What comes to mind when you think of Cuba? Cigars? Fidel Castro? The US embargo? Vintage cars? Mojito? Salsa music? Well, all of it is Cuba… yet there is so much more to the largest island in the Caribbean.
In 2017, Cuba was to be our final Caribbean island destination on this journey. We decided to visit the area west and south of Havana, spending five nights in total in the capital (at the beginning and end of our trip), four nights in Viñales, and three nights each in Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
First Impressions (being back after five years)
Landing at Havana’s José Martí International Airport felt a bit like coming home… though we had forgotten how long it takes to get your luggage (we had checked it in on our flight with Cayman Airways as we had fluids over 100ml on us).
As our taxi made its way into Old Havana, many things looked familiar, though we also noticed a few differences: There were fewer propaganda murals. Most murals we encountered in the capital (and around the country) were in reverence of Fidel, who had passed away only eight months earlier (for example, Por siempre Fidel or Viva Fidel) and in defiance against the US embargo (for example, Cuba es nuestra or Patria o muerto – venceremos). I had expected to see fewer vintage cars. But to my delight, there were still plenty of them around, as were the old cars of the Eastern block: Lada, Moskvitsh, Wolga. Modern western cars, mostly Kia (I even saw a battered up BMW) were supplemented by a new brand of car we hadn’t seen five years ago: Geely (made in China).
The last time we visited, we stayed in a casa particular at the eastern edge of Centro, at the Paseo del Prado, a block back from the Malecon. As we had already visited a lot of the tourist sights five years ago, we had more time this time just to wonder, discover what had changed since our last visit and explore areas we hadn’t been to. We therefore also decided to stay in Old Havana (not far from the Capitol) and the western edge of Centro (near the University and Vedado) this time.
Walking around Old Havana and Centro, we noticed more restored houses but also more houses that had dilapidated beyond repair. I also thought that there was more garbage (uncollected on street corners), and it was smellier (of garbage and sewerage), but maybe I only forgot about it.
Same as last time, we watched a show at the Gran Teatro de la Habana (CUC30 per person): a medley of four performances ranging from classical to contemporary dance, including a ballet choreographed by Alicia Alonso, after whom the theatre had been named in honour. If you are interested just go to the ticket office at the theatre entrance and see what’s on. Shows are seldom sold out, so you should even be able to get tickets for the same evening.
We also visited a few sights we hadn’t managed to check out five years ago.
Museo de la Revolución
This museum showcasing a significant part of Cuba’s history is in Batista’s former presidential palace. While not the best museum in the country (the artefacts are a bit all over the place), it is still worthwhile visiting if you don’t get the chance to travel to Santa Clara, Trinidad or Santiago. Make sure you check out the large courtyard outside which houses some important relics from the revolution (including the Granma, the boat that brought Fidel and 81 of his comrades back from Mexico to recommence Cuba’s struggle for independence in 1956).
José Martí Memorial
The memorial has a viewing platform that overlooks the Plaza de la Revolución, with the murals of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on opposite government buildings. The latter mural had been added since our last visit. The views from the platform across the city were great (you could even observe vultures circling the structure). The museum on the ground floor of the memorial depicts the life of José Martí, who is revered by the Cuban people as the Father of the Nation. Fidel himself once said that the Cuban revolution started with José Martí. Fidel and his comrades only completed what Martí had started at the end of the 19th century.
Museo Ernest Hemingway
Did you know that the great American writer lived (on and off) in Havana for more than 20 years? His house, Finca La Vigía, is situated in a beautiful, tranquil garden estate in the suburb San Francisco de Paula with views of the centre of Havana in the distance. When he gave up the estate a few years after the revolution, he donated the property to the Cuban people, and everything is still as he left it, including his book collection and his many hunting trophies. After taxis quoted us some stupid amounts of money, we decided to give Havana’s Metrobus system a try. Metro buses P2 and P7 pass close by (get off at San Francisco) or you can walk from the final P1 stop / La Rosita. The bus costs CUC0.50 per person one way. See our Practicalities section below for a route map.
