I first travelled to Cuba back in 2005 and it was a huge cultural shock. I had never been to a communist country where everything was so vastly different from ‘Western’ countries. Doctors being paid the same as road cleaners; Cubans banned from ‘tourist beaches’; The total lack of renovation in it’s main city Havanna…but I still had an amazing time.
Cuba is now back on the map with improved relations with the United States. US tourism to the island was up 77% last year, with big travel companies like Booking.com and Airbnb expanding operations across the island.
Can US citizens now travel to Cuba?
The new deals made by Obama and Raul Castro are extensive, but do not allow US citizens to travel to Cuba openly. Saying that, it is very easy to get round the administration. You just need to come up with a reason for travelling to the Cuba, one that falls into the 12 categories allow:
“Travel-related transactions are permitted by general license for certain travel related to the following activities, subject to the criteria and conditions in each general license: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and certain authorized export transactions.”
Hint: Athletics and competitions
Visit Trinidad de Cuba
Trinidad de Cuba is a fabulous town to stay and explore. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and much prettier than old Havana. The town is full of old buildings and cobbled roads. The City is surrounded by mountains and only a few miles from a great beach.
The beach, Ancon, is picture-perfect with white sand and typical turquoise Caribbean sea, just don’t turn around and look at the monstrous hotel! The beach now offers plenty of activities if you want to be more active, with snorkelling, scuba diving and deep sea fishing all available.
The City has a very vibrant music scene and feels very bohemian. We spent some time with a student who had come to the city just to learn Latin drumming. Trinidad de Cuba has some lovely little guest houses and B&Bs. We stayed in an old house owned by a Pharmasist. People would come at all times of the night and knock on the door where they could buy black market medicines through his hatch.
We used this town as base to explore the surrounding area on horseback (saddle free!).
Explore Old Havana
Old Havana dates back to the 16th Century and is packed with colonial Spanish architecture. The area is great to wonder around, taking in all the atmosphere of Havana. You will be surrounded by colourful vintage cars, lively afro-beats and amazing buildings like the Museo de Bellas Artes.
Old Havana has changed dramatically since my first trip 20 years ago. Traditional bars have been updated with trendy revamps like the El Floridita, an old Hemmingway hangout. Lots of the bars and restaurants offer great live music where you’ll hear rumba, salasa and jazz fusion stuff, all great with a cocktail. You’ll be dancing with the locals before you know it.
Havana is generally safe, but like most cities, be on your guard. Tourists very rarely experience any violent crime but you may get hassled by the jiniteros, people out to make a quick dollar or get a shot of rum from you. I got offered to drink with them on numerous occasions, one guy gave me a sachet of spirit…like the ketchup you find in fast food joints. I didn’t drink it, maybe I was just paranoid about being spiked and robbed, after all the same guy did also offer me ‘his wife’ for the night! I didn’t take him up on either offer and escaped to bed.
I recommend eating at Dona Eutemia, a small independent place specializing in creole food. The place is found in a back street near Plaza de la Catedral (Callejon del Chorro # 60-C). Here you will find cheap lobster dishes, delicious fried plantain, mounds of rice and tasty spicy beans. Wash it all down with Cristal beer, don’t expect to find any decent local wine.
The Havana Bar Crawl Map
Chillout – Cuba’s Best Beaches
Being a Caribbean island, Cuba has lots of great beaches. Here is a list of our favourites:
- Valadero – Though probably the most commercial, this beach is still amazing to see due to its size. Valadero is 20km long and totally unbroken, though a lot of sections of beach are privately owned by the resorts on them. Though its the main beach resort area you’ll easily be able to find a quiet spot.
- Playa Ancon – as mentioned above a nice beach to visit if you are in Trinidad.
- Cayo Largo del Sul – ‘Cayo Lago’ is actually an island located off the north of the island and has lots of great beaches. The island is much more laid back and even lets you sunbath nude, something that would never be allowed in the main resort beaches. Playa Sirena is the main beach with plenty of facilities, but I recommnend hiring a scooter and exploring the hidden, quiet beaches.
Santiago De Cuba
Sanitiago be Cuba is classed as Cuba’s second city and easy to reach my public transport from Havava, the drive alone is worth it as you soak up the scenery. The city is famous for its music scene, which oozes out of bars and houses and into the surrounding mountains. The atmosphere is amazing and great learning experience in musical generes. The best time to visit this city is during the carnaval season in July, when the city really comes alive. Rum flows readily and street dancing is all the rage.
East of the city lies the protected Baconao Biosphere, made up of mountains and coffee plantations different types of forest. The Biosphere is well worth a days hiking to explore the wildlife and forests.
Valle De Vinales
This national park is based around the spectacular Sierra de los Organos mountain range. The park is perfect for those looking to do a bit of hiking or go out on a horse trek for the day and big enough to get lost in. The park is situated at the Western end of Cuba and easy to reach by bus. It’s another one of Cuba’s many World Heritage sites, made up magotes, rounded hills and lush landscapes. The area is Cuba’s main tabacco growing region and is steeped in history.
There are plenty on B&Bs in the area which are generally old colonial house that have been converted. We stayed at the Hotel Ranch San Vincent which has a handful of wooden huts you can stay in along with a swimming pool to take a dip in after your hard days trek.
Take a dip at La Cueva de los Peces
It’s not only the Yucatan peninsular in Meixco that has great cenotes, Cuba has a few well worth a trip to. This sinkcole/cave has a shop on site where you can rent snorkel masks and full dive gear. If you are claustrophobic in any way, avoid diving deep into the underground cave system.
Cuba Travel Tips
Word of Warning: Be very careful of the Mojitos…they are amazing. Numerous times we got on roll and blew our days budget, especially when I was buying locals drinks and getting their stories!
Keep alert on the beaches. I had my trainers stolen on Valadero as a slept of the night-befores Mojitos. My partner found it rather amusing though as I walked back to the hotel in barefeet.
You WILL see some unusual things and often end up in strange situations, just on your guard.
Online coach trips across the island can be booked through Viazul.com
Guide to Cuba Hotels
I would avoid big hotel chains at all costs – Cuba has plenty of fantastic little B&Bs that will give you a real authentic experience. Many are run by lovely families that will give you a unique perspective into Cuban life and culture, along with all the stories of political struggle and hardship. Here’s a few of the more unique places to stay:
Kurhotel Escambray – Just outside Trinidad in the mountains is a very bizarre place. Its effectively a state run fitness camp for Cubans looking to lose weight. Everyone one is walking around in the same tracksuits and headbands and you feel you have gone back in time to 1950s Russia.
La Finca Quemado del Rubi – A great place to stay if you are visiting the Vinales valley. The place is a tobacco farm and produces some of the worlds best cigars. You can learn to roll your own, which is a lot harder than it looks, then chill on your balcony and smoke it with a drop of rum.
Find out more things to do in Cuba on my friend’s blog: Jan’s 15 things to do in Cuba