Cuba is somehow both mysterious and familiar. Visiting feels like travelling through time, bringing traditional architecture, a pulsing spirit, and a fascinating culture together as one. Simply put, the Cuban vibe is addicting.
In Havana, a festive music and dance culture vibrates through the heart of the capital city. Old-timey cars and shades of pastel-splatted buildings blend together to gift travellers with a city unlike any other.
Go east from Havana and discover a village trapped in time, in all the best ways. Trinidad is the country’s prized village, and it shares its roads with horses and its mornings with local bakers walking the cobblestone pathways hollering about fresh bread for sale.
As the second largest city in Cuba, Santiago De Cuba is celebrated in cultural significance and laced with museums highlighting the Cuban Revolution. Baracoa was made famous for Christopher Columbus first stepping foot on the island, but it stays famous for its beaches, old forts, stunning cathedrals and Taino folklore music.
Yet, one of the most stunning contributions to the land is found in nature. Viñales National Park is strikingly familiar to the incredible landscape that backdrops Jurassic Park while Alexander Von Humboldt National Park mingles with the coastline and a massive rainforest, making you wish your Cuban dream would never end.
I adored the time I spent in Cuba, exploring from the depths of Havana to the sands of Varadero. The people were friendly and welcoming, and the country offered up plenty of good vibes. Costs were moderate, with accommodations being the costliest splurge, as they are in most places. I went at the end of March which was perfect for soaking up the dry and warm weather while just missing the peak tourist season (mid-December to mid-March).
If you’re an American planning your Cuba trip, it’s imperative that you load up on all the cash you will need for your whole stay. That is right, the whole stay. Overestimate just in case. American credit and debit cards do not work in the country, so plan to come prepared with paper instead of plastic. This does not apply if you are coming from another country, but it is still wise to have cash before entering Cuba no matter what your country of origin is.
I brought $100 per day with me for the whole trip (our accommodation was paid for prior to arriving) but I only used about $70 a day.
It’s important to note there are two forms of currency to be aware of during your trip.
The Cuban Peso (CUP) is used among Cubans and accepted in small markets and street vendors, however, a whole new currency was developed primarily for tourists called the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The math is simple: $1 CUC equals $1 USD, which makes it easy to convert but a bit confusing if you aren’t aware of the different exchanges. Also, note that if you can pick up street food or produce from a grocery store using CUP, do so! You can save some serious cash by using the Cuban Peso here and there.
THE BEST HOSTELS AND GUESTHOUSES IN CUBA
Havana- Elegancia Suites Havana– ($115 a night): Perhaps the most striking energy of this hotel is the unique and engaging décor. The interior beauty has mastered a crisp and clean bohemian vibe, with pops of (unexpected) color and unique pieces to balance it all out. Located in just the right spot, you won’t need to taxi to all the best destinations, just walk outside and begin to stroll. If you have questions about the Havana happenings, great! The staff is knowledgeable, welcoming and helpful when it comes to servicing their guests. You can expect concierge services, tour assistance, a lounge and a rooftop veranda to relax as you soak up the elegance at this boutique hotel.
Havana- El Candiil Boutique Hotel– ($150 a night): If you’re looking for a treat, you have found it. This place is perfection. That is, if your idea of perfection includes sophisticated decorations and a rooftop bar and pool. Found in the Vedado neighborhood, the location is quiet yet convenient. The only thing more noticeable than the high ceilings are the windows to match, opening the experience to an overload of natural light. The rooftop bar is surrounded by enveloping foliage and views of the neighborhood. Exclusive only to hotel guests, the restaurant is both elegant and scrumptious. A salon that specialized in hair and spa treatments is a popular go-to among both guests and beyond.
Cayo Largo- Villa Papo y Mileidys Balcón a las Montañas– ($27 a night): Located in Viñales Valley this Airbnb paints a pin-worthy backdrop from the balcony of your private apartment. But if you are craving company, the shared balcony extends far-reaching views of greenery on top of greenery in a welcoming environment. The hosts are accommodating, so much that they are known to set up various excursions such as horseback riding or trailblazing by foot within the valley. Oh, but that’s not all! Wi-fi and air conditioning are in every room and a brag-worthy breakfast is served every morning for a small price. The neighborhood is quiet but is still just a short walk to a livelier feel in downtown Cayo Largo.
Santiago De Cuba- Sunrise Ha Tu Vera– ($26 a night): Staying at Santiago De Cuba will give you the feel of living like a local while not compromising on the amenities and comfort to make your stay exceptional. This Airbnb is cute, clean, hospitable and extremely reasonable in price. The location isn’t bad either. Being minutes from the historic center of Santiago De Cuba, makes it easy for guests to come and go. The host offers guests a chance to feast like a local with a delicious and modestly priced Cuban breakfast. The patio is spacious and inviting to sip on the notably delectable coffee in the morning. Oh, and they have Wi-Fi: that’s practically as good as gold in Cuba!
