Two Weeks Roadtrip in Cuba

Two Weeks Roadtrip in Cuba

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Ah, Cuba… It’s been on my wish-list for such a long time, but there always seemed to be other places to go to before that. Well, as soon as I heard about the embargo being lifted, Cuba jumped the queue and got to the top.

It just so happened that the last two of my best friends graduated this summer, so we decided to something we had never done before: travel together, the four of us. I waived goodbye to my favourite travel companion Alle, and embarked in a new adventure with friends I had known my whole life.

I must admit it, I was rather worried. I like to travel alone because, well, I can do whatever I want and whenever I care. Alle and me get along super well on the road, have similar interests and he trusts my options (most of the time). But I had never travelled with friends; people that I cared enough about not to have differences coming between us. I realised you can always walk away from new relationships, new friends you meet travelling, but not the ones that are home and that you want around for another while.

Before leaving we agreed on one rule only: no lies, if anyone had a problem to voice it. Little did I know that our relationship is closer to the one of sisters than friends. We managed to argue one second and forget about it the second later, and alas, our friendship survived.

Back to Cuba, our trip started of course in Havana

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Day 1-3

Havana, like every other capital in the world, has conquered my heart. There is a buzz here I have rarely seen before, with music coming from every open door and window, bright coloured buildings and a mix of old and new.

Divided into boroughs, Havana can offer a little bit of everything: from the touristic Havana Vieja, to the nightlife in Vedado and the views from Miramar.

 

We spent our first couple of days getting lost in the tiny, pebbled streets in Havana Vieja, but always coming back to our Airbnb home in Havana Centro. I loved this area, as I felt we were just in the heart of where the Cubans live and work, the real life.

Highlights included daiquiris at Floridita (we ended up spending a lot of time here drinking the best daiquiris in the world), following a stranger into a ‘cigar factory’, which turned out to be his mate’s home, fruit shopping in one of the many indoor markets, driving in a convertible coche Americano and watching the sun going down from the Fortress la Cabana while drinking take-away mojitos.

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We were also lucky enough to be there while the Carnival was on, and watched part of it from outside the barriers (turns out we needed tickets!). The other part we danced salsa on the Malecon and ate fried chicken from the many food stalls. That was after pretending to be rich at Hotel National obviously, a must stop if you want to hang out with wealthier and more boring tourists, but worth a visit for a (still very cheap) cocktail with an amazing view.

The same night we ended up at Fabrica de Arte Cubana. Now, this place really made my jaw drop. I have never seen anything like it, not even in London. FAC is an art exhibition, it’s live music, a cocktail bar, it’s a cinema, it’s a club and terrace all under the same roof. Definitely worth a visit if you’re around.

Internet in Cuba: Welcome to Cuba, where Internet is still a far away dream! This is nothing bad at all, but be prepared to do some detoxing. You can buy ‘scratch cards’ aka tarjetas that will let you connect at the city’s hotspots for 1-3CUC per hour, but there will be many people in the same place so it’s actually really slow.

If you have a Samsung phone like me and you want to be able to connect in Cuba, well, don’t bring it. Or check before hand, my 4s didn’t work and I know others had similar issues.

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Where we slept:

Vista Panoramica y Centrica Apartment

£56 for the whole flat, the owner is amazing and will explain everything there is to do – but in Spanish!

Where we ate:

La Sandwichera, Aguacate 259 (Havana Vieja) – for super cheap amazing sandwiches.

El Chanchullero de Tapas – good but popular, so be ready for long queues and waits.

During the day:

Havana Vieja – get lost in the streets and major tourist sposts (still worth a check)

Malecon – take a walk by the seaside

La Cabana – visit the fortress and Cuban’s longest cigar, but need to get there by taxi. Amazing sunsets.

Vedado – Museo de la Revolution

During the night:

Floridita – for best daiquiris, the banana one was a favourite among my friends. Pricey.

