Imagine a country where the time stopped ticking. Imagine a country which takes you to a time travel to 60s. Imagine a country where people are nice and caring.
Welcome to Cuba!
I visited Cuba back in 2012, for the first time. I write “first time” because I know it will not be the last time. Now thinking back how the 3 weeks round trip in Cuba was… I have one word: “Enlightening”. All travels are somehow enlightening, but Cuba… was simply special. I gained so many new perspectives on what’s important in life and what is not.
Yes, I had my moment of enlightening in Cuba where I realised, “things” do not make happy. I questioned my lifestyle and realised the western values and lifestyle are not the one and only that everyone on this plant has to adapt to be happy. Having unquestionable access to the basics such as shelter, food, doctor, education, sports and arts give a feeling of security and takes away the fear of existence which also make happy.
Did you know the Cubans are considered as the longest-lived population in the Americas? My theory is that it’s because they managed to remove the word “stress” from their lives.
3 weeks in Cuba
As I’m working full-time I had only limited time to travel the biggest Caribbean Island with so much history and nature to offer. So I dedicated myself to Lonely Planet’s guide book for Cuba to see what are the usual routes, the must see, etc.
First I got panicked but then faced the reality that “time is bitch” and the technology still can’t make it possible to be in different places at the same time. So it was obvious I had to compromise which made me prioritise. History over nature, nature over towns, not getting stressed over count of places, and so on…
Here are my highlights…
Visiting Cuba without visiting Havana is not a really Cuba trip. All the tourists spending weeks in Varadero, should not claim they’ve been to Cuba, because Cuba is much more than the white sandy beaches and without being in Varadero, I believe the reviews saying that Varadero is everything but Cuba.
So if you’re one of those who really want to get to know Cuba, your first stop should be Havana. No doubt on that! Havana is a 2,5 million kick ass city full of history, impressive architecture and lively music.
I spend in total 5 days in Havana and had a fabulous time going from one Plaza to another around Habana Vieja, strolling along Malecón, walking up El Prado wandering the architecture, watching people in Park Central, driving around Vedado, having a half day beach vacation in Playas del Este and so on, having Cuba Libre for 2$, getting overwhelmed in Calle Obispo and following the steps of Ernest Hemingway.
Yes, the other end of the island. Because of its impressive history I added Santiago de Cuba to my list. In the first couple of hours I doubted if the 15 hours drive all along the country was worth it but later that day I was glad I took the ride to see the second biggest city of Cuba, where the revolution started.
After chatting a bit with the locals you realise pretty quickly that it has developed its own identity influenced by both east and west due to its geography.
I spent 3 days here climbing up the 100 years old Padre Pico Stairs surrounded by colourful buildings, getting lost in the street of the old French district Tivolí, visiting the bar “Barrita de Ron Caney” next to the first Bacardi Rum Fabric to smoke my first cigar and to taste rum, observing Cuban life in the streets of Parque Céspedes, listening to street musicians in Plaza de Dolores, getting a dose of history in the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro.
In any Cuba trip, Trinidad has to be in the list. Trinidad with its 50 something thousand population is such a beautiful and laid back town. I fell in love with Trinidad. Even though there are a reasonable amount of tourists this small town did not loose anything from its relaxed atmosphere.
I spent 3 days here including the day trips from Trinidad to Playa Ancón to recover from the long bus drives and to Topes de Collantes to hike to Salto del Caburni.
Almost every street in the colourful town of Trinidad leads to Plaza Mayor from where you can explore all the sights on foot such as the yellow Bell Tower. So I just enjoyed the stress-free lifestyle of the locals while strolling around the paved roads. I met the man with a chicken on his head and greeted the man talking to his donkey. I tasted the special cocktail in Taberna La Cancháchara and listened to the musicians having their jam sessions. In the evening I followed the stone stairs from Plaza Mayor and had couple of cocktails in Casa de la Música.
Cayo Largo del Sur
It has nothing to do with Cuba. It was not even populated till 1980s. But if you want to add a bit of Caribbean nature to your list, truly relax and finally finish that book you’ve been reading for weeks before you turn back to your office this island is the perfect place for it.
