A Backpacker's Guide to Cuba
"What do you mean ATMs are closed?" This was my first question to the taxi driver when we landed at 2:00am in La Habana that night of November 1st. They all close at 1:30am, after which you cannot get cash anywhere in town. Well this is going to be fun. How am I going to pay the casa particular and the cab? We’re in for an adventure!
Cuba exists in many forms. You can go to Cuba and stay at the resorts, avoiding the real Cuba, or you can immerse yourself with the locals, staying at casa particulares. Because we are Beyond Ordinary Guides, we recommend the latter. Staying at the casa particulares means you think you have booked one casa particular to in the end up sleeping at the sister’s cousin friend of your host, but still having the best time of your life! Internet has just arrived and booking is done the done the old fashioned way via phone calls on a landline from the neighbor or the shop downstairs. That’s what casa particulares are. You get a business card from one, call them and they tell you they are full, but their friend Juanita has a double room for $25 per night. You book it and they come pick you up at the bus station with a big board with your name on it. Typical! You won't be the only one, all tourists proceed this same way and their hosts are all as nice one or the other. Yes, this is Cuba.
Where to Go
There are four stops you should make if you have two weeks to explore Cuba. If you have more time, we suggest exploring the far east. But if it’s only a holiday trip, a good two weeks in the west will give you a good idea of the country, its people, the landscapes, and the culture. Landing in Havana, here is our suggested itinerary:
If there is one place you could skip and therefore stay longer in the other three, we would skip Varadero.
Some people will tell you they’ve been to Cuba and when you ask them, "Where abouts?" They respond,"Varadero, amazing food, city, beaches." Ekkk…right, nope you have not seen Cuba at all my friend! Varadero is a resort place, such as Cancun, Miami, Panama City and so on. It is full of resorts and all inclusive hotels where the pina coladas taste like water and the meals are frozen ones. So yes, skip that one!
Where to Stay
When travelling to Cuba, you can choose to stay at a hotel, but you'll miss immersing yourself in Cuban culture. That’s why most tourists, even the honeymoon adventurers, opt for the casa particulares. Depending on high or low season you could feel pretty comfortable booking only your first casa particular in Habana, and for the rest of the trip just ask around or book a day before, especially if you fell in love with one place and want to stay longer than planned.
Here are the two places we recommend staying if you visit Vinales and Trinidad. Tell them you come from Marion Payen; they love to share their guests’ stories with others. Make sure to leave a note in their guestbook, they might even cry reading it. Yes, leaving a casa particular can be very emotional, because both they and you will feel grateful for having met each other, and sad to leave them, not sure if you will ever see each other again.
Case del Negro y Tite | Vinales
El Negro, the owner, and his wife Tite, are two of the most friendly and genuine people we have ever met. And we don't say that about everyone we meet! This family could have been our adopted family. Everyone cried when we left, the three days spent with them felt like we were part of the family. We smiled and laughed the whole time. From Gabi, the 2 year old, to Grandma, 70 years old, all three generations were a pleasure to be around. Tite would cook dinner for us (much better than any restaurants in town) at the house each night. In the morning we would tell her what we fancied that evening and she would spend her entire day cooking as if we were 10 years old. Careful if you are a light eater, though, she might think you don't like her food if you only eat one of the ten plates she has prepared for you! For the perfect aperitif, ask El Negro to prepare his master mojito for you. He's been making them for 32 years. Have two of them and you will laugh even more!
Three beds, a private bathroom and a separate entrance from the main house make up the rental. If you feel so inclined, you could bring a couple children books, pencils, or toys for Gabi. While we visited, Gabi looked at pictures in the yellow pages as her “entertainment book”.
Hostal Juanita | Trinidad
Juanita and her daughter Yegni are the most cheerful people we met in Cuba. Full of energy, they did anything to make us feel at ease. The house is large and well located in the heart of vibrant Trinidad. Yegni, the definition of a morning person, would make us a delicious and filling breakfast each morning, poking fun at us for not speaking a word of Spanish. Since she speaks little English, it makes for quite the entertainment! At dinner time, she cooks the catch of the day accompanied by a fridge full of beverages that you can help yourself to. She loves tourists and wants to know everything of what life is like in your own country.
What to Do
One of the main things to do in La Habana is walk around. La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is the heart of the area with bars, restaurants, landmarks, and museums. For an incredible view over the capital, walk up the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis. The 360 panoramic view over old houses and monuments is breathtaking. If you wish to sit in an old american car, take the opportunity to pass by the Malecon on the seafront. We also recommend a visit to the Plaza de la Revolución (Che Guevara steel face) and the José Martí Memorial on that same square.
