So you haven’t yet got your Cuba itinerary and you’re not really sure what’s waiting for you on the Caribbean island. So allow me to set the scene…
Retro cars racing through a melting, orange, Havana sunset.
Sultry teenagers tapping their toes to an infectious salsa-beat.
The distant clip-clop of a horse-drawn carriage on cobbled streets.
Thick, sweet cigar smoke billowing from the mouths of elderly locals…
Welcome to Cuba.
Whatever you’ve seen on Instagram won’t come close; you have to be amongst the madness, the mayhem and the magic to really know what this mesmerising island — which lingers in the mind long after you’ve left — is all about.
I spent almost a month there from the peak season of December 2016 to January 2017 but I arrived without planning anything. Big mistake because there’s a lot to know before you go to Cuba about currency, WiFi and the general hustle.
But if it’s some guidance about where to go that you’re after, I’ve devised a rough plan below with some of the best must-see spots in Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Vinales for anything from one-four weeks travelling.
But first… *ESSENTIAL* TIPS
- There are two currencies in Cuba; CUC (the Cuban convertible peso) is pinned to the dollar and used for accommodation, restaurant food and most other items and CUP (known as moneda nacional) can get you local buses, street food and smaller purchases. Use both if you want to live large and live local, and change your money in the airport; the rate is fine. I changed Mexican pesos (I came from Cancun) and received a rate identical to that offered in the bureaus in Havana.
- Don’t bring any bank cards affiliated to USA banks; they will be blocked. European banks are fine.
- Prepare to be disconnected from the real world for a bit; WiFi is only accessible in public spots after purchasing a login card ($1.50 for an hour).
- Haggle, haggle and haggle. Cubans hustle hard but know that there are always two prices for everything; one for tourists and one for locals. If you can pass as a Cuban your trip will be cheaper at times.
- Bus tickets to get to and from any part of the country can be booked with the national bus service, Viazul (there’s one in almost every city). But I never actually used them as every time I went to the bus station, collectivos (shared cars) were waiting outside and proved cheaper and quicker. Hitchhiking and travelling this way is totally safe and normal.
- Home-stays can be arranged via email before you arrive; find the best ones on Trip Advisor and Casa Particular. However once you’re in Cuba, each casa owner will send you along to his/her friend in the next town — but remember they all receive commission so of course this method can prove risky; mix-ups can happen, you may arrive only to hate your room etc. But luckily you aren’t obliged to commit to anything. If Havana is your first stop in Cuba, be sure to check into Hostel Mango — the owner has a list of excellent, vetted placed and, can help you arrange the rest of your trip for cheap.
Recommended time: 3-7 days
Havana pulsates with energy as if permanently plugged into an electric current. Locals and tourists spill out into the meandering streets from the many bars and salsa clubs and pastel-coloured apartment blocks, with windows that constantly seem to be open, grant you a snapshot into daily Cuban life.
THINGS TO DO
- Where to start? Marvel at the vibrancy of Cuba’s old quarter (with five different plazas) known as Habana Vieja or Old Havana, and just people watch for an hour or four. Don’t book accommodation outside of this area because you’ll just find yourself drawn back to this area each day anyway.
- Check out the Spanish, Afro and Latin art collections at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes or Cuba’s equally impressive Museo de la Revolución. (Both 5CUC entry and closed Mondays). The small Museo Casa de Mexico however, is free.
- Don’t miss the rooftop views at Hotel Inglaterra. It’s a fancy national monument and hotel with live salsa and local music every night. And if you don’t want a cocktail you’re allowed to just head up to the top and take photos of the amazing views.
- Party at Arte de Fabrique club (a huge art-warehouse just outside Habana Vieja) to drink, dance and marvel at Cuban art.
- Get a boat from Old Havana (ask around) to see El Cristo statue on La Cabaña which overlooks Havana Bay and provides dramatic views of the city. Whilst there you can also check out the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña.
EAT, DRINK, STAY
- Typical and delicious Cuban food can be bought in moneda nacional (CUP) at the always-busy, Dona Alicia (Cardenas y Economia, Old Havana).
- Try the artisan chocolate at Cuba’s Museo de Chocolate (Calle Amargura, old Havana ) and source tropical fruit from the markets on Calle Cuba.
- Grab a mojito at La Floridita (Calle Obisbo), one of Ernest Hemmingway’s two favourite bars.
- Find a homestay via Trip Advisor; you can’t book using the site but you can see the best-rated Cuban homes and track down their contact details yourself using a search engine. Booking this way is totally normal.
Trinidad, Recommended time: 3-4 days
A UNESCO-protected site, Trinidad is stuck in a permanent time-warp, which is precisely why tourists love it. Cobble-stoned streets, guitar-playing troubadours and nightlife to rival that of Havana, Trinidad is something special. Just watch out for the hustle; casa owners can be tricky when it comes to getting your business so always check the room and haggle the price when you arrive. Also be aware that they’ll encourage you to go to restaurants and book trips through them, but it’s nearly always cheaper to find your own spots to eat and book any horse-riding/waterfall trips in the centre of town, outside the Historical Museum.
