Our route- Havana – Playa Larga – Cienfuegos – Trinidad – Varadero – Las Terrazas – Vinales – Havana.
Note: if you want to see where each photo was taken then just hover over the pictures with your mouse.
Cuba was on my bucket list for many many years. Same for my travel gang and we actually were talking about going to Cuba for more than one occasion for about 3 years. It was all a dream until one evening we were enjoying some G&T at our friends’ place and once again discussing Cuba and how we always talk but never do anything about it. So long story short about 3 hours later we had our tickets and couldn’t believe that all those years we were talking about our dream trip and all we had to do was to drink some G&T. I must say that looking back at the pictures and videos I had the best time. Cuba definitely is one of my favourite trips I had taken and it was not what I excepted.
After reading a lot of blogs and books about Cuba, we decided to risk and go not so popular route – renting a car by ourselves with no guides or anything along those lines. We booked all the casas particulares in airbnb and for the first time we had to plan everything in advanced (all the activities and restaurants) because of the non-existing internet.
TRAVEL. We started off at London Gatwick Airport with a short flight to Madrid International with about a 2 hour layover and then the considerably longer flight directly to Havana.
SAFETY. Despite reading a lot of different stories about how unsafe people felt on the streets and that they got robbed or their car tires slashed, we didn’t experience anything like that. I personally felt very safe and was surprised how polite the people were even when they were trying to sell things to us. But I must admit that it could quickly change in the next 2-3 years’ time. It was surreal to see how calm and unbothered all the sellers actually were if you compare to the big tourist destination like Barcelona or Marrakech.
MONEY. There are two currencies in Cuba – the money that tourists use is called Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and locals use Cuban Peso (CUP) which is pretty much worthless for tourists. Both look very similar, but a way how to easy recognise them is that on CUCs you can see monuments, but on CUPs peoples’ faces. Again, we read a lot of stories about how Cubans will try to trick you and give you the worthless version (CUP), however we had only one occasion where we were given the wrong money. But you should always check when they give you cash just in case.
CAR. Renting a car in Cuba is very interesting. There are only 3 car companies and all are owned by the government so they can set whatever prices they want. It is very expensive to buy a car in Cuba so a lot of locals want to rent them as well hence the supply is very limited. On top of that you can’t pay for your car directly on the car rental website, but instead we had to transfer our money to some random company in Netherlands and hope that we haven’t been scammed and a car will be waiting for us in Cuba. Also prices are pretty high due to the limited supply and if you find a deal that seems to be too good to be true, it probably is as again we read a lot online that there are scammers trying to relieve you from the valuable CUCs. We rented through the website – www.havanautos.com – all went well, except that we ordered a large family car to accommodate our bags, but instead got a small Renault Clio, so the back seat situation was quite tight as our suitcases didn’t fit in the boot. Also the car had a dent in every single place with especially big dent above the passenger seat (we thought that a coconut had caused that), but that is normal in Cuba.
DRIVING. Driving is fairly easy as there aren’t a lot of cars, especially once you get out of the cities. However you have to be very careful as the road conditions aren’t the best and the road might just finish in front of you or it might have huge potholes. Definitely buy a map beforehand as the sat navs aren’t always working or in one instance it gave us directions through a military zone and luckily a local waved us down and explained that we better not continue this route as we might get in massive trouble. Always add at least an extra hour if you are driving longer distances as the roads might be closed due roadworks or in one instance the bridge that we had to cross looked like it has been bombed recently and our car barely got across. But in most cases you have to take a massive detour, hence planning is essential. Getting gas is fairly simple as in most stations you have to prepay first and then whatever is left, they will refund you. Bring your ID as some stations were asking for our passports. Sometimes they insist that they will fill the car for you and obviously will charge premium for that. Drive carefully as apparently if you get into a car accident, they might force you to stay in the country longer.
INTERNET. Well, for starters, there is NO mobile internet whatsoever. Only option is WIFI hotspots that are quite accessible, usually in parks/hotels/cafes and if you see a lot of people gathered in a park, you know that there will be access to WIFI. To be able to log in, you have to buy WIFI cards but sometimes if you are lucky, your hotel will have unlimited access. Apart from that each card gives you about an hour browsing time and sometimes you will have to show your ID to be able to purchase them and you might be limited to only a small number of cards.
VISA. I think this was the easiest thing for us throughout the whole journey as in the UK you just have to apply for the visa online and you get them delivered.
FOOD. I must admit that food was my biggest concern because I read so many blogs where people were complaining about the food and how bad it was in general that I even warned my friends that probably after Havana we won’t have the option to have any delicious food but I was so wrong. Once again don’t trust everything you read because we had some unforgettable experiences. I spent countless hours finding the best food places in each city that we visited. We did bring a lot of food with us as well because due to the long car drives, we knew that we wouldn’t find a place to eat whilst on the road.
