Cuba. The land so far away, both physically and mentally. We had long wanted to visit and had the idea of crossing the entire island by car. From Havana down to the former capital Santiago de Cuba. When we got the opportunity to take 17 days off from work, we decided that the time had come to go and explore the land of cigars, mojitos and revolutionaries.
We had heard a lot about Cuba and its people, culture and history. Mostly good things, but also the more challenging things like; renting a car and actually be sure it is there when you get there. To spare ourselves the troubles, we decided to book a package from home consisting of flights (both to/from Europe and a domestic flight), car rental, visa and the first three nights in Havana. And it worked. We organized the rest of the trip ourselves, having booked some nights from home and reserved other nights for spontaneity.
Upon arrival at the airport we were greeted by a host, handed out our vouchers for hotel, car and domestic flight and taken to the hotel. Knowing that everything takes time in Cuba, it was very comfortable having these things sorted easily after 18 hours on the go.
Casa particular = a private home where the locals rent out two to four rooms for tourist. This is the cheapest and best option for traveling around Cuba as you will get a local feel and the best home cooked food.
Paladar = a private restaurant run by locals at their home. At some paladares you literally eat in their dining room and in others you feel like you’re in a real restaurant. One thing is for sure; the food at a paladar is much better than in a restaurant.
We drove around 1400 kilometres in total, crossing the entire island of Cuba in 17 days.
Havana was the first stop on our trip, hence we came directly from the airport. We had booked a transfer in advance, which functioned well and saved us trouble finding a taxi and negotiating a price.
Where to stay
We stayed at a hotel in La Habana Vieja (the old town), which I would recommend everybody else to do too. The hotel was booked via our agency in advance. It was fine, but nothing special which is why I’m not recommending it.
Where to eat
Café de los Artistas
The best restaurant meals we had in Cuba! We went the twice for lunch. It is a fusion of Cuban, Mexican and Spanish food served in excellent portions to share. Think fajitas, tacos, chickpeas in spicy tomato sauce etc. Beautiful interior, nice terrace and lovely staff.
Location: Calle Aguiar 22
We really only had memorable food at this place, so it’s the only recommendation I can give for Havana.
What to do
Take a guided city tour
Havana has a lot of history and to get the best possible introduction to the city, I recommend booking a guided tour the first morning of your stay. It is a great way to get an overview of the city and see the historic landmarks. And having a guide to ask the hundreds of questions you might have is also priceless.
Have a drink at Hotel Nacional
The Hotel Nacional dates back to 1930 and is the most luxurious hotel in Havana (although it needs renovation). It is enormous and worth visiting when in Havana. Take a walk in the garden, enjoy a mojito at the terrace and imagine how this place shined in the 30’ies and 40’ies when all the jetsetters, politicians and artists of that time gathered here.
Go to the daily market at Plaza de Armas
You will find vintage editions of National Geographic, books, posters and vintage items at the many market stalls at Plaza de Armas in Habana Vieja. It is open daily and it the perfect place to take a stroll during your time in Havana.
Drink mojitos at La Bodeguita
Hemingway’s place to drink mojitos. The place is crowded, but there is a great vibe, live music and it is a must do in Havana. The place is beautifully decorated inside and the waiter pours 10 mojitos at a time!
Impressions of Havana
We left Havana around noon and drove directly to Viñales. It is very recommendable to bring a good road map (we brought the Michelin road map) as the signage is quite limited.
It is a two-hour drive on the main road. Near Viñales, just when you get of the Via Nacional to take the local street to the Viñales Valley, some of the signage has been manipulated to confuse the tourists. On those exact places you will find the so called ”jineteros” who are locals who will try to stop you and get you in the wrong direction to get you to their casa or restaurant, or help you in the right direction in exchange for money. Even though we knew that the crime rate is extremely low (almost non existing) we did not feel very comfortable the first time we met them. Afterwards we got used to it and trusted our road map and never stopped. These guys only hang around the exits at the main roads, so you can just pass them and stop anywhere else and ask for directions.
Where to stay
We stayed at Hotel Los Jazmines and I would recommend anyone else to stay at this place too. The hotel is located on a hill side with the most amazing view over the valley. We woke up in the morning to the sound of the animals from the farms in the valley. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had. The hotel itself isn’t anything special, but it was fine. We had booked the hotel in advance online on a website (Cuba Travel Network). It is recommendable to book in advance as Viñales is one of the most visited places in Cuba. Viñales is the only place in Cuba I would recommend a hotel instead of a casa. Simply for the amazing location.
What to do
Take a guided tour
There are plenty of options for guided tour in Viñales; by car, by foot, by bike or on horseback. As it had been raining a lot prior to our stay, the tours by bike and walking were cancelled. We took the tour by car and were transported in beautiful vintage American cars with the sweetest drivers and a lovely tour guide. We took the classic tour visiting caves, the prehistoric wall, tobacco plantations and the small Viñales village itself. I can by all means recommend doing the same as you can visit the whole valley in a day and still get back to the hotel for an afternoon swim in the pool.
