Cuba is music. It runs through their veins, down their streets, into the squares and bars and colourful houses. La Habana is so alive that you can’t help but feel its energy. I loved it immediately. It was everything I’d hoped Cuba to be: seemingly frozen in the 1950’s, with people dancing in the street, run down yet full of colour and where poverty is not something to whine about but is forgotten by smiling, spending time outside with friends and family and drinking plenty of rum.
The people are friendly, happy and genuinely hilarious. Most of them have never left the island and will never be able to since getting a passport has been made extremely complicated, hence they love talking to tourists because as one man said to us: “that is how we travel, by speaking to you and hearing of your journeys around the world”.
In this post I want to list the logistical side of things: where to go, budget, accommodation, etc, but the next ones will focus on the cities themselves and be a lot more about what we saw, ate, felt, etc. 🙂
1 WEEK IN CUBA – ITINERARY
Unfortunately none of us could take much time off work as we’d already used up most of our holiday for the year, so we took a full week (5 days) and added 2 weekends either side. Counting the fact that 2 of those days went in travel cos to save money we do stupid things like take cheap flights that stop-over in Colombia for 6 hours.. we were left with 7 days to visit Cuba.
After collecting all my friends’ recommendations, this is what we did:
Havana – Viñales – Trinidad – Cayo Coco (I’d advise against it) – Havana
HOW TO GET AROUND (TRANSPORT):
As you can see from the map above, this meant A LOT of car time. To be fair you could fly to a few places, however internal flights aren’t cheap, and when you add time of getting to the airport, having to arrive in advance, the flight and then getting from airport to destination, you don’t realistically save much time.
Since there were 4 of us, we found that the best way to move around (albeit not the cheapest) was by taking taxis. One thing you will notice in Cuba is that the prices of certain things just make no sense – for example, you can have dinner for 3 CUC ($3) but then the taxi journey from Havana to Viñales is 25 CUC each, meaning $100. We found taxis to be pretty expensive compared to everything else, especially knowing what locals earn, however if you compare it to Europe, we were effectively sometimes in a taxi for 7 hours straight and never paid more than 45 CUC each. What taxis allowed us was full flexibility of when to leave, which buses or taxis compartidos (shared taxis) did not. To avoid wasting a whole day in the car we would get picked up at 6AM and get going to be in our next destination by lunch time, so it was totally worth paying a little more, especially considering buses were slightly cheaper and had fixed hours.
We discovered transport is so expensive in Cuba because everything is owned by the government: petrol is state owned and expensive, cars are bought by the government too and rented out to people for $700-800 a month which is massive for the locals.
Time & prices per person for 4 people in a taxi:
- Havana – Viñales: 2.5 hours, $25 each ($100 total)
- Viñales – Trinidad: 7 hours, $45 each ($180 total)
- Trinidad – Cayo Coco: $22.50 each ($90 total)
- Cayo Coco – Havana: 6/7 hours, $35 each ($140 total)
In La Habana a must do is a tour in one of the old Chevvys or Ladas that they have over there. They are absolutely beautiful and albeit overpriced, is worth the experience. These cars are absolutely everywhere, but they congregate around the Central Park area.
There are 2 currencies in Cuba: the CUP (Cuban Peso) and the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). Locals trade in CUPs while us tourists trade in CUCs which are equivalent to US dollars. There are 25 CUP to 1 CUC, so as you can imagine, they found a way to milk tourism by instating this second currency. We pay 5-10 CUC for a meal (although we ended up going true local and found stuff for 3-4 CUC) whilst locals may be paying only around 25-30 CUP.. you do the math!
My advice is to change some of your money as you land and the rest in the centre of Havana as you can get a better rate. Don’t change it elsewhere (i.e. Trinidad) as it’s a massive rip off!! You need cash in Cuba, barely anywhere takes card and you may as well leave your Amex at home!
One of the coolest things about Cuba is that there aren’t really any hostels and the few hotels there are, are expensive and not great. The place to stay is in casas particulares, which literally means staying in people’s houses. We were only paying between 25-35 CUC a night for 4 people so its extremely cheap! Also, for a few extra dollars the families will offer to cook you breakfast (omelette, fruit, juice & coffee) or even dinner.
Cuba is a strange place, where doctors who earn in local currency, only earn an equivalent of $20-30 a month, whilst taxi drivers and people who work in the tourism industry, and hence earn in CUCs (dollars) can earn more than we do in a month. One of our taxi drivers who also sold goods that his brother brought him from abroad told us he makes around $3K a month! Only in Cuba are taxi drivers the kinds of the nation and doctors almost starving.. these are just some of the bewildering things we discovered.
Staying with local families is great because you truly get to appreciate their culture. Of course speaking the language helps a lot, because we could ask them a million questions, they’d tell us stories and have a laugh. As soon as they hear you speaking Spanish they get very excited and looove to talk! So that added a whole wonderful dimension to our trip as we could delve even deeper into Cuban culture and way of thinking, from asking them whether they were ‘Fidelistas’ (Fidel Castro supporters) and why, to learning that basic things like onions and bottled water were often hard to come by.
Based on a week of travel, excluding flights of course, we only spent around £400 (just over 500 CUC)! Wayyy under our budget so very happy with ourselves! This was doing all the activities & tours that we wanted to do, eating out all the time (no fancy stuff, more local) and staying always in casas particulares except for the 1 night in an all inclusive resort in Cayo Coco which was 60 euros.
Also, I’d definitely cut out Cayo Coco from the itinerary. It was what had maybe been hyped up the most in terms of the beaches and by far the biggest let down of the trip: all the beaches in the Cayos up North have been colonised by all inclusive 4 & 5 star resorts, so the only way to access these ‘paradise beaches’ is by staying at one of them. Even though this was not really what we had in mind when visiting Cuba, we thought why not treat ourselves for a night! Naively I imagined an amazing 4 start hotel where we’d be left in peace to enjoy the tranquility and beauty of the area…BUT NO! It’s your typical all inclusive resort where you get a plastic hospital-like wristband strapped onto your wrist, have loud music blasting all day long, together with ‘entertainers’ using microphones and trying to get you to dance La Macarena. Add to that the obese Canadian/American tourists who got wasted all day carrying huge thermoses and did not even bother to visit the rest of the island, as well as the super strong winds and hence rough sea (not what we had seen in pictures) it was definitely not the place for us. But hey, we had to try it to know!
Check my next posts for a deep-dive into each of the places we visited & all the cool tips 🙂