My Guide to Cuba: The Rewards and Challenges of My Favourite Country
The more I travel the more I realise that I don’t have to see everything at once. If my 70-year-old grandparents are still visiting new places- I presumably am likely to have a lot of time to check out all the amazing countries and places that are on my bucket list.
But there are some destinations that are exceptions to this rule. Some places that are changing so rapidly that you really need to try and visit now. Cuba is perhaps the best example of one of these destinations. The Cuba of 10 years ago doesn’t even exist anymore, and Cuba in 10 more years will look even more different, especially now that more and more Americans are able to visit.
Whilst this development is great for the people of Cuba, I am incredibly happy that I got to visit Cuba in 2016 rather than 2026. And my advice for everyone is that if you are contemplating your next travel destination- get to Cuba NOW.
Cuba is one of my favourite countries. During the short 8 days, I spent in the country I fell head over heels in love with it. My time in Cuba was a list of amazing experiences. We made friends with the bartender and the saxophone player at a local bar and then ended up going out with them all night to local clubs and bars. I learnt salsa from more than one Cuban man who respectfully and patiently taught me the moves despite how incredibly clumsy and uncoordinated I am. We ended up drinking beers in an old Cuban man’s house with some locals and a bunch of other foreigners before heading to an underground rave in an abandoned theatre in Havana.
I’ve never had so many positive experiences with locals in such a short amount of time. But that is what Cuba is all about!
But for all of its amazing benefits- Cuba can be a challenging destination to visit. For starters there is very little ability to access the internet, and most ATMs won’t accept Australian bank cards so we had to arrive with enough cash for our time on the island. Hence this post is a combination of reasons why you should travel to Cuba, and some handy tips on how to make it easier.
Is Cuba Safe?
It’s a question that many of my friends asked of me both before and after I visited. And my Mum was incredibly happy to realise that I would be travelling to the country with two of my friends. But for me, Cuba is quite literally the safest country I have ever visited. Although I never actually did it, I’d feel quite comfortable walking home at 2am in the morning on the streets of Havana. Whilst some people might try to hustle you out of money (overcharge you, pretend to be your friend and steal your things), most people in Cuba are friendly and respectful. There is still a strong culture there of men looking out for women, and the men in Cuba are such gentlemen that they simply wouldn’t stand back and let a woman be harassed in front of them. As long as you exercise minimal precautions like you would anywhere else in the world then you’ll have a great time.
Where Should I Stay?
The best way to see and travel through Cuba is by staying at Casa Particulars. Casa Particular is the special name given to a homestay program that operates throughout Cuba. Locals pay the government for a permit that allows them to host foreigners in their house. We were able to book our first casa in Havana by searching through listings on tripadvisor and then emailing the casa. Don’t expect instant replies because Cubans doesn’t have internet access in their homes so they might take a while to respond.
Once you have one casa booked then everything else is super easy. Just let your Casa Mama (as we liked to call our host) know where you want to go and she will sort everything else out for you. We told ours that we wanted to go to Vinales and within an hour she had organised our transport to Vinales, and sorted us out with a spot in her friend’s casa there. It is these connections that Casas have between each other that actually make Cuba incredibly easy to travel once you arrive.
We walked everywhere in Havana and Vinales to get around. We also jumped in a few taxis late at night in Havana that weren’t expensive at all. From the airport in Havana we booked a taxi for the government rate of 25CUC (around $25 USD). Our Casa Mama booked us a shuttle (essentially a spot in a shared taxi) for 20CUC ($20 USD) per person to Vinales. The added benefit of the “taxi” service in Cuba is that the taxis are all of the gorgeous old cars that you see driving around everywhere. So you get to experience this special side of Cuba simply by getting from place to place.
ATMS do exist in Cuba but they won’t accept American cards or cards from banks that are affiliated with American banks. They are also notorious for eating cards. Hence, I had to arrive in Cuba with enough cash for my stay. You also won’t be able to exchange Australian dollars here, and American dollars come with a special surcharge when you exchange them. Hence the two best currencies to arrive with for exchange purposes are Canadian dollars or Euros. I arrived with €600 and maybe spent €400 during my stay.
Cuba also is strange in that it has two currencies- CUC (Cuban Convertible) and CUP (Cuban Peso). The CUC is what you’ll need as that is how you’ll pay for most things- it’s the currency that is used for tourists and the casas, restaurants and taxis are all set out in this currency. It might be good to exchange a little CUP as well if you want to eat street food or catch a local bus somewhere.
