Honestly? Before going on holiday in Cuba, I was really nervous. I’d tried to get as much information together as possible, but accounts were contradictory and, to be honest, worrying.
“It’s such a culture shock!” said a friend, giving me visions of arriving to a land without cutlery. “You should probably bring some snacks; there’s no such thing as a newsagent in Cuba,” said another, prompting Stephen to suggest lining our case with Fulfil bars, just in case. “Pack bottled water in your case – you won’t be able to buy any there,” came another incredibly stressful piece of advice. No water? What was this place?!
As it happens, we needn’t have worried; bottled water was easy enough to come by, the biggest culture shock of all was the lack of Internet (I know y’all missed me) and as for snacks? Well, honey, I got reserves. Besides which, there are food vendors everywhere in Cuba. Everywhere.
Planning a holiday in Cuba
We booked our break independently, flying with Air France via Paris (booked via Skyscanner, at a cost of €720 return) – and, as luck would have it, when I mentioned on Instagram that we were thinking of going to Cuba, Homestay.com reached out to offer to sort our accommodation, which was an incredible perk.
With Homestay, you essentially stay – like it says on the tin – in people’s houses, which we did, aside from two nights we spent in a five-star hotel (more on which later).
We decided that we’d rather not do the frantic, 10-cities-in-10-days itinerary, so we planned to stay in Havana a few days after arriving, go from there to Varadero, a seaside resort town on the northeastern side of the island, and then to Trinidad, before heading back to Havana for a few days.
We sorted our accommodation in Havana and Trinidad with Homestay, and as for Varadero, I booked a two-night stay in the Grand Memories Sanctuary via the website ($386).
Before you go…
Oops! I almost forgot; you need a Visa to go to Cuba. I got mine in GoHop on Pearse St about three days before we were due to fly. I had to show my flight details, passports and travel insurance and each visa cost me €25. If you go to the Cuban Embassy, you can do it there, too, but they keep odd hours (which is very Cuban) and, apparently, it can take a while to process (also: very Cuban).
Your Visa will take the form of a card, perforated in the centre. When you arrive in Cuba, immigration will take one half. When you leave, they take the other – so don’t lose it!
The biggest culture shock I got in my whole trip was arriving in Jose Martin airport in Havana. Firstly, it is roasting. It smells like deep-fried food (specifically crisps, those oily kinds you can only get in Spanish bars) and there are approximately 10,000 people in every single queue you can see. The only thing to do? Get in line.
We waited about 20 minutes to get through passport control, and another 20 to have our hand luggage rescanned, before standing at the baggage carousel for at least 45 minutes, sweating profusely in our airplane clothes (I’d recommend travelling in something light that you can strip down to, because it was so incredibly hot).
Our Homestay host, Jorge, had organised a driver to come and pick us up in Havana and, as promised, he was waiting for us – despite the fact that our plane had landed more than an hour earlier. Unluckily for him, we then had to go to the currency exchange to get our money. (He was so patient and lovely!)
The money, honey
There are two currencies in Cuba – Cuban pesos (CUP) and convertibles (CUC). Locals use CUP, while foreigners use CUC – and it works out as almost $1CUC to €1, which is handy for the purposes of mental arithmetic!
You’ll need cash for almost every single transaction you make in Cuba (our Varadero hotel, despite being booked with Visa Debit, would only accept credit card or cash, so we had to take a trip to the ATM, a 40-minute bus trip away), so I would recommend bringing enough with you for at least the first few days, and changing it all in the airport.
There are a few ATMs in Havana, and one in the Plaza de las Americas in Varadero, but otherwise I didn’t see any in Trinidad or on the roads between each place. There’s also a currency exchange (cambio) in Havana, near the Hotel Habana Libre, if you find yourself stuck with euro you need to exchange.
There was another massive queue for currency exchange in the airport in Havana, and we waited here – along with our lovely driver – another hour before we got to change our money. We had no choice, though; you can’t get CUC outside of Cuba, so it has to be done at the airport.
Havana – five stars
This was my favourite of the three places we visited in Cuba – it was so vibrant, so interesting, so full of culture and entirely different to anywhere else I’ve ever visited. You know the way, with some European cities, you could take a street and plonk it in another European city and it would look fine – it’s the architecture and the colours and the shops, they’re all so similar. Well, there is nowhere in Havana that you can even glance at, and not know you’re in Havana. Everything is so totally and utterly Cuban.
We spent four days in Havana after we arrived, adjusting to the climate (incredibly hot and humid; on about day four, my boyfriend turned around to me and said, “how have I never realised how much you sweat?” We’ve been going out for three years) and exploring.
