Trip length: 10 days
Matanzas – Varadero – Trinidad (Playa Ancon, Cayo Blanco) – Cienfuegos – Havana – Varadero
This was not my first trip to Cuba. I went in 2005 and stayed at a resort in Cayo Coco. The beaches of Cayo Coco were amazing – the calmest, warmest water I have ever experienced, however for this trip I wanted to actually get out and explore as much of Cuba as I could cram into 10 days!
Go: if you love Spanish language, history, culture, beautiful beaches
Don’t go: if you want good food, easy travel, convenient Wifi access
I remember as they made the “prepare the cabin for landing” announcement, we pulled out our map of Cuba and Lonely Planet book and thought, perhaps we should decide where to go when we arrive? That was the extent of our Cuba planning and below is the itinerary of how we spent our 10 days in Cuba.
Day 1 – Matanzas
We arrived rather late to Varadero airport after a day in Toronto on the way (see my blog on making the most of stopovers here) so took a taxi directly to our prebooked casa particular in Matanzas. This was the only thing we had booked and went by a recommendation
from a friend. After we checked in, we went for a walk around the quiet town. We were hungry and it proved to be a bit difficult to find an open restaurant at night. There were several talented bands playing on the street that gave us the feeling we had arrived in the real Cuba.
Day 2 – Matanzas to Varadero
We had a quick cold shower (no hot water at this casa!) and headed to the bus station to go to Varadero. We negotiated a cheaper rate for a shared van than if we took a bus and drove the 45 minutes to Varadero. Since Varadero is a resort town, I was expecting
something like Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Not even close. Just a handful of restaurants, no real shops and NO ICE CREAM STORE! WTF?!? We will get to that later… We got dropped off on what seemed to be a central part of Varadero near Parque Central and started knocking on doors with the upside down anchor indicating accommodation to find a place to stay. A couple places were sold out and one woman informed us that she knew someone nearby with a Casa particular we could stay. She showed us the way and we got a fantastic mini apartment for $30 (Canadian dollars) a night at Hostal 4608. This was no hostel. We had our own room, bathroom, and mini kitchen with sitting area. This turned out to be my favourite place we stayed in this whole trip and I highly recommend it (and they have hot showers!) We went straight for the beach… well with a quick stop at the Centro Comercial Hicacos for some rum and orange pop – the
selection of food and drinks in grocery stores is incredibly limited and fresh fruits and veggies were rare and difficult to find, let alone mix for the alcohol. The Varadero beach is stunning, one of the nicest beaches I’ve been to. Despite wearing SPF 50, my pale skinned Canadian friend managed to get burned rather early on. We took a break from the beach to find lunch at Paladar Nonna Tina, the best restaurant in Varadero and as we would soon enough find out, the best in Cuba. Good food is rare in this country, when you find it, enjoy it. We spent more time at the beach, managed to buy a wifi card at the Centro Comercial Hicacos and use the very slow wifi on the street near the beach behind the Italian restaurant, and then wandered down Avenida 1ra towards the Beatles Bar which seemed to be the central area for nightlife in Varadero (near Calle 59).
Day 3: Varadero to Trinidad
We went to the bus station to catch the 7:25 am bus to Trinidad (6 hours). The bus was sold out but we managed to negotiate standing room to not have to wait hours until the next bus as there are only two per day. We should have taken it as an omen as the bus broke down halfway to Trinidad and we ended up taking a taxi the rest of the way to Trinidad which was cheaper (we met a couple and split it) than our bus fare, and far worth it to not have to sit waiting for repairs for another hour or two. Our taxi driver brought us to an accommodation he recommended and I was positive we were being scammed (as a rule, never go to accommodations recommended by taxi drivers). This place turned out to be very nice! It was cheap, central, and had hot water although was only a small room inside someones house. We agreed to stay there and spent the evening exploring Trinidad. Trinidad was absolutely stunning, especially at sunset. A highlight was getting lost in the cobblestone streets while looking at all the brightly coloured buildings. We climbed the trek to check out Disco Ayala but when we saw the huge line to get in, opted to skip this nightlife. If you’re into clubbing on vacation, this appears to be the place to go in Trinidad. Trinidad had quite a few more restaurants and bars to choose from, including some awesome happy hour specials.
