Cuba Travel Guide: Things To Do, Costs, & Travel Tips

Travel Tips for Cuba

Cuba Travel Guide & Budget Travel Tips

Cuba Travel Tips

Is it possible to travel Cuba on a budget? Learn how much it cost me to backpack through Cuba — along with my favorite travel tips, things to do, and more.

Budget Travel Guide: Cuba (2017)

The island of Cuba was “discovered” and claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus during his first voyage to the New World in 1492.

While it’s been a popular travel destination for years, due to an economic embargo, Americans haven’t been able to visit easily until now.

However what draws people to the tropical Caribbean island of Cuba is much more than beaches and antique 1950’s cars, although there are plenty of those.

In Cuba you can wander bustling city streets, go hiking in the mountains, learn about the history of tobacco, or simply soak up the country’s 1950’s time-warp appeal. Get a taste of what it’s like to live in a socialist country.

While Cuba can sometimes be a confusing and challenging place for many travelers, I invite you to give it a try anyway, and experience some Cuban magic for yourself.

There are many wonderful reasons to visit Cuba for your next vacation.

Trinidad Streets in Cuba

Cobblestoned Streets in Trinidad

Cuban Cigar Lady

Cigar Lady in Havana

Budget Travel In Cuba

Cuba is generally pretty affordable, especially compared to other Caribbean Islands, yet is more expensive than other parts of Latin America like Mexico or Central American nations. With a special 2nd currency just for tourists, you’ll be forced to pay tourist prices most of the time.

Budget travelers can survive on around $50 USD per day.

Cuba’s local currency is the Cuban Peso (CUP- ₱) and it translates to ₱24 CUP for $1 USD. However as a tourist, you’ll be using Cuba’s secondary currency just for tourists, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC – $) which is pegged to the US Dollar. So $1 CUC = $1 USD.

You will need to exchange US dollars for CUC, but there is a special 10% penalty fee for this service. So it’s often cheaper to exchange Euros, Canadian Dollars, British Pounds, or Mexican Pesos for CUC instead.

If you’re an American, you still can’t use your credit cards or ATM cards in Cuba. They won’t work because of the economic sanctions in place.

So you MUST exchange cash to fund your whole trip unless you’re on a pre-paid tour. The other option is buying a foreign pre-paid debit card from banks in Canada or Mexico.

There’s an official currency exchange booth outside the airport in Havana. You can exchange your leftover CUC back to US dollars (or whatever) when you leave the country too.

Travel Budget for Cuba

How Much Did I Spend In Cuba?

My Cuba Travel Budget

TOTAL DAYS = 10

TOTAL SPENT = $900 USD

DAILY AVERAGE = $90 USD

Please use these numbers as general guidelines only. Remember, everyone travels differently. Your personal travel budget in Cuba may vary.

When I traveled through Cuba for 10 days in 2016, I spent a total of $900 for an average of $90 USD per day.

Some of the things I splurged on included renting a car for more freedom to explore the island on our own. Rental cars in Cuba aren’t cheap — ours was $83 CUC per day (which we then split 4 ways with friends).

Scuba diving, tickets to Havana’s famous Tropicana Show, cigars, and a classic car city tour were some other activities I chose to include in my own trip. Your own choices will affect your travel budget in Cuba.

READ MORE: Travel Banking Tips

Where to stay in Cuba

Casa Particular Sign

Casa Particular in Cuba

Our Casa in Trinidad

Where To Stay In Cuba

While you can find fancy hotels in Havana and all-inclusive resorts in Varadero, the best accommodation options in Cuba are called casas particulares.

Casas particulares are like local guesthouses. The Cuban government allows some residents to rent the spare rooms in their homes for extra income, and as a traveler you get a more local experience.

To find a casa, you simply walk around a neighborhood, pop in and ask to see a room, and decide if you want to stay there. Most are easy to find because they’re marked with special sign that looks a bit like an anchor.

Prices will vary depending on the region. A double room costs between $25 – 40 CUC with breakfast included. If staying with locals isn’t your thing, there are other options too. Just a lot more expensive.

  • Casas Particulares: $25 – $40 per night
  • Mid-Range Hotels: $90 – $150 per night
  • Resorts & Fancy Hotels: $200 – $400 per night

I always use Booking.com and AirBnB to find great deals on accommodation when I travel. You can use both in Cuba too!

READ MORE: How To Find Cheap Hotels

What to eat in Cuba

Cost of Food & Places to Eat

Cuban Pizza in Havana

Cuban Pizza is Very Cheap!

Eating Cuban Food

While many travelers complain about Cuban food and its availability, I found food in Cuba pretty cheap and tasty. Not to mention those famous Cuban mojitos for only $1 or $2!

The lowest-cost options are Cuban sandwiches or Cuban pizzas at street-side stores called “paladares”. These meals can cost as little as $1, but are super basic too. Cuban pizzas reminded me of frozen microwave pizzas. Nothing to write home about…

If you’re a dedicated foodie, and need more choices, you can find large plates of lobster, shrimp, crab and fish for about $7 at restaurants near the coast. There’s also traditional Cuban cuisine called ropa vieja (old clothes) which is basically pulled pork with gravy, served with rice and beans for about $5.

Larger restaurants are generally set up for tourists, with high tourist prices around $15-$20 for a meal. Most Cubans can’t afford to eat at these places. They cook at home, using government rations called Libreta de Abastecimiento to pay for basics like rice, sugar, and cooking oil.