Fabrica de Arte Cubana – for music and art, long queues so get there early.

Havana Vieja – you will always find a good bar with music on the Obispo!

 

Day 4

On the Sunday we jumped on a car and got to Soroa, a couple of hours from Havana. Again through Airbnb we booked an entire ‘chalet’ for ourselves in the middle of the valley, all in wood and with a bbq, which we used to cook pasta, somehow.

We spent the afternoon walking/climbing around the orquideario, and although there were no orchids it was very pretty. Then we went to the waterfalls, but being it a Sunday it was very busy – with locals, which is always better than tourists! We then made an attempt to visit the Mirador, until we realised how much of an effort it would have actually been and that it was too late in the day already. So we turned back and spent our evening gazing at beautiful Vinales Valley from our home for the night, and (some of us) screaming for help because of all the insects that surrounded us.

 

Where we slept:

Chalet in the Heart of Soroa

Beautiful chalet in the middle of the valley, £40 per night for four guest (whole house)

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During the day:

Orchid Botanical Garden, 4CUC entrance fee

Waterfalls – Salto de Soroa

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During the night:

Relax! Gaze at the stars and enjoy the nature.

 

Days 5-6

The day after, and after a lot of work from me and Valentina to convince the others, we eventually drove about five hours across the West of the island to reach paradise-on-earth aka Maria la Gorda. This westernmost part of Cuba is called Natural Park Guanahacabibes, which is also a UNESCO Natural Biosphere Reserve.

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When we got there we realised there was only one sleeping option however, a very pricey hotel that went well over our budget – 40CUC each for the night! It was too late to turn around, and the sight of blue sea and white sand lured us into staying the night, and remaining a second one too.

I got ill by this point, which had never happened to me when I travel, but luckily a day rest was enough to feel well enough to go snorkelling. In fact, for about 17 CUC each you can hop on a boat that takes you about 30 minutes away and lets you do your thing with masks and, if you’re me, a GoPro. If you’re into scubadiving, this is one of the best places in Cuba where to do it.

The same night we visited the other side of the Natural Park, and witnessed one of the best things I have ever seen in my entire life: a sea turtle laying eggs on the beach. We were with a group of other 15 or so hotel guests, waiting on the beach in the dark for one of the companeros to take us to the turtle. After we watched it laying over 150 eggs, we witnessed a rather emotional moment: the turtle covering the whole in the sand to protect the eggs from predators before going back at sea. She shall never meet her babies again.

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Tip: unfortunately you need a car to reach the National Park, as at night you won’t find taxis, and after you get there you’ll have to drive another 40km to the beach. You can however ask for a ride to one of the other hotel guests as there will always be someone going.

Also, remember to bring your passport with you as otherwise they won’t let you in! I didn’t take it and had to rush back to get it…

 

Where we slept:

Hotel Maria la Gorda is the only option, and not the best place for the cost – roughly 40CUC each per night, with horrible service. Also, we parked the car in their gated parking lot and overnight by magic the logos on ours and other cars disappeared.

Where we ate:

Near the hotel there are two options: their grim buffet for 15CUC each, or a restaurant by the sea that is cheaper and serves better food.

During the day:

Sunbathe sunbathe sunbathe! Also lots of snorkelling and scuba diving.

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During the night:

Witness the wonders of the animal kingdom under beautiful skies.

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Days 7- 9

From Maria la Gorda to Vinales it should only take 2-3 hours, unless you are like us, then it will take you five after you get lost in the valley. It was worth it! I am a big fun of roadtrips and this didn’t disappoint me, as we got to see lots of tiny villages and true Cuban life (always better than the highway).

In Cuba driving around is nothing like anywhere else in the world. You will constantly see propaganda signs at roadsides, a reminder of the Revolution and Cuban pride – another sign of its past that feels much more recent than what it is.

