Travel Cuba on a Budget
This month, I was able to travel to one of my bucket list destinations. I was super excited to finally visit Cuba! I met a few friends from Winnipeg and Calgary in Varadero to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Traveling with friends (even friends you have not met yet but have a friend in common) is the best way to travel. There is always someone who wants to do what you want to do so, as much as I do enjoy my solo time, it’s so much friendlier with two (or more).
Cuba is a good place to travel to when you are on a budget. Even though their currency, the Convertible Peso or CUC, has a similar exchange rate to a US dollar for Canadians, it is still very affordable if you have a plan to stay on budget. After the initial investment of flight and all-inclusive resort for one week, it can get quite expensive! Especially if your friends have a larger budget than you do. However, with some smart budgeting (and the advantage of speaking the language) I was able to stick to my $500 CAD budget, and actually only spent $350.
First thing, I ate at the resort as much as possible. It’s all-inclusive after all! Drinks and food are included so I definitely did take advantage. I am not a huge drinker but definitely indulged in Cuba Libres and Mojitos (I know, piña coladas are the bomb! But they are too sweet for my taste), my Canadian friends had a few complaints about the food being bland but my Salvadoran roots did not mind the food, I actually found it quite tasty. Not gourmet quality but still pretty good. Someone suggested that I bring hot sauce on my trip, and I did, but I didn’t end up using it all that much. Anyway, from the 7 days I spent in Cuba, I ate outside of the resort maybe 4 times. Here’s something I learned from the locals, the State-owned restaurants have the cheapest prices and the privately owned restaurants are more expensive. Quite by accident, we found a restaurant in Varadero called Esquina Cuba, for less than $15 with drink and dessert, the meal was traditional Cuban food, delicious, and the ambiance was perfect. A large, open ranch on the corner of the street on Avenida 1Ra 36. Every one of our group who ate there completely loved it! The food was quite good! I had the Criollo dish that included different traditional Cuban dishes, I also got to try the Camarones al Ajillo (garlic shrimp) and I cleared my plate both times! All dishes include rice and beans and a side of salad so you will definitely fill your belly and leave satisfied. This is a State-owned restaurant.
On the evening that we had planned to go out we tried to go back to that restaurant but, silly me, I had forgotten the name of it so I could not give our hotel or taxi drivers the correct name, I just described the location. Both the bellhop and the taxi drivers insisted that the restaurant was no good and they suggested we try La Fiesta del Carbon, we trusted their recommendation and they drove us to this restaurant, at first we got a little bit worried when the taxi driver turned into a dirt road/cul-de-sac with private homes and pretty isolated, but at the end of this road there is an open restaurant that is privately owned. It is quite highly rated and they had set up a table to accommodate all 17 of us (the bellhop had called ahead to make a reservation). We noticed a big difference in the prices, definitely double what we paid at Esquina Cuba. Being on a budget I stuck to the ever delicious stuffed tostones (stuffed plantain “chips”) and the seafood soup. Not going to lie, it definitely was delicious, the service was great, the ambiance was excellent despite the location and we had a great time there. We kind of suspect that the taxi drivers get some sort of commission for bringing tourists there but we were not disappointed, although we did spend more than we expected; my soup, tostones, and coke came to about $21. However, I still really recommend this restaurant if you’re in Varadero.
That same evening we went to the famous The Beatles bar. The bar has no cover charge, they just ask that you buy drinks when you’re there. But at $3 to $4 for cocktails, this was no issue. This place is famous for a reason. They have the best rock cover bands I have ever had the pleasure to see! Everything from Bon Jovi to Pink Floyd to Journey to Metallica to AC/DC to Lynyrd Skynyrd, you name the classic rock band and they have an amazing cover singer for it. Despite the name of the band, there wasn’t too much The Beatles music happening on the bandstand, but the inside of the building is filled with memorabilia and a loop of Beatles videos and movies. There is a bronze statue of the Fab 4 outside where you take pictures, for about $6 (I’m a low-budget drinker after all) I had an amazing time dancing and singing along with friends, and I will say that it’s probably the most happening place in Varadero. After a night out, our taxi drivers picked us up and took us back to the hotel.
While I’m on the subject. Haggling is something that can be done in Cuba, as long as you’re not a jerk about it and try to really low-ball them, it’s always good to ask how much something is and then bring down the price a bit. Our cab drivers stayed with us for the full night, from the hotel to an ATM to the restaurant to The Beatles bar and back to the hotel they charged $50 per taxi for the whole night. With 5 people in the cab, we each spent $10 for comfortable and safe transportation.
The other thing to do is to look for excursions that are not organized by the hotel or the travel agency. Sometimes the hotel staff (the maids, bartenders, entertainment staff, etc. not the front desk) has good hook-ups and recommendations to save you money. For $35 each for a group of 9, we were able to hire a taxi van to take us on a day trip to Habana. We set the schedule and set what we wanted to see and where we wanted to go. Best decision we made was to do this private tour. We figured that a big bus full of people we don’t know and going at the tour guide’s schedule would not have been as fun as what we did. Plus I got to walk the streets of Old Habana and see what I wanted to, La Bodeguita del Medio and Floridita are tourist staples but I definitely needed to drink a banana daiquiri at the Floridita, another bucket list item off my list. The wait time can be insane depending on the time of day, lunchtime is definitely crazy, we waited and made it just after 3, the lineup and wait time was not so bad then. The daiquiri was definitely the most I paid for a drink in Cuba, it was $6 but it was worth it for the experience. A picture inside the bar with the statue of Ernest Hemingway and drinking a banana daiquiri was a highlight. It’s definitely worth going for a full day to Habana, we spent about 5 hours there and it was not enough. I’m already planning my next visit. Now, our taxi driver took us to a restaurant called El Guajirito, try the signature drink made with rum and freshly extracted cane juice, the food here was alright, nothing better than what we had in Varadero, and the prices were in-line with a privately owned restaurant, but the service was exactly what you would expect from “island living”, when we were trying to eat fast it was not a good choice to go to this place. If you have a lot of time to really sit and wait for the food then I would recommend it, otherwise, have your tour guide take you somewhere else. We spent about an hour and a half here and it really cut into our sightseeing time.
One other thing that we did that was completely memorable was the snorkeling. For $20 a person, we took a small catamaran sailboat out from the hotel beach to the coral reefs about 20 minutes out, we got to feed the fish and swim around for a good 2 hours (basically until we got tired), for an extra $5 per person a photographer took underwater pictures and put them on a CD for us. I didn’t feel that I missed the fancy $92 catamaran trip from the hotel. Yes, it was a large boat that takes you to an island to do the snorkeling and includes food a drink, but it was a full day and all we really wanted to do is snorkel anyway so this was the perfect thing to do on a budget.
All in all, with the couple of souvenirs I bought: paintings, 2 bottles of rum, a pearl bracelet, and cigars, I was able to stay below budget, have a great time with friends, do most of the things that I wanted to do, and escape the winter blues for a week. I can see why people love to travel to Cuba more than once. I am definitely wanting to go again and really plan my time out to visit Habana and do a couple more excursions. Cuba is definitely a great place for Canadians!