LIVING. Throughout our trip we stayed only in casas particulares to support locals and because there is no point to spend that much money on hotels as what you get for your money will be a disappointment. Especially in Havana you can find so beautiful and stylish homes.
Casa particular is a private accommodation very similar to a bed and breakfast. In each place the homeowner cooked us breakfast which was pretty much similar in every place we stayed- scrambled eggs with fruits and papaya juice. You should definitely bring some sweets or something for the owners because as you know they can’t buy much and they are so grateful to taste something foreign. We did bring chocolate truffles and they were so happy (at one place we barely got in our car before they had already finished the whole box of truffles). So definitely bring some small treats with you.
Word of caution: the Cubans love Roosters which we thought is fine until they started waking us up at 2AM, so I would recommend bringing earplugs just in case.
What I’m trying to say is that you should enjoy and soak in every moment you can because it’s not every day that you can go to Cuba. So without further ado I present you two lists – one where I will write places, things etc. that I would definitely do again and the other – things that I would probably skip.
WHAT I WOULD DEFINITELY DO AGAIN:
Walking was one of my favourite activities to do because on every corner there was something happening and it was the best way to sink in every moment.
My partner in crime had rule about taxies – we can only drive in the supper old ones, because you can’t do that back at home. Fun fact – you can pretty much wave down any car, as my partner approached a random old car that was standing by the red light and asked how much and he took us.
TOUR GUIDES. In Havana most of the places have guided tours and they really like to take pictures from all angles. And in Cuba everything is “possible”.
For a breath-taking view experience of Old Havana and a swim in an infinity pool where you can start to work on your tan for the summer. Definitely a must do and worth spending the money. You also get free wifi for 24 hours. As weird as it sounds you have to bring your passport if you want to use the spa. And it’s better if you get there as early as possible because they only have few spaces for non-hotel customers. https://www.kempinski.com/en/havana/gran-hotel-kempinski-la-habana/luxury-spa/fitness-centre-pool/
Eclectico is part of a boutique hotel called the Paseo 206. It is an Italian restaurant with a really good pasta and design. http://paseo206.com/restaurant
La Reserva Vedado had the best mojitos in the whole trip. Also, it is part of a boutique hotel and technically you could only access the bar if you are a hotel guest, however as everything in Cuba is “possible” we managed to sneak in and enjoy. https://lareservavedado.com/en/la-reserva-vedado-eng/
La Guardia is the most popular restaurant in Havana. Also, one of my favourite experiences, so definitely worth of visiting. For lunch you could go without reservation but dinner booking in advance is necessary. http://laguarida.com/
El Del Frente. Great for lunch. Colourful cocktails. https://www.facebook.com/EldelFrente303/
O’Reilly 304. Modern vibe. Great for cocktails. Has the same owners as El Del Frente so the same quality of food and drinks.
Le Chansonnier. Stylish and delicious. It was our last restaurant before heading back to airport and I couldn’t have asked for a better place to finish our trip. http://lechansonnierhabana.com/en/node/9
El Floridita. Legendary place. The Cradle of the daiquiri. Live music. Surprisingly good cocktails. Ask for their special drink.
Paladar Los Mercaderes. Go for a great atmosphere and food. https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d3730557-Reviews-Paladar_Los_Mercaderes-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html
Fabrica de Arte Cubano. The trendiest and most popular place in Havana. Super cool spot and it has everything you want – cocktail bars, restaurants, art gallery, nightclub, live concerts etc. http://www.fac.cu/
History tour around Hotel Nacional de Cuba. From Monday to Saturday at 10.00am in the hotel lobby they are doing a guided tour about the hotel, the mafia, Frank Sinatra and other celebrities. Also, you will walk through an underground bunker from the missile crisis and finish the tour with a mojito. https://www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com/
El Capitolio. A WOW piece. This is a huge monument and a big part of the Cuban history. It was built in 1929 and is pretty much a replica of the Washington DC Capitol apart from that the Cuban one is a meter higher, a meter wider and a meter longer. But they didn’t spare any single penny whilst building it as you have gold ceiling, Tiffany’s chandeliers etc. So definitely a must see.
Gran Teatro de La Habana. Home to the Cuban National Ballet. According to our tour guide ballet for Cubans is everything. They can starve themselves for days as long as they can buy a ticket to see the ballet. Lavish is an understatement to describe the building and architecture.
Vintage car tour. It’s a no brainer when in Havana or any other city. Just pick a car, decide the tour route and off you go. I would suggest to include in your tour the Havana forest. It won’t be super clean but definitely beautiful and calm place. And perfect for a mini photoshoot. I spotted our car a day before, because it was the only green car that I saw as we didn’t want any pink or red cars. We went to the car and started talking with the tour guide about the route and negotiating the price, when suddenly we see how some other tourists just get into to our car with another tour guide. For a few minutes the guides were discussing which group will go first, but I guess our one wasn’t senior enough as the other guide won and we had to wait for an hour to get our green beauty back but it was totally worth it.
