(10 minute read)
I’d never dreamed of visiting Cuba until people told me to “get there quick before the Americans wreck it!”
Sound familiar? Read on to hear my Cuba travel tips for first time travellers and benefit from my at times painful research and experiences. You’re welcome!
Jumping to the top of places to see, we figured Cuba would be a great start to our adventure travelling the long way round to Australia from London. A two week holiday sightseeing and mojitoing sounded like the perfect remedy to start welcoming fresh thoughts and ideas.
The travel planning began. And went on. And went on.
So off I went on my merry way researching only to find that this ‘place stuck in time’ was even harder to get a grip on than rumours suggested. Conflicting information, old information, no information, the same basic information. I dreamed of cycling across the country. But after weeks searching for how to rent bicycles, what roads had fewer potholes and how to store our backpacks, that dream soon fizzled out to a planned day trip. And in all honestly, that day was a disaster as a two hour ride turned into a whole day chasing a waterfall and ending in chaffing.
We’ve been asked loads about our time in Cuba, and while we don’t intend to publish ‘just another travel blog’ I thought sharing some reflections and tips could be helpful for future first time travellers. Because while it was a ballache to organise, it really was amazing to see this beautiful, friendly and challenging country… before the Americans wreck it.
If you have any further questions or comments, I’d love to hear them below.
The Route. Havana – Vinales – Trinidad – Havana.
Our flight from London to Havana came way too fast. With only one week between finishing our jobs and flying out, it was a flurry of long days and late nights to pack up our London lives, pump our arms full of travel jabs, find the right travel insurance (apparently I’m a resident of nowhere) and many other shitty tasks. Being the second time I’ve moved country you’d think I’d learn to leave more time… but nah! It was a race to the finish line and Cuba’s sketchy internet access meant a forced break for the both of us. Pens down. What got done did, and what didn’t, didn’t.
From the moment we arrived at Havana airport we were dazzled by the blazing sun. My eyes re-adjusted from London’s grey as I gazed around at the swarms of classic American cars waiting to collect tourists dressed in white chinos and fedoras. I guess we missed that memo! Stu and I split up. He headed straight to the Cadeca (the bank/currency exchange) while I winded through the maze of taxi drivers holding signs looking for our casa’s name.
Let’s throw in the first tips here. Money and accommodation.
Don’t depend on using your credit card, ever. I recommend getting as much cash as you think you need plus extra at the airport. We needed to top up twice and it took… forever! In Trinidad we waited over four hours at two different banks in queues that rarely moved. Aka undefined crowds of people that grew from the front instead of the back. We counted over 30 people waiting to five supervisors (chatting, eating) and one cashier that served at an average of 12-15 minutes per person as he wrote out every note number manually on a scrap piece of paper.
I won’t go on, but needless to say this was my least favourite day, and I recommend to get your money at the shortest line. Oddly for us in Cuba, as the opposite recommendation of every other country I’ve visited, this was at the airport.
Money in hand, cabbie located, we waited excitedly to see what classic car we’d be riding in as promised by our Airbnb* host. Only for this delightful jalopy to come round the corner of the carpark…
Above: Russian Lada. Not classic American car.
And there we have it. The first of many unexpected but let’s call it interesting experiences where we learned that in Cuba, you just have to go with it.
*Note that we booked all our accommodation on Airbnb as it was easier to use than the local Casa Particular websites. The reviews also helped us navigate endless options with almost every home on every street available to stay. While completely overwhelming, this is actually a great thing as we later learned it’s one of the only ways for locals to make a little extra on the side. It also means they go out of their way to provide you with a great stay. Moral of the story: stay in casas not in hotels.
Our first and final destination Havana was as awesome as anticipated. The colourful but crumbling architecture and smokey classic cars had my half-day beginners photography skills snapping at every turn. We stayed in Central Havana first, which despite reviews that it was rough was actually our favourite place to get a feel for local life. Our second casa was in the Vedado district and while reviewed as the ‘cooler, younger’ spot to hang out at night, I found it fairly bland in terms of scenery, restaurants and bars, with exceptions of the famous Coppelia and Fabrica de Artes below.
OK so let’s cut to the chase. Here’s a list of my favourite must do’s in Havana:
1. Watching classic cars cruise along the Malecon
An obvious one, but it’s honestly where you get the best views of the classic cars cruising by one after another. It’s also where you’ll drive if you pay for a classic car city tour. Unfortunately/fortunately, it’s totally worth the 40 CUC per vehicle (1 CUC = 1 USD) for a one hour tour. Choose a convertible for the best ‘wind in my hair’ selfie action. Just rock up at Parque Central and pick your ride!
