Livin on a CUC: Independent, Budget Travel in Cuba

Cheesin it up

Backpackers, lefties and dirty hippies beware: Cuba is not cheap. And despite any romantic revolutionary visions, it’s got tourist traps, just like everywhere else. They’re just filled with Che shirts instead of fanny packs.

Several factors might lead one to logically assume Cuba to be a budget-friendly, independent travelers’ paradise: it’s a dirt-poor Latin American country, enamored in the hearts of liberals, intellectuals and military-cap-wearing undergrads. So when you hear that your low-to-mid-range daily budget for Cuba should be around $100/day, it comes as a bit of a shock.

Here’s the deal: after the sugar industry collapsed in Cuba, there wasn’t much left to keep the island afloat. Keen eyes turned towards tourism. Not only does Cuba’s larger-than-life lore hold particular allure for the left-leaning, it’s got an undeniable romanticism—old cars, crumbling buildings, rum and Rumba. Couple that white people’s insatiable lust for balmy Caribbean getaways, and they had the perfect cocktail on their hands—muddled with Euros instead of mint sprigs. Tourism today is “the most dynamic sector of the Cuban economy.”

If you’ve traveled to other places where tourism is a mainstay of the economy, you’ll know what this means: high prices and potential hassle. From Moroccan medina touts to San Francisco’s 14% hotel tax, economies that rely on tourism milk it. In San Francisco, the hotel tax goes to fund all sorts of cool arts endeavors and social programming that other US cities don’t have; you could argue (depending on your politics) that Cuba’s dual currencies are an extension of that. And in Cuba you don’t really have to worry about hustlers and pick-pockets (though they do still exist); tour companies take care of that.

Let's play "Spot the Tourists"

You wouldn’t initially think it, but Cuba’s got a resort, package tourism industry up to snuff with any Caribbean destination. A Hungarian friend won a Cuban vacation as an incentive prize at work; all he saw of Cuba outside of his resort was through a tour bus window. Combine the package factor with the absence of youth hostels and backpacking networks, and the prospects can seem pretty dismal for DIY cheapstakes like me.

But independent, budget travel in Cuba can and does happen. There’s just some special tricks you have to be hip to. My travel companion and I managed to squeak by on $75/day, well under the Lonely Planet budget (but then again, we were both surviving at home on less than $2000/month, so cheap living wasn’t anything new). Here’s what we learned and how we did it.

Resources

My two biggest resources for independent, budget travel to Cuba were Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum, and Cuba Junky, a comprehensive, Cuban/Dutch-run website for travelers (with endearingly odd translations and misspellings). At these two sites, you can find info all sorts of great information, and on the forum you can trouble-shoot and get advice (and suffer through the occasional political debate).

Money

Cuba operates on two currencies: the Cuban peso (CUP), the money of the people, and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), the money of tourists.

Why? As tourism grew, American dollars began to wiggle their way into the country—hotels and tourist restaurants charged foreigners in dollars, while charging locals in pesos. (Considering the average monthly salary for a Cuban doctor is about what I make in thirty minutes, it’s more fair than it seems.) In addition, “dollar-only” shops emerged, where scarce and coveted items like dental floss could be had for a a high price. The influx of money was good, but the presence of American dollars was kind of slap-in-the-face to the government, wouldn’t you say? The government thus created the CUC to keep US dollars out; they did, though, base the exchange rate on the US dollar. Tourists pay for things in CUCs, while locals pay in pesos.

Whenever you exchange money, you’ll be given CUCs, and the majority of places you spend money will accept only CUCs. Invariably, however, you’ll get your hands on some pesos. It’ll probably happen like this: you get seduced by the wafting smell of cooking meats, and buy some street food. You hand the guy your CUC note. He digs around his pockets, shouts over at some other vendors; no one has the proper CUC change. He shrugs and gives your change in pesos. You’ve now got a pocket full of notes and coins, and can pay for small items like coffee and ice-cream with pesos—dropping the price from a couple bucks to a couple cents (literally).

There are of course more nefarious ways to get your hands on pesos, but you wouldn’t do that, now would you? Tourists aren’t really supposed to use pesos, and I have to say, I felt pretty guilty paying the equivalent of 5 cents to someone who makes $10/month—even if I am just a waitress living in a run-down North Oakland Victorian. I don’t recommend trying to use pesos as a way of cutting corners and stretching your budget, but it’s something that will happen at some point.

