Cuba, the country of cigars, music, and rum, is a spectacular land of both tradition and change. It’s got its name from the Aboriginal word ‘coabana’ meaning ‘great place’. And this colorful, iconic Republic is indeed a great place. Visit Cuba, a country geographically just south of Florida (USA), but a major part of culturally prominent Latin-American group of islands. Discover a special and diverse traveler’s haven where music, sport, and gastronomy are at home.
Start your journey in the vibrant capital city, Havana. The place is changing fast, so take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience a city halted in time in certain respects, but speedily racing into the future in others. Classic American cars are inching through potholed streets, while music and flavor ooze out from bright-colored houses with the continuous rhythm of construction work in the background. Use the day of your arrival to gently let the city open up to you. Have a meal on one of the terraces serving local food, then walk along the malecón. The main sights can wait for the second day when you are more rested and ready to take in the history of the place.
Visit El Capitolio (the Capitol), the Havana Cathedral, the Castillo de Real Fuerza (the Castle of the Royal Force) and Granma Yacht. Do not plan too much for one day, instead, stop anytime you see a beautiful plaza (square), get a snack from the many street vendors offering their delicious merchandise and simply take the place in. Make sure to visit one of the tobacco factories, as Cuba is world-famous for its quality cigars. Note that some may require tickets bought in advance at certain hotels instead of selling them at the entrance.
At the end of the day, or even better if on the third day of your stay in Havana, go to a close by beach. Hop in a taxi and relax on Playa del Este, for example. Enjoy the sugar-white beach and let your muscles relax in preparation for the next part of your journey.
Things to see and do in Cuba
Cienfuegos is a lovely coastal town 250 km (160 miles) from the capital city. Plan one or two days there. Chill out from the many sights you have seen so far and simply walk around the picturesque town square. Rest in a bar (I recommend Punta Gorda) for a drink and enjoy any music or dance performance that might be going on. Then stroll to the Sculpture Garden to admire the local artwork. Rest with the sight of the coming and departing boats in the lagoon.
Also called the cultural capital of Cuba, this historical place is the home of many museums. Whether it is Cuartel Moncada (Moncada Barracks), Museo de Ambiente Histórico Cubano, Museo de Lucha Clandestina, or Museo Municipal Emilio Bacardí Moreau, you cannot go wrong. All of these places preserve and are ready to show you a few pages of Cuban history. Choose based on your major spheres of interest and immerse yourself in the past.
Following this, air your thoughts in the psychedelic-colored Jardín de Los Helenchos or the Cemetery Santa Ifigenia, the final resting place of Fidel Castro.
And Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro (San Pedro Fort) is a must with its cannon firing ceremony when actors dress up in Mambises regalia to entertain you.
This tropical paradise is the ideal location to indulge yourself with the sight and experience of pristine white sands and calm, turquoise water.
Leaving history and the colonial architecture of the previous cities behind, enjoy a new wave of art galleries and handicraft markets. Sit in one of the many cabarets, bars, and cafés or pop in a cigar and rum shop for souvenirs.
If you are searching for nightlife, Varadero will be the favorite stop of your journey, but make sure you have first tried a couple of water sports before spending your energies on dancing the night away.
Whichever city you visit, go to a tobacco factory. Experience the production of world-class cigars, and although I myself am not a smoker, a few puffs are a must during one’s stay in Cuba.
Take in the music
Whether it is street musicians you see on quaint plazas, or background bands providing the atmosphere for your meal, stop and enjoy the art of the country that is one of the greatest contributors to the history of music. It might go to be a Grammy-winning musician who is actually playing for you.
Taste the rum
At the end of a most exhausting sightseeing day crash in a local bar and order a rum right from the source. After all, Cuba is the country which gave this glorious drink to the world.
Dive into nightlife
Stay up one night on the Havanese malecón (boardwalk) to mix with the locals: street vendors, musicians, teenagers, lovers and the sea will keep you company.
Bravely sample street food
Do sit in traditional local restaurants for siestas and restful dinners, but whenever you need some quick ammunition, snack up in the Cuban streets. Your taste buds will appreciate.
Do not get confused by the dual monetary system in Cuba. Everything is fairly cheap and if you only deal in one of the legal currencies or keep the two separately, you will be fine.
CUC is the Cuban Convertible Peso. 1 CUC = 1 USD, however, you are better off taking Euros, Canadian Dollars or British Pounds with you, because there is a 10% fine on exchanging American Dollars.
The second legal currency is the CUP (Cuban Peso), which is around 26 CUC. You can pay with this in local shops, old taxis, and many other places.
Cuba is a country of growing economy, shaping up and opening its gates wide to tourism. Lots of renovation and construction is going on on beaches, in cities, and in private citizen’s houses.
If you are a budget-mindful globetrotter, I would recommend that you look for a local house that rents out rooms (they are called ‘casas particulars’). These houses offer breakfast and dinner, and the price is up for a bargain. Hosts are usually charging per room, not per person, which is a good deal for couples or buddies traveling together. Prices usually range from 25 to 60 CUC, with 35 CUC being the mean price for Havana. Breakfasts range from 3-4 CUC and dinner from 7-10 CUC.
New and chic hotels abound, especially in Havana, so go for those if you love luxury and are ready to pay for it. In Havana, most of the best hotels are around Old Havana and Vedado. The best of them, like recently renovated Hotel Capri, will cost 300 CUC in high season. Yet, it’s possible to find decent 2-3 star hotels for 50 CUC. Hostels are a good way to meet other travelers like you but will keep you from being in touch with local Cubans, in my experience.
Cuba is not world-famous for its culinary pleasures, but I am telling you: be prepared to be surprised by an array of delicious meals. Whether you order your food in the ‘casa’ you are accommodated in, eat out at a fancy restaurant or pick up food from the street vendors, you will definitely find many favorites amongst Cuban meals.
Food is not served in courses, as some of us might be used to, but everything ordered is brought out at the same time. There is a lot of beans and rice being served with Cuban traditional meals, and dishes almost always include plantains and tropical fruit. Then some sort of appetizingly-prepared meat (such as shredded beef or pork) can be ordered for the main course. Casas Particulares or locally owned restaurants (paladars) offer more wallet-friendly options than restaurants. In the latter it is significantly more expensive to dine: an average dinner, with soup, main dish, dessert and a glass of wine will easily cost 20-30 CUC. For an unforgettable experience, you can visit Rio Mar in Havana, to enjoy its artsy vibe and waterfront location. Dinner for two is available from 75 CUC. Some of the other notable restaurants in Havana are restaurant La Guarida on the fine dining side and Restaurant Van Van on the budget side.
The best and fastest way to travel everywhere in Cuba is by taxi. Pick one of the many drivers offering a ride around town or outside of the city and agree on the fare beforehand. Public transportation might take you everywhere in the cities as well, but can be a little bit sluggish and unpredictable. As for the long-distance coaches, it might happen that there is one bus per hour taking tourists at their chosen sights. So, when in Cuba, hop in a taxi and enjoy the ride!