There is such a wide range of things to do in Cuba, that it would be a pity to go for just a week.
I love traveling to Latin America. I have a particular obsession for this amazing continent, and Cuba has always ranked very high on my bucket list. Although I have already been there, I would like to visit again, because there are many incredible things to do in Cuba.
I believe that Cuba is always better the second time around, when one knows what to expect based on their first hand experience rather than on the information they have gathered on the web, or from friends who have been there, which may often be misleading. And with all the places to visit in Cuba, a second time there is guaranteed to be completely different from the first.
No matter how much I prepared myself before visiting Cuba, this incredible country took me by surprise. It has charmed me and infuriated me at the same time. With my guide on all the things to do in Cuba, and my further post on what to do in Cuba when facing scams, I aim to warn readers as much as possible on what they should expect, and on how to avoid some common traps tourists fall for, as well as to give a good idea about the places to visit in Cuba.
Sure enough, one thing Cuba tourism should not be proud of is the scams that tourists face every day. I fell for a few of them – to read more about them, head over to my post “Where are the lovely Cubans?”
However, before getting into the actual things to do in Cuba and into the places to visit in Cuba, I shall provide some advice on how to prepare for the trip. I shall also add that though I enjoyed traveling independently around Cuba, one of the best things to do in Cuba may be joining a guided tour, to take away the stress of organizing everything. Click here for some excellent guided tours of Cuba.
Things to do in Cuba: the ultimate guide for a trip to Cuba in 2018
Deciding when to go to Cuba:
The country can be visited in any season, but if I must recommend when to go to Cuba I would suggest to go between November and March, when temperatures are not as hot and it rains less. This way, it is possible to enjoy all the things to do in Cuba. The prices of flights don’t change much throughout the year. The average return flight from Europe to Cuba costs around 700 US dollars, depending on the carrier and on the town of departure. It costs around 350 US dollars to fly from Cancun.
Finding out what is needed in order to go to Cuba:
Along with a round trip ticket that proves one is leaving the country, all those traveling to Cuba will need to buy a good travel and health insurance – this is required by Cuban national laws – and a visa, known as tarjeta de turista, which is normally valid for 30 days but can be extended while in Cuba. This costs around 30 US dollars and can be bought through the Cuban consulate, or, better, through a good travel agent.
In theory nobody can enter Cuba with a one way ticket. In practice, one may or may not be asked by immigration upon arrival, and since this is a possibility and one may be denied access once in Cuba, most airlines won’t allow passengers to fly unless they have a round trip ticket. Sure enough, getting a round trip ticket is one of the most important things to do in Cuba.
One of the most important things to do in Cuba is learning about the two currencies and making sure not to get confused with the notes – some are very similar, but one may be worth much less than the other. There are two currencies in Cuba: the CUC, or Peso Convertible, used by foreigners and by Cubans to buy certain specific things, and worth about one US dollar; and the MN, or Moneda Nacional, whose conversion rate is 25 to a CUC.
Considering that the average salary for Cubans is 15 CUC per month, and that the average price of tourist accommodation in Cuba 20 CUC, it is easy to figure why most locals aim to work in the Cuba tourism industry one way or another.
Paying by cash is what to do in Cuba, pretty much anywhere. It is possible to withdraw cash in most places, save for the occasional power cuts that at times may leave tourists stuck with little to no cash. For this reason, I recommend as one of the most handy things to do in Cuba withdrawing cash the day before traveling, as otherwise one may get stuck in a place with no money for the bus ticket! Cards generated by US bank accounts are not accepted.
Security issues in Cuba:
This is a safe country to travel alone, as a single woman, or even with children. Criminality rates are low, save for the occasional theft of clothes and money from suitcases locked and left inside the room: one of the things to do in Cuba that I wholeheartedly recommend is to always count money and items left locked and and write it down on a notebook.
If realizing that something is missing, threatening to call the police is what to do in Cuba: just this will make everything magically reappear.
Cuban men and women often comment on the good looks of women (and men) and even mildly harass tourists by insisting on dancing, offering flowers, or inviting for a drink. That’s why all of them want to work in Cuba tourism: the tourist would inevitably have to pay the drink or meal. It is almost a custom that when someone invites a foreigner to something in Cuba, the person invited actually pays and most likely the guest is getting a commission by the bar or restaurant.
Unless willing to pay an extortionate price for a drink, one of the smartest things to do in Cuba is politely refusing any invitation, or simply ignoring.
Another one of the things to do in Cuba is wanting to say extra safe is going around with a local. ViaHero is an excellent site that puts travelers in touch with locals, who can help organize activities and tours, so that they can feel extra safe.
Getting online in Cuba:
Certainly, getting online is not among the the things to do in Cuba. It is a good opportunity to forget all social media accounts and Whatsapp, which in a way is liberating. Internet is usually available at ETECSA centers but it is so slow that it is better to go without. Warning family and friends that one isn’t going to be online while traveling is what to do in Cuba.
