TWO WEEKS IN CUBA
Updated: Jun 1
Havana- Viñales- Playa Larga- Trinidad- Cayo Coco- Havana
There's something about this island, that I can't get over it. Before traveling you should be aware that you will most likely fall in love. It could be with a song, the smile of someone who asks you to dance, the cheeky eyes of a child, the swinging chairs in front of the door of a colorful house, the Caribbean waters, or with a person; but careful with this last one as is widely not recommended.
I landed in Havana José Martì International airport after approx 14 hours connecting flight from London with stop in Madrid; however until not long ago there were two airlines providing direct flights from the UK to Cuba, but they have currently suspended their flights due to difficulties in operating on the Island.
Currency: if you don't want to worry about buying your currency over there, the safest way it's to get some USD before traveling; don't exchange your currency at the airport on your arrival as you won't get a fair rate. The best deal is made in the city, either buying from the people in the street, or from one of the many dedicated kiosks. When I traveled in 2020 the CUC (peso cubano convertible, 1CUC=1USD) was still in use, and you could pay with it everywhere, or sometimes you could have also been given CUP (peso cubano or "moneda nacionàl", 1USD=25CUP). In 2021 the double currency has been eliminated from the country and the CUC disappeared; the USD became the currency most used, but Euro is also accepted.
Transport from the airport: you will be approached by many taxi driver, so be careful about the price they tell you, ideally you shouldn't be paying more than $25 to the city center. If it is not too late in the day, you'll have the option to catch a "colectivo": a mini bus that you'll be sharing with other people.
VIÑALES - 3 days
NO DOUBT MY FAVORITE!!!
Nearly 3 hours drive from Havana, takes you to this beautiful small town in Pinar del Rio Province, I extremely recommend you to visit it! There are tourists there but is definitely not the most touristic place between the ones visited by foreigners. Here I had a chance to feel closer to the real Cuba.
I stayed in a "casa particular", and that's the type of accommodation you should go for when in the Island. Casas particulares are houses of locals who have multiple rooms to rent, you generally have your own bathroom and the room is often separated from the main house by an internal courtyard. I'll never forget the welcome freshly squeezed juices, and all those home made breakfasts (All for just 10/20 CUC per person per night)!!
Check out these two website for the reservation of your Casa, sometimes you'll have to pay in advance, sometimes you'll pay there in cash, with no pre-payment or card details required.
Visit to the plantation of tobacco,coffee and sugar cane by horse riding.
An incredible experience, you don't have to be able to ride a horse, your guide will be with you all time and other than take you through safe paths, will give you all the necessary interesting explanation, and you'll be most likely pleasantly entertained by their bubbly personality!
2. Try the locally made rum (Guayabita del Pinar) and learn to make real Cuban cigars.
I have never been a fan of rum, but Cuba once tastes different, and it must be also magic because it doesn't give you hungover! You will be sitting in the middle of the nature sipping your completely organically made cocktail with local fruits, from a coconut that has been freshly cut in front of you. My favorite one is Canchanchara (aguardiente or white rum, honey and lemon juice)!
Here is also where you'll be shown the process of rolling the tobacco leaves to make the cigar, have the chance to give it a go yourself, and if you want, also buy some at an incredible cheaper price compared to what you can get in the shops!
Sitting in the nature with locals, drinking from a coconut, smoking cigar, they'll make you feel one of them; but be careful with what you say: Cuban don't like to talk about politics, it's a very delicate topic which most likely you won't know much about. So, more than asking questions or give opinions, I think this is the opportunity to listen and let them tell you what they feel like.
3. Spend the day at Cayo Jutìas.
This is the closest beach, where also Cuban people go, they consider it a very average spot...it's amazing! Nothing to envy to any of the Cayos!
All of these experiences can be easily organized by your host for an average price of $35.
Music, music, music. Everywhere, included and specially in the street. Mostly salsa, bachata and reggaeton. You will be amazed to see the skills of incredibly young children, and the energy of pretty old people. If you are thinking you don't know how to dance, forget it, they will make you. There's no chance you're gonna leave Cuba without shaking it a bit!
In Viñales there is one main square: Plaza Mayor, and that's all you need to know, from there you'll find bars and restaurants all at walking distance.
In the Plaza you'll notice that everyone is on their phone, and that's because (at least until 2020, and very likely still the same as progress is not very fast in Cuba) is the spot with Wi-Fi signal. Yes, internet in the Island is not an easy matter. To be able to connect you'll have to buy a card (from telephone company shops) for 1 CUC/USD and that gives you 1 hour of internet, after that you need to find a place where there is Wi-Fi available (usually some bars/restaurants, most of the Casas, and some public spaces).
take the opportunity and disconnect from your phone,
use internet only if you really need it, you'll enjoy a lot more.
HAVANA - 5 days
I split Havana in 2 parts (3 and 2 days just to make it more relaxed on the way back before flying), but once you know the stops you want to make you can decide what best suits you.
Getting around on the island:
To get here from Viñales, I found the bus to be the most convenient option, here you can find prices and timetable: https://viazul.wetransp.com/.
