Cuba is an amazing place to visit. It is changing quickly and I was glad I decided to go and not think about it for too long. People I met over there told me that even in the last 6 months things had changed, especially the availability of internet. I guess we will see what all these changes do to the country, but if you’re thinking of going, do it! Do it now! I went to Cuba in April/May, which was a perfect time to travel. The main tourist season was over, but it was still warm without too much rain. My trip lasted three weeks, but I could have stayed much longer! If you need some inspiration, here’s where I’ve been.
Day 1, arriving in all inclusive town Varadero
Varadero is a very touristy town full of all inclusive hotels. Many people think this is all there is, but there are also many casas to choose from. If you just want a little beach time, make a stop here. Walk around the Viazul bus station and in the surrounding streets you will find casa after casa after casa. Varadero is on a very small peninsula so you are never far from the beach. The water here has the same amazing blue colour as in the resorts and there is plenty of space for everyone on the beach. On Avenida 1 are shops, tourist stalls and places to eat. If you want to stay a bit longer and cook your own meals, a few casas offer little apartments with a tiny kitchen. Just keep in mind that the supermarkets in Cuba are not like at home. Your choice is pretty much pasta or rice.
A lot of cheap flights fly to Varadero to take people to the resorts. I wanted to avoid Varadero, but my flight took me there. In the end I loved it. It was great to start and end my holiday floating in the ocean. To get to town from the airport you can use the Viazul bus, but it does not go very frequently. Unfortunately the taxis charge you a fortune, so if you do that, try to get a collectivo (shared taxi).
Room for two: 35 CUC
This casa is a bit on the pricy side, but has a lovely owner who was keen to have a chat with us even though my Spanish isn’t great. Breakfast was very tasty and served on a small table on the terrace. There was an outside as well as an inside shower and the room has two single beds. It was a great welcome to Cuba.
Day 2 – 4, taking in the orange countryside of Vinales
Vinales is a must-do. It is full of tourists and yet I felt like I could find an authentic piece of Cuba here. And even if you don’t it’s worth coming since the surroundings are surreal. The town is small and about every other house is also a casa particular. On the main street are a lot of restaurants, but if you are looking for a cheaper (CUP) and simpler meal you can find it in the back streets. The people here are aware the town is appealing to tourists and therefore a lot can be arranged; ATV tours, horseback riding, walking with a guide, cycling, mopeds and visiting beaches on organised trips. If you’d rather explore by yourself, just head out into the tobacco fields and you’ll feel like you’re in a different place. At night you’ll find happy hours and music on the main street.
Room with two double beds: 25 CUC
Breakfast: 5 CUC
Dinner: 8 CUC
1,5L water: 1,50 CUC
This was one of the best casas. We had booked the room for two people, but ended up staying with two more. It was not a problem at all. Luisa was the perfect hostess. She made an amazing dinner one night and breakfast was different every day. If you needed something, all you had to do was ask. The room is small for four people, but perfect for two. It was located in Luisa’s back yard where she had put rocking chairs. Food was served outside on a big table. Highly recommended.
Day 5 – 7, wandering through Havana’s streets
After spending time in the peaceful countryside, entering Havana was a bit of a shock. It was dirty, busy and I missed the colorful houses. After a few days though, this is exactly what became Havana’s charm. You can just wander around and marvel at the scenes on the streets. You can find vendors of cheap food everywhere, from ice cream sold from a window to snack bars. Havana might not be colorful at first glance, but take a closer look and there is plenty to find. Havana Vieja is very touristy, but enter Vedado or Centro and you are in a completely different world. You can enjoy the music in the Callejon de Hamel, visit the fortresses by cheap ferry or stroll along the Malecon, but the best experience is to just wander.
Casa Amada Malecon (Yisel Clavero)
Calzada #55 apto 1
entre M y N, Vedado
Phone +53 78 329659 / +53 52 967768
Room for two: 30 CUC
Breakfast: 5,50 CUC
This casa is in Vedado, so a decent walk away from where you’ll spend most of your time. There is definitely cheaper accommodation available. I had a good stay here. The rooms are neat and it felt more like a hotel to me. Right next door is an awesome snackbar that has good breakfast and dinner.
Havana also has a hostel. I’ve seen it, but haven’t stayed there. The Paradise backpackers is located in Centro and walking distance to most areas. From the people I met there I found out most people keep coming back, so it’s a great place to stay if you want to meet some travel buddies. There is a rooftop bar with all of Cuba’s famous cocktails.
