If you love cities full of history and culture, landscapes that will take your breath away and clear turquoise water, then Cuba will have something for you. Lawrence and I recently spent time exploring Cuba and were open to whatever it had to offer.
We arrived with only the first two nights of accommodation booked and a rough idea of where we wanted to go. The locals we met were always more than happy to help us with our plans or share their opinions on where they thought we should go. It’s rare to find people while travelling that are so willing to offer advice, book transport, tours and accommodation for us and want nothing in return.
Here’s a bit of a rundown of where we visited and how we filled our days in this safe and colourful country.
Havana: We spent 4 nights in Havana, two at the beginning of our trip and two at the end before we flew out. Our first two nights we stayed at Hostal Peregrino (35CUC per night) at their old town property (La Habana Vieja). Old Havana was my favourite area, we could literally spend hours just walking the streets, admiring the architecture, street art and soaking in the vibes of this historical city.
Our last two nights in Havana we stayed in a gorgeous apartment in the Vedado area. The apartment was a fully self-contained, two bedroom’s and is recommended in the Lonely Planet guide, (enquiries Marta Vitorte, 537 832 6475, we paid 40CUC per night). It was on level 10 of a high rise building so the views of Havana were amazing. The area itself I wouldn’t overly recommend, it’s very much a residential area and there isn’t many restaurants and bars within walking distance.
The night life in Old Havana was awesome, we’d just walk around following the music, going from bar to bar, enjoying live music and a variety of cocktails. Two historic bars in Old Havana are Sloppy Joes and Floridita. Over the years drinks have been served to people like Hemingway and John Wayne. These famous names have made these bars very popular with tourist and have of course hiked up the prices. But I still think they’re worth checking out, even just for a couple of drinks.
The three best things we did in Havana were:
- Hired a driver and his 1957 Buick to drive us around the city for an hour (cost 30CUC). We stopped at a lot of major landmarks around the city including Revolutionary Square. I couldn’t come to Cuba and not cruise around in a hot pink convertible.
- Walk along Havana’s Malećon sea drive, a 7km path that runs along the sea wall. Unfortunately this was closed when we first arrived in Cuba, due to damage from hurricane Irma but I was super pleased when we arrived back into Havana and it had re-opened. It’s a place where locals come to fish and meet up with friends. If your walking at high tided be aware of the waves that will crash right over onto the road.
- Cuba is a country that is so full of history, from the rich sugar cane era to Fidel and the revolution; I was so interested to know more. We did a 2.5 hour walking tour (but if we had the time, could have spent hours more) around Havana. Our guide charged 20CUC per hour and had perfect English (his email address is Fabriciogn@gmail.com, if you’re interested). There was a time in Cuba when you could’ve been punished for openly talking about Cuban politics. So I never felt right going around asking too many questions regarding the revolution or Fidel Castro. That’s why I loved this tour so much. He was happy to answer any questions and really wanted to share his country’s history, it’s all so interesting so why wouldn’t you want to learn more about it while you’re there.
Viñales: This is such a beautiful part of Cuba, lush greenery and rocky mountains surround the town. The town itself wasn’t exactly what I pictured though. I thought Viñales would be more just small houses, spaced out along a dirt road, with a few shops and people only riding bike or horses. Locals had said to us that Viñales isn’t the real Cube and I can see why. It’s a town that is now basically built on tourism. The main strip was really quite busy, filled with shops, restaurants, bars, a couple of banks and tour agencies. There are literally hundreds of casas in town, so finding accommodation won’t be a problem.
We stayed at a casa just off the main road (Villa El Niño 53 048 69 66 66, we paid 20CUC per night), we had our own room and nice little patio area. The owners were so welcoming and were kind enough to book us a walking tour and casa in Trinidad.
The two main things we did in Viñales were;
- Walking Tour (12CUC each); For close to 4 hours we were guided through the farm areas of Viñales, passing animals, locals farming and different trees covered in fruit. We saw the most beautiful landscapes and it was great getting away from town and experiencing complete silence. Along the way we stopped at Casa Manolo, to see their famous organic cigars being hand rolled. The property where they say they make Guayabita del Pinar, a rum that is made from a fruit grown in the area. We never saw a factory so I don’t think it’s actually made there, but we were shown the fruit and learnt the history of the rum. It was fun stopping by and of course we had a drink. Our last stop was at Valle El Silencio; they produce coffee and have a small cafe. We were shown around the property and the process of the coffee being made. It was beautiful and they also have so many different fruit trees, I could have just picked fruit and eaten all day. Opposite the cafe there’s a lake that you can swim in, it didn’t look very appealing so we didn’t bother.