Day 4: Trinidad & Playa Ancon
We took a taxi to Playa Ancon for the day. We were getting a bit spoiled taking taxis around as they are were quite affordable compared to prices at home. It wasn’t quite a beach as nice as Varadero, but was still a great beach day. I opted to go diving with the Playa Ancon Dive Center which was a fantastic dive, especially for a walk up with no advance planning. The dive masters killed several of the invasive lion fish species and cut them up and fed them to eels – it was quite the show! We enjoyed another evening in Trinidad and its charm – this is a must visit town in Cuba!
Day 5: Snorkel trip to Cayo Blanco & Trinidad to Cienfuegos
I am not a huge fan of group tours except when getting out to places I can’t go independently and Cayo Blanco is one of those places. We opted for a catamaran tour (with alcohol included) and sailed out for a perfect day on this beautiful island. Snorkelling and lunch were included and we had the chance to see some of the island locals (iguanas). We got back to Trinidad in time to catch a taxi to Cienfuegos for the night, stopping so my friend could purchase a ridiculous amount of mangos off a vendor on the side of the highway. Fresh fruit was harder to come by than we would have expected in a tropical country so we had to load up when we could. I was carrying granadilla in my bag that I had purchased earlier so was in no place to judge my friend and her NINE mangos she was backpacking around. We had booked a spot to stay in Cienfuegos earlier that day on Airbnb so didn’t have to worry about wandering around looking for accommodation at night.
Day 6: Cienfuegos to Havana
We got an early start to check out Parque Jose Marti and walked all the way down Paseo el Prado to the small beach at the end. This is a really long walk – I don’t recommend it unless you are trying to get some serious Fitbit steps. We took a taxi back and had the WORST pizza I have ever eaten in my life. We ended up giving our leftovers to two homeless men who were quite thrilled. We had figured out that if we looked at where the locals were eating for lunch, we could use our CUP and get
a very cheap lunch. This sometimes worked, and in the case of this stinky foot pizza, occasionally did not work in our favour. We ended up getting a bus to Havana without any drama (3 hours) and once we arrived in the bustling city, we set out to find our accommodation for the next few days. I managed to screen shot save a few options when we had wifi earlier and we walked around the Old Havana neighbourhood that appeared to have the most options. Havana was much busier and louder than the places we had visited over the last few days but was much nicer than most large cities I’ve visited with an abundance of beautiful architecture, fruit stands (fresh fruit!!!) and a solid selection of things to do and restaurants to eat in.
Day 7 – Havana
We walked all over Havana and explored some of the main tourist sights throughout old Havana including cathedrals and squares and then walked along the Malecon to Revolution Plaza and the Vedado. We ended up taking a taxi back to our accommodation as this was quite far from Old Havana where we were staying although the long walk allowed us to see and experience things we wouldn’t have noticed if we had done it by bus or car – such as a baseball game of locals being played in a small neighbourhood near the Revolution Plaza.
TIP: When exploring a big city on your own, have a look at the map for the hop on/hop off or other tours to get an idea of the main sites to visit, and check them out on your own without the crowds and cost of these tours.
After we had dinner and showered, we watched the cannon go off for the cannon ceremony at 9 pm and then walked along the Malecon again to get to Fabrica de Arte Cubano. This is a super long walk so if you have time to kill, walk it; otherwise, take a taxi. Fabrica was one of the coolest spots in Cuba. It is hard to describe but is kind of an art gallery/night club/movie theatre/cafe and there is literally something for everyone. If you are in Havana, go here. There was a huge line to get in but it was worth the wait. To get home, we took a taxi (in a classic car!) which cost more than our taxi from Trinidad to Cienfuegos (night rate in the city).
Day 8 – Havana (Habana) and Guanabo (Playas del Este) and Playa Santa Maria.
We took the tourist bus (T3) from Havana from Parque Central to Playas del Este (Guanabo). We had hoped to find the Hershey train station as we had heard riding the infrequent/unreliable Hershey train back to Havana might be a fun adventure. We asked a few people, one who told us we could be waiting for days for the train, before we gave up and went to the beach. We quickly met some locals and enjoyed some cervezas on the beach with them while learning about what it is like to live in Cuba. They were headed to nearby Santa Maria beach and offered to bring us there. We had an opportunity to ride the local bus with them (this is not an option to tourists travelling without locals as it is significantly cheaper due to the communist regime) to this nearby beach town with them and then we parted ways while they went to visit family and we went to the beach. We wandered around some of the beach resorts, played some weak racquetball (or squash?) with some locals and then found the tourist bus stop back to Havana. We rode the tourist T3 bus back to Havana.
