If like me you’re fascinated to find out what Cuba is like, you’ll jump at the chance to experience it for yourself. For my trip, I decided to travel in Cuba with a small group tour organised by Cuban Adventures to help me get an understanding of Cuba, its history and its people. Their 8 Day Cuban Adventure tour includes home stays with local families which gives you an unrivalled and authentic insider view of Cuba and also keeps the costs down if you’re on a budget.
Driving into Havana from the airport gives your first glimpse at Cuba's colonial capital. The most striking thing you'll see is the cars; iconic, colourful, classic cars you always see in pictures of Cuba are everywhere. They look stunning against the vibrant tropical landscape and add to your excitement at the start of the trip!
On arrival, our Cuban Adventures tour guide took us to a local restaurant just around the corner from the hotel. Hidden atop a couple of flights of stairs we entered an intimate, traditional and well decorated restaurant. I tried a local specialty called ‘Ropa Vieja Congri’ (shredded beef with Cuban rice and beans) and of course, a Piña Colada. The food here is fantastic and the after-dinner banana liqueur to wash down our meal was gratefully received.
On the second day, you get to take a walking tour of old Havana. You’ll see the fort built by the Spanish after Havana was handed back by the British in a trade for Florida. Interestingly, it’s never actually been used as Havana has never been attacked since.
The tour highlights include Cathedral Square, the restaurant that popularised mojitos and the hotel that Ernest Hemingway stayed in for 9 years. We also saw the site of the Havana club emblem which is only a replica as the original was taken out during a hurricane.
In the main square we stopped for a drink at a state run coffee shop where the queue for freshly ground beans ran right out the front door. Inside you could see the beans being freshly ground and the smell is fantastic - a must for coffee lovers! We sat outside and tried the house special - iced coffee with a shot of rum - delicious!
To reach Vinales (a 2.5 hour drive from Havana), you turn off the main highway and make your way through winding mountain roads with spectacular valley views and lots of quaint little homes lining the roads. It's a small town based around two main roads, lined with vibrantly coloured houses, and where you’ll experience your first home stay of the tour – ours was at "Casa Maria".
After a short orientation tour of the village and a few Cuba Libras on our roof terrace, we opted for cooked dinner at our home stay. Home-cooked meals are great value at 8 CUC (£5) and for this, we had what can only be described as a feast! Meat, rice, beans, locally grown veggies and banana chips followed up by pudding and coffee.
Your home stay hosts can also offer a great home-cooked Cuban breakfast with a selection of fruits including guava, banana, mango and pineapple. Strong coffee will be followed up by eggs either fried, scrambled or omelette and some meats.
Maria was our local tour guide for the day and took us on a walking tour through the valley of Vinales to experience rural farm life in Cuba. Our first stop was a traditional tobacco drying house, where Maria shows you how to dry tobacco and how it smells and looks during different stages of maturity.
Probably one of my favourite parts of the entire tour was our visit to a farmer’s house here. We met the oldest of the farmer’s eight sons and were told how 90% of his crop is automatically sold to the government for minimal amounts of money, allowing him to keep only 10% for personal use and sale.
The farmer took some dried tobacco leaves and talked us through the history and process of cigar making. Right in front of us he turned the leaves into a cigar! It was fascinating to watch as his skill and expertise were obvious. Afterwards, his wife ground fresh coffee beans and we had a coffee and smoked the cigar... this felt like the real Cuba. I bought ten of his homemade cigars for 20 CUC (about £15) and to give you an example, for this size and purity of brand cigars in Cuba you would normally pay about £120.
The long drive from Vinales to Cienfuegos takes about six hours including a stop in “Australia", a small village with a sugar cane factory that was used by Fidel Castro as his base leading up to the invasion at the bay of pigs.
Heading for the coast, you’ll have your first glimpse of the Bay of Pigs and the Caribbean Sea. We stopped here for some snorkelling in the pristine turquoise water which was fantastic. There’s a secluded salt water swimming hole nearby too which is perfect for cooling off in.
