Visiting Cuba without visiting Havana would be weird. Tourists flock to Cuba’s capital to understand the history and to get a taster of Cuba’s past and present.
Known as the wild west of Cuba, tourists flock to experience horse riding in the Cuban countryside known as Vinales. There are also some great beaches to visit a few hours away which you can easily book a tour when you arrive into Vinales.
This small town is a huge tourist destination for those Instagram-able colourful buildings and vibrancy known as the cultural centre of Cuba called Trinidad. There are also some great waterfalls and beaches to visit nearby.
Known as the biggest beach resort towns in Cuba, Varadero is just a 1 hour drive from Havana.
There’s a great spot to get a birds eye view of the city during the theatre tour.
“Havana is a city you’ll either love or hate.”
This is the response we heard from most holiday makers we met during our trip to Cuba.
Havana is a city that’s falling apart, a city that looks like a bomb hit it and it just never recovered. Balconies are falling down from people’s homes, buildings are in ruins, but there is also a beautiful side to it and it will only remind you how you’ve never seen anything like it before.
For some tourists, they love this, for others, they find it a bit too much to comprehend.Cuban homes in Havana.
Although some people we met didn’t like Havana because they thought it was dirty, it was one of our favourite places we went to in Cuba. We loved the vibrancy and beauty that runs throughout the city. Just don’t expect Havana to be sparkly clean like the West because, it’s not.The streets of Havana.
It’s an interesting city, one that I felt was divided into two sections that was sectioned off at the famous El Capitolio building.Hitching a cab ride outside El Capitolio, Havana.
On one side of Havana lived the locals, with a main street not finished, a side that you could easily buy cheap pizzas for $1 each, and the side you can see how local people actually live. It’s funny how we barely saw any tourists on this side of town at all.The main street on the local side of town still needed work.
On the other side of El Capitolio was old Havana aka tourist-town. The two sides had such different vibes, and the busy tourist side was jammed packed with people asking if we wanted to eat at their overpriced restaurants, wanted wifi cards, tickets to see a special Buena Vista Social Club performance and of course cigars.The streets in Havana’s old town (aka tourist town).
There are six things to do in Havana that you must visit when you arrive into Cuba. We spent three nights when we first arrived and one night on the way back before we left the country. So if you miss anything, you can save it for your final day in Cuba.
1. Gran Teatro de La Habana (the theatre)
My favourite building was the Gran Teatro de la Habana which is located next door to the incredible El Capitolio building. The theatre is absolutely beautiful, especially when lit up at night time. It’s a stunning building inside and out, I loved the statues which sat on the top of it, almost to protect the city. It was somewhere I could just sit and watch for hours.Inside Gran Teatro de La Habana.
We did a tour inside Gran Teatro De La Habana and loved it. When I asked the tour guide about seeing the actual theatre, he snuck us in to watch the ballerina’s rehearsing before the evening performance. It felt like a special moment and I’d definitely recommend visiting.
One of the things I wanted to do in Havana was visit the famous La Guarida restaurant which is also one of the best restaurants in Cuba.La Guarida’s walls are filled with photographs of celebrity visitors like Jack Nicholson and Matt Dillon above.
Famed by visits of countless celebrities like Beyonce, Sting and Jack Nicholson… the list goes on.
We managed to book ourselves in for lunch at La Guarida after popping by when we first arrived into Havana. You can actually book online here but just be mindful that the internet is pretty crap so you might have to wait a while for a response. We actually didn’t expect to get in as we assumed it would be booked out.
La Gaurida is actually located in an apartment building. Tourists do gather by the entrance to get a photo of the famous staircase of the chopped off angel statue and the Fidel writing on the wall is set amongst a 1920’s staircase. Rhianna was famed for doing a fashion shoot at this staircase and of course ate in the restaurant as well.
Two flights up, and we made it to the restaurant after passing by local apartments in the building. Upon entering, we sat amongst loads of kitsch pieces like a statue of Christ, pictures of the celebrities who’ve eaten there and loads of paintings.
