If you found this article, it’s probably because you’re planning a trip to Cuba, but even the best budget travel blogs are warning you that if you really really stretch your budget, you should still plan to spend around $80-$100 per day. I spent 23 days in Cuba and travel to every corner of the island on $41 per day. Here’s how.
CUP- The Cuban Peso
There are two currencies in Cuba: CUC (often called kook) and CUP (often called pesos). The CUC exchange rate is 1:1 with USD, but those carrying USD will also be charged a 10% exchange fee, so Americans should consider bringing all of their cash in Euros to Cuba. I exchanged all of my USD to EUR in the Atlanta airport on my layover on the way down to Havana. As for CUP, the rate is 1 dollar=26.5 pesos.
Most travel blogs will tell you that CUP is only for Cuban people, not tourists. But guess what? That’s not true! There is no law that says this, CUP is just a bit more complicated to understand. For this reason, most tourists don’t even try! In reality, if you work a little to figure out this system, you’ll be spending a fraction of what most tourists spend on food and transportation and you will know that you really can travel Cuba on a budget!
Using CUP to buy food in Cuba
Food is a big expense on any trip. This is even more true in Cuba, because finding a place to have your own kitchen to cook in is nearly impossible and most places to eat are sit-down restaurants. But this is another area where CUP comes in handy. As you walk down the street in Cuba looking for a bite to eat, you’ll see lots of little sit down restaurants with waiters and bi-fold menus like you’re used to in the US. These are the places where wealthier Cubans and tourists usually eat. Prices are decent as you can often get meals for $4-$6 in these places, plus a tip. But if you’re looking for real deals, you need to dig a little deeper.
First, you’ll need to head away from the really touristy parts of town. Once you’re away from the shops selling Cuban car figurines and Che posters, keep your eye out for signs advertising food in CUP. Every so often as you walk down the street, you might see an open window with a small kitchen behind it. Often times there will be a chalkboard next to the window with only a few items, or sometimes just one listed on it. You’ll see prices in CUP next to each item. You might see “arroz con pollo + batido de mango (rice with chicken and a mango shake)” or “cerdo ahumado + jugo de mamey” (smoked pork and a mamey fruit juice) with 30-40 CUP (less than $1.50) written next to it. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and find a box of chicken and rice for just 15 CUP. These meals are what real Cuban food is. The “eclectic Cuban” restaurants that we often see here in the US are representations of very hard to find, expensive Cuban meals. The real Cuba is full of basic ingredients cooked comfort-style. That does not mean you cannot find good food on a budget, it just often isn’t all that special.
One of the best parts of Cuban cuisine, in my opinion, is all of the delicious fruit juice. This is one area in which the quality does not vary too much, but the prices greatly do. If you venture to the outskirts of the tourist parts of town, you’ll find the same juices that you saw for $5 in Havana Vieja for only $0.50, and they usually give you more juice in these places too!
**A quick pro tip for you juice lovers: In Cuba, you need to get in the habit of calling papaya “fruta bomba.” The word “papaya” in Cuban slang refers to the female organ. Depending on who is making your juice, you might get hysterically laughed at for asking for papaya juice.
Treat yourself a couple times
My final daily budget number often times flashes through my head like a scoreboard. I take pride in being able to save money in different countries because it brings me closer to the average person in those countries and immerses me deeper into the culture. But every once in a while, I have to force myself to “treat yoself.” One of the best ways to do that in Cuba is to eat a meal made from your hosts. Remember that in Cuba, outside of expensive hotels, the only places to stay are Casas Particulares, living in an extra room of a family’s home. Most of the time, the families will offer to make you meals for an extra price. The meals will often cost more than eating at the cheap CUP street places, but the meals made by my hosts were the best meals I had in Cuba, hands down. Nothing like specially prepared home cooking!
Using CUP in the markets in Cuba
You can also use CUP in the open air food markets in Cuba. If you have CUP in your hand when you are bargaining for the price of your fruit in Cuba, you’ll be much more likely to be given real Cuban prices, not the gringo price. Buying lots of fruit and veggies in the markets can also be a great option for a cheap and fast meal on the go. I often found myself running to the market to buy a couple mangoes and an avocado or two for lunch on my way to the beach, a hiking trail or just to explore town without stopping to sit down for lunch.
This goes for not just fruit, but also other simple goods that you can buy in the markets. Anything without a set price like basic clothing, hats, simple souvenirs, etc can all be purchased with CUP, which can be used as a good bargaining chip for you.
Using CUP for transportation in Cuba
Transportation in Cuba can be tricky. When you first arrive in the Havana airport, you’ll likely be stuck paying a taxi to take you into town. Taxis are definitely the most accessible form of transportation to tourists. In Cuba, they’re fun too because you’re riding in cool old American muscle cars. For shorter distances, you have a couple good budget options if you’re willing to polish off your Spanish skills and get a little lost.
Colectivos- These are my favorite. They are often the less pristine of the old American muscle cars. They drive along a fixed route and they charge 10 CUP (less than $0.50) to take you a pretty decent distance. The four seats in the car are shared and anyone can hail down a colectivo as long as it isn’t full. Colectivo literally means collective, so you’re sharing the car with other people that are traveling along the fixed route. These are all over Havana. Hail one down on a street corner of any major road and tell the driver where you’re headed. If that place is on his route, he’ll tell you to get in. Just make sure to pay your 10 CUP and open and close the doors suavecito (softly).
La guagua- This is a classic Cuban word that most often refers to public buses. These buses are often pretty new and in great condition but can be jam-packed during busy hours. Signs at bus stops will show you basic route maps and where each bus number goes. If you aren’t in any hurry, these are the cheapest option and are definitely an experience!
Taxis- last but not least, taxis. They are the most expensive but they will get you exactly where you need to go in a hurry, no need to walk a few blocks on either end. The better shape the car is in, the more the driver will want to charge. So find one that’s a little more beat up and do your best to bargain with the driver.
Longer distance transportation
With longer distance transportation, using CUP is not really a money-saving option. However, you still have some options to save a little. Read about saving money on long-distance transportation in Cuba here.
Dining and intercity transportation are the two biggest ways to save money using CUP in Cuba. Those two things may not seem like enough to save you a lot, but it definitely adds up! You can do the math for yourself to find out how much money I saved in Cuba by figuring out the CUP system for myself and not listening all of the terrible advice out there about foreigners not being allowed to use CUP.
If you are interested in traveling authentically with a great group of people, check out one of No Strings Travel’s upcoming trips for an unforgettable adventure!