A Guide to Cuba

In many ways Cuba is a unique travel destination and one that you should visit sooner rather than later. In the two years since my first trip I have already noticed the changes. If you do decide to go, learn from us and do your homework. The following guide provides our top tips for traveling to Cuba and a section on each location we visited.

Our Top Tips

Preparation

The key to an enjoyable trip in Cuba comes down to the amount of planning and research you do in the lead up. The main reason is because once you’re there WIFI is a real challenge. You can get access to it easily enough but it’s really slow and the last thing you want to be doing while on holiday is sitting in a WIFI park scrolling through blogs and travel websites trying to figure things out. That’s not to say you need to have everything booked and organised in advance because you certainly don’t but at a minimum we recommend having a rough itinerary figured out and read some blogs for ideas of things to do at each location. We would have liked to get down to Baracoa on our trip but we left all our research until the night before and then realised we didn’t have time to get all the way down to that end of the island.

WIFI

There are designated WIFI parks with plenty of Cuban’s selling ETECSA 1 Hour cards for $2 CUC or if you find a legitimate office they’re only $1 CUC but the offices are not always conveniently located and you need to take your passport. Just remember to log off or turn off your wifi when you’re finished using it or the card will expire.

Maps.me

Download the Cuba map before you arrive so that it’s available offline. Surprisingly maps.me has a lot of the casas, restaurants and of course tourist sites marked.  Many of them also have reviews.

Transport

Transport is actually pretty easy. We used the Viazul buses for most of it. They have a pretty good website that you can book tickets through and the buses are relatively inexpensive and pretty comfortable. Depending on the time of year some routes need to be booked up to a week in advance. The one that can be difficult is Havana to Viñales. There are limited buses and they’re often booked way in advance. We asked the lady from our accommodation to arrange a Taxi Collectivo (shared taxi) which cost $25 per person. Collectivos can be a good option, they’re often the same price or slightly more than the bus however we found that the buses were just more comfortable, particularly for longer journeys.IMG_9018

When you’re getting around the city we found it fun to flag down the really old, rundown 1950’s cars that operate as taxis. They normally have a meter but may not always use it so negotiate the price up front.

Currency

Cuba has a dual economy with local pesos (CUP) or convertible pesos (CUC), as a tourist you’ll be using CUC which are pegged to the USD. You can withdraw CUC easily enough from ATM’s. CUP notes and coins have pictures of people whereas CUC have pictures of buildings or landmarks. Take note of this when you’re given change as they’re easy to mix up and the occasional opportunistic Cuban will try to stooge you.

Havana

Suggested Stay

We stayed four nights. We recommend a minimum of three nights, maximum four.

Sleep

We stayed at a casa particular, which is basically a private guest house, usually with a family but you have your own access and privacy. They’re super common all over Cuba. I stayed with Ari and her mother Marcia last time I was in Cuba and she was really helpful when it came to planning accommodation and transport for the rest of the trip so we decided to stay with her again. The casa is located close to the Capitolio, it’s pretty basic but it’s clean and the breakfast is huge with fresh fruit, eggs, French toast, toasted cheese sandwich, toast and homemade pineapple jam, fresh juice and coffee. This type of accommodation is typically around $25 to $30 CUC per night plus breakfast which is $4 or $5 CUC. You can email her to make arrangements – alex800512@yahoo.es

Eat + Drink

As vegetarians we found it difficult to find decent food in Cuba. We would often look at three to four menus before finding one that had something other than salad and soup. Here’s a few places that we managed to find.

El Shamuskia’o – this one is actually a vegetarian restaurant. It has a cozy atmosphere and it’s really cheap. We think it must be the only one in Havana.

Creperie Oasis Nelva – this place was cool, it’s full of plants and the furniture is made from recycled materials. They make really great cocktails and they also have a menu made from mostly organic produce where possible. The veggie pasta was so fresh and delicious.

Lamparilla 361 – This place has a cool vibe and serves really delicious tapas at pretty reasonable prices.

El Dandy – This ones a good lunch time option, we had the vegetarian tacos. The sandwiches sounded great but the country had run out of wheat while we were there so a lot of places didn’t have any bread available.

