Speak to any traveller and ask them which country is a ‘must see’ in the next few years, and Cuba will come in the top few (if not top) every time. Despite Obama’s efforts to restore relations with the country in 2016, tourism from the United States has yet to kick-in, though change is happening quickly in Cuba. Tourism is providing a massive boost to the Cuban economy; the average worker earns $50 a month, yet letting out a room in their home (or ‘casa’) can make them $30 per night. Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother and successor) has sought to introduce a sprinkling of market forces (don’t say it too loudly…) into the Cuban economy, for example allowing private restaurants to proliferate. I’d be fascinated by Cuba for a number of years, and was lucky enough to visit in November 2017 having bagged bargain flights (via Paris) on Jack’s Flight Club.
Our itinerary followed a typical route around the North West of the island, and I think we got it 90% right – more detail below.
Flights: We flew in/out of Havana, though I would recommend flying in/out of Varadero or Cayo Coco if you want some proper beach time.
Accommodation: Cuba has a series of casa particulars – homestay – which cost $25-35 per room, per night. They rarely have websites, but each casa will have links with other casas in others towns, and they will book ahead for you. Every casa we stayed in was clean and in good condition – all had a/c and most had fridges filled with drinks which was a nice touch. Breakfast was always $5 extra, of varying quality.
Food and drink: Food was very average on the whole. I’ll pick out a few of the better places below. Drinking, on the other hand, is great! Rum cocktails (everything is rum here, due to the abundance of the state manufactured Havana Club) were $1-5 each which means that it’s very easy to have a casual pina colada with your lunch, or drink Cuba libres all night without breaking the bank. We realised too late, but you can eat at state-run restaurants which serve big plates of food (e.g. pulled pork and rice) for a couple of pounds. These places don’t have normal menus, just a list of the day’s offerings on the wall. Ask around for ‘non-tourist’ restaurants; Havana is your best bet.
Internet: There is no internet in Cuba unless you buy cards in the main parks ($1-2 per hour) – it’s a great place to escape from your phone! I’d really recommend downloading the maps.me app in advance so that you can access street names. I imported some recommended map ‘pins’ which showed off some of the best bars, restaurants and attractions – we used this every day, so I’d recommend doing this too – much easier than using Lonely Planet.
Cash: Tourists use $CUC which is linked to the US dollar and is dispensed from cash points in most towns. It’s worth taking some sterling to exchange when you get to the airport to ensure you have cash on arrival, but we didn’t have any problems getting cash. If you can, exchange some Cuba pesos and you will be able to barter with taxi drivers (locals pay much less for transport) and buy food from state-run restaurants (see above).
Transport: We weren’t clear about transport before we arrived in Cuba, but we ended up pleasantly surprised. It’s very easy to get around and not too expensive. Casas can organise a collectivo which is a direct taxi from your casa to your next casa. These ranged from rust-buckets to decent cars with a/c. Either way, these are always quicker than the Viazul buses and always the same price, if not cheaper. Once you get to a town, you can get around with cheap taxi rides.
Havana (2 nights)
We stayed in the Old Town which, with smartened up cobbled streets and colonial-era buildings, is a lovely place to wander. We did a tour of the city in a 1950s Chevrolet (approx. $25CUC for an hour) and went to the Museum of the Revolution which, in all honesty, is pretty rubbish, so it’d be worth reading up about Cuba before you visit the country. Parque Central is a good place to people watch. You can see the key sights in a day or two, so no need to rush around.
Eat/drink: El Chanchullero (the garlic fish was excellent). The guidebooks will tell you to visit places such as El Floridita – we didn’t bother as they were always busy and overpriced, so unless you’re a massive Ernest Hemingway fan, it’s much more exciting to wander into a random local bar.
Vinales (3 nights)
Vinales is just a few hours taxi ride away from Havana, and it’s definitely worth visiting for a few nights. The town itself is small and non-descript, but there is lots of beautiful countryside where you can walk and cycle. We hired bikes (don’t pay more than $5CUC for the day) and cycled 30 mins to the Indian Cave where you do a short boat trip through the cave – pretty cool! The prehistoric murals are a bit bizarre, so better to explore the wider area. We did a hike (everything is organised at InfoTour in town) which last several hours, taking in lush countryside, a bat cave and tobacco plantations. You can buy some cigars directly from the farmers here. They claim they’re Cohibas (the best brand), though without the labels, it’s hard to know. Either way, they’re very cheap, so it’s a good chance to try one. Our guide was really informative and funny, and taught us a lot about the Cuban way of life. Other tours visited a honey farm too.
Eat/drink: There’s lots of choice on the main street – the best food is at the Italian restaurant (I can’t remember it’s name, but it’s in Lonely Planet – I had chocolate rabbit which was pretty tasty!). We also ate at the organic farm which is about 30 mins walk from town – we had a huge dinner which was very good value, though apparently it’s worth visiting for lunch as the views are fantastic.