Accessing the internet is difficult in Cuba. You’ll find some internet connection in some parks and public spaces in Havana, as well as at some of the big and fancy hotels. At these hotels you can purchase internet time. It will cost you between 2-5CUC per hour and you need to prepay for internet cards. There is a great guide here if you are really determined to access the internet. But one of the benefits of Cuba is disconnecting. I made sure to have restaurants and landmarks marked in the downloaded offline Google Map and some handy internet articles copied and pasted into word documents on my computer. One of the things I wish I had done for Cuba is to buy a lonely planet or similar travel guide- it would have helped since I couldn’t simply look up advice on the internet.
Where to Go and What to See in Cuba
There are so many amazing places to visit in Cuba and I think I could stay for months and still not get to everything. But the most popular route through Cuba is to visit three key cities- Havana, Vinales and Trinidad. Given time constraints and the fact that I was having an absolute blast of a time in Havana, I only ended up visiting two of these cities; Havana and Vinales.
The greatest thing to do in Cuba’s capital is to simply get lost and wander around. Our first full day in the city we spent walking around with no direction or plan. The colours of the buildings, the crumbling walls, the building with paint chipping off them and the houses stacked so roughly on top of each other you wander why they are still standing. All of this makes the architecture of Havana so unique and special.
Wandering around also provides a prime opportunity for people watching. Cuban people are constantly out and about and a walk through Havana is perhaps the best part to engage with their culture. The thing I noticed almost immediately is despite the country and situation they live in, everyone seems constantly happy and connected to one another. It’s the special magic of Cuba and it’s easily visible from the street. If you wander further enough you’ll also be able to hear awesome Cuban music playing in various bars and courtyards. We often found ourselves stopping at a bar to watch a local band play.
One of my favourite moments in Havana was when we headed to the waterfront to watch the sunset over Moro Castle. I’m a sucker for a good sunset and the ones in Havana were incredible.
When you are done wandering around and looking for some direction there are a few places in the city that I loved checking out. Havana’s churches and cathedrals and the plazas that surround them were some of my favourite spots in the city. Plaza Vieja is a kaleidoscope of colour and activity, while Plaza de la Cathedral has a more respectful and sombre atmosphere. Make sure you go inside the Cathedral itself, especially around dusk when the light is flickering over the old building.
For people watching and sitting down and having a mojito or a coffee, I loved Plaza de Armas. Here you’ll be able to spot heaps of Cubans hanging around on their phones trying to connect to the popular hotspot here. But the highlight of this plaza for me was the Second-Hand Book Market- I loved looking at the variety of titles on offer. There is also something so quaint about second hand books!
Of course our exploration of Havana didn’t stop when night fell. The bars and clubs of Havana are an experience and we had some great nights out. I don’t think I’m ever going to drink a pina colada or mojito as good as the ones I slurped down in Havana.
The number one thing you have to do in Vinales is to head out a day trip in the Vinales Valley National Park on horseback. Our trip started with a visit to a local tobacco farm where we watched a cigar being rolled and had our first try of a Cuban cigar. We then hopped on our horses and headed into the UNESCO listed park which was incredibly stunning. We stopped periodically at places to drink sugarcane rum cocktails, or coco-locos (coconut water mixed with rum and lime).
All of the drinking made the horse riding progressively more difficult. We even stopped off to explore some caves. It was an incredible trip and one of the highlights of my time in Cuba. You’ll easily be able to book this trip through your Casa Mama when you arrive in Vinales.
During the rest of our time in Vinales we hiked up into the mountains to Hotel Los Jazmines to make use of their pool and drink cocktails. The best part of Los Jazmines is the incredible view over the Vinales Valley. I’m still regretting the fact that we didn’t head up for a sunset one night.
But it would be best not to make our mistake of spending a whole day walking to the ‘Lago’. We thought we were heading to a nice swimming spot but instead ended up at a swamp. We did get to meet a cute family of baby pigs though!
But my favourite part of my trip to Vinales was the nights we spent at la Casa de la Musica. All the locals head out every night to the Casa de la Musica to play salsa music, to drink rum and to dance salsa. There is really no need to pay for salsa lessons while in Vinales- you’ll quickly find a local happy to oblige. Oh and did I mention that Cuba is home to easily the most beautiful men in the whole world? I had a little romance with a gorgeous saxophone player who was trained as a doctor and spent hours teaching me how to dance.
Eating in Cuba
Cuba has a bit of a reputation for having terrible food. But if there is one benefit to Cuba becoming more and more touristy in recent years, it is the opening of hundreds of restaurants across Cuba. We had so many incredible meals while in Cuba- including cheap lobster, tapas and even just local meals of grilled meat with rice and beans. If you hunt out TripAdvisor like we did, or ask for local recommendations you’ll be able to find some incredible food.
Cuba is always going to hold a special place in my heart. It was one of the best places I’ve been and I think the closest I’ve ever got to the local culture and people in such a short amount of time. I think you’d find it very difficult to find someone that regretted visiting this amazing country!
Any questions or extra advice to add?