Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean with so much to offer. If you look at the map, is a long narrow island. The diplomatic relations with the United States is getting better, however, don’t expect to find Starbucks or Mcdonalds in Havana, as probably will not happen.
If thinking about Cuba – two things you can believe, the old cars and the cigars. But there’s a lot more to do on this beautiful island! If your time is limited as we have, you will have to choose where you want to spend one week in the country, and also depends on the interest. When preparing the trip, it was a difficult choice as we wanted to combine the beach and cultural attractions but impossible to do in one week. We’ve seen beaches on this trip, but no time to chill- the time we had is minimal. In this blog, I’ll share the itinerary we have in one week.
FLYING TO HAVANA
There are direct flights to Havana from any European airports. An excellent city to start your travel through the country. In our proposition, we did the opposite way; we explore in town on our last days. We departed this trip from Amsterdam with KLM Airline which is a direct flight of 11-hours. For most European passports traveling to Cuba, you need a tourist card. It may sound like a tourist visa but is not. This card is available in any travel agencies for 22 euros.
Travel insurance is mandatory, but we haven’t had to show and did not ask about it. And you need to bring a copy of your return ticket as proof you get out of the country; again, we haven’t asked about it.
ARRIVING AT THE AIRPORT IN HAVANA AND THE CUBAN CURRENCY
Jose Marti International Airport is Cuba’s main international and domestic gateway located 15 km southwest of Havana.
The currency exchange and ATMs are on the right side of the arrival building. There are banks inside, and you will find an automated teller machine that accepts US dollars, Euros, Sterling Pound, and Canadese dollars. If you prefer withdrawing cash with your credit card, there are ATMs as well. Be aware the security guard will not allow more than one person inside even you’re a couple.
The maximum we can withdraw at the ATM is 150 Cuc only. We tried a more significant amount but didn’t work. I’m not sure if it’s from our card, or the Cuban bank itself. But withdrawing money several times a day is never a problem with our card.
GETTING AROUND AND CAR RENTAL IN CUBA
Local buses in Cuba can be challenging if you don’t speak Spanish. It is the cheapest way to get around and a good option for people with plenty of time traveling around the country.
As we have limited time, there were only two choices – hiring a car or booking tours. Prices of tours in Cuba are quite expensive, so opted for the car is our best bet.
Self-booking online is impossible. Filling up the form it sends me through an unfamiliar agency. The only option we had is booking the car through a travel agency in Belgium. They work with Caribbean Tours. The company also organize tours.
European drivers in Cuba. Your home drivers license is sufficient to drive a car in Cuba. We carry our international permit, but they didn’t ask for it. When arriving in Havana, there will be waiting for you from the company.
SELF-DRIVE IN CUBA
Self-driving in Cuba is super easy, no traffic and fewer cars. The highways are good with a speed limit of 100 kph. But the infrastructure of the major roads in Cuba is poor! Gap and bumpy. You know how to replace a car wheel right? In case if you need to. We were lucky we didn’t have to do it, I have a good driver (joking).
One important thing – avoid driving at night because it can be dark no lights on the road.
In a particular place; people walk in the street at night which is common in the country. Walking path even not exist. A shock of our life we almost killed someone walking in a very dark road while we’re on our way from the airport. Also sensible to take all-in car insurance. For 10 US dollars per day, you’re all covered. One thing to be aware of; the navigation system doesn’t work in Cuba. A useful method for GPS is free app MAPS.ME offline route planner and works great in Cuba.
TIPS WHEN DRIVING IN CUBA
Don’t take hitchhikers. For your safety, ignore them. You will notice when driving at the motorways people gesture when they see the approaching car. Some sway with money – it means they’ll pay for the ride. I heard some of the hitchhikers steal from you, so it is better to avoid them.
BE CAREFUL WITH SCAMMERS
We’re held up twice, once on the highway while on our way to Vinales. The second time during our drive to Cienfuegos. Two men were wearing an ID. We thought these guys are from the road patrol because they’re signing us to pull out the road. These people speak pretty well in English and can tell a narrative.
