This beautiful island nation with a turbulent history has seen a huge rise in tourists in recent years, and it’s easy to see why. From stunning coastal waters lapping onto white sand beaches, to time-warped cities steeped in history, with more classic cards, cigars, rum and foot-tapping live music than you could dream of. Cuba is varied, fascinating and wildly fun.
Currency: CUC and CUP
Plug Sockets: Type A, B, C and L.
Ease of travel: 4/5
Ease of communication: 2/5
Ease of meeting others: 3/5
General costs : £££
I visited Cuba for two weeks in September/October 2016 with my friend, Christie.
After arriving into Havana, we headed straight to our first destination: Santa Clara. Next we stopped by Cienfuegos, Trinidad, back to Havana, and finally to Viñales. This was very much a snapshot of this large island, and there are so many other places I would love to go back to see – but sadly time and weather did not permit (the downside of travelling during hurricane season!).
The drive from Havana to Santa Clara was beautiful, and gave us our first snapshot into what our trip would have to offer. We passed striking classic cars, horse-drawn carriages and lots of lush greenery.
We stopped halfway for a quick break in a roadside service station. This wasn’t like service stations at home. You could get petrol, sure, but there was also a really cute restaurant, a shop selling lots of nice artwork – but what topped it off was the ‘Pour your own Pina Colada’ bar.
With the option of filling up a coconut, or filling up a glass, we opted for the glass - made up with ice and a parasol. Next, we were given fresh coconut cream, some pineapple juice, and a bottle of Havana rum – free to pour our own measures. I had a feeling I was going to like Cuba.
Notably a cultural and historical city, Santa Clara was the site of the final battle of the Cuban revolution in 1958, heralding the beginning of communist rule and transforming Cuba for the remainder of the 20th century. With many interesting sites and locations, there’s plenty of places to learn about this fascinating episode of recent history.
Santa Clara was also where I got my first taste of the ‘real’ Cuba – not the bustling capital of Havana or the happy, smiling, beachside resorts. It felt different here – smaller, quieter and rougher around the edges.
The cars are older and weathered, the restaurant choices more limited, and there are images of Che pretty much everywhere.
Things to see:
Che Guevara Mausoleum
This memorial is home to the remains of Che Guevara and 29 of his soldiers who were all killed in Bolivia in 1967.
2. Parque Vidal
This is the central park. It was pretty cute, with lots of green areas and benches to sit along, noticeably occupied by many locals peering and chatting loudly on mobile phones. It was quickly explained to us that this is a ‘Wi-Fi Zone’. Eager to speak to some friends and family to let them know we had arrived safely, we strolled over. Alas, it may be a Wi-Fi zone, but you need to buy a ‘Nauta’ card by ETECSA before you can use it.
These Wi-Fi cards are sold in certain government-owned stores – the cards cost $2 and give you one hour of Wi-Fi (you don’t have to use it all in one go however). We headed over to the store, and to our disappointment were told “We’ve run out of Wi-Fi cards, we’ll have more in next week”. This was the only Wi-Fi-card selling store in the city. “If you really want Wi-Fi, teenagers often buy them in bulk and then sell them for a profit on the streets’, the customer assistant advised. How strange for them to advertise this!
Sure enough, an hour or so later we were approached by a group of teens who asked if we wanted to buy Wi-Fi cards. It seemed slightly immoral to be feed this ridiculous cycle, but I did really need to check my bank account, so $4 and one hour of Wi-Fi later I was sitting in the park, and chatting to my boyfriend (who was relieved to hear I had arrived safely).
3. Cuban cars!
I don't think the excitement upon seeing a classic car really faded - this was one of our first photos in the 'Classic Car Calendar 2017' collection.
The first of many car photos
Eating out in Santa Clara was an experience.
When it comes to restaurants, there are two main choices: privately-owned restaurants (or ‘paladares’), or government-owned restaurants. Following the economic reforms of 2011, under Raúl Castro’s leadership, paladares have been popping up across the country, and they tend to have a more adventurous menu compared to the government-owned restaurants. Whilst government restaurants tend to have a more standardised menu, paladares offer anything from Italian to Mexican.
In Santa Clara, we ate in a government-owned restaurant.