The food…well… it was easily the best we had on our whole trip in Cuba (that wasn’t hard) but at just $17 a meal, we were surprised at how cheap it was in comparison to the other tourists restaurants in the old Havana. People might say La Guarida is expensive but it wasn’t badly priced at all in comparison to other restaurants serving out pretty terrible food.
Also, go check out the toilets at La Gaurida. You’ll find the tallest bathroom doors you’ve ever seen in your life!
3. The classic car ride in Havana
Getting a cheesy photo in a 1950s car in Havana is a must.
OK it wasn’t one of my favourite things, but it’s really a mandatory thing to do in Havana was to ride a 1950s car. Where else in the world will you ever get to go on a car ride in a beautiful pristine 1950’s car?It felt very much like a novelty and although it’s really only a taxi ride, we paid $25 (down from supposedly $50) for a one hour ride with some dodgy Cuban dude. We just approached the guys near to the El Capitolio building and picked a car we wanted to go in.
He took us to the famous Che Gavara building for some photos and we just drove around for an hour. It wasn’t anything special but a bit of fun really and of course he took some cheesy photos of us pretending to drive it!
4. El Capitolio
The incredible El Capitolio building is an obvious must see when visiting Havana as it’s the most famous building in Cuba. Built in 1929, it fell into disrepair after the revolution in 1959.
Its design is often compared to the United States capitol building although it’s a whole 1 metre wider and 1 metre taller. It would also need a hefty $17m to restore this building and over 5,000 workers.
5. A photographer’s dream
On our final day in Havana, this woman was so beautiful I couldn’t resist. She thought I just wanted to take a photo of her car and was so surprised I wanted to take her photo.
If there’s one thing we learnt very quickly is Havana is a photographer’s dream and easily one of the best places to visit in Cuba.
As soon as we stepped out of our Airbnb (which was right behind El Capitolio building and a great little find too), there were amazing photo moments of the local people. But it sort of felt wrong.
I didn’t want to feel like I was a spectator in a zoo and the only photo we took was of a woman who literally dressed up to make money off us below. We paid her a $1 for a photo just because she looked so great, we didn’t want to miss it.She clutches the $1 note we gave her for a photo.
Otherwise we just respected the locals and didn’t take many photos of them until our final day in Havana. The buildings, the streets and of course the cars are more than enough to get your photography fix in Havana.
6. The music
We saw this amazing band singing and playing their hearts out to an empty restaurant in Havana.
To be honest, we didn’t see a lot of bands on the streets as we expected to see. But the one band we did see singing their hearts out at an empty restaurant were absolutely amazing. You’ll see some bands playing at very touristy restaurants but try and look a bit further out from old town because you could find some proper gems.
How long should I stay in Havana?
We spent three nights in Havana and to be honest, there’s not a huge amount to do there except walk around and take photos. We saw most of it within a few hours as it’s not that big. If you are heading to Havana, two nights is more than enough to see the city.
We stayed in Casa Particulars which are just guesthouses you can find on airbnb or booking.com.
This is written from the point of view when we visited at the end of the season in June 2018 so it might well be busier in high season but it was pretty quiet when we went there.
So Varadero has had some bad write ups from other bloggers, that we nearly didn’t go there because we read there was an obvious lack of culture present in this beach town.
Although we only booked two nights to begin with, we ended up staying for four nights in Varadero and it turned out to be one of the best things we did in Cuba.
Sunsets in Varadero were absolutely amazing!
Getting to Varadero from Havana
Our Airbnb host organised us a collectivo cab to Veradero (a shared taxi with other tourists). He actually said it would be easier than getting a bus. In my mind, I thought the bus would be a bit like the minibuses we went on during our visit through Africa – we’re talking 30 people squashed into a nine seater bus, with countless local children sat on our laps and literally chickens flying around the bus on a sweaty long journey.
