Expedition: The Great Escape: 2014-15
Adventure Time: 4 Weeks
Cuba was the first country we travelled to as part of our first World Trip (Expedition: The Great Escape). Cuba is beautiful, mad, buzzing, turbulent and unlike any place I've ever travelled to. Beyond the obvious tourist traps and resorts lies a country bubbling with life, optimism, hope and dreams of a better future. You will feel the pull of the politics and the passion of the people.
My top tip is to buy a copy of The Lonely Planet guide book and read it. Really read it. Read and understand the history of this country and take the recommendations. It's written/curated by Brendan Sainsbury, who we met by chance. The man lives and breathes this country and knows it all like the back of his hand.
These are my highlights! Hit the links to scroll down to a specific location.
We began our journey in Havana and travelled west to
We then returned to Havana and stayed in the small beach town of Guanabo before heading off to
Just below my highlights I’ve included some extra information which, depending on when you read it, may or may not be useful before travelling.
Nothing can really prepare you for this City, especially if you're travelling on a budget. It's wonderful but can be chaotic and a little relentless. We couldn't take more than a few steps without being accompanied by a friendly Cuban ultimately wanting money. The poverty and conditions in which many people lived left us shell shocked. Post apocalyptic streets with crumbling homes sat adjacent to 'tourist friendly' promenades - facades to keep rich visitors happy.
This wasn't the Havana I had imagined but I embraced it wholeheartedly for what it was. I see Havana as more of an education than a top destination. I loved it but I hated it. I'll never forget it. I still feel confused by it. I think 4 days is enough time to get a feel for the City.
Places to Stay
Hostal Peregrino - Centro Habana / Habana Vieja
Hosts Elsa and Julio Roque run casas from 3 locations in Central Habana and Habana Vieja. The main Casa is Hostal Peregrino Consulado, where we stayed for 4 nights. The interior is beautiful with soaring ceilings complete with antique furniture. Our bedroom had an en suite bathroom, balcony, 2 beds and a fully stocked fridge. The breakfasts are unforgettable, with an unlimited supply of bread, cheese, ham, jam, pancakes, omelette, coffee, tea, yoghurt and fruit.
For $5 CUC, breakfast was definitely worth getting up for. The service was also just as lovely.
Casa Sr. Ruben Gomez.
Calle 470 A No. 7B03 e/ 7ma. B y 9na
Guanabo, C. Habana
When Central Habana gets too much, make your way to Guanabo along the Playas Del Este for a few days rest. Guanabo is a small beach town 24 km east of Central Habana. A taxi ride there costs approximately $25 CUC, although you can also catch a bus (no. 400) which leaves every hour or so from Calle Agramonte in Central Habana.
Casa Sr. Ruben Gomez is a block over from Lonely Planet’s recommended Casa Elena Morina, and here you don’t just a get a room, you get a whole apartment complete with a decent sized double bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen and a beautiful outdoor patio with rocking chairs. The garden surrounding the patio is a work of art, where Ruben and his wife Lisa spent 2 years building in shells, coral and glass found at the nearby beach into the walls and floor.
What the guide books don’t tell you, however, is that the locals of Guanabo are a little cautious of tourists. I didn't feel unsafe, as such, but I felt watched. That said, we didn't spend much time in town and made the most of our lovely apartment and the nearby restaurant (and now local hostel), Restaurante Maeda. We met another tourist who had been to Guanabo and we all agreed that the food served in Maeda was by far THE BEST food we had eaten in Cuba. We had the Festival Del Mar – split between two. It cost us $6 CUC each and the dish included lobster. Hopefully the food stays the same but maybe with changing to a hostel, the restaurant also may have changed hands.
For the lovely apartment and that restaurant alone, a few days in Guanabo was well worth the stop.
The beach is not the most idyllic at Guanabo but a 2km stroll west was pleasant enough, with white sand and warm waters.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
El Chanchullero - Brasil, btwn Bernaza & Christo, Habana Vieja
Our favourite bar in Habana. If Salsa is your scene then unfortunately you won’t find it here. Described as a ‘Hemmingway-free zone’ it’s suited more for poorer Cubans and backpackers, with decent sized cocktails costing a mere $2 CUC and delicious plates of food for $4-6 CUC (things change though - it was a popular spot so prices may have gone up).
It’s a small graffiti-ridden dive bar, playing mostly rock music. We also discovered that this tiny bar is owned by the nephew of Fidel Castro. It made for good people watching.
