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Planning a trip to Cuba? Then you’ve come to the right place. There is nothing quite like Cuba, which is why I’ve included my top Cuba Travel Tips and outlined, for you, what to see in Cuba when you finally arrive.
First, it’s important for you to know that throughout its history, Cuba has endured a socio-political reality unlike any other nation in the Caribbean. That’s one of the reasons why you will find spectacular but crumbling architecture, a dual currency system, and antique American cars rumbling down broad oceanside boulevards.
Yes, things are different in Cuba. But where Cuba really shines is in its vibrant culture, its art, music, and people. I recommend at least two weeks timeframe in hopes of your enjoying some of the island nation’s best features and highlights I’ve mentioned below.
If Cuba has always been on your bucket list and you want to make sure you maximize your time there, read on.
Table of Contents (skip directly to the info you're looking for)
- 1 What to do in Cuba Travel Guide + Insider Cuba Travel Tips
- 1.1 Key things to know before you go
- 1.2 Bewitching Havana
- 1.3 What to eat and where to eat it
- 1.4 Havana nightlife
- 1.5 Stay with a Cuban family in their home
- 1.6 How to get around
- 1.7 The classic Havana walk – the four plazas
- 1.8 Las Terrazas, ecotourism Cuban style
- 1.9 Things to do in Las Terrazas include:
- 1.10 The Valley of Viñales. Is this the most beautiful place in the world?
What to do in Cuba Travel Guide + Insider Cuba Travel Tips
Key things to know before you go
There are a few key things you need to know about Cuba to maximize your time there.
- U.S. citizens can only travel to Cuba under a very specific set of criteria established by the U.S. Department of State. Fortunately, these are not too difficult to comply with.
- Cuba has two currencies, the CUC worth about the same as a U.S. dollar and the CUP, also known as local currency worth about 24 CUP = US$1. Visitors mostly use the CUC and knowing the difference is one of the most important dos and don’ts on your visit to Cuba.
- U.S. credit cards drawn on U.S. banks won’t work in Cuba. U.S. citizens must bring enough cash to last them the entire trip and try to prepay as much as possible.
- There is a 10% fee for exchanging US$ into Cuban CUC. That’s in addition to the 3% currency exchange fee. If you are bringing lots of cash, it may make sense to change your US$ to Euros first then into CUC once you arrive in Cuba. If you’ve already prepaid much of your expenses and don’t plan on spending much cash, saving 3 to 4% may not be worth the hassle for you.
- Internet access in Cuba is scarce and unreliable but it is getting better. To connect you must purchase a card from the local telecommunications office, ETECSA, and find a location with access, usually a park or hotel. The ETECSA card is sold in one and five CUC increments.
- When in Cuba you should only stay in casas particulares or private enterprise Cuban guest houses similar to Bed&Breakfast and eat in paladares, private enterprise restaurants. More on these later.
Havana is Cuba’s capital city. A taxi from the Jose Marti International Airport into the center of Havana should not cost more than 25-30 CUC. A CUC is roughly equal to a US dollar.
To truly appreciate what Havana has to offer, I suggest you stay for one week; 4 or 5 days in the city itself. Then spend one or 2 days taking day trips to the Playas del Este beaches or Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s home on the outskirts of Havana, now a museum.
Complete the 2 week itinerary with 1 or 2 days in Las Terrazas and 3 or 4 days in Vinales and beautiful areas nearby like the Valley of Viñales.
The first thing you notice about Havana is that the air smells slightly of the salty Caribbean Sea that surrounds it. The architecture will also surprise you. Havana was once the richest city in the Spanish colonial empire. The buildings reflect this grandeur but unfortunately, they have not been maintained so many are crumbling. The government has tried to restore these to their former splendor but in many cases it’s too little too late. Still, those that survive are truly spectacular.
One unique Cuba feature that is particularly prevalent in Havana is the sight of old American cars everywhere. Political and economic conditions have not allowed new American cars into the island, so the ones left over from pre-revolutionary times in the 1950s have been maintained and still run! The more beautiful ones are used as tourist taxis. The older ones to transport locals. The sight of these cars on the Malecon, or Havana’s oceanside boulevard, makes for a great photo opportunity.
Crumbling architecture notwithstanding, Havana beguiles. The city is chock full of colonial architecture with leafy interior patios. Cute little niche museums are found everywhere; the Chocolate Museum, Rum Museum and Napoleonic Museum are all impressive, interesting and fun. The National Galley of Fine Art is world-class, and the Cuban art wing is outstanding.
New art galleries have sprung up throughout Havana. Purchasing original art is an excellent memento of Havana and will help support incipient free enterprise.