Transportation in Cuba

Classic Car Rides in Havana

Taxis in Cuba

Horse Cart Taxi

Transportation In Cuba

Flights

The major airports in Cuba are in Havana (HAV) and Santiago de Cuba (SCU). For years, many Americans traveled to Cuba through foreign gateway cities like Cancun, Mexico City, or Toronto. However in 2016 the US government started allowing commercial flights to Cuba from the United States. New York, Miami, and Los Angeles all offer flights.

Buses In Cuba

Bus travel in Cuba is comfortable, but frustrating because you can’t book tickets online. There’s one main bus line called Viazul. Cuban buses are cheap, but the routes fill up quickly, so you usually need to get your tickets the day before. This means paying for a few taxi rides back and forth to the bus station too.

Cuban Taxis

Taxis are available in the more developed cities of Cuba like Havana, Varadero, and Trinidad. Official taxis, in modern cars, will be marked and some even have meters. Old classic car taxis are more expensive, often with set rates of $8-$10 per ride. Try to negotiate a price before you get in.

Almendrons are local shared taxis that run in some cities. It’s the cheapest option at 0.50 CUC per ride, however they aren’t easy to figure out if you don’t speak Spanish. They run on set routes, simply flag one down and jump in with everyone else. Usually old 50’s vans or Toyota Landcruisers.

Bicycle Taxis are another option. Officially they aren’t allowed to pick up tourists, but they still do. A ride costs about $1 CUC. You could get kicked off early if the driver notices police nearby.

Renting A Car

Renting a car in Cuba is possible, but it’s not easy. The online car rental systems there generally don’t work for foreigners. The best option is to inquire by email or phone about a rental a few weeks or more before your trip. Don’t expect to just show up at the airport and book a rental car, they simply don’t have enough for the demand.

READ MORE: How To Find Cheap Flights

Beaches in Cuba

Playa Jibacoa Beach

Visa Requirements

For years it was possible for Americans to visit Cuba through foreign gateway countries like Mexico or Canada first. Then, President Obama opened a loophole for American tourism to Cuba, even though Congress hadn’t actually changed the law yet.

It was a kind of “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” situation. No one was enforcing the law. You signed a piece of paper when you got on the plane saying you fit one of 12 special categories (that don’t include tourism), and no one checked.

Regular flights to Cuba from the United States started up, and things were looking good!

However it seems President Trump is clamping down on that loophole and will be making it tougher again by banning People To People trips, the category most people were using.

Americans can still travel to Cuba independently, but you’ll need to choose an approved travel category other than People To People tours, which Trump plans to ban. Declare a category like Support For The Cuban People when booking flights, lodging and when you return to the US.

You can build an itinerary containing activities that meet the criteria for the category you chose, or get help from local experts to plan a legal trip (5% discount for Expert Vagabond readers!).

Another option is to fly into Cuba from a Foreign Gateway City like Cancun, Mexico or Toronto, Canada. This is what I did, and I share more details about that here.

Every traveler needs to purchase a Tourist Card for $20 ($50+ if traveling from the United States) regardless of nationality. This is most commonly done at the departure airport itself, or online/through the mail with your airline.

Trinidad Streets in Cuba

Old Buildings in Havana

Scuba Diving Cuba

Wreck Diving the Bay of Pigs

Things To Do In Cuba

Havana

It’s impossible to skip the capital of Havana on a trip to Cuba. Havana Viejo (Old Havana) is the historic city center, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. The city is full of beautiful old architecture, interesting people, and of course – all those incredible classic cars.

  • Rent a classic car for a tour through the city, $30 CUC for one hour.
  • Visit some of Hemingway’s old hangouts, like La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio.
  • Smoke a Cuban cigar overlooking the ocean at Hotel Nacional
  • Walk the Malecon at night with a box of cheap corner-store rum.
  • Attend the world famous Tropicana nightclub for a colorful show.

Varadero

Located on the Hicacos Peninsula about 140 km from Havana, Varadero is a popular resort town for tourists. The ivory-white sand beaches are gorgeous! While many beaches in Varadero are part of private resorts, there’s a large free public beach section too, which is just as beautiful.

  • Grab a beach chair, buy a few Cuba Libres, and work on your tan.
  • Rent a kayak or sailboat and cruise along the coast.
  • Eat at one of Varadero’s amazing seafood restaurants.

Viñales

Viñales is a lush green valley surrounded by mountains located west of Havana. It’s a fun small town to visit if you’re into nature, caving, rock climbing, or learning about the art of cigar making. Viñales is Cuba’s tobacco capital, home of the best cigars in the world.

  • Visit a tobacco farm and learn how to make Cuban cigars.
  • Rock climbing on the karst limestone cliffs.
  • Rent an ATV for an off-road trip through the valley.
  • Go horseback riding, or join a cave tour.

Trinidad

Trinidad is a picturesque colonial town lined with cobblestone streets and pastel-colored houses. It was the epicenter of the Spanish sugar trade in the 18th century, where sugar barons become extremely wealthy off the back of African slave labor. Many of the old buildings have been restored.