This region is sparsely populated and poverty stricken with none of the vibrant atmosphere we’d experienced so far. The Bay of Pigs museum is really interesting if you want to learn about the history of Cuba’s revolution and it’s socialist roots, although like any museum erected by the winners of the conflict it was very one sided and full of anti-capitalist/anti-American propaganda.
This is the only Cuban city built by the French, so it has a different feel from the Spanish colonial cities. Here you’ll find ornate buildings, wider roads and a stunning central square with theatres, galleries and a magnificent town hall.
You sense that Cienfuegos is not a place tourists visit often, but people are very friendly. The home stay here organised for us by the tour was spectacular; an old narrow door guarded by elderly Cubans leads through to a stunning period home with 20ft high ceilings and vintage chandeliers. Our room felt like stepping back into the 1940's with ornate mahogany furniture, an intricately tiled floor and watercolours in gothic frames. After a little exploration we discovered an outdoor seating area nestled below some wild vines and an iron spiral staircase leading to the hidden gem of our house, a rooftop terrace overlooking the ramshackle house and harbour of this beautiful colonial city.
An hour’s drive from Cienfuegos takes you to Trinidad, a traditional colonial town so untouched by development that’s it’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In contrast to Cienfuegos, Trinidad has a network of narrow streets and pastel coloured buildings.
After settling into our home stay (with our host, Jesus) we took a walking tour of the city to get our bearings. Winding through the bustling streets stopping at galleries, we danced in the street to a band and moving out the way for donkey carts as the locals moved their wares. We arrived at the main square and were taken to visit a church of the developing local religion. To me, it seemed to be a cross between Christianity and some sort of tribal voodoo. It was a little bizarre to hear about their rituals and meet the priest - I have to say I was fairly sceptical about the whole thing.
We took a taxi to one of the beaches which worked out at 16 CUC (£10) return. To my amazement the car that turned up was a magnificent red and white 1950's Mercedes with matching interior. It was a real highlight for me, sitting in the front of this iconic car flying down the highway with the windows down pumping out some traditional Cuban music!
After dinner we headed to a famous bar called Casa de la Trova for some entertainment from a live 6-piece band playing Cuban salsa. We had a great night and everyone got up and had a dance, cheap drinks, great music and good company.
On-route back to Havana we stopped into Santa Clara where Che Guevara was based in during the Cuban revolution. When his remains were recovered from Bolivia in 1997, a memorial site was erected here in his honour.
The memorial includes a large square where people gather to commemorate Che’s birthday on the June 13th. His towering statue looks out towards the mountains in which he fought and some large blocks below are engraved with his writings. There's a museum with many of his possessions and writings and you can see the mausoleum containing his remains and an eternal flame to commemorate them.
The tour arrives back in Havana about mid-afternoon where you’ll be guided to your final home stay. Ours was a really nice house right in the centre of old Havana. As your last afternoon of the tour is free time, we went back for one of those fantastic iced coffees we had at the start of our trip. It felt like we’d seen and learned so much about Cuba since that first iced coffee, but at the same time it felt like my time in Cuba had flown past and I hadn't had time to scratch beneath the surface. Before leaving, we picked up some amazing artwork to commemorate the journey and some of my favourite matured Havana Club rum.
In the evening the tour group meets for the last time, and our group headed for the famous Buena Vista Social Club for dinner, live Afro-Cuban music and a final Piña Colada or two!
I can only describe my time in Cuba as fantastic! It’s certainly one of my favourite countries I have visited. Being sheltered from the world has allowed Cuba’s unique culture to flourish with an innocence that the majority of the world lost a long time ago. I don’t agree with many of the reasons for it being cut off from the world and it still has obvious poverty. But people work hard and most importantly work together here. They help and nurture without ulterior motive and the capitalist need for the next new item is a foreign concept. If something is broken you fix it - if you can’t fix it, you survive without it and there is certainly clarity to be taken from this.
If you're interested in discovering Cuba for yourself, a small group tour that includes home stays with local people is the ideal way to get a feel for the country. We can arrange all your international flights, and show you how to include Cuba on a multi-stop ticket. We can also book an 8 or 15 day group tour, with some extra nights at either end if you'd also like some independent time to explore. To start planning, simply call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email.