If talking is necessary, one of the easiest things to do in Cuba is to call (calling cards are available at ETECSA centers, and can be used on any phone) or send a text message. Detoxing from internet and social media is definitely what to do in Cuba.
Wifi is now available in major Cuban cities, but the costs are so high, and the speed so low, that I would dare say that accessing the internet is not one of the smartest things to do in Cuba.
Planning a trip to Cuba:
Take it from someone who’s quite a travel planner: one of the hardest things to do in Cuba is planning the trip. No matter how hard I tried to stick to my plans, something would happen almost every day that caused a change – much to my frustration.
Before traveling to Cuba, I thought I’d want to get closer to the local culture. This became a mission impossible, to the point that I eventually gave up. Yet, getting to know locals is one of the nicest things to do in Cuba.
To take away the stress of planning the trip and the worry of being unable to have a real local experience, I recommend to use the services of companies like ViaHero to get the help of local experts who will help organize all the most fun things to do in Cuba. Another good idea may be joining a guided tour with a reliable international tour operator. Click here to find out which tours I recommend.
Making reservations in Cuba:
In recent years, more and more people travel around with a tablet or small laptop, even if they are just going away for a short period of time. This way, they can take advantage of the free wifi at hostels to browse in search of accommodation for their next stop. This is not one of the things to do in Cuba: there is hardly any wifi.
If staying at hotels, one of the best things to do in Cuba is to arrange all bookings before traveling so as to avoid the hassle of having to look for (unreliable) internet. There’s decent hotels in pretty much the entire island and the number of those that are listing themselves on booking engines such as Booking.com is growing.
Travelers who aren’t staying at hotels are then left wandering what to do in Cuba when it comes to bookings. The simple answer is: hardly anything!
Most people likely land in Havana after a long flight (besides, this is one of the places to visit in Cuba). If this is the case, one of the easiest things to do in Cuba is to look for a casa particular (a private home) there: nowadays, a few engines such as Cuban Eden allow to make reservations for cases particulares. Otherwise, take that suggestion from a friend or acquaintance who has been there already, double check on trip advisor for recommendations (some casas are listed), then send an email or, if speaking Spanish, make a phone call.
Indeed, Cubans mostly work via phone, and most casas won’t have an email address that can be used to contact them. In case they do, one of the recommended things to do in Cuba is to be patient until they reply – and remember that internet in Cuba is not to be taken for granted.
Owners of casas particulares have an interest in accommodating their clients, and they would usually say that yes, they have availability when in fact they don’t. Despairing is not what to do in Cuba: if unable to accommodate visitors at a specific casa, owners take guests to that of a friend or a relative nearby, which would be just as nice.
Owners will normally ask about future plans so that they can suggest a good casa for the next stop – they know people running casas particulares all over the country. They are generally glad to make the phone call and the booking for their guests. Relying on this system if one of the nicest things to do in Cuba. And if, for whatever reason, one has no reservations at all, the minute he or she gets off the bus at the station, he will be literally surrounded by owners offering to rent a room. This is what happened to me in Baracoa.
Where to stay in Cuba:
This is the one place in the world where cheaper accommodation is actually better! One of the most fun things to do in Cuba is staying at casas particulares, which are private homes where the owners rent up to three rooms to travelers and for a small additional price also provide really good meals.
Casas particulares are thriving in Cuba tourism; they way more personable than hotels, they allow to actually experience a bit of the Cuban lifestyle (I remember seeing friends and relatives going in and out of the house, and met so many!); they are clean, and they are way cheaper than hotels.
Owners of casas particulares are always keen to provide information – some of them are literally living encyclopedias on the country, as they often are university professors! – on things to do in Cuba, places to visit in Cuba, on where to eat, and they will arrange transportation and laundry. Besides, they are the best persons to warn their guests about scams.
Some casas are beautiful colonial buildings. Rooms in casas particulares are usually private doubles, with a private bathroom. The price stated is per room, meaning that traveling with a friend will imply considerable savings.
Meals at casas are not included but the owners are usually great cooks who will be very keen to prepare some of their best recipes (lovely breakfast, packed lunches and incredibly good dinners), waiting on their guest keenly to receive praise for their culinary abilities. Eating meals at casas is one of the nicest things to do in Cuba.
Prices of rooms vary between 15 and 30 CUC – so between 7.5 and 15 CUC per person. Rooms are more expensive in Havana, Trinidad and Santiago (around 30 CUC for a good casa), and cheaper in other locations (2O to 25 CUC in Viñales, up to 25 CUC in Baracoa, up to 20 CUC in Cienfuegos).
Some casas particulares can be booked online. If staying at casas particulares is what to do in Cuba to get closer to the local culture, hotels are a good alternative and they have the plus side of allowing online reservations through sites such as Booking.com.
