The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Cuba

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Cuba

Picture a beautiful Caribbean island, full of warm, hospitable people. Now, pour in some white sandy beaches, warm azure waters and add a dash of music. All these things are essential to Cuba’s vibrant multicultural melting pot. Cuba is ideal for curious, adventurous travellers who are after something different. If this sounds like you, get ready to learn how to get the best out of backpacking Cuba.

Cuba has a turbulent history, going back long before the 1959 revolution. This history isn’t confined to Cuba’s museums, memorials and mausoleums, breathtaking as they may be. It lives in the people of Cuba, a culture whose music, dances, food and people draw on influences from Caribbean, African and Spanish cultures.

Cuba’s natural beauty is just as captivating – whether you’re lying on a soft beach under the warm Caribbean sun, taking in the lush forests and towering mountains, or swimming in natural freshwater pools fed by crashing waterfalls.  All of this provides the backdrop for colourful cities and long nights dancing under the stars – it’s no wonder Cuba is becoming more and more of a draw for adventurous travellers.

Although it’s great for us that Cuba is opening its doors to the world, it’s important to remember that this is a place where real people live, the vast majority of whom are significantly poorer than the tourists who visit the island. Though tourism benefits the Cuban economy, it’s important to be respectful and to make sure that ordinary Cubans feel the advantages of this industry, rather than just suffering the consequences.

Jump straight to:

  1. Best time to visit Cuba
  2. Cuba visa
  3. Travelling around Cuba
  4. Cuba accommodation
  5. Is Cuba expensive?
  6. Where to go in Cuba
  7. Things to do in Cuba
  8. Cuban food
  9. Cuban nightlife
  10. Cuban culture and customs
  11. Is Cuba safe?
  12. Cuba travel advice

backpacking cuba - pink car - cuban flag

📷 Alexander Kunze

Best time to visit Cuba

You’ll be glad to hear that Cuba’s tropical climate is warm all year round. There isn’t much difference between the seasons: even during the coldest months of January and February the average Cuba temperature is about 25 degrees, still positively balmy for most Europeans! The biggest transition is between the rainy season, which lasts from May to October, and the dry season, which runs from December to April.

This rainy season makes up about 75% of the country’s annual rainfall, but don’t panic! You won’t get grey, rainy days full of mizzle (misty drizzle). In fact, you’ll probably still get a lot of sunshine, as the rain tends to fall in intense tropical downpours. The biggest issue is probably the heat and humidity, which can get really intense (especially in the south). This muggy atmosphere can get uncomfortable, even though the temperatures usually don’t go above the mid-30s. As a result, the summer probably isn’t best time to go exploring and sightseeing.

So-called “winters” in Cuba tend to be dryer, but winds coming from the US can affect the northwest of the country, including Havana, bringing some cool, overcast days. However, even when this happens, temperatures are still mild. To put things in perspective, Havana weather only sees temperature drops of around 19-26 degrees in the coldest months, January and February. So, yes, winter weather in northern Cuba can be a bit more changeable, it’s still OK as a time to visit – especially if you’re looking to explore. If you’re thinking of heading further south, you needn’t worry about winter weather: temperatures here are warmer and the region is sheltered from the cool northerly winds.

Overwhelmed by all this information? Well, if you’re wondering when the ideal time to visit the island is, late March-April is a good bet. This period sees temperatures averaging in the late 20s, with a lower risk of bad weather from the North, without the heat and humidity of the rainy season. It should be mentioned that there is a hurricane risk (albeit a low risk) in Cuba between June and November, which peaks in September and October. If you’re visiting at this time it’s worth checking the National Hurricane Centre Website before your trip.

 

Cuba visa

You’re probably wondering, “do I need a visa for Cuba?” well, the simple answer is yes. Thankfully, you’ll be relieved to hear, the visa for Cuba is quite easy to get your hands on. Known as the “tarjeta turistica” or “tourist card”, it allows you to visit the island for a period of up to 30 days. If you’re a UK, Irish or Australian citizen we’ve outlined all the tourist visa information below, but do check the websites for the most recent information and prices.

Tourists coming from the UK will have to buy their card before departing and, according to the website of the embassy, can only get it by posting an application to the following address:

The Cuban Consulate,

167 High Holborn,

London,

WC1V 6PA

 

You’ll also need to submit the following documents:

  1. Your flight confirmation (both inbound and outbound)
  2. Proof that you have reserved accommodation, including the address of the accommodation.
  3. A photocopy of your travel insurance documents (you’ll need to purchase comprehensive travel insurance that covers all overseas medical costs, including medical evacuation, for the full duration of your stay).
  4. A photocopy of the main page of your passport (which must be valid for 2 months after the date you plan to leave Cuba)
  5. A pre-paid envelope with your address on it, so your documents can be sent back to you without any problems.
  6. Payment made through a postal order or banker’s draft payable to HAVIN BANK.

An important thing to note about the final requirement is that payment can only be made in this way. Cash or checks will not be accepted. The payment details are within the application form. Each application costs £39 and a separate application must be made for each person who is travelling. The process can take a couple of weeks, so it’s best to be prepared.

If you’re living in Ireland, you can also apply by post, by sending a bank draft or postal money order for €47.00 (for each application) payable to the Cuban Consulate, along with everything listed above. This should be addressed to the Cuban Embassy, at 32B Westland Square, Pearse Street, Dublin 2, Ireland. You can also apply here in person, which will cost 22 euros, and requires all the same documents as the UK application. You can find the application form on the documents section of this page.

If you’re coming from Australia, you’re in luck! Here you can apply by email. First, fill in the electronic application form (on your computer, without printing it out). After you’ve done this, make a digital (scanned) copy of the main page of your passport and your travel itinerary. You’ll need to make a bank transfer of $100 AUD plus $7 AUSD postage, using the following bank details:

Name: CONSULATE REP CUBA

BSB: 082 – 902

Account no.: 65 – 886 – 1632

After this, send an email to visas@cubaus.net, with your electronic application form and scanned documents attached.  The embassy’s website states that if the conditions are fulfilled, the application can go through in two days. Applications can also be made in person in Canberra, at 7 Terrigal Crescent, O´Malley, ACT, by bringing along copies of the same documents (minus the application form). If you fulfil the requirements you can receive the visa on the spot.

Be aware, that if you choose to travel from the US, your tourist card will not be valid. Due to the relations between the US and Cuba, there are only 12 categories of visit which allow you to do this – none of which are tourism. We recommend travelling from or via somewhere other than the USA.

 

Travelling around Cuba

It can be difficult to find accurate information about travelling around Cuba, and the information you’ll find is often contradictory. So, here’s some information based on the experiences of backpackers:

Naturally, the easiest way to get around is by taxi – they’re comfortable and there are plenty of them. However, this option is obviously more expensive, which can be a big factor if you’re a backpacker on a tight budget. Still, if you’re travelling a shorter distance to somewhere that’s a bit more off the beaten track, the extra cost and convenience can be worth it – especially if you band together with some other adventurous travellers and split the fare. Cuban taxis are state-run and use meters. However, it can be cheaper if you try to negotiate in advance. There’s also the stated-owned Grancar company, which runs a fleet of old American cars painted yellow. These are more expensive, but then again, you’re paying for the experience.

