Cuba stands to be one of the most unique and picturesque countries I've visited. 9 nights and 10 days was the perfect amount of time to see 3 places that represent Cuba's geographic diversity: Varadero, Vinales, and Havana.
Varadero - 3 Nights
Varadero is home to Cuba's (and arguably the Caribbeans's) most beautiful beaches, located on a peninsula about 1km wide and 20km long, lined with white sand and crystal clear water. Located about 90 miles (145 km) northeast of Havana, it's possible to take a day trip to this popular resort town, but I recommend 3 nights.
If you're traveling from Havana city center, the cheapest way to get to Varadero is to take the Viazul bus for 10 CUC. However if you're planning to head there from the airport, a taxi to the city center will cost about 20-25 CUC, so if you're sharing the fair, I would recommend spending a little more and taking a taxi direct for 70-80 CUC and spend those extra hours on the beach. A Cubatur representative at the airport said they typically have a shuttle for 35 CUC/person that goes to Varadero from the Havana airport, but the day we arrived it had broken down.
Varadero is a popular resort town with many 5 star resorts that can easily cost upwards of $300 CUC/USD per night. Alternatively, you can stay in a casa particular like I did for almost a tenth of the price and close to the beach. We stayed at Casa Heidita (found on AirBnb) on 35th street, only 2 blocks from the beach in a quiet part of town, about 1 mile from the tourist hotspots like Beatles Bar (5 CUC via taxi). The rooms, equipped with AC and hot water, were small but completely separate from the home with their own private entrance. Our room had a twin and double bed, bathroom, and kitchen with a gas stovetop and fridge for $42.00 a night with taxes and fees. If you book way in advance you can find some affordable oceanfront properties on AirBnb.
Things to do
In need of some r&r and in an effort to preserve cash, we spent all our days in Varadero on the beach hanging out. You can't drink at resorts unless you're a guest - but you can buy an entire bottle of rum and a couple Fantas for a few CUC and string up a hammock between some palm trees. However, if you're looking to do more than lounge on the beach, Varadero has more to offer.
I always bring my own snorkel with me because I prefer to be cheap and find places on my own. However, the flat shallow waters in Varadero offered no reefs that I found accessible by swimming from the shore. You can pay around 70 CUC per person to go on an all day catamaran snorkeling tour (gear provided) followed by a dolphin show at the Delfinario (for an extra 10 CUC you can swim with them).
Located about 40 miles (65 km) west of Varadero, these caves serve as Cuba's oldest tourist trap.
Varahicacos Ecological Reserve
Nature preserve with caves that reportedly contain ancient remains and pictographs.
One of the popular chain establishments with outdoor patio seating and live rock music.
More my style than Beatles Bar, this is the spot to go if you want to dance to salsa, reggaeton, and hip hop.
The viazul bus station in Varadero is located on 36th Street.
Wifi cards can be purchased at Etecsa centers (locations at Calle 30 and Avenida Primera; Calle 42 and Avenida Primera
Public wifi area is located at the Casa de la Musica between Calle
42 and 43 on Avenida Playa.
Our favorite local breakfast spot was a pop up stand on the corner of Calle 37 and Avenida Primera
There's a 24 hour burger stand (1 CUC/burger) located at Calle 31 between Avenida Primera and Avenida Playa
Supermarket, El Encanto, is located at Calle 41 and Avenida Primera. Be aware you cannot enter with a bag and will have to check it at a security counter out front.
Hotels or travel agencies such as Cubatur can help you book excursions and guided tours
Cubatur locations: Avenida Primera and Calle 23, 33, and past Calle 64.
Vinales - 4 Nights
Limestone cliffs (mogotes) emerge behind colorful farms in the green valley of Vinales. The vibrant landscape, warm people, and surprisingly friendly livestock left me wishing I spent a few extra nights here, my favorite stop in Cuba. If you can't spend a few days here, then take a day trip from Havana - you can't miss this place.
A viazul bus ticket will cost you 22 CUC from Varadero to Vinales. It will take the good part of your day, leaving Varadero early around 7am, with stops in Havana and at various rest stops along the way, ending in Vinales about 3pm.
There are an abundance of casa particulares in Vinales. We stayed at Villa Pocholo, equipped with hot water and A/C, was a 2 minute walk from the town center, and cooked the best meals I had in Cuba. I had mentioned to them I only tried lobster once, and the next night I heard a knock at the door, and opened it to find a home cooked lobster dinner set out for us at no charge. The hospitality at Villa Pocholo made me feel like I was staying with my grandparents and they also have a balcony with a killer view of the valley. Pedro and his wife set up everything we needed including finding us a guide to take us around on horseback and arranging for a colectivo to get us back to Havana.
Things to do
Vinales has the most to do, in my opinion. If you love the outdoors, you can explore the countryside, caves, or beach nearby. We spent an entire day just roaming around taking pictures, talking to locals, and exploring the uniquely picturesque countryside. Vinales was really unlike any place I've seen. It's easy to catch a taxi from the main road wherever you want to go, or if you prefer to be more active, you can rent a bike. For any excursions, ask the host of your casa particular and they can set it up for you. Many homes actually have a large pictorial banner with activities that you can point to if you're having communication issues.
For 20 CUC, a guide will take you on horseback for about 4 hours through the countryside. This includes a tour of tobacco and coffee farms. You continue on horseback ultimately to a cave, where you pay an additional 2 CUC to enter, and a man provides flashlights and points out different rock formations or hummingbirds. The horses will go fast or slow depending on your preference, and they have done these routes so many times ours knew exactly where to go without our guidance. This was my favorite part
of the trip.
