Cuba travel tips: everything you need to know to travel on a budget (part 1)

For what I had read before going to Cuba I was expecting that a month there would be quite expensive, and definitely can be, but you can also travel on a tight budget.

I spent an average of 23€ a day, but I travelled with another person, so for solo travellers, this amount would be higher for sure, and of course, everyone travels differently,  so no one ever has the same travel budget. I just put mine here as a reference, so you know that’s possible.

The first tip, never take a no for an answer, it’s important to negotiate, and it’s normal to ‘argue’ and ‘get upset’, always always speak out, if the situation is not fair or reasonable. Otherwise you will be paying more than in Switzerland or Norway.

Be prepared to sometimes be ignored in a Cuban shop and to be always the last one to be served (but not in a touristic place) 😉

👉🏽 Money

Cuba has 2 different currencies – Cuban Peso (CUP) also known as moneda nacional MN and Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC)  (25CUP = $1 USD =1CUC). Foreigners CAN (and should) use CUP it is not illegal, so don’t believe if someone tells you the opposite.

Probably the best tip I can give is NEVER ask the prices in Cuba, expect Cubans to give you always the prices in CUCs and to see other tourists using only this currency. When you ask they know you are not sure… Assume always that the prices are in Pesos Cubanos (CUP), and pay for it straight away, the only exceptions are the touristic restaurants and bars, long-distance taxis, hotels/casas and tour operators, but you’ll realise that they always write CUC in front of the price. So if you see a menu (carta) with coffee – 1, it means that the price is 1CUP (about 4 cents) and not 1CUC ($1 dollar).

You only need CUCs to pay for: long distance transports, accommodation, museums, touristic spots and water. (0.5L – 45CUC;   1.5L – 0.70CUC;  5L – 1.90CUC) for everything else use CUPs. We came across some upsetting situations in Trinidad and Havana when buying water, the staff from the supermarket didn’t have the prices in the water and despite the fact that we knew the price and gave the correct amount they asked for much more. Step your foot down and argue loudly so everybody know what they are doing,  they don’t just ask for a few more cents, they ask for a 1,5L 3 o 4 CUC.. what they are doing is illegal and you can ask to speak with the manager or even call the number that is on the wall for the customer service. Demand that they scan your product and give you a receipt like they do when serving a Cuban.

Always choose places that have the prices displayed, it’s current practice, so when they don’t have it, they will probably create a new price just for you. (check out the pictures below they all have prices displayed in CUPs and keep in mind that $1=25CUP)

The prices don’t change much around the island, so having the average food prices in mind should help (all prices in CUPs):

  • sandwich  2-12 CUP
  • pizza  5-10 CUP
  • natural juice/milkshake 3-5 CUP
  • coffee 1-2 CUP
  • chocolate bar 5-10 CUP (depended on size)
  • small sweets 1-2 CUP
  • peanut bars / seed bars 5-7 CUP
  • ice cream 1-5 CUP
  • popcorn 5CUP
  • one paper cone with peanuts 1 CUP
  • 1 big avocado 5-10CUP
  • 3 big mangos 5-10CUP
  • 1 hot dish (rice with beans and salad)  – 10-25CUP
  • fried banana 5CUP
  • All snack varies from 3-10CUP
  • Piña colada 5-10CUP
  • Mojito 10-12 CUP
  • pasta 10 CUP
  • beer (Cerveja dispensed is the cheapest one) 5-25 CUP
  • soda in a cup 1-2 CUP
  • hot chocolate 5 CUP
  • churros 3-5 CUP
  • malt beverage 10-25 CUP

The average price for local transports in CUPs:

  • bus – 1CUP (they call it guagua)
  • bici taxi – 5CUP – 10CUP

I brought cash to fund my whole trip so don’t really know how reliable are the ATM, but saw a couple in each capital district.

Exchanging money it’s easy but like everything in Cuba takes time and queuing outside. Ask for the CADECA the official place to exchange money and of course, don’t do it in the street. It is possible to exchange U.S. Dollars, Euros, British Pounds, and a few others. But U.S. Dollar is by far the worst one because it gets charged a 10% fee in addition to the exchange rate.

Exchange your money to Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUC) first and then some Convertibles(CUC) to Cuban Pesos (CUP). (Don’t forget to take your passport).

Paying in convertibles (CUC) and getting change in CUPs is the most popular trick so familiarize yourself with the money and always check your change.