There’s another type of vehicle that’s quickly becoming iconic in Cuba – the coco taxi. It’s not actually a car, but a scooter encased in a fibreglass shell, resembling a coconut. They offer travellers a fun and picturesque way of exploring, with the wind blowing through your hair, and are mainly based in Havana, Varadero and Trinidad. Be wary though, as these can lack some safety features – the British Foreign Office recommends against their use. Also, don’t forget that the yellow ones are for tourists and blue/yellow and black ones are for locals.

Another option is the Guagua – regular local buses that cost around 1 CUP on average (meaning that it’s a good idea to carry some loose change around with you). Just prepare for a bit of a squeeze and don’t expect them to run according to the published schedules. Although some websites say that the Guaguas are only for locals, that’s not what we were told in Cuba, and we were able to get around in them without any issue. They’re a great way to cover short distances, especially for thrifty backpackers.

When you’re travelling longer distances between cities, the only bus line that the tourists can use is Viazul. It’s easy to buy tickets, just look out for the Viazul ticket booths in bus stations. This service is exclusively for tourists, so payment is always in CUCs. When Cubans need to get around, they use another bus line “Nacionales”, which is exclusively for them, with significantly cheaper prices in CUPs. When we say don’t try get away with using these buses, we mean it. There are several reports of tourists being thrown off. Also, bear in mind that when we visit a country we need to play our part in respecting the laws, culture and customs.  The reason for the divide is because we, as tourists, even backpackers, are significantly wealthier than the general population of Cuba. It’s not fair if we try to exploit a system designed to be affordable for them.

backpacking cuba - bus prices

📷 Alice Maffucci

Because of crowding on local buses, you’ll often see colectivos, shared taxis that travel along vaguely fixed routes. You can ask around for where they go from, or flag them down along the routes. If you get in at the start, you’ll have to wait for them to head off, as they only go once the taxi is full – Almendrones, big old US cars from the 50s are generally used for this purpose. However, be aware that their safety features are often lacking – meaning that it’s probably advisable to use other transport options.  There is also the option of camiones, old trucks made in the USSR or China, but this is not recommended as there is very little in terms of safety, with long benches and no seat belts.

 

Cuba accommodation

Cuba’s political system means that the accommodation situation is unusual. The big, state-owned hotels are pricey, but used to be the only option for tourists. However, in 1997, the government gave permission to private home owners to rent out rooms in their houses. Given that luxury hotels are not a great option for backpackers and being sheltered from everyday life isn’t really part of the backpacking experience, we’re going to focus on these private guesthouses. Known as, ‘Casas particulares’, they can take the form of hostels with shared rooms, guesthouses/B&Bs with private rooms, or self-contained apartments – all of which you’ll be able to find on Hostelworld.

As well as offering value for money, casas particulares put money into the hands of ordinary Cubans (instead of a big hotel chain) helping to power the local economy. All of this is legalised and regulated by the government. Illegal rentals do exist but you’re unlikely to come across this if you book in advance (which you’ll need to do anyway to get your visa).

The fact that Cubans aren’t allowed to own large businesses mean that these guesthouses offer a very personal experience, with even the biggest only having a few rooms. Being able to meet other travellers, make new friends, and share experiences is why we love the hostel experience. Staying in a casa particular adds another layer to this, as you’ll be able to experience a family atmosphere, and get to know the residents. People who run casas particulares are often warm, friendly and will be happy to get to know you, share stories, and give you insider tips about the local area. Even if you stay in a private room, this can be a good value option – splitting a room between three or four people is even more affordable.

Staying at a casa particular also gives you the chance to try some authentic Cuban food for a great price, with many offering breakfast for an extra cost, and sometimes lunch or dinner upon request. Just make sure to let the hosts know the night before so they can prepare accordingly and tell them your dietary requirements!

As you’ve probably worked out by now, this means that casas particulares, whether they’re laid out as hostels or guesthouses, are the best places to stay in Cuba! You’ll find yourself spoilt for choice when it comes to finding hostels in Cuba, so here are some of the places we liked:

 

Hostels in Havana

As it’s the biggest city, Havana has the best selection of hostels too. Thankfully Havana, and Cuba in general, are relatively safe. So, unlike other Latin American capitals, where central areas can be dangerous, Centro Habana (Central Havana) and Habana Vieja (Old Havana) are great places to stay. This means that you can immerse yourself in the beautiful architecture of the Cuban capital, with bustling nightlife and historical sights on your doorstep.

📷 Alice Maffucci

Hostal Camila y Merci

Located only 10 minutes on foot from the beautiful Malecón seafront promenade and the same distance from many of the main sights in the city centre. It offers an intimate experience, with only one six-bed dorm. This hostel is a great pick if you want to brush up on your Spanish or dance skills, as they offer lessons right here.

Casa Novo Guest House

This hostel is situated in a beautiful old colonial house dating back to the 1900s. It’s equipped with air conditioning and offers private rooms only. However, if you split the five-bed, three-bed or even the double option, the prices are still really reasonable, but means it’s better for those travelling in a group. It’s also got a great location in Centro Habana.

Casa Colonial Biani & Lessi

This casa particular is also situated in a colonial house, which, despite being almost 100-years-old, has modern facilities such as air-conditioning, hairdryers, safes and a minibar. It’s also only a short distance to Havana’s main sights, nightlife and the seafront. Conveniently, Havana’s free WiFi zone is also nearby (which, as you’ll see below, is great given the general lack of internet connectivity on the island).

 

Hostels in Matanzas

Since there aren’t many good-value options available in the resort of Veradero, nearby Matanzas is a great choice. Plus, as somewhere that locals live, it’s got much more personality and authenticity.

Super Casa Doña Edita

This place is a great example of what’s on offer in Matanzas: it’s simple, but with comfy beds, air-conditioning, hot water and a lovely outdoor area filled with fruit trees, where you can relax on long, warm evenings. Accommodation includes one three-bed private room and two three-bed apartments- which are affordable even for one person and an even better option if shared.

Residencia Filuentes

A little bit further out of Matanzas, but perfectly situated to get to Veradero. Accommodation here is in two-bed apartments, which are also affordable, with air-conditioning, an outdoor terrace and BBQ!

 

Hostels in Trinidad

Hostal Calleyro

Staying at the Hostal Calleyro provides an intimate experience, as there’s only one three-bed room. It’s in a great location, just two minutes’ walk from the Plaza Mayor (main square), with air conditioning and a terrace that provides a stunning view of the city. Its small size means you’ll get to know the owner and his family, who are all warm and friendly!

Hostal Mar y Tierra

This is another little place, with one double room with ensuite. Situated in the heart of this city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, just a few hundred metres from the beautiful main square. Food is available, and there’s air conditioning!

 

Hostels in Santa Clara

Hostal Eva y Ernesto

This hostel is spacious, clean and has a well-equipped kitchen. There’s the option of a twin room, double room, or a four-bed apartment, with air-conditioning and private bathrooms throughout.

Hostal Don Jose

You’ll find this gem, just a stone’s throw away from the main square (Parque Vidal) and the clubs, bars and restaurants. Just the one room in this guesthouse, that can sleep three people, so book early if you’re keen to stay and enjoy the private terrace.

