Cuba – step into a living museum, a truly fascinating place, known for its cigars, rum, music, vintage cars, as well as it’s colonial buildings. But, there is so much more to Cuba than that. As soon as you land and step off the plane, the hot air encompasses you. Different sounds, smells, and colours all propel your senses into sensory overload. As you step out and start exploring the country, be prepared to expect the unexpected, be prepared to get frustrated, feel overwhelmed, amazed, and to become completely mesmerised.
At the airports, be it Havana’s José Martí International Airport, or Varadero’s Juan Gualberto Gómez Airport, or any other, you will exit the building into a sea of taxi’s, and beyond them, a sea of official tourist coaches. Cuba has official Government yellow taxis and tourists are advised by their tour operators to use only these for transportation. However, the second type of taxi’s are the vintage cars (e.g. Buick’s, Chevrolet’s, Cadillac’s, etc.), which of course, tourists prefer! If you do ride in these cars, make sure (if seated at the front) you wear your seatbelt! Generally, the cars are safe, but better be safe than sorry! A friend of mine experienced her front door of a Ford 1956 swing open at a roundabout!
Many visitors travel to Cuba via a tour operator and stay at (usually) all-inclusive resorts; however, more and more travellers are now going to Cuba by organising their own trips. The popular Airbnb has now spread to Cuba and there are many choices as well as the Casas Particulares, where the families are often on hand to show you around and provide you with a real Cuban experience.
Cuba, having a dual currency system, is a closed currency, which means that you can only exchange money once you land on Cuban soil. Locals use the Cuban Pesos (CUP), whereas the tourists use the Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). The CUC is 1:1 with the US dollar. You can exchange money at the airport, at your hotel, or at banks. If you go to the bank (they have the best rates), make sure you don’t forget your passport and wait in line (usually one person is allowed in at a time).
Havana, the capital city, a legendary city, and full of colonial beauty. It is a city that is hustling and bustling and you will want to spend at least 3 or 4 days here. All of Havana is good to see, but don’t miss: the Revolution Square (Plaza de la Revolución). Historically and politically, this is an important square where many a speeches were held by leaders such as the late Fidel Castro. At the square, you will see a massive 109 metre tall monument and statue of José Martí that houses a museum. It is also the highest point in Havana with fantastic views. Opposite the square, to the east and the west are large murals of Commandants Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.
From the Revolution Square, hop into a brightly coloured vintage taxi and drive around the area of Miramar. This is the most affluent area of town with stunning villas. Apart from Casa de la Musica (where you might want to go dancing when night falls), most of the embassies are situated here.
From Miramar, the next area to drive through is Vedado. Here, you will want to make a Mojito pit stop at the famous 1930s Hotel Nacional de Cuba with grounds that overlook Havana and the Malecón. If you’re hungry and want to eat some good food, there are many options. I’d recommend Café Laurent, situated on the 4th floor of a residential block. Exquisite food and views. If you want something more low key, with no tourists, try El Cochinito (order the traditional pork, rice and beans, and plantain crisps).
From Vedado, head to the old town, Habana Vieja, passing the 8km long sea drive: the Malecón. The Malecón has a different vibe depending on the time of the day or night! Fishermen love this place, as well as groups of friends or lovers, just coming to hang out, chat and some,dance, or watch the world go by! Habana Vieja, a UNESCO world heritage site, is packed with things to see, from the hotel where Hemingway first stayed (before he moved to the outskirts of Havana into a glorious house, which can be visited and is a must), to his local hangouts (La Floridita, La Bodeguita del Medio), including stunning architecture everywhere you look (though in places outside of the old town you will see houses crumbling).
To properly take in the vibrant streets of the old town, explore it by foot and absorb the atmosphere. Cuban music echoes from all the doorways as you roam around, be it salsa, rumba, bachata, reggeaton, jazz, and so on. Chat to the locals and join them in a dance on the streets if you wish! There are a plethora of places to eat, sit back and relax with live music, sipping on sweet Cuban coffee or rum (have it straight, without ice, as the Cubans do; best try this with Havana Club 7 años).
If you want to stay in walking distance of the old town, the best place to stay would be at one of the hotels near Parque Central, such as the Inglaterra Hotel (Cuba’s oldest hotel with a rich history) as it is a stones throw away from the old town and right opposite Calle Obispo – one of the most famous streets that lead you to anywhere in the old town! It is impossible to list all the places to visit in Habana Vieja, but here are just a few suggestions: Catedral de San Cristobal, Plaza de Armas, City Museum, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco.
What makes Cuba, is not just Havana, but the warm and flirtatious people, the lively and colourful culture, the music, the magnificent architecture (even unfortunately the crumbling buildings), the tropical flora and fauna. When you’re there, notice the different types of palm trees – one of them is indigenous only to Cuba, often termed ‘the pregnant tree’ – easily spotted! If you have time on your hands, do visit the western province of Pinar del Río and see the colourful widespread countryside with mountainous regions, cigar factories, and the Viñales Valley. Here you’ll get to see the rural countryside, you will notice the different architecture, as well as different vibes in the air.