You’re in Cuba so you might as well…
La Floridita – Havana
Below average Daiquiris but brilliant people watching! White middle aged sun burned men in white suits chuffing away on cigars thinking rather much of themselves. Loved it. Only stayed for one.
Restaurante Porto-Habana (formerly Castas Y Tal) - Calle E, No. 158B, Piso 11, e/ Calzada y 9na., Vedado, Habana
One of our favourite eating spots in Habana. What attracted me to this place was Lonely Planet’s promise of ‘wrap-around views of Havana’ and great food. I also liked the idea of riding up a ‘painfully slow elevator’ to the 11th floor of a residential apartment block. It sounded like fun.
This place does not disappoint. It’s one of those restaurants you will always remember eating at. The service comes with a huge smile and the food is AMAZING!
My vision of Havana was one of people carrying instruments on their backs to and from gigs, smoking cigars, strumming tunes in doorways and salsa music ringing through the streets. It was really hard to find any authentic music scene in Havana. Baffled I asked a local and they said that the music was more for the tourists and that musicians who weren't part of the tourist circuit didn't play as they couldn't afford to maintain their instruments.
Music was actually much more common in Trinidad but in Trinidad the tourists accounted for 99.9% of the crowd (the town is like a museum). I like a good live band, but what I found in Habana Vieja, Central Habana and Trinidad really wasn’t my cup of tea. I heard Vedado had a good scene but I couldn't find it.
The best music for me was in Santa Clara, simply because there you have a lot of students and the town doesn’t play up to tourists. Old timers jammed together - for each other.
Things to See and Do
Coco Taxis are great fun and most other taxis come as old-skool Fords or Yank Tanks of some form or another, usually with bits missing. It adds to the fun!
I would love to say that Habana Vieja is a pleasure to walk through but I found it quite overwhelming. Street musicians follow you, jineteros hassle you for your name, your country. It’s non-stop, and to enjoy this part of town you really need to learn to put the blinkers on and just ignore it all.
A stroll down Calle Obispo on the way to the cathedral is nice and there’s nothing better than sinking a big glass of ice-cold beer in one of the many outdoor restaurants in Plaza Vieja – but it’s pricey. This area of Havana is incredibly tourist heavy. Even when you’re sitting down to enjoy a beer in the plaza you can never quite escape the attention of people trying to sell you things like characteur pictures. We had quite a collection growing after 1 drink.
Really nice to walk down but can be a hot spot for jineteros. We were approached within a minute of sitting down.
The Plaza de la Revolucion
The murals of Che Guevera and Camilo Cienfuegos hang large and heavy on grey concrete blocks in the somewhat baron square. Whilst you’re in the Vedado area grab a bite to eat at the Restaurante Porto-Habana (Formerly Castas Y Tal), and stroll back to Central Habana along the Malecon – it’s about 1 hours walk.
The eco-village and Unesco Biosphere Reserve of Las Terrazas, set in the lush surroundings of the 40km stretch of forest and hills known as The Sierra del Rosario, is well worth a stop. Just 13km west of Havana, the Sierra del Rosario offers some of the best hikes in Cuba.
Things to See and Do
We paid $20 CUC for El Taburete, a 6km hike up a steep 452m hill (the Loma el Taburete), which when you reach the top, offers stunning panoramic views over Cuba. A monument sits, dedicated to the 38 Cuban guerrillas who trained in these hills for Che Guevara’s ‘ill-fated’ Bolivian expedition.
The hike is quite tough as the hills are steep and there is no real path. You haul yourself up most of the way using tree branches and rocks for support. Great fun!
The hike ends at the bottom of the hill at the idyllic natural swimming pools of the Banos del San Juan. Entry fee is included in the price of the hike and if you’re hungry you can also grab a bite to eat here. The walk back to the office was 1 hour and fairly straight forward. The guide will wait for you if you want, or you can arrange for a taxi to come and pick you up.
Soroa, a natural settlement and mountain resort lying 95km southwest of Havana is known as the Rainbow of Cuba. It is not as common a tourist destination as Vinales which lies further west but the scenery is magnificent, so it’s also worth a stop.
Places to Stay
I loved Soroa but accommodation options were limited so we stayed at Hotel & Villas Soroa (not recommended). However, if options are limited it's fine for a few days, just avoid the food and don’t count on the fabulous looking pool being open or clean. Rooms are also a bit hit and miss on the cleanliness/mould front (particularly in cabins by the lower level pool-side). See if the guide book recommends any Casas instead.
