Cuba, the Caribbean destination for culture, history, Cadillac’s and true escapism. Although it’s not got the reputation of the nearby islands for luxury five star retreats and resorts, it offers so much more in the experiences and opportunities you can digest whilst exploring this magical isle.
Never has there been a better time to visit and experience the mix of faded and crumbling Spanish colonial architecture, a dose of communism, white sand beaches and dancing Salsa and drinking rum until the sun goes down. In the last decade, private enterprise has been given the green-light and so many Cuban entrepreneurs have started to offer new opportunities for visitors. From private tours in a vintage Chevrolet to delicious food served in someone’s own casa, there’s a lot more to sample, straight from the locals themselves.
A pastel paradise, Cuba is a destination for people who enjoy travelling but also can adapt to the unexpected and be prepared to slow right down and appreciate an unhurried way of life. While we were there, we got used to we came to call ‘Cuban time’. A little longer to be served, an extended wait to buy a ticket or the complexities that came with getting from A to B. However for us, all this added to the charm of being able to explore a country that seems to be hovering between the past and present.
There are so many places to explore in Cuba, and we feel that we only just dipped our toes into the history and culture that the cities could offer. However if like us, you want to explore a mix of cities, Caribbean beaches and tropical forests, the guide below might be just right for you.
Varadero – Best For Beach Breaks
We landed after a ten hour direct flight from Manchester Airport, and began our stay in Varadero, a place which could only be described as the classic white sand Caribbean beach resort. The incredible 25km of beach, running into crystal clear turquoise warm sea, was a blissful place to begin our journey into discovering the Caribbean holiday lifestyle.
Along the esplanade there’s an abundance of hotels, so my only advice here would be to make sure you read the reviews and facilities when you look to book. The standards vary greatly between them.
Our hotel was fantastic and included its own private beach, several unique restaurants rather than the all-inclusive buffet standard, and unlimited watersports (brilliant for snorkelling in the clear blue waters where fish and marine life is abundant!)
After the long flight, we spent three days relaxing, kayaking and developing a taste for the local varieties of rum, before heading out on the road to see a more authentic side of the Island.
Havana – A Capital Like No Other
Havana is an enchanting maze of a city, which we first glimpsed from the old Spanish fort El Morro situated across the bay, overlooking the vast capital. Instantly from afar we could see the patchwork of different architectures all woven together, Colonial, Gothic, American and Russian, illustrating the complex history of Cuba in just a glance.
We found the best way to explore Havana was on foot, weaving our way through the crumbling and pastel lined cobbled streets. Stop to absorb everything you have seen in the many bohemian bars, wander into the art-deco hotel Hemingway made his home for months and stand in one of the many squares that represent the different times and layers of history that have shaped this city like no other.
Our top sights included the Malecon seafront, the Plaza Vieja Square, Plaza de la Revolution and the old town. You should also make an effort to explore the less regenerated area of Centro Habana, in order to get a true feel of life and reality for many Cubans. It is filled with an energy and buzz, away from the crowded tourist hotspots, and showcases the less polished side of the capital, away from the pastel cafes and restored main squares.
In addition to exploring Havana, there’s also the town of Varadero itself which can provide respite away from the tourist crowds in the hotels. Here we found a delicious state run restaurant, Restaurante La Barbacoa, which served incredibly cheap steak or Lobster in a rustic wood panelled setting.
Cardenas – Into Nature
Forty minutes from Varadero, there’s the bayside town of Cardenas and the national parks filled with woodland and greenery, providing incredible views from the top of the hills right down to the coast. It’s worth a drive through, with a stop for something to eat whilst taking in the nature all around you, and of course to spot some of the native crocodiles in the marshes!
Top Tips for Cuba
Change your money at the airport
You can’t change money until you are in the country, and you get the best rates at the airport or banks. Don’t expect to be able to use your debit or credit card and take everything you will need in cash.
Don’t rely on an internet connection
You can access WiFi at many hotspots or in some hotels, however it’s at a cost, and the network is incredibly unreliable. Expect to disconnect from the world for a while.
Get out of your hotel
Explore and adventure to really experience all that Cuba has to offer. Our best food came from a dining room in a local’s house which turned into a restaurant in the evenings. Even better, stay for a night in one of the local homestays, which you can now find many of on AirBnB.
Agree on taxi fares in advance
It’s great to ride in the vintage cars, but make sure you know the fare before hopping aboard. Transport is really limited in Cuba, so they are a great way to get around but can be expensive. They often are not metered like the state run yellow taxi cars.
Buy your rum outside of your hotel
For more options, and local produce, buy your rum outside of your hotel. Drink it neat with just a few cubes of ice.
Let go and enjoy an unhurried way of life
If you can’t relax and slow the pace down in Cuba, you may at times get frustrated. Leave the rush behind in London, and take each day a little easier when in the Caribbean.
Only swim where safe
The sea can be strong when there is wind in the air, and rip tides are common in Varadero. If there’s a red flag, don’t swim. If there’s bad weather, probably best to wait a day for it to blow over.
A strong mosquito repellent will be your best friend during the stay. The only time we got bitten was when we left the deet in the room one night. We didn’t do that again!
Print your medical insurance certificate before leaving
They do spot checks in the airport, so make sure you have a copy of your travel insurance policy handy.
Get out on the water
See the marine life, snorkel, boat and kayak. The waters are clear, warm and full of tropical creatures. Just watch out for sharks!
Overall, we loved Cuba. It was one of the best travel experiences we have had to date. The food, the romantic vibes, the beaches, the history and the culture made it memorable and incredible. If you have chance to go, now is the time, before changes make it unrecognisable from the Cuba of the past.