Also, visit the beautiful city of Trinidad (de Cuba), as well as Cienfuegos and Santa Clara (historically important and the resting place of Che Guevara). Colón is also a place of interest and possible as a day trip or overnight stay if you want to take it leisurely. The town has beautifully restored colonial buildings and in the middle of the town square you will find a large statue of Christopher Columbus pointing towards Spain. The town has two hotels (Santiago Havana Hotel and Hotel Caridad) as well as a number of Casas Particulares.
When staying in Havana, you can also take a taxi for a day trip to an old Cuban town Bejucal. This is slightly off the beaten track but well worth seeing the real Cuba. If you dare, travel like a Cuban and take a local bus. On the way to Bejucal, you will pass lively villages, see locals go about their daily chores, and you will also get to see lots of sugar cane plantations.
If you want to go further east, it’s best to fly there directly (e.g. to Santiago de Cuba) from your home country as a separate trip. If wanting to visit there whilst in Cuba, be prepared for a 12 hour journey in one direction! For beach lovers, don’t miss Varadero. Yes, it is a peninsula that is filled with all-inclusive resorts, but the beach is fantastic. Crystal clear turquoise waters and white sand stretch for roughly 20km.
Day trips will take you out of Varadero, but if you prefer to lounge around the beaches, do hop into a taxi before sunset to sip a cocktail on the top floor of the prestigious Xanadu Mansion (the Dupont’s old family summer home), which is just off of the golf course. Great views from there. When the mango is in season (usually April, May), go for the mango daiquiri!
If you find that the food in your resort isn’t up to par, go to downtown Varadero where you can find some good bars and restaurants (El Rancho is a great steakhouse; for some afternoon snacks and late night fun try the Beatles bar and Calle 62). After dusk, Calle 62 turns into a Cuban outdoor dance venue spilling onto a side road which eventually transforms into one large dance floor. Tropicana shows, live music, locals and tourists all dance or people watch into the early hours of the morning.
For a change from touristy Varadero, go to the town of Matanzas for a dose of real Cuba. Spend time slowly meandering about and chat to the welcoming locals. Walk down to the large Che Guevara mural and go for a delicious meal to La Casona, which is tucked away in one of the side streets (best take a taxi there). The prices are listed in CUPs but they will convert your bill to CUCs for you. If you decide to stay overnight in Matanzas, there are a number of hotels, but I’d recommend the grand hotel in the centre of downtown Matanzas (Hotel Velasco), or you can also stay at a number of Casa Particulares (my personal favourite is ‘Hostal Vega’, which is a house with two apartments and a terrace overlooking the sea).
In the evening after dinner, pop round for a dance to the local Las Palmas outdoor dance bar. The setting is great: whilst listening to Cuban vibes, look up at the starlit sky beyond the tall palm trees! Sway the night away,… but check that it is open first before you venture there, as it’s not open every night. Entrance prices are in CUPs but they will convert it into CUCs for you. If it’s closed, another dance venue would be La Salsa, though the crowd there is usually much younger than at Las Palmas.
If you’re not so much into dancing but you are up for diving, there are lots of options available from Varadero. For those wishing to explore the depths of the oceans that are rich in fish and corals, diving trips can be organised easily. If you are a diver already and have a diving licence, remember to bring it with you. Various diving agencies offer dives near Varadero
and also on the other side of the island, at the historically known Bay of Pigs, should you wish to make a day trip combined with the diving. When to go – weather wise? The best time to go is from Nov/Dec to Mar/Apr. May/Jun are rainy, whereas Jul/Aug are their hottest months and even the Cubans struggle to keep up with the heat.
Aug/Sep/Oct are rainy again with threats of hurricanes. Any time of the year that you choose to go, make sure you take insect repellent with you that has a high DEET percentage. Music is there all year round, no matter the weather.
Wifi on Cuba is spotty, you can only catch a wifi signal if you are in a hotel, or near a wifi centre. To get access to wifi, you will need to buy an ETESCA wifi card. If strolling around villages or towns, you will know where there is a wifi signal, as you will see lots of groups of people huddled around their phones chatting away, sending emails, or doing FaceTime.
It is a beautiful country with a beautiful people but it is also heart breaking to hear of their wages; on average 20-30 CUC per month. Pensions are on average 10 CUC per month. Their supermarkets often lack basic essentials, so make certain that you don’t forget things you will need whilst on your trip. If you have space in your luggage, feel free to bring clothes that you don’t want to wear anymore, including lots of essentials such as soap and toothpaste. Handing these out to locals in villages or suburbs will fill your heart with warmth as well as make their day.
Despite the low economic status, Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, at 99.8% of the 11 plus million population being literate. Education is provided free of charge by the Government as well as free medical care. You will see richness, you will see poverty, but the people are always upbeat even with just 30CUC a month. To fully understand the country, and why so many people fall in love with Cuba, make certain that when visiting, you also visit the real Cuba, and not just the tourist Cuba. It is an extraordinary country that will occupy a special place in your heart.
During my cousin’s first Cuban experience, he proclaimed, with a smile: “there’s something in the air”, and there sure is. A special magnetism that, with an open mind, you feel Cuba. Cuba has a complex history, which I won’t go into now. Economically, the country is poor, but culturally, it is rich. The people are kind, friendly, and hospitable. It is a safe country to roam about and knowing even a little Spanish, helps. Immerse yourself into Cuban life and if you let your inhibitions go, you will have an undoubtedly good time, feel good, and gain some strong friendships on the biggest Caribbean island!!