14 days in Cuba
There are as many different views about this unique country as the friends that have been there. No matter how many of them you hear you ultimately have to go there and judge for yourself. So what to do if you have 14 days to spend in Cuba? Read on
My itinerary worked well although I started a little backwards (or because of that). It went something like that: Varadero to Santa Clara, then Trinidad and Cienfuegos. For last I left Havana on New Year’s Eve with a short trip to Las Terazzas in between.
The entry point was Havana airport but the first stop came out to be be Varadero. The idea was that I would take a direct flight with Virgin from London to Varadero, make the first couple of days as smooth as possible, and then go on from there. But, the flight ended up getting cancelled at the very last minute and accommodation in Varadero was already booked so I had to make do. I don’t think there is any introduction needed, nor is there anything particularly intriguing to be said about Varadero. There is the “Hotel Zone” on one end of the strip and the more low-key village on the other end. I avoided the “Hotel Zone” and stayed in the village in a cute casa right next to the (magnificent) beach. For 2 days I laid by the beach and tried to let London leave my bones and head.
Where to eat
There are not many options for food around despite the amazing beach setting. There is almost nothing directly by the beach apart from ugly-beautiful 70’s hotels that serve coffee and banquet breakfasts – I came across chewy chickens and under cooked eggs aplenty but I did manage to have a decent BBQ pork and tasty black bean rice at the Bodeguita del Medio which is surprisingly a franchise.
What to read
The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba by Julia Cooke A very interesting take on the life of modern Cuba.
This understated city is mostly known as the first that was liberated from Batista with the help of Che Guevara’s army in 1958. This marks the beginning of the revolutionary era, so naturally (as in all Cuba), Che is a well-respected figure and something of a symbol of Santa Clara. He is buried here, on the hill just outside the city, thus the mausoleum is the greatest attraction. You can go there on foot and notice how the edges of the city get more and more abstract. From colonial, to modern, to soviet style, disintegrating slowly under the Caribbean tropical climate.
Santa Clara is not a tourist destination, it is a place where people live their life as they would normally do without being consumed by catering to travellers. For this reason I urge you not to miss visiting: it’s one of the rare opportunities to experience Cuba as close to being a local as possible. I managed to spend a couple of leisurely days in Santa Clara without high expectations and ended up loving the place to pieces. There is not much to do apart from spending hours walking around the narrow streets and marvelling at the modest art deco architecture. The buildings are all suffering (or benefiting depending on your view and the circumstances) from the same ingenuity that keeps them on the ground in the first place, despite the constant shortages of materials. High ceiling rooms have been divided horizontally in half, an extra balcony has been added where a window should be, a courtyard has been turned into small makeshift housing units. I did just this, not missing to noisily take a peek at every other side street where all kinds of merchants are going on their business in the smallest of spaces, paladars, nail salons, live music bars all crammed together. Overall, a great intro to Havana which was about to follow in a few days.
Where to sleep
Hostal D’ Cordero is a colonial wonder of the ones you won’t even imagine materialising behind this door
Where to eat
The lobster in “special sauce” (which is basically a very tasty tomato sauce) in Hostal Florida Center. Highly recommended for the lush garden, the lovely staff and the huge portion of super fresh lobster.
Bocadillos with chicken on the terrace of Hotel Central. It is worth mentioning here that some of the restaurants in Cuba are state owned while others are semi private. The service varies widely but as a rule of thumb, in state owned restaurants is considerably slower. As Hotel Central is probably state owned let’s just say that no one is very keen on serving you promptly. Don’t let this put you off but don’t go there rushing either. The Hotel Central offers the best view for people watching in the city and I urge you to spend a few hours there with your coffee or your drink and your book just soaking up the atmosphere.
Where to drink
Apparently, Santa Clara is famous for its progressive views and unconventional youth. Don’t miss a night out at Centro cultural El Mejunje.
