There isn't many places in the world that you can travel to that makes you feel like you've been transported back in time. Streets filled with colourful buildings, live music around every corner and cars straight out of the 1950's, Cuba is unlike anything else. Unique is an understatement, and my three weeks travelling around the country was nothing short of a wild adventure.
I spent the first 3 nights of my trip in the capital, Havana, before heading to Varadero, which is where all the beach resorts are located, before starting my tour with Locally Sourced Cuba. The first week it poured with rain and unfortunately I spent most of my time inside hoping for the storms to calm.
18 + DAYS
HAVANA (3 NIGHTS)
CUBA'S CAPITAL AND A STEP BACK INTO THE 1950'S FILLED WITH PICTURE PERFECT SITRS
VARADERO (4 NIGHTS)
ON CUBA'S NORTH COAST AND KNOWN FOR ITS BEACH RESORTS
SANTA CLARA (1 NIGHT)
A SMALL TOWN WITH CHARM AND CHARACTER, ONLY A QUICK STOP OFF
TRINIDAD (3 NIGHTS)
FILLED WITH AN EMENCE AMOUNT OF HEART AND SOUL, TRINIDAD WAS ONE OF THE HIGHLIGHTS
CIENFUEGOS (1 NIGHT)
KNOWN AS THE PARIS OF CUBA, CIENFUEGOS IS KNOWN FOR ITS COLONIAL - ERA BUILDINGS
VIÑALES (2 NIGHTS)
A WORLD HERITAGE UNESCO SIGHT STRAIGHT OUT OF JURASSIC PARK
HAVANA (2 NIGHTS)
BACK TO HAVANA FOR MORE DISCOVERY
HOW TO GET TO CUBA
I flew to Cuba with Air France. There are very limited direct flights from London to Havana, and if you find one, often they are quite expensive. I had to fly to Paris first and then onto Havana, which means the trip all up takes around 20 hours door to door. The flight to Paris normally takes around an hour and 15 minutes, I then had a 5 hour layover at Charles de Gualle before embarking on the 10 hour flight to Havana. For some reason many of the planes don't fly directly over the Atlantic Ocean, so our plane detoured up towards Greenland before heading down the East coast of the United States.
WHAT TO BUDGET
I wasn't sure what to expect when budgeting for Havana because I had read mixed reviews, with some people saying it's as expensive as Europe and other people claiming it was dirt cheap. And to tell you the truth I still can't really decide. It was cheap, yes, but it wasn't as cheap as travelling to a country like India, Nepal, North Macedonia or Moldova.
I think if you were conscious about your money, it would be more than possible to stick to a tight budget. The Old Town of Havana is all within walking distance and you can usually barter taxis down to around £5-£10 per ride. The only issue would be travelling from town to town. The Cuban public transport system leaves something to be desired and you often see up to 100 people in one spot, all trying to hitch hike to places instead of getting buses.
I would recommend around £30-£55 per day, including accomodation. If you decide to only stay in Havana you can probably keep your costs fairly minimal and places like Cienfeugos, Viñales and Santa Clara are even cheaper than Cuba's capital.
HOSTEL BED - £7-£10
CASA - £15-£25
BREAKFAST - Usually included at the accomodation
LUNCH - A simple lunch of rice + beans, paella or pasta £5-£9
DINNER - Dinner with a few drinks £15-£20
DRINKS - A night out is very cheap and drinks will cost around £1-£3 (usually for a very strong Pina colada, Cuba Libra or Mojito)
ACTIVITIES - Most places are free to enter or will only cost £1-£2
As previously mentioned I travelled around with Locally Sourced Cuba, which took the hassle out of finding my own transport, however if you are choosing to travel independently there are 3 options you can look into. Firstly, trains. Cuba is the only country in the Caribbean that has a functioning train system, and while I didn't have the opportunity to experience it, I've read that they are slow and subject to long delays and cancellations. You will have to prebook your tickets at the station anywhere from 5 days - 1 hour before you want to depart (making sure you have your passport with you). This seems like the more efficient option compared to the second choice, buses.
Cuban buses seem to be in a world of their own, looking like they are about to fall apart, hot and filled to the brim with locals. This doesn't look like the ideal option, however it is the cheapest and would probably provide you with the best adventure. The long haul buses between towns run a few times a day and I would recommend trying to prebook a ticket if possible.
The final option is the most expensive however would relieve a lot of stress, taxis. There is no shortages of taxis in Cuba, whether it's the classic old cars or the (slightly) more modern yellow cabs. Getting a tourist taxi throughout the city of Havana for an hour will cost you around £40, a ride from A to B will cost you around £5-£10, depending on the distance and private transfers may cost you up to £150, however if you are splitting it between 3-4 people it can work out to be worth it.