 

Hostels in Santiago

Casa Colonial Nivia

There are a couple of double and twin rooms here, all housed in a cute little house. It’s a stone’s throw away from sights such as the Cespedes Park, Casa de la Música and Museum Emilio Bacardi. Relax in the private orchards and enjoy the opulent breakfast.

Hostal le Ceiba

There are three rooms here, including a five-bed room which is great value if you split it! It’s right in the historical centre of the city, next to the Santísima Trinidad Catholic Church. There’s a bar and the option of getting food, with air conditioning in each room and a central indoor terrace for relaxing after long days exploring.

 

Is Cuba expensive?

The short answer to this question is “it depends”. Obviously, if you want to stay at a luxury beach-side resort, Cuba will cost you a lot of money. Fortunately, “travelling like a local” is definitely the best way to discover Cuba, especially if you want to save money and have a more authentic travel experience. Ways you can save money include staying in hostels or casas particulares, and by travelling on public transport. You can also save money by staying in nearby cities rather than the more popular areas, splitting taxis and the cost of accommodation with your friends and getting street food or cajitas (Cuban meals served in boxes, see “Cuban Food”).

As you’ve probably heard, Cuba doesn’t have free WiFi everywhere. It’s not just as simple as buying a 4G SIM card. Getting online is difficult and can be expensive – so, to save money, use your trip as a chance to disconnect and get lost in the moment. But, if the desire to send memes to your crush becomes irresistible, the process for getting the internet is as follows: first, go the national telecoms company, ETECSA and buy a card. This will give you a login and a password (it costs 1 CUC for 30 minutes). To get connected, you need to go to a part of the city where they have a network, allowing you to log in with details on the little card. In general, the phone masts are located in main squares. An unintended consequence of this is that they’re always full, making them the perfect places to socialise.

Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban peso (CUP) and Cuban convertible peso (CUC). The Cuban peso is the currency most used by Cubans in their day to day lives and the one that is most devalued. You can use it to buy things in places where locals go to. The CUC, on the other hand, is the “tourist currency” and its value is pegged to that of the US dollars, and the exchange rate is about 1 CUC to 25 CUPs. So, 1 CUC is 1 USD, 0.75 GBP, or 0.88 EUR (at the time of writing).

Cuban currency can be difficult to get your head around. However, most places accept payments in both currencies and you’ll get used to it within a few hours. When it comes to money, the most important thing to remember is to take euros, Canadian dollars or pounds (just bear in mind that neither Scottish nor Northern Irish notes can be exchanged). You can exchange your money to the two currencies in bureaux de change, which are easy to find in the main hotels, banks and airports, or so called “CADECA” foreign exchange offices. Don’t get money changed anywhere else, as there’s a lot of counterfeit currency going around.  We’d advise you to always get more converted into CUCs, just remember to keep some change on you in CUPs for things like guagua buses, taxis, snacks, street food, food in some restaurants or ice cream.

Taking US dollars is not a good idea, as there’s a commission of 10%. On top of this, travellers’ cheques, credit cards and debit cards issued by American banks or banks affiliated with American banks are not accepted. This includes American Express, Westpac bank cards and some MasterCard and Visa cards, depending on the bank which issued them. There are also virtually no ATMs that accept Cirrus or Switch cards. It’s worth bringing an emergency supply of cash with you, including enough to leave Cuba in case your cards don’t work – and even if they do, there’s a 3% local commission charge on all ATM and card translations.

The dual-currency system reflects the fact that parts of the Cuban are divided between tourists and residents. Given that visitors to the island are quite a bit wealthier than the general population, tourists are charged a lot more for certain things- such as longer-distance coach travel (see “Travelling around Cuba”). Most restaurants, while relatively cheap for tourists are usually only affordable for wealthier locals, meaning that prices in Cuba are higher than you might expect for a developing country. This disparity makes it important for you to respect the local people, so that tourism can work for them. Support local business and small-scale artisans, respect local customs and try to travel sustainably.

 

Where to go in Cuba

Cuba has a lot to offer sun worshippers, sightseers and everyone who’s somewhere in-between. Here we’ll present you with an overview of the best places to visit in Cuba, so you can set out your Cuba itinerary. If you’re looking for more specific tips on how to spend your days, check out the section on “What to do in Cuba” and “What to do in Havana”. Anyway, here are some Cuba points of interest to get you started:

 

Havana

As Cuba’s capital, scene of historic events and the place with perhaps the most colonial grandeur – Havana is probably Cuba’s most well-known destination. The Old Town, Habana Vieja, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its streets lined with pastel-coloured mansions, their crumbling façades just adding to the charm. Havana was born in the 16th century – with the Castillo de la Real Fuerza fortress (which now houses a museum) dating back around 450. Take a casual stroll around here and you’ll stumble across the Gran Teatro, ornately decorated in gleaming white marble and the monumental Capitolio, with its pillars and domes reminiscent of the US Capitol building. These contrast with the old, low-rise stone buildings and understated beauty of Plaza de la Catedral.

For something more modern, wander out of Habana Vieja into Havana Centro. Its landmarks are just as impressive in terms of their scale and history. The colossal Plaza de la Revolucion stretches over 12 square kilometres, which is more impressive if you imagine it full of people, with Castro belting out one of his famous speeches. On one side stands a 100m-tall monument devoted to José Martí, who was instrumental in Cuba’s fight against its Spanish colonial overlords. On another side sits the Teatro Nacional, whose modernist simplicity – all whitewashed concrete, clean straight lines and glass – is a bit different to the Gran Teatro.  One sight you shouldn’t (and indeed, couldn’t) miss is the huge outline of Che Guevara, mounted on the side of the Ministry of the Interior.

Havana’s not just for history buffs and culture vultures though. Music echoes out from every corner, and there’s no shortage of places to enjoy a drink and some Salsa dancing, whether you’re taking part or just taking it all in. Nowhere is this more the case than the Malecón, an 8km-long waterfront promenade filled with people from all walks of life. If you want to get away from all the buzz, the capital also has some beautiful beaches, but more on that later.

📷 RC77

Trinidad

Think of charming cobbled streets lined with centuries-old mansions. The buildings of this UNESCO World Heritage site date from the 18th and 19th century and include Eastern-influenced and neoclassical designs. As well as this opulence, there are humble old houses painted in a rainbow of colours. The central square is enchanting, and, during the day is filled with artisans’ stalls. At night, it’s the main meeting place for locals. The city lies in the shadows of the Sierra Escrambray, where Che Guevara and his guerrillas carried out manoeuvres during the revolutionary war. It is just a few kilometres from the idyllic Playa Ancón beach – which can be reached by bike, allowing you to take in your surroundings as you go.

backpacking cuba - Trinidad - old cars

📷 Alice Maffucci

Santa Clara

Santa Clara, also known as the “City of Che” played a pivotal role in Cuba’s revolutionary history.  It was the site of the famous “Battle of Santa Clara”, where Che Guevara and his troops won a decisive victory over the army of Fulgêncio Batista, despite being outnumbered by ten to one. The museums and Che’s mausoleum are definitely worth visiting. However, Santa Clara is also known as a fun, open and liberal city, due in part to the fact that it’s a university town. It’s got a youthful atmosphere with great music and nightlife.

backpacking cuba - Santa Clara - Che Guevara's mausoleum

📷 Alice Maffucci

Veradero and Matanzas

The largest resort in the Caribbean, situated on a 20km-long peninsula with white sandy beaches on all sides, Veradero offers warm, crystal clear waters where you can spend the whole day relaxing. You can even sit down and read a book in the water, that’s how calm it is. How about perusing Che Guevara’s “Memoirs of the Cuban Revolutionary War” a book which every student in Cuba gets when they graduate from high school. Alternatively, you can find out about the early life of this revolutionary icon in The Motorcycle Diaries. This charts Che’s journey around South America when he was in his early twenties, making it the perfect read for an adventurous backpacker!