Trinidad is one of these well preserved little villages that know their worth and are capitalising on it in every opportunity. It’s a pastel dream, very close to what you see in the pictures if you google search Trinidad. Candy coloured houses and cobblestone streets, bell towers, baroque churches and lots and lots and lots of souvenir shops selling the same made in China artefacts that you can find in any touristic Disneyland for grown-ups type of city. That being said it’s lively and a very good base for a few days of soaking up some sun and dancing to salsa while drinking inexpensive mojitos. Expect to be hustled a lot
Huge bonus: the nearby Playa Ancon will make you forget all the hustle and bustle
Where to eat
Our favourite was
According to Benny More this is the city he liked most so who am I to disagree with that? It is indeed a beautiful city and one that we found quite intriguing. There are more than 10 Unesco listed sights in Cuba and the city of Cienfuegos is one of them, for good reason as it’s an architectural gem. The central part is all French colonial grandiose. The once busy boulevards are crossing the main square, now eerily quiet, with only a couple of heavy fuming old mobiles driving by. The neoclassical facades are spotlessly clean and freshly painted in bright clean colours, adding to the belle époque atmosphere. The central square of Cienfuegos very low lit at night and at places it feels like a deserted place. At night the action moves to Malecon, the view over the bay when the sun was setting in front of us was one of the best in Cuba! Similarly to Havana’s Malecon, the Ciefuegos one is bustling with life, music and Cuban spirit
The architecture geeks out there will also enjoy the walk further down Malecon towards Punta Gorda where the French neo classical and art deco colonial style gives way to suburban modernist reminiscent of Los Anglels. Further down on the point of the peninsula is Punta Gorda neighbourhood where candy coloured seaside villas with intricate woodworks rot in the sun. The nearby Rancho Luna beach is great for a dip if the day is too hot to handle, and a trip to Rancho Luna waterfalls is also highly recommended. For the waterfalls make sure you bring a swimsuit because part of the fun is jumping in the crystal clear water pools along with the locals who always find the water too cold.
Where to sleep and eat
Unfortunately nothing ticket the boxes in terms of food. We tried Finca del Mar recommended in Lonely planet and it was too expensive for mediocre food. We were lucky enough to stay in Hostal Sol Bahia where Marilyn made us some amazing fresh fish dishes and prepared our breakfast too with the care of a favourite beloved aunty.
And just like that, we are 9 days into our trip and heading off to Havana for New Year’s Eve. It might have been the celebratory mood of the day but we entered Havana Vieja (the old part of Havana by the port) in the midst of a music storm that was blasting in high volume from every single house! People where coming and going in every direction carrying bags, cakes, drinks, even a whole roast pig on a carriage, with the head still attached to it. So if you are not a friend of loud parties maybe stay in another part of Havana. We stayed a couple of days and celebrated the beginning of 2018 in one of the many live music bars close to Plaza Vieja along with locals and people from allover the world and the next day we left the city for quick visit to the country.
You can read about Havana in more detail here
Where to sleep
A huge variety of casas and hostels awaits for you in Havana
Definitely check out La Rosa de Ortega situated a short taxi ride in the outskirts of the city. A world away from the buzz of Havana Vieja this is the place to relax among antique furniture, amazing views and a sun drenched pool. Book with this code on Airbnb and get 25$ off on your first booking.
Where to eat and drink
We had some of our best meals in Havana and hopefully you will too, but we had some disasters as well. Our favourites were 5esquinas for pizza, O’Reilly and Mas Habana in Old Havana for tapas and amazing cocktails and El Idilio in Vedado for amazing lobster and grilled fish.
We skipped Vinales (but we regretted this decision) and opted for a quiet day trip at Las Terazzas, an example of an eco village built on the slopes of a small hill. The main attractions are the very fun canopy tour over the lake and the Moka hotel whose exotic modernism makes for a very interesting sight. If you decide to splurge I highly recommend staying there for the night, if anything for the panorama of the forest over its roomy balconies. A sort walk around the village will eventually bring you, among others, to Lester Campa's workshop, where you can admire his studio with the view over the lake as much as his paintings
Where to eat and drink
Coffee at Café de Maria and yummi vegetarian food at El Romero just a few steps below Moka hotel
Have a look at my custom made Cuba map which includes our itinerary and all our favourite spots and more details about Cuba in my survival guide