As a vegan I found it to be one of the most difficult countries to travel to in regards to eating. The Cuban diet is very plain and due to the embargo, a lot of food items can't be imported or they have to be severely regulated by the government. If you can find a supermarket (they are few and far between), the shelfs were near empty, meaning there wasn't much point even trying to cook for myself.
Cuban food consisted of a lot of rice, black beans, plantain, salad, fruit, paella, pasta and pizza (which are obviously Italian, but most restaurants offered it), and if you ate meat you would be in luck, because they put it in nearly every food they can. I would say every 1-2 days I would have to send food back because there was either meat or dairy in it, after explicitly telling them I couldn't eat either. Thankfully our tour guide spoke Spanish, which lent a helping hand, however even then they didn't really grasp the concept of veganism, and it was especially hard if I was eating out alone.
I would recommend bringing snacks around with you, as service is unbelievably slow and it would take even longer once I had to send the food back. It was hard to find snacks that I could eat, so bringing some from home would be a good idea.
I think it's hard to judge the safety of a country if the culture is vastly different than what you are used to. I found a lot of the men would stare, gawk, comment or try and talk to me as I walked, and while it seemed harmless, It got progressively more annoying and uncomfortable. I couldn't walk down the street alone without getting some kind of reaction, and I think as someone who clearly wasn't a local, more people seemed inclined to vocalise their thoughts.
Most of the time I would just ignore whatever was said and nothing more would happen after I walked passed, and I think the explicit staring and commenting was more of a cultural norm than anything else. I got told from numerous locals that I was more than safe to walk around alone, even at night time, and I truly think that. Most nights I would walk around with my headphones in and was left alone, however if you're not comfortable with that, try finding someone to accompany you through the streets.
Tipping is expected when you're in Cuba and usually 10% - 15% is a nice amount to leave for the waiter, casa or taxi!
Havana is the heart and soul of Cuba. We landed and I was instantly greeted with the humid night air as well as the unfortunate fate of waiting at the baggage carousel for close to an hour before my bag appeared (over on the carousel next to the one that was labeled for my flight). I really loved Havana and I thought it had a lot of charm, however there is evident signs of buildings crumbling, cars falling apart and rubbish strewn across the streets. The old town holds a lot of charm and there is plenty to see from the Mafia hotels to the Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro (Havana Fortress), so spending your time exploring will not get boring.
WHAT TO DO IN HAVANA
Old Havana is exactly what you would imagine Cuba to be like. 1950's cars, brightly coloured buildings with a mixture of traditional and colonial-era architecture and live music around every corner. If you can get accomodation in the Old Town it's a perfect opportunity to explore what the city has to offer.
Built in the 1920's, the National Capital building stands tall above the Cuban skyline. It's a beautiful stop off during your walks around the city and has an unbelievable golden glow at both sunrise and sunset.
PASEO DEL PRADO
As one of the main boulevards in Havana, Paseo Del Prado stretches from the water to El Capitolio and makes for a nice walk. The strip is surrounded by colourful buildings on both sides, so if you can get there for sunrise you can get some unbelievable photos against the pops of colour.
MUSEUM OF THE REVOLUTION
Entangled with rich, dark history, Cuba has been through a tremendous amount for such a small country, and I think visiting the Museum of the Revolution is a must for you to be able to understand the grand scale the country has been through.
PLAZA DE LA CATHEDRAL
There are four main squares in Havana's Old Town and Plaza de La Cathedral is one of them. I didn't get a chance to explore this part of Havana a lot and I wish I had discovered it earlier.
Another one of the famous squares to explore with lots of food options to choose from. This area is pretty touristy so you will be paying more than you would in other parts, however it's a really lovely part of town to walk through.
Inspired by Gaudi and Picasso, Fusterlandia was created by José Fuster and is a public art installation which covers streets upon streets. It is slightly out of the way but a definite must as the mosaics and designs are so incredibly unique and interesting to walk through.
Whimsical and magical, the Havana forest is filled with lush vegetation and looks like something straight out of Avatar. It's a little drive away from the heart of the old town but is well worth the drive.
WHERE TO EAT IN HAVANA
CASTILLO DE FORNES
I accidentally stumbled upon this spot when I was walking around on my first day. It was a little resturant with only a few tables which overlooked the road. The menu was simple and I ended up ordering the paella, which was super tasty and really inexpensive!
Located in the heart of Old Town, Nao offered a wide menu with a few vegan options. I ended up going for the paella again which was really nice and a big portion.
