Colorful crumbling houses, vintage cars, Fidel and Che, mojitos, music and cigars… evocative and seductive, Cuba had been on my wish list for a long time. But not the Cuba of the big all-inclusive resorts, I wanted to see the real country and get a chance to meet its friendly and interesting people.
Right now, Cuba is changing. New private restaurants (paladares) are popping up, casas particulares (homestays, but more like tiny B&Bs) can be booked on Airbnb and there is finally some sort of internet access. Slowly but surely Cubans are getting more freedom. It’s the perfect time to explore this beautiful island with all its contradictions.
- Bucolic charm with a scenic backdrop in Viñales
- Picture-perfect Trinidad and La Boca
- Palms, white sand, crystal clear water and nothing else at Playa los Cocos
- Discovering Cuba’s lesser known but no less beautiful cities (Cienfuegos, Camaguey, Gibara, Baracoa…)
- Swimming in natural pools at El Nicho and Rio Toa
- Living it up in Havana
We started with Havana (see what we got up to there here!), but with hindsight, I recommend ending with this amazing city. By then you’ll be acclimatized and no longer jetlagged and can take full advantage of everything Havana has to offer.
Day 1: arrival in Cuba, Soroa or Las Terrazas
Upon arrival, pick up your rental car and drive west towards Pinar del Rio. As we arrived late, we decided to spend a night in verdant Soroa (about 1 hour from the airport) at a basic but likeable casa particular, Casa Papito.
Papito, the friendly owner, recommended to take the short drive up to Castillo en las Nubes for sunset. A boutique hotel has recently opened in the faux-medieval castle, but we just went to the unostentatious bar next door where you can enjoy a cerveza with sweeping views.
An alternative to Soroa would be Las Terrazas, an eco-village built in the 60s, where you can stay at Hotel Moka, an upmarket eco-resort, Cuba-style. Lots of tour busses pass by here, so it feels a bit touristy. There are several hikes in the beautiful forested surroundings, but this being Cuba you are obliged to go with a guide, so plan ahead with the hotel if interested.
Day 2: scenic Viñales Valley
The small town of Viñales is nothing special, but the surreal landscape surrounding it is absolutely gorgeous. No wonder the place sees a lot of tourists, the upside of which is that there is an actual choice of (for Cuba) decent restaurants. Almost all houses in town rent out rooms, so it’s not necessary to pre-book. It is possible to just go around and see what you like.
We had lunch at Balcon del Valle upon arrival, which is a great way to take it all in. The food is bland (and you better get used to that) but the views are fantastic.
While in Viñales, it seems almost obligatory to go for a horse ride. We went, too, but I found the experience a bit underwhelming. It is a good way of seeing the scenery, but they literally take everyone, even people who have obviously never been on a horse before and decide shorts are the best thing to wear, and everybody does more or less the same tour. This includes an encounter with a tobacco farmer, which, while quite educational, felt like a tourist-trap to me. Don’t feel forced to buy anything. Most tours also pass by a rather disappointing swimming hole. The best part for me was the little bar right in the middle of the fields where we stopped towards the end of our excursion. Cafetaria El Corazon del Valle is visible from a distance, you can also walk here from town late in the afternoon. It might be worth doing some research into tour operators offering trips for more advanced riders.
Day 3-4: caves and Playa Giron
There are several caves in the area around Vinales. We visited Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas. It is the largest cave system in Cuba, although only a small part is accessed on the 90-minute guided tour. It would have been a lot more fun if we wouldn’t have had to go with a group of 30 people who were afraid of slipping. There are some small bats and interesting rock formations. Wear appropriate shoes.
Pinar del Rio is a good place to stop for lunch on your way to Playa Giron. Try the street-side terrace of Café Ortuzar, where the well-off younger locals like to hang out.
We had booked two nights in Playa Giron, but the town has no charm whatsoever and the beaches were also below expectation. However, it’s about 500 km from Vinales to Trinidad and unfortunately it is hard to find a good spot to spend a night to break up the drive. Cienfuegos would be a good alternative (see below). Another possibility would be to stop in Havana now instead of at the end of your trip.
