Cuba Highlights

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Cuba is unlike anywhere else we’ve visited. It’s a place that provokes strong feelings and before we even arrived we encountered a huge amount of fervent pro or anti Cuba propaganda. We didn’t know quite what to expect and even now it’s hard to make sense of this bewildering country.

What we do know is that we don’t fall into either camp—Cuba isn’t perfect and it isn’t evil either, but it is unique. We felt like we’d almost stepped back in time with the classic cars from the 50s, bare shops like something from the Wild West, a lack of advertising, unreliable ATMs, and the most limited internet of any country we’ve visited. Some of these things seemed like disadvantages at first but they turned out to allow us to escape from the hectic world of non stop bombardment of information.

Here are our highlights from our two weeks in Cuba.

Classic Cars

Classic car, HavanaOn the drive from the airport to Havana we spotted our first one with glee—there really are classic cars in Cuba! And they are everywhere—1950s Buicks, Chevys and Plymouths in varying states are used as everyday vehicles, as taxis and private cars. You can follow Cuba’s history in its cars from the pre-revolution American cars through the Soviet Ladas to more recent Asian and European modern vehicles. We never got tired of the beautiful classics and it added to Cuba’s magical feeling.

Havana

Havana streetHavana is decaying, colourful, vibrant and gorgeous. We stayed in Habana Vieja and spent most of our time there wandering the streets and feeling like we were on a film set amongst the vintage cars and lively street scenes. Washing dangles from balconies on buildings still elegant despite their peeling paint; vendors sell fruit from carts on the back of their bicycles; cycle rickshaws and even horse carts are a common way to navigate the narrow roads; and everyone is out on the street—kids playing baseball, old men smoking cigars in doorways, and women chatting on street corners.

Music & Salsa Dancing

In Cuba you really do hear music everywhere, with the sounds of live bands emerging from many bars and restaurants. The bands we saw were excellent and the locals who inevitably got up to salsa to them were just as good. We watched them spinning around the dance floor enviously so decided to take our first few salsa classes in Vinales. It was hard work mentally and physically but a lot of fun and although we still aren’t ready to hit the dance floor we are keen to take more lessons.

Unfortunately Chavez died while we were in Cuba and as the Venezuelan president was a good friend of the country Cuba went into mourning and music was banned. The streets were eerily quiet and it was a shame we couldn’t see any more music on our last four nights.

Art

The art scene is just as vibrant as the music scene. In Havana especially there are many little artist workshops and galleries that you can pop into and see artists at work and buy direct from them. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes also has a stunning collection of Cuban art and had surprisingly few visitors.

Casas Particulares

In Cuba you have the choice of staying in expensive government run hotels which tend to have bad food and disinterested staff, or casas particulares, where you stay in a Cuban home. Families are allowed to rent out two rooms in their homes and it is strictly regulated so they all have a good standard of cleanliness and almost always your own bathroom with hot water, A/C, and fridge, and cost around $20-30 a night per room. Families usually provide breakfast and dinner for an extra fee and these home cooked meals are the best you’ll find in Cuba.

The best thing about the experience is the families who are warm, welcoming and happy to help you with anything you need—giving advice, arranging activities, and booking your next casa with one of their friends. It’s a great way to get to know the people and learn more about Cuba.

Viñales

Vinales, CubaViñales is a chilled out village of colourful little houses with rocking chairs on the verandahs. It’s surrounded by some of the most impressive scenery in Cuba with bulbous limestone rock formations called mogotes emerging from the tobacco fields and red earth farmland. The landscape is lush and green for a reason as we discovered during our four days of torrential rain which prevented us from doing the hikes, horse rides and motorbike trips to beaches that we’d planned. We still managed to fit in some salsa lessons and enjoy views of the countryside when the sun finally emerged.

Trinidad

Us in Trinidad, CubaUNESCO World Heritage site Trinidad is a picture-perfect Spanish colonial town with cobblestone streets and brightly coloured one storey houses with terracotta roofs which from above reminded me of a tropical Tuscany. It’s also only a short drive from the Caribbean Sea at lovely Playa Ancon.

Stress Free

Initially Cuba takes a bit more planning than other countries (we’ll share our tips in another post) but once we were there travelling around felt stress free. I think this was due to a lack of choice, which may seem like a bad thing but actually made things easier. We booked our first casa online and then followed our host’s suggestions of their friends and family members to stay with in other towns. They booked it for us and our next host would be waiting for us at the bus station—we didn’t have to do any research online or hunt around when we got to a new place, we just went with the flow.

We heard restaurants were mostly awful (and not very vegetarian friendly) so we avoided them and just ate whatever our casas served us for breakfast and dinner—no decisions necessary. Shops are pretty empty and while this was at times annoying—like when we couldn’t find large bottles of water or snacks for a bus trip—the lack of available stuff somehow added to the feeling of ease.

Dinner at our casa particular in Trinidad

Dinner at our casa particular in Trinidad

After Cuba we were looking forward to Mexico City for access to treats but when we arrived in the mega metropolis we were overwhelmed by the traffic, the amount of stuff available, the advertising, and all the choices we had to make. Add in the return to the internet and things instantly felt more stressful. Cuba felt like a dream, a magical land that we couldn’t quite believe we’d just been in. After an initial high of indulging in the city’s pleasures we missed the simplicity of Cuba.

Our time in Cuba wasn’t perfect—the jineteros or hustlers in Havana were annoying, the food got very boring quickly, the rain in Viñales was depressing, and we both got sick for a day (it felt more like a rejection of Cuban food than anything serious), but our highlights made up for it and it’s a country we’d love to return to.

Are you planning your next adventure? See our Travel Resources page for our favourite tools and gear to help you plan the perfect trip. 