Eating and drinking in Cuba:
Food in Cuba is cheap and good. One of the smartest things to do in Cuba is eating in casas particulares and paladares (privately run restaurants), where a full meal costs between 5 and 12 CUC (where for 12 CUC one can actually eat lobster, which is one of the things to do in Cuba!). Paladares give huge portions that can be easily shared.
Street food is tasty: pizza from the “holes in the wall” costs just 20 MN, as well as sandwiches, ice cream, churros, potato chips, etc. The other option would be eating at State owned restaurants, but food there is boring, and has that bland taste that food in school cafeterias or hospitals do. I would not recommend it as one of the nicest things to do in Cuba.
Beef is not common, while pork, fish, shrimps or lobster (oh that’s too bad!) and chicken, and at times even lamb are available. They are usually accompanied by tostones (fried plantain croquettes), rice, beans (congris), and a season salad. The tastiest food in Cuba is in Baracoa: eating shrimps, octopus and lobster in coconut sauce is what to do in Cuba! Drinks are good too: Cubans all have their own special recipe for mojitos and piña coladas, but whichever one I tried, I did love it.
One of the coolest things to do in Cuba is taking a cooking class and trying all the local specialties. Owners of casas particulares are usually happy to teach!
To learn more about food in Cuba read my post “The Most Delicious Cuban Food.”
Haggling and avoiding scams in Cuba:
With the exception of restaurants, casas particulares, or tourist buses like Viazul, one of the recommended things to do in Cuba is haggling, especially with taxis. When I was in Cuba, I was hardly able to take a step without jineteros (a word used to refer to an intermediary, that will normally get a commission for taking tourists to a specific casa, paladar, or getting a specific taxi) following me around.
Jineteros normally state the price for a taxi, but knowing the actual price to pay should be much cheaper haggling till reaching a more reasonable price is what to do in Cuba.
Jineteros compete so much for clients that, if they find out a tourist is going to a casa particular that is not the one they recommend, they may even tell them that the owner has died and the casa has been closed. They would do anything to make tourists believe that the bus they need to take is already full and that it is better to hop on taxi. And, sure enough, the price they would indicate for the taxi they offer is always much higher than what one should actually pay. Not trusting jineteros is one of the smartest things to do in Cuba.
While it isn’t possible to haggle the prices of state owned taxis, this should definitely be done for taxis particulares. For long distance taxis, I recommend as one of the things to do in Cuba to first find out how much a bus ticket would cost. If the price of the taxi is only 1 or 2 dollars more of what the bus would be, per person, it is definitely worth opting for the taxi – it is much faster, it won’t stop randomly to allow the driver to say hello to his family or drop his groceries at home (yes, they do so!).
So for example, if the bus from Viñales (which is one of the places to visit in Cuba) to Las Terrazas (which, on the other hand, I don’t particularly recommend) costs 8 CUC per person, and the jinetero offers a taxi ride for 80 CUC for the same distance, offer to pay no more than 20 or 25 CUC. Sticking your ground in cases like this is one of the things to do in Cuba.
The same goes for short distance taxis: it is good measure to ask the owner of the casa particular how much taxis around town should cost. And if the jinetero is refusing to go down on the price, start walking. Yes! The minute one starts walking, jineteros come running, agreeing to go to the picked destination for a reasonable price. Mark this trick as one of the things to do in Cuba.
In the case of long distance rides, try to gather a group of other travelers (it’s easy to find them at bus stations, when asking for information) to share the expenses of a taxi – ie when traveling from Camaguey to Trinidad (another one of the places to visit in Cuba), the taxi would cost 80 CUC for a ride of about 4 hours, but squeezing 4 persons in the car, t the taxi only ends up being 20 CUC per person and way more convenient than taking the only Viazul bus, which leaves at 2 am. Another of the smart things to do in Cuba.
Going around with a local guide is what to do in Cuba to be extra safe from scams. Sites like ViaHero help putting in touch travelers with local guides who can help plan activities on site and can help avoiding scams.
Traveling around in Cuba
One of the nicest things to do in Cuba is using local transportation, but as of late, this is hardly available to tourists. When I visited, I mostly relied on Viazul buses to move around the country and cover the longest distances. I’d just go to the station as soon as I arrived in a new place, and make reservations for my next trip.
Nowadays, Viazul buses are more difficult to catch, so tourists mostly have to make use of private taxis, with all that this implies with regards to haggling and timings (I still remember the endless ordeal of looking for a taxi to take me from Camaguey to Trinidad, when the taxi showed up at its own time and demanded a different price than what we had agreed!). In order to avoid disappointments, delays and long haggling arguments, I suggest making online bookings for private transfers as one of the things to do in Cuba.
Cuban Eden offers private transportation that is easy to book: travelers can pick the kind of car they want (classic, standard or even a minivan for larger groups); the time and place where they want to be picked up, and the drop off point. It saves a lot of hassle. Click here to discover all available transfer options and to check out the prices.