The wide white sandy beaches beloved by sea turtles to lay eggs have the finest sand you can find on this planet. Playa Sirena is the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen in my life. No, I’m not exaggerating. It is 2 km long and wide, I mean really wide that you might even not see the crazy turquoise Caribbean sea when you settled down under a palm in the middle of the beach.
One day I joined a catamaran tour for snorkelling. On the same tour I had the chance to see one of the rare and famous Caribbean sand banks, to spot colourful starfish and last but not least to visit the island of iguanas.
First time in Cuba?
Where to stay?
It’s called Casa Particular! You get your private room (mostly with also private bathroom) in a private house offered by locals. These are better than most of the hotels and for small prices. You get a double room for 20-30CUC$ (20-30US$). Besides it is one of the best options to get in touch with locals and get to know about real Cuban local life. Most of them offer also homemade breakfast (3CUC$) and dinner (5-10CUC$).
I chose my favourites after reading the reviews in Trip Advisor under specialty lodging and then searched for their e-mail address in the big world of internet. Then I contacted them directly asking if they have a free room. And voilà! Most of them even arrange pick up service from airport, bus or train station.
There are also networks or agencies where you can search and book a case particular via 3rd party if you feel safer that way. Here are some of them:
Where to eat & drink?
Most of the casas particulares offer breakfast and dinner. For breakfast you get coffee, fresh pressed juiced fresh fruit, eggs, cheese and ham, etc.
Also your dinner you can have in your casa and be sure to get freshly cooked homemade food. I’ll never forget the awesome taste of the grilled lobster Miriam prepared for us in her Casa in Trinidad.
Of course you can have terrific food in local restaurants too. Either you go to a state run restaurant or to a private one called “Paladar”. Meals cost mostly between 15-25CUC$.
Drinks? Well, any drink I had always included a little bit rum and I loved it. I even learned how to make a real Cuban Mojito thanks to Miriam! Most of the long drinks with rum cost about 2-3CUC$!
Getting around in Cuba is really easy. I found travelling with bus very convenient. You can get almost to any city by bus. Víazul and Transtur are the names you need to look for. You can buy tickets in tourist offices or in bus station easily.
I met a couple who had rented a car which I might also consider doing next time. However you need to keep an eye on the car all the time, as it is possible that the tires might get stolen. They have been paying someone to watch the car during night for 10CUC$.
This is one of the most asked questions I guess. If you don’t stay longer than 2 months as tourist, you don’t need a visa, but you need the so called Tourist Card (tarjeta de turista). You get it from the airline when you buy your tickets or from the travel agency when you book a hotel, etc. It costs about 25€. Don’t lose it! You need to show it when you enter the country and depart. Sorry but you don’t get a stamp on your passport 😦
There are two type of currency in Cuba. Convertible Pesos (CUC) used by/for tourists and Cuban Pesos (CUP) used by locals. You can exchange € into Convertibles in the bank or in some big hotels. The exchange rate is almost one to one. 1€ = 1.11CUC$ and 1US$ = 1CUC$. I’d recommend to take enough cash with you as the credit card commissions are very high, like over 10%.
Is it safe?
Absolutely. Cuba is definitely one of the safest travel destinations I’ve been to. There is no violent criminality at all. Of course you need to have your common sense and take care of your belongings but this is what you need to do everywhere in this planet.
Only annoying thing were the so called “jineteros”, mostly young men and women. They involve you in a friendly conversation and at the end invite you for drinks or snacks. Oh not to forget the salsa festival which is supposedly the biggest in the country, only once a year and today is the last day. Sure! At the end what happens is that you pay for a bill which is three times higher than it should be. We have been asked so many times if we want to go to salsa festival, or buy cheap cigars or rum, but after the first scam we learned to say no kindly and moved forward.
When to go?
Any time. Just go. Don’t wait long.
I know that I’ll visit Cuba again and can’t wait to adapt even more of the Cuban lifestyle and values.
For itinerary ideas read my blog post 2 weeks in Cuba. For more insights I recommend Lonely Planet's Travel Guide for Cuba.
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