Trinidad- Casa de la Trinidad– ($65 a night): Hospitable is an understatement here. Known for their impeccable customer service, Casa de la Trinidad is a mix of cleanliness, classiness and a Cuban touch of spirit. The bar is welcoming to day drinkers and night capper alike and the free daily breakfast, although simple, is satisfying. The hotel offers an unbeatable location to start your Trinidad exploration. Just minutes away on foot from a handful of notable Trinidad bistros and a measly 5-minute walk to Municipal Historical Museum, Plaza Mayor and Colonial Architecture Museum. This is the perfect mid-range choice that doesn’t compromise on offerings or style.
THE AVERAGE COST OF ACCOMODATION IS $77 PER DAY
Depending on your place of origin, getting to Cuba might be the hardest part of your journey. As an American I had to jump through some hoops to get across the border but not as many as one might expect. The main hoop being a visa. You must secure a Cuban Tourist Visa prior to your trip and select the proper category to ensure you won’t run into any trouble at customs. “Support the Cuban People” is the best option to select when applying. You can do this online or during your layover through Cancun, which is a common stop in route to Cuba, depending on your origin and you should expect to pay $50.
Havana will be your best and, in some cases, only option when flying into Cuba. Flights have been limited during the pandemic but getting to Havana is still moderate in price. See the list below of flights from major airports:
- Round trip from Miami to Havana- $303
- Round trip from Dallas Fort Worth to Havana – $387
- Round trip from London to Havana- $468
Once you arrive in Havana, there is so much to see and do but the good news? Havana is small enough that walking is totally doable and even encouraged. We walked to nearly all the Havana attractions.
When it is time to venture out of the capital, though, buses will be your most reliable and efficient means of transportation, especially for lengthier voyages.
Víazul is the main state-run busing company and is safe and clean with daily (one-way) routes. However, Viazul is often booked far in advance especially for the more popular routes, so plan to book early. With that said, if you are not registered through the site, it will not allow you to book (or even view routes and prices). If you want to get ahead of the game, you’ll want to register and make sure to print out your confirmation for your records. Find a list of popular routes below:
- Havana to Varadero – $10
- Havana to Trinidad – $24
- Trinidad to Santiago De Cuba – $33
- Santiago De Cuba to Baracoa – $15
If you opt to wait, it is not hard to book and buy at the bus stations once you arrive in the country but keep in mind you might have limited options for availability. I did not have any issues booking from Havana to Varadero once we arrived but I went during the off season, so crowds were a bit lighter.
Bicycles are used as a regular form of transportation by both locals and visitors. Although cars and buses are accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists, helmets are rarely (if ever) worn so plan to bring your own if you wish to ride safer. At Bike Rentals and Tours Havana bike rentals for 24-hours start at $15. When booking, make sure to rent a lock for the journey – bike theft is a common problem in Havana.
Car hires are the most exciting form of transportation if you are wanting to experience every piece of Cuban life. The retro wheels are flashy and fun. I hired a 1950’s bright pink antique convertible and zipped around Havana for two hours, ending the tour at Hemmingway’s bar for some spirited drinking. Old Cars Havana is a professional and decently priced company that offers services with or without a guide. A 2-Hour Havana City Tour starts at $50 per car with a max of five people, so the more you pile in, the cheaper your excursion will be.
I also used bici-taxis, a three-wheel pedal carriage, as more of an experience than anything else. It’s a fun way to enjoy the ride moving at a slower pace through the roads of Havana. You will find them posted up all over the cities waiting and ready to take you where you need to go. Prices start at $2 but tips are encouraged and appreciated amongst the hard-working riders.
THE AVERAGE COST OF TRANSPORTATION IS $19 PER DAY
Cuban roots run deep with a huge amount of Spanish, Caribbean, Chinese and African influence with a hint of French and Portuguese. The fare is simple with staples such as rice, meats, sugar, corn, seafood and plantains.
Fritas Cubana, or just frita, is Cuba’s version of a burger made with different spices and shoestring potatoes between the buns. Cucurucho, most abundantly sold on the beaches of Baracoa for only a couple bucks, is a tasty and sweet delicacy made from coconuts, pineapple, sugar. It’s refreshing and delightful. Ropa Vieja is the national gem when it comes to culinary indulgence. This robust stew is made up of shredded beef, tomato sauce and peppers and is best paired with rice and a cold brew. Arroz con huevo, is a simple and common lunch dish of fried egg over white rice and runs about $3 depending on the establishment.