What to pack for a trip to Cuba:
Cuba is a country like no other, with a constant shortage of goods travelers may take for granted. Having said so, one of the most important things to do in Cuba is packing smartly, being prepared for anything that may happen, and keeping in mind that shopping the way we know it isn’t exactly a thing there.
First of all, among the smart things to do in Cuba is traveling with a backpack rather than a suitcase. Streets in Cuba are full of potholes and it is virtually impossible to carry around a suitcase. My favorite backpack is the Osprey Ariel 65, which in my opinion fits perfectly and carries just the right amount of stuff. A good alternative is the Berghaus Wilderness 65+15, which however is significantly larger.
And here’s what goes inside the backpack:
- Hiking boots – yes, they are heavy to carry but I always wear them on a flight or when I am moving from one place to another. One of the coolest things to do in Cuba is hiking, and they will be necessary.
- A pair of Hawaianas– useful to go to the beach (which is one of the nicest things to do in Cuba) and even to walk around on a hot day. However, make sure to take a pair that isn’t worn out. If they break, it is quite hard to find another pair.
- Walking shoes – I am a huge fan of Converse All Stars, which I find comfortable and smart. Alternatively, wearing a pair of good sandals is what to do in Cuba to stay comfortable and cool.
- One or two pair of shorts– they are good to go to the beach and walk around town on a hot day.
- Hiking pants, or leggings – especially the latter are easy to wear and easy to wash even in a small sink.
- A pair of jeans or other kind of nicer pants – one of the nicest things to do in Cuba is going for a drink and it is nice to be a bit more dressed up.
- A sun dress and a skirt – for the same reason as above, and they can also be worn during the day.
- Up to 5 t-shirtsand tops – better to wear cotton ones, as they are easier to wash.
- A fleece sweater – for as warm as it is year round, Viazul buses are freezing inside, and there’s no way to convince the driver to turn the air conditioning off. Wearing layers is one of the best things to do in Cuba when traveling by bus. For the same reason, I also take a scarf.
- A waterproof jacket. My favorite one is by The North Face – it may rain, and it is good to have some sort of protection.
- A bikini or another swimsuit – one of the nicest things to do in Cuba is snorkeling, so this is a must!
- A toiletry bag– this should contain a good shampoo and conditioner, a soap or shower gel (actually hard to find in Cuba: one of the things to do in Cuba is carrying extra bars of soap as the locals often stop tourists to ask for it), tootbrush and toothpaste, a good sunblock, deodorant, and mosquito repellent.
- Pharmaceuticals – aside from prescriptions, I recommend carrying off the counter paracetamol, motion sickness pills, imodium and some cold and flu medications.
- A quick dry towel – it folds really small and dries so quickly that carrying one is among the smartest things to do in Cuba.
Finally, take a day pack where to put stuff such as sunglasses, a camera, powerbank, wallet and any other travel documents, and even a travel guide book (remember that wi-fi is hardly a thing in Cuba, so using a good old guide book may well be one of the smartest things to do in Cuba).
Places to visit in Cuba
I didn’t have to think hard when deciding where to go in Cuba. It is such a beautiful country, there are so many places to visit in Cuba, that I could have easily spent a month traveling and still feel like there was more to see. I boarded my return flight with the feeling that there are so many things to do in Cuba, that I hoped to go back again in the future, to explore more of it.
Keeping in mind that there are so many places to visit in Cuba, I will highlight where to go in Cuba when having limited time – these are my favorite picks, but as I have said, there are so many more to see!
Havana, in the Artemisa and Mayabeque province, is where most flights are going to land, making it the first among the places to visit in Cuba. There are so many things to do in Havana, that one can easily spend 10 days wandering around. I recommend spending at least 2 full days, a good measure in order to get over the jet lag and get acquainted with the local culture. I am sure nobody needs reminding, but perhaps I shall highlight why I think Havana is one of the places to visit in Cuba.
Havana is a city of paradox: right next to the recently restored Capitol building, there are apartment buildings that are either falling apart or must have been lined up for restoration such a long time ago that the scaffolding is completely covered in ivy. Seeing these kind of things is one of the most interesting things to do in Cuba.
For a more complete guide to Havana, check out my post “27 Absolutely Unmissable, Fun And Quirky Things To Do In Havana.”
This is where vintage cars line up at the traffic lights – and it is fun to take a tour of Havana in a classic vintage car; motorbikes still have sidecars; and bicitaxi drivers laze about sending text messages. Watching local life is one of the most fun things to do in Cuba.
Among the things to do in Havana, there is visiting one of its many museums and historic buildings; going to one of its lively bars and listen to some live music (I love jazz, and I was delighted in knowing that the Festival Internacional de Jazz takes place in February, right when I was visiting).
One of the best things to do in Havana is attending the ceremony of “el cañonazo de las nueve” in Havana. It takes place each night at 9 pm, in the fortress of La Cabaña, which was completed by 1774 and made Havana the most fortified city in the “new world”. During the cerimony, soldiers dressed in the traditional costums of the 18th century, shoot the cannon as a warning to close the doors of the walls surrounding the city, in order to protect it by the pirates and by the army of enemy countries.