  • Hang out on the steps of Plaza Mayor with a mojito to watch the sunset.
  • Visit some art & history museums, like Museo de Arquitectura or Museo Romantico.
  • Climb the bell tower at Iglesia de San Francisco for great city views.
  • Ride a bike to Playa Ancon, a beautiful white sand beach.
  • Go swimming under waterfalls at Topes De Collantes National Park
Malecon Havana Cuba

Havana’s Seaside “Malecon”

Budget Travel Tips

While Cuba can be affordable, it’s not an easy place to travel on an extreme budget. It takes some work. Try eating at locally run paladares whenever you can. Use the somewhat confusing but cheap local shared taxis, or split a 1950’s tourist taxi with other travelers.

Bring a filtered water bottle, as bottled water can sometimes be difficult to find outside of major cities. Stay with locals in casas particulares whenever possible to keep accommodation costs down.

READ MORE: Best Travel Tips After 7 Years Traveling

Off The Beaten Path

There is a cool national park called Topes de Collantes located about an hours drive from Trinidad. It has many hiking trails that lead to different waterfalls, and not many people visit them.

Some of the best waterfalls are El Nicho and Vegas Grandes, both are over 100m high, and its a great way to experience some of Cuba’s mountains. You can book a tour from Trinidad, or go on your own like we did if you have a car. Beware, the roads are pretty bad up there!

Varadero Beach Cuba

White Sand Beaches of Varadero

Farm in Vinales Cuba

Cuban Tobacco Farms

Best Time To Visit Cuba

When is the best time to visit Cuba? Regardless of the time of year, average temperatures in Cuba are very pleasant ranging from 70s F to 80s F.

However the best time to visit is arguably from December to May, as the climate tends to be mild and skies are often sunny.

Wet season is between June and October, with the heaviest rain & hottest temperatures in July & August. It’s generally a less-desirable time to visit Cuba, and hurricanes are also a threat.

The tourist high season in Cuba runs from December through March, due to great weather and large numbers of Canadians escaping the winter snow in their own country.

If you want decent weather, and fewer tourists, April, May, and November are good choices.

Cathedral in Cuba

Church Tower in Trinidad

Cubans on Cellphones

Cuban Cowboys in Vinales

Internet & Cell Phone Service

Internet in Cuba isn’t available everywhere, but it’s possible to find wifi spots in most major hotels, large public parks, and even some casas particulares. For a list of all the known wifi hotspots in Cuba, click here.

To get online you need to buy an internet scratch-card from ETECSA (Cuba’s national telecommunications company). They cost between $2-6 for an hour of service. You can buy the cards in front of the airport in Havana, at major hotels, at ETECSA kiosks, or from Cubans themselves.

To use services like Skype or Snapchat, you’ll need to install a good travel VPN before you arrive. The internet isn’t super fast, but it’s fast enough to upload travel photos to Facebook & Instagram if you’re patient.

READ MORE: International Cell Phone Service

Tropicana Show Cuba

Havana’s Tropicana Nightclub

Challenges In Cuba

The lack of internet can be challenging at times, as we’ve all become comfortable finding our way around with help from Google Maps, or searching online for answers to travel questions.

Galileo Maps ( IOS | Android ) has offline maps of Cuba, so you can find your way around using a smartphone even without internet.

If you don’t speak Spanish you might often find yourself at loss in Cuba, as the majority of people don’t speak any English. Without Spanish it’s difficult to arrange things, but not impossible.

While Cuba is a very safe place to travel, there are many scammers too. Especially around Havana. Some popular scams in Cuba include:

  • Being invited to a bar/club from someone off the street, then getting stuck with a huge mysterious bar tab.
  • Women asking you to buy milk for their babies, at inflated prices from shops that are in on the scam.

Everyone isn’t trying to scam you — but you still need to stay cautious and use common sense.

READ MORE: 15 Common Travel Scams

Cuba Photo Gallery

Cuba Travel Photography


Travel Adventures In Cuba

Planning to travel to Cuba soon? Browse all my blog posts from Cuba to get ideas & recommendations for your own travel adventures there.


Suggested Books & Movies

The Other Side of Paradise – A sobering portrait of post-Fidel Cuba. Change looms in Havana, a city of uncertainty cloaked in cliché. (Book)

The Old Man and the Sea – Hemingway’s story of an old Cuban fisherman, down on his luck, and his sea battle with a giant marlin. (Book)

Our Man in Havana – A vacuum cleaner salesman is recruited by the British secret service to act as a spy in Havana. (Movie)

Una Noche – Trapped in the desperate slums of Havana, young Raul dreams of escaping Cuba to Miami. (Movie)

Lonely Planet Cuba – A travel guide to Cuba that includes history, advice, things to do, and places to stay. (Guidebook)

Enjoy Your Trip!

Cuba is one of the most unique travel destinations I’ve ever visited, as the whole island feels trapped in time. Things are changing fast though as more and more tourists add it to their bucket-list.

I hope the Cuban people are prospering from the recent increase of tourism there, and relations between Cuba and the United States improve in the future. ★

Traveling To Cuba Soon?

Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance here.

Bonus Travel Video! 10 Days In Cuba

(Click to watch 10 Days In Cuba – Havana, Trinidad, Vinales, and More on YouTube)

Pin This!

Budget Travel Guide & Tips For Cuba. More at ExpertVagabond.com
Budget Travel Guide & Tips For Cuba. More at ExpertVagabond.com

Have any travel questions or tips about Cuba? Other suggestions? Drop me a message in the comments below!

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase an item, I will receive an affiliate commission, at no extra cost to you. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.