👉🏽Where to stay 

The cheapest options are the casas particulares, a kind of Airbnb or guest house. Finding a casa is extremely easy, there are plenty available everywhere, we didn’t book any house in advance and was always easy and quick to find one. Simply walk around the area you want, knock on the door of a house with the blue sign and ask to see a room, then decide if you want to stay there or see the next one.

We always negotiate our price to fit our budget that was €20 per night and we found always a house that was willing to do that price for us, even in the more touristic areas like Havana, or Trinidad, so don’t get afraid when they start saying that is the high season, all the cases are full, etc.. Cuba truly has a huge offer.

Breakfast is normally not included and the price is between 5-6CUC, but to be fair you will eat exactly the same out for a fraction of that price, so we never ate at the casas.

👉🏽Eating and drinking 

Someone that I met there told me “we are not here to eat” when I was complaining about the food, and lack of options…. and that really needs to be the attitude because Cuban food is by far the worst I ever came across.  In the other hand it’s ridiculously cheap and why to worry about eating when you can drink 🙂 natural fruit juice of course 😉

The lowest-cost options are at street-side stores they normally have sandwiches, pizza, rice with beans, pasta, natural fruit juice and coffee, but not all the options at the same time.

They have two types of places, the state-run restaurants and the particulares, the last one is a bit more expensive than the other one but not really a big difference, it’s like instead of paying 1 dollar for your meal you will pay 2, only if that private restaurants (particular) serves locals.

Cooking your own food it’s not an option at all, but what we did to complement our meals was to buy fruits like avocado and mango and ask at the restaurants to cut it for us.

Fresh juices are amazing and very cheap, if you have an empty water bottle with you, ask them to refill it with juice (1,2,3.. cups) it’s a normal practice between locals.

We never got sick from the food or drinks (only feed up😂)

👉🏽Being Vegan (or) Vegetarian 

Well, where to start… to say the truth, being vegan in Cuba can be very hard when you are travelling on a budget, and off the beaten path.

While you always have the option of eating at the casas particulares, that with your guide will be able to cook something for you,  it’s not the cheapest option or any different from the things you can eat outside. Cooking is also not an option, because they will not allow you to use their kitchens.

Carrying a knife is truly a life saver, you can just eat some salad or fruit when you want. Cubans sell seasonal fruit and vegetables using street carts, it is more likely to find them during the morning. Fresh fruit is by far one of the top foods you can eat, the most common are guavas, papayas, pineapples, bananas, mangoes, avocados, mamoncillo and coconuts.

Here are some names of the most common food, if you don’t speak Spanish it would be important to get familiarised with them:

  • arroz (rice)
  • ensalada (salad)
  • frijoles (beans)
  • arroz morro or moros y cristianos  (black beans + rice)
  • fruta (fruit)
  • maduros (fried sweet plantains)
  • tostones (fried green plantains)
  • Yuca frita or cassava (a root vegetable)
  • pan (bread)
  • papas (potatoes)
  • Batido (milkshake)  *not vegan
  • jugo natural (natural fruit juice)
  • Cucurucho (desert with coconut and pineapple)
  • pudin or flan (pudding flan) *not vegan
  • Pasteles dulces (bakery)
  • mani (peanuts)

More touristic places, like Havana, Trinidad or Viñales will have a better option than the rest of the country, but not much..

So far, for me, Cuba was the hardest country to eat well as a vegan (sorry to say that if you are planning a trip to Cuba 😆) You will definitely not to starve but you will get sick of the same food every day, specially if you are travelling like me for a long time, by the end I couldn’t think about eating more of the same again 😫 the smile in my face holding the food was just for the photos  haha 😂

photography – all rights reserved – Ana Rocha

🚌 Read Part 2 🚌

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Playa Del Carmen, México

Playa del Carmen is located in the Riviera Maya area on the Caribbean coast of Mexico and is around 60 km away from Cancun and Tulum.

We read that Playa, (as locals call it), it’s the fastest-growing city in Latin America, what is by itself a big no-no. As you already know, I don’t do package holidays and don’t normally choose places that don’t have anything to offer rather than tourist traps around every other corner. Plus I’m not into shopping or night clubs at all. So you are probably asking ‘why on earth have you decided to go there?’