What to eat and where to eat it
The paladares, private enterprise eateries, have turned into the best restaurants in Havana. They continue to surprise with innovative fusion cuisine as well as traditional Cuban fare. Some of the best – and not too expensive paladares in the city include, “La Guarida,” with its interesting façade. Be sure to order the chicken fricassee. “Doña Eutemia,” right off Cathedral Plaza in a little alley was rated one of the 100 best restaurants in the world by Newsweek in 2012. The classic lechon, or roast pork, is your best bet here. “San Cristobal,” where U.S. president Obama had lunch with his family is another excellent option. The best dish here is the goat stew. “El Cocinero” is in a refurbished cooking oil factory. What’s good here besides the food is the unique location. Paladar “Los Mercaderes” is a charming upstairs venue with strolling musicians. Here you must have a dish called ropa vieja, which translates into “old clothes.” It is shredded beef with tomato sauce and spices and a traditional Cuban dish.
Want to know everything about Cuban restaurants? Get the free app ALaMesa.
Traditional Cuban drinks include the ever-popular mojito, of course, made of rum, mint, sugar and tonic water. Other classics are the daiquiri and Cuba libre, commonly known as rum and coke. They have killer fruit juices so every chance you get, enjoy one! Drink prices vary but the average is 2 to 3 CUC.
At about 2 CUC a pop, local beer is cold, good and refreshing. The two top ones are Crystal and Bucanero. Cuba is famous for its rum and with good reason. It is reputed to be the best in the world and I really can’t argue with that.
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Of course, Havana nightlife is now as legendary as it ever was. My favorite jazz club is La Zorra y el Cuervo (The Fox and the Crow) on 23rd street in the Vedado neighborhood. Nearby is El Gato Tuerto another jazz legend. Havana Café has a nice show with dinner and dancing. If you want to go all out, try the show at Tropicana. This is a Vegas-style floor show with dinner and all the trimmings for about 100 CUC per person. The Parisienne in the Hotel Nacional also has a spectacular show for less.
Finally, there is La Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory or F.A.C. for short).
This is a performance art venue in the reconstructed cooking oil factory it shares with El Cocinero. The place takes up three floors of music, cinema, dance performances, art exhibits and more. This place is unique in the world. There is nothing like it and you will definitely love it. Make sure to arrive early as doors open at 8pm but the line starts forming at 6:45-7PM. This is a MUST in Havana. Don’t miss it!
Stay with a Cuban family in their home
The best place to stay in Havana and anywhere in Cuba is at a casa particular, or Cuban private home. These casas range from a rented room in someone’s home to a full apartment or home. You can book them through Airbnb or any of the many rental services found online. These accommodations are offered by Cuban families under a government-sanctioned private enterprise system. The average price for one room is about 30 CUC/night. That’s per room, not per person. Pretty good deal, huh?
If your credit cards are from U.S. banks you know they won’t work in Cuba. In that case it makes sense to pay for your accommodation before you arrive so you don’t have to walk around with so much cash. Regardless of the obvious pre-payment convenience, the big advantage to a casa particular accommodation is that you will be staying with a Cuban family and interacting with them. This experience will be one of the highlights of your visit. The casa hostesses, usually women, can connect you with other services like dinner reservations, taxi service, laundry and general information, functioning somewhat like a concierge. She can also offer meals at reasonable prices. Make sure to order the breakfast for 5 CUC. It is usually delicious with lots of fresh fruit, eggs, bread and the world-famous Cuban coffee.
A casa particular stay will be one of your favorite Cuba memories.
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How to get around
Transportation can be your biggest expense. Taxis abound. The yellow ones are government run, used mainly by tourists and are expensive by Cuban standards for about 10 CUC per ride within the city center. There is some negotiation but not much. Other taxis are private enterprises and can be negotiated. Always confirm the price before getting in any taxi.
Coco-taxis are motorcycles with a domed yellow top resembling a coconut, hence the name. These are cheaper and used for shorter distances. Similar to the Asian tuk-tuk.
A bici-taxi is a bicycle with an attached seat powered by a man. Two to 4 CUC will get you a ride within the city. I suspect you will end up tipping the driver more than the cost of the ride. These guys work hard!!
The classic Havana walk – the four plazas
If your time is limited in Havana, you can see a lot of the city by walking between the four main squares in Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site. That stroll will give you the best opportunity to absorb the city’s colonial history and culture. If you have more time, you could easily spend days exploring these plazas and the charming streets between them.
The four main plazas are:
- Plaza Vieja. This used to be a slave market. It has been newly renovated – some renovations continue – and turned into a wide plaza with open-air restaurants, little shops and a craft brewery.
- Plaza de Armas. This colonial square is shaded by massive, brilliantly colorful bougainvillea trees. In the center there is a garden with tropical plants. This square is where Havana was founded on November 16, 1519. The square houses the Museum of the City of Havana in a renovated colonial mansion, a must see.
- Plaza de San Francisco. This is one of the oldest parts of Havana. A wide plaza houses a beautiful marble fountain, one of the city’s oldest churches, the Church of San Francisco and fancy hotels and restaurants. The plaza is so beautiful it is where Cubans go to get their photos taken for weddings, Sweet 15s (yes, in Cuba it’s Sweet 15, not 16) and other family milestones.