Discovering The Magic Of Trinidad: Cuba’s Colorful Colonial City

Trinidad Cuba

Exploring Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad is Cuba’s best preserved colonial city, a unique mix of 1850’s architecture & 1950’s cars that feels frozen in time. Check out some of my favorite things to do in Trinidad.

Trinidad was one of the first Cuban towns founded by the Spanish, and it quickly grew wealthy from the production of sugar cane, cattle, and tobacco due to the importation of African slaves.

The town’s wealth funded extravagant palaces, large plazas, and colorful colonial homes for rich plantation owners.

Much of this colonial architecture remains, making it one of the best preserved historic towns in North America, and it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Trinidad has become one of the most popular Cuban cities for travelers to visit.

You can walk cobblestoned streets, listen to live music in the plaza, cool off with fresh sugar cane juice, hop into a horse-drawn carriage, chat with locals, or visit fascinating colonial museums spread about town.

Streets of Trinidad

Vintage Taxi in Trinidad

Things To Do In Trinidad

Anna and I spent two days exploring Trinidad with our friends Hannah & Adam from Getting Stamped. Honestly it didn’t feel like we were in town long enough, there’s a lot to see, and Trinidad is bigger than I thought.

It’s certainly a tourist town though — but even with other travelers around, Trinidad doesn’t lose its charm.

Trinidad is a place where new mixes with old to create a jumble of sights, sounds, and smells.

The city has a great laid-back Cuban vibe — I highly recommend getting away from the main square to explore, losing yourself on the fascinating back streets & alleys.

Plaza Mayor, Trinidad Cuba

Church of the Holy Trinity

Hang Out In Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor is the heart of Trinidad, a large plaza comprised of raised gardens, walkways, and cobblestoned streets. Historic buildings from the 18th & 19th centuries still surround the plaza.

Many are painted in pastel colors, topped with red terracotta roofs.

The plaza was built back when the region was rich from sugar plantation wealth. Yet you’ll still find the same churches and mansions previously owned by sugar barons — restored and transformed into museums.

Grab a seat on one of the cast-iron benches, enjoy the gardens, and listen to salsa music emanating from the buildings nearby. However because it’s the main tourist area, be wary of local touts trying to sell you stuff.

Trinidad Church Tower Cuba

Convento de San Francisco de Asis

Trinidad Bell Tower

View From the Bell Tower

Climb The Bell Tower

You’ll notice Convento de San Francisco right away, as you can see the bright yellow bell tower from most parts of town. It’s the most prominent landmark, and a popular postcard photo.

A former convent, it’s now a museum with artifacts from the revolution.

The climb up to the top of the tower is worth the view, and the museum is interesting too. They have some armored vehicles and stuff from the United States invasion.

Trinidad Municipal Museum

Palacio Cantero (Municipal Museum)

Visit Historical Museums

The Museo de Arquitectura is located in a 18th century mansion formerly owned by Sanchez Iznaga. Inside you’ll get a glimpse of what these large homes looked like, as well as a 19th-century style bathroom.

Palacio Cantero is another former mansion, now the Municipal Museum. The main attraction is magnificent views of the city offered by its tower.

Palacio Brunet was once the home of the wealthy sugar baron Conde de Brunet, today it houses Museo Romantico, showcasing luxurious items belonging to the family. Like a 1.5 ton marble bathtub!

Sugar cane juice in Trinidad

Fresh Guarapo Frio (sugar cane juice)

Trinidad Cuba Restaurants

Local Cuban Food

Sample The Cuban Food

Cuban food often gets a bad rap. While I didn’t mind it so much, it’s definitely not as spicy & flavorful as Mexican cuisine. Lots of rice, beans, yuca, and meat on the bland side.

You can buy basic meals at restaurants in Trinidad for between $5-10.

While you might not write home about the food, Cuba excels in coffee, rum drinks, and sugar cane juice. Make sure to visit the La Canchánchara mansion for their special cocktail made of rum, honey, lemon, and water.

Ancon Beach near Trinidad

Relaxing on Cuban Beaches

Playa Ancon Beach

Playa Ancon is a beautiful white-sand beach only 6 miles away from Trinidad. For only $5-10 CUC you can catch a vintage taxi and spend the afternoon there.

For the more adventurous, rent a bicycle pedal over on your own, which takes about an hour. Cuba’s beaches aren’t very crowded, and the turquoise water is crystal clear.

Grab an icy cocktail and get some sun, or if you’re a scuba diver, there’s a dive shop at Playa Ancon from Marina Blanca, directly across the road from Hotel Ancon.

Meeting locals in Trinidad Cuba

Making New Friends

Trinidad Local Neighborhood

Exploring Trinidad’s Neighborhoods

Wander The Streets

Trinidad has an older “city center” area around Plaza Mayor where most of the historic buildings and attractions are located. It’s a pedestrian walking area, no cars are allowed. Most tourists tend to stick around Plaza Mayor.

But taking a long walk down some of Trinidad’s side streets until you get completely lost is one of my favorite things to do. You’ll get a glimpse of what life in Trinidad truly looks like.

Locals often gather on doorsteps and street curbs, hiding from the relentless sun. You may see games of dominoes, deep conversations, bird cages hanging from porches. Don’t be afraid to say hello — and ask some questions too. Most people will be happy to chat!

Casa de Musica Trinidad

Sunset From Casa de Musica

Dance To Traditional Music

Every night around 7pm locals and tourists alike will dance salsa at the open-air Casa de Musica. Order a cocktail and sit down to watch from the wide stone staircase as the sun sets, soaking up the atmosphere.