Stepping inside we were quickly approached by a waiter and presented with a huge menu to sift through. After spending some time deciding which dishes we wanted, we ordered. “Ah, we have run out of some ingredients: eggs, milk, cheese, rice, beans and bread”, our waiter announced, before proceeding to point out the 3 items that were available on the 10 paged menu. Never mind – we ordered some gin and tonic from the extensive liquor menu. “Oh, we only have rum”, he added. Mojitos, it was.
Over the course of the next week, we would quickly come to accept this as the norm in Cuba. We learned that product availability in supermarkets can be very inconsistent – you can have hundreds of bottles of tomato sauce one week, and then not see any on the shelves for months, the space taken up by another random food item instead.
We learned that many restaurants (primarily the paladares) can avoid this either by stockpiling supplies or buying them from the Cuban black market.
One thing of note is that it’s important to tip in a restaurant, particularly if it’s government-owned (more on this later).
The next day, we packed up and headed onwards to Trinidad, stopping by Valle de Los Ingerios on the way.
Valle de Los Ingerios
This is an area of several connecting valleys of beautiful green hills, dotted with dozens of sugar cane factories.
This tall tower is over 180 years old, and provides stunning panoramic views over this beautiful area.
There are also some delightful markets stalls around, selling interesting textiles and refreshing coconut drinks!
View from a tower window
For more impressive views, drive a little further until you reach the famous viewpoint, ‘Mirador de la Loma del Puerto’. Here you can look closer at the lush countryside – and there’s even a bar here!
Trinidad was our next stop.
Trinidad is a really cool and colourful city that delights visitors with a jumble of narrow cobblestone alleyways lined with quirky shops, bars, and salsa clubs packed tightly together.
Things to do:
1. Explore the vibrant streets
Wander through the mazed alleys, popping into museums and churches as you go. I could have spent days wandering around.
Some of the top sights to see:
- Museo de Historia Municipal – this history museum has a bright yellow exterior with an elegant courtyard.
- Church of the Holy Trinity
- Convento de San Francisco de Asis
This stunning bell tower is great to look at, and worth climbing for killer views of the city. As it transpired, we avoided the latter as our homestay had a rooftop terrace with fantastic views, for free!
2. Learn to salsa dance
Trinidad is a great place to take a salsa class, and a necessary skill if you want to keep up with the locals in the evening. If you’re looking for a salsa club to practice in afterwards at a beginner’s pace, try ‘Rincon de la Salsa’.
3. Enjoy the nightlife
If you thought Trinidad was lively by day, wait until you flavour the nightlife. We headed to the main square – we’d heard it was the place to be. Sure enough, the square was crammed full of locals and tourists alike, dancing to Spanish music blasting through a loudspeaker and sipping mojitos.
As soon as we joined the crowds we were descended upon by a crowd of local waiters, each vying to fight off the other to serve us drinks.
This ordering system was definitely my cup of tea. The waiter would come up to you, take your order, go to the bar, make your drink, and bring it to you – meanwhile you can stay dancing in the square. What service! Much better than pushing through crowds to get served at a sticky bar in Glasgow any day!
We quickly made friends with Pedro, who made the best mojitos by far, so we were never left empty-handed.
Wondering where we should head to next, I realised I’d been sent a list of recommendations by a friend. On that list was ‘cave club – a club in a cave – you have to go!) – or ‘rave cave’, as we dubbed it. After a bit of asking around (in broken Spanish; “¿dónde está el ‘rave cave’?"). Finally we met someone who rather impressively managed to decipher what we were talking about and directed us straight there.
It was definitely a bit of a novelty: definitely not a rave, but still pretty cool, and we had a chance to practice our newly learnt salsa skills! One thing to be careful of are the female toilets, where I can only assume the cubicle walls were designed originally for small children - be quick and don’t look sideways.
4. Visit the beach
If (like me), you’ve been itching to see one of the beaches Cuba is so famous for, Playa Ancon is a great option.
Where to stay:
As with the rest of our trip, we chose to stay in a homestay, or a ‘Casa Particular’. There are hotels in most cities, however one way of having a more authentic Cuban experience, whilst supporting local businesses and families, is to stay in a casa. Don’t worry – there’s a set of government standards they must meet before visitors can be welcomed inside, and all of ours were fantastic.
The price is pretty cheap, and usually includes a breakfast, sometimes dinner too.