El Del Frente – This place has a great rooftop, delicious cocktails and amazing food. It’s a little more pricey if you’re on a budget but at least check it out for a drink.

Bembé – This one is close to the place we stayed and has happy hour from 6pm with live music. It’s a small venue and clears out when they happy hour and music wrap up at 7pm.

Sia Kara Cafe – just up the road from Bembé, this bar has a great ambiance. We didn’t eat there as it was mostly seafood and meat options but good for a drink.

1830 – this is a restaurant with an outdoor bar on the water. On certain nights, I think typically Sunday’s, you will find live music and salsa dancing under the stars. Beware, if you get too close to the dance floor you’re sure to be lured in by a local and spun from partner to partner at the end of each song. It’s a lot of fun, especially after a few drinks.

Things To Do

1950’s Car Tour – Most people who visit Havana will take the obligatory cruise in one of the restored 1950’s cars that are parked around the Parque Central. It’s expensive at $60 CUC but it’s actually better than you expect (and you can probably negotiate a cheaper rate if you try). We recommend doing it on your first day to get a lay of the land, it takes in some of the sites including the Malecón, Revolution Square and the lush green area just outside the city.

Santa Maria Del Mar – this is a stunning and peaceful strip of beach about 40 minutes from Havana by bus. It’s a great day trip if you have time. We drank coconuts with very generous free-pours of rum most of the afternoon. The bus leaves every half hour from the Parque Central and costs $5 CUC return.

Callejon del Hamel – is a cool alley outside of the old town, kind of in the middle of nowhere, it’s full of Afro-Cuban street art and sculptures but the best part is the live music if you visit on a Sunday. It can get pretty crowded but that adds to the atmosphere. You can grab a mojito and enjoy the people watching but be warned the drinks are expensive and not that good. You’ll be approached by people offering to take you on a guided tour but they’re totally unnecessary.

Museo de la Revolution – If  you’re interested in learning about some of Cuba’s history it’s worth visiting the museum. It can be a bit confusing to get the chronological flow from one room to the next but you get the gist. Disclaimer – it’s very much Cuba’s side of the story (as is to be expected) and the US gets a pretty bad wrap.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba – this was a pretty famous hotel back in Cuba’s heyday. We visited it to check out the site of the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ which was underwhelming. The hotel and its grounds are impressive and it’s fun to imagine what it would have been like in its full glory (think Boardwalk Empire S3). You can have a drink in the gardens which overlook the ocean.

Viñales

Suggested Stay

We stayed for two nights and it was fine but we could have stayed a third if we had time.

Sleep

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Hotel Los Jazmines – this hotel is well known in Viñales. It’s a bit on the expensive side but we enjoyed the experience. The view from the hotel is incredible and the pool was a bonus. Surprisingly the drinks were really cheap so drinking cocktails by the pool won’t cost you a fortune. It’s about four kilometres out of town, we walked in one day and it was a nice to take in the views of the valley. Otherwise a taxi is $5 CUC.

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There are lots of casa particulares in Viñales if you’d prefer a cheaper option.

Eat + Drink

Finca Agroecológica El Paraiso – this place is epic and an absolute must. Everything is grown or raised on the property. The meal was $15 CUC per head (vegetarian option) and includes an array of food, a cocktail, a big bottle of water and dessert. We asked for seconds and they pretty much brought out the same amount of food all over again. We recommend going for dinner and being there in time to watch the sun set, the view is stunning.

Buena Vista – right next door to Hotel Los Jazmines, this cute little homestead  also has a great view of sunset from the veranda. It was similar to Finca in that they had a set menu, including a vegetarian option. There was a lot of food for around $10 CUC and the people were lovely.

3J’s – some people we met recommended this one. It’s a really popular tapas style restaurant on the main street of town. Food was really good and if you can get a seat on the veranda it’s a good place to sit and people watch.

Things To Do

The main day time activity in Viñales is hiking. The one we wanted to do was to the Valle del Silencio. We considered doing it ourselves but someone suggested that it can be a bit confusing so we organised a guide, which you can generally do through your accommodation. Our guide was really sweet and he gave us lots of info along the way. We stopped at a tobacco farm and learned about the process and the governments involvement in one of Cuba’s biggest exports. We watched as the farmer showed how to roll a cigar, surprisingly there was little pressure or obligation to buy anything. The only issue we had was that our guide didn’t actually take us to the Valle del Silencio! Must have been lost in translation but either way we enjoyed the walk.