The show is interesting, and the entrance ticket will also include a drink, which can be sipped while enjoying a beautiful view of Havana at night or wander about the various museums and art exhibition inside the fortress. A taxi to get there from the centre should cost around 3 CUC – a price worth paying for one of the most interesting things to do in Havana.
Other things to do in Havana include a visit to the Museo de la Revolucion in Havana, which definitely gives a good understanding of the Cuban revolution; a walking tour of Havana Vieja which goes to the Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas with its book market, Plaza Vieja and the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas. Callejon de Hamel is a good example of street art in Havana.
One of the things to do in Havana is go on a sunset walk on El Malecon – 8 km of paved road along the sea, where the ocean waves splash and local go to relax and flirt after a day of work. Along the Malecon, the Hotel Nacional is a beautiful neoclassic/art decò building which became famous in 1933 when, after the military coup of Fulgencio Batista, 300 army officers took refuge there hoping to receive the assistance of the US embassy. In 1946, Hotel Nacional hosted the biggest mafia convention of North America. Now, it is just a beautiful building with a stunning view of the Malecon.
I also recommend getting to the Vedado, a residential area packed with incredible colonial homes and full of parks and gardens. It is one of the nicest and most unique places to visit in Cuba.
Finally, if looking for things to do in Havana at night, make sure to go to La Bodeguita del Medio to have a mojito and to Floridita to have a daiquiri. Sure, they are definitely not the best mojitos and daiquiris in Cuba, but they are cool places to visit and if there often is live music.
Here’s some of the best tours to do in Havana:
- Welcome to Havana: private tour with a local
- Havana: 2 hour classic American car tour
- Havana City Tour
- Discover Old Havana
- Havana Afro Cuban Religions Walking Tour
- Havana by night plus cannon shot ceremony
Where to stay in Havana
As I have already said with regards to accommodation, one should not give too much thought on where to stay in Cuba: staying in casas particulares is one of the nicest things to do in Cuba. If looking for where to stay in Havana, I particularly recommend Casa Particular Abalidia in Vedado, in calle 15, between E and F. Felix and Lidia are wonderful hosts. Lidia is incredibly sweet, but never pushy. She is a great cook and her breakfast is perhaps the best I’ve had in Cuba. Her lobster dinners and congrì rice are memorable. Felix is a university professor, he loves anything Italian and knows a lot about Cuban history.
The house is a beautiful colonial building, with a nice patio at the back. Only two rooms are rented to guests. Felix regularly checks his email and if unable to get in touch him, communicate with his Italian friend in Rome who is regularly in touch with him via phone and can make the reservations. The email is email@example.com; the Italian contact is Lucia Nardi, firstname.lastname@example.org. A little bonus? Abalidia arranges rides from the airport. Expect to be picked up by Felix’ friends, who has a beautiful Ford 1956 – remember, riding vintage cars is one of the nicest things to do in Cuba.
Other places to stay in Havana:
- La Casona de 27 is a good alternative should Abalidia be fully booked.
- Iberostar Parque Central is a great hotel option. If one of the coolest things to do in Havana is staying in Havana Vieja, this is the best place to stay.
Santiago de Cuba
Santiago, in the Santiago de Cuba province, is where to go in Cuba for a truly Caribbean atmosphere. There are regular Cubana de Aviacion flights connecting La Havana to Santiago de Cuba, at the South of the Country, or it is possible to get there via a 16 hours bus ride with Viazul.
This is the second largest city in Cuba, perhaps the hottest one and, according to the Lonely Planet (which I do not dare contradict on this!), a city of tricks and trouble that may make visitors want to run away as fast as possible (that was my case!). It is also a cultural capital interesting for its music, architecture, literature, people and politics, and for this reason, one of the most interesting places to visit in Cuba.
There are many things do to in Santiago and right outside the city. The Parque Céspedes is a must see, for it is lively, musical and surrounded by historic buildings and museums. Not far from it, one of the places to visit in Cuba is in Calle Eredia, and it is the Casa de la Trova, considered a sanctuary of traditional music hosting artists such as Eliades Ochoa, who became famous thanks to Buena Vista Social Club.
One of the nicest places to visit in Cuba that can be visited on a day trip from Santiago is La Gran Piedra, a mountain range whose climate is pleasantly cooler than that of Santiago and where there are some old bust still functioning coffee plantations – a tour of a coffee plantation (with a taste of the amazing, strong, dark coffee) is one of the things to do in Cuba! Cafetal la Isabelica is not far from the peak of La Gran Piedra, which can be reached by climbing the 459 steps and from where it is possible to admire a splendid view of the Caribbean sea.
At a distance of about 20 km from Santiago, the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre is one of the places to visit in Cuba. The road taking that goes there is stunning, and inside it is possible to spot the tiny statue of the Virgen de la Caridad, which according to legend was found floating on the waves in the Bahia de Nipe in 1612.