The experience was really interesting – it really felt like I was living in a home kitted out in the 1960s and never upgraded, with the exception of a few modern amenities here and there. These peculiar homes were perfectly preserved with vintage furniture, fridges, radios, complete with those iconic classic American cars brightening up the cobblestone streets outside.
However the best thing about the homestay was the incredible breakfast – platters of mouth-watering fruits, yoghurts, toast, pastries, eggs, and coffee – you name it. Thankfully the quality of the coffee was pretty good.
The next day, we packed up and headed to our next stop, Cienfuegos.
This French city was next on our itinerary. Although still full of classic cars, cobbled streets and brightly coloured buildings, it felt very different to Santa Clara and Trinidad. The architecture was distinctively different, mainly due to the French (rather than Spanish) colonisers.
Whilst the city centre is clean and pristine, walking out a little we noticed several crumbling buildings, tightly squeezed small houses and many horse-drawn carts dragging people and items around.
Things to do:
1. El Boulevard
This is the main street, and makes up the lively centre, bustling with shops, bars and those famous Cuban sandwich shops.
2. Gaze at the architecture.
Teatro Tomas Terry – the stunning theatre.
Museo Provinicial – an interesting museum showcasing Cienfuegos’ history.
Palacio de Gobierno – A historic villa, this time designed with Italian influence
Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion – One of the famous churches in Cienfuegos.
3. Parque José Martí
The main square in the city.
4. Boat cruise
We took a scenic boat trip along the coast.
5. Visit the nearby beaches
We stayed in another casa here in Cienfuegos, with equally intriguing designs, and this time with a delicious evening meal included.
Oddly as soon as I entered the living room, memories of visiting my grandparents in their old house as a child came rushing back to me – the décor was almost identical!
Breakfast-time rolled round and we were presented with even more fruit than the last place! Pineapple, guava, papaya, avocado, custard apples, oranges and the juiciest mango ever tasted. “This is the last mango in Cuba!” our host proudly exclaimed to us. We were pretty sure there might have been a mistranslation in that statement, but we gobbled it up anyway, just in case it was in fact the last remaining mango in the country.
After Cienfuegos, we headed back to the illustrious capital city, Havana.
Havana is the beating heart of Cuba – with museums, markets, bars, and restaurants galore, you can’t really get bored here. As I’m usually a fan of big, busy cities, I was surprised to find it came quite low on my list of favourite places in the country. That’s not to say the city didn’t have a charm, but it felt very out of sync with the rest of the country: perhaps a little like ‘The Capitol’ to the districts in ‘The Hunger Games’. Although in fairness, perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It had its own charm and there was so much going on. I suppose what I wasn’t such a fan of was how it felt very set-up for tourists – almost fake, or for show at times – though that could just be my impression.
The city itself is split into three main areas - Habana Vieja, Centro Habana and Vedado with the majority of tourist attractions sitting within Vieja.
Things to do:
1. Wander the tourist attractions in Habana Vieja:
- Plaza de la cathedral – one of the five main squares in the city, it’s a beautiful spot to wander around.
- Castillo de la fuerza – this is the fort along the harbour, originally built as a defence from pirate attack.
- Calle mercaderes – one of the liveliest and pedestrianised streets in the city. You’ll pass beautiful buildings, intriguing shops and lots of entertaining street performers. Just be aware that if you take a photo of the street performer, they will expect a donation of money – we watched several sly tourists find themselves chased down the street by performers.
- Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana
There’s the Revolution Museum, Museum of the City, Arts Museum, the Colonial Art Museum to name a few!
- Plaza Vieja – the town square in Old Town
- Plaza de Armas – the oldest town square
2. Rent a classic American car
Havana is quite big, so it’s a good option to take a day tour. One of the most popular ways to do this is to tour around in style – with a beautiful classic car.
We walked to Parque Central where there were plenty of cars neatly lined up next to their owners, ready to pounce upon tourists as they passed. We’d already decided that if we were going to hire a car, we were going to hire a hot pink 1950's Ford Sunliner convertible car. Why? - Why not?.
The tour was great, and we got to see a lot more of the city than we would have managed on foot – we drove out to Vedado to see Revolution Square, the monument to José Martí, and the John Lennon park bench (which came complete with John Lennon glasses to pose with).
