Cuba is so far off the grid that it felt strange for the first little while. No Internet is the first thing you notice, how much we have grown accustom to always being connected became hugely apparent. Information is shared through talking with strangers not by browsing the web. Every Cuban we met was friendly and totally fine helping two lost Kiwis with useless phones and poco Español asking how to get to the bus station. The kids play marbles or football out in the street rather than sit inside on the computer or behind a television. The old-school American cars have a character that today’s cheap and efficient cars lack. Cuba is stuck back in time, a simpler time but that doesn’t seem so bad once your eyes adjust from the screen to your surroundings.
We arrived with no money, no transfer and no accommodation. The organisation we blab on about was tossed out the window. After a very structured month in Europe we wanted to be off the cuff for a while and dove in headfirst. Cuba isn’t really the best place to do this and we were saved by share luck a few times… so here is our guide on how to do it properly!
London Gatwick Airport to Cayo Coco £240pp one way
We decided to fly with Thomas Cook airlines as at the time they had the cheapest flight. Little did we know on a 9-hour flight there were no alcoholic drinks and you had to pay for premium TV/Movies. But you pay for what you get and it was by far the cheapest flight we could find.
Cayo Coco airport to Trinidad 40CUC pp (with a taxi of 4)
The Public transport in Cuba put lightly, has room for improvement. There are no buses, trains or shuttles from this airport to Trinidad, one of the main tourist centres in Cuba. We found another young couple and shared a 4hour taxi costing a combined total of 160CUC (tourist currency).
Trinidad to Viñales 45CUC pp
We organised this journey with the tourist information centre in Trinidad. A collectivo van picked us up from our casa and drove us four hours then suddenly stopped at the side of a highway where we changed to an old school ford, which drove us another two hours to Viñales. The old-school cars look great and are a bit of a laugh but as with much of Cuba, the cars lack a few essentials. No seatbelts and zero air-con making any journey over 30min a little bit uncomfortable.
For this journey it was cheapest to get a collectivo that took you door to door. The ViaAzul bus takes you to the Havana bus station for only 12CUC, but it takes a further 10CUC taxi ride to arrive at your casa.
You can find any taxi or collectivo on the main street opposite the main Plaza.
Havana to Varadero15CUC pp or 30CUC pp return
Organise a Transtur bus at least two days before you leave. If you leave it too late the price jumps to 25CUC pp or the bus will be sold out already. You can book tickets at either of the hotels where the bus departs outside from – Hotel Inglaterra or Hotel Plaza
After realising the above a little too late we had to find an alternative route. We took a taxi from the main centre to the ViaAzul bus station. This should cost around 7-10CUC depending on your taxi/haggling skills. From the bus terminal you can then take a local bus to Varadero for 11CUC each.
Havana to the airport 25CUC
Taxi is the best bet to catch your flight on time, you can easily hale one down or organise a shared taxi to the airport if you find other people going at the same time.
We arrived with no accommodation booked with the intention of finding a Casa on arrival. It had already been a long transit day so when the Taxi driver offered to call his friend we accepted. We were shown a lovely private room with a roof top terrace in Hostal/Casa Carmen Cervera. 2min walk from the main Square it was a dream location and perfect result after our long day.
Again, we arrived with no accommodation. Cuba is not the place to worry about such things. Within two minutes walking on the main road a lady found us and directed us to her casa. Casa Galiano has two private rooms with everything you need, A/C Big shower, double bed, good amount of space. If you request Zoe will cook you dinner for 10CUC or breakfast for 3CUC guaranteed it will be delicious and far more food than your stomach can take.
Havana has three areas where you might end up. The first where we stayed was in the part named ‘Havana Vieja’ an old colonial town showing its age. It will be difficult to find any accommodation worthwhile for under 25CUC here. We stayed at the Casa Colonial (Miguel y Ana Doris), a four-story casa with a terrace attached to most rooms, air conditioning and an optional 5CUC breakfast, which is quite dare in our opinion.
Secondly you can stay out in ‘Vedado’. West of the central district, this area is more modern and is where the nightlife lives.
Finally Central Havana, where you may feel a little out of place as this is a more local area.
Typical Cuban dish is your choice of meat or fish with a side of beans, rice and a small side salad. Our favourite was the pork with the exception of the fish in Viñales that was home cooked and beautiful!
- Ropa Veija a traditional Cuban dish that has origins in the Canary Islands. Shredded meat/mince dish highly seasoned and served with garbanzo beans and potatoes
- Croquetas are a very popular finger food. Deep fried crispy meaty cream cheese ball, that makes your mouth water by just reading it!
- Arroz con pollo is like a Cuban curry with chicken, onion, garlic and tomatoes all served on rice.
- Once you change your money to National Pesos, the local window shops become the cheapest way to eat. Very basic sandwiches and pizza are the norm in these windows.
- With your national Pesos you can visit the fruit stalls and buy as many mangos, avocados, bananas, pineapples and coconuts as your hearts desire. So fresh and juicy we had nearly three mangos everyday! Or find some for yourself, Brett foraged some coconuts by knocking them out of a tree. So help yourself to Mother Nature gifts.
- Try a variation of different Cuban rums… Havana Club is the obvious choice but we have all had that before. Grab a bottle of “Arecha” with the Cuban rum guarantee, smooth and delicious!