The steps are one of Trinidad’s few public wifi hotspots, so you’ll see plenty of people on their smartphones for a quick Facebook or Instagram fix.

Music is a big part of Cuban life, especially in Trinidad. Musicians set up on street corners, public parks, or inside restaurants. There’s even a cool nightclub called Disco Ayala that set inside a natural cave!

Trinidad Cuba Horseback Riding

Riding Horses in Trinidad

Go Horseback Riding

When Anna and I wanted to go horseback riding, we just asked the first guy we came across. “No problem!” he said. His friend owns horses and can take us into the mountains for a few hours.

Cuban cowboys were frequently riding their horses down Trinidad’s streets, so we knew it wouldn’t be difficult.

Jesus, our guide, led us out of town past Cuban tobacco farms and up into the dry hills behind Trinidad. We made our way through a forest, eventually arriving at a swimming hole to cool off from the day’s heat.

Topes de Collantes Nature Park

Hiking to Vegas Grandes Waterfall

Topes De Collantes National Park

The Sierra del Escambray mountains are Cuba’s 2nd largest mountain range. It was here some CIA sponsored anti-Castro “bandits” hid in the mountains and fought to try and take back the new socialist government.

The Escambrays are home to Topes De Collantes National Park, a beautiful nature reserve where you can go hiking, horseback riding, visit numerous waterfalls, or relax with a scenic picnic.

The drive into the mountains is pretty steep, but we still managed with our rental car. After stopping at the visitor’s center, we hiked to a stunning blue waterfall & swimming hole called Vegas Grandes. The hike took 2 hours round trip.

Valle De Los Ingenios Trinidad

Rural Cuban Farm Home

Valle De Los Ingenios

Trinidad was one of the most prosperous cities in Cuba due to enormous sugar production in the nearby Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) which still has some working sugar mills/fields.

The region once housed 50 sugar mills and 30,000 slaves to work the fields. During the 18th and 19th centuries this valley was the sugar producing capital of the world.

Don’t miss the Manaca Iznaga Plantation if you visit the valley, where you can see the remains of the plantation’s main house, a huge tower, and the old slave quarters. You can even ride a classic steam train into the valley from Trinidad.

Trinidad taxi by horse

Horse-Cart Taxi in Trinidad

How To Get There

Trinidad is located in South Central Cuba, a 5 hour drive from Havana by car. With our rental car we took a longer route through Playa Giron, a nice way to break up the trip and go scuba diving at the famous Bay Of Pigs.

By bus it’s a 7 hour trip from Havana, and costs $25 USD/CUC. The Viazul Bus terminal in Havana is located at the corner of Avenida 26 and Avenida Zoologico. You often have to buy tickets at the station one day in advance.

You can rent your own vintage 1950’s taxi (with driver) for about $100-$120 per day, or share a taxi with other travelers and split the cost. Just keep in mind these old cars break down from time to time.

Streets of Trinidad

Cobblestoned Streets & Old Cars

Trinidad Donkey Man

Trinidad’s Famous Donkey Man…

Tips For Visiting Trinidad

Because Trinidad is part of Cuba’s tourist trail, you won’t be able to escape the Jineteros, or hustlers. While they aren’t nearly as bad as they are in Havana, they’re around.

Everyone and their grandmother is trying to sell you something. Taxi rides, cigars, casa particulares, bicycles for rent, or they want to show you a great restaurant their cousin owns.

Don’t lose your cool. Be nice, but firm, and say no thanks. You really can’t blame them for trying — Cubans don’t have many options for earning extra money — their government salary is about $30 per MONTH.

Independent travel in Cuba is raw, challenging, and refreshing, but the hustlers can be annoying sometimes too.

Casa Particular Trinidad Cuba

Hostal Vidal (Casa Particular)

Where To Stay In Trinidad

We based ourselves in Trinidad Cuba for 2 nights, and had a wonderful trip. If you’re wondering where to stay in Trinidad here’s my advice:

Budget Accommodation

Hostal Vidal – Excellent casa particular (homestay) run by a very nice Cuban family. Comfortable beds, good breakfast, and AC.

$35 CUC per night, located in front of the bus station.

Fancy Accommodation

Iberostar Grand Hotel – If you’re not quite ready for a local homestay, Trinidad also has a really nice hotel called the Iberostar.

Check prices on: HotelsCombined.com

Cuba’s Colonial City

Trinidad is one city you shouldn’t miss traveling in Cuba. While the island gets 2-3 million tourists per year, most don’t leave Havana, and there’s so much more to see in this fascinating country.

The mix of colonial architecture, historical significance, laid-back local vibes, vintage cars, horse-drawn carts, and scenic mountains nearby made Trinidad one of my favorite places to visit in Cuba. ★

Traveling To Cuba Soon?

Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance here.

More Information

Location: Trinidad, Cuba
Useful Notes: Trinidad is full of casas particulares, there are over 350 of them. It seems everyone in the whole town has a room to rent. Remember to ask to see the room first, and try to negotiate on price a bit. Breakfast is often extra.
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Cuba
Suggested Reading: The Other Side Of Paradise

Things to do in Trinidad, Cuba. More at ExpertVagabond.com
Things to do in Trinidad, Cuba. More at ExpertVagabond.com

Have any questions about visiting Trinidad? Are you interested in traveling to Cuba? Drop me a message in the comments below!