3. Try some rum and cigars
The two are embedded in Cuban culture, so wherever you are in Havana you’ll be within easy reach of both delicious rum and quality tobacco, even if you’re not into cigars, you should visit the shops anyway as they are generally the easiest places to find air conditioning. That was the main reason for our repeated visits, at least.
4. Go to Centro Habana
Here you’ll find the National Capitol Building, central park, and the grand theatre.
5. Take a ride in a Coco taxi
The other, slightly less classy (or gimmicky) way of getting around is to catch a ride on a Coco taxi. It’s essentially a bright yellow rickshaw-type car, and a pretty cheap way of getting about.
6. Enjoy the tastes, sounds and bright colours of the city!
There's always music to listen to, performers to watch, and generally lots of things going on.
Finally, we were off to Viñales. I was very excited because so many people rave about this town, and it was easy to see why. Driving into the town, we were in awe: spectacular, luscious green rolling hills filled with tobacco plants and fruit trees dominate the land. The air is fresh and clean, and everything was so green. The town is blissfully calm. This felt like the country retreat we had been hoping for.
Much like the rest of Cuba, the main accommodation is in a casa particular.
Our casa family were super friendly, and made us feel right at home.
After settling in, we were approached by one of our hosts, Antonina, who was keen to help us arrange a tour. With very limited English ( and our limited Spanish), we started discussions. After a lot of back and forth, a lot of charades, and even some questionable drawings, we had finally arranged a day tour of the valley (we hoped). We knew from researching before our arrival that there are no direct roads between the town and the tobacco plantations, and so the only options were to horseride, or to walk over. We were keen for a walk, and we were about 70% sure we’d manage to arrange that, at least. We were also fairly sure that the tour might be something to do with her nephew, Federico, as she kept repeating ‘mi sobrino’ and ‘mañana’. (Thanks, duolingo!)
Bearing in mind the fact there are no roads connecting the towns to the fields, we dressed up the next morning in old trainers and clothes we wouldn’t mind getting muddy, and waited awkwardly in the kitchen.
The front door opened, and out stepped a fresh-faced teenage boy. “Hola” we said. “Mi sobrino”, Antonina said, smiling and pointing. Ah! My Spanish wasn’t as terrible as I had thought!
We followed Federico out, wondering if we’d have better luck communicating with him than his Aunt. Unfortunately, this was not the case. We also hoped he wasn’t missing school for this… perhaps he just looked young. He beckoned us out, and started leading us through the various backstreets until we eventually reached a field with a turnstile.
By this point we realised we should probably just accept that we didn’t really know what was in store for us, so we should just go with it, and not ask too many questions. And the day turned out to be really fun.
We walked through stunning countryside, through valleys, along questionable bridges over rivers. Federico helped us leap between rocks to cross streams, pointing out various fruits and plants along the way (at least we think that’s what he was doing) and exclaim something in Spanish.
The walk continued until we reached a farm and coffee plantation. Here we crossed paths with horse-trekkers and other equally bemused tourists, who clearly also didn’t really know what was going on.
The farm was incredible. Far from the technology/motor-driven farming I’ve frequently passed in North Wales – this truly was like going back in time, and pretty tough manual labour.
Oxen-driven carts led by guajiro men, handpicking fruit and hand-rolling hay – whilst simultaneously chewing on a cigar. It was an image I had only seen in old films.
We sampled delicious coffee, guava, honey, sugar cane – all from the farm and had some lunch, before continuing onwards, this time to a tobacco plantation. Even if you don’t smoke (we don’t), the tobacco plantations are fascinating, and worth a visit. The farmers taught us about the growth cycles, and how they are processed from leaves to cigars.
We sat down in one of the tobacco drying sheds and were shown how to roll cigars. Suddenly an adorable kitten plonked itself on my lap. Naturally I couldn’t bring myself to move her, and so we stayed and chatted to the farmers. They were lovely, and wanted to see photos of Trinidad, Havana, and then further afield. Using our phones we showed them photos of all the places we had been, and where we were from. I was taken aback when they said that they had never left Viñales before – not even to go to Havana. I realised just how lucky I am to be able to visit so many places, and even a little embarrassed at how easily I can spend money, compared to these two men with completely different lives.
The conversation moved to Cuban politics, and it was fascinating to hear the opinions of a pair of Cubans, rather than western media.