Must see & do
- Hit up the beach Playa Ancon (15min Taxi ride from the centre)
- Enjoy a 5-hour horse riding tour with Elvis & Isobel tours. They take you to a top rated restaurant in the area, coffee plantation and a beautiful waterfall (this was our highlight). The tour cost 25CUC, which does not cover any food or drinks.
- Casa de la Musica is the place to watch some live music and test your skills at salsa dancing. There are steps leading up to the Casa where you can drink mojitos from nearby bars to shake of the nerves before dancing.
- Plaza Major; a beautiful square located in the centre and surrounded by buildings of all sorts of colour.
- Inglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad is the famous church in Trinidad found on most postcards. It dates back to 1892, rebuilt after the previous church was destroyed in a storm. With so many colours it is a great photo opportunity.
- There is a cave party nearby the Plaza Major; if you follow the young people then you will come across it. Bear in mind there is an entrance fee.
- We did another horse riding trek that primarily took us to a tobacco plantation where we learned how they make the cigars. You can even roll your own before smoking it! A café is the next stop to take a drink of coffee or rum and sugar cane juice, then finish your ride cooling down in a nearby lake. The tour cost 20CUC for 4 ½ hours and excludes food and drinks.
- There are many beautiful walks to take around the countryside; the beautiful picturesque mountains make it such a photogenic place. You will also stumble upon many tobacco farms that you can go in and observe yourself.
- The cultural centre next to the church in town offers free local shows. It was a great way to spend an evening and seek out the next ‘Viñales got talent’.
- Viñales is a small town with an abundance of all kinds of tropical fruit (mango, pineapple, avocado, coconuts and guava just to name a few). Be sure to go on a hunt yourself and find some fruit to eat off the trees… delicious.
- Wander down the street of Malecon late in the evening to watch some live music and performances.
- Palacio De La Artesania is a quirky place to buy some souvenirs and art. A live band plays and you can also enjoy some fresh sugar cane juice to cool down.
- Educate yourself on how Cuba became independent from America at the Museum of revolution. It costs 8CUC for tourists, but if you can pass as a local it costs 8CUP
- Walk up the tower of Havana’s Cathedral for a great view of the city. Browsing is free but it’s 2CUC entry to the tower.
- Take an old school American convertible car around the city. 25CUC for an hour whizzing around all the districts and national monuments.
- Plaza de arms oldest square in Havana, it offers a really nice book and antique market.
- Hotel Florida and Casa Del Musica are great spots to try out your salsa skills. Don’t let the locals talent put you off, it’s all about having a good time so get up and give it a go. If we can do it you can too!
Casa Del Musica is 15CUC entry.
Hotel Florida is 5CUC entry, which includes a free (very strong) drink.
- Relax and catch some rays at one of the most beautiful beaches in the world
- The crystal clear water makes it a perfect location to go Snorkelling
- Hike to the nearby Ambrosio cave to seek a little adventure after basking in the sun.
Tips & Advice
- You’re going to need a Visa for Cuba. We got one prior to departure at the Cuban embassy. It was around $20 USD to travel around the country for 1 month.
- There are limited ATM’s and banks so bring US or Euro cash to exchange into CUC the Cuban tourist currency. Unfortunately no banks take MasterCard (yet) so our Revolut card did not work and we had to use our Lloyds bank visa card.
Note all ATM’s charge 3% fee.
- To obtain the local currency (national pesos) known as CUP or MN, you can easily go to a Cadeca and change your CUC to CUP. The exchange rate at the time was 1CUC = 24CUP. It is worthwhile changing some of your cash, as street food and entrance fees to museums are a lot cheaper.
- Be aware that it is hard to get WIFI anywhere so do your research prior to arriving and download an offline map of the country. Otherwise you can buy hour-long WIFI cards worth 2CUC at any Etecsa shops.
- Stay in Casa particulars while in Cuba. No need to book in advance, once you hop of your taxi/collectivo/bus go walk around the main streets and either someone will ask to show you a room in their Casa or you can go knocking on the doors. The Casa’s usually have a sign out front shaped as a blue ‘I’. You can first have a look at the room and decide whether you would like to take it or go check out another Casa. We paid around about 20 – 25 CUC per night. Make sure you ask if there is air-conditioning as you are going to need it! Most Casa’s charge extra for breakfast around 3CUC
- Bring gifts. As Cuba is behind times and their trade isn’t up to scratch with most countries, this means some essential things are hard to buy. We kept our gifts light and brought with us colouring pencils, crayons, kids books, colourful hair ties and pens. This is quite nice to give to Cubans you met along the way and they are very appreciative. Some other gifts you could bring are bed sheets, kids toys and Women’s hygiene products.
- Ensure your insurance covers you in Cuba, as it is illegal not to have it.
- In various situations you will need to wait in a line. E.g. waiting at the bank or to get a WIFI Card. These lines are not straight nor in order so to find who is the last person in line it is customary to call out “Ultimo?” in a voice that people can hear. You will be pointed to the person who is last.
- The best time to visit is NOW! Travel to Cuba before its too late and Americanised.
- Don’t forget to bring your “Americas” travel adapter for all your electronics.
Helpful words and phrases
Please Por Favor
Thank you Gracias
You’re welcome De Nada
Pardon me Perdone
English? Habla Ingles?