During our stay in Havana, we discovered a few new restaurants that serve delicious and cheap food, and provide good customer service (something we can’t say for every restaurant in Cuba). One was recommended by our short-term rental accommodation host, another we stumbled upon by coincidence (after being drenched to the core in a massive thunderstorm):
This local restaurant is in a building diagonally opposite the Capitol. While it got its name from the Spanish region of Asturias, it serves Mediterranean cuisine more broadly. The portions are huge (it is also one of the few restaurants in Cuba that actually has takeaway containers) and delicious. The building houses several restaurants, a different one on each floor. The higher up you go the cheaper is the food. El Asturianito is on the top floor. You actually have to walk through a restaurant and climb up another set of stairs to get there. At times, there are queues outside for the different restaurants, so check with the waiters at the entrance before you climb the stairs.
Locos por Cuba
This little gem is a few blocks east of the University at Calle San Lázaro #1203 (Vedado). Its local dishes are super cheap and delicious, and due to its vicinity to the university, it has a very laid back and cheerful atmosphere. There is even a little balcony facing the street. If they have fresh juice on offer make sure you try it. It’s so yummy and refreshing.
We had heard so many great things about Viñales, so our expectations were quite high… which is always a bit dangerous. However, Viñales did not disappoint. At first, it felt very touristy: (almost) every house in the small town is a casa particular, and there are a lot of travellers roaming around the place. However, just a street or two back from the main road where the Viazul bus stops, it’s much quieter. You get to experience village life and chat with the locals, who all seem to sit outside on their front porches as the sunsets.
While generally not in favour of hop-on/off buses, we took the option in Viñales as it would give us a good overview of the valley. The bus route is cross-shaped, with the bus heading first east to Hotel La Ermita, then south to the viewpoint at Hotel Los Jazmines, then west to the Mural de la Prehistoria and Zipline adventure, and finally north to the Cueva del Indio. While there are only six buses between 9 am and 6 pm, we never waited too long, taking our time exploring the area. The bus costs CUC5 per person.
We also hired a scooter on another day. It took us a bit of time to track one down. The workshop behind the Casa De San Tomas Restaurant has a few but they are all booked out for weeks. The friendly guy at the workshop though directed us to the Cubanacan office (next to the Viazul office), which also has two for rent. They cost CUC25 per day. Reservations are not possible. You just need to turn up between 0800h and 0900h. We took the scooter to visit places not serviced by the hop-on / off bus.
Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas
We joined a guided tour around parts of the largest cave system Cubas (CUC10 per person). While definitely worth the trip, make sure you test your headlamp before you leave the ticket office as mine didn’t work very well which hampered my ability to see in the cave and hence my overall experience. The cave entrance is in the village of El Moncada, about 18km west of Viñales. Be aware: you do a lot of climbing, up to and back down from the cave, as well as inside the cave, so we would only recommend the tour for people without mobility issues.
Paul had wanted to try out a zip line for ages but it had always been a bit too pricey. At CUC8 per person for five zip lines, there was no excuse this time. The Canopy Tour is about 5km west of Viñales along the road to El Moncada. It is also one of the stops of the hop-on / off bus.
Eco Farm El Paraíso
Having worked up an appetite after exploring the cave and zipping over trees, we stopped for lunch at this organic farm and restaurant a few kilometres east of Viñales. We didn’t know that they serve (only) set lunches… they just brought out dish after dish as soon as we sat down at our table: two plates of salads, a soup, two plates of roasted veggies, a dish each with chicken, pork and fish, even a desert. All delicious, and at CUC10 per person, very reasonable. Just bring a plastic container with you when you go. We had to send half the food back to the kitchen as we couldn’t eat it all. Also note, the place no longer seems to be a secret. We arrived at 1330h, and the last tour buses just finished off. Any earlier, and you’ll share the place with busloads of tourists (and likely wait for ages to be seated).
Presa El Salto
Also, east of Viñales, though down another dirt road, is a huge water reservoir (in fact there are lots of these reservoirs between Havana and Viñales – it’s a very agricultural area). While we are not sure whether you are allowed to swim in the lake, the water was super clear and the views amazing. Just a nice spot to chill out.
While we had dinner at our casa on our first night, there are plenty of dining options in town, both on the main strip as well as in its side streets. Just go out and explore. We found a little gem – La Berenjena – on our last evening. While they primarily serve vegetarian food, they also have meat options. But all the food (including yummy, freshly pressed juices) are made from fresh organic, local ingredients. I had a pumpkin soup which was absolutely divine.
The Viñales Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reasons. The valley is absolutely stunning, lush and green, with Mogotes, karstic monoliths, dotted around the landscape. The little town with its colourful houses, horse-drawn carriages and friendly locals is a wonderful, relaxed place to spend some time.