When we got to Vinales we were absolutely knackered, but still enjoyed our first night in the Casa de la Musica and the adjacent square. In the Casa you’d pay 1CUC or so to go in, access the bar and dance salsa. In the square just outside of it, there is loud reggatton and younger people, it’s free and you can drink from some of the stands nearby. I loved both and we just went from inside to the outside depending on how we felt.

In Vinales I finally managed to express my love for salsa (there, I said it). I have been tapping my feet everyday by this point to the rhythm of music heard everywhere, but never quite had the chance to dance like I did here. I loved every second of our stay in this small town and our nights in this square were definitely a big part of it.

It doesn’t end there though, as we also went horseback riding it the Vinales Valley – a four hour tour that took us into a stream, a cave and a tobacco factory, plus a coffee/rum plantation (still not clear what it was exactly but there was alcohol involved). The day after I could barely walk, but it was so worth it. Even just to hear the companero shouting cavallooooo to our horses every 2 minutes.

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On our last day we took a taxi collective (shared taxi, very uncomfortable) and drove one hour north to the beach, Cayo Jutias, which unfortunately wasn’t as nice as Maria la Gorda and much more crowded. We still enjoyed our time there with new friends, and ate the must-have lobster on the beach!

We drove back to Vinales that night and were welcomed by a rain that would follow us until the end of our trip…

 

Where we slept:

Casa Colonial, Villa ‘El Valle’ – lovely mother and daughters, one big room for 25CUC right in the centre of town in Calle Salvador Cisneros (main road).

Where we ate:

El Olivo – a top pick for all Lonely Planet’s follower, it’s famous for having olive oil on the table (first and only time we saw this in Cuba). It’s ok but I think there are better places where you don’t have to queue up so much.

3J Bar the Tapas, great for a quick meal as well as a drink and music in the evening.

During the day:

Take a trip to Cayo Jutias, 15CUC each for taxi both ways

Horseback Riding, 40CUC each, plus various other expenses if you want to buy anything from one of the stops.

During the night:

Salsa at Casa de la Musica! 1CUC pp.

Day 10-12

Trinidad! Yes, we did drive the 8 hours between Vinales and Trinidad, and yes – it was completely fine. Don’t trust anyone else that tells you the opposite. However, make sure you get a private taxi! We saw many taxi collectivos on our way that had rucksacks on the top drenched with water because it was raining so much.

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Trinidad is a small colonial town full of vibrancy. Get lost in the street and gaze at the amazing architecture, a sort of little Havana Vieja but better. We were however unlucky here, as we got heavy rain for almost the whole of our stay, and couldn’t do many things we planned on doing (like a last trip to the beach, or going to famous club La Cueva). But Alas! We still enjoyed it, and I got the chance to convince two out of three of my friends to take not one, but two! salsa classes with me.

We also stayed at an amazing casa particular which made it all better. It’s called Pino y Belkis, a lovely couple that took care of us like we were family.

Drink: Trinidad is the birthplace of my new favourite cocktail, the Canchanchara. It’s super simple, just add honey, lemon syrup, rum and ice and you’ve got it. This is one of the best things in Cuba!

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Where we slept:

Hostal del Pino y Belkys, 30 CUC for one room, plus 3CUC each for breakfast and 8CUC dinner.

Where we ate:

We were lazy and loved their food, so always stayed at Pino and Belkys!

During the day:

Walk around town

Take salsa classes, 5CUC one hour

Cycle to the beach

During the night:

La Cueva, a club inside an actual cave

El Botello

Canchanchara – what can you want more in life? The best cocktail in the world has even its own bar, this was my paradise.

 

Day 13

My friends managed to drag me back to Havana a whole day before the (5pm) flight. So I had to skip Santa Clara unfortunately, but drowned my sorrows in many, many daiquiris at Floridita. Best part? After two weeks in Cuba, we shared the Socialist value of sharing all of our last CUCs and create a common pot. Too bad I was the poorest 😉

 

To watch a much shorter version of almost everything I have written here, watch my Cuban trip video here.

 

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