We stayed in Vedado, which is a kind of “upmarket” area near the University of Havana, with Jorge and his family. They were so incredibly welcoming, and immediately all of my concerns were put aside. They had filtered water; fluffy towels; delicious brekkie for $5CUC (fresh tropical fruit, bread and jam, coffee, cheese and meats) and hot running water. What culture shock?!
Varadero – don’t bother
From there, we went on to Varadero. We took a collectivo taxi from the Viazul bus station for $30CUC each, essentially meaning you share a cab with two other people. The woman next to me tutted every time my leg touched hers (we were in a 1990-something Lada, so it was unavoidable) and held up both an umbrella AND a fan to shield her delicate face from the sun. I wanted to murder her.
I don’t have many pictures of Varadero, because there honestly wasn’t that much to see. Yes, the beaches are beautiful – white sand and blue water – but if you go to Cuba to go to Varadero, you may as well just go to Mallorca. The hotel was mediocre (it was five-star, but the toilet seat was broken, the bath was dirty and they didn’t replace our towels) and the food was so, so bad.
We had really been looking forward to our little bit of luxury in Varadero, but when it came time to leave, we were so, so glad. We took another taxi – this time, getting totally duped by a man who pointed to a badge and told us he worked at the bus station, and paying $120CUC for the two of us to get to Trinidad.
Point of note: I feel like badges are 10 a penny in Cuba, and mean nothing. Always go up to the counter to get the official story – this guy told us there was no bus to Trinidad until the following day, and that there would be a two-hour wait (at a minimum) for a collectivo. Liar, liar.
Trinidad – so pretty and picturesque
Our next stop was Trinidad, where we stayed with Ana and her family in a gorgeous little suite of rooms (a bedroom with double bed, kind of extra bedroom (I assume it’s because four people can stay in the room) that doubled as a sitting room and little terrace with rocking chairs (a very Trinidadian style) looking out on to the street, as well as our own private bathroom.
It was in Ana’s that we had one of our best meals of the trip – in some of the Homestay casas, you can opt to have meals, too, and Ana whipped us up an amazing three-course dinner: vegetable soup, white fish in onion and garlic with fried plantains (my new favourite things in the world ever), rice and beans, and dessert of home-made ice-cream.
Trinidad is much smaller than Havana, but also seemed far more touristy – at least than the Vedado and Central Havana areas, where we’d spent most of our time. It was here that we saw our first souvenir shops, and saw truck loads of tourists being bussed in and out of restaurants, obviously in Trinidad on a day tour from Varadero or a cruise ship.
That being said? It was still gorgeous – everywhere in Cuba you see these beautiful, pastel-coloured facades and Spanish Colonial architecture that, as I said, makes it all so specifically and incredibly Cuban. We ate in an incredible restaurant in Trinidad near the Plaza Mayor, went on a hike to an incredible waterfall and found some gorgeous little winding streets and cafes (I’ll be doing two separate posts, on places to eat and things to do, so will go into more detail on those soon!).
Back to Havana…
We finished our trip with two nights in Havana, staying further up in Vedado, near the Hotel Nacional in an incredible mansion owned by an adorable man named Tomas. (We had trouble, the whole time, figuring out who was who – is she his daughter? Does she work there? Is that his son? We never knew.)
On our second last day, we took a vintage car tour, which I’ll go into in my “things to do” post, but we ended up in the Habana Vieja area, which we hadn’t really ventured down to during our first stay in Havana.
Here, we saw more of the tourist shops we’d seen in Trinidad, but we also took in some mojitos on the rooftop of a gorgeous hotel and stopped at a street market to buy some Che Guevara-themed art (because, when in Cuba). It feels like there is just so much to explore and discover in Cuba, that around every corner you’ll find something else that’s worth photographing, eating or asking about!
If you’re thinking about taking a holiday in Cuba, go – go now, before all of the Americans arrive (the embargo has been lifted and relations are warming up, so while I don’t think we’ll see an imminent influx of Starbucks, it is going to start changing, very slowly). I’d recommend going in November or December, when it’s slightly cooler; definitely do a Homestay (hotels are overpriced and not great quality, to be honest); bring comfy walking shoes and loads of sunscreen and just soak up the culture and the atmosphere of a place that’s so, so different to anything you know.
Tune in a little later this week for parts 2 and 3 in my Cuba series: Things to do in Cuba and Cuban food: great restaurants we loved in Havana and Trinidad.
And if you have any questions, please, drop ’em below and I’ll answer as many as I can!