Casa Particulares

The single biggest way to save money in Cuba is by staying in casa particulares. State-licensed rooms for rent in private homes, casa particulares will also be one of your best glimpses into Cuban life.

Huge-ass main course served at a casa particular

Here’s how it works: individuals apply for a license, which is expensive; they must pay a monthly tax whether or not they have guests. The government approves them, and they can rent rooms to foreigners.

Expect to pay 15-30 CUCs per night (as opposed to 50-100 Euros and upwards on a hotel). Plus, as everyone knows, homestays are a great way to experience the everyday life and culture of a country; we stayed with hosts in Vinales whose teenage son showed us plenty of hip Cuban dance moves (which we were incapable of replicating). Hosts will usually offer to cook you meals, for an additional 5-15 CUCs. This may not be cheaper than eating at a budget restaurant or food stall, but they’ll stuff you silly.

The Cuba Junky site has gotten much more spiffy since I went to Cuba, and you can now book a casa particular room via the website. I did it a semi-old-fashioned way: I got ahold of Potato’s email address on the Thorn Tree forum, sent him an email, and he booked a room for us. He gave us his address; once we landed in Havana, we went to his apartment, enjoyed a cup of tea and chatted (he’s a really cool dude), and he walked us a couple blocks over to a lovely elderly couple who we stayed with for four days (and whose toilet we later busted—more on that later).

I like to have my accommodation arranged for my first couple nights when I arrive somewhere new, but the rest of the casa particulares we stayed in on our trip we booked ourselves. Most people will display their license logo prominently, so you can just knock on their door and ask if they have room (really, Cubans are insanely friendly and won’t turn you away). If the one you go to is full, they’ll for sure have a dozen friends with licensed rooms, and will help you find one. It sounds like a hassle, more for them than us, but I swear it works: a cab driver drove us all around Vinales while neighbors tracked down an empty room.

Bring Every Last Toiletry You May Possibly Need

Basic medical supplies are both costly and in short supply, or nonexistent, in Cuba. Pack all the sunscreen, aspirin, contact lens solution and insect repellent you might need—or risk shelling out painful amounts of money in a poorly stocked dollar-store. Even an extra roll of toilet paper isn’t a bad idea—unless you like wiping your ass with day-old news.

Tours and Entertainment

Cuba has a fairly well-beaten path, and if you stick to the neighborhoods and activities tourists are routinely funneled into, you’ll bleed CUCs faster than you can say “revolucion.” But get a little intrepid and a little chatty, and you’ll stretch your budget big-time.

Everyone knows that Cubans party, and party well, so you can be pretty sure that any club charging a hefty entrance fee is geared towards tourists. And as cool as a Hemingway tour or trip to the Tropicana might sound right now, you’ll quickly realize that they’re the Fisherman’s Wharf of Havana. Get friendly and ask your casa hosts (or random folks on the street) for tips on where to go and what to do. Less tacky companies like San Cristobal Agencia de Viajes are a good bet for more offbeat tours.

Food, Transport, and the Likes

There’s no real trick here: just do what you do in other countries.

Dinners at tourist-geared restaurants will set you back much further than paladares (mom-and-pops) and street food stands. Snack foods can actually be pretty hard to come by, so bringing along some biscuits, nuts or, for the homesick Yankee, peanut butter isn’t a bad idea. You can skimp on transit, but be prepared to pay the price: low-cost buses break down and hitch-hiking isn’t fun anywhere (in my opinion). Walk and take local buses within big cities, as opposed to cabs, and of course, the less you move, the less you spend on bus tickets, trains, etc. Cut down on souvenirs (really, how any Che hats do you need?), and do free stuff like strolling and lazing on the beach.


So, as with the last post, any seasoned Cuban travelers or recent returnees wanna share their experiences? We’re all ears…

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20 Responses to “Livin on a CUC: Independent, Budget Travel in Cuba”


  1. 1 clickclackgorilla January 4, 2010 at 3:22 am

    Well, I guess I won’t be going to Cuba any time soon then. I think that daily budget is more than I see in a month. Great guide though.

  2. 2 laurenquinn January 4, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Yeah, we had to save for awhile, and couldn’t stay anywhere near as long as we wanted. But I will say that it was totally worth it (as opposed to parts of Western Europe…).

  3. 3 Fly Girl January 4, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    Cuba has been on my trip list for years but I have friends who travel regularly and never have I heard such high prices for Cuba! I think its all in your expectations. Everybody I know stays at Casa Particulars or friends homes and eats and travels with locals. $50-$75 a day is what they tell me they spend. Resorts aren’t my idea of real travel, in Cuba or anywhere so I never even thought about it. I’m impressed that you can live on less than $200 a day in CA, you must give me some tips!