When I eventually saw the buses in Cuba, they were Western style coaches so I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The collectivo picked us up for $20 each but it didn’t surprise me that he decided to raise the price to $25 out of nowhere. After a few words back and forth, we did in the end pay the agreed rate of $20 each. It was sad to see the driver outright lie to us, claiming the other tourists weren’t coming, yet they did in the end but we just had to take it all with a pinch of salt.
We decided that day no more collectivo’s for us during our Cuban trip were needed and we went took the Viazel bus throughout the rest of the trip.
Our Airbnb host in Havana gave us a contact for a place to stay in Varadero and because of the lack of internet we just went with it. When we arrived, it was a complete dive, so we hopped into a cab and went on a search for another place to stay.
It reminded me of our previous travels five years ago, before we had iPhones and internet to help us out. We were back to using the Lonely Planet and there was something quite exciting and liberating about it.
On the beach in Varadero.
We ended up finding a casa from the Lonely Planet called Marium & Javier and Steve agreed to four nights for $35 a night. The room was liveable, but when we saw the other rooms (which were way nicer) we asked if we could move because there wasn’t anyone else staying there, the host just made up a story and said no.
We felt cheated and realised we couldn’t trust him or anyone here especially when he told us his food was much cheaper than in the restaurants (he was charging $10 a meal, and we quickly found meals for $1-$2 outside the casa).
It didn’t bother us too much as we knew everyone needed to make as much money as possible but it was just a bit sad to see our hosts outright lie to us.
But the beach, the beach, made up for our accommodation. It was beautiful, and the water on some of the days was so clear, it reminded us of being back in the Maldives. We were happy with the white sand, the turquoise water and spent all of our time on it.
Empty beer cans lined the beach during the weekend in Varadero.
On the weekend the vibe changed, the locals packed the beach with their countless beer cans left for someone else to pick up before the next morning. It was something I just couldn’t understand. The streets weren’t littered so why would you litter the beach? It honestly made me think we were back in India, it got pretty bad.Don’t expect the food to be good in Varadero. But it is super cheap!
Because we went to Varadero in low season (early June) there wasn’t many people around. The restaurants were always dead and the food was pretty diabolical, but cheap.Varadero was the cheapest place we went to in Cuba. We got pizzas and huge sandwiches for $1-$2 each at local places so we were relieved as we thought Varadero would be expensive.
Should I stay in a resort or a casa in Varadero?
There’s a hop on hop off bus that runs through Varadero which is $5 per person to use all day so it works out cheaper than getting a cab. It’s not like there’s much to see there, but it was interesting to go and visit the resort side known as a Florida suburb.The resort side of Varadero is very soulless and doesn’t show you anything that resembles Cuba.
To us it seemed that Veradero was split up into two sections, one side had the casas and more of an authentic feel, then there’s Cuba’s only golf course in the middle which separated it from the resorts.
We had that part of the beach to ourselves for a good hour before some local kids turned up but it didn’t take long before the police arrived and started questioning them.
The weird thing about the resorts were they had no vibe to them at all. Personally if I wanted to stay in a resort, I’d be heading to Maldives, not Cuba. These resorts felt like they were in the middle of nowhere and it was plain weird.
We were glad not only because we were staying on the casa side of town but because the beach on our side was way nicer than the one on the resort side which wasn’t as clear and was full of seaweed.The main street of Varadero.
All in all, we were able to properly relax in Varadero, and it was a nice experience probably because we visited in low season.
Popular tourist routes from Varadero include Vinales, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. We headed to Trinidad next.
Is there a good nightlife in Varadero?
We didn’t actually drink in Varadero but there looked like there were some bars around, most notably The Beatles Bar where they had a live band most nights playing cover songs. Yeah, the Cuban’s love John Lennon, you’ll see loads of references to The Beatles around Cuba.