One guy said he is a manager of a bus company; one of his buses breakdown in Vinales. We almost believe him, suddenly he’s become aggressively pushed to come with us, then I thought uh it’s a scam. We refuse and drove away.
You’ll be warned by the car company what to avoid when driving in Cuba. He said corruption and scams are the main problems for tourist in Cuba. We’re fortunate didn’t have any issues with the police during our trip.
INTERNET IN CUBA
Cuba is the sluggish island in the Carribean when it comes to the internet. Most hotels have no free wifi. We were like spoilt travelers; anywhere we go mostly got free wifi. In Cuba free internet is non-existence. Even classy hotels don’t offer free internet.
To connect online, you need a card called ETECSA. You can buy these card at any ETECSA offices for 1 Cuc (for an hour connection).
But the card only works in a wifi hotspot. The hotspot is mostly available in the city main square or sometimes in a hotel lobby. If you see everyone busy at their cellphones, means is the wifi hotspot area. There is a limit when purchasing the card. You can only be buying five tickets per day. Some hotel desk also sells Etecsa card, but they’ll be charging you double.
1- DAY OVERNIGHT IN HAVANA
If you plan to start your trip here, you’d better wait to pick-up your car. You don’t need a car in Havana. As we anticipated to hit the road to Vinales on the next day, we took the car. Our hotel is in the old town without parking. That’s the generic problem in Havana, the parking. We had to pay 5 Cuc for a secure car park nearby.
2- DAY STOP BY IN LAS TERRAZAS
On the way to Vinales, you’ll find this hilly Nature Reserves in Pinar del Rio Province, approximately one hour drive from Havana. If you have a car, it is worth stopping by.
The town name (Terrazas) terrace derives from a laid out of pine trees — Cuba’s first Biosphere Reserve in the Sierra del Rosario established by UNESCO in 1985. You also find the oldest restored coffee grindstone built in 1801 by French refugees from Haiti. The area is also home to fauna and flora. Visitors can enjoy the rural setting — an ideal day trip from Havana. Outdoor activities are offered such as rowing a boat, canopy tour, hiking, etcetera. If you plan on staying the night, there are several hotels and restaurants in nature reserves.
VIÑALES WORTH TO GO?
Have you ever heard the Cuban cigar? Uh yes, I do — you like a cigar or not, you wouldn’t skip Vinales.
However, everyone’s going there, but this tiny town still has its charm. Vinales listed as the UNESCO World Heritage in 1999. The economy came from crops: vegetables, coffee, fruits, and tobacco.
Surely, visit one of the Finca (farmer) if you want to know how the Cuban cigars produce here. Vinales is only a two-hour drive from Havana.
THINGS TO DO IN VIÑALES
- Visit a farm – see how the cigars rolled manually – and you can purchase cigars. They are a lot cheaper here than elsewhere in Cuba.
- Horseback riding – explore Vinales Valley while on the back of the horse
- The Cuevas del Indio – very touristy, most visitors in Vinales are going to see this cave
- Cycling – offers countryside scenery
- Mural de la Prehistoria – it may be not worth it, but while in Vinales go and see it
SLEEPING IN VINALES, CUBA
Nevertheless, it is a small town, but you have a selection of accommodation. There are hotels and Casas Particulares (licensed bed & breakfast). We are staying in HOTEL LOS JAZMINES, not in the center but the right place for people with a car.
DINING IN VINALES, CUBA
The town center of Vinales abundance with restaurants. If you’d like a buffet food (eat as you can) head to LA CABANA. A mix of western and local food. The price of the buffet cost 15 Cuc. The location latent from the mains street, but if you asked people where La Cabana, they’d point you there. Is recommended to us from a local guy we meet at the market. The restaurant offers free wifi; they give the password in your table. Unbelievable!
3- DAY THINKING OF GOING TO CIENFUEGOS?
