"What do you mean ATMs are closed?" This was my first question to the taxi driver when we landed at 2:00am in La Habana that night of November 1st. They all close at 1:30am, after which you cannot get cash anywhere in town. Well this is going to be fun. How am I going to pay the casa particular and the cab? We’re in for an adventure!
History, architecture, mountains & beaches is all you will find in the land of rum, rumba and revolution.
If you are looking for a country where adventure is key and where you don’t know what tomorrow is made, you should pick Cuba.
You will go to Cuba if you want to live the full Backpacker style where you think you have booked one casa particular to in the end up sleeping at the sister’s cousin friend of your host but still have the best time of your life! Because yes this is Cuba. Internet has just arrived, the old fashioned booking is done via phone calls on a landline from the neighbour or the shop downstairs. That’s what casa particulares are. You get business card from one, give them a call, they tell you they are full but their friend Juanita has a double room for 25$ per night. You book it and they will come pick you up at the bus station with a big board saying your name on it. Typical! And no you will not be the only one, all tourists proceed the same way and their hosts are all as nice one or the other
There are 4 stops you should make if you are two weeks in Cuba. Of course, if you have more time, I would suggest to explore the far east but if it’s only a holiday trip, a good two weeks in the West will already give you a good idea of the country, its people, the landscapes and the culture. Landing in Havana, here is the itinerary suggested:
If there is one place you could skip and therefore stay longer in the other 3, I would skip Varadero. Some people will tell you they’ve been to Cuba and you ask them oh yeah where abouts? They go...Varadero, amazing food, city, beaches. Ekkk… right, nope you have not seen Cuba at all my friend! Varadero is a resort place, such as Cancun, Miami, Panama City and so on. It is full of resorts and all inclusive hotels where the pina colada tastes like water and the meals are frozen ones. So yes, skip that one!
When travelling to Cuba, you could choose hotels but you will miss entirely the immersion within the cuban culture. That’s why mosts tourists even the honeymooner adventurers opt for the casa particulares. Depending on high or low season you could feel pretty comfortable booking only your first casa particular in Habana, and for the rest of the trip just ask around or book a day before, especially if you fell in love for one place and want to stay longer than planned.
Here are the two places you must stay in if you go to Viñales and Trinidad. Tell them you come from me, they love to share their guests’ stories with others. Make sure you leave a note in their book review, they might even cry reading it. Yes, leaving a casa particular can be very emotional, because both them and you will feel grateful for having met each other, and sad to leave them, not sure if you will ever see each other again.
La Bodeguita del Medio and Floridita are two must-go bars in Habana, and also Hemingway’s favourites. In both, the atmosphere is unique, mixing tourists and locals. You will see the barmen preparing rows and rows and Mojitos and Daiquiris. They just never stop! Try calculating how many bottle of Havana Club are consumed per hour and night...it’s crazy!
As mentioned earlier on where to stay, I recommend that in places like Viñales and Trinidad you have dinner at your casa particular. The meals will taste ten times more delicious, it is cheaper and you can order anything you want it will be cooked with love from your hosts. If you are unsure what to order, ask for lobster or porc or ask them to surprise you with any local dishes. Bear in mind you will have a starter a main dish and dessert, plus a beverage! So it may be worth having a light lunch! At night, in Viñales you will want to try the bars on the main street, my favourite one is the one across the church called 3J Tapas Bar. I had the best piña colada of my life! You may ask why? Simply because they bring it to you in a huge glass (ice cream type of glass) where it’s only the coconut/pineapple mix then comes the entire bottle of Havana Club to top up, yes true story! No matter the amount of run you add on, it’s the same price. And if the bottle is empty, they bring you another one. Bear in mind rum is as cheap as water in Cuba…
In Trinidad, I recommend having dinner at your host as well, during the day you can grab a sandwich or a quick salad from the street stores. Another nightlife unconditional is to head towards the square-music on Plaza Mayor at night (also called Casa de la Musica) and sit on the stairs, the entire village of Trinidad gather to drink, dance and listen to the locals playing guitar. The barmen come to you taking your order, the bar is only a tiny shop where another guy is preparing drinks one after the other.
STOP 1: LA HABANA (3 days)
One of the main thing to do in La Habana is walk around. What you should not miss is La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) where everything is happening from bars and restaurants to landmarks and museums. For the most incredible view over the capital, walk up the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis. The 360 panoramic view over old the houses and monuments will leave you speechless. If you wish to sit in an old american car, take the opportunity to pass by the Malecon on the seafront as well as visit the Plaza de la Revolución (Che Guevara steel face) and the José Martí Memorial on that same square.