Horseback Riding & Tobacco Farms In Viñales

Vinales Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

Riding through endless fields of green tobacco and fertile red soil in Viñales, we passed local farmers harvesting the leaves that would become Cuba’s world famous cigars.

Viñales is a small town located on the Western tip of Cuba. Set in a beautiful lush valley with funky looking hills and limestone caves, people have been growing tobacco in the area for over 200 years.

In Havana we hired Jose and his sweet red 1957 Ford Victoria to drive the four of us 3 hours out to Viñales, passing only a handful of other classic cars and a bunch of horse-drawn carriages on Cuba’s poorly maintained highways.

Vinales National Park

Vinales Cars

Welcome To Viñales

Viñales feels stuck in time. The main street is lined with small single story wooden homes with faded paint. Locals pass by riding old bicycles, horses, or driving colorful vintage American cars.

While there are some hotels in town, most travelers stay with locals in casas particulares, which are like guest bedrooms in other people’s homes.

Our host was Lay, a welcoming lady who turned her home into a guesthouse with two double rooms. This is how many Cubans make extra income beyond their communist government regulated salary of about $30 USD per month.

The town has plenty of small restaurants and bars with live music, but it doesn’t feel overcrowded. In fact, Viñales is rumored to be Fidel Castro’s favorite part of Cuba!

Horseback Riding Vinales Cuba

Vinales Cigars

Viñales National Park

Viñales Valley was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 due to its dramatic landscape of karst limestone domes called mogotes, traditional agricultural methods of farming, and rich cultural history.

The valley was formed underwater, rising from the sea millions of years ago. Ancient ocean fossils can still be found in the caves that dot the landscape.

The New York Times called Viñales one of the top places to visit in 2016.

But aside from being a beautiful travel destination, Viñales is known for the quality of its tobacco. I’m not a “smoker” per se, but I do enjoy the occasional cigar at the end of a big trek or for special occasions.

So I was excited to learn how Cuba’s world-famous cigars are actually made.

Tobacco Farm Cuba

Vinales Livestock

Home Of Cuban Cigars

Why are Cuban cigars so special? Well, many people believe Cuba is the birthplace of cigars. Christopher Columbus encountered native Cubans smoking cylindrical bundles of twisted tobacco leaves in 1492.

The practice was eventually exported to Europe, and by the 19th century, smoking cigars became a popular pastime for wealthy men — who formed special cigar clubs called divans.

Cuba’s time-honored tobacco growing and production techniques were exported to places like the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. Then came the United States trade embargo, making Cuban cigars illegal — and increasing their value even more.

The fertile land and favorable climate of Viñales make for perfect cigar tobacco growing conditions. Most residents here are in the tobacco farming business.

Farmhouse in Vinales

Vinales Tobacco Farm Tour

Tobacco Farm Experience

We hired a guide and some horses to take a tour of Viñales National Park, learning about the traditional techniques used here for hundreds of years. No machines are used, which means crops are picked by hand and fields are plowed with oxen.

Passing through farms with pigs, chickens, and turkeys, we rode along green tobacco fields where local workers were harvesting the last of the season’s prized leaves. Tobacco grows fast, ready for harvest after 2-3 months.

The leaves are then hung in special curing barns, where they dry for about a month, turning a toasty brown color. The Cuban government buys 90% of the tobacco, while locals are allowed to keep 10% for themselves.

To prepare Cuban cigars, the center vein of the leaf is removed, where 98% of the nicotine resides. Next, leaves are sprayed with a special mixture of ingredients like pineapple, lemon, honey, cinnamon, vanilla, and rum for the fermentation process.

Three different types of leaves are used to roll the final cigar — filler (inside), binder (holding it together), and the wrapper (visually appealing outer layer).

Tobacco Barn Cuba

Vinales Cuba Cowboys

Adventures In Viñales

Visiting tobacco farms isn’t the only thing to do in Viñales though. As part of the farm tour, we also explored one of the many limestone caves in the area. Rock climbing these unique limestone formations is a popular activity too.

Aside from guided horseback riding, you can also rent a bicycle, ATV, or motorcycle and explore the valley on your own. There’s a popular cave called Cueva del Indio where you can ride a boat on the underground river that flows through the cave.

We heard stories about a nice little beach about an hour North of Viñales called Cayo Jutías, but didn’t have time to visit.

Vinales Ox Cart

Tips For Visiting

Viñales is located about 3-4 hours West of Havana. There are regular Viazul Busses that run twice a day for about $15 USD per person. But you often need to buy your ticket a day in advance.

Or you can do what we did, and rent a vintage taxi with room for 4 people for about $60-$70 depending on your bargaining skills.

While walking the outskirts of Viñales, you might be waved over to learn about the cigar making process at some random farm. It’s a fun experience, just understand that at the end your host will ask you to buy a bundle of 15-20 cigars for about $1 each.

Cuban cigars can cost $10-$20 each in the USA… so it’s a pretty good deal!

“If I cannot smoke in heaven, then I shall not go.” ~ Mark Twain

Watch Video: Viñales Farm Adventure

(Click to watch Viñales Farm Adventure – Cuba on YouTube)

More Information

Location: Viñales, Cuba
Accommodation: Casa Lay (email: layvinales@nauta.cu)
Horseback Farm Tour: 35 CUC ($35 USD)
Useful Notes: Our tobacco farm tour was done on horseback, but they also have ox carts or bikes available. It lasts about 4 hours, with an option for a short cave excursion for a few CUC more. In addition to cigars, you can also purchase cuban coffee at the end.
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Cuba
Suggested Reading: The Other Side Of Paradise

READ NEXT: How To Visit Cuba For Americans

Are you planning to visit Cuba? Have you ever smoked a cigar?