You’re probably thinking “this sounds like heaven, what’s the catch?” Well…the catch is money, as you probably guessed. It’s a luxury resort with prices to match. But, if you’re on a backpackers’ budget you don’t have to miss out: stay in Matanzas, which is close to Veradero but much cheaper (the Viazul bus from Havana to Matanzas costs 7 CUC). From there you can take local public transport (what is essentially an open bus with some stools which costs 10 CUPs, less than €0.50). This will get you into Varadero in about 30 minutes – allowing you to enjoy the whole day there.

Staying in Matanzas offers a more authentic travelling experience anyway. This primarily Afro-Cuban city is the birthplace of Rumba and has artist-led cultural projects supporting and promoting Afro-Cuban artists. If you’re tired of lying on the beach, check out the colourful street of Callejón de las Tradiciones and sites such as the Teatro Sauto.

Santiago de Cuba

Santiago is Cuba’s second biggest city and a hub for Afro-Cuban culture. Its nightlife, Salsa dancing and cabarets rival only Havana’s. The city is also the site of a beautifully preserved 17th century fortress, Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca. This is perched on the cliffs, offering a beautiful view over the deep blue ocean. Santiago’s centrepiece is provided by the Parque Céspedes. This square is named after the 19th-century revolutionary hero, and is surrounded by historical buildings, each with a fascinating history of its own.

Cayo Santa Maria, Cayo Ensenachos and Cayo Francés

If you want to treat yourself to a bit of luxury, there’s no better place than these islands off Cuba’s north coast. You’ll find untouched, clean and deserted sands. The vast expanses of shimmering clear blue water are absolutely stunning. Just bear in mind, this area is also dominated by resorts, with no locals living there – so you might have to splash out a bit if you want to come here.

backpacking cuba - where to go - white sand beach

📷 Alice Maffucci

Things to do in Cuba

What to do in Cuba

1. Learn to dance or get some new skills!

If there’s one thing you can say about Cubans, it’s that they know how to dance. Head to a Salsa school and try out something new or brush up on your skills and get ready to impress for a night on the town. Options include Latin Salseando, in Havana – which is open to both Cubans and foreigners, allowing you to really immerse yourself. Baila Habana provides lessons tailored to all levels of difficulty in both Havana and Santiago. If you’re not so keen on that idea, there are other ways to throw yourself into Cuban culture, you can try out dancing to rumba, merengue or even Reggaetón. If you want to save money, look out for schools with open lessons. Another option is to team up with some of your friends to book a private group lesson, which usually requires five people or more, but is better value than one-on-one sessions.

If you’re not so keen on the idea of dancing, some schools, such as La Casa de Son and Salsabor a Cuba (both in Havana) offer music lessons, including Cuban percussion instruments, like the famous conga drum! At Salsabor a Cuba, you can also try out a bit of Latin guitar. If you’re not that musical, how about taking a Spanish class? It’s a great chance to meet people while gaining skills that allow you to engage more with the local culture.

backpacking cuba - men playing guitars

📷 Norbert Höldin

2. Discover Trinidad’s waterfalls and swim in the natural pools

El Cubano Natural Park is part of the much larger Parque Natural Tropes de Collantes and is just two kilometres away from the Plaza Mayor, providing you with a taste of the island’s natural beauty. However, a trip to Trinidad would be wasted without visiting the waterfalls of “Salto del Caburní. The trail is a 5km long, taking in some gorgeous natural scenery, but to get there you’ll have to get a taxi to Topes de Collantes first. The path cuts through dense rainforest, goes up past beautiful rock formations. It can be quite challenging in places, despite the relatively short distance – so it’s best to bring comfortable shoes and only to attempt if you’ve got a reasonable level of fitness. There’s a charge at the gate of Villa Caburní, but you can swim in a pool of clear, fresh water, secluded under trees and cliffs. You might see some people jumping of ledges – but bear in mind that this can lead to serious injury, especially in the dry season when the water levels are lower.

backoacking cuba - Trinidad’s waterfalls

📷 Óscar Ardèvol

3. See how Che won a battle with a bulldozer

Santa Clara’s Monumenta a la Toma del Tren Blindado (Armoured Car Museum) isn’t really your typical museum, as most of it is situated outdoors, in a park. The battle of Santa Clara was pivotal in the 1959 revolution, with the government falling the day after. To defeat the forces of Batista, Che Guevara and his guerrillas used a bulldozer to derail an armoured train carrying over 300 troops. This bulldozer now sits on a plinth in the park, and four of the carriages house exhibits that provide a testament to this daring and ingenious attack.

4. See where some of Cuba’s most famous figures are buried

The huge Santa Ifigenia Cemetery was established in 1868 and holds the mausoleum of the 19th-century revolutionary hero José Martí. This huge stone structure stands at 24-metres-tall, with colossal figures carved into its side. The cemetery is also the resting place of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, known as the “Father of the Motherland” who freed his slaves and led them in a rebellion against the Spanish. Other famous Cubans interred here include Tomás Estrada Palma, the first (and later much-loathed) president of Cuba and Emilio Bacardi, a (much-loved) personality from the Bacardi rum dynasty. Its most recent resident was buried here in 2016, none other than Fidel Castro himself.

4. Take in the natural beauty and history in Cuba’s national parks

Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, this area is well-known for its natural beauty and tobacco farms. Visiting the latter will bring you into contact with Cuba’s most famous industry and gives you a peek into lives of the people who work there. Perhaps the park’s most famous features are its “Mogotes”. These are tall hills with steep sides, which create an almost extra-terrestrial landscape out of the lush greenery.

The less well-known Desembarco del Granma National park sits at Cuba’s southwestern tip, near to the city of Bayamo. This beautiful wilderness was named after the famous yacht used by Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries to land here. This spot is now the site of a small museum, with a replica of the yacht and recreation of the landing area – illustrating the challenges the guerrillas faced. However, this isn’t the main attraction, which is provided by the colossal limestone terraces – bizarre looking rocky platforms with sheer cliffs and flat grassy tops. You can also admire its huge sinkholes and canyons, as well as cave carvings from indigenous peoples.

6. Dive in a cave filled with natural wonders

Situated near Matanzas, this flooded cave system is filled with marine life including angelfish and barracudas. You can choose to relax in the warm waters and admire the beautiful mineral formations, reminiscent of ceiling in an ornate cathedral. Alternatively, you can hire out snorkelling equipment or take a scuba dive through galleries of up to 20m deep. To avoid the crowds, it’s best to go early in the morning or later in the afternoon.