Where to stay in Santiago
As I have already stated, staying in casas particulares is one of the nicest things to do in Cuba. In Santiago, Casa Colonial Maruchi is the best place to stay. Ms Maruchi has a fabulous casa particular in Hartmann 357, between General Portuondo and Maximo Gomez. This is perhaps one of the best places to stay in Cuba: the house is simply a safe haven from the noise and pollution of Santiago!
Maruchi is among the few Cubans using the internet for business, and bookings can be arranged by sending an email to email@example.com. Maruchi is a santera, a representative of “santeria”, a syncretic religion hiding its african roots under catholic symbolism. The name is due to the colonizers joked about the African slaves’ way to pray to the saints. Though I don’t recommend asking her directly about santeria, appreciating Maruchi’s aura is one of the nicest things to do in Cuba.
Other places to stay in Santiago:
- Casa Colonial 1909, a good alternative to Maruchi;
- Melia Santiago Hotel: although staying in casas particulares is one of the most fun things to do in Cuba, including in Santiago, a good alternative is the Melia Santiago Hotel, which has the advantage that it can be easily booked online.
Baracoa, in the Guantanamo Province at the South West tip of the island, is likely to be among the places to visit in Cuba that people haven’t heard of. The good thing about it, however, is that once visited, it is remembered forever.
One of the hidden gems of the country, it is not on everybody’s list of where to go in Cuba, because it is pretty much isolated from the rest of the country: La Farola (the lighthouse road), is the only road connecting Baracoa to Santiago de Cuba and the rest of the country. Built in 1964 thanks to Fidel Castro, the view from it while crossing the hills and the forest on the bus ride is spectacular. I recommend a drive on La Farola as one of the nicest things to do in Cuba.
There is a daily 5 hours Viazul bus connecting Santiago to Baracoa (another one of the places to visit in Cuba, but not among my favorites). Travelers are better off making the bus reservations (it literally is just a matter of minutes, done by putting the name on the list of passengers) one day before leaving, directly at the bus station. It will leave passengers at the only station in Baracoa, from which there normally isn’t any problem reaching a casa particular.
Baracoa is really small and it can be visited in a couple of hours. It is pretty, if only a bit beaten up by the weather – this is the wettest region in the country, and it rains every day here. As in any proper Cuban city, there are see lots of murales of Che Guevara and other revolution heroes. Admiring them is one of the nicest things to do in Cuba.
Around Baracoa there are some of the best places to visit in Cuba. It is known in Cuba as the city of the 29 rivers. A cayuca takes visitors across the Rio Toa, whose waters are so clean that all one may want to do is to swim in there.
A cayuca is what is also used to cross the river on the way to El Yunque, which is where to go in Cuba if looking for a unique hike. This is a mysterious mountain that can be seen from Baracoa. In order to hike El Yunque (one of the most fun and exhilarating things to do in Cuba) it is necessary to hire a guide for the hike, and wear proper hiking boots as the terrain is muddy and very slippery due to the frequent rains. I also recommend wearing a swimsuit as at the end of the hike there is a chance to go to some very beautiful waterfalls with some lovely natural pools.
Surely, one of the things to do in Cuba is enjoying a proper day at the beach. Playa Maguana is one of the best beaches in Cuba, and it is not far from Baracoa. Picture a long, white, sandy beach and the coral reef that can be reached just by swimming!
Finally, a lovely bike ride along the coast goes all the way to the Boca de Yumurì, one of the nicest places to visit in Cuba, where it is possible to rent a pedal boat to explore the river. They also do guided tours of Yumurì.
Foodies will be glad to know that Baracoa is the gourmet capital of Cuba. Food here is simply heavenly and nobody should leave without having tried shrimps or octopus in coconut sauce, best if eaten at Nilson’s Paladar, in Flor Combret 143 (he also rents out some rooms). Eating local food is one of the yumiest things to do in Cuba.
Where to stay in Baracoa
As staying at casas particulares is one of the nicest things to do in Cuba, I found that a good casa particular in Baracoa is Casa Colonial Gustavo y Yalina, in Flor Combret 125, phone number 0053 21 64 25 36: a nice colonial house with very big rooms facing an internal yard. Yalina is a sweet and helpful lady and her lobster in coconut sauce is delicious. These are other good places to stay in Baracoa:
- Casa Buena Vista
- Hotel El Castillo, which is just 5 minutes from the centre and has a lovely pool (and the bar does delicious cocktails).
Camagüey, in the Province of Camagüey, is a labyrinth. Some people love it, other hate it. I must say I did not totally love it, but I can see why some would. It simply is a unique city, and it among the places to visit in Cuba to see something completely different.
It was built in a medina style to keep away attackers who would get lost, and lost I got, no matter how good at reading a map I can be (I admit I am not, I am an unsuccessful backpacker). Camagüey city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008, it is packed with art parlour and lovely tiny alleys. It is crowded and at times messy, but interesting nonetheless. Some would say that visiting Camagüey is one of the things to do in Cuba.