Cienfuegos may not be on everyone’s list. You certainly regretted if skipping the city. Coming from Vinales, indeed a long drive. We took the coastline which is 416 km. The trip asserts you to see locals life, see the children playing, sorts of things you see on the way. Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) is on the road where the Cuban invasion begins. The monument and the museum (Museo Giron) explains about the assault in the Bay of Pigs.
Cienfuegos, one of the chief seaports of Cuba. The center of the sugar trade as well as coffee and tobacco. Why is Cienfuegos ” The Pearl of the South”? The answer is noticeable around with its neoclassical architectural structures. It feels different than any other cities of Cuba. Also, fewer tourist.
THINGS TO DO IN CIENFUEGOS
- Parque Jose Marti – there’s a lot of features around and truly beautiful.
- The historical museum
- Castillo de Jagua
- Paseo El Prado also called the (Calle 37) – line up with traditional colonial style buildings
WHERE TO SLEEP AND EAT IN CIENFUEGOS, CUBA
There are many Casa Particulares (B&B) you can ring the bell as most of them don’t have a website. We were staying in CASA JUANCHI with super friendly owners. The location is not in the center but walking distance.
For Dining – the PELICANO RESTAURANT recommended to us by the landlord. A bit pricey but had a fabulous view from the rooftop to Bahia, Cienfuegos.
4- DAY TOPEZ DE COLLANTES
On the way to Trinidad, we took the road from Cienfuegos through La Sierrita to San Blas. The national park Topes de Collantes in Sierra del Escambray is second-largest Park in Cuba. The area with steep slopes densely covered in pines is a home for waterfalls and caves. Hiking is majority thing to do if you want to see the waterfalls which are only accessible on foot.
The visitors to Topes de Collantes can only follow the official routes. There’s a guided tour offered in the park, but if you’re going to hike independently in one of the permitted official trails, you have to pay for it. Nothing’s free in the park. Price starts from 5 to 20 Cuc.
The visitor center is an excellent place to start where you get some information about the park. Moreover, you can buy your ticket as well. Getting to the park it is not easy. Either you hire a taxi in Trinidad as many people do or rent a car for one day or booking a tour.
TRINIDAD – AN OPEN AIR MUSEUM
Trinidad will be approximately one hour driving from Cienfuegos if you are directly going.
The city has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1988. Trinidad is entirely different; here you feel the Cuban vibe. If you were thinking about Trinidad, Cuba – only one thing you re-think of; the houses from the 19th century are the main attractions. So I’m not surprised, it is also the most visited town in Cuba after Havana. However, you can evade the crowds. See where everyone is going- you’ll find spots where no masses. It is a small town, and most of the historical center is pedestrians.
THINGS TO DO IN TRINIDAD, CUBA
- A stroll on the historical center
- Go up to the roof of Palacio Cantero. It has an excellent view of Trinidad. You pay 2 Cuc inside, but it is worth it!
- The beach (Playa Ancon and Playa La Boca) – if you’re fit, you can reach the beachside with a bicycle as most people do.
- Topes de Collantes nature reserve park – for hiking, caving, rivers, falls, canyons.
- Valle de Los Ingenios – about 15 min from Trinidad center
WHERE TO SLEEP AND EAT IN TRINIDAD, CUBA
There are lots of accommodation in the city. Prices vary on the location, how closely you want to the historic center how more you pay for the room. Again, parking is our primary concern, but after looking on the map, we found CASA DE LA TRINIDAD. The location is walking distance to the historic center, and you can park in front of the house.
Dining is never a problem in Trinidad! Trinidad is a very touristy place. There are many restaurants scattered around the city. All you have to do is find the good ones! I highly recommend TABERNA LA BOTIJA. Go prior as you can especially evening; as it is a favorite restaurant for everyone in Trinidad and the best one!