  4. 4 laurenquinn January 4, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Well, traveling with locals and staying in casas are definitely the ways to keep the budget down. I don’t consider resorts traveling either; I consider them vacationing—totally different beasts. Though to be fair, I’ve never stayed in one, so I can’t really talk.

    And I actually live on under $2000/month, which is a lot less than $200/day—about $60/day. It’s all about cheap rent and getting fed at work… :)

  5. 5 Natalie Gordon January 4, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    Hi,

    Here are a few of my thoughts on Cuba travel. First, I lived in Cuba for 2 months in 2009 and studied at the University of Havana. I returned in Dec. of 2009 to visit friends and travel for almost 3 weeks. So that is where I am coming from with this.

    I think that a very realistic budget could be $40-50 CUC ($44-55 USD) per day (including travel costs). A room in a casa as noted is usually 15-30 CUC. If there are two of you and you share a room it you are only paying half of that, which makes a HUGE difference.

    You can get Cuban pesos when you change money at any Cadeca. Just ask to change a few CUCs into pesos. You can then eat incredibly cheap if you just buy peso food (I defy you to find a peso meal that costs more than one dollar). Beers cost about 75 US cents in moneda nacional (Cuban pesos).

    Taking the bus is expensive, and that will eat up a big chunk of your budget. However, for the same price as a bus you can catch a shared taxi outside all the major bus stations. You will have to negociate a little bit, but you will ALWAYS be able to get a ride for the same price as the bus with a little negotiation and patience, and it is a lot quicker than the bus. Hitch-hiking (which I never did but would have loved to do) is also legal, and you can hop rides outside of the cities at designated points along the road. Just look for the guys with yellow vests on.

    When my partner and I lived in Havana we averaged spending about $35-$40 a day between the two of us (not including our tuition costs). That included a few trips to other places. When we were there in Dec. we averaged about 50-60 USD per day (again, that is for two of us), because we were traveling a lot more, and that is definitely the most expensive part of being there.

    Finally, for my two cents Havana is one of the most amazing cities on earth. You could easily spend two weeks without ever leaving. If you do that you don’t have transport costs eating into your budget, and that makes things way cheaper.

    Hope you all find this helpful.

    • 6 melis July 24, 2010 at 3:05 am

      hello!

      I really need to askı smt . I hope you answer me
      my e-mail is melisozdil@fatihyapi.com

      Me and friends are plannig to go Cuba in November and stay for 2 months .My plan is to learn Spanish .
      What did you study in Havana uni.? is there any programme for art?
      thank you

  6. 7 Anna April 10, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    I am headed to Cuba for about 2 wks – any suggestions outside of Havana? What are the possibilities of hiring a car? Any advice would be wunderbah!

    • 8 laurenquinn April 10, 2010 at 5:10 pm

      Other than Havana, I went to Vinales and Cienfuegos. I did a car hire to Cienfuegos with another traveling couple, and it worked great. I definitely recommend Vinales, and Cienfuegos was good for the beach and chilling out. Really wanted to make it to Santiago because I’ve heard it’s rad, but didn’t end up making it.

      Have fun!

    • 9 Delia Harrington August 25, 2010 at 11:24 am

      Hey Anna, Vinales/pinar del rio (a little farther out west) is absolutely beautiful, and very different form Habana/unexpected for cuba. The limestone cliffs and huge tobacco fields are amazing.

      Varadero is the longest uninterupted beach in the world, and quite gorgeous, but to go you either have to stay at a plastic bracelt-style all-inclusive, or stay outside the town and come in each day. It is definitely beautiful, though with little to no culture as Cubanos are bussed in and out each day.

      I really loved Santiago–beautiful chill town, and I was there for the annual drum fest which was even better. even safer than havana, lots of little coblestone streets and friendly people.

      cienfuegos was pretty but kind of a snooze–in typical cuban fashion, it’s really propped up for the dog and pony show

      You can rent a car, but just be careful because gas can be expensive and the insurance policy just ain’t the same as the US.

      Hope that helps!