If you do get stuck in Playa Giron, the best place for a swim and maybe a dive is Caleta Buena, a few km along the coastal road. You have to pay an admission fee, which includes drinks and an ok lunch, but it is by far the prettiest stretch of coast around here, including an incredibly blue swimming hole full of fish. Come early when it is still quiet and you can get lounge chairs in a good spot. There is also a scuba diving center on the premises. We went for a dive along the coast which was not spectacular but very pleasant, as it was just us and the guide. The material is in very good condition. Avoid the dive center at the Cubanacan hotel at all cost. Busloads of divers are dropped here in the morning.
Day 5: Cienfuegos, El Nicho and La Boca
On our drive towards Trinidad we stopped for a little tour of Cienfuegos. It is far from being the Caribbean Paris some guidebooks make it out to be, but there is some interesting neoclassical architecture, mostly concentrated around Parque Jose Marti.
We had a very enjoyable lunch looking out over the bay at Villa Lagarto in Punta Gorda, Cienfuegos’ old upper class neighborhood. Villa Lagarto rents out rooms too, so this might be a good alternative to Playa Giron. Close by are some beautifully flamboyant mansions, like the Palacio Azul and the Palacio de Valle.
If you arrive in Cienfuegos early in the morning, you can also go for a tour at Laguna Guanaroca, a bird sanctuary about 10 km from the city. The guided tour, including a boat ride, takes a couple of hours and gives you a chance of seeing flamingos and other aquatic birds (depending on the season). Unfortunately, it closes at 3pm and we were too late, but it looked like a very interesting spot.
After lunch we drove on into the Escambray Mountains to see El Nicho waterfall. Pass through Cumanayagua before turning off on a road that becomes ever more sinuous as it makes its way up, allowing for some great views. El Nicho is reasonably well indicated. Pay your entrance fee at the post, from where a short nature trail winds past the beautiful waterfall and some amazing and very refreshing natural pools. If like us you’re lucky enough to get the place to yourself, it’s magical!
From here it’s an hour and a half to drive to La Boca, a small fishing village serving as beach resort to the Trinidadians during holidays. La Boca is very low-key, simple but cute. We stayed at a pretty casa right on the waterfront, there are several to choose from.
Day 6-8: Trinidad
Drive into Trinidad and find yourself a nice casa particular. The city is small so it doesn’t matter very much where. Trinidad is one of the most visited places in Cuba, and for a reason: the city is extremely picturesque, especially in the late afternoon light. The best thing to do here is just wander around and try to get lost.
There are plenty of restaurants and bars in Trinidad. I can recommend Los Conspiradores, right next to the stairs on the Plaza Mayor, a great location for people watching. We were highly disappointed with El Bolo Vista Gourmet: the view from this rooftop restaurant is gorgeous, but the food was terrible. El Rintintin is great for a (sunset) drink, and has similar sweeping views over the town. We didn’t try the food here. Newly opened Bistro Trinidad seems promising. Popular restaurants get very full, so consider making reservations if you see something you like while walking around town. Be sure to try the local cocktail: canchanchara, a treacherous mix of honey, lemon, water and rum… so delicious!
There is music all over in Cuba, but especially in Trinidad. Although the live music in and near bars and restaurants is obviously meant for tourist, and will always include some Buena Vista Social Club hits, the musicians are actually very good. The Casa de la Musica manages to mingle tourists and Cubans at their great salsa shows and is a fun place to pass an evening.
Day 9: Sancti Spiritus and Camaguey
Leave on time to arrive in Sancti Spiritus before the midday heat. Stop at this pretty town for a stroll and ice cream at Dulce Crema or coffee and a snack at Hotel del Rijo, a rare Cuban boutique hotel housed in a beautiful old building. This seemed a nice place to stay for a night if you want to take it easy.
From here it’s another 3 hours to Camaguey. Camaguey is Cuba’s third-largest city, but it feels very quiet. Wander around and you’ll stumble upon some picturesque plazas, churches and alleys. It is worth going up to the roof terrace of the Gran Hotel for a drink with great views over the city.
Meson del Principe is a good option for dinner, while I can recommend Casa Austria near pretty Plaza San Juan de Dios for a change of breakfast the next morning. Café Ciudad is also a good place for a coffee.