7. Soak in the history at Parque de Céspedes

The twin towers of the neoclassical Catedral Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption…yep, it’s a mouthful) dominate this historic square which has been there since the 16th century. It’s gone through a lot of names, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Plaza Mayor, Plaza Principal, Plaza de la Constitución, Plaza de la Reina and Plaza de Isabel II, but lost none of its charm. The park is surrounded by an array of beautiful and fascinating buildings. This includes the Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) and the Casa de Diego Velázquez (which is over 400-years-old), which today holds a museum with artefacts from the colonial era. What’s more, you can even get WiFi here.

8. Learn about the life of Che Guevara at his final resting place

From the hills above Santa Clara, a huge bronze statue of Che looks down on the city. The museum here details the life of the famous guerrilla, before and after the revolution – from his childhood and youth in Argentina, through the revolutions Sierra Maestra campaign, to his days as a statesman and his untimely death in Bolivia at the hands of the government and CIA. You can find personal effects of his, such as photos, his possessions and medical equipment (he was a doctor after all). It also holds Che’s mausoleum, but this is a relatively recent addition – as his body was only discovered in Bolivia in 1997, in a mass grave along with the revolutionaries he was leading. His revolutionary comrades are now buried alongside him again.

backpacking cuba - bronze statue of Che Guevara

📷 Anemone123

What to do in Havana

1. Get up close and personal with Cuba’s turbulent history at the Museum of the Revolution

The history of this museum goes back to 1959, the same year the brutal US-backed dictatorship of Fulgêncio Batista was overthrown. It’s situated in the incredibly opulent former Presidential Palace. The building houses the Salón de los Espejos, a replica of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, and the Salón Dorado (golden hall), full of yellow marble and gold. The luxurious interior design, by Tiffany’s of New York, is no less impressive. However, this beauty hides the building’s troubled past. If you look closely at the wall of the staircase, you can see bullet holes from a failed attempt to overthrow Batista’s government.

This museum isn’t just filled with text and old pots – it houses key items from the revolution, bringing its events to life. These include blood stained uniforms from the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks, a weaponry collection and Che Guevara’s pipe. On a larger scale, Fidel Castro’s tank, which was used in the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, sits in front of the museum. Out the back is the Granma Memorial – which houses the Granma yacht. This little vessel carried Fidel and 81 of his revolutionary comrades from Mexico to Cuba, where they almost died in the process.

Although some of the signs are in English as well as Spanish, having a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish will allow you to get more out of your visit. Admission is 8 CUC for adults, and you can hire a guide for 3 CUC extra.

2. Have a mojito at one of Ernest Hemingway’s old drinking holes

“My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita” – supposedly the words of famed adventurer, traveller and writer Ernest Hemingway, framed on the wall of La Bodeguita del Medio. Whether this is based in truth or myth – it’s worth taking a step back in time into these classic Havana bars, and enjoying a cocktail while you’re at it of course!

As you can probably guess from the quote above, La Bodeguita’s speciality is the mojito (made with white rum, sugar, mint, lime and soda water). This artsy little bar was bought by Ángel Martínez in 1942, and used to be a little shop, or “Bodeguita”, before word of mouth turned it into a restaurant and bar. Whether it was a favourite of Hemingway or not, it’s still a big point on Cuba’s cultural map – with Cuba’s national poet, Nicolás Guillén, amongst its former clientele. The walls are covered by the signatures of people who’ve been there and old photos, with live music completing the atmosphere. It’s a relic of an old Cuba, not the glamourous Cuba of the 50s, but a more bohemian one. If it’s glamour you’re after, head to El Floridita famous for its Daiquiris (rum, lime, sugar and crushed ice). It’s a bit more upmarket, with old-fashioned waiters in red jackets taking care of your every need.

3. Take a break from the noise at one of the Playas del Este

If you want to experience some of Cuba’s sun and sand, or to take a break from the city – head out to the Playas del Este. In terms of their natural beauty, they can rival those in more well-known resorts. The backdrop might not be quite as luxurious, but many have facilities like restaurants and sun-loungers. There’s not as much of a touristy feel, as this is where ordinary Havana residents go to relax. The beaches include Santa Maria del Mar, Bucurunao, Tarará, Mégano, Boca Ciega and Guanabo. The T3 tour bus will take you there for 5 CUC, or you can split a taxi.

backpacking cuba - Playas del Este

📷 Tanja Oijar

4. Experience the grandeur of the Gran Teatro

Performances here started in 1838, making it one of the longest-running theatres in Latin America. The baroque façade of the building is an attraction itself, adorned with intricate sculptures and decadent decoration. Inside you’ll find a 1,500-seat auditorium which hosts performances by Cuban National Ballet and National Opera. You can enjoy an amazing show for 30 CUC, but if your budget doesn’t stretch to that, there’s are guided tours for only a few CUCs, which are often taken by a member of one of the performing companies. You might even catch a dress rehearsal!

5. Take a classic car ride

It may be a bit of a cliché, but it wouldn’t be a trip to Cuba without a ride in a brightly-coloured 50s Cadillac. There’s just something special about the shining chrome and extravagant tailfins of these cars, which were imported by the wealthy before Castro’s government took over. The 1959 ban on the import of foreign cars and car parts left things frozen in time. Today, they share the roads with Soviet-era Ladas and more and cars imported more recently.

These “antique” cars aren’t vintage per-se, their shells have been “cannibalised”, with few of the original parts remaining underneath. After all- they weren’t kept in garages by collectors, they were used day in, day out! The fact that they’re still running is testament to the ingenuity of ordinary Cubans in the face of adversity. Private companies run tours in these cars, but this tends to be very expensive. Equally, the shared “almendrones” can be quite unsafe. For peace of mind, and something doesn’t break the bank, go for one that’s part of the state-owned “Gran Cars”.

backpacking cuba - pink car outside building

📷_thelittleadventure

6. Marvel at the scale of El Capitolio

This bright white neoclassical building dominates everything it surrounds – with a huge multi-layered dome and great marble columns. Although it resembles the US Congress, it’s even bigger! Commissioned by President Machado and completed in 1931, it soon became associated with his authoritarianism and corruption. Indeed, when he was overthrown in a coup, his image was scraped off the doors. It’s perhaps little wonder then that the communist regime neglected the building, dismissing it as a relic of the old regime.

Inside, you’ll find the hall of lost steps, with gleaming marble floors and ornate carved ceiling which is so high it mutes echoes. The Statue of the Republic is no less colossal in scale – in fact it’s the world’s third-biggest indoor statue. If that weren’t opulent enough, there’s a 24-carat diamond in the floor.

The building was left in a state of disrepair for decades, until Raúl Castro decided he wanted it to be home to the National Assembly. Consequently, the government started restoring it in 2010. Following extensive renovation works, it reopened in 2018, meaning you’ll be able to see it in all its glory.

7. Learn about Cuba’s national hero at the Jose Martí memorial

The marble figure of José Martí stands 17-metres tall, in front of a 109-metre tower in the shape of the five-pointed star of Cuba. Not only was he a champion of the anti-colonial cause, he was a famed writer and poet. In fact, what is perhaps the most well-known (and most covered) Cuban song, “Guantanamera”, sets his words to music. His life ended when he charged into Spanish lines, making him a martyr and making sure his name lived on.

