Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Backpacking in Cuba on a Gap Year

How to Backpack Around Cuba

From getting around, to accommodation, to food, here's all the Cuba advice you need

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Cuba is a land with vibrant streetlife, crazy bars, baffling politics, colourful architecture and brilliant locals. This all adds up to be a huge draw for anyone looking for an adventure in the Caribbean. It’s easy to backpack in Cuba – everyone’s willing to help, it’s cheap and there’s a lot to see.
If you’re thinking of backpacking around Cuba, make sure you read this quick guide. Attempting to understand the lay of the land when you’re out there, combined with the Caribbean heat and a few too many daiquiris, can really make life difficult.

Getting around Cuba

I spent a week in Havana, three nights in Playa Ancon, two in Trinidad and two in Cienfuegos when I visited Cuba. It was very easy to get around via the xxx bus system, but you need to book your place on the bus at least 24 hours before you want to leave. The bus picks up and drops off at all the main hotels, and a few other key points around the cities if you’re staying at the casa particulars like I did – just be there 30 minutes before your allotted time.
On our first leg – from Havana to Playa Ancon – the bus picked us up at 8am from the Parque Central Hotel in central Havana. We were told the trip would be five hours, but it ended up clocking in at seven. I didn’t mind, the rolling scenery as we went was incredible. Who knew Cuba was so lush?  After an hour we stopped for breakfast at a motorway shack and there was another 20-minute stop in Cienfuegos too. The trip cost 35CUC (£23) each.
When it came to our Trinidad jaunt a few days later we took the local tourist bus from Playa Ancon to Trinidad. It took around 30 minutes and cost 1CUC (60p). This was actually for a return journey, which we never used.
The National
From Trinidad we took another xxx bus at 8:30am to make the four hours to the Cienfuegos peninsula. We stopped at another motorway ‘service station’/roadside shack along the way and I had the freshest pina colada I’d ever tasted in my life – they even gave me the Havana Club bottle to add my own. The trip cost 15CUC (£10) and the pina colada 2CUC.
It was another early start to get our bus back to Havana from Cienfuegos. The three hours completed our round trip through northern Cuba.
I’d definitely recommend getting out of Havana for a few days and seeing some more of the country. Not only is it good to get some fresh air, it also makes you appreciate incredible Havana all the more when you head back. All the buses were air conditioned, the stops were regular enough and the staff super friendly.

Best accommodation in Cuba 

The best way to save money backpacking around Cuba is to stay in the casa particulars (private homes). Locals rent out their spare rooms to passing travellers to make a few extra CUCs. It might sound a little weird at first, and unfortunately we only cottoned onto how great they were in our last few days. Most will charge between 25-30CUC (£17) per night for the room, whether there are one or two of you. The facilities change a lot depending on your location and the individual casa.
Playa Ancon Beach
I stayed at a Casa Oshun in Cienfuegos with my boyfriend. We had a room out the back with our own private entrance and a bathroom. Every morning we were served an epic breakfast and there was even a beach at the bottom of the garden. In Trinidad we stayed at La Dona and again, we had a wonderfully comfortable room with a bathroom, breakfast and the hosts were lovely. We were right in the centre. In Havana the room was a bit poky and hot, but the shower was powerful and we were five minutes’ walk from the main street of Obispo.
For the other nights we stayed at budget and mid price hotels. From my experience the cheap hotels were skanky and the expensive ones were very, very expensive. I’d recommend to anyone to stay in the casas over these.

Food in Cuba

The standard fare in Cuba revolves around rice, black beans, fish or pulled pork. It was delicious and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I wrote a (very!) detailed article on the food in Cuba on my blog Walk around the streets and you’ll find cakes, breads and plenty of tourist and local bars vying for your dollar. I didn’t have a bad meal in Cuba, and neither should you. A good full meal will set you back about £6 and for the same price you can make the most of the menus of the day, which includes a drink, dessert and a main. Check out this lobster I got on a deal at one of the tourist restaurants on Obispo.  
It was only towards the end of my trip that I realised why the queues were snaked at the pizza and chip stalls in the streets: they were crazily cheap. For the equivalent of £1.20 you could get a delicious cheese and tomato pizza, and a side portion of chips. Not the healthiest, but show me a backpacker who is.
My hot tips would have to include the pulled pork at The Nacional (10CUC/£6), the mixed brochettes on The Inglaterra’s roof garden in Havana (10CUC/£6), and the whole menu at El Tranvia in Cienfuegos.
Inglaterra rooftop

Drinking in Cuba

Rum, rum and more rum, and the occasional Cristal beer; this pretty much sums up my drinking in Cuba. Cocktails were 4CUC (£2.65) and were heavy on the Havana Club. I drank more daiquiris over those two weeks than I have in my whole life. The sugar in the Mojitos kept me wired all night and the whole island is obsessed with their national brand Havana Club, which is kept at a super low price. A litre bottle in the shops was around 8CUC (£5).
The obsession with rum is not a tourist fallacy. By day you’d see people chilling on the beach with a bottle of Havana Club from the early hours and walking around Havana in the afternoon you could pull up to the bars – my personal favourite was Bar Sylvia – and order a rum. No mixer though: you’re in Cuba now. These bars charged just 1CUC (60p) for a hefty shot of the good stuff.
The beer was usually around 1.50CUC (£1) a can and the most I paid for a cocktail was 8CUC (£5). Water costs around the same as the rum, and I can’t actually remember drinking one straight up soft drink the whole time I was there.
Woman in Cuba


As for sightseeing, check out the 10 Coolest Things to Do in Cuba for some hot tips.

Money in Cuba 

The banks in Cuba are a nightmare – sometimes they don’t have any money in them, others won’t accept your cards and there are very few dotted around. Combine this with the fact that they don’t accept American credit cards (silly me!) and you could find yourself in a few sticky situations. Make sure you always have enough money on you to cover yourself, and locate the ATMs on your first day. 

My comment:
Readers from other countries will find this bizarre, but Americans are prevented by our own government from backpacking in Cuba.
This will change dramatically if President Obama finally authorizes a general license for non-tourist purposeful travel. 
John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Developmment

Help the President make a decision to allow backpacking in Cuba

Gap Years and Backpacking in Cuba
Think 'Cuba' and you think vibrant colonial architecture, fat cigars, Havana Club Rum and smiling faces; we do anyway. The sub-tropical island was once a top destination for rich and famous Americans, but after the 1959 revolution there was a travel ban on US citizens. An embargo was put in place and the American tourists could no longer pump money into the little island.
Since entry laws were relaxed in the mid 90s, tourism is increasing and there are suggestions the embargo could be lifted. If you want to visit Cuba on your gap year today you'll find friendly locals, stunning nature and vibrant beaches. Adventurous travellers can spend their time snorkelling and diving on the coral reef, while culture vultures can make the most of the museums, art galleries and concert halls of Old Havana.
Make sure you explore your way out of the capital Havana too. Just 6km to the east of the city you'll find the quaint fishing village of Cojimar where Ernest Hemmingway got much of the inspiration for his books, in particular The Old Man and the Sea.
The second largest city of Santiago de Cuba is also a must. It's famous for its July carnival and pumping music celebrations. Some of the most highly regarded of Cuba's musicians have come from the Santiago de Cuba area - including Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Eliades Ochoa all from the Buena Vista Social Club.
Of course, the best way to explore Cuba is in one of the 1950s classic cars. Cruising your way along the Malecon is an absolute must.

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