Other methods of transportation are:
your own driver: you can choose one person to take you around during the entire holiday, you can discuss the price with them and they'll always give you a good deal (feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like someone's contact number).
rent a car: just remember there's no internet, so think properly at how you could plan your journey.
The city is beautiful, and as any other capital you'll find a lot more tourists.
To make sure you don't miss anything, book a walking tour through https://freewalkingtourhavana.com/ and they'll also give you extra info like recommendation on where to go, restaurants etc. I had a great experience with them, and my guide Daliced was simply amazing, after the tour we had a coffee and we are still in contact :)
When you go for any activity, be kind enough to give a tip to your guides (if you can) even if they don't ask you for one, they're genuine people, and most of all, they are what makes Cuba so beautiful. The majority of them have university degrees, but the government doesn't offer valuable job opportunity, and it also makes pretty impossible for the population to leave the country.
If you are planning to go to Cuba I am sure you have heard of the iconic "La Bodeguita del medio" and "Floridita", where Ernest Hemingway used to drink respectively his mojito and daiquiri. They are pretty spots to visit with live music, but also very touristic and more expensive.
Try instead: "La casa del Bonsai" and "Doña Alicia".
Things to do:
buy your unique perfume made in Cuba from "Aromas coloniales de la isla de Cuba";
take the lift in one of the hotels with rooftop and have a beautiful view of the city;
have a night out at the "King Bar" club, or try "El Gato Tuerto" if you prefer a more chilled ambient where cuban meals and cocktails while listen to live jazz music;
have a walk by the malecón and watch the sunset;
have a tour of the city with one of the classic old car.
PLAYA LARGA - 3 days
Here we move to the opposite coast, and it's the place for you if you want to do scuba diving or snorkeling, as it's on the Caribbean Sea, or even just have the chance to see turtles.
Playa Larga is very relaxed and natural, free from hotels on its beach; not many people travel to this spot. You'll have the opportunity to connect with the locals and if you are as lucky as I did, you'll get the chance to go on a local bus with them, where everyone was sharing the same bottle of rum, pretty cool experience and definitely totally different from the journey on the Viazul bus!
In the area you can visit the Criadero de Cocodrilos, a crocodile breeding facility that aims to protect the Cuban and American species which were at risk of extinction.
TRINIDAD - 3 days
Going forward south, we arrived in Trinidad: a beautiful and colorful town that is a UNESCO Word Heritage.
What to do:
again, a walking tour: with the chance of having salsa class all around town at the same time; we also had a fresh juice offered by our guide. I really think this is the best option as in only few hours you'll be able to get to all the places that you shouldn't miss, in addition you get to know history and exclusive facts told by a local;
give a walk around the casco antiguo;
at night go and practice what you learned at "El rincon de la salsa", an open sky club. Another very famous club to try is "La Cueva", literally in a cave, quit incredible! And if you don't want the party to finish, then go with the locals to "La Poppa" from 6am!
have dinner at "Taberna La Botija";
watch the sunset from one of the many cafè with a view;
go on a tour to visit the waterfalls of Topes de Collantes, you'll take a walk in the nature and your guide will also take you to a local market where is possible to buy coffee beans, honey, fresh fruits, and other home made products;
CAYO COCO - 3 days
I don't usually like to stay in resorts when traveling, as I feel this doesn't give a real feel of the culture, however is the only option to be able to visit one of the Cayos; plus they have some really good prices (£100 for 2 nights, ALL inclusive, and with all I really mean everything, even open bar).
The sad fact is that Cubans are not allowed in (unless they are working there).
Initially I wasn't sure if I should have gone to Varadero as I heard a lot about it, but it turned out that is way more touristic and I was super happy with my choice.
Back to Havana
There are taxi leaving from the Cayo to Havana until 1pm- I didn't know, but was lucky enough to have met someone on the way, who I stayed in contact with, and helped me to sort out my trip back. Here we said goodbye and catch the flight back the following evening.
BEFORE YOU TRAVEL:
You need a Visa to enter Cuba, it's easy to apply online and it costs around £27 for a 2 weeks time estimated delivery. There are plenty of website through which you can get one, it's worth it to check and consider the best offer: https://www.cubavisa.uk/, https://visaguide.world/north-america-caribbean/cuba-visa.
When to travel: November to April is the best time, avoid summer months as Cuba is often hit by hurricanes, and can also be extremely hot and humid.
Don't expect to go shopping in Cuba, quite the opposite. Even for Cuban themselves is really hard to have access to even primary goods; if you could, it would be extremely appreciated if you donate some of your clothes, or bring shampoo and other toiletries as it is really hard to find even just soap.
Don't drink tap water in Cuba, is another struggle of the country: they collect water in big tanks so it stays there for long periods and it can grow bacteria. Nothing too bad can happen to you, but you don't want to spend your holiday being sick. Bottled water is completely safe.
Don't confuse the charm of the culture with harassment, most likely you'll get compliments at every time of the day, everywhere (particularly if you are a woman). It's just part of the culture. I am a woman and was traveling with other two girls, and not only I felt very safe during the entire trip, but also met extremely kind people and made some friends.
Cuba is a lifetime experience, the island is beautiful but people are who made it special.
Be open to be able to capture its essence and live it to the fullest.
I know for sure, I will come back.