Well that’s a good question, with a pretty easy answer, we just decided to pop in for a day because we had time in hands and had visit all the places we wanted, so we thought, well we are going to see what is all the fuss about…

As you can conclude for everything I just said my expectations were very very low, so the good point was I couldn’t really get despoiled.. and I didn’t, not even surprised 🙂 unfortunately..

To reach playa, we took a colectivo (45pesos) from Tulum, which is a very frequent route. Collectivos can get a bit cramped sometimes but are a great way to move around.

Playa del Carmen

During the day we walked around, went to some art galleries, found some murals, street sculptures and luckily stumble into a wonderful Mexican performance ‘Los voladores de Papantla’.

The 5th Avenue (Quinta Avenida) is apparently the place to see and be seen. It is a very touristic place, packed with trinket shops and overpriced fancy restaurants… but who needs fancy? Leaving behind Playa’s tourist trail is the only way to go off the beaten path and find the real Mexican flavours, and avoid paying inflated tourist prices. Ask for local restaurants and you won’t regret it.

We also explored the beaches that are easily accessible by foot.

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I can’t say that we add a bad day, far from that,  was an enjoyable day out, but not more than that.

There is a big difference between travellers and tourists. Playa is undoubtedly a top tourist destination with big resorts, fancy restaurants and a busy nightlife. But the question is just one … can Playa offer want you are looking for? if yes go for it, if not choose a different place.

photography – all rights reserved – Ana Rocha

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Chichén Itzá Maya Ruins

We woke up at 7am, and we took the fist bus from Valladolid to Chichén Itzá (1h-  $31), I can’t recommend you this enough, It’s really essencial to arrive as earlier as possible. Chichén Itzá is one of Mexico’s most visited attraction, I don’t need to say much more than that..  do I 🙂

Chichén Itzá is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, so independently of what kind of traveller you are;  solo travel, backpacker, all-inclusive, etc. you will end up there like everybody else.. Chichén Itzá is an icon and its central location in the peninsula of Yucatan, makes it incredible accessible. And don’t think that because is the largest archeological site in Yucatan you can’t fell the heaps of people, believe me..  this place gets seriously overcrowded, and you can feel it 🙂

Although I generally tend to prefer exploring lesser-visited places that are situated a little further off the main tourist path, Chichen Itza still makes a perfect day or half-day trip. I can’s say they are my favourite but the still are magnificent and definitely worthy of a visit.

Despite the fact that all inclusive trips to Chichén Itzá are very popular and abundant, It couldn’t  be easier to visit it on your own, and I do recommend it, first because you can walk and stop as many time you want and where you want, its cheaper, and you can get there before the crowds.

When you arrive early you beat the crazily large crowds, tour buses and the hundreds of vendors that are selling the same thing along every pathway. Waking up early will pay off, and you will have almost the entire ruins to yourselves.

If you end up visiting Chichén Itzá, I’m sure you will not be let down, they make a fantastic introduction into Maya culture and beliefs! It’s always better to have a guidebook with you so you know what you are looking at 🙂

photography – all rights reserved – Ana Rocha

Izamal, the yellow town

Its easy to reach Izamal from Mérida by bus. You catch the bus from the northeast bus terminal and is 1 1/2 hour to Izamal (27$). Izamal is about 70 km east of Merida.

This small town is incredible beautiful, and looks like a magic movie set, it’s picturesque and known for obvious reasons by ‘The Yellow Town’ because most of its buildings are painted in a beautiful and eye-catching mustard yellow colour.

The impressive franciscan monastery stands out in the heart of this yellow town. It houses a museum and a church. In front of the monastery they have horses dressed in ridiculous floral hats pull carriages of tourists around the town.

Walking around town by foot getting lost and discovering it’s cobblestone streets it’s very pleasant. It’s also possible to visit by foot the archaeological sites.

Kinch Kak moo, is a small site that has a Mayan pyramid that you can climb and enjoy the view from the top over the city, the pyramid it might not be as big, well preserved or stunning as Chichén Itzá but is still very impressive.

The ‘centro cultural y artesanal‘ (cultural and Artesanal centre) it’s a small museum that displays a selection of outstanding examples of folk art from across Mexico. The pieces are truly beautiful and colourful.

The local market near the monastery is a good place to eat traditional Yucatan food.