I would say that two nights in Viñales is enough to visit the area. However, if we had had longer time in Cuba I would like to have stayed here a night or two longer visiting more farms and eating at more paladares. It was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the tour.
We passed the Bay of Pigs/Playa Larga on our way from Viñales to Trinidad. Besides from the history of the place, there is not much to do there, so one night in this area is enough. Playa Larga is a small village (formerly a fishing village) turned into a little tourist spot.
We arrived around 2 p.m. and spend the afternoon by the beach and strolling around the village. Next morning we left for Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
We drove directly from Viñales to Playa Larga. It was a five hour drive with a couple of stops to get gas and stretch our legs. We had no troubles finding it.
Where to stay
On recommendation from a tour guide in Viñales we stayed in Casa Yeni which was great. The hosts were extremely friendly and really tried their best to make us comfortable. We had a delicious dinner with fresh fish at the house and a wonderful breakfast next morning.
We payed 35 CUC per double room including breakfast. The dinner was 12 CUC per person.
The host Juan Carlos recommended us to stop by a little bay on our way to Cienfuegos. It was one of the best snorkling experiences we have ever had.
We passed Cienfuegos on our way from Bay of Pigs/Playa Larga to Trinidad. It was a two – three hour drive. We wanted to see the historic centre and parked by the Parque José Martí. From there we could walk around the main square, enjoy a drink and walk down to the harbour passing a long street with market stalls.
We loved to see the city and spend a couple of hours there and would recommend other to do the same, as it is not really worth staying for a night.
Impressions of Cienfuegos
Trinidad is a must see city in Cuba and was one of the highlights of our trip. The city is famous for its old colonial style houses and rocky streets. There is so much to do there, so at least three days is necessary if you want a real feeling of this wonderful city.
From Cienfuegos there is a two hour drive. As it is a major city there is signage everywhere, which makes it easy to navigate to.
Where to stay
We stayed at Casa Jose & Fatima and it was undoubtedly the best casa we stayed in in Cuba. José was warm, friendly, helpful and lovely to talk to. Fatima is a great chef and served some delicious meals.
We could part the car 20 meters from the house, where a neighbour watched the car day and night for 2 CUC per day.
The house is located in the city center, very close to the historic center. If this casa is not available, I would recommend finding another one near the historic center.
Price: 35 CUC per night for a double room including breakfast
Where to eat
At the casa! As simple as that! Like other cities, the best food in Cuba is homecooked. If you however want a change one evening, the restaurant Esquerra is fine. Not wonderful, but it was one of the best restaurant meals we got in Cuba.
What to do
On recommendation from José we went on a daytrip on horseback through the sugar cane plantations to the highland behind Trinidad. We had a stop by a small waterfall where we bathed in a natural pool. It was a mindblowing experience to pass these beautiful surroundings on a horse. My parents in law (58 & 64 years) had never rided a horse before, but thanks to our brilliant guide Jorge, they managed perfectly.
I would strongly recommend to book a tour via a casa particular. These tours are sold on every corner and in the tour offices, but unfortunately we saw many guides who couldn’t control the horses in their group and went with far to many people. Furthermore it was obvious that not all horses we treated properly.
Price: 20 CUC per person excluding lunch
Playa Ancón is the best beach on the southern part on the island. It’s not a brilliant white sand beach, but it is nice for a day of relax. In front of the hotels, you will find sunbeds for rent (2 CUC per day).
The city centre
The city of Trinidad invites to walk around the rocky streets and explore for hours. We found a local tobacco factory where they let us in, paying 2 CUC per person.
Well, not a really a thing to do, but Trinidad was actually the first place we managed to get online. On the main square at Calle José Martí there is WiFi and it is obvious that this is the place get online. Tourists and locals are seated side by side with phones, tablets and laptops. There is a nice atmosphere of travelers planning their trip and locals communicating by Skype. Read more about how to use the Cuban WiFi below.
The beaches on the north coast of Cuba (the Atlantic) are much more beautiful than the ones on the south (the Caribbean). White sands and clear water dominate here.
I believe that Varadero and Cayo Coco are more beautiful than Santa Lucia, but as we didn´t take this trip for the beached, we took what worked best with our itinerary.
Where to stay
There are various All Inclusive ressorts along the beach. We stayed at Gran Club Santa Lucia. As everything else in Cuba, the hotel needs some renovation, but it was fine.
The fod though was not very good, but like I´ve mentioned before, that´s very general for restaurants in Cuba.
There was a nice pool area and the beach was great. As the main purpose with our three days here was to chill by the pool or the beach, the place worked for us.
How to book
Do not book a hotel like this online in advance. We booked at a local tourist office in Trinidad and only payed 86 CUC per night for two persons including All Inclusive (incl. Cocktails). It was about 40% off the price we had seen online.
We drove from Santa Lucia to Santiago in eight hours. On recommendation from a lovely tour guide at the hotel in Santa Lucia we made two stops along the way:
1. Bayamo. The second city constructed by the Spaniards in Cuba (the first was Baracoa). We took an hour to explore the historic center.