Day 8 – 9, beach time at Playa Larga
Playa Larga has dozens and dozens of casas, but when I was there, the tourists were hard to find. Only come here if you know what you want to do. If you have your own transportation it is a great base to explore the Bay of Pigs or the Cienaga de Zapata. There is one great beach and a handful of restaurants. There is a diving center that has daily dive and snorkel trips. It’s all very Cuban, so at times it feels pretty unorganized. The trips leave in the morning, so take this into account in your planning. You might not be able to do anything but lying at the beach on your first day.
Lower your standards if you are planning on diving in Cuba. People are very relaxed and the rules are there to be broken. Even though the Bay of Pigs is one of the better dive locations, a lot of the reef was dead. The divemaster fed the fish, it wasn’t very organized and the equipment was old. I did feel safe though and the instructors knew what they were doing.
Casa Reyna y Luis
Room with two double beds: 15 CUC
Breakfast: 4 CUC
Dinner: 8 CUC
We had no casa booked and at the bus stop a woman approached us. We decided to go have a look. This casa was located a bit further from the beach, but still in easy walking distance. It was in a street that felt like the real Cuba, a dirt road with always lots of people just hanging around. The room was big, with two double beds. Reyna made really good food and even when there was a power outage in the town she provided a lovely breakfast. Since she was just starting out the price was very cheap.
Playa Larga has a lot of casas so you should get a good price. Just walk around between the sea and the bus stop and you’ll find plenty of casas. If you want to be right at the beach you can walk/ride to the other side of town where they have some good looking casas. However, the beach here is not as nice as the one in the picture.
Day 10, a quick city stop in picturesque Cienfuegos
I loved Cienfuegos. We arrived around midday and had an afternoon and evening to enjoy the town. It has a cruise ship harbour, so at times it is very busy, but as soon as the ship sailed, there were hardly any tourists around. The inner part of town is beautiful and there are lots of little shops and markets to enjoy. To me this was a city to wander through and relax a bit.
We stayed in a casa in Punta Gorda, the name of which I cannot remember. Punta Gorda has several casas but is generally more expensive. The area is connected to the main city via the Malecon, which is a beautiful place to hang out with a drink at sunset.
A good restaurant to check out is Las Mamparas in Calle 37 #4004. I had pork in Creole sauce with a drink for 5CUC! The others had the paella, which was also highly recommended. There are some very cheap set menus including meat with rice and salad and a drink, starting from 3,50CUC. Ordering a la carte costs you 3-8CUC.
Day 11, our travel day trip
You can just take a taxi or bus to Trinidad, or you can make a day out of it. Instead of staying in Cienfuegos and doing daytrips to the surrounding activities, we negotiated with some taxi drivers to take us on a day long journey to Trinidad, via the flamingo lagoon, botanical gardens and El Nicho. Our transport was basic, but we had the best day exploring some of Cuba’s natural sights.
To arrange trips to the activities in the area you can head to the travel agents. They organize trips every week. However, with a group of people you can easily negotiate with the taxi drivers and make up your own itinerary. We made the day trip with four people for 80CUC and decided to tip our lovely driver, the total price coming to 21,50CUC per person. Don’t expect airconditioned vans though!
Day 12 – 13, taking in the city of music Trinidad
Unfortunately I spent a big chunk of my time in Trinidad in my bed, feeling ill. I would have loved to have had more time to explore the beautiful surroundings of this city. In one afternoon you can easily see the town itself, but if you’re into hiking and outdoor activities there is a lot to see just outside of it. For some rest you can head to Playa Ancon, the beach where you’ll find all other tourists as well. A taxi to the beach costs 8CUC no matter how many people travel.
Sure, you are on the well trotten tourist path, but that’s probably what makes Trinidad an amazing place to taste incredible food and dance the night away afterwards. The casa de la musica at the famous steps is busy every night. A lot of restaurants also provide a band. We found good, cheap food and good music at La Botija. There is always a line, but it was worth the wait.
Day 14, a day spent on the bus
The trip on the Viazul bus from Trinidad to Santiago de Cuba takes all day. By the time I was finally in the casa it was 10PM and I was ready for bed. There are several possible places to stop along the way though. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to see Camagüey or Holguín, but it would have been good to break up the journey.
The bus from Trinidad to Santiago gets full early on. I was lucky to be placed on the waiting list and get a spot. Book this one a few days in advance if you can! Bring food and drinks because on the second half of the journey we only stopped to pick up passengers.
Day 15, discovering Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba was such a beautiful surprise. I loved this city even though it was probably the busiest one I’ve seen in Cuba. We were in the far east of the country. I’d expected Havana to be more like this, a modern city. I immediately noticed the big apartment buildings, modern buses and the crowded streets. I also noticed there was much more propaganda in the east. ‘Fidel thanks you’ and all kinds of socialistic slogans were painted in the city and plastered on billboards. At the same time I found a charm in Santiago that hadn’t found before. I was impressed with the hilly, steep streets and the beautiful old buildings. I had the most amazing experience in a restaurant and enjoyed the best music in Cuba.