The lively open-air Mercado Agropecuario Hatibonico, a little outside the city center near the Hatibonico river, is worth a visit if you have time.
Day 10-11: Playa los Cocos
After this succession of cities, we were more than ready to go back to the beach. On the recommendation of friends, we opted for Playa los Cocos, an idyllic white sand beach on the Atlantic. Think palm-fringed tropical paradise, but be warned that there are no facilities here. To get there, follow directions towards Santa Lucia and continue on to La Boca, a tiny fishing village located on the edge of Playa los Cocos (be aware that variations on Los Cocos are a popular name for beaches, this is not the only one!). Just behind lies a pretty lagoon with flamingos.
La Boca has a few casas particulares straight on the water. The only downside is that there is only one (pretty average) restaurant, El Bucanero, which closes at 5 p.m, just like the bar next to it. There are no shops and nothing whatsoever to do in the evening, bring some supplies or make dinner arrangements at your casa. The best house to stay is not actually indicated at a casa particular, look out for a 2-floor building with a nice balcony looking out over the bay. Mosquitos can be a problem during the summer months.
Spend a couple of lazy days lounging on the beach. It is possible to dive from the shore, ask around and you will find there is not so much a diving shop as a man who used to work at one and has kept all the diving gear. It is not in a great state but considering you will not be going deeper than 12 meters there is not really any risk. He can take you on a wonderful little dive just off the shore which takes in some beautiful corals and a great shipwreck in shallow water.
Day 12: Gibara
The atmospheric seaside town of Gibara is well worth a stop. This was one of the few places we decided to stay in a government hotel, the beautifully restored Hotel Ordono. Definitely one of the better hotels in Cuba, but don’t get your expectations too high up!
Go for a stroll around the very laid-back town in the late afternoon when people move their chairs outside and hang out on the streets. I highly recommend dinner at La Casa de los Amigos. They serve the same food as always (fish, rice, the standard salads), but expertly prepared it suddenly tastes delicious!
Day 13: cooling off in the Sierra de Cristal mountains
Leaving from Gibara in the morning, take the more scenic roads 421 and 307 (passing through Fray Benito, Rafael Freyre and Guardalavaca), which is only slightly slower than passing through Holguin and allows you to stop for lunch by the sea (try Miremar just before Guardalavaca) and a swim. The concrete blocks of the resorts lining the coast are not very inviting, but the impossibly turquoise water is paradise. Don’t worry about sneaking onto any of the beaches for a swim, no one will notice you’re not actually staying here.
We had decided to make a little detour into the mountains on our way to Baracoa, which turned out to be quite an adventure. The pine covered mountains of Parque Nacional la Mensura offer an interesting change of scenery and are refreshingly cool. Here, you can stay at a quaint but not unpleasant government hotel, Villa Pinares del Mayari. Rooms are in cabins spread out over the grounds, there is a swimming pool and a small lake, El Cupey, a short walk away. Close by are several nature trails and a waterfall, Salto del Guayabo. The big problem is the terrible state of the road to get there. It is not really worth the effort (and risk) unless you have a proper 4×4, which you won’t as those are near impossible to rent in Cuba. We made it with only one flat tire, but it took us hours. Although it was a beautiful spot, unfortunately it might be better to just drive straight on to Baracoa, unless you can organise alternative transportation.
Day 14-15: Baracoa
We decided not to drive back to Mayari but continue to Mella to get on the road to Guantanamo and from there Baracoa. The road from Villa Pinares del Mayari to Mella was not any better than the road we arrived on, but eventually we made it down. As said before, it might be a better idea not to wander into the mountains but to drive straight to Baracoa along the Atlantic coast. That said, the road between Guantanamo and Baracoa is absolutely spectacular, we were very happy to take it twice.
Scruffy but charismatic Baracoa was one of my favorite places in Cuba. Sadly, just after our visit it was hit by a hurricane (in late 2016), I am not sure exactly how much damage has been done and how the recovery is coming along. In any case, I am sure it’s still worth spending a couple of days in this isolated part of the country which has a very distinct character. Baracoan cuisine is also a welcome change from the usual, thanks to the use of coconut milk, spices and different kinds of seafood.