- Plaza de la Catedral. Here you will find the magnificent baroque Catedral de La Habana (Havana’s cathedral) completed in 1777. This wonderful cobblestone plaza is ringed by arched colonial buildings converted to museums, restaurants and art galleries. There are plenty of great photo ops here.
Havana will grow on you. It beguiles and bewitches. It draws you in. Slowly but inexorably, Havana will capture your heart with its charm and vibrant energy.
Las Terrazas, ecotourism Cuban style
Two hours to the west is Las Terrazas, an ecofriendly biosphere famous for its locally grown food, artist colony and much more. Have your casa hostess secure you a taxi to get there. Another option is to take the Viazul bus service. Viazul covers the entire country with very reasonable prices; example Havana to Valley of Viñales is 12 CUC. You will have to buy your ticket at the Viazul bus station. The address is Avenue Independencia # 101 corner of 19 de Mayo street. Some high-end hotels have started to sell Viazul tickets in their lobbies. Ask your casa hostess where these high-end hotels are located.
Las Terrazas was started in 1968 in an effort to build a self-sustaining town. Everything consumed here is locally grown; from flora to fauna. It is worth 1 or 2 days to really get to know the place. There is a nice ecofriendly hotel there, Hotel Moka, with a tree growing in the middle of the lobby.
A good restaurant to try everything Las Terrazas has to offer is El Romero.
Things to do in Las Terrazas include:
- Swimming in the tropical swimming holes with waterfalls (yes, that’s as cool as it sounds).
- Visiting the ruins of abandoned, formerly slave-maintained coffee plantations.
- Visit an artist colony and purchase original art, or just browse. The colony is a collection of artists’ homes.
- Visit the nearby Orchid Garden in Soroa
- Bird watching. Almost half of Cuba’s native birds are found here.
- Go ziplining over crystalline lakes and forests.
- Eat at eco-friendly gourmet, vegetarian restaurants.
- Hike the area in the company of expert guides.
- Go horse-back riding in the lush green hills and over creeks.
The Valley of Viñales. Is this the most beautiful place in the world?
About 3 and ½ hours west of Havana or 2 west of Las Terrazas is the town of Viñales right smack in the middle of some of the most beautiful countryside in the world.
Viñales has benefited greatly from tourism. They have capitalized mightily from their enviable location near the Valley of Viñales. Just about every house in town is a casa particular. The main drag, Cisneros Street is lined with restaurants, casas particulares, souvenier shops, cute little tapas bars, several music venues and bike rentals.
People come to this town to see the Valley of Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The area is dotted with massive limestone outcrops known as mogotes. These can rise above 300 meters into the clear blue sky.
Viñales other claims to fame include tobacco plantations. This is where the world’s best tobacco is grown in an area called Vuelta Baja. While there, visit a tobacco plantation where the multi-lingual staff will give you a tour and explanation of how the leaf is grown, cured and transformed into a valuable cigar. After the explanation, visitors are taken to an area to sample Cuban coffee, rum and cigars in the hope that they will purchase some. U.S. citizens can take up to 100 cigars and two liters of rum back to the U.S. with them tax free.
If you are interested in bringing back tobacco products, this is the place to buy them, direct from the producers. If you purchase tobacco products in other locations, they may be counterfeit.
The farmers also offer horseback riding in the lush, green hills.
Two hours away by taxi is the beautiful Cayo Jutia beach. Here you can go snorkeling, take a boat trip to an outlaying island, have a delicious, fresh seafood meal or just chill on the beach. A taxi can take you, wait for you while you enjoy the beach and take you back for about 60 CUC.
Another unique Viñales activity is the boat tour in an underground river. You enter through a cave and follow the river while the guide points out fascinating rock formations. It’s a short ride but at 6 CUC for a unique experience, it’s not too bad.
Don’t leave Viñales without having lunch at one of the wonderful paladares that face the Valley of Viñales. The food is good, the price is reasonable, the view is breathtaking and makes for perfect photo ops. Some of my favorites include: Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso, Balcon del Valle and La Casa Verde. Don’t let the taxi drivers talk you into going to any other paladares. They will take you to locations where they get a commission, where the food is more expensive and no view. Show them in writing the name of the paladar where you want to go.
There you have it, Cuba aficionados. The best tips for a two week visit to Cuba designed to make you fall in love with this beautiful country and its fascinating culture.
This is a guest post by Talek from the travel blog Travelswithtalek.com
Talek Nantes is an author, digital content creator and founder of the travel blog, Travelswithtalek.com. She is a passionate travel enthusiast and enjoys sharing her travel experiences with others. Talek’s personal and professional background have led her to travel to over 110 countries. She has lived and worked throughout the world and speaks several languages. Talek has an MBA and a Masters Degree in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in with her husband in New York City and Miami. Talek’s most recent book is “Don’t just travel to Cuba, experience Cuba: The ultimate Cuba travel guide.”
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