  7. 10 Delia Harrington August 25, 2010 at 11:32 am

    You can definitely do Cuba on cheaper than 75 USD a day. everything is cheaper in moneda nacional, and you don’t actually have to do anything illegal to get it. certain cadeca’s (Casa de Cambiar, money changers) won’t do it, like the ones near melia cohiba and other hotels meant for foreigners, but go down to linea and you’ll be fine.

    as far as whether it’s ethical to spend moneda nacional, keep in mind that the name of the gam in Cuba is making a dollar outta no cents, and that the people who sell things in mn also BUY them in mn–you’re not actually screwing people over, the CUC price is artifically jacked up via a state tax.

    there are tons of amazing restauarants for mn that are way more delicious and authentic than those in cuc. we always tipped very well after eating 1 USD meals (including the obligatory rum or local (read: NON-buccanero) beer) because we could, and it got us amazing service everywhere.

    as for entertainment, do it up like the cubanos–grab a bottle of habana club or santero, or a juicebox of planchao and spend your night on the malecon. food, musicians, friends–it’s all there, and plenty cheap. you’ll meet people of all ages and walks of life–just don’t expect to see many single women.

    abrazos y mucho ache
    delia

  8. 12 Travel boi September 12, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    I stayed both Resorts and Casa particular and i have to say 100 a day is something i never heard of. At the same time, its very easy to spend more than 100 a day in Cuba if you are not careful. For starters, if you are eating from Hotels meals can go as low as $4-25 dollars per plate depending on what you order. If you decide to eat from Casa particular, then expect to spend $ 4.00 in breakfast, $6-12 lunch and $6-12 for dinner. The best way to save money in Cuba is if you decide to cook the food for yourself. For a week, you can live on under $40.00.

  9. 13 Dennis Wilson October 29, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    Question: Can two US citizens get a “license” to travel to Cuba and NOT GO ON AN ORGANIZED TOUR OR GROUP. We would just like to be able to go around the island at our own pace and itinerary. What are the logistic things we are going to have to deal with?(money especially)

    • 14 laurenquinn October 31, 2011 at 2:09 am

      Well, I’d start by reading the post I wrote about traveling independently to Cuba as an American. But to be honest, all that info is almost 2 years old, and the situation is changing rapidly. So I’d do some research, especially on the Thorn Tree Forum. High snark factor but you’ll get good info. Good luck.

    • 15 Emily April 26, 2012 at 4:38 am

      Hi Dennis,
      My husband and I just got back from 10 days in Cuba. We’re American and had no official license for Cuba. We bought our flights (Santo Domingo, DR) to Havana through Cuba Travel Network and also rented a car through them (you can use your credit card as it’s a Canadian company and they charge 4% for the ease of making the reservations). I had no problems with them–everything was as it was supposed to be when we showed up for the cars and flights. We brought 2,000 dollars worth of Euros because you can’t use American bank cards. We ended up with plenty of money left over. We went to Havana, Vinales, Pinar del Rio, Maria la Gorda, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Coming back through US customs was no problem. i was slightly nervous as I had a new passport with nothing but 4 stamps from the DR (2 entrances, 2 exits). 3 different people at Customs looked at my passport and no one noticed them or said a word. So…please go if you have the desire to go! It’s a wonderful place! And don’t worry–you’ll be just fine getting back!

  10. 16 carrie March 24, 2012 at 11:50 pm

    I am often a solo female US traveler with lonely planet my companion. I even got into Syria after Bush bombed their border with Iraq and Americans were being denied visas. I want to see Cuba before it becomes very touristy, but what prompts this budget trip is need for a front tooth implant. Unlike Costa Rica, where there was plenty of internet info and my dental experience was wonderful I can’t find much for Cuba. Can anyone give me advice on this?

  11. 18 FB Apps Facebook Applications November 12, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    Hey! I understand this is sort of off-topic however I needed to ask.

    Does running a well-established blog like yours take a massive
    amount work? I am brand new to operating a blog but I do write
    in my diary every day. I’d like to start a blog so I can easily share my own experience and thoughts online. Please let me know if you have any kind of recommendations or tips for new aspiring bloggers. Thankyou!

    • 19 laurenquinn November 12, 2012 at 7:50 pm

      I guess my only real recommendation would be to ask yourself why you’re doing it. Trying to creating a heavily trafficked, monetized blog is totally different from just writing a blog to share your thoughts and experiences. So I guess I’d say to find blogs that you like and try and do what they do. (Not real helpful huh?)

  12. 20 David S December 24, 2012 at 2:43 am

    Love the Cuba blog Lauren. Really helpful and an easy read. I’m going in Feb.

    Best wishes

    David


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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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