The largest island in the Caribbean and one of the most politically charged countries in the world, Cuba is most famous for Che, rum, cigars and and communism! Cuba has only been open to the modern world since the 90s due to their political ‘struggles’ and even now people from the US struggle to get in. But it’s opening more and more so let’s have a quick look at some of the key points to backpacking in Cuba:
VISAS: I know, you’re asking yourself “Do I need a visa to visit Cuba”? Essentially, yes. You need a ‘tourist visa card’ and for anyone other than US citizens it costs between 15-50 Euro and can be applied for at any Cuban embassy or consulate. While you can get this card at the airport in Cuba, many countries require you to have the visa before they let you board your fly to Cuba so it’s best to get it before you set off.
Can Americans travel to Cuba? Yes, but it’s a hassle! That being said, more than 100, 000 US citizens travelled to Cuba last year (although many enter illegally). Strictly speaking, the only way a US citizen can officially visit Cuba is with a valid license from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
There are two licenses: a general license and a specific license. Traveling under general license is the easiest because you don’t have to ask the government for permission, but you can be asked for documented proof from your trip that shows you traveled under that category (unlikely). So Cuba holidays are definitely an option for everyone now!
If you want to enter without the license, you can book a flight to a third country (Mexico for example) and connect to Cuba, easy!
COST: Is Cuba expensive for a tourist? Yes it is :S It’s not like Asia, that’s for sure. The exchange rate with the USD is 1:1, and the costs are pretty much the same too. A good way to look at it is that it’s much more expensive than central/south America but a lot cheaper than the even more touristy other Caribbean islands.
As a budget, a minimum of $30-$40 (traveling cheap) is possible, anything less than that it pretty tough.
SIGHTS: Endless sights, endless beaches and endless rum – sounds pretty good huh! I wrote an article on the top 5 destinations in Cuba here so feel free to check that out.
ACCOMMODATION: Youth hostels are yet to hit Cuba, so here are your options.
Stay in one of the casas particulares (private houses licensed to offer lodging services to foreigners) with the cheapest ones starting around $20 USD per night. It’s difficult to become a Casa Particulare so if you stay in an un-registered house, it may be cheaper (but illegal), expect to pay around $10-$15 per night for that but if you get caught, you’ll get a hefty fine.
TRANSPORT: Renting a car is expensive, minimum $70 USD per day plus gas (ouch!) so stay well clear of that, also official taxis are about 1CUC/km for short distance, less for longer distances so again much too pricey for our backpacking wallets. Local buses and hitchhiking are the way to go, they’re real, they’re fun and they’re cheap. The buses cost around $2 per hour for longer journeys.
Hitchhiking in Cuba has quite a refined system actually. The Amarillo (yellow guy) will be sitting at a corner on a main-road, that means it’s an official hitchhiking spot where people are obliged to pick you up! Normally lorries so bring sunscreen and/or a coat because you’ll probably be punted to the back of the lorry! From city to city expect to pay between $10-$20 depending on your level of Spanish!
When’s best to visit Cuba? Between December and April, to avoid the horrendous storms and hurricanes before December and the sticky heat of the Cuban summer but this is peak season, so expect the tourist hordes, especially around the nicest beaches :S