The view from the top of the memorial is spectacular, and on a clear day you might even catch a glimpse of Key West, the most southerly point of the United States. The base of the memorial houses a museum, taking you through the life of Martí, his writing, his revolutionary activity and the history of the monument itself.

8. Indulge your sweet tooth in Fidel’s socialist ice cream parlour

After the revolution, Fidel Castro, himself a lover of ice-cream, vowed to create a parlour to rival those in the USA. Though doing this, he sought to prove what socialism could achieve, building a grand state-owned ice-cream parlour. The branch in Havana, on Calle y L, is a place like no other – with an upstairs shaped like a flying saucer and enough seats for 1000 people. It may take a while to get served, but this will give you some time to appreciate this uniquely Cuban oddity.

 

Cuban food

Cuban cuisine has changed a lot in the past 20 years or so. The culinary scene used to be dominated by state-owned restaurants, with not very much atmosphere. The food also lacked seasoning, due to the difficulty in importing spices. However, all of this changed with the boom in so-called “paladares”, small private restaurants which were legalised in the 1990s. These reforms allowed individual Cubans to sell food – and were expanded under Raúl Castro.

Like the rest of Cuban culture, Cuban cooking blends flavours from various cultures, with Caribbean, Spanish and African influences. Dishes tend to be fairly simple, with rice and beans as a staple. Indeed, you’ll be able to find moros y cristianos, or black beans and rice, on almost every menu. Perhaps it’s not the fanciest of dishes, but it’s cheap, filling and a good emergency option for vegetarians.

The Spanish influence in Cuban cooking can be seen in the dish of arroz con pollo (“rice with chicken”). Made with soft flavoursome rice and tender chicken – it’s similar to a paella, just without the seafood.

If you’re a big meat eater, don’t miss out on a dish of “ropa vieja”. This dish, which translates as “old clothes”, may not sound appetising. However, it’s actually a really comforting meal consisting of slow-cooked shredded beef in a rich tomato sauce. There’s also vaca frita, meaning “fried beef”. Don’t worry, it’s a bit more sophisticated than that – crispy meat marinated in spices, lime, garlic and salt – who said Cuban food was bland? And for dessert, there’s flan, a creamy jelly-like dessert that’s similar to crème caramel. If that doesn’t take your fancy, try the utterly indulgent tres leches cake. This sweet delight gets its name from the fact that it’s soaked in three different kinds of milk: sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream.

Although there are some fancier paladares, aimed more towards more affluent locals and tourists, you can also get some great value food. Some sell so-called “cajitas” – boxes filled to the brim with rice, beans, chicken and salad for just 25 CUP (around €1). Paladares are also a great place to try some rum, and a chance to throw yourself into some Mambo, Guajira, Cha Cha, Salsa or Merengue dancing.

Another tip for budget travellers should also be to stay on the lookout for street food, which is sold from windows, carts and stands. You’ll be able to find boxes with meat, rice and beans here too, as well as simple sandwiches with fillings like ham or cheese, as well as spaghetti with sauce. Look out for cheap Cuban coffee – which is both strong and sweet, the perfect pick-me-up!

If you’ve got a sweet tooth, there’s plenty to choose from, with bakeries serving pastelitos (puff pastry with sweet or savoury fillings) and stalls selling ice cream – with payment in CUP meaning they’re great value. In terms of savoury snacks, there’s lots on offer, and most of them are vegetarian/vegan friendly. Try some tostones (fried plantain slices) or yucca fingers – root vegetables fried like chips and deliciously dipped in tomato ketchup. For some more deep-fried goodness, how about some malanga? The Cubans take this vegetable, cover it in batter and fry it until it’s crispy and delicious.

Cuba’s famous for its sandwiches, with imitations being sold around the world. How about trying the real thing? The snack known elsewhere “Cuban sandwich” is sometimes called a “mixto” (mixed) on the island itself and comprises of roasted pork, ham, cheese, gherkins and mustard served on fluffy, crusty Cuban bread. A popular late-night snack or post-club snack is the “medianoche” (midnight) sandwich – with roast pork, cheese and gherkins served in soft, sweet egg bread.

Unfortunately, vegetarian food isn’t really a big thing in Cuba – bear in mind that it’s a place which has suffered regular food shortages, with the diet of locals mainly consisting of rice and beans with meat. But although it might not be the best destination for a vegetarian foodie, there are ways to get around this, you just have to be prepared. One good way to fill yourself is by eating at your casa particular- just let your hosts know your dietary requirements and give them advance notice so they prepare accordingly. Having breakfast or dinner at a casa particular is also a great way to experience some home-cooked Cuban food- whether you’re a vegetarian or a meat eater.

In larger cities, such as Havana, you might be able to find some decent vegan or vegetarian meals – especially in places serving Italian food. In an emergency, street food is a good option. How about a Cuban pizza, which is soft and fluffy – with gouda instead of mozzarella? It’s a good idea to bring a Spanish phrasebook so you know what to ask for.

 

Cuban nightlife

Music and dancing form a key part of Cuban culture, so it’s not surprising that things really come alive at night. When you move away from the tourist bars of Havana, you’re sure to find something unforgettable. From Reggaetón (a mix of Latin American music and reggae) to traditional Son Cubano, all the way to jazz – live music is everywhere. The Cubans really know how to dance too, there’s none of that self-consciously shuffling from foot to foot here! The Salsa, Rumba, and Cha Cha dancing often takes place under the stars, in open air venues – occasionally spilling out onto the streets and town squares. What better way to while away a warm Cuban evening?

backpacking cuba - man and saxophone - blue door

📷 Jessica Knowlden

Feel like experiencing this? Here are some options for you:

1. Havana – Salon Rosado de la Tropical

This huge open-air venue sees hundreds of people dance to Salsa, Reggaetón, hip hop and even electronic music. On Saturday there’s usually Salsa dancing, where locals and tourists enjoy a spin on the dancefloor and a drink of rum in the warm evening air. Since it can get crowded, it’s probably best not to take anything of value with you and keep an eye on your belongings.

2. Havana – Jardines del 1830

Located in a gorgeous old colonial house, right by the sea – the main attraction of this place is in its garden, which overlooks the water. The main event usually takes place Friday evenings, with everything from Timba and Salsa to hip hop and disco out on the terrace.

3. Santiago de Cuba – Casa de la Trova

Santiago is well-known for its music and has produced some of the best-known Cuban artists. This famed venue has also hosted some big names, even Paul McCartney popped in here once. Its performers span a range of ages and backgrounds, adding to its eclectic charm, with everything fuelled by good Cuban rum. It’s centrally located near Céspedes Park.

4. Santiago de Cuba – Casa de las Tradiciones

Less well-known and a bit cosier, this venue also offers great live music. It’s a bit more down-to-earth, and its walls are covered in colourful works of art and photos. As well as dancing, it also hosts poetry readings and art exhibitions.

5. Trinidad – Casa de la Música

If you’re not a fan of sweaty clubs, don’t worry, this venue is open air too. It always hosts live bands, with the parties sometimes spilling out onto Plaza Mayor.

Don’t worry if you’re not keen on dancing, there’s plenty besides Salsa on offer. Poetry, theatrical performances and live jazz aren’t just the preserve of the rich and snobby here, arts come from the people themselves. Here are some ideas for you:

6. Havana- Fabrica de Arte Cubano

This former cooking oil factory hosts art galleries, a cinema, dancefloors, restaurants, bars and a performance space. Sit down and enjoy poetry readings or theatrical performances. Alternatively, just kick back and relax with a glass of rum.