On the way to Viñales, our Viazul bus stopped at Las Terrazas in the Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra del Rosario. The place was gorgeous (with lakes and lots of hiking trails). We have made a mental note to visit properly when we return to Cuba next time. And we will.
Our visit to Cienfuegos was impacted by my getting a cold as soon as we arrived. We got to enjoy the 360-degree views from the roof terrace of the Hotel La Union, mojito in hand, and roam around town, but didn’t get to explore as much as we had wanted to. We did have the best Cuban pizza and ice cream though while in this city (for CUP7 and CUP9 respectively): at a hole in the wall place on Avenida 56, on the left-hand side between the Paseo del Prado and Calle 35.
Having been to both Santa Clara and Santiago on our last trip to Cuba, Cienfuegos seemed to us like a mixture of the two in terms of its architecture and pace of life. The Lonely Planet guidebook (as we’ve come to discover a few times now) oversold the city. Its setting is nice, along a huge lagoon/bay, and it has a lot of buildings in French neoclassical style. But we wouldn’t name it the Paris of Cuba. If you are looking to spend a few chilled days Punta Gorda at the southern tip of town is a very laid back place. You can even find a casa there with water on either side (though I wouldn’t recommend swimming in the lagoon/bay… the water is not the cleanest, and there is a lot of rubbish and beer bottles in the water. Ocean beaches though are not far, and the town itself offers some history. For example, Cuban musician Beny Moré was born in Santa Isabel de las Lajas (about 40km north of Cienfuegos) – there is a bronze statue in his honour on the Paseo del Prado.
One thing I regret is not having talked as much to our casa host this time. I blame it on my cold. We did learn though about the difficulty casa owners face when it comes to connecting with potential guests online. There is no official internet access in homes. Some casa owners who are close to a wifi hotspot may purchase a router and tap into the wifi hotspot. Most casa owners though have to go to a wifi hotspot (a park or hotel) to check and respond to reservations, sometimes multiple times a day. And they access the internet the same way we travellers do: by buying ETECSA access cards (which cost CUC1.50 per hour). Things we take for granted elsewhere still provide headaches in Cuba, even five years later.
Besides Havana, Trinidad was a place we had been to five years ago, so we were keen to see how much had changed since our last visit.
While still gorgeous with its cobblestone streets and colourful houses, it felt a little more upmarket to us, with a lot more western shops and restaurants than five years ago. Outside of town though it’s still very much countryside, with people on horseback or on a horse-drawn carriage travelling along dirt roads and going about their business.
As we had done a lot of sightseeing in Trinidad five years ago, we ventured beyond town this time.
One day, we hired a taxi to take us up to the Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve. It cost us CUC35 (return, including 2-3 hours waiting time) but it is possible to negotiate less (I also blame my lack of negotiation skills that day on my still lingering cold – it had turned into a heavy chest, I sounded like a smoker). There are lots of hikes you can do in the mountains (including to a number of waterfalls). We only did a short one though due to my cold.
Last time, we didn’t have the chance to check out Playa Ancon, so we did it this time (by taxi/CUC8 one way). Again Lonely Planet oversold the beach. We don’t come to Cuba for the beaches, and if this is one of the best (as per LP) please don’t come to Cuba for its beaches either. Compared to other beaches in the Caribbean, it’s nothing special.
Cuba is one of those places in the world that just draws you in. At least for us, it is. Roaming around Cuba is like time-travel. Being born and raised in socialist East-Germany, Cuba reminds me of my childhood:
- the horse-drawn carriages – one of our neighbours used to have one and take me on rides when I was a kid,
- the school children with the blue and red bandanas around their necks – we looked just like them when I grew up,
- the hotels that look like holiday complexes of the East-German Trade Union Association (FDGB) – we spent family holidays at these places just like Cuban families do today.
A lot has changed since our last visit:
- We noticed that more people have mobile phones, and the clothing style is becoming more western (though I could swear they wore camouflage five years ago too).
- Nowadays, you can buy pretty much everything (including white goods and cosmetics). Though the choice is still somewhat limited.
- Casas particulares used to have mostly one room for rent five years ago. Nowadays, most houses rent out three, and you can even rent an apartment in Havana, which you couldn’t do five years ago. With more rooms, many Casas now have chicas, maids that help with the work around the casa.
