Cuba is a backpacker’s dream. It’s easy to navigate, cheap and full of excitement. It doesn’t matter where you are on the island, you’ll always find a friendly face and someone who is willing to tell you about the real Cuba. For many people, Cuba is a country shrouded in mystery.

While some people expect the same crime problems that trouble surrounding islands like Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Cuba is a safe place for backpackers, even women travelling on their own. The Cuban government recognises that tourism is important, so there is a high police presence in all areas and undercover police operation in popular tourist areas, so you can feel assured that you’re never far from the police if you fall foul of a pickpocket.

So, how can you go about finding yourself and exploring Cuba with just a bag on your back? Here are my top tips…

Skip camping and stay in a casa particular

These are inexpensive guest houses run by local Cuban people. You’ll get a private room with a shower and usually have your own entrance so you can come and go without disturbing the family. Your host will prepare breakfast every morning and this will likely be the highlight of your day as you tuck into fresh eggs, bread and fruit. It’s also very cheap, so it’s worth saving some space on camping gear and upgrading from roll out mat to an actual bed.

Take the bus

The bus service in Cuba might be sporadic, but it will get you there eventually. The cross-country busses are very comfortable and stop in all the towns across the country so you can get on and off to see all the sights. If you want to to get to the more remote places, you’ll either need to get a taxi or you could even hire a bike. Horses are another popular option for exploring the landscapes if you don’t mind animals.

Eat local

Food in Cuba doesn’t have the best reputation but it’s possible to eat well on a budget. Most meals will contain some variation on the rice and beans offering and it’s better to get used to this before you go. Eat where the locals eat and you’ll find delicious food for not very much money. Local paladars are family run restaurants and are the home to some of the best food in Cuba. The army-run restaurants are the ones to avoid as these will often have canteen style food which isn’t very inspiring.

Book a tour

If you want to explore the real Cuba and get off the beaten track, it’s possible to do this alone, but you’ll save time and see more if you book a tour. Unlike other destinations around the world, many local tours are actually run by local people. There’s no shortage of small travel operators running small Cuba group tours that will allow you to customise your trip and meet some incredible people along the way.

It’s always a good idea to take a few items with you as gifts for the people you meet. While Cuba might have good education and healthcare, it is still a struggling economy and many of the people will be dealing with rationing and poor access to goods. If you can spare space in your backpack, bring extra things like pens, pencils and notebooks for kids, toiletries and basic medicine like painkillers and women’s personal hygiene products.

Author's Bio: 

Lydia Barton is a freelance writer and adventurer currently based in Havana, Cuba. She writes passionately about ethical tourism and South American politics.