After dropping your bag and meeting your host family, ask them if they have bikes available to rent or if they know a place where you can rent them. There is a nice (not too hard) bike trail with views over the valley. At the top of the trail, you'll find a restaurant with panoramic views that makes for a pleasant spot to enjoy a cold drink and rest your legs for a few. The town is sleepy save for a few restaurants and convenience stores on the main street and a flea market with handcraft souvenirs (hats, bracelets, bags, key rings, paintings, etc). At night the square livens up and turns into an open air nightclub where all generations gather to dance Salsa, Rumba, and Mambo.
The next day after an energetic breakfast prepared by your lovely host (fresh juice, ham and cheese sandwich, water melon, papaya, fried eggs), explore the valley for the entire day on horseback. The guide will take you everywhere from the cigars factories, the coffee factories, caves, lakes and viewpoints. Instead of booking through a travel tour agency ask your hosts if they know anyone. Usually it’s cheaper and more authentic. Plus it may end up just you and him and not an entire group of tourists.
Last but not least in the Vinales area, spend a day at Cayo Jutias beach. We have explored a lot of places in the Caribbean and this one is unique. Mostly because it is on a peninsula and there is nothing around but one restaurant and a bunch of palm trees. No building, no resorts, just nature. The beach is not crowded although it is mainly tourists. The place is peaceful, people are playing cards, reading a book, or drinking a mojito or coconut water while the kids are snorkeling.
On your way from Vinales to Trinidad by taxi (aka an old Chevy), make a stop at Cienfuegos to have lunch and wander around. Then continue on your journey to the most beautiful and colorful city in Cuba, Trinidad. The colonial houses and the cobblestone streets make you feel like you are in a movie. Trinidad is more touristy than Vinales, so don’t be surprised when you get approached by a lot of locals asking if you need a taxi. At a viewpoint above the city, you can see all of Trinidad and the Ancon Peninsula. Just like in Vinales, we recommend renting bikes for a day to cycle to the end of the peninsula, making a stop at Ancon beach for a relaxing day by the sea.
There isn’t much to say for Varadero except get yourself a drink, a good book and a sunbed! The view and the color of the water is absolutely surreal, so you won’t get bored. We recommend a solid two days to end the trip like icing on a cake; your chance to entirely relaxed before coming back to reality!
Where to Eat and Drink
La Bodeguita del Medio and Floridita are two must-go bars in Habana, and also Hemingway’s favorites. In both, the atmosphere is unique, mixing tourists and locals. You will see the barmen preparing rows and rows and Mojitos and Daiquiris. They just never stop! Try calculating how many bottle of Havana Club are consumed per hour and night...it’s crazy!
As mentioned earlier on where to stay, we recommend that in places like Vinales and Trinidad you have dinner at your casa particular. The meals will taste better, it is cheaper, and you can order anything you want. It will be cooked with love from your hosts. If you are unsure what to order, ask for lobster or pork or ask them to surprise you with any local dishes. Bear in mind you will have a starter, a main dish, dessert, and a beverage. So eat a light lunch!
At night, in Vinales, you can try the bars on the main street. Our favorite is the one across the church called 3J Tapas Bar, mainly because they bring you pina colada's in a huge, ice cream type of glass with the coconut/pineapple mix and then an entire bottle of Havana Club to top it off. No matter the amount of rum you add, it’s the same price. And if the bottle is empty, they'll bring you another one!
In Trinidad, we recommend having dinner at your host as well. During the day you can grab a sandwich or a quick salad from the street stores. For nightlife, head towards the square music on Plaza Mayor (also called Casa de la Musica). Sit on the stairs and watch the entire village of Trinidad gather to drink, dance and listen to the locals playing guitar. The barmen come to take your order right on the steps.
Growing up between France, Canada, Mexico and USA, Marion has traveled the world since the age of 4 before ending up in London in 2014 for work. She started Hibiscus + Nomada for young backpackers on the road looking for straight-forward information on what to do, where to go, where to stay in a limited time and budget.
You can follow along with her travels on Instagram at @hibiscusandnomada
EXTRA: If you want a similar experience, but want to leave all the planning to someone else, we recommend booking a trip with Coast to Costa. They #travellikealocal so you know you're getting an authentic, culturally driven trip, but also can be confident you'll love the places you're staying and the cool people you're traveling with.