THINGS TO DO
- Make like the tourist you are and get a horse and carriage around the town outside the Historical Museo de Trinidad ($15-$20 for two people for an hour). Your cigar-toting guide can point out the main attractions including; the ceramic museum, the old abandoned railway and Church of the Holy Trinity.
- Head to Playa Ancon, one of Cuba’s best beaches, ($8 one way in a taxi for 2 people).
- Climb the stairs of the Historical Museo de Trinidad for incredible panoramic views of the area
EAT, DRINK, STAY
- There’s no shortage of Italian-themed restaurants serving crepes, pizzas and snacks in Trinidad (not sure why), but shop around and don’t be lured into anything that’s too expensive; everyone gets commission for your business in Cuba!
- Nightlife in Trinidad is commercial but fun; everything seems to revolve around Casa de la Musica, which is live, open-air Cuban music outside every night in the centre of town. Later, don’t miss the underground party; Disco Ayala takes place in actual caves.
- I can’t recommend the casa I stayed in because the owner was such a hustler but again, shop around and don’t commit to anything until you’ve seen the room and haggled the price!
Viñales, Recommended time: 1-4 days
The rural heart of Cuba, Viñales is a bit of a pain to get to, but so totally worth the journey West. Towering limestone hills, tobacco farms and a pace of life slower than you could ever imagine await you after a three hour drive from Havana.
THINGS TO DO
- As this is cigar country, a horseback trip to the local tobacco plantations where Cuban cigars and cigarettes are made should be absolute priority. I booked an excursion through my homestay and paid $20 for a fantastic tour that lasted around three hours. Most excursions are via horseback and take you up through blood-orange fields and verdant forests so bring your camera.
- Rent a bike, cycle through the impressive limestone valleys (ask for directions) until you get to Mural de la Prehistoria, a mural painted straight onto one of the limestone mogotes.
- There are also two different caves to check out, both of which can also be accessed via bicycle from central Viñales. I didn’t do this but heard they were interesting.
EAT, DRINK, STAY
- I didn’t spend enough time in Viñales (two days) so I didn’t explore many bars and restaurants, choosing instead to eat mainly at my homestay. However there was a range of restaurant, bar and cafe choices to suit all budgets in Viñales, although it’s worth noting that it’s not a huge party place.
- By far the best homestay I experienced was Chino & Ernesto’s extremely friendly place. Ernesto picked me up from the centre of town when I arrived and went out of his way to tell me and my friend about Cuban cultures and customs, teaching us useful phrases and recommending places to see. Their house has sweeping views of the area, amazing (and generous homemade meals) a pet parrot to play with (he’s green) and, a fair-price ($10 a night for a 2-bed room when split with a friend).
Cienfuegos, Recommended time: 1-3 days
With its revolutionary history, eclectic French and Caribbean influences, and abundance of er, cemeteries ,Cienfuegos is definitely worth a trip. I enjoyed the street food, the stunning natural beauty of Lake Guanaroca and the hospitality of another great homestay, but as I was alone for this part of my trip, I didn’t explore too much in the evenings.
THINGS TO DO
- Walk around the town and marvel at the elegant, French architecture; Teatro Tomas Terry (the theatre) and the Museo Provincial are two of the most eye-catching.
- Take a walk to Punta Gorda, the affluent neighbourhood overlooking the water. There, you’ll be able to explore the affluent Palacio de Valle, a grand building with Spanish and Gothic influences built in 1917. Entry is free and you can sit on the terrace or purchase food and drink in the bar.
- My favourite part of Cienfuegos was my trip to Laguna Guanaroca, a beautiful lake packed full of flamingos, pelicans and tocororos. For 10CUC entry you’ll be rowed around in your own private boat for an hour, with a Spanish-speaking guide who’ll educate you about the wildlife — but get there for the first boat ride at 8.30am, more birds are out then. Excursions run from the national tourist agency Cubacan cost around 20CUC (including entry) but I asked around and eventually got a 20-minute bus from just outside the centre of Cienfuegos for around 5 pesos.
EAT, DRINK, STAY
- Street-food and cheap eats (to be paid with in moneda nacional) are everywhere in Cienfuegos, near the town square, which also happens to be a WiFi spot. Pizza will cost you around 10 pesos.
- I stayed in a nice homestay that I arranged on Casa Particular which was great (although I can’t find the details). There are plenty of homestays in Cienfuegos and I booked last minute, in high season, so you shouldn’t have a problem simply turning up and looking out for the signs outside each house.
WHAT I’D DO DIFFERENTLY…
- Go to Baracoa, the Caribbean heart of Cuba. It’s best accessed from Trinidad.
- Spend *way* longer in Vinales (it’s serene).
- Hustle taxi and collectivo prices more (even though I always paid less than the buses).
- Not get so pissed off over the WiFi issue. One time I cried.
- Bring more money.
- Skip Varadero; I passed through Varadero (the touristy beach town) on the way to Cienfuegos on Christmas day and everything was booked up. I was miserable and lonely but I also didn’t feel like there was much to do there so honestly, I wouldn’t make this a part of my trip if I returned to Cuba. It was also mega expensive!
- LEARN SALSA BEFORE I ARRIVED IN CUBA BECAUSE IT’S ESSENTIAL.
Have you been to Cuba? Or are you planning a trip in 2017? Comment below or contact me with thoughts!