Camagüey can be reached with the bus that leaves Santiago at 7:30 pm, and only gets there at 2 am, to then continue to Trinidad. Not a very convenient time to arrive there, nor to leave town to go to Trinidad (this is when bargaining a taxi and trying to find other people to share the expenses may be a good idea and one of the smartest things to do in Cuba), really. But I stayed at Casa de Caridad, and the owner made sure to arrange a taxi to take me home.
Where to stay in Camagüey
If staying at casas particulares is one of the things to do in Cuba, Casa de Caridad is a good choice in Camagüey. This is one of the best places to stay in town, located in Oscar Primelles 310A between Bartolomé Masò and Padre Olallo (0053 32 29 15 54). The huge house has very high ceilings, antique (but perfectly functioning) bathrooms, a lovely garden at the back, and the most motherly owner: she took good care of me when the heat of the city hit me, but would also tell me off if she thought I was doing something not recommendable, and needless to say she is an excellent cook. Marya’s house is a good alternative.
Trinidad, in the province of Sancti Spiritus, is perhaps the the epitome of Cuba tourism (aside from all-inclusive resorts of Varadero), and it definitely is among the places to visit in Cuba. A beautiful city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a very well preserved example of a colonial city, it gives visitors an overall impression that time there has stopped in the 19th century.
Trinidad used to be the commercial heart of Cuba, where huge wealth was accumulated. No cars can get into the city centre (just donkeys and horse carriages), so it is lovely to wander around the many artesania shops and painters’ studios. And if shopping is not one of the things to do in Cuba (there really aren’t many shops), it is one of the things to do in Trinidad.
There are many things to do in Trinidad, which is packed with museums and places of interest. Even just a walk is lovely, as it goes through pretty cobbled streets, colonial buildings so well preserved that some even have original furnishings, and balconies covered in colorful bouganvillea.
Among the things to do in Trinidad there is dancing salsa, listening to the music that is played at pretty much every corner, and in the evening right on staircase next to the cathedral.
The surroundings of Trinidad are packed with sites of historical and natural interest. if ever wandering about what to do in Cuba to get a better understanding of the history of slavery, head to Valle de los Ingenios. Visit the Manaca Iznaga, a former sugar cane plantation whose owner, Pedro Iznaga, was one of the richest men in Cuba thanks to the slave trade. The 44 meters high tower was an observation point to check on the slaves. There are more, smaller and less touristic sites too but it is better to hire a guide to get there.
Those that enjoy hiking will find that hiking Topes de Collantes is one of the most fund things to do in Cuba. The heat, the humidity, the thick vegetation make it for a rather tiring hike, but it is possible to refresh with a swim in the freezing Salto de Caburnì natural pools.
Some of the best beaches in Cuba are near Trinidad. Playa Ancon is among them and can be easily reached by a taxi ride that should not cost more than 5 CUC.
This is one of the best tours of Trinidad and the surrounding areas:
Where to stay (and eat) in Trinidad
As one fo the best places to go in Cuba, there are hundreds of casas particulares in Trinidad, but getting there early during the day is a good thing to do since if not having any reservations. There is a good casa in Callejon de Peña, at the back of a beautiful jewelry shop. Prices are roughly around 30 CUC for a double room.
Other places to stay in Trinidad:
A meal in a good restaurant (there are many) is about 25 CUC (a splurge compared to the rest of the country, but this is the most touristic destination in Cuba). I really liked Paladar Sol y Son, in Simon Bolivar 283 between Frank Pais and Jose Marti. Yes, it is touristy, but it looks like a museum, and the food is tasty. The traditional cocktail is canchanchara, made with aguardiente, rum, honey and lime and served in traditional earthenware. Eating and drinking are among the best things to do in Cuba and this is the place to go for that!
Cienfuegos, in the Province of Cienfuegos, is close to Trinidad. There are 6 buses per day connecting the two cities in little over one hour. It is at about 6 hours from Havana and 7 from Vinales (there are daily direct buses). I loved it, and will gladly recommend it among the places to visit in Cuba.
Cienfuegos is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so relaxed and breezy, and there are so few jineteros here, that it is a good place to have break from the frenzy of the rest of the country.
The city was founded in 1819, right by the sea, which can be admired from El Malecon or from Punta Gorda. Not too far from the city, the botanical gardens are perfect for a chilling afternoon walk and for observing various plants, including various kinds of bamboos. Discovering its flora is one of the things to do in Cuba.
What’s best, Cienfuegos it is great starting point for many more places to visit in Cuba. Cienaga de Zapata is a huge fen that homes some of the most varied ecosystems in the country. There are different kinds of vegetation, various species of birds and rectiles, including criadero de cocodrilos.