When it comes to food costs in Cuba, it’s a wide range, mostly because of the two different currencies. Street food is the way to go if you are looking to save a buck. “Peso Food” typically comes from street vendors or small restaurants and accepts payment via CUP. This means you can get a whole pizza, fresh fruit juice and an egg and cheese sandwich for all less than a dollar. I happily took advantage of “peso food” and was never disappointed.
Shopping at a local market that takes CUP will be the thriftiest option, but the experience itself might leave you frustrated, confused and overwhelmed. Items are limited and often nowhere to be found (in the country!) and stores are overcrowded. To add to the frustration, you might have to make quite a few stops between a big grocery store, and several small ones to get all the items on your list. If convenience outweighs your budget, I’d suggest buying small items like fruit and “peso food” from the street and avoiding the grocery store scene altogether.
Eating out is an easy and affordable way to dine. Even splurging at a fine dine gifts visitors with a reasonable tab of $35 per person and that includes an appetizer, meal and drinks.
Breakfast will be the most inexpensive meal with a drip coffee (expresso) starting at $2 in a café and just cents on the street. A popular food for breakfast is bread soaked in coffee and warm milk and runs for $2. Keep in mind, many establishments don’t open their doors until noon so if your accommodation offers free (or paid) breakfast you should indulge onsite.
Lunch is usually a simple and basic meal, consisting of a frita or arroz con huevos and will typically cost about $8 with a drink if you dine-in. Dinner will be your priciest meal especially if you feast at restaurants busied by tourists. A typical Roja vieja and various fish dishes start at $18 and domestic and international beer costs $2, cocktails average $4 and wine starts at $2. I chose to eat street food for breakfast and lunch and splurged at dinnertime at various restaurants around Havana. This allowed us to experience the flavor of fine dine cuisine while not breaking the bank every day.
EATING OUT AVERAGE PRICE PER DAY: $37
Baseball, Hemmingway and badass cars are some signature traits on this island, but the list of Cuban activities is much lengthier than the most obvious attractions. Cuba is an open space for both revelers and adventure seekers. The nightlife in Havana is alluring with its rich beats and hired dancers keeping the vibe strong; but when it’s time to escape the city lights, the natural beauty of Cuba you will add another remarkable element to Cuba’s personality. Outdoor adventures such as cycling, hiking and watersports are found sprinkled outside the city limits of Havana, Santiago De Cuba and Baracoa.
If you are feeling extra adventurous, consider cycling across the country. Although pricier than your 24-hour bike rental, the experience to roll across the Cuban grounds through farmland and colonial villages is an absolute life changer. Backroads offers a 7 day/6 night pedaling trip for $5,599 that takes you through Viñales, Las Terrazas and ends in Havana.
Too long of a ride? Don’t worry, you have options! If you are wanting a much shorter, yet informative ride, try Bike Rental and Tour Havana for a 4.5-hour Deep Havana Ride through the old streets of the capital. At $35 per rider, it’s a great way to see the city in all its nooks and crannies.
While in Cuba, why not combine horses and cigars? This tour blends all things good, starting with a trek on horseback through the gorgeously green Valley of Mogotes where you will learn the process of local cigar making on a tobacco farm. The tour runs at $73 per person and is both educational and adventuresome!
When it’s time for ocean therapy, head to one of Cuba’s most popular beaches, Playa Varadero, where you can choose to bask in the sun with a drink in hand or get moving in the water. Cuba is skilled at wearing many hats when it comes to must-do activities. Below is a list of various activities that Cuba has to offer:
- Tour the Hidden Beaches in Varadero – $85
- Snorkel to a Shipwreck in Havana – $50
- Traditional Cuban Cooking Experience – $33
- Horseback Riding and Tobacco Farm Tour – $73
- Hiking Tour in Trinidad – $44
With so much to do in Cuba, every visitor’s experience is their own.
THE AVERAGE COST OF ACTIVITIES IS $23 PER DAY
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO TRAVEL IN CUBA?
Accommodation: $77 per day
Transportation: $19 per day
Food: $37 per day
Activities: $23 per day
Total amount spent per day: $156
Kelly Fay is a California native but has lived and traveled all over the world. She loves writing, books, sweating (during a workout, that is!), coffee, wine, traveling solo and her daughter, Ireland.[Photos via: Possoh/Shutterstock, Toms Auzins/Shutterstock, CreativeFamily/Shutterstock, Sabino Parente/Shutterstock, and Mezzotint/Shutterstock]