I’ll be honest, Cuba wasn’t on the top of my destinations’ list, but I’m really happy I chose to go. I’ve been trying to put the feeling into words, but you can’t really describe Cuba… I would say that it’s a kaleidoscope of colors and music and atmosphere and animals and crumbling buildings, but it’s much more than that. You don’t just visit Cuba, you live it.
I was there for 7 days and, despite not being enough for a thorough visit, it’s a good length to get the feeling of the country. Two weeks would be good for a nice visit, three would be ideal to go to the south as well.
A few practical info before traveling to Cuba
The situation is complicated and constantly changing for US citizens, but for most Europeans the process is pretty straightforward. You’ll need a sort of tourist visa, that you can get beforehand (travel agency or Cuban embassy) or directly at the airport before leaving. I got mine at the gate before departure and everything was fine. It costs 25 EUR and as long as you have the address where you’ll be staying the first night you’re good to go.
I read a lot of stuff online about a mandatory health insurance to enter the country. As of January 2018, I was never asked for proof of medical insurance upon arrival nor at any other time during my trip. However, it’s a good idea to purchase it, because you never know. With the local Cuban company Asistur, the basic option costs 2.50 USD per day, so I would say that it’s worth it.
You can’t get Cuban currency before your trip, so you have no choice but to change money at the airport or in town when you get there. To make things even more complicated, there is a double currency system in Cuba: CUC and CUP. CUC is the convertible peso, used by tourists, and CUP, Cuban peso, used by locals. There is a huge difference in terms of value between the two, so be careful.
1 CUC equals to a bit more than 1 EUR and to 25 CUP. As a tourist, you’ll pay in CUC pretty much everywhere, unless you buy at local markets or kiosks on the street or you take local buses. So I would recommend changing your money in CUC and then a few CUCs into CUPs at a local bank if you think you’re going to need it. However most local businesses will accept CUC anyway and will give you change in CUP.
Tip: don’t change your US dollars into CUC as there is a 10% surplus commission. You’d better change money into euros first and then into CUC.
There aren’t many options when it comes to public transportation, so you need to be a bit organized. Viazul is the most reliable bus company for tourists: it connects the most popular destinations, the price is honest and buses are usually on time. The online booking service doesn’t work at all, so you’ll need to physically go to the bus terminal and purchase your ticket there. Try to buy your tickets one day in advance as they tend to sell out for the most common destinations (Trinidad-Cienfuegos for example is always sold out).
Taxis run between cities as well, but they can be expensive. Your host may be able to find a taxi at a discounted price for you, so always give it a shot and ask. (My host in Cienfuegos got me a taxi to go to Havana at the same price of the bus.)
If you’re planning on getting work done in Cuba, give up. There’s no WiFi anywhere other than very specific public places and, even there, you need to purchase a 1-hour or 5-hour card (tarjeta) to use it. A card can cost between 1 and 1.50 CUC at official retailers and 2-3 CUC at the airport or from random people in the street. Still, the connection will be slow and unstable, unless you actually use the desktop computers inside the Telecsa internet points. I had some urgent work to deliver, so that’s what I did for a few hours, but I don’t recommend it as it’s quite stressful. Get everything done before leaving and enjoy your holiday! (Yes, even you digital nomads.)
And bring a paper map. Or a Lonely Planet guide.
Unless you like fancy all-inclusive resorts, I recommend staying in casas particulares, which are easy to find through Airbnb. The prices vary quite a bit, but you can find very good ones spending as little as 7-8 euros per night (sometimes even with breakfast included). I tried 4 different ones, respectively in Varadero, Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Havana and had a great time in each of them. The hosts are very kind and helpful most of the times, they will give you tips for things to see, help with taxis and accommodation in other cities, recommend where to eat and even host parties if there are other guests too.
You can get by with English only somehow, but speaking Spanish will help you a lot in communicating with your hosts and local people, so consider learning a few basic sentences beforehand. Unless you are Italian, in which case you can speak slow Italian and understand Spanish enough to survive.
A possible 7-days itinerary
I only had 7 days and overall I was pretty happy with my itinerary (I wished I had more time, but well, can’t have it all!).
Varadero: 1 day
Land in Varadero. Catch a taxi to the city centre (team up with other travelers if you can and bargain as much as you can! The taxi driver asked for 30 CUC per person at first but we were able to go down to 10 CUC each in the end). Check in at your Airbnb and explore the city. Other than Parque Josone, which is quite nice, and the beautiful beach, there’s not much to see. The next morning go to the Viazul terminal and book your ticket to Trinidad for the afternoon (departure at 14.30) and then relax on the beach for a few hours. The prettiest beach is between calle 45 and 65, before the big resort area starts.