Reynier’s Casa Options
Reynier Chiroldes Cardenaey
T: +53 529937
If you’re feeling adventurous contact Reynier, a local businessman we met during our time here. He speaks good English and is a really nice guy and lives with his wife and young son in a Casa in Artemisa. I’ve written a little bit about my meeting with Reynier here. He cooked us up a storm of a meal one day. We love this guy!
Things to See and Do
Visit Reynier’s bar at the waterfall, Salto del Arco Iris
Admission $3 CUC – then Reynier might show you the secret way in so you can visit again the next day for free, and enjoy a meal at his gorgeous little bar by a set of small natural swimming pools for just $4 CUC per person. Amazing and unforgettable!
It’s well worth spending the afternoon here. Reynier’s English is very good and his spot is charming. It’s one place I actually miss and would definitely return to if I came to Cuba again.
We loved this short (at times a little steep) climb up to El Mirador, a tall rocky cliff with views across the valley. Words don’t really do it justice – it’s just a must!
Castillo de las Nubes (Castle of the Clouds)
A little small for a castle but still very sweet and the views are stunning (as most views in this area are). When we visited it was under construction but the guide book says that has been the case for a few years now so I only assume that plans to renovate and turn it into a boutique hotel have been put on hold. About 100m away is a bar/cafeteria with a small infinity pool looking out over Soroa. We only stopped to get some water but had we had the time we definitely would have gone back for drinks and a swim. It’s pretty secluded up there.
Magical, wonderful, beautiful Vinales. Tobacco country. I would come back to this little town in a heart beat!
Places to Stay
There’s really no end to casas in this tiny town and competition is crazy! I personally would go with a recommendation from one of the casas listed in the guide book - the best one is Villa Los Reyes (below).
The last thing you want is to end up in an unlicensed house. At the time we travelled, before we even set foot off the bus, 50 odd Cuban casa owners had us surrounded and they were relentless in trying to get us back to their properties. If you’ve reserved ahead, have the casa owner meet you – make sure you check with them first which casa you’re going to. Many pose as the owner and there have been reports of people being taken to the wrong homes. If you haven’t booked just tell them all you have a reservation and go to a casa that is listed in your guide book. If they don’t have room they will usually be able to recommend somewhere else.
Villa Los Reyes - Salvador Cisneros No 206C (far west of town). $20-25 CUC
Staying with hosts Yoan and Yarellis was a great pleasure. Breakfast, as in many Casas is bountiful, dinner is huge and all home made and wonderful. They also organise the famous Sunrise and Sunset tours. If you visit Vinales without doing at least one of these tours – you’re doing something wrong!
Things to See and Do
The biggest draw card to staying at Villa Los Reyes was that we could book tours to the valleys direct with Yoan who is an expert on the area and whose father runs a local organic farm. His dad also made the best Mojitis in Cuba!
I’ve written more on my experience on the tours in my blog. Both Sunrise and Sunset tours were unforgettable experiences. It would be a crime to come to Cuba and not visit Vinales – you won’t get scenery or an experience like this anywhere else in the world.
Book a tour via Yoan and Yarellis with Lester and/or Fidel – both excellent guides!
The Sunrise Tour includes getting up a few hours before dawn and hiking up one of the nearby hills. There is no light pollution in this part of the world so if you have a clear night, the sky is filled with stars. A horse and cart take you to the starting point and you can enjoy a fresh morning coffee from a coffee farm, in time for sunrise over the valley.
The Sunset Tour includes an afternoon hike through organic farmland and tobacco fields. You stop off for rum, mojitos and end the tour at a neighbouring tobacco farm, where there is more Mojitos to be had and cigars, of course.
Do both tours!
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
We ate at our casa and at a restaurant in town, El Olivo. El Olivo is ridiculously touristy but to be honest, in comparison with other touristy Cuban restaurants the dishes were pretty cheap and the food (mostly Italian), was amazing. I had lasagne – note, the best lasagne I’ve ever had.
Balcon Del Valle
A few km out of town near Hotel Los Jazmines. Just eat here for the views – the food is pretty good too! Just a few hundred meters away is a hotel with a pool and wifi.
Centro Cultural Polo Montanez
Just off the main plaza – cnr Salvador Cisneros & Joaquin Parez.