- With some people benefitting from the increase in small business opportunities (more than others), we also noticed greater visibility of the haves and have-nots, especially older people who would beg or collect bottles and cans to make some money.
Despite all that (continuing) change, some things are still the same:
- The queues at government-owned service providers used by Cubans and foreigners alike, such as CADECA (to change money) or ETECSA (to use the internet or buy wifi access cards) are long. Half an hour waits at each (or more) is not uncommon. Funnily, the Spanish word for a queue is cola… I first thought someone was offering me a drink but they only wanted to know whether I was the last one in the queue.
- One of the employment criteria for people providing customer service here must be unfriendliness. This is especially the case at CADECA and ETECSA offices but also in many state-owned restaurants. Or maybe they are just so badly paid (though in my view, this shouldn’t be an excuse).
- Viazul buses only have one setting for their airconditioning: FREEZING. Always take a jumper with you on the bus.
- Touts were around five years ago and surprise surprise… they are still around now. Though compared with some other Caribbean islands (I’m looking at you, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, in particular), the touts in Cuba are tame.
- Some short-term rental accommodation hosts elsewhere should travel to Cuba and stay at a casa particular. While we had one exception this time (in Trinidad where our casa felt very transactional), the hospitality and cleanliness of the Casas are second to none.
- Even after three months in Ecuador and speaking reasonable Spanish when we left, I still can’t understand a lot of what Cubans say. That needs to change before we come back. They seem to swallow the ending of pretty much every word: The guy selling flowers in the streets of Havana Centro would shout FLOREEEEE. Maybe there is a MeetUp somewhere where I could practice speaking Spanish with Cubans.
- If you want to visit Cuba and wonder when best to go… we recommend going earlier in the year (unless you just want to lay by the beach which we wouldn’t recommend Cuba for). The northern-hemisphere summer months (which is also hurricane season in the Caribbean) are just too hot and humid for any major physical activity (including hiking, cycling or dancing).
- Visitors to Cuba require a tourist visa/tourist card (Tarjeta del Turista). We got ours from the Cuban Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica (for JMD2,100 / approximately USD16.50 pp) because we travelled through Jamaica and happened to stay near the embassy. We had read on TripAdvisor forums that people were also able to buy their tourist cards at the airline counter before they boarded their plane to Cuba. We flew with Cayman Airways and were chatting to a fellow traveller who did exactly that. It seems the airlines charge a bit more though than the Cuban Embassy (in her case USD25 pp).
- To withdraw cash with an Australian credit card (we use the BankWest Zero Platinum MasterCard), we found the CADECA ATMs at the airport and at Calle Obispo in Old Havana, as well as the ATM of the Banco de Credito y Comercio at Calle José Martí (near Calle Colon) in Trinidad to be the best options. They always had money when we needed it, and their withdrawal limit per transaction was CUC400.
- Taxis from the José Martí International Airport to the centre of Havana (which comprises Old Havana, Centro and Vedado) officially cost CUC24. There is even a sign now in the airport baggage claim area that shows you the official pricing. If your accommodation is less than 30km from the airport (use Maps.Me to calculate the route and distance), CUC24 should be all you are required to pay. I say should because the taxi drivers at the airport will try all sorts of tricks to get you to pay more. Ours quoted us CUC30, and while an additional CUC6 isn’t that much, in Cuba it’s a meal, so we countered knowing our casa was 27km away (I even had to show him Maps.Me). We ended up agreeing on CUC25.
- If you are adventurous and don’t have much luggage you could even take a public bus from the airport into the centre of Havana or vice versa (for CUC0.50 per person). Metro-Bus P12 stops at the domestic terminal. Check out the metro bus map here. We used the metro buses only on our last day (to travel to and from the Ernest Hemingway Museum) but we will use them more next time. Buses do get packed though, and they have no aircon.
- To check intercity bus schedules, head to the Viazul website. We wouldn’t book any tickets online though. Just turn up at the bus stop a day or two before your trip (if there aren’t many buses going your way) or buy your bus ticket an hour before your bus departs (if there are several bus options on the day). We generally tend to buy our tickets for the next leg when we arrive.
- Finally, meal portions in Cuba are similar in size to those in the US. We often shared a meal as it would have been too much for just one of us. When you go out and don’t want to share a meal bring a plastic container with you to take home the leftovers (most restaurants don’t have takeaway containers and it’s also more environmentally friendly). Many casas (to our surprise) now have microwaves, so you can warm it up the next day.