Thanks to our excellent relationship with Cuban Adventures, I’ve sent dozens of customers on group trips to Cuba over the years. After hearing amazing feedback about these tours for so long, I decided that it was finally my turn to visit Cuba myself.
I opted for the 8-day Original Cuba tour allowing me a quick glimpse of western and central Cuba. My itinerary included Havana, Vinales, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and a visit to Santa Clara before returning to the capital. I can’t recommend group travel in Cuba highly enough – it was a brilliant way to get beyond the surface of the country.
Joining the group trip allowed me to cover loads of ground in just over a week. The tour includes home stays with local families to give you an authentic insider view of Cuba and keep costs down at the same time. It helped me to get a real understanding of Cuba, its history and its people.
On a group trip to Cuba, you’ll stay in local homestays every step of the way. These are known as Casa Particulares – and I cannot recommend them highly enough. It’s a fantastic way to meet local people, and they are surprisingly comfortable.
In every room, we had two large, reasonably comfy beds with a private bathroom and hot water. We didn’t have a window every time, but we always had a fan and air conditioning, so it didn’t matter. The best thing about the casas is the breakfasts (which are already included in the price). They are HUGE - with fresh fruit, bread, ham, cheese and all the tea and coffee you can drink.
Cuban Adventures include an arrival airport transfer, which is brilliant after a long flight. Cuba can also feel quite disorientating at first, as it feels almost like you’ve stepped back in time. Our driver was excellent and welcomed us into his classic old taxi with limited but very friendly English.
Driving into Havana from the airport will give you the first glimpse of Cuba's colonial capital. The most striking thing you'll see is the cars: there are iconic, colourful, classic cars everywhere. They look stunning against the tropical landscape and add an extra layer of excitement to the start of the trip.
After meeting our excellent guide Rayner at the welcome meeting, we also met our first landlady. The women seem to take charge in Cuba – and we quickly named her “Mama Havana”. She was the kindest, loveliest woman. She spoke no English whatsoever, so we communicated through my limited Spanish and a whole lot of smiling, pointing and waving. This sign language became a common factor among all the Casa Mamas that I met – all of whom were fantastic.
On the second day, we set off on a walking tour of Old Havana. During the trip, we visited 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 for defence, as Havana has never been attacked since.
The highlights of our walking tour included Cathedral Square, the birthplace of mojitos and the hotel that Ernest Hemingway called home for nine years. We also saw the site of the iconic 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 outside the front door! Inside, you could see the grinding and the smell was fantastic – it’s a must for coffee lovers. We sat outside and sipped the house special - iced coffee with a shot of rum. Delicious!
On our way to Vinales (a 2.5-hour drive from Havana), we stopped off at a local tobacco farm. It was fascinating to see how the plant is grown, harvested, and dried. We also saw the rolling process demonstrated by an expert at the farm.
From here, we followed the winding mountain roads up to a scenic viewpoint at the top of the cliffs coming into the Vinales Valley. The view of the whole of Pinar del Rio is breathtaking. Vinales itself is a small, colourful town based around two main roads, lined with vibrantly coloured houses.
Our second full day included one of my personal highlights of the trip. We met some local farmers, one of whom kindly showed us around his farm, where he grows and roasts coffee beans. We tried some of his home-roasted coffee too, and it was wonderful!
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 saltwater swimming hole nearby too, which is perfect for cooling off.
The Bay of Pigs Museum is fascinating if you're eager to learn about the history of Cuba’s revolution and its socialist roots, although, like any museum built by the winners of the conflict, it's a little one-sided. Prepare to be bombarded with anti-capitalist and anti-American propaganda!
Cienfuegos itself is an excellent city with colourful buildings and a great buzz. It's the only Cuban city built by the French, so it feels different from the Spanish colonial cities. Here, you’ll find ornate buildings and wide roads, as well as a stunning central square with theatres, galleries and a magnificent town hall.
After a walk around the main square, we opted to cool off on the rooftop bar of the best hotel in town with a mojito (or three!). Here, we were treated to panoramic views over the surrounding area and Caribbean coastline.
From Cienfuegos, it takes an hour to drive to Trinidad, a traditional colonial town so untouched by development that it has now been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In contrast to Cienfuegos, Trinidad has a network of charming narrow streets and pastel-coloured buildings. It's a place packed with atmosphere, and there's salsa music everywhere!
After a walking tour of the town, we had the opportunity to explore by ourselves. We stumbled across some of the best music and dancing I’ve ever encountered, such as Casa de la Trova and La Canchanchara. Be sure to try the famous cocktail of rum, water, ice and honey – it’s delicious!
On our full day here, we took Rayner’s advice (and a lift!) to a local hiking trail which ended at a stunning waterfall where we could swim in the cool water beneath. Under the falls, there’s a cave where I saw some incredible stalactites with many bats hanging from them – all quite magical. From here, we grabbed a lift to the nearby beach – Playa Ancon - with white sand and clear blue water. We spent the afternoon relaxing here, and we loved every minute!
On the way back to Havana, we stopped at Santa Clara, where Che Guevara based himself during the Cuban revolution. When his remains were recovered from Bolivia in 1997, a memorial site was built here in his honour.
The memorial includes a large square where Cubans gather to commemorate Che’s birthday on 13 June every year. His towering statue looks out towards the mountains in which he fought. There's also a museum showcasing many of his possessions and writings, and you can even see the mausoleum containing his remains.
After our final (and entertaining!) night with the group, we added a couple of extra days in Havana. This is an excellent idea if you’d like to see more of the city in your own time. We added on a classic car tour in a bright yellow Cadillac which was great fun and took us to some harder-to-reach places on the outskirts of the city!
We had a great time exploring and felt more confidence in ourselves after the tour, as we had a deeper understanding of Cuba. By that time, we had also managed to get our heads around the two currencies and work out what was a reasonable price for food, drinks and souvenirs. We would never have known this without the group trip.
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 some extra nights at either end if you'd also like some independent time to explore. To start planning, call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email.