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Cuba Travel Guide by Nicole Bremner
Nicole Bremner was finally able to tick Cuba off her bucket list. After a great trip, she has prepared her very own Cuba Travel Guide.
Cuba has been on my go-to list ever since I lived in New York in 2007-2009. But back then I was warned that it would cause problems coming back into the US. The last thing I needed on a work visa.
Beautiful beach in Varadero, Cuba
I suddenly found myself without children for a couple of weeks over the summer of 2018 and convinced a friend to come to backpack Cuba with me. I’m so grateful that I got to see Russia in the early 2000s before it westernised and I felt this was the perfect time to see Cuba before it does the same.
I didn’t want to leave anything to chance so I contacted Cuba Direct and booked the 12-day self-drive tour. Liam at Cuba Direct was brilliant and the whole tour was seamless. I’d highly recommend them.
Square in Havana, Cuba
At this point, I should warn you that Cuba is still a developing country. It’s jarringly poor and dilapidated. Before I went a friend said it was the worst holiday she’s ever had. It’s not a holiday, unless you just sit at a resort, it’s a cultural experience. If you go there expecting the poverty, dirt and ruins your expectations will be bang on. On the flip side the people are friendly, the cities historic and beaches Instagram-perfect.
Cuba, Google Maps
Cost – Cuba Travel Guide.
The total package cost about £1,500 per person and included flights, all accommodation, car hire and three nights at the end in a high-end all-inclusive hotel on the beach.
Fly – Cuba Travel Guide.
You can fly major airlines via Miami but Virgin Atlantic fly direct. The actual flight costs about £640 and I wished I’d upgraded to premium but there were no seats left when I thought of it. Flights don’t run daily so you’ll need to be flexible.
Ready for my flight to Cuba at London Gatwick Airport
Temperature – Cuba Travel Guide.
We went in mid-July and it was very hot and humid. With temperatures hovering between 30-35C and humidity at close to 100% it felt like being in a sauna. The moment I stepped outside my room I was a sweaty mess. I brought a small fan and used it so much it was broken by the end. Don’t forget one!
Pay- Cuba Travel Guide.
You can’t pick up currency outside of Cuba and it’s a faff to change in Cuba. Just find an ATM and withdraw CUC Convertibles once you’re there. You’ll be changed about 3% commission but it’s worth it for the convenience. A CUC is equal to US$1.
Just to be confusing there are two currencies – one for locals and one for tourists. Always make sure when you get your change that it has “Convertibles” on the note. It seems confusing at the beginning but the locals know what they’re doing.
Nowhere I went accepted any form of cards. Everything is cash. So don’t get caught short. A meal can cost anywhere from C1 for a slice of pizza or a ham and cheese toasted bun to C25 at a fancy restaurant.
Between the two of us we went through about C600 in total on extras and meals, tips, fuel etc. Apart from the mostly homogeneous tourist stuff, there’s nothing much to spend your money on.
There are hotels but they’re expensive and vary in quality. We were recommended guest houses and I’m glad we did. They’re basic and certainly not modern but exceptionally clean and the house-proud locals are so friendly welcoming you into their homes.
All our guest houses had air conditioning – a necessity.
Be aware that Cuba is loud. Very loud. There are market traders yelling door to door from the early hours of the morning, the old cars speed past your window at all hours. There are stray dogs barking and just general noise. Bring ear plugs!
For the last three nights we stayed at the Royalton Hotel Varadero which, while 5*, wasn’t really according to usual standards. More on that later.
Honestly, the food is mostly pretty average to awful apart from a couple of great restaurants which I’ll cover in the city guides. Lots of strewed meats, fish and rice which is the last thing you feel like in a hot climate. I craved salads after a few days and thankfully found it when we got to the mountainous region of Vinales.
You can’t really find a menu. There’s no way of the restaurateurs knowing what’s going to be in available to purchase. You ask for a menu and a waiter says he’s the menu and tells you what’s available.
The supermarket was an experience. People have no idea what they can purchase before they get to the shop. They queue outside a shop and then buy whatever is available.
Breakfast is pretty much standard in all the guest houses. It consists of a plate of mango, guava, papaya and banana, a mango or guava juice, white bread, what smelt like sheep butter, cheese, ham and the strongest, tar-like coffee I’ve ever encountered.
Some guest houses also made little pancakes which I found tasty with banana. My friend didn’t like the fruit and I didn’t like the bread, cheese and ham so we had a perfect trade each morning. I only found tea at the last guest house and really missed it – bring your own tea bags!
Not hopeful about the quality of the water we went to the state run supermarket every day to pick up as many bottles as we felt like lugging around. The guest houses provide a fridge full of drinks at inflated prices and in that heat and humidity I was happy to pay for the convenience.