7. Havana- Café Teatro Bertholt Brecht

This basement venue hosts a young crowd in what used to be a Jewish community centre. Music includes everything from hip hop to Afro-Cuban jazz (on Wednesdays).

8. Havana- La Zorra y El Cuervo

Meaning “The Fox and the Crow”, this smoky basement bar is a great place to see some Afro-Cuban jazz.

9. Santiago de Cuba- Patio de los Abuelos

This open-air bar and coffee shop means grandparents’ patio, and the crowd can be a little older – but with a mix of live bands, poetry and variety shows, it’s the perfect place to relax.

10. Santiago de Cuba- Club 300

This venue opened in the last 10 years and so is fairly new on Cuba’s jazz scene but has already made a name of itself. You’re never sure exactly what you’re going to see – whether it’s acid jazz, jazz fusion, Latin jazz or old-style ragtime.

11. Santa Clara- Club Menjunje

This is a place that never runs out of surprises. There’s poetry, bolero, Salsa and art- all within a ruined old building- how much more Cuban can you get? There’s also a LGBT night- but more about that later.

When you’re travelling, especially somewhere as exciting and energetic as Cuba, it’s easy to get exhausted. For those times when you just want to chill, a rum bar in Havana is a good place to start. Get a rum or cheap beer and watch some baseball – just make sure not to disturb the locals by being too loud or going in in big groups. Here are another couple of places where you can relax with a cool beer after a long day in the heat:

12. Santa Clara- La Marquesina

This well-known dive bar on the corner of Parque Vidal hosts a mixture of locals and tourists – and there’s good reason for this: a relaxed atmosphere with cheap drinks and occasional live music.

13. Trinidad – Casa de la Cerveza

Another venue in a ruined building – this time an old 19th century theatre with a collapsed roof. It’s a beer hall, but don’t hold out for any special craft ales, cheap Cuban Cristal is the order of the day here.

Want to taste a bit of the decadence of old pre-revolutionary Cuba? The big cabaret venues are the best places for this, with shows and dancing reminiscent of Las Vegas, with a Latin twist. Just be prepared to spend a bit of money, especially in Havana:

14. Havana- Tropicana

This cabaret venue is probably the most iconic and also the most expensive, but with good reason. The show is large in scale, with high production value. You can save some money by eating somewhere else and just paying entry, rather than buying one of their three-course dinner packages.

15. Santiago de Cuba – Tropicana

The shows here are influenced by the Afro-Cuban character of the city and is about half the price you’d pay in Havana, for a similar experience.

16. Santiago de Cuba – San Pedro de Mar

This is the more traditional cabaret club in Santiago, dating back to 1950. Again, the prices here are much more affordable than in Havana.

 

LGBT nightlife in Cuba

Historically, Cuba has been conservative in relation to LGBT people, with repressive measures being taken by the revolutionary government. However, as with the rest of the world, there have been a lot of changes since then. In 2010, Fidel Castro himself accepted personal responsibility and regret for the persecution of LGBT people following the revolution. There are now pride parades across the country, and Cuba is as safe or safer than other Latin American countries for LGBT people. Trans people are quite visible, with reassignment surgery being provided for free on Cuba’s health service. It’s still advisable to be wary of public displays of affection outside of LGBT-friendly spaces. Attitudes can be more conservative in rural areas and Havana itself – but Santa Clara is known as a liberal haven. Here are some tips for LGBT and LGBT-friendly spaces for nightlife in Cuba:

1. Havana – Proyecto Divino

This isn’t a venue- but a night hosted in Café Cantante each Saturday, beneath the Teatro Nacional – with drag and dance performances.

2. Havana – Cabaret las Vegas

This is Cuba’s most well-known LGBT venues – with late night drag performances and dancing- hosting a mix of locals and tourists.

3. Havana – La Esencia

A beautiful, ornate mansion from the 19th century provides the venue for a stylish restaurant and bar. LGBT night is on Mondays, and there’s karaoke on Wednesdays and Friday happy hour – where you’ll find an LGBT-friendly atmosphere.

4. Havana – Mi Cayito

Cuba’s only gay beach, it’s located between the more well-known Santa Maria de Mar and Boca Ciega, with all usual facilities (like sun lounger hire).

5. Santa Clara- Mejunje

Meaning something akin to “hotchpotch” or “mixture”, this is a place where local creatives and students gather. There’s a drag and LGBT dance night on Saturdays, as well as live bands, all in a friendly, inclusive atmosphere.

 

Cuban culture and customs

Cuban people

Cuba is multicultural to its very core. The island blends elements of West-African, Caribbean and European culture, which influences everything from its dancing and music down to its food. These influences have even seeped into the island’s religious culture, in the form of Santería – which mixes Catholic religious practices with the religious beliefs of Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe.

Like the culture they’ve created, the Cuban people themselves are a mix of cultural and ethnic groups. Cuban people are, as a rule, warm and friendly – with tightly-knit communities that are testament to resilience through hardship and poverty. Go into town squares at night and you’ll be able to witness this for yourself – with people out on the streets chatting to each other and listening to music. To really immerse yourself in Cuban culture, it helps to know some Spanish – even just a few phrases so you can exchange some friendly words. Just bear in mind that like everything else – the Cuban variety of Spanish has been subject to a wide range of influences: it’s quite different to the kind of thing you’d find in a textbook!

The Cuban nation was born in struggle, both against slavery and colonialism. This can be seen in musical genres such as Cuban Son, a musical genre with origins oppressed and marginalised people – born in the 19th century through marrying Afro-Caribbean instruments and rhythms with Spanish guitar. The importance of music to Cuban culture can be seen and heard everywhere- with all kinds of people taking part in the singing and dancing, from the young to the very old – whether it’s Salsa or Rumba, Cha Cha or Merengue.

But you’re probably wondering: What’s it all about? Where does it come from? How can I get in on it? Well, we’ll try to answer all those questions here!

Cuban salsa

When it comes to styles of Cuban dancing, Salsa is probably the most well-known. The dance style known as “Salsa” has its roots in what the Cubans call “Casino”, which was named after the places it originated in. Before you ask, it’s not what you think, people weren’t shimmying their way past slot machines and blackjack tables. “Casinos deportivos” were members-only ballrooms where more affluent Cubans would meet to dance to the sound of live orchestras. Today, it can be danced as a solo or partner dance, including as part of a circle (or Rueda) where partners are passed around. The origins of Cuban Salsa, however, are as a partner dance to the sound of “Son Cubano”.

Cuban Salsa draws a lot of influence from an older dance, which also comes from the culture of a historically oppressed group, Afro-Cubans. Known as Rumba, this style is much less formal than the ballroom dance of the same name – it’s a dance of the streets! Its origins lie in the folk dances of freed slaves, with hints of native Antillean culture and Spanish flamenco, testament again to the multicultural essence of the island. It can still be found in the streets of cities such as Havana and Matanzas. Listen for the sound of percussion instruments like quinto or conga drum, tumbadora palitos (sticks) and vocal choruses.