For dinner we found a little hole in the wall restaurant that had good reviews on Tripadvisor and despite having been warned “do not eat the spaghetti in Cuba”, we ate the spaghetti. It wasn’t too bad, especially with the happy hour drinks.
Day 9 – Havana to
We took a taxi to the bus terminal in Havana to catch a bus to Vinales. When we arrived, we waited in line while the ticket agent sold tickets to people that had some kind of connection or priority status sitting in the waiting room while the line didn’t move. Sketchy shit but we were in no position to complain with our weak Spanish. We didn’t want to wait hours until the next bus so
inquired about a taxi to Vinales and they were rather expensive so in the end, we gave up and opted to head back to Varadero for our last few days of vacation. We took a taxi which allowed for some stops along the highway before we were back “home” in Varadero. We had another fantastic meal at our favourite Italian restaurant and then the craving for ice cream set in – after a day at the beach, ice cream is only normal. Apparently not in Varadero. It was nearly impossible to find ice cream in this town but eventually we did find a little bakery with an ice cream cooler. Success!
Day 10 – Varadero
Another beach day in paradise. Although it would have been nice to explore the Vinales area of Cuba, we were grateful to have this time to relax on the beach of Varadero before heading back home to Canada.
Day 11 – Varadero to home
On our final day we had a leisurely breakfast and walk and then grabbed our bags to walk out to the main road and noted another pair with suitcases. We asked if they were heading to the airport and offered to split the cab with them and quickly made new friends.
Budget travel tip: Share taxis whenever possible to reduce costs in half. And to make new friends.
– We did not book anything other than our first night accommodation in advance and this did make things a little more difficult. With buses selling out far in advance and with limited wifi access in the country, we did find ourselves wasting more time than we would have liked sitting on a broken down bus, waiting for a sold out bus to see if we’d get seats, or knocking on accommodation doors to find one that wasn’t sold out. BUT… it also allowed us the freedom and flexibility to decide our itinerary as we went.
– It was impossible to find accommodations on almost any booking site other than Airbnb. We used Airbnb for a few nights, a recommendation from a taxi driver and walked up to accommodations posting the upside down blue anchor sign to find places to stay each night. These are called casa particulars and make up the bulk of accommodations in Cuba. Online booking seems to be changing with the change in American access to Cuba and you now should be able to book online using booking.com and Expedia.
-Cuba has two currencies, the CUC and the peso (CUP). You cannot obtain either before you leave. Cuban currency stays in Cuba. Your best bet is to bring your home currency (NOT US dollars, Canadian or Euros is best) and exchange it. There is a 10% surcharge on US dollars. I never suggest exchanging money at the airport but in Cuba, this is your only option if you want cash to get transportation from the airport. You will obtain your CUCs at the airport and then look for an opportunity to obtain some CUPs (usually as change after making a purchase somewhere like a grocery store). You will want to travel with both currencies as some items can only be paid for in CUPs (ie. local restaurants). It is confusing, but it makes sense when you’re there. Sort of.
– Bus travel. Buses sell out. And break down. This was a harsh lesson we learned the hard way. Try to buy your tickets in advance. And good luck buying tickets on the local buses. We tried several times and were only successful once when we were with two locals. Before purchasing your bus ticket, ask the taxi drivers outside of the bus station (or further away from the bus station for a better rate) how much they charge to your destination. We found surprisingly that with two people, it was often cheaper to take a taxi than the bus. If you do want to buy your bus tickets in advance, you can purchase them on the Viazul website. All bus schedules are also posted on their site here.
– Wifi is rare and expensive in Cuba. You will need to purchase a little Wifi scratch card and then find a login point. The easiest way to find one is to look for a public area with a large group of people looking at their phones, usually in a public park. Remember to log out when you are done your session or it will keep clocking your time and you will run out (as we learned with our first Wifi card).
– Bring some snacks from home. One of the best parts of travelling is experiencing the food. This is not the case in Cuba. You may also want to bring water treatment tabs as you can’t drink the tap water without treating it, but lugging around bottled water becomes a hassle (not to mention the environmental impact of those plastic water bottles! Bring your own reusable water bottle from home!)
– Skip the resort! Although Cuba was a challenge to travel through, the experiences of seeing all the towns, meeting locals and staying in their homes was far more memorable than my week at a resort in Cayo Coco.