There’s a place on earth where Atlantic waves are crashing against a gigantic sea wall; music is coming from colourful colonial-style buildings; a pink Chevy from the ‘50s is crossing the city’s grand avenues and Che Guevara is on a billboard. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine… Cuba.
Maybe it was because of me, being incurably romantic; I first decided to travel to Cuba when I saw a picture of Malecón, Havana’s 8km-long sea drive. Huge waves were crashing over the sea-wall, when an antique car -crossing the road- got completely covered by them. “I want to see it”, I told myself. However, it took me some time and I was finally able to visit Cuba last February.
Maybe it was because of Cuba, being incurably seductive; life is very different than what you’re most likely used to. Its beauty lives in the people, the culture, the history, and the unknown adventures you’re bound to have there. The island’s most seductive part lies on the survivalist spirit of Cuban people who suffered two independence wars, a revolution and a US trade embargo.
1. You do need a visa to travel to Cuba. If you are travelling from Europe, it won’t take more than 3-4 days and it costs 25 euros approximately.
2. You can fly straight from Spain, France and United Kingdom.
*Breakfasts are usually 5 CUC so more or less 5 euros and I would recommend them in any B&B kind of place you stay in.
4. Try to bring enough cash for your whole trip. You can change money at the airport upon arrival, this is the safest place. Keep in mind that there are two types of currencies in Cuba, the CUC (for tourists) and the CUP (for the locals).
*Credit cards and ATMs still don’t work in Cuba.
5. Do print out copies of any confirmed plans you make. This can include flights, itineraries, Airbnb receipts and a photocopy of your passport as well.
6. Don’t expect to be able to access the internet. Some central hotels offer wifi services and there are wifi parks throughout Havana but service is often spotty.
7. Do plan ahead to have a car pick you up at the airport. Your Casa particular or Airbnb owner won’t have a problem to deal with it.
8. Don’t get into any taxis without having an address and without negotiating the fare first. Taxis usually want to take you to a particular address, where they get a commission.
9. Do brush up on basic Spanish so you can communicate more effectively with locals.
10. Don’t take pictures when someone offers to let you, unless you plan on paying them after.
11. Do take a few days from Havana and get out of the city. I suggest visit Varadero and Trinidad.
12. Don’t miss out on riding in an old american car down the Malecón and do watch the sunset from the seawall there.
*The Cuban name for old cars is almendrones.
First things to do in Havana
1. Walk the streets of Habana Vieja, the old city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you’ll quickly feel the strange connection with the past in its imposing fortifications, plazas and colonial buildings.
2. Have your encounter with history at the Revolution Museum; behind the stunning facade you will find explanations of events including the overthrow of the dictator Batista, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis.
*For a normal cocktail you won’t pay more than 4-5 CUC.
5. See the city from a rooftop or Mirador in Spanish.
6. Smoke a cigar while scrolling around old Havana’s picturesque squares. The best place to buy cigars is the old Partagás store behind the Capitol.
7. Meet the locals and dance the night away to El son cubano, the Cuban music.
Getting out of the city
If you are thinking of Cuba as a place to have rum based cocktails next to the sea, first place to see is Varadero. This is the largest resort in the Caribbean and undoubtedly one of the best there. Varadero is a 20km peninsula of blond sand with an evolving stash of hotels (over 60), shops, water activities and poolside entertainment.
Most tourists buy their vacation all-inclusive packages overseas and are content to stay there for a week or two. However, if you’re touring Cuba independently, you can buy an one-day all-inclusive package for 80 CUC at one of Havana’s central hotels. This is what we did and then we continued to the South.
Trinidad, our second stop and UNESCO’s World Heritage Site, is an outdoor museum. The city is a perfectly preserved Spanish colonial settlement where time stopped in 1850. Trinidad is quite touristy so we did enjoy staying a bit further away, among normal people.
*When there, walk at the cobblestone streets and visit the old colonial mansions. As about nightfall, the live-music scene is particularly good.
Trinidad is ringed by many natural attractions; 12km south lies Playa Ancón, the best beach of Cuba’s south coast. Looming 18km to the north, Sierra del Escambray (Escambray Mountains) offer a lush adventure playground with hiking trails and waterfalls.