A wicked place to stop off, have a drink and watch some interesting performances. From Salsa through to Afro-Caribbean dance and theatre. Just watch out for local Jiniteros. We were lucky enough to witness what can only be described as an old man song off. In a small, gated off patio area to the left of Centro Cultural, old gents went head to head in a battle of words with musicians accompanying them as they slated each other passionately.
Stepping out onto the streets of Trinidad as the sun was setting was picture-book perfect. Narrow, cobbled streets, colourful colonial houses with their huge wooden doors, cowboys on horses, antique cars and the sound of live music filling the air… this is what I was expecting of Habana!
I hate to say it, as Trinidad is very beautiful, but the magic soon wears off as you realise that 90% of everyone you pass in a day is a tourist. I did feel like I was walking through an open air museum - but a very beautiful one at that!
Needless to say it's also what makes Trinidad one of the most expensive places to visit in Cuba. Still – I don’t think you can really say you’ve visited Cuba until you’ve stopped off at this one-of-a-kind, as Lonely Planet says, ‘perfectly preserved Spanish colonial settlement.’
I had a pretty amazing time in Trinidad and I’ve written more about my experiences in my blog – from meeting locals and attending lectures to feasting at a Cuban Wedding and making small talk with the author of Lonely Planet.
Places to Stay
The most beautiful casa we stayed in all of Cuba. Apparently Hostal Florida Center in Santa Clara is one of Cuba’s best, but we stayed there and, as pleasant as it was, it wasn’t a patch on Casa Munoz.
In Casa Munoz you feel very much a part of home life and you are invited to use the home as if it were your own. Julio was born in the house and inherited it from his grandfather. Julio is a horse whisperer come photographer come cowboy come lecturer. He is one character!
He lives with his lovely wife, Rosa and two daughters. The family also has two very friendly dogs and a horse. We spent our time sitting on the patio outside or on the secret roof terrace with views out over Trinidad, smoking cigars and drinking beers.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Everywhere was quite expensive. The best food is probably in your Casa. Hostess, Rosa recommended two restaurants – Cubita Restaurant (just down the road from Casa Munoz), and Vista Gourmet – which lies a little further back from the famous Plaza Mayor. Nothing will prepare you for the stunning views you get when you go up the stairs of Vista. This restaurant really does have the best views in town and excellent food and wine to boot. It’s no surprise that the daughter in our Casa celebrated her wedding here.
We went to a few bars. They were all over priced and full of tourists. Grab a drink – a mojito, cuba libre, cerveza from one of the many holes in the wall around Plaza Mayor and find a bench or step. It’s cheaper and hassle free.
Things to See and Do
Grab a beer or a Mojito and people watch in one of Cuba’s most famous squares. Chat to friendly locals – the old guys selling baskets and bananas are great fun.
Julio from Casa Munoz (mentioned above) can organise a day out on horseback or by cart for around $25 CUC. Julio is a horse whisperer so you are guaranteed healthy and happy horses via Julio!
I’ve written more about my meeting with Julio in my blog. He’s one very interesting guy and has worked with some very well known photographers. As well as being a horse whisper, an engineer and ambitious business man he is also a very well known documentary photographer and runs photography workshops.
Head to the BEAUTIFUL beach – Playa Ancon
Only 20 minutes away by Coco Taxi!
We broke up our journey from Trinidad to Santa Clara by stopping off at Sancti Spiritus, which, when we were there was completely dead. If you’re there at the weekend check out the Rodeo Stadium for Rodeo shows and I’m sure restaurants and music venues will be open. We did however stumble upon the world's largest shirt.
We stayed at Hostal Paraiso – a great option. The room was big and warmly lit, the casa was filled with antique furniture, the garden patio was beautiful. The breakfast was amazing. I only wish we had had dinner there as I’m sure it would have killed anything we had in town.
Santa Clara was like a breath of fresh air. Frequented mainly by Cubans and university students, this city had a fun, edgy and fairly liberal feel to it. Santa Clara is pretty small and you can see it all comfortably in just 2 days.
Things to See and Do
Everything that is Che Guevera – monuments, statues, museums – all in his honour. Underneath the main monument is a mausoleum containing his and his fellow guerilla’s remains and a fantastic little museum and photography exhibition.
The Cigar Factory
This is a must see. A working factory where you can see how all cigars are individually hand rolled and the training process. This is no ordinary factory - definitely a highlight of the trip.