Easily one of my favourite destinations yet, travelling to Cuba was an experience of a lifetime. Tourism has now started booming, so the sooner you can get there the better before it changes too much. I decided to stay in Cuba for 14 days. I wanted as much time as possible to soak up the culture. This meant 4 days with friends, 7 days on a group tour and 3 days surviving by myself (more on that later).
My itinerary for Cuba included Havana, Viñales, Bay of Pigs, Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
First things first, how do I get a visa you ask?
You’ve probably read all kinds of conflicting messages on the internet already. I know I did and it totally freaked me out. Well I’m here to break the good news to you, it’s really simple. There’s two ways to do this:
- Fly to Cuba out of a gateway country, such as Mexico. There is no ban to travel to Cuba from Mexico and visas are about $20 – a hell of a lot cheaper than flying out of USA. However if you’re flying over from NZ or Australia like I was, you’ll be flying into LA and the cost to get to Mexico first (if you don’t want to spend anytime in there) doesn’t really justify the trip. so here’s option 2:
- Flying out of USA. Yep, tourism is not a legit reason to travel to Cuba if you’re departing from the US, they won’t let you board your flight. The loop hole is, you can travel there for ‘People to People Exchanges’ this is category 5. It basically means you are going there to learn about the culture and get involved with the locals. So when your US airline calls and asks why you are going to Cuba, that’s your answer. In terms of Visas, you can only purchase this at the gate before you board your flight. The cost varies between airlines, I flew America Airlines and it was USD$100 which I believe is the max cost. Handover the credit card to the guy at the booth and he’ll hand you back a travel visa for Cuba. Whatever you do, don’t lose it! There are two sides to fill out, one for entry into Cuba and one for departing Cuba.
My first stop was Havana, I spent 7 days here which I can definitely say is more than enough. If you’re on a tight timeline, 4 days would be sufficient to see most things. Here’s a list of things I did and loved:
- Take a ride in an 1950s convertible car. They’re a little more expensive than a regular taxi, expect to pay $30CUC for a 20min ride.
- Fábrica de Arte Cubano – the coolest evening activity. It’s an old factory converted into s contemporary cultural centre with each room offering something unqiue such as films, concerts & art exhibitions. The food is also amazing and it’s the only place I found that serves 1L mojitos! Only 2CUC to get in. They give you a stamp card so you just pay at the very end for whatever drinks/ food you brought – such a great system. Get there early because it packs out and there’s a line around the street to get in.
- El Floridita – the bar where Hemingway drank his daiquiris. A vibrant, buzzing atmosphere with live music. If you’re on a budget, daiquiris are $7CUC here ($3-4CUC everywhere else).
- La Bodeguita del Medio – where Hemingway drank his mojitos. As expected mojitos are more experience here. It’s a nice to see but not a relaxed place to hangout.
- Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market – An indoor market definitely worth exploring. There’s all kinds of art to purchase plus you can buy internet cards and exchange money here.
- Plaza Vieja – a beautiful old square with stunning buildings and the best coffee in Havana at Café Escorial and my absolute favourite place to get good food at a good price – La Vitrola (the ropa vieja is amazing). I also recommend Azucar Lounge for cocktails in the evening. It’s a modern bar with live music most nights. The cocktails are delicious and very generously sized. (Whatever you do, avoid a place called Factory in the plaza, its the yellow building on the end. The rum is watered down, worst mojitos we had).
- San Cristóbal Paladar – this is the restaurant where President Obama dined at on his visit to Cuba, so naturally I wanted to go. It did not disappoint! I had my birthday dinner here and the waiters spoiled me like crazy. The owner also walks around and chats to his guest. The absolute best service I’ve ever had. The food was also delicious and the restaurant itself is a piece of art with old pictures and 50s memorabilia on the walls.
- La Esencia – an awesome bar to go dancing at where a lot of locals hangout. It looks like an old house converted into a bar, I loved the vibe. A great place to go out and have a crazy night. Don’t go earlier than 11pm though, it doesn’t get busy till late. Up & Down bar is also close by and was recommended by my tour guide, although I never managed to get there.
- Obispo street – A vibrant street with a lot going on. This is where the one and only telecommunications store is if you want to purchase internet cards (1.50CUC each, buy like 5 at a time). Be prepared to wait in line for 30-1 hour. It’s a real 1950s experience!
- La Concordia – an awesome place to go for rooftop drinks/ food.
- JP Bar & Tapas – awesome food – get an espresso martini it’s the best!