We actually spent a few days before we arrived into Cuba trying to find other beach towns to stay in but you have to stay in a resort and we were on a backpacker’s budget. I have heard Cayo Coco is the best resort in Cuba which we would have visited if we weren’t on a tight budget.
Trinidad is a city that’s pretty much a mandatory must visit when visiting Cuba. Known as the cultural city of Cuba, Trinidad is famed for it’s brightly coloured houses and cobbled streets. We were expecting to be blown away by this place, to really feel like we were properly in Cuba.
Trinidad itself was pretty quiet – we were expecting loads of music everywhere and a real Cuban feel. In the touristy areas we were constantly hassled to drink mojitos, go on a horseback tour, get a taxi or stay someone’s home. It became beyond exhausting and after three days, we were over it.Trying my first and only mojito in Cuba before I swapped for pina coladas.
I did feel a bit bad for the locals as we walked around town. A lot of them looked a bit fed up and I felt awful walking around like the other tourists with our big cameras like it was the norm. Tourists have totally taken over the small town of Trinidad.
Although there were plenty of amazing photo moments to be had, we barely took any photos of the locals to respect their privacy.
If you’re into Instagram, then Trinidad is the perfect place to take some Cuban worthy photo’s just to do the I’ve been there shot with the colourful buildings in the background. As we had a few days in Trinidad, we spent the day going on a pricey hike to Vegas Grande, a waterfall I’d read about being one of the best in the world.
After talking to loads of cab drivers, the best price we could get was $40 return for a 30 minute ride (for reference, Cuban doctors make like $30 a month so this is expensive). Then we had to pay $10 each to get into the park. We didn’t need a guide though thankfully as it was quite an easy path to follow.We hiked about 1 hour to get to Vegas Grande waterfall near Trinidad.
We also went to check out La Boca, a beach town just outside of Trinidad that was completely deserted. It wasn’t well maintained so we spent the day at Playa Ancon, a beach we were going to go to instead of Varadero.Seaweed had taken over the beach at Playa Ancon.
I’m pleased we spent those days in Varadero because Playa Ancon was nothing to write home about. The sea was completely filled with seaweed which is why no one swam in it. But it was nice to spend another day on the beach.Everyone congregates around the steps at the square to have internet time in the evening.
At night time most people congregate around the main square in Trinidad. You can buy Pina Coladas, Mojitos or Cuba Libras from $1-$2 in plastic cups and sit in the square with internet (as long as you buy an internet card for $2 from a random in the square).Watching a live band in Trinidad.
The restaurant in the square has a live band at night from 9pm so we went to see what the fuss was about on our first night. We had to pay $1 each to get into the restaurant, obviously had to buy overpriced drinks and even pay to use the bathroom. By this point, I was over having to pay for everything.The food in Trinidad was the best in Cuba.
Some of the restaurants were definitely a massive upgrade from the food in Varadero but they weren’t brilliant apart from the pork dish I had a La Raddicion which was awesome.
Trinidad definitely feels like a tourism town and it’s a great visit for the night. We loved walking around the picturesque town.
We spent three days in Trinidad and to be honest one night is enough as it’s very small and there’s not that much going on there. The restaurants were some of the best we saw in Cuba by a mile.
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Trinidad check out these deals and below.
What we would have done differently.
As mentioned we would have just spent the night in Trinidad rather than three nights as there’s not much to do there.
Here’s a top tip, if you’re looking to go Vinales after Trinidad, there’s no direct bus but there is one direct going the other way. Doesn’t make sense right? We had to then get a direct bus to Havana at 7:45am which thankfully arrived into Havana early at 12:30 instead of 2pm. We then luckily got the bus from there to Vinales at 2:30pm. You usually must book your buses at least 1 day in advance.
After we got our beach fix in Varadero, and had a fun time in Trinidad, we had a few more days up our sleeves and decided we wanted to see what the Cuban countryside was all about.The view outside our accommodation in Vinales.