Have you been to Cuba? Leave a comment and let us know your highlights.

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28 Comments (4 pingbacks)

  1. Hi guys,
    We are headed to Cuba next April. Can you tell us which casas you stayed at in Trinidad and Vinales?
    Re reading your post has been really helpful so thanks again for all the hard work..
    Best,
    Tracy & Della

    Reply

    • I don’t have the details. Our casa in Havana booked them for us with their friends/relatives. I linked to their place in my planning a trip to Cuba post. Have a great trip!

      Reply

  2. Great info, so thanks, but I’m wondering if anyone’s traveled independently from the U.S., now that there are flights and restrictions have been somewhat relaxed. I’m planning on going in April of 2017, so plenty of time to plan. Thanks in advance for any insights!

    Reply

  3. We spent 9 days in Cuba with a cultural tour. The trip was fantastic but expensive. The food was wonderful and the hotels were excellent. Our trip took place 10 days before President Obama relaxed the rules on visiting Cuba. The people were very friendly and we could visit with anyone we chose. We had guides to explain everything we were seeing. The Chinese buses we traveled in were very comfortable. I was sad to see so many beautiful buidings in disrepair. I don’t think they can be saved.

    Reply

    • Hi Sharon – did you go through a tour company or arrange it yourself ? If you used a tour company please would you let me know which one as we are planning a tour to Cuba

      Reply

  4. Hello everyone:

    My name is Susana, I´m from Cuba (Habana) although now I live in Chile.
    I always read articles or bloggs that speak about my island . Thank you all so much for the comments. The truth is that we as Cubans are proud of our country but we need some lights over our way of living. Many people find it awesome the fact that the city has stopped in time, but as soon as they stay more days they get bored, so imagine us living for years in this ¨era¨ over and over again til the end of life (so dramatic hehe). Anyway, thanks for the interest in my Cuba and sorry for my English. Sheers! “)

    Reply

  5. Great website, thanks for all the info. I am a single, American woman who is traveling to Cuba next week from Jamaica – which by the way is very easy to do from here. Stay tuned……:)

    Reply

  6. Thanks for great information. My husband and I are going to Cuba for the first time in April; just for 9 nights; thinking of 5 in Havana, 3 in Trindidad and one somewhere else. Will book Havana in a Casa particulars & let them book accomodation & transport, hopefully by collectivo taxi. We don’t want to lounge around beaches, walking and people watching & poking around artists studios would be my preference. Any comment appreciated. Also we wish to spend 4 nights near Cancun (including Tulum) & again, don’t want a resort type holiday; any suggestions please?? Kind regards Pam (Australia)

    Reply

  7. Wanted to say thanks for the detailed information! I have been to Cuba a number of times and people often ask me for help so now I’ll direct them to your blog for specifics. My way of travelling is inbetween this and backpacking style. So I stay in casa particulars but for about 15 cuc but it may not have hot running water or a toilet seat, etc. I usually now eat with Cubans in the 1-2 cuc restaurants (but then I’m paying for the Cuban I’m with so that costs me about 2-4 cuc per meal) or rent a place that has a kitchen and go to the markets and so cook more at home. I use the Cuban transport of collectivos and local bus (only if I’m really desperate lol). When I travel across country I use Viazul for the most part unless there is a collectivo taxi going to my next location for about the same price (as this is generally a bit quicker and you don’t have wait until the next bus, etc.).

    However, I know that this is now how the average budget traveller even travels so this is a great resource for folks that aren’t going to an all-inclusive or having a complete tour set up for them. And I got some good information for myself as well.

    I am going for a month in April (2015) so I’m really going to be on a strict budget this time! But then it’s Cuba so it’ll all work out. Like you say it’s a different experience from other Latin American countries or again elsewhere but it does totally slow me down and I forget the hectic pace of life at home and travelling in other countries as I tend to be an avid sightsee’er and come back more tired than when I left!

    Reply

  8. Hi I travelled around Cuba in Dec 2014 on a 15 day tour. it was great! We went to Havana, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Camaguay, Houlgin, Baracoa & Santigo de Cuba. Your reviews are pretty spot on, although I found the casa particulars a bit of hit & miss. Some were great, some had very uncomfortable beds while others had no hot water at all for showers. They are basic but all had clean sheets & towels & huge meals. I felt very safe walking around all the towns except Santiago de Cuba. The hustlers there were not nice & the city had a grungy desperate feel about it. My favorite towns were Trinidad, Camaguey and Baracoa.
    Trinidad is very pretty & has lots of things to do in town & around the area.
    Camaguey is an artesians paradise with great little galleries & speciality craft galleries. There’s a really cool leather artist here who makes fantastic masks & statues.
    Baracoa has some of the best food in Cuba, spectacular views of the bay from a rooftop bar in an old castle & an unusual archeological museum in a cave.
    Internet is scarce but there’s a few hotels in Baracoa where you can sit in the foyer & use their wifi, after you purchase a card from the shop in town. Cost was 4.50CUC per hour.
    Cubans are great friendly people & are mostly up for a chat but i found myself continually putting my hand in my pocket for loose change. Don’t forget to carry plenty of toilet paper. It’s rare to find it when out & the attendant only hands out a few measly squares.
    Nothing happens quickly in Cuba so be prepared to wait … for everything! After my first week i just kept saying “That’s Cuba!” Don’t get me wrong I did love it!
    Go with an open mind, a cheery disposition & expect the unexpected!
    Lisa

    Reply

  9. Hi,

    I am going to Cuba next month. It has been on my bucket list for years! I found your site very informative and I enjoyed looking at your photos.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Clare

    Reply

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