5- DAY SANTA CLARA
After breakfast, we check out in Trinidad and drive back to Havana. We first drove to Santa Clara. Don’t skip the imposing monument of Che Guevara. However, the memorial is on the main road but undoubtedly if reachable with a local bus. Most people came by taxi; tours are offered as well with a combination of other sites in the area.
On-site, there is a museum dedicated to Guevara’s life and an eternal flame lit by Fidel Castro in his memory. Santa Clara is one the chosen place as the location in remembrance of Guevara’s troops taking the city on December 31, 1958, during the Battle. Underneath you can visit the tomb of Che Guevara. It’s severely guarded no photography allowed.
HAVANA AND RETURNING THE CAR
It is our last day with the car. We will drop-off the vehicle in the city center. The agreement with the rental company we will drop off the car in one of their office in the center. Moreover, they’ll arrange a free pick up for the airport.
So while the drop-off time is later in the evening, we take advantage of seeing the tourist site which locates from the city center.
We drove to COJIMAR, a small fishing village in Havana where Ernest Hemingway memorial erected. Most people forget this village, how incredibly lovely wandering the area where no many tourists around.
TROPICANA locates outside the main center of Havana approximately 15 minutes drive. A Cabaret where evening shows proposed. We have no intention to see the show; we’re just curious to look at the surroundings. You’re can quietly enjoy drinks in the bar distinct from the Cabaret building.
Morro Castle – the icon of the city and a must see in the Havana. The location is entirely away from the center. As it is one of the main tourist sites, there are frequent buses this way.
WHERE TO SLEEP, EAT AND DRINK IN HAVANA, CUBA
You will be overwhelmed when deciding where to stay in Havana. Of course, if you want the center of interest, pick a place that you can go on foot.
If you looked online multitude hotels are available but how closely you want in the historic center how expensive the rooms are. Some of them didn’t have a website — the ones you’ve found online mostly expensive.
If you can’t determine where to stay, it is sensible to book one night; at least you have a roof for the first night in Havana. Walked the next day and searched a place to stay that suits your budget.
We were staying at LA CALIFORNIA BOUTIQUE APARTMENT situated in the old town of Havana. Their website may not be working, but you can always email them. Its location is walking distance to the historic center and close to the Malecon.
Dining in Havana – the Bishop Street (Calle Obispo) is one of the busiest streets in the old town abundance of restaurants and bars.
6-7 DAY HAVANA
Why is Havana so famed? Explaining can be awkward. Havana is a lively place with dilapidated buildings where some locals are live. A city overflow with tourists from different nationalities, especially European visitors.
Is Havana safe? Yes and no!
We have no problems walking at night in the dark back to our hotel. Same as any cities in the world, take some reasonable precautions!
Scams? I supposed it is common in every city. While we’re standing on a shop looking to the souvenirs, a lady shows up in front of me asking money for milk of her baby.
Cuba is a beautiful country with super cool and friendly people; if you speak Spanish, they’ll love to conversate with you.
Tourists are part of the Cuban economy. You have to pay for everything, and as a customer in a bar, you even have to pay for the toilet. So always carry some coins with you for the bathroom.
THINGS TO DO IN HAVANA
The old town was on the list of UNESCO World Heritage in 1982. There are several things to do:
- The Malecon – a 7-kilometer long boulevard
- The Capitol – 10 Cuc entry; a guided tour inside. A must see in Havana.
- Museum Revolution – 8 Cuc entry; here you’ll find loads of history during the Cuban revolution
- Old town square – here you’ll see valuable colonial houses.
- Morro Castle – the icon of Havana
- Cojimar – a small fishing
When is the best time to visit Cuba?
You can visit Cuba at any time of the year. I’m no expert in weather broadcast but talking to local people, it appears the best month is from November to April. May starts the rainy season, and this goes until October. However, it doesn’t mean rain all day. We visited Cuba in December; overall the temperature was pretty good in the daytime but has chill nights. Trinidad is worst when the sun goes down you need a sweater. For the Cuban people, December to February is too cold for them.