Again, the best way to discover the city is just by wandering around. Be sure to stop for late afternoon drinks at Fuerte de la Punta, an early 19th century Spanish fort that now houses a restaurant. For food, try El Buen Sabor or vegetarian restaurant Baracoando. Most casas particulares here serve a good dinner.
Northwest of Baracoa, on the road to Moa, there are several hiking trails. Turn off at Finca Duaba and continue on this road for a few km until you reach campismo El Yunque. Pay your entrance fee at the post. The heat had taken its toll on us by now, so we decided to skip the 7 km hike up to the top of El Yunque, and opted for an easy but pleasant walk along the river and to a waterfall instead. The waterfall itself is not very impressive, but the river is great for a refreshing swim. As in most places in Cuba, you are obliged to go with a guide, included in the entrance fee. Remember that their government salary is a pittance (as is usually the case with Cuban government employees) so make sure to tip! For more info about hiking trails around Baracoa click here.
Serious nature lovers should drive further along the potholed road to Moa to Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt. Several guided hikes are available here, arrive early.
Day 16-17: Santiago de Cuba
Take your time for the amazingly scenic road between Baracoa and Guantanamo, before taking a brand-new, but partly unfinished, actual highway to arrive in Santiago de Cuba (what cars are supposed to fill this road remains a mystery, it is probably an investment in the as yet unsure future).
Upon arrival in Santiago, and before dropping off your rental car, consider having a late lunch at Madrileño in Vista Alegre. Since the Revolution, the mansions in this former posh residential neighborhood are home to government offices and cultural centers. Government-owned Madrileño, too, is housed in a villa with a lovely courtyard and caters to the local upper classes.
We were lucky to stay at a fantastic casa particular, Casa Idania. The hosts, a middle-aged couple, are extremely friendly and happy to share their stories of life in Cuba during the past 50 years (in Spanish). Their family used to own the whole building but they lost most of it during the Revolution. The remaining apartment is still spacious and very charming.
The historically important city of Santiago de Cuba has more cultural sights than most Cuban cities, it served as capital to the Spanish colony for much of the 16th century and was the cradle of the Revolution (you can visit the Moncada Barracks, where Fidel Castro led the failed putsch that started it all, and the Museo de la Lucha Clandestina).
Start right in the center at Parque Cespedes. The striking Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion dominating the plaza is worth a visit. Next door is the beautifully restored Casa Diego Velazquez, dating from 1522 and Cuba’s oldest remaining house. The residence of the island’s first governor, it is now a museum showing off the graceful rooms decorated with period furnishings. Just across the square is Hotel Casa Grande, where Graham Greene found inspiration for Our man in Havana. This is the perfect place to sit down with a cocktail looking over the square as it comes alive at the end of the day. For dinner, try Roy’s Terrace Inn, a lovely rooftop paladar (reservations recommended). Check out the event calendar Cartelera Cultural (online or ask for a copy at the reception desk of the Casa Grande) to see what live music is on that evening.
The next day, stroll over pedestrian Jose Antonia Saco street. Take a little detour to Rumba Café, a good spot for a light lunch. Escape the midday heat at the Museo Municipal Emilio Bacardi Moreau. The eclectic collection of the rum magnate (expropriated when the Bacardi family fled Cuba post-revolution) includes Cuban and European paintings, some interesting artefacts reflecting the history of Cuba and even an Egyptian mummy.
Head to Jardines de Enramadas (in a garden between Jose Saco and Cornelio Robert streets) for a well-deserved ice cream. Continue your walk towards the port, past the old clock tower and Parque Alameda. You can stop for a cold cerveza at the Club Nautico on the water (do not eat here though). End your day with a late afternoon stroll through Tivoli, Santiago’s charming and authentic old French quarter.
Day 18-20: La Habana
Fly back to Havana to end your holiday in style. Now that you’ve acclimatized, you will appreciate the city’s vibrant nightlife and burgeoning culinary scene even more. You can of course also start your Cuba trip with Havana, or squeeze it in between Viñales and Playa Giron. In any case, here are some tips on how to spend 3 days in Havana.