Cayo Jutias (day trip from Vinales)
This is a stunning beach 1 hour from Vinales – you can do a day trip booked from InfoTour or you can hire scooters and ride there (though be warned: the roads are full of potholes). The sand is white and the sea is bright blue – everything you expect from a Caribbean beach. Turn left and walk to the far end of the beach and there is a shack which sells BBQ lobster and pina coladas – it even had a Cuban band playing when we went there!
You can also do a day trip to Cayo Levisa which is more expensive, but equally beautiful. With hindsight, we wished we had done this as well rather than kick around for another day in Havana at the end.
Cienfuegos (1 night)
You only need one night in Cienfuegos, but we had a good time here and it’s on the way to Trinidad from Vinales (about 4 hours). It’s a French colonial town – very different from the Spanish influence in Havana. We stayed in a fantastic casa with high ceilings. There’s not lots to do here, but we had a wander through town and down the malecon to see the sunset.
Eat/drink: We spent the night at the Yacht Club where there was a big locals night – lots of rum and dancing! Sunday seems to be the busy night, though worth checking with your casa.
Trinidad (4 nights)
Trinidad was a real highlight and we stayed here for 4 nights as our first few days had been quite hectic. It’s a beautiful colonial town which has been well preserved. You can wander round in a half-day, and it’s worth going up the towers in the museums to get some good views of the town (you can also climb up the big hill which overlooks the town). It was the most touristy place we saw, after Havana, but it’s easy enough to manage.
We did a trip to a slave plantation watch tower (interesting), as well as to the Cubana waterfall (1 hour walk each way, with a refreshing dip on offer – great for hangovers!). We also did a day trip, cycling to Playa Ancon (beach). It’s an easy, 45 minute cycle and you can hire bikes in town. The beach is clean and it’s a nice place to relax for the delay. Try and sit in a quieter place to avoid being sold a coconut every 5 minutes. Oh, and definitely leave by 4pm latest…we left at 5pm (sunset) which meant we got bitten to smithereens by mosquitos and ended up cycling back in the dark, with an endless pummelling of insects – not the ideal end to a good day!
In the evenings, everyone head to ‘the steps’ to watch locals do salsa ($1CUC).
Eat/drink: Plenty of choice here. Le Botija was the best (if expensive) and served huge Cuban dishes. Take your pick of rooftops on which to enjoy a mojito, with virtually every place playing salsa/rumba music. We did the ‘rave in a cave’ which was good fun.
On the way to Trinidad (1 hour from Cienfuegos), we stopped at Rancho Luna to go diving. I read/heard that the diving is better here than at the much feted Bay of Pigs, though whilst the coral farms were big, there weren’t many fish. Alternatively, you could go via El Nicho waterfall which looks beautiful. After Trinidad, friends of ours stayed here in the Tope Collante National Park for a couple of nights, which is a great place to do a couple of walks and to visit some more waterfalls.
Santa Clara (1 night)
Santa Clara is an important city in terms of Cuba’s revolutionary history – it was the first city to be taken in the revolution. As such, ‘El Che’ rests here (you can visit the mausoleum and there is a massive statue). That said, there is very little to see here and so it’s not really worth making the visit for more than a few hours as a stop-off on the way to Havana/the coast. It’s 90 mins from Trinidad. If you have a bit of extra time, try and get down to Santiago instead.
Havana (2 nights)
We headed back to Havana for our final 2 nights as we wanted to see some more of the infamous Havana nightlife. It took about 3 hours from Santa Clara. We had lots of fun at the Fabrica de Arte which is one of the most popular nights in Havana and has several rooms playing different types of music. Eat before you go – there isn’t much choice for food/drink around here.
For a change from the Old Town, we stayed in Centro Havana at a beautiful case called La Casa de la Concordia – highly recommended and directly opposite one of Havana’s best restaurants (Obama ate here). We wandered around for a couple of days and checked out the castles on the other side of the river. We also headed to Coppelia Ice Cream which is a bizarre, state-run ice cream shop, where you can get a bowl of ice cream for pennies. Who said socialism was no fun!?
If you’re flying to/from Havana, there’s no need to come back here again at the end – you can just get a taxi from the airport wherever you’re staying. As mentioned above, we wish we’d spent more time on the beach. Varadero isn’t far away, though we didn’t go there.
Overall, I’d give Cuba 4/5 stars. It was genuinely fascinating to see Spanish, Caribbean and socialist influences combined. The Cuban people were very friendly and the standard of accommodation was good. Travelling around was easy and the variety on offer means that everywhere you visit is interesting.
Best bits: Cocktails, live music everywhere, northern beaches, Vinales countryside.
Worst bits: Food. Despite being pretty, Havana Old Town is getting quite touristy – not horrendous, but don’t plan on spending loads of time here.