (2 bunk beds in one bedroom and 3 in the other), a kitchen that you can not really use and a living room with a sofa where you can socialize with other people. The best spot is the balcony where you can use the public internet. The hostel is on the 4th floor, but you have to check in at the owners apartment. It seems that it’s not usually fully booked, so if you are in Havana and you need cheap accommodation (I paid around 8$ per night) just go there or give them a call. It’s the blue tower in front of Estadio Latinamericano.(Ave 20 de Mayo # 428 Apto 35, 3 floor, between, Amenidad y Pedroso. Cerro Phone: 0053 53600002 or 0053 78792928 or 0053 8782707, cubabackpackers[at]gmail.com)
I didn’t stay at Enzo’s hostel, but I went one night there to meet some people and it appeared it was a bit more sociable. I think the rooms are more packed than the other hostel, but other than that no big differences. This hostel is at the 8th or 9th floor in the same building as Cuba backpackers.
Outside Havana, you won’t find hostels and you have to stay in Casas Particulares (private houses). Many rooms are quite standard and cost around 20-25$. I was lucky to meet some people in Havana and share the accommodation for the rest of my trip, but otherwise you just have to get a private room for yourself. Usually there are people offering accommodation when you get down at the bus stations. You can also knock on the door of a house if you see the Casa particular logo. Another way to book is to ask your current host to arrange something in the next place. It seems that they know other casas particulares and they refer tourists between them.
In terms of transportation there are not many options. As a tourist you are only allowed to take the Viazul buses, that are usually fully booked and serve only the main cities. For the most popular routes there are usually 2-3 buses per day. The buses are equipped with AC and comfortable enough for a few hours. They also have short stops at the highway parking where you can have food or go to the toilet.
Buying a ticket is ambiguous and time-consuming. This can only be done at the bus station and you have to book it the day before to be sure you get a seat. In some small cities, booking a ticket means someone writing your name on a notebook and you have to pay it on the departure day at check-in.
In case there are no spaces left for Viazul, you can also take colectivo which are shared taxis. You can find these also at the bus stations, usually for the same price as Viazul. They can get very crowded and you might have to wait until the taxi fills up.
Another more expensive option is to rent a car. This will give you the flexibility to go to more remote places where buses do not go. I do not know if you can reserve a car in advance, but I’ve heard stories of people trying for two days to rent a car in Havana and they could not find any. The rented cars are usually European or Asian cars, so don’t expect a Ford Mustang from the 60’s.
Food and drinks
Cuba is the country where it is easier to find rum than bottled water. There are a few convenience stores, but don’t expect to find more than the basics, sometimes not even that. Most casa particulares will offer you breakfast and sometimes dinner for a few convertibles. This is probably the cheapest way to eat and food is usually good. The typical meal in Cuba consists in rice and black beans plus some protein (fish, pork or chicken), but I ate very good lobster and crab. The cuban cuisine is very diverse and I am sure you can find fancy dishes at expensive restaurants, but I can not give you any advice on that.
If you are staying in one of the hostels I mentioned earlier, there is a very good local restaurant, 5 minutes away walking. The food is really good and cheap and when you get the bill, they give you a tombola ticket and you can win a free diner. One funny thing about this restaurant is that they use cutlery from different airlines like KLM or Aeroflot. (Restaurant Aqui, Street Patria 113, check map).
If you like rum, Cuba will be the paradise for you. A bottle of Havana Club is around 5-6$ and a mojito from a (non touristic bar) is around 2$. Other famous cocktails that you should try are Cuba Libre (rum, coke and lime) and canchanchara (rum, honey and lime).
Tips and advice
Credit cards and money
Credit cards work somehow, but it is better to bring cash. I was able to withdraw money from an ATM in Cuba using my Revolut card and pay with my card at the cigars shop in Vinales. However, ATMs are difficult to find and your bank might block the transaction.
In Cuba you can exchange foreign currency only at the CaDeCa ( Casas De Cambio). It is better to bring Euros, Pounds or Canadian Dollars because if you bring USD, you will have to pay a 10% surcharge. Cuba has two currencies, CUP ( Cuban Peso) and CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) and both can be exchanged at CaDeCa. 1 Convertible is always equal to 1 USD.
The only way to connect to internet in cuba is through a public wifi. You can buy the vouchers from cubatel and they cost 3$ per hour. You can use this to connect multiple times if you disconnect your session when you finish using it.
If you have a Samsung Galaxy phone or tablet, there is a chance the wifi won’t work – The wifi chip used in Samsung Galaxy phones does not work in Cuba, so you won’t be able to connect to the public WiFi hotspots. You can google about this but it doesn’t seem there is an easy solution for this problem. It happened to me and to another guy I met, so I stayed two weeks with no internet connection.
Learn some Spanish
Knowing some Spanish is recommended. Many Cubans do not speak English so it is good if you can learn some Spanish before you go there.
The half price cigars scam
Be careful with the people trying to sell you cigars. Usually someone will approach you on the street and after some chit chat they will ask you if you want to buy some cheap Cuban cigars. They will tell you they have a friend/relative that works at the cigars factory and they sell the cigars for less than half price. If you go with them, they will take you to someone’s house that will present you a good selection of Cohibas and Monte Cristo. They will show you how to check if the cigars are genuine and hear a well prepared sales pitch. The cigars come in the original box with a seal, but there is a high chance that some of the cigars in the pack are counterfeit. Also, they are not that cheap anyway, so you better buy them from a tabacco store. There is one in Vinales that even have cheap hand made cigars for good price.
This is more like a general advice when travelling and dealing with people. In Cuba you can take the price down for a casa from 25CUC to 20CUC and you can get a colectivo cheaper than the bus. This will save you some dollars to spend on mojitos instead.