Trinidad: 2 days
The bus will take 5-6 hours to get to Trinidad. Get comfortable and enjoy the scenery. (It’s freezing inside the bus, so bring a sweater). The Viazul terminal is in the city centre, but everything is within walking distance. Walk to your accommodation and take a quick stroll around the city at night. The atmosphere in Trinidad is great, there’s always music and people around, and horses and chickens running everywhere.
In the morning visit the heart of the city around Plaza Mayor and if you’re up for a little hike, go up the hill all the way to the radio tower. The view is great and, if you’re lucky, the radio tower man will let you in the restricted area and let you climb on the roof. In the afternoon check out the beautiful Playa Ancón either by taxi or by bicycle if you’re feeling sporty (it’s about 11 km each way).
On your final day, take a half-day trip to the Valle de los Ingenios, either on a guided tour by steam train (15 CUC for the whole thing) or by yourself by bike or taxi. In the afternoon take the Viazul bus to Cienfuegos (6 CUC, leaves at 15.30 and it takes about one hour to get there). If the bus is sold out, you can book a taxi that will pick you up from your place. They will try to ask for 10 CUC, but you can probably get a better price by bargaining a bit.
Cienfuegos: 2 days
Cienfuegos is a really pretty and compact town, you can easily visit the centre in a couple of hours. Use the late afternoon of the first day for a stroll along the Malecon, the sunset is incredible from there. You can walk along the Malecon all the way to Punta Gorda, the more touristy and fancy part of town. You can stop in Punta Gorda for dinner or for a cocktail with a nice view.
For your first full day, go to El Nicho for an incredible experience in the nature. You can either book a tour with the many tour operators in town (Cubanacan, Havanatur, ecc. have offices downtown and along the Paseo El Prado) or ask your host for directions and go by bus/taxi independently. This is a full-day trip.
On your last day, spend the morning visiting the main attractions of the city around Parque Jose Martì: the church, the theatre, a couple of museums. For 1 CUC you can visit the Casa Provincial de la Cultura and go up the tower. The building is nothing special, but the view of the square from above is worth its price.
In the afternoon you can either take the ferry (at 13.30 from the ferry terminal) to Castillo and visit the fortress (very nice view but I expected something better, to be honest) or head to the beach in Faro Luna. If you want to do both, take the ferry to Castillo first, visit the fortress, then take a smaller ferry that in 5 minutes will take you to the other shore. Once there, you’re only a 30 mins walk away from the beach (or a 5 minutes taxi ride if you prefer). I haven’t had time to check out the beach myself, but apparently it’s really nice.
Havana: 2-3 days
The next morning take the Viazul bus or a taxi to Havana (20 CUC for the bus and, if you ask your host, he may find a taxi to match that price as well). Welcome to the capital!
Havana is a chaotic city, the air quality is absolutely terrible and people on the street tend to be pushy and trick you into buying cigars or cocktails or tickets to see stuff or all sorts of things. But it’s also really fascinating and colorful and fun.
Walk around Habana Vieja and Centro Habana, don’t worry too much about where you’re going, get lost in the dirty streets, buy food from the little local stores for a few cents and live the atmosphere of the city. Take a walk along the Malecon and el Paseo, pass by Plaza de la Revolución, enjoy a mojito with friends in Vedado and follow the music. In the evening, take the lancilla (a small ferry) to Casablanca (the terminal is a hundred meters or so past the Cruise Terminal), where the big statue of Jesus is. Walk up the hill and enjoy the view of the city from a different point of view.
If you’re up for some beach time, take the local bus A40 from Habana Vieja to Playa S.Maria (it takes around 40 minutes and it’s uncomfortably packed, but hey, gotta try to live like a local). The beach is very long so it doesn’t get overcrowded, at least on a weekday in January, the water is clean and the big blue jellyfish apparently are harmless (better not touch them though). Plus, you can sip coconut with rum at any time of the day for 3 CUC.
Finally, ask your host to book a taxi to the airport for you, he will most definitely manage to get a better price than if you were to try bargaining yourself.
If you have more time, check out Viñales in the north-western part of the island, Santa Clara if you’re interested in Che Guevara-related stuff and Santiago de Cuba, at the very bottom of the island.
I hope you’ll find this overview helpful! Don’t forget to share your Cuban experience below, I heard mixed reactions and I’m really curious to hear your opinion. 🙂
For more destinations, take a look here.