Havana is world renown for the Havana Club rum so I couldn’t wait to taste a Mojito in it’s birthplace. What a disappointment! It was too strong and not sweet enough. I tried at a few places and just didn’t like them. Clearly my tastebuds have been spoiled by the western version. I’d like to know what you think of them. I did enjoy a couple of Pina Coladas one night but really one was enough as it’s so rich.
I had more success with the local beers Christal or President are great larger like beers. I drank my body weight in them every day. They’re served like beer should be – ice cold. They cost about C1-2 most places too. Nothing refreshes you in the relentless heat.
I don’t know why more tourists don’t drive around themselves. We hired a car and found it incredibly simple – apart from the actual hire process which is like applying for a passport. And you have to have about C270 cash for the deposit which is returned at the end.
Most tourists take expensive old timer taxis or sweltering tour buses. But don’t be afraid to drive. Parking is easy and MyMaps is available offline. Do take the time to map out your whole journey on MyMaps before you go and then you just drive. It only took us on one road which was closed and dozens of locals told us to turn around in various hand gestures.
Public transport doesn’t really exist. There are hundreds of people lining the streets of any major city just waiting for transport. There is something of a bus network but the buses are more like cattle transporters. So most rely on hitch hiking.
One warning is that we had people jump out in front of the car a couple of times to try to get a lift. They would indicate that we’d made a wrong turn and were not permitted on the road and then attempt to get in. It only happened twice but was frightening. Just be aware.
Beautiful old-school cars on the streets of Havana, Cuba
Retro carriage in Havana, Cuba
WIFI and phone
It’s rather discombobulating getting off a flight and having no phone or wifi access. Learn from my mistake, don’t turn on your data! After my phone bill hit £297 in the first three days O2 cut me off completely…
The only way you can get on the internet is to queue outside the government telecommunications provider and wait for your turn to purchase a one of five hour internet card. And then you need to go to a wifi area. I did wonder why there were parks full of people on their phones – it’s a wifi hotsport. There is just no internet anywhere else.
Walking around Havana, Cuba in search of WIFI spots.
The first thing that hits you when you land in Havana is the humidity. At 95% it’s like stepping into a sauna. The second is the majestic buildings left to crumble. It’s a huge pity that funds aren’t available to restore the magnificent and unique colonial and art deco architecture. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world where you’ll see such a concentration of spectacular buildings. And all crumbling. In some places you’ll actually see where a building has literally crumbled with the staircase intact and old electrics exposed. Only when we walked out of the city did we see some attempts to restore these buildings. But sadly, more often than not they were being demolished with new non-descript buildings going up in their place.
Crumbling architecture of Havana, Cuba
Atmospheric views of the streets of Havana, Cuba
It’s a bustling city with people and dogs everywhere. Interestingly everyone is outside. With no wifi and poor TV signal its seems that the people just sit outside their homes and socialise with their family and neighbours.
Locals enjoying the simple pleasures of life in Havana, Cuba
The heat meant that we didn’t really feel like spending a lot of time out exploring and we’re both not museum people so we wandered around the streets searching for shade, soaking up the atmosphere and just people watching. Our tour allocated three nights to Havana but I would have been happy with two nights maximum.
The city has tourist trap restaurants aplenty. They all serve the same stewed fish and meat dishes, have a band and salsa dancers, both of who accost you for tips every few minutes. While I enjoyed the music for the first 10 minutes it got irritating rather fast.
Do visit La for a meal at sunset. It’s on the roof of an old building by the water with views across the water towards the old fort. At 9pm everything goes quiet for a cannon fire. I didn’t realise the time and was deep in conversation and nearly jumped out of my skin when it went off. It’s then nice to walk back to your guest house along the water front.
There are other restaurants around which were recommended such as the Museum of Beer and Café Paris. I didn’t rate Museum of beer (they served just one variety – a dark beer) and Café Paris was too busy. We thought it would be sporting to try to eat where the locals do. There are these holes in the walls serving pizza slices and toasted ham and cheese toasted buns. I didn’t really enjoy them but at C1 a serve I was happy to play along.
While there are cycle taxis and regular taxis everywhere you can walk the whole of Havana without much difficulty. We didn’t take any taxis and enjoyed the walking. Just be careful to dodge dog poo.
Typical old-school car in Havana, Cuba
At the square in Havana, Cuba
Rural village of Vinales, Cuba
I was relieved to leave the city and head to the mountains of Vinales. Not that it wasn’t cooler or quieter. It was just green and not as dirty. A welcome respite after Havana. Since we had the car we didn’t book any tours. We simply visited some of the tourist attractions.
Off the beaten track and a standout highlight for me was the Cow Caves. Following a trail across fields, crossing log bridges and climbing rocks it feels like you’re trespassing. The view across the Jurassic Park-like valley is worth the effort. MyMaps got us to the cave without a hitch.
Beautiful scenery of Vinales, Cuba,
Incredible Cow Caves of Vinales, Cuba
Spectacular views of Vinales, Cuba
Vinales was the first place I was able to find a salad. There is a whole street of restaurants touting for your business. We were lucky to find a great one, Cubar, and went three times. They actually had a menu with everything available and the food was fresh and delicious. I drank so many café frappuccinos over those few days. You must try them and the salads.
