A first timer’s guide to Cuba

CoverMore_Lisa_Owen_Cuba_Havana_FortressThe Caribbean island of Cuba is filled with history, culture, sunshine, music and beaches.

Travellers can ride in one of Havana’s classic cars or check out historical colonial buildings, go for a swim at Varadero, or choose from a hike or a horseride in Vinales.

To help you narrow down what to want to see and do in Cuba, check out my 10 day itinerary.

Day 1-2: Havana

Your Cuban adventure will likely begin in Havana. It’s about a 30 minute drive from the airport into the centre.

There’s more to Havana than meets the eye – and once you get to know the city, you might find you’ll want to spend longer here than first planned.

Old Havana is the most interesting part of Havana with its colourful old buildings, which mostly represent the significant Spanish influence in the city. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in Europe.

One of the ways to see Havana is by taking a ride in a classic car taxi. There’s lots to choose from so pick your favourite car and take a tour in style.

Havana highlights include:

  • The 8km Malecon (sea wall). Watch waves crash against the sea wall and take in the view of Old Havana.
  • The Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana fortress. Hang around until sunset to see the shooting of the cannons.
  • The Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, which was built between 1589 and 1630. There’s also a good view of the Castillo from the Malecon.
  • The colourful public art project known as Fusterlandia. Located in the Jaimanitas neighbourhood, you’ll find vibrant mosaic fountains, stairways and pools.
  • The colourful buildings of the El Cerro district. This is where many photography tours bring travellers to capture the colourful architecture.

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Day 3 Cienfuegos

About a five-hour bus ride from Havana lies the bayside town of Cienfuegos.

Take a wander down the Calle 37 Boulevard all the way to Playa Gorda.

You can also check out Cienfuegos Bay and the view of the historical centre from the tower near Jose Marti Park.

Cienfuegos is a good place to roam with all its historical buildings in various stages of restoration or disrepair.

You only need a day here to check out the sights and then move on to Trinidad.

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Day 4 Trinidad

From Cienfuegos, you can hop on a Viazul bus and take the one-hour bus ride to Trinidad.

Trinidad is not a big place, so one full day is all you need here to enjoy the best of the town’s offerings.

You can explore the cobblestoned historical centre with it pastel coloured buildings and churches, head to Plaza Mayor, visit the famous Casa de la Musica, and go up into the main bell tower for a bird’s eye view of the town.

If horseback riding is your thing, then stay an extra day and explore the hills around Trinidad on horseback.

You can also easily catch a taxi in Trinidad to take the short drive to the beach.

Day 5-6 Camaguey or Varadero

From Trinidad, you can opt to head further east to Camaguey or Santiago de Cuba, or choose to head back towards Havana.

Camaguey is another Cuban town filled with colonial buildings, and it’s worth a stop for a day to wander the streets.

If you’ve had your fix of colonial cities, then head straight to Varadero for some cocktails and beach time.

Day 7-9 Vinales

From Varadero, you can head onto Vinales. The Viazul buses do not go direct to Vinales from Varadero so it’s likely you will have to spend a night in Havana before heading to Vinales – unless you take a shared taxi.

In Vinales, you can hike in the surrounding mountains, explore the underground caves, go horseriding or simply relax in the beautiful surroundings.

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Day 10 Havana

Your Cuba adventure will likely end in Havana ahead of your onward flight.

If you didn’t get to explore all of Havana on your first visit, here’s your chance to soak up more of the vibrant city, or you can even catch the Havana Hop On Hop Off bus to check out all the corners of Havana.

With this itinerary under your belt, you can start to plan your own Cuban adventure and uncover its unique culture, history and nature.

Things You Should Know

  • Cuba is a cash economy and two official currencies. Cubano Convertibles (commonly referred to as CUC) are used by tourists and Cubano Nacional Pesos (CUP) are used by locals – however they are interchangeable. In popular tourist locations such as Old Havana and Trinidad, most prices are quoted in convertibles 1 CUC equals $1 USD. Pesos are only quoted in very local places such as fruit and vegetable markets, bakeries or local sandwich shops. 25 CUP is equal to $1 US Dollar. Remember to always check your change.
  • You need to buy a card to access wifi. Wifi is only available by buying a Wifi card from Esteca outlets (you’ll need to show your passport). Once you’ve bought the card, then you have to find a wifi hotspot which is a park or plaza and enter the password.
  • Tourists can only take the Viazul public buses. You will not be allowed on board other local buses. Viazul coaches run between major tourist destinations including Vinales, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Camaguey, Varadero and Santiago de Cuba a couple of times daily. It’s recommended to buy tickets in advance online through www.viazul.com You can view the website in English.
  • A little bit of Spanish will go a long way in Cuba. While some people dealing with tourists on a daily basis will know a smattering of English, it will be helpful to know some basic phrases and words in Spanish to make it easier to get around and communicate.
  • There’s only a few hotels and hostels across Cuba, and you may find your cheapest option is to rent a room instead, especially if you’re travelling as a couple or in group. Many Cubans rent out rooms for tourists – called casa particulars. Each room usually has two beds (commonly a mix of a double bed and single bed), a private bathroom and air conditioning or a fan.

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