There’s not much more to see and do in this town, and that is also part of it’s charm. I would say that Izamal is a  mandatory stop when visiting Yucatan, even if only for a day,  Izamal is simply enchanting!

photography – all rights reserved – Ana Rocha

The tranquil Pekan

We got a bus from Mersing to Pekan, a small town on the bank of the Pahang River, and far away from the touristic route, but still with a few things to do and visit, once is a popular destination between locals. Mostly because Pekan is the official residence of Pahang’s royal family.

We just spend 2 days here what was more than enough to visit the main attractions, markets, gardens, to try the local delicacies and to stroll around this small and tranquil town.

Pekan’s top attraction is for obvious reasons the Royal Palace of Pekan, that doesn’t allow visitors but still attracts lots of local tourists that stand outside the walls to look at the Polo ground and also the horses.

The other highlights are the Sultan Abu Bakar Museum also known as Pekan State Museum that has artefacts related to Pekan and Malay history and culture. The river front street with its old Chinese shophouses.

The Watercraft gallery was another stop, it’s a small open gallery that showcases different types of watercraft and fisherman’s houses. They have a nice display but the pieces are a bit deteriorate because of the lac of maintenance.

The mosques are quite impressive and very beautiful on the outside, and there’s also a few examples of non-Islamic houses of worship in town like the Chinese temple dedicated to the Chinese goddess of the sea.

Pekan has excellent Malaysian street food and extraordinary fresh fruit.

At the time we were the only westerners in town so we attracted a lot of attention 🙂 Making friends with the people is always a great way to know more about this little town and the Malays culture.

photography – all rights reserved – Ana Rocha 

Cuba travel tips: everything you need to know to travel on a budget (part 2)

👉🏽Transports

Getting around in Cuba is probably the most difficult thing you’ll need to deal in the country.

From the airport there’s no public bus, just taxis and tour buses, just ask around, negotiate prices, but is not easy to get a good deal, due to the lack of options. We got a place in a transfer minivan that was going to an all inclusive in Varadero that left us in Matanzas (our first stop) for $30CUC each. The taxis were asking for $80CUC each :O

To go from city to city, most tourists catch Viazul buses. They have schedules but get fully booked very quickly. Booking and get your tickets at least the day before is highly advisable. We haven’t done that so that means we were only able to catch 2 Viazul buses during the whole month.

We end up travelling by taxi (taxi collectivo), and truck (camiones), most of the time.

Travelling by taxi collectivo involves always lots of negotiation, but we always stick to the price of the Viazul tickets and said no to any other prices. A couple of times we paid less than the Viazul ticket. Locking in a specific price is the key. A collectivo is a shared private car.

The truck charges everyone on board a set price in MN (moeda nacional – Cuban Peso CUP). It is extremely crowded, hot and uncomfortable, but its an absolute bargain, just as a reference from Guantanamo to Barracoa (a 5h trip- around 150km) is 30 CUP (around $1.10 pp)

Inside the localities, using the guaguas (public bus) is a great option (1CUP /pp is the price across the country and doesn’t matter where you’re going) and again don’t ask for the price just give the 1CUP and keep walking.

Bicycle Taxis are another option, they normally have two fares, around 5 CUP for short distances and 10 CUP for long distances, but expect to be asked a price in CUC, especially in the more touristic cities.

When using Cuban public transports don’t ask many questions, observe the locals and do what they do, and also works better if you always have change.

Renting a bike is also a great option in some places like Barracoa and Trinidad, it costs 3-5CUC.  Boat, horseback riding and horse cart are also incredibly common and popular among locals.

Renting a car in Cuba is possible, and probably the best option to discover Cuba. With your own transport, you can easily get off the beaten path and visit places that see no other tourists.  But unfortunately isn’t cheap. When I looked up the prices for renting an economy car for a minimum period of 14 days was 60 CUC per day. So you will be always looking at a minimum of $50 CUC per day.

👉🏽Internet

Just forget about it, that’s the best thing to do, but if you are like me that likes to have internet at least any other day, you can have it but it will challenge your patience. Internet isn’t available everywhere, wifi spots are normally available in the large public parks.

To get online you need to buy an internet scratch-card from ETECSA (1.50CUC for one hour). In the more touristic places, we came across some scams, when you go to the ETECSA and the security person at the door will say that they run off internet cards (tarjetas) and there are people selling cards in the street for 3CUC (the double). When this happens, you know you can’t really win, so we just didn’t buy the internet cards there. It’s always a good solution to stock up some cards when you find them at the correct price.

