Guest Post: 9 Things you should be aware of when hitchhiking and backpacking in Cuba – Part I
In this week’s guest post… contributor Phoebe Whitehouse introduces us to budget travelling in Cuba. In the first part of her detailed guide, Phoebe inspires us to visit and takes a closer look at money and accommodation on the island …
Why visit Cuba?
1) Small country full of wonders
Despite Cuba being a small island, it is rich in geographical offerings and will never fail to amaze even the best travelled of off-the-beaten-track wanderers. It is a country of splendid beaches, white sand and clear waters; of colourful cities rich with history; of mountain ranges and cave networks and of mogotes, peculiar dome-shaped limestone formations typical of the west.
2) Try to stay off the beaten path
By straying away from the typical tourist routes and finding a more authentic mode of travel, the backpacker can gain a real insight into the country, meet Cubans away from the big resorts and see a landscape that the majority on tours and all-inclusive getaways simply don’t see.
Take a snail-paced train ride through rural Cuba from the capital Havana to Guantánamo, stopping at each tiny hamlet en route, and watch the local communities working in the cane fields, waving as the train passes or hanging their pristine white linen out to dry as a tethered donkey looks on. Set up a tent on the wild and unkempt beaches of Baracoa and explore its luscious plantations teeming with cocoa, coffee and exotic fruits by day and stargaze with a bottle of Cuban rum by night. Alternatively, head west, enjoy the village life of Viñales, home to tobacco and ride horses across ground the colour of rich terracotta.
3) Understand the dual currency
Most important, is that the shoestring traveller understands the dual currency. Only through getting to grips with these is the traveller able to fully take advantage of Cuba’s offerings while also saving themselves a great deal.
To simplify matters, there is the local peso (CUP) and the convertible peso that roughly matches the American dollar (CUC). There are 25 CUPs to 1 CUC. So 1 CUC = 60 pence. 1 CUP = 2.4 pence.
Until accustomed to such a bizarre dual currency, it can be confusing and often tourists are duped as Cubans rarely distinguish between the CUC or CUP. It is simply a case of understanding that you are in Cuba – if a price asks ‘5’ for a pizza, you have to remember that Cubans themselves wouldn’t feasibly be able to spend 5 CUC (£3) so the vendor is therefore asking for 5 CUP. All accommodation is charged in CUCs, as is most food and essentials. Trucks, 4x4s and some trains are in the local currency, as is street food and ice cream. For any bookworms, a real find are the old bookshops selling Communist propaganda texts with very differing accounts of history that are all charged in the local currency.
Tourists have two solid options for accommodation: hotels and casas particulares that are marked by a symbol of a blue upside down anchor.
4) Choose casas particulares to save money and taste some home cooking
The hotels are expensive, whilst the casas particulares, or guesthouses, are brilliant options for shoestring travellers. Each one we stayed in was clean, comfortable and had an en suite. They also offer home-cooked dishes of seafood and vegetables that are a great deal tastier and more generous than restaurant offerings but not exactly cheap.
The casas particulares can be priced at anything between 15 CUC (about £9.00) and 30–35 CUC if in the capital, but shared between two people, there isn’t much to complain about. In high season, rooms can be a little more difficult to find so perhaps ask your host in one city to call ahead to a friend in the next and hold a room for you. Often, they receive commission for recommendations so this will be no trouble for them.
5) If short of money, you can camp wild
The third option is to take along a tent with you. The regulation is a little hazy on this but on three or four occasions we set up tent on the beach and had no disturbances.
written by: Phoebe Whitehouse
“As an undergraduate in Spanish, my greatest love is putting my language into practice. I have backpacked extensively in Spain and Latin America and have also lived in Northern Chile for a year. For me, backpacking is about living, eating and breathing the local way.”
visit Phoebe’s blog: phoebeswanderlust.wordpress.com