We took our guidebook’s recommendation and went to Bendita Farandula for dinner. When we had finally found it, the entrance gave way to two restaurants and the other one was much busier. Had we made a mistake? But this restaurant was surprisingly good! On the walls people had written messages and the oldest I could find was from 2015. The waiter was super friendly and put on some music for us: modern songs in a salsa version. The food was good and cheap and you can pay CUP or CUC.
In the shopping street of Santiago de Cuba you can find a lot of stalls and places where you can buy food with CUP. The homemade nut bars are amazing!
On Heredia street, close to Parque Cespedes, you can find some bars that have bands on at night. I heard the best music of my stay in Cuba here in Santiago!
Day 16 – 19, exploring paradise in Baracoa
Baracoa is a very small town. The main square is where it’s all happening at night, unless you want to go dancing at the sweaty open-air disco on top of the hill. There are a few things you can walk to from town, but for most activities you’ll need to book a tour or organize something with the taxi drivers. Tours are a great way to meet some other travellers. From here you can visit the Boca de Yumuri, Parque Alejandro Humboldt and El Yunque. The area is surrounded by mountains and forest and because of the different climate there are lots of cocoa plantations. It is a must-see destination!
There are several travel agencies run by the government. Check them out and compare prices. Trips to the Alejandro Humboldt park are cancelled if there has been very heavy rain, so keep that in mind when you do your planning. I spent 3 full days here, but there was still more to explore.
Pelayo Cuervo y C. Frías
Phone: +53 54 255821 / +53 21 641118
Room for two: 15 – 20 CUC
Breakfast: 4 CUC
Dinner: 8 – 9 CUC
Take away sandwich: 1,50 CUC
Even though they were renovating, I had an amazing stay here. The owners as well as everyone involved in the casa are super friendly. The lady of the house cooks an amazing fish in coconut sauce, the local specialty and breakfast is served with hot chocolate! Food is served on the roof terrace, which is a nice place to relax after a long day exploring.
So guidebook recommendations don’t always work out. I had dinner at bar-restaurant la Terraza – Casa Nilson. Although it looks very appealing from the outside, the service was horrible and the food nothing special. Prices had obviously gone up since the guidebook came out. If you walk towards the stadium along the Malecon you can find some other places that have much, much better food.
Day 20, finding our way to the next place
There aren’t many ways to get out of Baracoa. You can go back to Santiago de Cuba, or take a taxi along the bumpy road to Holguïn. The Viazul buses tend to get full, so book ahead if you want to take the bus. There are plenty of shared taxis around that can take you as well. They take just as long, the price is the same, but it might be a bit less comfortable. We sat in this taxi with 8 travellers and after passing through Guantanamo also the driver’s son.
From Santiago de Cuba you can take Viazul buses to several places. There is also a train in the direction of Havana that goes at random times and is more about the experience than the speed. You could even take a big truck if you’re lucky. Officially you are not allowed to, but many drivers will take you anyway. We made the impulsive decision to go for a taxi. After being lied to we ended up squished in the back of a rental car. The driver was going to Havana and wanted to make some cash. The Cuban woman next to me kept falling asleep on my shoulder. We stopped for a delicious dinner, although I’m sure we paid twice what the Cubans paid. I guess it was a good adventure, but put a little bit of planning into your travel and it will make things a lot easier.
Day 21, finding Ché in Santa Clara
You don’t have to look very far to see Ché. He is everywhere! There is the big memorial, graffiti and slogans, statues and of course the tourist shops. I found one afternoon enough to walk around here. It wasn’t originally on our plan, but I’m happy I got to see Santa Clara. It’s easy to walk around and there is a hill you can climb for a view over the city. The main street looks really cute and has some cafés. I found it hard to find food apart from some snacks and sweets on the streets. A dinner at the casa is a good idea here.
Hostal Roberto y Lidia
Calle B STerling (Pastora) #116
entre JB Zayas y Alemán
Phone: +53 42 216713
Room with two double beds: 20 CUC
Breakfast: 4 CUC
This was an excellent place to stay. It is within walking distance of the main square and the owner is lovely. We arrived in the middle of the night and he was woken up by some boy that was hanging around on the streets at 2am. He still welcomed us with a smile and in the morning a lovely breakfast was waiting for us.
Day 22 Varadero
The night before we left we stayed in Varadero again. Making a loop was a lot cheaper than flying back from Santiago de Cuba or Holguïn. In the end it was nice to have another afternoon in Varadero. I spent my last CUC’s on some souvenirs and got to say goodbye to the amazing beaches.