- Hire a bike and ride around about $10cuc for a day
- Iglesia del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus – a church that turns into an awesome bar at night with live music. Definitely check this out.
- Cueva del Indio (Cave tour) – 5CUC- it’s pretty cool but we were told there’s normally a massive line (lucky this wasn’t the case for us). I personally wouldn’t bother waiting if there’s a huge line, while it’s cool to see I wouldn’t rate it high enough to wait an hour for.
- Mural de la Prehistoria – Again cool to see, but if you want to go get close to it, it does cost money. It’s better looked at from a distance anyway.
I can’t really tell you too much about Cienfuegos as I was only here one night. There’s some nice sightseeing to do but not a whole lot going on. I don’t recommend staying here any longer than 2 nights.
- Best place to eat: San Jose – get in early, this place gets jam packed! I had the best Ropa Vieja of my whole trip here (FYI I ate a lot of Ropa’s).
- Cafe Don Pepe – the best coffee in Trinidad
- Rave in a Cave – 5CUC entry fee, this place is awesome for a party night.
- Playa Ancon – jump in a cab (its about 10-15 mins drive 8CUC each way) and spend the day at this pristine beach. You won’t regret it. Complete with drink and food service, you never need to leave your lounger. It’s about 5CUC per sun bed for the full day.
- Horse Trek to the sugar valley (Valley de los Ingenios ) – a wonderful way to see the old sugar farms with little stop offs along the way. More on my horse trek below. If you don’t like horses, you can easily get a taxi there.
Trinidad Travels Horse Trek
The cost was about AUD$80 but well worth it. The horse was in good condition, well trained and everything was included in the price. I also went on a Monday and I was the only rider so got a private tour and time to talk to the owner Reinier – who speaks very good English. He timed everything perfectly so I was the first person at each stop and got to enjoy it without crowds of tourists. The trek is also rated 5 starts on TripAdvisor.
Stop 1: Sugar Cane Drink > Stop 2: Fresh coffee & a cigar > Stop 3: Swim in the fresh water hole > Stop 4: Lunch
Things to know before travelling to Cuba
Cash is king
I never came across an establishment that accepts card for payment, so be sure to take enough cash to last you the trip. Not including accommodation, $70CUC per day would be sufficient to have a good time on. Standard cocktails such as mojitos and cuba libres are $3CUC each, a standard meal is about $8-10CUC.
I exchanged USD$800 at the Havana airport and got approx 697CUC back. There was a 10% surcharge for exchanging USD but despite what I read, it was not 1USD = 1CUC but slightly under coming in at 0.96850CUC for every 1USD.
You might get short changed
This only happened to me twice. The first time they tried to give me their local peso back which is worth less than CUC. Know what the CUC currency looks like and always check your change. They will just act dumb but will give you CUC back if you call them out on it.
I’m no fan of paper maps, so thank goddess for Maps.me
This is almost like google maps, it allows you to use your phone’s GPS to show your location, search places and drop pins. Just make sure you download it and the Cuba country map before you get to Cuba.
Exchange all your money in one go
Seriously, the best thing I did. People on my tour lined up at the bank for 2 hours. F**K that! Try work out how much cash you will need and get it all out at the airport. You can always exchange your CUC back upon departure, but try save precious holiday time and avoid going to a bank.
Be extra prepared with travel documents
Print everything out. The effort to get wifi is a fairly big one, so have a list of places with their address that you want to see. If you are wanting to dine at upmarket places, you generally need a reservation. Take a list with phone numbers and addresses and have your Casa family call the day before to make you a booking.
Learn some Spanish
Most of the older generation don’t speak English. It’s good to know the basics and download an app that doesn’t need internet to work such as a Spanish dictionary – this came in handy for looking up menu items. Most waiters in restaurants do speak English, the hard part was communicating with my Casa family. I did stay at one English speaking Casa called Villa Azul in Old Havana. Greisy and Michel were wonderful hosts and spoke perfect English.
I felt perfectly safe in Cuba. However the Cuban men are very flirtatious, I was getting called ‘beautiful lady’ almost every 2 minutes, even worse when walking along. Travelling alone if you’re a guy would be ok, but for ladies, I don’t recommend it. The last 3 days I was alone were not particularly great and I was rather annoyed and ready to leave by the end having been constantly hassled. If you are alone, a group tour is a good option and I highly recommend experiencecuba.com they were super helpful, I had the best tour guide and they even tailored my trip so I could spend extra time in Trinidad.
Phew, that’s all the important stuff from memory. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them for you.