STOP 2: VIÑALES (3 days)
After dropping your bag and meeting your host family, ask them if they have or when you can rent bikes. There is a very nice (not too hard) trail up hill to admire the view over the valley. There is one viewpoint restaurant where you may want to buy a cold drink and rest your legs for a few! In town there isn’t much to do but restaurants and convenience stores on the main street. There is also a flea market on a perpendicular street where you can buy handcraft souvenirs (Hats, bracelets, bags, keyrings, paintings etc). At night the square is very lively and turns into an open air nightclub where all generations gather and dance Salsa, Rumba, Mambo and all sorts!
The next day after an energetic breakfast prepared by your lovely host (fresh juice, ham and cheese sandwich, water melon, papaya, fried eggs), explore the valley for the entire day horse riding. The guide will take you everywhere from the cigars factories, the coffee factories, caves, lakes and viewpoints. Instead of booking through a travel tour agency ask your hosts if they don’t know anyone. Usually it’s cheaper and more authentic. Plus you may end just you and him and not an entire group of tourists.
Last but not least of Viñales area, spend a day at Cayo Jutias beach. I have been in a lot of places in the Caribbean but this one is unique. Mostly because it is on a peninsula and there is nothing around but one restaurants and a bunch of palm trees. No building, no resorts, just nature. The beach is not crowded although mainly tourists, the place is peaceful, everyone is playing cards, reading their book, drinking mojitos or coconut water whilst the kids or most adventurous are snorkeling hunting for fishes.
Case del Negro y Tite| El Negro the owner and his wife Tite are the most friendly and genuine people I have ever met. And I am not saying that like I say that to everyone I meet. This family could have been my adopted family. Everyone cried when we left, the three days spent with them felt like we were part of the family. Every second spent with them was a bless and there was not a moment when we did not smile or laugh. So much complicity with all generations from Gabi 2 years old to the grandma 70 years old. Tite would cook for us at dinner (much better than any restaurants in town), in the morning we would tell her what we fancy for the night and she would spend her entire day cooking like if we were 10! Careful if you are a light eater, she may think you do not like her food if only eating one of the ten plates she has prepared for you! At night, after our excursions and right before dinner was served, ask El Negro to prepare you his master mojito. 32 years of experience on how to make them! Have two of them and you will laugh even more! The house is full of laughters and peace. 3 beds, private bathroom and a separate entrance from the main house. One more thing if you come from the western countries, make sure to bring children books or pencils or toys. Gabi was looking at the pictures on the yellow page as her “entertainment book”. We only had blank paper books to give them, but wish we had proper kids’ toys because this is what they did not have in their house.
STOP 3: TRINIDAD (3 days)
On your way from Viñales to Trinidad by taxi (aka old chevy), make one stop to Cienfuegos. Just enough time to have lunch and wander around. Then head of to the most beautiful and colourful city in Cuba, the one and only Trinidad. The colonial houses and the cobbles streets make you feel like you are in a movie. Trinidad is a tiny more touristy than Vinales so don’t worry if you get approached by a lot of locals who wonder if you need a taxi to here and there. If you climb up to the viewpoint you will see all Trinidad and the Ancon Peninsula, where the next day you should rent bikes and cycle until the end whilst making stop to Ancon beach for a relaxing day by the beautiful sea.
WHAT TO DO: - Old town - Beaches - Nightlife by the square
Hostal Juanita | Juanita and her daughter Yegni are the most cheerful people we’ve met in Cuba. Full of energy they would do anything to make us feel at ease. We had met another pair of British Backpackers so decided to share a 4 bedroom so it is cheaper, next door was an Australian backpacker couple hosted under the same roof. The house is big and very well located in the heart of vibrant Trinidad. Yegni would make the most delicious and filling breakfast, full of energy since 7am she would make fun of you if you do not speak a word of Spanish, since she speaks a little english, it is quite an entertainment! Dinner time, she cooks the best catch of the day and have a fridge full of beverages to help yourself. She loves tourists and wants to know everything of what life is like in your own country.
STOP 4: VARADERO (2 days)
There isn’t much to say for Varadero expect getting yourself a drink, a good book and a sunbed and you’re all set! The view and the color of the water is absolutely surreal so you won’t get bored! A good two day to end the trip like the icing on the cake and be entirely relax before coming back to reality!
WHERE TO STAY: - Any Hotel resort
WHAT TO DO: Relax and enjoy the all inclusive hotel