We all know by now: Visit Cuba before it changes! With all the new opportunities to visit the country, things are developing quickly. So yeah, better get yourself over there before it will become a tourist trap. In this post I’ll describe some to do’s and not to do’s in my favorite places in Cuba. But before we start I want to hightlight a few things that many people ask when going to Cuba:
Are there ATMs in Cuba?
- Yes there are ATMs. A lot actually. With the increasing amounts of tourists that head to the country they have prepared themselves pretty well.
What is that local and tourist currency that everyone talks about?
- Indeed there are two currencies. One that is equal to the American dollar and the local pesos, which is worth about 25 times less than one dollar. You’ll get the tourist money and you pay with it too. They’ll always accept it, but if you go to more local places you might receive your change in the local currency. And you want this!! Why? Well. Sometimes, they say an amount for a certain good and you think it is in the tourist currency. However, it might be in the local currency, very sneaky. So you end up paying 25 times more than the actual price. I had this with peanuts. I thought a bag of peanuts for a dollar, sure. I didn’t know that in other places they were sold for 1 local pesos – 4 cents. Oops.
Is Cuba expensive?
- This very much depends on how ‘smart of a traveler’ you are. That means: You can pay 400 dollars a night easily in almost every big hotel. You can also stay in a homestay for about $30/night (and share that room: so $15/person/night), or find one of the very few hostels that are around. Also in terms of food: restaurants in touristy areas have Western prices. A main course will cost you between 10 and 20 dollars. Local restaurants are crazy cheap. I’m talking about big plates of food for 3 dollars. And if you don’t take the meat, it is even cheaper. You can also find some local street food like coconut (ice cream), small shops that sell amazing pizza’s, local treats and corn on a cob. You’ll pay anywhere between 20 cents and 2 dollars depending on where you are. So: you decide your budget.
Can you visit Cuba on your own?
- I did! So it is definitely possible. A few things you need to consider are: 1. You pay for rooms that are for two people, so basically you always pay double. 2. There are not many hostels, so it is more difficult to get in touch with other (solo)travelers. 3. You travel quite some distances and some people prefer to do that with other people instead of alone. 4. If you don’t speak any words in Spanish: Good luck;)
- Do I recommend it? Well.. It is interesting. I was lucky that I met some great people, but you really have to do an effort. Also, I could afford paying 25 to 30 dollars a night for a room – but it is always better to share that money, right? So for me personally, if I would ever go back I would definitely go with someone. Having traveled to other countries on my own before I think Cuba was the country where I least enjoyed being solo. Mainly because there is just not that many other solo travelers that you end up joining and I also was limited in talking to locals because I just started learning Spanish. But.. Yeah: it is definitely possible!
Where do you stay in Cuba?
- There are hotels, homestays and a few hostels. You don’t really have to book anything online beforehand. You walk through the streets and you’ll see places to stay everywhere. Also: if you ask someone for a place to stay, they always have a friend/family member that is a host. You’ll always find a place to sleep. Say your price up front and you’re good to go. If you are afraid of just trusting people.. well.. normally I wouldn’t really say this but.. I have experienced for myself that Cubans are very friendly & genuine and really want to help you.
Okay now off to the real deal: What places should your visit in Cuba?
You will definitely not skip Havana when you’re visiting Cuba. Besides the fact that it is their port to the world, it is an interesting place to see. Close your eyes for all the touristy tricks and activities that have been building up in the last couple of years and open up to see the real Havana. I wondered around the streets in the old centre, but as far away as possible from the main shopping and hotel streets. Besides the fact that all the prices are a complete rip-off, it is just very very busy.
Step a few metres away from the busy streets and you’ll already find yourself in a whole new atmosphere. Little shops inside homes where you can pay a few cents for a cup of coffee or a ‘mani’ bar – peanuts and sugar mixed together to create absolute deliciousness. At night you’ll see guys around a table playing a game of domino and if you’re (un)lucky you’ll get invited to play. That can take a while ;)!
Of course Havana is also great for Salsa, and seeing the Oldtimer cars. One thing I would like to advise you: There are ‘Old Cars For Tourist’ as I call them. You pay 40 dollars for a guy in a fancy suit to drive you around Havana Old Town – a walkable distance. If you want to be in a real old car go to a street just outside of the Old Town, Like Neptuno near hotel Inglaterra. Grab a really old taxi and share it with the locals. I asked my driver to take me all the way tot he end of his trip and then come back with him to Havana Old Town. I was in the taxi for about one hour, saw a lot of the city outside of the tourist area, got a coffee from my taxi driver – which was a typical loud music, fancy necklace, I love and hate my wife type of guy – and paid about 3 dollars for it. It was great. This btw was advice from a Canadian friend I met there and who had been living in the city for a few months already.
From Havana you can easily get to Viñales. Here you’ll find some opportunities for visit sigar farms and get instructions on a DIY sigar. You can also walk around the beautiful nearby valley. Sunset is definately the best time to go and explore that! Lastly, there are many opportunities to visit nearby beaches.
On your was from Havana to Viñales you’ll pass Las Terrazes. Or, well, you don’t want to pass miss it really, you want to stop there for a second.. few hours.. or one night or something. Many people skip this hidden gem, though!
Las Terrazas is a small village in the hills of Sierra de Rosario in a UNESCO protected Nature reserve. Eco and organic are two main themes in the area. There are beautiful hikes, spots that serve delicious coffee and art galleries.
This may be the favorite city of many tourists that visit Cuba. Besides the beautiful old streets there is a vibrant night life (salsa – of course), great restaurants and beautiful churches. Definately have a look at Casa de la Música, where there is life musica and dancing every night on the square. During the day you can do a waterfall hike to El Cubano national park or have a (bike) ride to Playa Ancon.
Santiago de Cuba
Many people skip the south of Cuba. It can be quite a hassle to get there if you are prepared enough, like me, to buy a flight ticket from Habana in advance. So I was stuck with a 20h busride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba.
Santiago de Cuba is seen as the second city of Cuba, after Havana. However, it is totally different. First of all there is way less tourists. Also, there is quite some Carribean influences coming from its nearby neighbours Haiti and Jamaica.
Santiago the THE city of music. I have seen and heard the best national performers here and it is out of this world how good they are. Everywhere, all the time, you can hear people playing togethere, practicing or performing. It’s magical.
Next tot hat are some cool museums if you’re into that and the local Citadel is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. So if you’re the I should see cultural stuff otherwise I feel like I’m doing nothing type of tourist – you should consider a visit to that place as well ;).
From Santiago it is easy to get to Baracoa with another 4 to 6 hour busride. I was doubting at first because, well.. I had to get all the way back to Havana by bus again too and Baracoa is kinda out of the direction. Nevertheless I chose to go there, what a great decision.
Baracoa is the place where the Cuban Chocolate comes from. You’ll see many cacao farms and many restaurants have local treats. There is this place along the boulevard that sells coconut-chocolate bars, it is amazing! The vibe in Baracoa is quite beachy, although there is no beach. However, the ocean is so nearby and walking along the boulevard will definately make you soaking wet from the heavy winds that make the waves break over the streets.
Start your day in Baracoa in the local juice bar for some fresh fruit juice. I was very keen on their fresh mango juice. Then you can go to a nearby nature area for a swim and/or visit a local cacao farm. At night there is again great music and amazing food. That’s because in the Baracoa area the climate is different than in the rest of Cuba and the produce is fresh and mostly organic. I have also found a vegan – yes VEGAN – restaurant in Cuba. Man.. as if I was dreaming. I went there with 3 non vegans – and they were stoked about it too. The food is amazing. Make sure to pay restaurant Baracoando a visit!!