Spectacular views of Vinales, Cuba
A rather non-descript city that didn’t really hold much interest for us. It does have one historic square which was nice to walk around. It’s built around a large bay so after a great dinner at Las Mamparas we walked around the water for hours. As we walked and the sunset there were some handsome, large, colonial buildings on the water which once would have been grand. Perfect for just one night.
We trusted TripAdviser for the restaurant recommendation, Las Mamparas, and it seemed everyone else had too. It was the cheapest place we ate at, aside from pizza slices. It was so cheap we ordered nearly everything on the menu and it still cost us about £27 including drinks.
Trinidad – Cuba Travel Guide.
Incredible view of Trinidad, Cuba
Not to be confused with the city of the same name, Trinidad sits on the mid-southern coast of the long island. We arrived after lunch and were hit by the heat so decided to quit sightseeing and hit the beach. It was a much better idea. Days were spent under a beach umbrella and walking along the lovely beach of Playa Ancòn while the cooler evenings were spent exploring the city and having drinks in the soft light of the sunset.
Bustling nightlife in Trinidad, Cuba
TripAdviser once again came through for us and we found such a great restaurant that we went back the second night. Our meal at La Redacciòn was the most expensive we had in Cuba but excellent quality food. On the first night a young jazz band performed, a welcome break from traditional Cuban music. And they waited until you’d finished eating before asking for tips.
Admiring the beautiful view of Trinidad, Cuba
Varadero -Cuba Travel Guide.
I was ready to relax by the 10th day of the trip. Thankfully we had our last three nights booked at the 5* Royalton Hotel Resort on the beach at Varadero. My first all-inclusive resort experience was an eye-opener. Clearly, many of the guests frequent them regularly. You certainly don’t go hungry and the service was brilliant. Our room was large and clean but the highlight was the beach.
The beaches of Varadero are the picture postcard turquoise. Perfectly clean and just the right temperature to not feel like you’re in the bath. I was very happy to spend the last three days doing very little but sleeping under a palm tree umbrella, cooling off with a swim when it got too hot and eating. We did a bit of sport each day too in the rarely used gym and squash court.
Incredible beach in Varadero, Cuba
Fun at the beautiful beach in Varadero, Cuba
I tried the nightclub on the last night. All inclusive drinks are dangerous so I had to pace myself. The enormous bodybuilder of a barman became a super-star rapper and rapped out all these catchy latin chart toppers. You could spot the Latins by the way they moved. It’s just something that I’m not born with and they certainly are. Those hips!
Having given up our hire car when we arrived at Varadero I wish we’d booked a private airport transfer. A shared bus transfer was included in our tour and I’d failed to see it until the last day. It just meant the last 170kms took four hours. But there was a tour guide who did point out interesting landmarks and facts every time you’d just drifted off to sleep.
Relaxing at the beach in Varadero, Cuba
Leaving- Cuba Travel Guide.
Once at the airport I had to change CUC back to GBP but they’d run out of GBP so I had to convert to Euros. No problem for me as I travel a lot but they did try to make me take US Dollars which I certainly don’t need. Another tip is don’t forget your visa! I accidentally packed mine in my checked luggage. I was so worried I’d be stopped from leaving or forced to pay for a new one. But thankfully when I explained it to the passport officer she just waved me through. Phew!
There’s one “fast” food restaurant in the whole airport. It took 35 minutes to queue in a line only 15 people deep. When we got there we paid a small fortune for one of the most disgusting meals we’d had. A tip – eat before security and then go through satisfied and smug that you’re not subjected to that disgusting excuse for food.
Last words- Cuba Travel Guide.
My overall impression of Cuba was a very positive one. I would go back. I’d love to take my kids to experience a culture so diverse to ours with the hope that they’d develop an appreciation for the joy of the children despite the poverty and lack of stuff. The inevitable change it will undergo will be fascinating to watch given the rapid economic change even in the last three years since Obama lifted US sanctions.
Even if you just want a cheap all-inclusive package holiday do get out and see the real Cuba for at least a couple of days. You’ll miss the rich culture and diversity if you don’t.
Typical car of Havana, Cuba
Happy moment at the beach in Varadero, Cuba
I hope you enjoyed my Cuba Travel Guide and found some interesting and useful tips for your next journey. If you have any additional tips on Cuba and travel, share them with us in the comments below.
For more blogs like this visit: www.salacia.co.uk/lifestyle
- Cuba Direct – www.cubadirect.co.uk
- Virgin Atlantic – www.virginatlantic.com
- Royalton Hotel Varadero – www.royaltonresorts.com
- La Moneda Havana – www.lamonedacubana.com
- Cafe Paris Havana – www.lahabana.com/guide/cafe-paris/