If horses aren't for you can still tour the farms on foot. Here you can learn how to hand roll a cigar, purchase them to take home (no limit for
Americans on quantity brought back for personal use), or smoke one with with one of the farmers.
Take a tour of a coffee farm to see how Cubans process their beans. Ours also offered a drink menu - order a Coco Loco and watch your bartender/coffee farmer chop the coconut open with a machete and pour in some rum and lime juice.
White sand beaches and clear water, located about an hour by car outside of Vinales.
Mural de la Prehistoria
Painted on the side of a mogote in 1961 by Leovigildo Gonzalez Morillo, this mural depicts colorful simplistic dinosaur paintings. Honestly, it is not a must see, and I actually enjoyed exploring the farmland behind that area far more. There's a point back there referred to as El Mirador where you can find a small restaurant with a beautiful view of the valley.
Cueva del Indio
About 5km outside of town, this tourist trap usually entails long lines for a short boat ride that passes through a cave.
A bar inside of a cave, literally. A few minutes by car from the city center and should cost you 1 CUC per person each way. Entrance fee of 2 CUC per person. Earlier in the night you may see dance, magic, or comedy performances but as it gets later the stage fills with people dancing.
About 5km outside of town, the host of your cases particular can probably set this up for you. I've read the whole canopy tour is less than an hour so I felt my time was better spent elsewhere while in Vinales.
This is only an option is you're an experienced climber and bring your own gear to scale the mogotes.
The town square is located at the corner of Salvador Cisneros and Ceferino Fernandez. The town square is where you can access wifi, catch dance or music performances on weekends and also where the viazul bus stops.
Wifi cards can be purchased at the Etecsa center near the town square, on Ceferino Fernandez.
Several restaurants line the main road, Salvador Cisneros.
There are several casa particulares on Salvador Cisneros that are within the Wifi reach zone (Casa Dona Glorita, Villa Lila, Villa la Familia, Villa Purry)
Havana - 2 Nights
Havana, the capitol and Cuba's largest city, sees the most action in Cuba with over 2M inhabitants. A drive around Havana is like stepping into a time capsule. Classic cars wind between antiquated buildings that haven't been touched since the 50s, with political murals from the revolution strewn in-between.
From Vinales, the viazul bus cost 12 CUC to Havana. We opted to spend 15 CUC to take a colectivo, arranged by our host family, to pick us up at the casa and take us directly to our next casa in Havana. This should save a little time and money because if you take the bus, you will likely need to take a taxi from the bus station in Havana to your next casa. I say this should save time because theoretically it is faster than the bus, unless your colectivo breaks down for hours in the middle of nowhere like ours did. I anticipated this may happen, which is why we planned our last days in Havana so we wouldn't miss risking a flight if car trouble occurred.
Havana has a variety of districts containing both hotels and casa particulares. As I've said before hotels are expensive and most I feel are overpriced for the level of luxury provided (most of the infrastructure is still really old). The most popular districts for tourists to stay in are Vedado and Habana Vieja. Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, is as its name describes. As you cross into it you are surrounded by dilapidated but charming 1950s architecture lining cobblestone streets, that are full of tourists. You should definitely visit Habana Vieja, but stay in Vedado (30 minute walk or 10 minute cab ride- 3-5 CUC). Vedado still holds beautiful yet more modern architecture and you'll find less tourists and more Cubans in this area, with many restaurants and bars. We stayed at the Apartmento Olga y Jeremy on AirBnb located at Calle D and Calle 23 in Vedado. We had the whole apartment to ourselves, which included a kitchen, bedroom with 2 double beds and AC, bathroom with hot water, and a living room with a pull out sofa bed and the most amazing panoramic view of Havana, for around 52 CUC a night with taxes and fees.
Things to do
I'm not big on guided tours - A walk around the city is all you need to see the architecture, political murals, and historical monuments that define Havana.
Walk along the boardwalk and mingle with Cubans young and old, fishing, drinking beer, and hanging out.
This neighborhood, located 30 minutes outside of central Havana, features the work of Jose Fuster who set out to cover his town in mosaic tiles starting in the 70s.
Playas del este, a strip of beach located about 20 minutes outside of Havana by taxi. You can also go to Varadero for the day from Havana.
Head out to any public court and play pick up.
Castillo de los Tres Reyes de Morro
Morro castle, named after the 3 Magi, located on the coast in Old Havana, served as a fortress for the largest port in the country. Even if you're not into history, the Castle offers stunning views of the city. You can also go into the lookout tower and if Alfred is working, he'll let you look through his telescopes and insist on taking pictures of you pretending to run the place. You have to take a taxi here, it cost us between 5-10 CUC each way from Vedado (had less luck haggling when we left).
Havana is full of bars and clubs. We had a delicious dinner at Dulce Habana (17th and Calle D) and then went to Sarao down the block - 5 CUC to enter, 3-5 CUC per drink, reggaeton all night.
Classic Convertible Car Tour
For around 25-50 CUC per hour, you can easily find these around the city lined up waiting for tourists. There are private companies that offer
this but you'll be paying a lot more.
Tourist trap with prices to reflect so, located in Old Havana. But with the live music, delicious food, and infamous daiquiris - it's not hard to understand why this was Ernest Hemingway's favorite bar.
Internet can be found at hotels or various parks around the city. In Vedado, we used public wifi near the Habana Libre Hotel. Anytime you walk around in the evening and see a park packed with Cubans on their phones - there's wifi. Again, cards can be purchased at Etecsa centers.
If you're trying to save money and it's too hot to walk, jump in a taxi colectivo.