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.

How To Travel To Cuba: A Guide For Americans

American Travel in Cuba

How to Travel to Cuba for Americans

Travel Tips

While relations between Cuba & the United States are improving, it’s still technically illegal to travel there. Here’s how you can travel to Cuba as an American anyway.

UPDATE: As of August 2016, there are now regular flights to Cuba from the United States from certain airlines/cities. Keep reading for more information.

Back in 1960 the United States imposed a severe trade embargo against Cuba. The Blockade was created after Cuba nationalized American owned oil refineries without compensation.

As part of this embargo, travel to Cuba by Americans has been restricted for over half a century. Or more specifically, it’s technically illegal for U.S. citizens to have transactions (spend money or receive gifts) in Cuba under most circumstances.

Basically this regulation has prevented most Americans from considering Cuba as a travel destination. Due to economic sanctions, air travel to Cuba from the United States was almost impossible. American credit & debit cards don’t work in Cuba either.

However things are beginning to change.

Traveling to Cuba for Americans

Exploring the Tobacco Farms of Viñales

Can Americans Travel To Cuba?

Even though travel to Cuba for Americans is restricted, that doesn’t make it impossible to visit. For many years some intrepid Americans were traveling to Cuba anyway. Initially there were three ways to accomplish this.

Special License

You could register for a special license with the US Government if the reason for your travel fit a certain category. These include family visits, professional reasons, journalism, religious or cultural programs, and humanitarian projects. You can see the full list here.

People To People Tours

Organized tours that involve some sort of educational experience with local Cuban people. It’s never been defined officially, but basically your trip can’t just involve sitting on the beach. Travelers would talk with a school, volunteer for a community project, or collaborate with artists. A kind of legal loophole that tour companies use to sell tours in Cuba.

Foreign Gateway Cities

The other option was to travel to Cuba “illegally” through a foreign gateway city. This means flying yourself to Canada or Mexico first, then traveling to Cuba on your own from one of those countries. Because for the rest of the world, Cuba has been a popular travel destination for many years.

It’s only us Americans who haven’t been able to visit Cuba!

New Rules

As of January 16th, 2015 Americans no longer need to apply for specific licenses if they fit one of the 12 special categories.

What does this mean? It simplifies the process for Americans that meet those special requirements to visit Cuba. But it also creates a grey-area.

If you no longer have to pre-apply for a license, can you say your trip is for journalism when it’s really not? Will anyone even check to make sure you actually match one of the 12 categories?

If you don’t fit one of the categories, will anyone enforce the rules when you return to the United States? From my experience & listening to other travelers, the answer is no.

While it’s still technically illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba for tourism only, it seems in practice, no one really enforces these travel restrictions anymore.

American Travel in Cuba

Local Game of Dominoes in the Streets of Havana

How To Travel To Cuba

In April 2016 I traveled to Cuba as an American with my girlfriend Anna from Anna Everywhere and our friends Hannah & Adam from Getting Stamped. We traveled through the popular foreign gateway city of Cancun, Mexico.

You can buy a 30 day Cuban tourist visa at the airport there for $20.

It can be purchased the at the check in counter (or while waiting in line) before your flight. The visa is a separate card you keep with your passport, but it’s not attached.

We flew into Havana from Cancun on the Mexican budget airline Interjet for $240 USD round trip, and the flight took about an hour.

As of August 2016, the US government is allowing some American companies to resume flights to Cuba.

Airlines that are flying to Cuba from the United States now include American, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, United, Spirit, Alaska and Delta.

For flights leaving from the Untied States, the visa process seems to be similar for some people. You get your visa at the airport checkin counter.

But some reports suggest that it’s not the same everywhere. Plus the price of your Cuban visa is more expensive when leaving from the United States. I’ve heard reports of $50 instead of $20.

For these reasons, I recommend calling your airline beforehand to verify.

Cuban Visa for Americans

My $20 Cuban Visa

Cuban Immigration Process

The Cuban immigration process was super simple. I told the officer in Havana that I was traveling to Cuba for tourism, and he offered to stamp my visa card instead of my passport. This has been standard operating procedure for years.

Cuba wants American tourism, and they offer to stamp your visa rather than your passport so you don’t get in trouble with the US government.

This way, when you return to the United States, it just looks like you traveled to Mexico. Or Canada. There’s no passport record of your travel to Cuba.

However I asked him to stamp my passport directly. I was curious what would happen when I returned to the United States. Would anyone ask me about it? Would I get fined or arrested?

Nothing happened. When I returned to the United States, immigration didn’t even ask me what countries I’d been to, and they didn’t look at my passport stamps either.

Travel Insurance

Cuba requires all tourists to have (non-American) travel medical insurance before visiting. Some people have been forced to provide proof of their insurance, and if they can’t, they must buy a special Cuban travel insurance package for about $10 a day.

When I visited Cuba though, no one asked about my travel insurance. So I’m not sure how much this requirement is enforced these days.