2. Art, food and architecture along Muralla Street
To the south of the main action in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) there’s a street which has a few art galleries, cafes and derelict buildings taken over by nature that present a welcome break from the more touristy streets. We bought a canvas painting here (possibly by a local artist…?) for 20 CUC that cost us about the same to ship it to Australia!
3. Cheese pizza from a side-street vendor
Soon into our holiday we discovered that snacks are not really a big thing in Cuba. Options consist of cheese and ham pizzas or cheese and ham sandwiches. And many times there was no ham, so it was just cheese. Anyway, if you’re on a budget like we were, the street vendors in local neighbourhoods are the best places to eat. The cheapest we found was 25 CUP vs 10+ CUC you’ll pay in a restaurant.
4. Coppelia Ice Creamery. Bring CUP for the local experience
I’d read online about the famous state-run Coppelia, and true to the word, there were several lines of a hundred or so local cubans waiting patiently to enter the huge spaceship-like complex. The first time we visited we were ushered to the tourist area, a separate lonely structure and so we left. A few days later we saw a backpacker walk in past security. Yep, there are guards supervising the ice-cream! We followed only to again be advised to go to the tourist area as we don’t have CUP, the local’s currency, Cuban Peso.
Well my friends… we did have some CUP! And so they had no choice but to let us in. Insert evil laugh here. It was fascinating to see young people, old people, families, students and people on their own slicing away at their ice-cream with so much joy. The five scoop sundae is the regular order. Being out of place we got some odd looks. I think it was a blend of us sharing only four scoops between two people and wearing flip flops in winter despite 30 degree days.
5. Coffee at your casa and banana chips
Cuba has amazing coffee. The best you’ll find is at your casa served alongside fresh fruit and eggs for breakfast. Avoid any hotel’s brew. Finally, we’ll forever hold a special place in our hearts for banana chips/crisps. Who knew you could fry fruit? Delicious!
6. Fabrica de Artes
A late night art gallery that’s actually fun. Where your booze comes dangerously close to the artwork, performance artists dance around you and there’s some kind of queue mafia out front you can pay to skip the line aka just push you in-front of people.
A quick mention to the other places we visited.
Our favourite. The rich red dirt and green tobacco fields are picture perfect. We chose to do a walking tour over the horse trail as it was cheaper and you get to see more of the countryside. Oh, and I’m allergic to most dusty animals!
We stayed off the main street in a casa heading towards the national park. About ten minutes walk into the park, there’s a cute little mojito bar where we slurped down icy cocktails and pondered whether ‘Banjito’ was the name of the below animal in Spanish or just this guy’s personal pet.
We ate the best food, quantity and quality, for the cheapest in Vinales. One night we found a cute casa that had converted their porch into restaurant. As we listened away to a local busker, we were brought plates upon plates of delicious Cuban food. We actually had to call over the waitress to check we’d ordered the 6 CUC pp menu. We thought you chose one starter, one main and one dessert. But it turned out you actually get the whole menu! So if you’ve got the time to see more of Cuba than Havana I’d highly recommend Vinales for spectacular sunsets and a slice of Cuban country life.
Trinidad was our least favourite mostly because it was harder to find the local scene. All restaurants were packed with tourists and were quite expensive. I think it’s important to note that Cuba is generally challenging for travellers who want to see ‘the real Cuba’. There are places for locals and places for tourists and it’s not often they organically mix.
One thing that stood out to me more in Trinidad was the creativeness of young people setting up their own cafes and bars. Two super cool finds was Cafe El Mago with walls covered in artwork and scribbles, and Don Pepe that served around a hundred types of coffee mixed with alcohol.
All in all, we loved our time in Cuba. But I can only say this now as I reflect. While we were there it was pretty challenging at times. I got food poisoning, we wasted loads of time working out transport, I felt actual hunger for the first time and we left understanding why people opt for an easy resort holiday.
However, it was all totally worth it!
What I loved most was the chats about the hardships and joys of Cuban life with our casa owners.
Especially as we entered the USA, people asked what it was like to visit a ‘third world’ country. I didn’t experience a country of hardship and sacrifice by not being connected to the largest consumer spending nation on earth. I found a slightly different way of life and one that brings a new way of thinking and doing things that perhaps we ‘developed nations’ could even learn from.
If you’re interested to hear more, check out my next blog post on our first volunteer organic farming experience in Cuba and an insightful discussion with the local Cuban farmer.