When we arrived in Vinales, we were bombarded with the usual chaos of everyone trying to make us stay in their casa. Luckily we got our host in Trinidad to call Casa Nenita ahead for us which we found in the lonely planet. I’d definitely recommend booking ahead for your accommodation everywhere because it’s just annoying having everyone hassle you straight off the bus.
Now, there are so many casas in Vinales, literally every single house is a casa so there’s a lot of competition. When we drove over the valley into Vinales, it was amazing seeing the mountains. It really did look beautiful.
Our casa’s pool obviously hasn’t been in action for a long time!
Our casa, which claimed to have a swimming pool looked like it hadn’t been in use for a good few years which was a shame. Our room however was awesome, we each had our own double bed which we loved, a TV and the best shower we had in ages.
The food at our casa was the best in Vinales and our host turned out to be lovely especially as we were paying them $30 a night in low season plus an extra $5 each for breakfast.
The town of Vinales is small, the Lonely Planet said our casa was out of town, but it’s literally a five minute walk to the main strip which is filled with restaurants and some bars.
The thing that surprised me about Vinales is everyone speaks amazing English, a first for our visit in Cuba so far. Apart from our casa, food again wasn’t great at all, Cuban people seem to love putting a lot of salt on food here!
So we had four nights to kill. Our first day was taken up with getting there as we didn’t arrive until 6pm after 11 hours from Trinidad (and a change of bus at Havana).
We almost didn’t go to Vinales as we thought we would be bored there. Turns out there’s some cool things to do in Vinales so make sure you put the following on your list to visit as it was easily one of the best places to visit in Cuba for a first timers trip.
1. Santo Tomas Cave
Inside a very small part of Santo Tomas cave in Vinales.
On our first day, we went to see Santo Tomas cave, the second largest cave in the Americas, which consisted of eight levels. We love caves so we were excited about this one.Read to go exploring in Santo Tomas cave.
We booked a tour in town in the morning and went on it at 2pm that day for $22 each. You can however book a cab which costs $25 return and $10 each to have tour of the cave. So it worked out slightly cheaper to book with the tour company opposite the church in town.Climbing up to the cave in Vinales.
If you’ve not seen caves before, then definitely check this one out. It was quite fascinating to see a small part of it knowing how massive the complex was.
Tips – I wore my hiking boots and was sliding all over the place so make sure you don’t wear flip flops or trainers.
The following day, we did the obligatory horse ride which we loved. It cost us $20 each for the four hour tour, a standard flat rate which everyone was charging. Our casa organised it for us and was just around the corner from the casa too. We loved the horse ride and it was by far the best thing we did in Cuba.We met the owner of a cigar farm who was incredibly charming.
We loved the beautiful views of Vinales during our horse ride but we didn’t spend the entire four hours on the horses. We also stopped off at a local cigar farm where we were able to try the Cuban cigar. We also met the awesome owner who seemed to have a liking for me which gave Stevo the opportunity to take some amazing shots of him above. And we also visited a coffee plantation and learnt about how coffee beans have zero smell unless they are roasted.
The four hour tour was well worth the money and we had great fun on it.
We spent our final day at the beach which was a good 3 hour drive from Vinales. It was a gorgeous beach but definitely 100% bring the strongest mossie spray with you. We spent the next two days in agony over those sandflies on the beach! You wouldn’t even notice them on the beach so just trust us on taking spray with you.
If you’re looking for some great deals in Vinales check here or below.
What we would have done differently
There’s nothing we would have done differently in Vinales. We stayed there for four nights which was perfect and ended our Cuban trip on a great note.
We headed back to Havana for one night before we got on the plane back to LA. Although we had a mixed time in Cuba, we really enjoyed it and would definitely need to go back there again to learn more about the country.
Other places we would have visited
If we had more time, we would have headed down to the far east of the island to Santiago De Cuba which is supposed to be an amazingly beautiful cultural feast. We would have also gone to check out the nearby Baracoa for some beach time as well.
Best places to visit in Cuba
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