From Cienfuegos it is also possible to visit the famous Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of the Pigs), definitely what to do in Cuba to admire crystal clear waters and seeing the amazing coral reef. It is a good spot for diving too. From here, the Kennedy administration memorably failed to invade Cuba in 1961. Not far from it, Caleta Buena is lovely cove perfect for snorkeling. There is an entrance fee, but this includes sun beds and all you can drink cocktails.
One of the best places to go in Cuba to see some spectacular natural pools is El Nicho, a series of beautiful waterfalls on the Rio Hanabanilla. There is a a hiking trail, natural pools where it is possible to jump in and caves. The water is cold, but so inviting! There are various pools, the less crowded ones are on the left side of the street that separates the two sides.
These are some of the best tours of Cienfuegos and the surrounding areas:
Where to stay (and eat) in Cienfuegos
Casa de Olga y Eugenio, in Avenida 50 n. 4109, between Calle 41 and 43 in Cienfuegos is one of the best places to stay in Cuba. A lovely family, and a relaxed atmosphere, topped off by very good value for money (only 15 CUC per room). It is very close to the centre of town and the bus station. Eugenio speaks a bit of English, and always makes sure to protect his guests from scams and puts them in touch with good local guides and drivers.
Las Mamparas, in Calle 37 n. 4004, is a very good paladar in Cienfuegos, popular among the locals too. A huge meal costed about 6 CUC (drinks included). Restaurante Dona Nora in Calle 37 has a lovely balcony overlooking the Prado and prices are good too. If enjoying local food is what to do in Cuba, these are the places to go to.
Valle de Viñales
Valle de Viñales, in the Province of Pinar del Rio, is one of the places to visit in Cuba: so wonderful that I recommend leaving it last as one of the nicest things to do in Cuba. It is one of the most wonderful places I have ever seen, a great mix of a pretty yet tiny town, lovely country side, not too far beaches which are among the best beaches in Cuba, tobacco and coffee plantations.
The main street has a cultural centre facing the main square, a small artesania market with lots of street food stalls (fried potatoes, churros, hand-baked pizza, and a piña colada stall right by the front of a house, baring a sign stating “aqui todo natural”, that makes the best piña colada in the world), and a few side streets which connect to the hills and countryside around. It is pleasant to walk around: life is slow paced here. Easy to see why it is one of the best places to go in Cuba.
There is an information desk right by the Viazul bus stop, where to get information on things to do in Cuba too, and also book a lot of excursions and even salsa lessons.
Whichever mode of explorations of the valley, it is enjoyable. Some prefer to hike it, others to go horse riding. I biked around, and I found it a great way to get closer look to the mogotes, isolated steep-sided residual hills generally having a rounded, tower-like shape and surrounded by nearly flat alluvial plains. The Mural de la Prehistoria, meant to portray world history up until the age of humans on a rock wall, is also seen during the ride.
Viñales is where to go in Cuba in order to visit a tobacco plantation and observe how artesanal cigars are made.
Some bike tours also go to Los Aquaticos, although it is necessary to leave the bike at some point and hike up there to reach a tiny community of people who believe in the healing power of water. The view of the Valley from Los Aquaticos is breathtaking – from there, it is easy to understand why Vinales is one of the top places to visit in Cuba.
The final stop of the bike tour is usually at the Hotel Los Jazmines, where the public terrace has an incredible view of the valley and mogotes.
It is possible to book guided tour of Vinales Valley starting from Havana.
These are some of the best guided tours of Vinales departing from Vinales itself:
- Vinales Valley tour
- Horseback riding through the valley of silence
- Horseback riding through the valley of Palmarito
Cayo Jutias is one of the best beaches in Cuba and can be reached from Viñales. It is a long, white and sandy beach, with mangrovias growing wildly on it, reached through a lovely road that goes through a pedraplen (embankment). It is the perfect place to relax and snorkel or even dive and one of the best places to go in Cuba.
Snorkeling expeditions cost about 12 CUC and include all the necessary gears and a guide. There often are fishermen here offering to catch and cook lobster too. Eating lobster is one of the tastiest things to do in Cuba.
This is one of the best tours to Cayo Jutias that leaves from Vinales:
Where to stay in Viñales
As with the rest of the top places to visit in Cuba, there are many casas particulares in Viñales. I liked Casa Dovales, of Dr. Aracelys Dovales Corrales, in Adela Azcuy n. 2. tel 0053 48 696 669. The room was nice and clean; the lovely owner regularly saved me from being ripped off and she cooked amazing dinners for me. Casa Arcoiris is also a good one.
Despite being a small place, nightlife is lively in Viñales. There are a few bars around the main square and on the main street; some with salsa music. Centro Cultural Polo Montañez has a weekly “festa del campesino” (peasant’s party), during which locals participate in an improvisation singing game, with less than good results, but guaranteeing all a good laugh to locals and tourists assisting.
All that is left to do now is deciding when to go to Cuba.
If you need assistance in creating your personalized itinerary in Cuba you can contact me in private through the contact form.
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