Cuba’s captivating, colourful streets and carnaval feel make it appealing for travellers year-round. And, as relations with the US thaw, the country’s popularity has skyrocketed, with visitor numbers showing little sign of abating.
Planning to join them? Start with our top tips for making the most out of backpacking Cuba.
1. Stay with a Cuban family
Casa particulares are the best bet for accommodation in Cuba. You pay per room, so they can be more expensive than hostels in some other countries, but the chance to stay with a local family will give you a true insight into Cuban life.
Passing the day on a rocking chair, or drinking rum with your hosts, might be one of the most memorable experiences you have on your trip – and their tips and recommendations will be invaluable.
2. Make the most of taxis
While you might think that driving around in a 1950s Ford or Buick will be expensive, many are private taxis – and they’re rarely more pricey than regular taxis. It can also be easier and cheaper to take a taxi colectivo (communal taxi) on long distances than a Viazul bus.
However, don’t expect a luxury journey. You’re likely to be squeezed in with other tourists, vintage cars rarely have seatbelts, and it’s not uncommon to switch cars once or twice before you reach your destination.
Whatever you do, be sure to arrange your price before the journey, as if you’re in a private car, it won’t have a meter.
3. Don’t rely on the internet
While internet access is becoming increasingly available in parts of Cuba, it’s still not widespread, and you certainly won’t be able to log in to free wi-fi at your accommodation.
To access the internet, you’ll need to buy a timed ETESCA card and find a hotspot. It’s often not worth the hassle, so ensure your travel plans don’t rely on using the web.
4. Learn to dance like a local
From the songs blasting out of the taxi radio to live bands in restaurants and seemingly spontaneous dance shows in the street, salsa music will be a constant background beat when you’re backpacking Cuba.
Whatever the setting, you won’t be able to help shaking your hips to its swinging sound. Try a dance class or ask a local for some tips and you’ll be ready to show off your moves at a Casa de la Música in no time.
5. Pack a mac
Even in Cuba’s so-called dry season, heavy downpours can be sudden and unexpected, so be prepared for a soaking. Pack a raincoat and and remember, it’s unlikely to last long. The Caribbean heat will be with you soon enough.
6. Enjoy Cuban rum
Rum is cheap and easy to find in Cuba – and sometimes easier to source than bottled water.
Try a daiquiri in Havana, buy some rum to take back home, or relax on a palm-tree-lined beach sipping a mojito in the sun.
7. Shop when you have the chance
Shops can be hard to locate, the shelves are often half empty, and they tend to stock a bemusing range of fizzy drinks, rum and mayonnaise.
Look out for small bakeries, and if you spot a market, stock up on fresh fruit and veg. Markets are usually run in local currency, so they’re also a great place to exchange your convertible pesos for national pesos.
8. Learn some Spanish
While many Cubans speak almost-fluent English, a little español will go a long way, particularly in casas particulares.
9. Make time to wander
Strolling around colonial streets away from the main tourist hotspots will give you a better feel for Cuban life than most tourist activities. Friendly neighbours pass the time in doorways, street sellers with wooden carts hurtle down cobbled roads announcing their wares, and you’ll discover local places to eat.
10. Take everything as it comes
Taxis will arrive at 10am “Cuba time”, finding foodstuffs that are readily available elsewhere is difficult, internet is hard to find and the weather can vacillate from clear skies to sudden heavy downpours.
Take some tips from the easy going locals and you’ll soon relax and enjoy your stay.
11. Be spontaneous
It can seem as though every other house is a casa particular in Cuba – so it’s easy to find accommodation at the last minute.
While you’ll probably want to book your accommodation on arrival, for the rest of your time don’t be afraid to plan your trip as you go.
12. Go now
In July 2015, diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US were restored. And now, while you’ll often see horses and carts in the streets, you’ll still rarely spot recognisable brands or modern cars. But this is changing fast, so if you dream of seeing Cuba’s time-worn buildings and age-old cars, the time to go is now.