Diving. Cuba is considered one of the best places to dive. I didn’t do it but my friends did. Water was so clean that even when you’re not in the water you can see the fishes. Arranging it is very easy – you just have to ask your casas particulares owner/manager and they will sort it for you.
In Playa Larga there was a small beach bar near to where we were staying and they had the best Piña coladas I have ever tasted – so creamy and delicious. I still sometimes dream about them. But at the same time they had the most undrinkable mojitos.
Swimming with dolphins. I probably would skip the dolphin show but swimming was really nice. http://www.cubadivingnow.com/en/dolphinarium-cienfuegos/
Restaurante Museo 1514. I can’t recommend this venue highly enough. Definitely one of my highlights of the whole trip. From the ambience to the food and the whole presentation. Basically, you eat and dance in the antique store. It was so good that we went for dinner there both nights. You can’t fully describe you just have to be there. https://quincecatorce-english.weebly.com/
Climb the tower of Museo de Historia municipal to see city from above.
Walking through Trinidad is more interesting than going to the romance museum that’s for sure. You can even get a horse carriage tour through the city.
Disco Ayala. Club in a cave. It takes a while to get there and it is quite a steep climb. Whilst you are walking to the cave, you can buy cocktails pretty much on any corner, but at one point it feels like you are in the middle of nowhere. It’s an experience definitely worth a visit. Downside is that they mostly play Latino music and definitely leave your heals at home ladies.
Well Varadero is all about relaxation at the 20km long white sand beach with clear water. Even I was enjoying it, as I usually don’t like beaches and water in general.
Varadero 60. I wouldn’t call it a modern fine dining experience as most of the reviews but the food was good. Probably it is more like 90’s fine dining. https://www.facebook.com/Varadero60
Don Alex. Casual place. Service was really fast and the pizza was great. https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g147275-d4002219-Reviews-Don_Alex-Varadero_Matanzas_Province_Cuba.html
Rancho Curujey. Here you can get a walking tour with a guide that ends up at a lake where you can go for a nice swim. Nearby there is also the longest zip ride in Cuba, but be careful with the opening times as they close quite early and unfortunately, we missed due to few tourists that were in our group.
El Romero. Organic restaurant with the most delicious bread we had in Cuba. https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g1087637-d2284077-Reviews-El_Romero-Las_Terrazas_Artemisa_Province_Cuba.html
As we missed the zipline in Las Terrazas we did one in Viñales.
Caves Cuevas de Santo Tomas
Well, where do I start. It is a huge cave system that spans over 46km. We didn’t even manage to get to the “traditional|” entrance as whilst we were driving to it, a guy waved us down and offered us to do a private guided tour. At beginning we were sceptical as we thought they will try to scam us (as everyone always writes that in the blogs) however this was an unforgettable experience. The guide was amazing and we had a private tour couple hours long throughout the caves. It definitely isn’t suited for the faint hearted, but although I don’t like climbing, I enjoyed the tour very much.
Tareco’s has a great cocktail menu with delicious food. We were sitting on the rooftop terrace before the thunder storm came. The view with the dark blue skies and mountains in the background was a memorable dinner for sure. https://www.facebook.com/tarecosbar/
Although the botanical garden was small it turned out to be great. Word of caution – don’t go without the guide as without the information, the plant’s aren’t that interesting.
Our last activity of the trip was a horseback ride through the beautiful Vinales. We had a 5 hour tour. Learned about the coffee process, tobacco and cigar rolling, went into caves, tasted their rum. It was a great end to my favourite trip.
THINGS AND PLACES I WOULD SKIP.
La bodeguita del medio. Yes it’s a legendary place and yes it’s rumoured that mojito was created there but I wouldn’t waste my time going there again. Too crowded and I had there the worst mojito in my life. https://www.worldsbestbars.com/bar/havana/city-center/la-bodeguita-del-medio/
China town – pretty much every country has one, but in Havana it was only a gate and that was it. Not even shops or anything similar to other countries, so for us it was a mayor disappointment.
Museum of the Revolution. The museum presents the story of the 1959 Cuban revolution. http://www.lahabana.com/guide/museo-de-la-revolucion/
Crocodile farm. They were pretty aggressive about giving baby crocodiles for photos even if you try to say that you don’t want to, they will still push you to do it just to get the money.
Supposed to be the Paris of Cuba. It even has the arch of triumph the only French style arch anywhere in Cuba. But still I would skip this town completely because it’s far from Paris and Cuba definitely has more beautiful cities than this.
We rented bikes on the first day. The ride was bumpy but all in all nice. However I would skip palenque de los cimarrones, cueva del Indio and Mural de la Prehistoria as they were too touristy.