The ETECSA office, is normally a blue building near the plazas that have Wi-Fi, they will have definitely a queue were you will wait in line for at least 20 minutes. Always ask who is the last person in the line because they don’t put themselves in order (qué es lo ultimo?) and wait for your turn. Cubans always queue outside.

👉🏽Challenges and Scams

Lack of internet = no Google Maps = no reviews from places = no answer to any questions

So do your research in advance, have an app with offline maps like Galileo Maps or Maps.me (both have offline maps of Cuba) and a small guide with maps.

If you don’t speak Spanish, your journey will be incredibly more difficult, so start learning some basics and if take a small dictionary if you don’t speak any Spanish.

Cuba is a safe place to travel, but full with scammers (jineteros) 🙂 Especially around the more tourist spots, please, please do some research and make sure you read about the most common scams. Fortunately, we didn’t end up in any, but I can’t count how many tourists we saw being tricked. Even though not much harm comes from them (despite losing some money) they can impact negatively your whole experience.

The disparity between the CUP (the Cuban peso) and the CUC (the tourist currency) is so big, that means that who makes money in CUC have a lot more compared with the others. Taxi drivers and casa owners make more money in a day than a doctor (the highest paid government position in Cuba). In the more touristic areas, you will be approached constantly by people who want to offer you something, like taxi, restaurant, cigars, cases (rooms), drugs, tours, souvenirs, internet cards or lead you to a supposed good, authentic and cheap place for music, food or drinks. Ignoring is an option or say “no” politely, which can be annoying and time-consuming because they don’t give up easily. Remember that doesn’t matter how friendly they are it will be a scam.

Something else can be a challenge mostly for solo female travellers, catcalling looks like a ‘national sport’ in Cuba and I found it quite bothersome.  It’s overwhelming the harassment and (bad) attention women can get from Cuban men. If you don’t want company you have to be firm when you answer them, or just ignore and keep walking, (I know that sounds rude, but there are a lot of scam artists approaching women).

👉🏽When to visit Havana

In my personal opinion, it’s better to visit Havana at the end of your trip, and two-three days are enough, out of the capital you can explore other less crowded, cheaper and more authentic towns. And also you will be prepared for all the tourist harassment.

👉🏽 Packing:

Apart from the basics, like money, passport, light clothes, flip-flops, bathing suit, etc..  a few other things you can’t miss, because they will be practically impossible to find and even if you do they are extremely expensive:

  • shampoo
  • Sunscreen (plenty of it)
  • moisturizer and/or after sun
  • basic First Aid Kit
  • medicines
  • Toothpaste, Toothbrush
  • feminine hygiene products
  • wet wipes and/or tissues
  • hand sanitiser
  • Plug adaptor
👉🏽 Entertainment:

If you understand Spanish going to the Cinema or Theatre can be a great plan for an evening.  Out of Havana a ticket costs between 5 to 10 CUP. Concerts and performances are also a must see, and they do happen everywhere all the time.

Art galleries and Art studios are also not to be missed, there are many artists in Cuba, and they are happy to welcome you to their space and talk about their work. There is also a museum but nothing memorable.

Cuba can be a frustrating, confusing and a challenging country to visit, but also a wonderful place at the same time.

If you’re planning a trip to Cuba I hope you find this post useful,  If you have visited Cuba already I would love to hear your experiences and stories, and let me know if you have any other tips that I missed 🙂 happy travels everyone 🙏 Lots of Love Ana 💚

photography – all rights reserved – Ana Rocha

🚌 Read – Part 1🚌

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Benguela – Huambo -Bie (in the route of Angola’s up-country)

We drove from Benguela to Bié stopping in many remote villages and towns. Hope you enjoy the photos, and get to know more about this beautiful and unspoiled country still far away from the tourist routes. I remember to read somewhere that Angola is one of Africa’s last great travel mysteries 🙂

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During our trip people where nice but always suspicious, what is perfectly understandable once the country still remains closed off for travellers. I need to say that being a portuguese speaker helped a lot.

Angola’s up-country, is still very unspoiled and rural, outside the big cities houses are made of natural materials like grasses and mud bricks, there is no electricity or sanitation.

Populations live from what the land gives, they lack in access to school and health care. They have big matriarchal families.
Angola’s up-country has an astonishing natural beauty, strong colour, smells and a great warm weather.

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🌱 Information and testimony about if it’s possible to have a plant-based diet in Angola🌱

photography – all rights reserved – Ana Rocha