Havana > Viñales > Trinidad > Santa Clara > Havana
Unless you have at least a month to spare you’re going to have to compromise on how much of Cuba you have time to explore. When I travelled in July 2018 with three friends we had just shy of two weeks to stop off in Cuba after a month in Central America. We knew we wouldn’t be able to see it all and wanted to make sure we got enough time in each place to see it properly rather than rush through.
So we made the decision to skip the South East of the island (too far) and the popular beach town of Varadero (too commercial). Santa Clara was a last minute addition (we couldn’t resist) which two of us squeezed in en route back to Havana. This blog gives a taste of our itinerary, highlighting those all important travel times, where we stayed and what we got up to. Watch out for further blogs which will give more detail on some of my favourite places and the food highs and lows.
Days 1 – 3: Havana
Let’s face it, most trips to Cuba start in its capital, Havana, and ours was no different. Arrival from our stint in Mexico was pretty straight forward with a quick transit through immigration and baggage reclaim like I’ve never seen before (think early morning jumble sale). A 30 minute taxi ride got us to our pre-booked accommodation in the new part of the city. We chose M’Aloja casa particular at $50/night for a quadruple room, based on a friend’s recommendation.
Our three days were spent exploring the city and learning as much about Cuban culture as possible. Think evening walks along the bustling Malecón hangout, bus and photography tours, wandering through the many old squares and deciphering Cuban history at The Museum of the Revolution. It took some time for the initial feelings of being on a film set to diminish (the sheer number of old fashioned cars felt rather gimmicky and you have to remind yourself these are a genuine remnant of the past). The key to Havana is to soak it in; take the time to explore by foot, check out the side streets, engage with the locals and don’t forget to look up.
I’ll admit, I found Havana a bit of a struggle at first but provided you remain open minded and go with the flow, taking the cat calling with a pinch of salt, you’ll soon start to find charm in its unfamiliar twists and turns.
Day 4 – 5: Viñales
After the hustle and bustle of the capital we ventured to Viñales for a complete change in pace. This beautiful, lush green town is just a two and a half hour drive from Havana by private taxi. We booked the Las Rocas cabins at $32.50/night per cabin (each sleeps 4) based on the rave reviews on Airbnb. Right from the off relaxation was the name of the game. Time was spent browsing the local souvenir market and enjoying 90 cent mojitos overlooking the square and its church. Evenings were spent dining al fresco in the garden, watching the pink sunsets and playing cards. Dreamy.
The highlight was a half day trip into the Valley of Silence on horseback. We spent the morning riding through beautiful scenery with an informative visit to a local tobacco farm with talks on cigar, coffee, honey and rum production. Being able to buy cigars directly from the farmer was a nice touch too. For those less keen on getting in the saddle, a visit to the Hotel Los Jazmines is a must. We spent an afternoon relaxing round the pool (non-guest access at just $3) and indulging in piña coladas at their bar with amazing views over the Valle de Viñales.
Day 6 – 9: Trinidad
Our seven and a half hour journey to Trinidad was the toughest slog of the trip and that was in the ‘luxury’ of a private taxi having to beg the driver for a toilet stop! Our arrival in the town didn’t get off to the best start either when our Airbnb host disputed our booking (made even harder when you don’t have the convenience of WiFi or 4G to back you up). A number of deep breaths later we made it out to explore this rather quaint town with its cobbled streets, countless art studios and iconic square and decided to give it a chance. We even got treated to an unofficial, unrequested tour from a local who showed us all his favourite places!
Renowned for its music and dance scene, we decided Trinidad was the place to give salsa a go. The Ache Okan casa de la salsa was a great recommendation made by our new local friend and I felt like I could handle the salsa basics in just a couple of hours thanks to their one on one tuition. The next step was to practice with locals in the clubs which led to endearing, fun and downright odd experiences for us all! The live music and dancing at Casa de la Trova was the winner for us; frequented by more locals than tourists, oozing authenticity and charm.
Trinidad also offered various options to explore the nearby nature reserves and we went for a half day tour to Topes de Collantes in a private 4×4. We paid visits to a mirador with great views over Trinidad and a coffee plantation before exploring Parque Guanayara with its cave, waterfalls and a natural pool for swimming.
All in all, Trinidad was a mix bag and we probably spent a little too long there. But it gave us the chance to have a solid base for more than a day or two and explore at a slower pace while getting a different perspective on Cuban life.
Day 10: Santa Clara
Santa Clara wasn’t on our original itinerary and the group was split on whether to pay it a visit. With one of the other girls and me flying home a day later than the others we decided we’d make the pit stop on the way back to Havana and we were certainly not disappointed! Santa Clara is the place in Cuba that stole my heart. It could have been that at this point in the trip we’d grown more accustomed to Cuban ways and so found it easier to negotiate, or the fact that Cuba’s ‘most revolutionary city’ totally lived up to its nickname.
We made the two hour journey by collective taxi, booked via a man on the street in Trinidad! We hit the jackpot with our choice of accommodation at Hostal Vista al Mejunje at just $20/night per room (sleeps 4). It was walking distance to all the key attractions and our hosts were so lovely and down to earth.
Our whistle-stop tour of the city was rather exhausting I have to say, but totally worth the effort. We squeezed the sites of the Revolution into one afternoon, all by foot, with regular snack stops! We ticked off Parque Vidal, Teatro La Caridad, the Plaza de la Revolución and memorial garden, Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado and the Che y Nino statue before finishing with an evening being taught how to play dominoes Cuban style! An extra day would have been perfect to explore at a more relaxed pace but something was definitely better than nothing.
Day 11 –13: Havana
Our rather comical journey back to Havana was five hours by collective taxi with diversions, stuck doors and a hitchhiker thrown in. We’d decided to splurge a bit for our final few nights’ accommodation and booked into the Hotel Boutique at $87/night for a double room in the old part of the city. I have to say that we were actually rather disappointed and wish we’d have stuck with a booking at a local casa particular where hospitality is far more authentic and personal. Nonetheless the location was great and far more central than first time around.
Having already spent three days in the capital we felt less pressured to rush around in our final few days which was a relief given the heat and onset of travel overload. We spent the time wandering through markets souvenir shopping and ticking a couple of extra touristy things off the list. Namely, the guided tour of the Havana Club rum museum (when in Rome) and getting the ferry across to Casa Blanca to visit the El Cristo de la Havana and hearing the nightly canon firing at the Fortaleza. The pièce de résistance was a guided tour of El Capitolio, the central government building which looks remarkably like the White House. This is an absolute must and completely took my breath away.
Cuba is a country that is changing. You often hear people saying that they want to visit before it becomes too developed and that was certainly my thought before I went. During my trip I was both shocked and surprised. Shocked by the amount of poverty I witnessed which I wasn’t expecting from a communist country. Surprised by the number of trendy shops and restaurants, that wouldn’t be out of place in London, in a country that has been effectively cut off for decades.
No one knows what the future holds for this island nation but now is definitely an exciting time to visit and witness as much of the ‘before’ stage of development as possible. The sparks of creativity and innovation are promising. I probably wouldn’t rush back as there are plenty of other countries I want to visit for the first time but I feel lucky to have experienced Cuba when I did and a trip in the future to see how it has changed will certainly be on the cards.