Cuban Currency

Two Different Kinds of Money

Exchanging Money In Cuba

Credit & debit cards issued by American banks still don’t work in Cuba. So a trip to the island involves bringing lots of cash. How much? I’m planning to write a budget travel guide for Cuba soon, but to give you an idea, you can travel there comfortably on $50 – $100 per day.

Bring more than you need to be safe. If you run out, you’re out of luck!

Cuba actually has two different currencies. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the “tourist” currency, pegged to the American dollar. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is what locals use, and worth a lot less. So when you exchange money as a tourist, you’ll receive CUC.

$1 USD = 1 CUC = 24 CUP

You can exchange US dollars for CUC, but there is a special 10% penalty fee for this service. So it’s cheaper to exchange Euros, Canadian Dollars, British Pounds, or Mexican Pesos for CUC instead.

There’s an official currency exchange outside the airport in Havana. You can exchange your leftover CUC back to US dollars (or whatever) before you leave the country too.

Casa Particular Cuba

Inside Our Casa Particular in Trinidad

Accommodation In Cuba

You’ll find some hotels & resorts in the most popular tourist cities like Havana, Trinidad, and Varadero. But they generally aren’t cheap. To travel on a budget in Cuba, you’ll want to stay with locals in casas particulares.

A “casa particular” is like a homestay or guesthouse in someone’s home. They sometimes include breakfast, and run between $20 – $30 per night for a double room. To operate a casa particular, local families need to register & pay special taxes to the Cuban government.

Most casa’s don’t have websites, so you just walk around and ask about availability when you get there. If one is booked, the owner will usually help you find another nearby.

AirBnB is now operating in Cuba too! We booked our first two nights in Havana through AirBnB.

Renting a Car in Cuba

Our Rental Car in Cuba

Transportation In Cuba

Cuban Bus System

Cuba has a government run bus company for tourists called Viazul that covers most of the country. Tickets aren’t very expensive, but you can’t book them online yet, and popular routes sell out fast. Which means you might need to buy your ticket in person at the station the day before.

Renting A Car

We rented a modern car in Cuba for 6 of the 10 days we were there. Renting a car in Cuba isn’t easy or cheap. There aren’t many vehicles available yet, so you generally have to book a car at least 2 weeks in advance by calling or emailing the company.

When we arrived in Havana, we tried to rent a car directly at the airport with no reservation, and were told repeatedly there were no cars left. Eventually Anna found a guy who said he had two, but from the same company who earlier said they had none, Via Rent A Car (they have no website, but you can book online through other sites like Cuba Junky).

So it seemed a bit shady/strange… but we ultimately got one.

Renting a car in Cuba with insurance is going to cost you between $70 – $90 USD per day. It’s not cheap! Luckily we split the cost between 4 of us. There’s also a $200 cash deposit required.

Vintage Taxi

The other option for traveling around Cuba is to rent a vintage American car with driver. This isn’t cheap unless you split the cost with a few people.

Hailing a vintage taxi for a short ride in town will cost you $8 – $10. Renting one for a longer 2-3 hour trip can cost around $60 -$70 USD depending on your bargaining skills.

Split between 4 people, our 3 hour vintage taxi ride from Havana to Viñales cost $60, about the same as 4 bus tickets, but we could stop anytime we wanted for photos or snacks. The cars are super cool too!

I’ve also heard it’s possible to rent one for a full day for $100 – $120.

Internet in Cuba

Using WiFi Internet Cards

Internet In Cuba

Despite popular opinion, there is some internet access in Cuba. That wasn’t always the case though. For many years Cuba was one of the least connected countries in the world. The government does censor some stuff though, like access to Snapchat or anti-government blogs.

These days you can get connected through Cuba’s state run ETECSA telecom company. Tourists can buy ETECSA prepaid wifi cards at special kiosks for $2 – $3 per hour of service.

These scratch-off type cards provide a username and password for ETECSA wifi networks, which can be found at major hotels or in public parks around the country.

You can often buy additional cards from locals in the park or at a hotel front desk for about $6. The internet isn’t blazing fast, but you can certainly upload web-sized photos to Facebook & Instagram.

Passport Stamp Cuba

My Pink Cuban Passport Stamps!

Cuban Exit Fee

As of May 1, 2015 Cuba no longer charges the $25 CUC exit fee to travelers leaving the country, this fee is now included in the price of your airline.

Can You Bring Back Cigars?

I thought you’d never ask! So officially, if you are traveling to Cuba under one of the 12 special categories, you are now allowed to bring back $400 worth of souvenirs, including up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars. Yay!

Does that mean $100 of official branded cigars with a receipt? What if you buy unbranded “loose” cigars from a tobacco farmer in Viñales for $1 each?

Well I don’t know for sure, but I did manage to bring 30 Cuban cigars back into the United States. I was never questioned about tobacco, and it’s not listed on the customs form as something I have to declare.

Buying Cuban cigars in another country, like Mexico, and bringing them back to the US is still illegal. If you decide to try, do so at your own risk!

Most Recent Changes

To learn more about the legality of traveling to Cuba as an American, check out the Treasury Department’s Cuba FAQ. ★

More Information

Useful Notes: While technically it’s still illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba for tourism only, in practice people are going anyway and not getting in trouble. It seems there is no one enforcing these rules as the government attempts to jump-start tourism & business there.
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Cuba
Suggested Reading: The Other Side Of Paradise

READ NEXT: Horseback Riding In Vinales Cuba

Have any questions about how to travel in Cuba? Are you planning a trip there? Drop me a message in the comments below!

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.