If all of this seems a bit complicated or intimidating, there are plenty of Salsa schools you can visit to brush up your dancefloor skills before heading out to dance the night away, just take a look at our section on “things to do in Cuba”.

Dancing in Cuba isn’t just the preserve of the ballroom, here, the street is your ballroom! One such place is Callejón de Hamel. It’s somewhere you could easily walk past, but don’t! Every Sunday afternoon from about midday to 4 p.m., the sound of conga drums (tumbadora) echoes from this brightly decorated little side-street. Come along and join in the dancing! The streets of Habana Vieja and Santiago de Cuba are also alive with music. This is especially the case during the Old Havana: City in Motion festival, as well as Santiago’s summer carnivals, which take place in early July. To learn more about where to put your dancing skills to the test, see the “Cuba nightlife” section.

Matanzas, a primarily Afro-Cuban city that was key in the development of Rumba, also has a lot to offer – making it more than just a stopping point on the way to the beach! Head to Callejón de las Tradiciones, where the city’s West-African influences are on display in all their multicoloured glory. It’s adorned with street art and sculpture inspired by Yoruba cultural traditions. This place isn’t just somewhere nice to look at, it’s got creative spaces hosting organisations such as “El Almacen”, a studio founded by 15 art-school graduates who record indie Afro-Cuban artists. There are also music events on the 2nd and 4th weekends of every month.

 

Is Cuba safe?

Generally speaking, the answer to this is “yes”. Crime rates are generally quite low in comparison to other Latin American countries, especially when it comes to violent crime. Unfortunately, we found that even in Havana, the streets often aren’t that well-lit at night. However, there are lots of families who sit outside in the evening socialising, with their kids running playing in the street- which might put you more at ease. Petty crime poses a bigger risk in Cuba, which is unsurprising given the disparity in wealth between affluent tourists and poorer residents.

As is the case in many capital cities, there’s a significant risk of pick-pocketing, especially in crowded tourist spots. Try not to carry large amounts of cash on your person, and think about using a money belt, especially when taking public transport or when you’re out at night. It’s also probably a good idea to leave that expensive jewellery at home, Cuba’s a casual and down-to-earth place anyway.

It might be a good idea to bring a bag or case you can securely lock, as well as a padlock and securely put your things away before leaving the room – including your passport.

As well as theft, there are quite a lot of scams in Cuba, as well as people ripping off tourists. However, there are some easy tips that can help you avoid this. For example, with taxi drivers, it’s a good idea to negotiate a price in advance. Some people make money by selling Che Guevara coins for 1 CUC each, even though they’re only worth 3 CUP (you’ll probably find some in your loose change anyway).

If you decide to drive, there are some points to bear in mind. A lot of roads, especially in rural areas aren’t in very good condition. There’s also a risk from other drivers, who can stop suddenly to pick hitchhikers up. It’s probably best to avoid driving at night, as roads are poorly lit and there’s a danger from vehicles without their lights on and animals running into the road.

 

Cuba travel advice

Vaccinations for Cuba

As well as the requirements for the tourist card you’ll need vaccinations for Cuba. Although there is no yellow fever in Cuba, having a certificate proving vaccination is a condition for entering the country. For vaccinations from 11 July 2016 onward, the certificate will be valid for life. After receiving the vaccination, you’ll get the certificate straight away. However, it will only be valid once 10 days have passed, as it takes that long to become effective.

If you live in the UK, you’ll need to go to a registered yellow fever vaccination centre. Don’t worry, it’s not difficult to find one: the vaccine is usually offered by medical practices, clinics and pharmacies. To find the nearest one to you, follow the following links:

For England & Wales/Northern Ireland Vaccination Centres

For Scotland Vaccination Centres

In Ireland, the same advice applies, and “designated vaccination centres” are easy to find. They’re usually GP’s surgeries or travel health centres. You can find vaccination centres in Australia for each state/territory.

There are specific categories of people who cannot receive the vaccine, including babies who are under nine-months-old, these include:

  1. Pregnant and breastfeeding women
  2. People over the age of 60
  3. People with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV
  4. People who are allergic to any of the ingredients in the vaccine, including people with an egg allergy
  5. People with a disorder of their thymus gland

Given that there is a risk of Dengue fever and Chikungunya virus in Cuba, you should take steps to avoid being bitten by mosquitos, such as ensuring your accommodation is insect proof and using insect repellent. There is also a risk of transmission of the Zika virus. The symptoms of this are usually mild but can cause serious birth defects if a pregnant woman is infected. Travel Health Pro [https://travelhealthpro.org.uk/country/60/cuba#Other_risks] therefore advises pregnant women to avoid travelling to the region until after they have given birth.

Many types medication are not available in Cuba, so it’s advisable to take a sufficient supply of any prescription drugs you need. Bear in mind that the legal status of medication that is permitted in countries such as the UK, Ireland or Australia may be different in Cuba so, to avoid getting into trouble, follow the advice on this page. Bringing a prescription and a letter from your doctor explaining your condition, the need for the medication and the relevant dosage can be helpful in case any questions arise. Also remember that certain imported products are in short supply in Cuba, and, even if they’re available, can cost a lot. This includes feminine hygiene products, sunscreen and toothpaste, so bring these items with you.

A 25 CUC airport tax may be payable on arrival in Cuba, however most airlines include this in their ticket cost (but it’s probably best to check). In terms of customs, there are import requirements GPS systems, which may be confiscated. It’s fine to bring mobile phones, tablets and laptops, but any built-in GPS should be disabled prior to flying. Probably the most important thing to remember is that flying from or via the USA is a big no-no. You won’t be able to travel on your travel card, and the purpose of your journey must fall under one of 12 categories, none of which covers tourism.

Bear in mind that in Cuban police are entitled to ask you for your identification at any time. You may also be asked for it by people such as staff where you’re staying. This means that it’s a good idea to make a couple of photocopies of the ID page and put your passport away in a safe place.

We hope this guide is useful for your adventures in Cuba, have a mojito for us!

Keep reading ⬇️

🌟 Top things to do in Havana 🌟

🌟 The best hostels in Havana 🌟

🌟 Backpacking South America🌟

 

About the authors:

I’m Alice Maffucci. After living in New York, Lisbon and Colombia, I assumed that I am the owner of a vagabond heart with a permanent itch for adventure. You can follow my adventures and my reveries about this world on my Instagram.

I’m David Irvine, and I’m originally from Northern Ireland. I’ve got a passion for languages, other cultures, and learning about local history. I’ve previously lived and worked in Germany and in Portugal, and love nothing more than showing people around my favourite places, wherever I am. As well as being a translator, I’m also an occasional scribbler and a passionate (geeky) fan of jazz music. You can find out more about my translating and writing work on my LinkedIn profile.

 

Share The World!
INSTAGRAM
EMAIL
Facebook
Facebook
GOOGLE
GOOGLE
/blog/backpacking-cuba/
Youtube

About The Author

Luke Moss

English sun-chaser with tic-tac addiction. Loves finding random bars in foreign cities that play 90s/00s hip-hop and RnB!

Get inspired

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hostelworld Mobile Apps

Book on the go with the new Hostelworld mobile apps.

Download on App Store Download on Play Store

Search and book more than 33,000 properties in over 170 countries, from anywhere.