Trinidad

Suggested Stay

We stayed for three nights and felt this was enough.

Sleep

We stayed at another casa particular called Casa Alameda 65. It was located close to the main plaza and was quite spacious. The room was $25 CUC and breakfast was an additional $5 CUC. The people were lovely.

Eat + Drink

La Redaccion – we had a hard time finding good vegetarian food in Trinidad aside from this place which actually had a pretty good selection so we went back three nights in a row. Plus the service was great and they had live music.

El Tenedor – great rooftop terrace for watching the sunset, you can even see the ocean! Food is not great and the band butchered some classics but it’s nice for a few sundowners.

Things To Do

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El Cubano Natural Park – we decided to walk to one of the waterfalls closest to town rather than taking a taxi. The route was marked on maps.me and was only about 4kms. The first half of the trail was easy to follow, then we go to a point where there was no longer a clear path so we followed on the map and ended up walking across some paddocks and climbing through holes in fences but we got there easily enough – as long as you’re not afraid of cows, goats and horses. As a bonus it spat us out on the opposite side of the river to the park entrance so we were able to avoid the $10 CUC entrance fee and walk straight to the waterfall for a swim.

Playa Ancon – we hired a scooter for a day for $25 CUC and cruised out to Playa Ancon. There are some big resorts that look like they’re frozen in time but between the resorts you can find some little beach bars and restaurants. The beach itself is stunning. There’s a little strip near the restaurant Grill Caribe that’s really pretty.

 

Cayo Iguana or Cayo Blanco – I went to Cayo Blanco last time I was in Cuba. We planned to visit Cayo Iguana this time but a storm hit and it was cancelled. The trip is by catamaran to either of these small islands. It costs $55 CUC per person which includes lunch and drinks. There’s not much to do one you get there but the beaches are pretty beautiful and it’s a good full day activity. You can organise it through any of the Cubatur offices in town.

Disco Ayala – is a nightclub in a cave, it’s literally underground. You would never find it unless you knew it was there. It’s a short walk from town up into the hills behind the main square. It’s marked on maps.me and Google maps. It doesn’t start until later in the night and it gets pretty crazy so might be an option if you’re up for a big night or even just to check it out, it’s pretty impressive.

Varadero

Suggested Stay

We couldn’t make up our minds as to whether or not we wanted to visit Varadero because most of the reviews are pretty average and indicate that it’s full of all inclusive resorts but also that the beaches are stunning. We were torn because we wanted beach time but weren’t interested in the all inclusive resort option. In the end we decided to go for two nights, which was more than enough. In the end we felt like we could have bypassed it, perhaps because it was cloudy for the whole time we were there and there’s literally nothing else to do but hang at the beach. If we had made it down to Baracoa we probably would have skipped Varadero.

Sleep

We stayed at Casa Mercy which was right opposite the beach and had a rooftop terrace where we were able to do yoga each morning. You can watch the sun rise and set from up there too. The room has a fridge stocked with beers and water which was a nice touch, as well as access to WIFI. The rooms in Varadero were a little more expensive, we paid $35 CUC per night excluding breakfast.

Eat + Drink

Vernissage – we ate breakfast here each morning as it was close to our accommodation. The simple breakfast options were good and reasonably priced.

Paladar Nonna Tina – we ate here both nights because it was that good and also because we couldn’t find anywhere with decent vegetarian options.  Most of the pizzas in Cuba taste like a frozen McCain’s but this place was legit. The pastas were also delicious.

Piña Coladas – there are street stalls all along the main road that turn a pineapple into a Piña Colada and they’re delicious!

Things To Do

Cocktails on the beach is the most popular activity in Varadero, for those who decide to venture out of their all inclusive resorts. The beaches on the peninsula are genuinely stunning. The turquoise water glitters in the sun and the sand is soft and white. Drinks at the beach bars are surprisingly cheap too.

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