One thing that did shock me was the fact they are obliged to sell 90% of their cigars to the government – at a pretty poor price. The remaining 10% they can keep for personal use, or to sell to tourists. It really highlighted some of the small differences between my upbringing, and life in a communist country. It’s hard to make any real savings or grow your business in this environment. We quickly bought several packs of cigars, without bartering with the price. I don’t smoke, but knew they would make a good wedding gift for one of my boyfriend’s friends. Plus they’d look good on display at home, and this was 100% the best way of getting money direct to the farmers, rather than buying in an expensive cigar shop in Havana.
Suddenly we realised the time – we’d been chatting for so long that the sun could be seen sinking towards the horizon at full speed. Federico decided to take us the ‘shortcut route’ back home – i.e., trekking directly through fields of mud, instead of around them on nicely formed tracks.
The skyline was beautiful, with thousands of dazzling stars in view.
We got back home, and realised we had turned the colour of morph – we were covered head to toe in reddy brown mud! A few washes later, and most of the clothes were back to normal, although I did have to say goodbye to some things – RIP my beautiful Nike trainers.
For our final day in Cuba, there was no argument about what to do – we headed straight for Cayo Jutias.
Antonina ordered us a taxi (i.e. a friend of hers who owned a car), who drove us there and collected us in the afternoon – blasting out some classic Enrique on his cassette player for us to sing along to.
After driving for around an hour, we reached a causeway that took us right up to the beach itself. This paradisiacal beach is by far one of the best I’ve visited – with pristine white sand and dazzling turquoise waters gently lapping the shore, it wasn’t long before we both dived into the ocean. The beach grew even higher in my estimation when I discovered that the water was warm! (I’m a pathetic wimp when it comes to cold water at the beach).
In between sunbathing, reading, trying to do handstands in the water and posing on the lifeguard chair, we would duck into the palm-fringed cafes and grab a drink. This time, it was a ‘pour your own mojito’ – first you grab a coconut, cut the top, and then pour in the contents. Bliss.
Cayo Jutias was the perfect place to relax before a long flight home (and back to the reality of rainy Autumnal Britain).
Top Tips for Cuba
Mobile networks are virtually non-existent - my 'Welcome to Cuba' text from vodafone essentially said 'Welcome to Cuba, you can't use your phone here' or words to that effect.
Cuba is pretty much a cash-only economy.
ATMs are few and far between - we only found one in Havana, and my UK card didn't work in it.
The best option money-wise is to bring notes from home here - you can change them to Cuban notes in currency exchange stalls and some hotels. It works out much cheaper to exchange from EUR or GBP than USD as there is a surcharge, but it’s difficult to sell the money at the end. One thing to consider that I did not before going – don’t even think about exchanging Scottish notes – they will not accept them! This probably goes for Northern Ireland notes too. (This is why you don’t take out your money for the trip once you’re through security at Glasgow airport)
There are two currencies in Cuba - the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Convertible Cuban Peso (CUC). The CUC was initially brought in to be used by tourists and luxury goods - being paired to the value of the US dollar, it’s a much more stable currency than the CUP. It’s become a more complex issue in recent years; Public service employees (doctors, police officers, servers in government restaurants etc) earn their wage in CUP, so they’re at a huge disadvantage compared to other jobs (paladares, hotel owners etc) who have the ability to earn in CUC. One thing we were told was to always tip in CUC, especially to people who are likely earn in CUP.
Outside of hotels and restaurants in Havana, English is pretty limited! Bring a Spanish phrasebook as you won’t be able to rely on your phone for translations.
Carry toilet paper, hand wash and drink bottled water.
Don’t pack your valuables in your checked luggage. There have been multiple issues with valuables being removed from your luggage.
Outside of Havana, vegetarians will struggle if you want more to eat than beans and rice.
VISA – most countries will require a visa to visit Cuba. Whilst it was relatively easy for me (I bought one using this site www.visacuba.com - although there are many others) – it can be more complicated if you live in a country of which you are not a citizen. It’s also complicated if you’re from USA – and it has also changed since I visited, but since I am not from the USA it wasn’t really something I looked into.
Don’t drink the tap water
Carry some form of ID at all times (photocopy is fine).
Make sure you have health insurance – most you have to list Cuba specifically. But also don’t worry as the healthcare system is pretty amazing.
It's often cheaper to hire a taxi than a car. Or a bus ride.