2. El Sanctuario del Cobre. It is a beautiful church set on a hill surrounded by mountains. It is more or les son the way, so the half hour extra it took us to see it, was definitely worth it.
Where to stay
You should definitely stay in a casa in Santiago de Cuba. The city is the cultural heart of Cuba and you should experience it first hand. We stayed in Casa Teresa in the city center and can by all means recommend it. She has two rooms for rent, one small with windows to the courtyard and one much larger room with kitchen located on the first floor. Teresa is a lovely Cuban mama, who welcomed us warmly and cooked a wonderful meal for us on the second night. We paid 28 CUC per night inclusing breakfast. As no one in Santa Lucia could recommend us a place to stay in Santiago, we simply drove there and asked for a good casa at the local tourist office. They made a few calls, wrote a voucher and directed us there.
Dinner was 8 CUC per person excluding beverages.
Where to eat
Paladar Boulevard Centre
Lovely place overlooking a lively square. The food is delicious and the service very good. They offer a selection of Spanish wines, which is nice for a change.
Location: Plaza Delores. 1st floor.
What to do
Take a guided tour of the city
As Santiago is the former capital and has a lot of history we decided to book a guided tour of the city. We boked a private walking tour for the four of us at the Cubatur office at the central square (same place we booked the casa) and were designated a very kind and professional guide: Esquisita.
The tour was to take two hours, but we ended up stopping for icecreams and lunch (we invited our guide). We spend around four and a half hour in total.
Price: The price for the tour was 30 CUC in total. On top of that we paid her lunch and gave her 10 CUC in tips.
Try an authentic barber shop
My husband had long wished to get a real shave at a local barber shop. Santiago was the perfect place to get the shave.
Price: 3 CUC for a complete treatment (shaving, nosehairs, eyebrows, massage).
Watch the sunset from the harbour
Walk down to the harbour, have a seat slong the long bench and watch the sun set over the Sierra Maestra mountains. Breathtaking.
At Casa de la Trova they have live music and professional dancers every night. They serve delicious mojitos and the balcony is the perfect spot to enjoy a drink along with a cuban cigar while listening to the tunes of cuban music.
Price: 5 CUC per person
We turned back the car in Santiago airport and took a domestic flight back to Havana, where we had 24 hours before flying back to Denmark.
Impressions of Santiago de Cuba
Preparing the budget
Havana is quite pricey. We had booked the first three night at a hotel in advance. It was part of a package, so I cannot tell the exact price.
Drinks in Havana are around 5 CUC. Meals vary from 10 – 20 CUC for a main dish. Most places a filet of fish or meat was 17 CUC. It might not sound expensive, but compared to the quality it was. We found Viñales to be more or less the same.
Down in Trinidad you can almost cut half the price. A drink is arond 2,5 CUC and a main dish between 5 – 12 CUC. East of Trinidad the prices keep low.
We ended up driving around 1400 km and spending 153 CUC on gas.
Nice to know
The price of cigars is controlled by the government, so the prices are fixed in all shops. However, you can come across a local who will be willing to sell you a box of cigars… the locals can buy cigars at reduced prices twice a month (the prices are extremely high so without this discount no local could buy). Often they will resell it to tourist to earn a little money.
There are two currencies in Cuba. The CUC, which is for turists, and the Cuban Pesos, which is for locals. In Havana, Viñales and Trinidad all prices are in CUC as these places a very turistic. However, in Santiago most prices are displayed in Cuban Pesos, but you can always pay in CUC.
You can not change to CUC before getting into Cuba. The best currency to exchange from is Euro. So bring a lot of Euro and change along the way in the airports, banks and casas de cambio. Remember to bring passport every time you are changing currency. As the ATMs are not always functioning, it is recommendable to bring a lot of cash from home. You can not pay with credit card anywhere (only at some tour offices).
Getting online in Cuba is not the easiest, but not impossible either. There are squares and hotels with WiFi, but in every place you will need to buy a special log-in card to get online. The cards cost two CUC each and hold one hour of internet access. The cards are sold in the ETECSA offices or at hotels, but are often out of stock (during our first week we didn’t manage to get a card). You can be lucky to find someone selling them on the streets at a slightly higher price (we paid three CUC on the street in Santiago).
Cuba is very safe. The penalty for committing a crime toward a tourist is very harsh, so no one does it. We felt safe all the way except for the “jineteros” in the beginning (read the piece about “getting to Viñales”), but we got used to them.
Driving in Cuba
It is easy to drive in Cuba, except in Havana, which is very busy. There are not much traffic and we often had the roads to ourselves. However, you will have to be extremely cautious when driving, as there are many (like MANY) holes in the roads and if you’re not careful they could be the reason to some unpleasant damages to the car. Another thing to be cautious about, are the many animals (cows, horses, goats) crossing the roads. They are not afraid of cars, so you better slow down when you see them.
The landscape is extraordinary beautiful and a road trip gives the total freedom to stop and explore along the way. Some of the best experiences during our road trip, were along the way.
Enjoy your trip to Cuba!