- We had read in Lonely Planet about a hotel called La Ermita; its location is what had attracted us. It’s located on top of a hill, so you get wonderful views of the valley. It’s an easy walk from town, along one road and about 2km. You can pay to swim in their pool and there’s also a restaurant there.
Viñales is a sweet little town with not much going on, it’s the location and landscape that attracts people. We spent two nights here but one night and one full day would have been perfect. We stayed the extra night because our transfer to Trinidad left early in the morning and we definitely wanted one full day. If you’re short on time, you can do a day trip from Havana. It’s nearly 3 hours one way though, so it depends if you want to travel that much in one day.
Trinidad: My absolute favourite. This small town has so much charm, from the cobble stone streets, to the colourful buildings and the local kids who wanted to be in our photos & all they wanted in return was chewing gum.
We spent 3 nights at Casa Belkys y Juan Rafael (ph. 0141 994524, 25CUC per night), our room was upstairs in their house. It was very comfortable, we had our own bathroom and patio area, the only negative thing was the air con in our room was so loud… so loud it was hard to sleep. But the massive breakfast Belkys served up for us each morning made up for it.
Everything in town is within walking distance, take time to just wander around and admire the architecture. As you’re walking down the street the windows you pass are literally directly into people’s lounge rooms. We passed one man’s house and he was selling orange cake from his front window, we brought a loaf for .50c, it was delicious.
We spent our afternoons and nights in Trinidad town and went out and explored the area during the day;
- Belkys had called her friend and organised Scooter hire for us. It cost 25CUC per day and we had to leave 30CUC deposit. There was no need for an international licence but they were very firm in saying we mustn’t take the scooter up to the mountain area, only the beach. We headed straight for Playa Ancon, it was 13km from town and the advice from Lonely Planet was to go via a town called La Boca. This route was slightly longer but we were driving along the coast a lot more. Firstly we went all the way to the end of the road to Coco Bar, parking was 2CUC and beach chairs were 2CUC per person. There was a large resort on the beach as well, we weren’t overly excited by this beach so decide to head back up the road to a smaller stretch of sand. We spent the day at Playa Maria Aguilar; this beach was really nice, crystal clear water, snorkelling right off the beach and umbrellas and beach chairs available for use. The only annoying thing was the rocks in the water, you needed to be careful where you stood, but the clear water made this easy. Also there were two small restaurants on the beach.
- Day two we wanted to head up to the mountains and find some waterfalls. We got a taxi off the street and agreed on 20CUC one way; it was about 40mins drive. The taxi went as far as he could and from then on we walked. The official entrance was about a 10min walk and it cost 10CUC per person to enter the waterfall. Caburni Waterfall was then about 45 mins walk, I think it took us closer to an hour. It was so exciting once we reached the falls, it was beautiful and I didn’t care how cold the water was I just needed to jump in and cool off. Unfortunately we had arrived just as a large tour group did so it was kind of busy but still plenty of space for everyone to swim around and climb right up next to the waterfall. You need to be somewhat fit to do this walk, up and down rocky hills, along uneven paths and in the Cuban heat; we were absolutely exhausted by the time we got back to our taxi. Take plenty of drinking water and wear good walking shoes. With the walk and a 30min swim at the falls it took us about 4 hours all up. Definitely worth going though, it was hard but I loved it.
Varadero: Unfortunately the weather when we were in Varadero was rubbish, lots of clouds and rain. Everything we were interested in doing involved good weather, so we decided to only stay for one night and head back to Havana a day early (yay for flexibility). Varadero has a ‘hotel zone’ that is lined with large, all-inclusive hotels or there are still plenty of options to stay in casas. Our casa was booked last minute and was nothing special, it’s not even worth a mention. I love booking things last minute but in Varadero if you want to book a hotel or casa on the beach I’d recommend booking this in advance. We arrived late afternoon Tuesday and ended up leaving at 4pm the following day. Thank god the sun was shining bright Wednesday morning so the trip wasn’t a complete flop. We spent about three hours swimming and sun baking on the famous 20km stretch of sand. With the sun shining the water was as beautiful as people had said.
We stayed on Calle 43, this area had plenty of restaurants, markets and was only about a 15 minute walk to the bus stop.
Experiencing the Cuban culture was certainly something special. I’ve left having a lot of respect for this small island nation that has fought hard to keep their country their own and their traditions alive.
Click here to read my other blog on Cuba, listing my pieces of advice and things I learnt along the way.
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