I found this spot when walking around one afternoon and was pleasantly surprised by the kind service and tasty food. A lot of Cuban food is pretty similar and it was nice to have a different, tasty variation of the normal beans and rice.
About a four hour drive East of Havana lays Santa Clara. It didn't have a lot to do or explore and I think an afternoon would have been more than enough time to explore the town. Che Guevara, a huge figure in the revolution, is buried in Santa Clara and there is a dedicated memorial to visit explaining his life. The highlight of our stay was the Christmas Eve fireworks display about an hour outside of the city. Safety precautions didn't really seem to be a priority as dozens of men ran around with pallets of homemade fireworks and would run up next to them lighting them off into the crowds, it was definitely a sight to see.
One of my personal highlights of the tour was Trinidad, a colonial town in the centre of the country filled with charm and of course, a beautiful beach. Much like Havana, there was an endless amount of vibrancy in the town, with locals constantly partying outside, people socialising in the hot sun and every street seemed to be completely unique
WHAT TO DO IN TRINIDAD
The most popular beach in Trinidad is Playa Ancon and it was the perfect way to spend a morning. I recommend getting there early so you can set up your stuff and make the most of the day. The beach is about a 10-15 minute drive away from the town, which costs around £8 each way (10 CUC). I would recommend walking to the very end of the beach (just turn right and keep going passed the hotels and bars). There was hardly anyone else at the end of the beach and the shades are free to lay under, which was amazing!
Right in the centre of it all is Plaza Mayor, which is a beautiful square to wander through, sit, or grab a coffee on the steps. I would recommend coming here for sunrise if you want gorgeous light for photos!
CLIMB IGLESIA Y CONVENTO DE SAN FRANCISCO
Trinidad's 'tower' provides unbelievable 360 views of the surrounding mountains and the town below, it only costs 1 CUC (70p) to climb up and is open from 9am-5pm every day! I would recommend getting there early as it does get quite congested going up and down the small staircases.
A club in a cave?It was something I didn't realise I needed to experience until I was in Trinidad. It's a decent walk away from town and as I was walking it felt like I was heading into the middle of no where, however this is something that you must do if you visit! It costs £3.50 (5 CUC) to enter and is completely underground! The most surreal experience ever!
WHERE TO EAT IN TRINIDAD
ADITAS AND SAN JOSE
Owned by the same people, Aditas and San Jose are two great options in Trinidad for lunch and dinner. The service was fast for Cuban standards and the food was filling (plus super tasty)!
Slightly more expensive than the other options, Vista Gourmet is good for a nice dinner. With a beautiful rooftop view of the whole town and live music playing, this was a great spot! They even had vegan meatballs on the menu.
Cienfeugos was another quick stop on the trip and is often referred to as the Paris of Cuba. While I didn't really feel the Parisian vibes, there is definitely a strong colonial era vibe throughout the town. I wouldn't recommend spending more than one night here, max, and I think this stop could of been an afternoon visit as there wasn't a tonne to see and do.
WHERE TO EAT IN CIENFEUGOS
If you're looking for a BIG, tasty paella, this is your place! It was ridiculously cheap and was so yum! Perfect for lunch if you're just stopping off.
The World Heritage UNESCO region, known for its vast tobacco farming and world famous cigars, Viñales was another highlight of the trip. Located in the west of Cuba, there is no shortages of orchards, farms and limestone hills that surround the vast valley. I could have easily spent 2-3 days walking around and exploring the beautiful scenery.
WHAT TO DO IN VIÑALES
MURAL DE LA PREHISTORICA
I wouldn't hold your breath with this one, however I thought it was worth the mention. Viñales' prehistoric mural isn't actually prehistoric, it was created in the 1960's and is pretty underwhelming if you ask me, however the walk was absolutely lovely. It takes roughly around an hour to get from the town to the mural, however you are right in the heart of the valley and it is a great way to see the grand hills.
Cuba is the leading country for premium cigars, so why not go to the heart of it all and visit a tobacco farm while you're in Viñales? We visited Casa Manolo, which was a family owned farm that showed you the whole process from growing the plants to rolling the cigar!
WHAT TO EAT IN VIÑALES
PARADISO ORGANIC FARM
Home grown with thought, this family run farm grows all its own produce and we ended up with a feast-style dinner of beans, rice, soup, veggies, and plenty of meat for the non-vegans. Paradiso also provided the perfect spot for sunset as it overlooked the entire town and the valley.
3 J TAPAS
Tapa's wasn't really a thing I had seen throughout Cuba, so it was refreshing to see some different options on the menu other than the standard choices. The food was super fresh and very tasty, one of the best meals from the whole trip for sure!