Cuba is a destination that’s always been high on my wish list to visit and its dark political history with the USA, only 90 miles away has always intrigued me. I was most definitely enticed by the idea of enjoying its stunning, white, palm-fringed beaches, the sensual and contagious rhythms, the legendary cigars, seeing Cadillacs on the every street corner, admiring fantastic architecture and enjoying a few of their famous exotic rum cocktails!
Cuba's subtropical climate means the year is divided into two major seasons; a wet season from May to October with average temperatures of 30°C in July and August and a dry season from November to April with temperatures dropping to 20°C in February.
I was restricted to travel during the UK summer holidays when the cities like Havana and Santiago de Cuba feel very hot and humid. At this time of year it’s best to head for the coast as summer brings a lovely cool breeze and a welcome relief from the heat and humidity.
I travelled independently around Cuba using Viazul (tourist bus) and flying between certain destinations, but plenty of people join a small group tour to get around. With a tour, you'll usually be travelling by small, private mini bus.
Hotel accommodation in Cuba can be hit or miss depending on which destinations you visit, so if you’re looking for an authentic experience that lets you interact with the locals, I would recommend staying in ‘casas particulars’ (homestays). ‘Casas’ are where you will stay with a local family and have your own private room/toilet and shower. The price per night normally includes breakfast and sometimes the family will offer to cook your evening meal. Homemade Cuban food is always best cooked in the Casas – so I recommend you take them up if they offer!
I was a little apprehensive about staying in the Casas before I arrived, purely because you’re staying in somebody’s home. However, I needn’t have worried as the Cuban families are so friendly and welcome you as family. They are always on hand to give you helpful tips of what to see and do in their local area, so you really make the most of your time away – read why a homestay is the best way to experience Cuba.
I travelled for 18 nights, but if you only have a limited amount of time I would recommend travelling round Cuba by small group tour. The tours we offer include transport between each destination, a local guide, sightseeing and also you will also get to experience staying in Casa accommodation.
Havana, Cuba’s colourful capital is known for its 16th century Spanish colonial architecture. I would recommend a stay in old Havana; a central location which makes it easy to visit the local sights on your doorstep and with a great choice of restaurants close by.
It’s an easy city to stroll around and soak up the atmosphere. As you walk through the streets, expect to see the 1950s American cars drive past at slow pace, hear rumba music groups playing in the streets and see local’s enjoying the sunset on the Malecon (the seaside esplanade).
If you want to visit the famous Plaza de la Revolucion, make sure to hire a 1950s Cadallac and a driver for one hour from outside the El Capitol building. They will take you on a little sightseeing tour around the major tourist sights which is a great experience!
Vinales is an easy escape from the big city of Havana and offers a relaxed stay in Cuban countryside, only 2.5 hours' drive from Havana.
The main attraction in this area is the ‘Valle de Viñales’; a verdant national park layered in green expanses of tobacco plantations and studded by limestone mountains. It offers Cuba’s very best hiking, climbing, caving and vistas, based around the sleepy farming town of Viñales. Make sure you visit the tobacco plantations on horseback and one evening, take a taxi to the restaurant ‘Balcon de Valle’ for a sunset dinner for spectacular panoramas over the valley of Vinales, the views are breath-taking.
Trinidad is a must-see for anyone travelling to Cuba; it would be a crime to miss out of this little gem. Trinidad is one-of-a-kind, a perfectly preserved, Spanish colonial settlement where the clocks stopped ticking in 1850.
The town was founded on wealth generated by sugar plantations in the nearby Valle de los Ingenios during the early nineteenth century and today you can still see its history in elegant colonial-style mansions. The riches of the town's pre–war of Independence heyday are still very much in evidence in its illustrious colonial-style mansions.
My trip coincided with the Santiago de Cuba Carnival which is the largest, most famous and most traditional carnival in Cuba and one of the best opportunities to party with Cubans! The carnival is an explosion of colour, music and dance and a celebration of their history and culture – centred around 26 July, the Cuban national holiday. Santiago de Cuba is mainly the gateway to the east of Cuba and is a good place to stop for a night or two before continuing onto Baracoa.
Baracoa is shielded by heavy mountains on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Historically somewhat isolated; this has contributed to much of Baracoa's distinct identity, with stronger influences from close by neighbours like Jamaica and Haiti.
I was in two minds whether to visit Baracoa; it’s 4.5 hours from Santiago de Cuba by road, plus if you wish to stay less than 7 nights you would have to return via Santiago de Cuba to connect by flight/bus as the flight from Baracoa to Havana only operates once a week.
I am so glad I visited; while many visitors head for the northern beaches and islands, or the old-world charm of the colonial cities, Baracoa is a different experience altogether. Here you can indulge in the outdoors; climb mountains, heads to the beach, take a dip in a cooling river or explore Indian remains. Whilst you’re in Baracoa, I recommend you try their local dishes which are influenced from Jamaica and Haiti with a bit more spice and flavour than the rest of the food in Cuba.
As the USA and Cuba build stronger ties and relax sanctions, there will inevitably be major changes in store for Cuba over the next few years. Shiny new cars will probably replace the aging, 1950s classics and eventually there’s bound to be a Starbucks on every corner. After having been isolated for so long, the effect of any outside influence is likely to be profound. If you want to witness the island of your imagination, the best time to visit Cuba is, simply, now!
If you’d like to plan a holiday to Cuba, I can arrange everything, including flights, transfers, accommodation, local touring and make sure you cover the top things to do in Cuba. I can also talk you through the various group tour options if those appeal. If you’d like to include Cuba in a multi-stop flight itinerary, I can give you some ideas for how to get between Cuba and America where currently you can’t fly directly. Simply contact David for more info.