We spent most of our time on the beach at our resort next to Varadero. We were only there for a week during the xmas break, so didn’t get up to anything terribly adventurous.
Always befriend a local. It’s not that hard, it’s like they’ll find you. Even if you find those with a hidden agenda, it’ll be worth it to dish out some ten dollars for a dinner (and his/hers) after you’ve seen the secluded parts of the city and you get to buy cigars at a cheaper prize (you should know never to buy at a boutique or something like that).
Santiago de Cuba is more of a Colonial city, so if you’re into history and the such, it can be rewarding, I can say there are some places outside the city that are good for hiking.
As a last personal experience and interests, Matanzas, the capital of province of Matanzas is more of a cultural and artsy place where it’s more possible to catch some cuban music playing freely on the streets. And from Havana to Matanzas there’s Varadero and the Zapata swamp. The largest wetlands in Cuba.
Pretty much what I was going to say.
Varadero is mostly beach resorts. You never know, you might like it. It’s like … blue waves, white sand, type beach. Was too hot for me and I got my sun allergy acting up but you might like it.
Santiago de Cuba is yeah, for history people. :) And cigars are like everywhere. You might even want to take a tour of the cigar making factory if you want.
You could spend a lot of time running around La Havana, but I really liked Santiago de Cuba. There’s a lot of stuff to do there and everyone’s pretty friendly and open. If you want to see the real Cuba…get out of the cities…do you speak Spanish? Guides are pretty cheap and will come in handy if you’re not confident in your language abilities.
In Holguin (North -East) you can see most beautifull Beach and be closer to Cubans.
There are in my opinion two ways to spend a couple of weeks in Cuba … Either you stick to habana and really get the feeling of the place (you will probably make friends find nice live music places, drink a lot of rum etc) or you decide to ride through the country with as little constrains in planning (today we go here and then we go there etc) as possible …
What i did was rent a car and drive through most of cuba. Infortunately it was a white and ugly hyundai. Not a very good match to the fantastic old american cars you can see everywhere but was much cheaper to rent and more reliable.
Try to bargain a bit, especially if you take it for many days. You should also see that they have service points accross the country and a good spare tyre (+the tools to change it) we blasted at least 2 of these … Transtur is a good deal … better reserve in advance as prices rise depending on car availlability … we paid 50$/ day
Grab yourself some nice old cuban music from a music store near you (like buena vista social club) a dozen of cigars and dollars and ride on …
You see a place you like ? you stay … ask for a casa particular (20 to 30$ a night usually) and you stay over in a house … as long as it pleases you … you will eat lobster in the country by the kilos … its their favourite … If they invite to eat at their place don’t hesitate … you will know where your money goes …
any way Trinidad was my favourite … this is as far south as we managed in 15 days …
Try to find evening music happenings in the places you go … usually in places called “casa de la musica” or “casa de la trova” There you will have to find a cuban partner to teach you what real dance means … salsa !!
I dont know much about the sea … comming from greece i was not really impressed … I think Playa larga was really nice … I would definately stay away from varadero and the such … nothing cuban about them … the only people you get to know is other tourists like you but much older usually …
Stay away from the Hotel Horizontes Chain … expensive and for tourists only … very bad service usually
what to bring back?
Cigars of Course!!
(if you are allowed..)
In hotel National of Cuba (you are lucky if you stay there … old fashion real class hotel) ask for the cigar department … they usually have a very good Torcero rolling cigars in front of you … you must ask him to roll you a panatella and smoke it on the spot !! spectacular taste … buy from him the cigars he rolls !!
Of course you need to bring back Rum : the “Habana Club 15 Años Gran Reserva” very rare and very expensive outside cuba…
Go to the open-air market and fairs (habana, trinidad etc) and buy papier-maché toy cars, music instruments and fabulus necklaces made of beans !!!
Any way …
I am sure you are going to have a great time !!
A useful report for me, Christophoros, as I have heard that it can be difficult to get to many places unless you are with a tour bus. Hiring a car sounds ideal.More freedom.
although I don’t know if you noticed but the trip was actually a year ago. we did get to all the places without tour bus, met fantastic people and even the food was superb — contrary what people usually say. we stayed and ate in casa particulares in havanna, santiago de cuba, cienfuegos and isla de la juventud. lovely people, really!
Thank you for posting your pictures. I have a lot of family still there, and I grew up hearing stories of Cuba from my family members that were able to come to the USA. So there’s a connection there although I was 23 months old when I visited there last.
Some of the pictures are beautiful, and some just break my heart. I don’t know if you ever read the book “1984”. The author describes London after it’s been under siege for many years.
“This, he thought with a sort of vague distaste — this was London, chief city of Airstrip One, itself the third most populous of the provinces of Oceania. He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether London had always been quite like this. Were there always these vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions? And the bombed sites where the plaster dust swirled in the air and the willow-herb straggled over the heaps of rubble; and the places where the bombs had cleared a larger patch and there had sprung up sordid colonies of wooden dwellings like chicken-houses? But it was no use, he could not remember: nothing remained of his childhood except a series of bright-lit tableaux occurring against no background and mostly unintelligible.” exerpt from “1984” by George Orwell
Fantastic tips, thanks a lot everyone!
Chris, I think you actually read me mind, that’s exactly how I like to plan my trips. Your itinerary sounds a lot like what we’ve been planning. I quess we have to check Santiago de Cuba, Matanzas & Holguin on our way… can hardly wait.
I want to see live music as much as possible, get my friends embarrased by dancing salsa and of course, taste soem rum.
Thanks Kevin, Randy, Todesesser, Cityzen & chris the crow!
I would recommend Trinidad de Cuba on the South coast of the island. It is a small town with colonial architecture. Most of it has UNESCO world heritage status. It has a couple of beautiful beaches and it is possible to organise snorkeling trips. If you do so, make sure you take a trip that includes lunch: when I was there we stopped over a reef on the way and guys went fishing lobsters, some of them ending up being our lunch. You can also enjoy the forest in the mountains just behind the town. If you want to find live music at night in Trinidad it’s dead easy: follow the sound of music and it will invariably lead you to a small bar with a live band. If you are the museum type, Trinidad has a couple as it was the town where the German scientist Alexander von Humbolt stayed when he was in Cuba. His old house is now a museum.
If you are travelling around, avoid a suitcase at all costs, have a backpack instead, even if you are staying in hostals or hotels all the time: lugging a suitcase across broken pavement is not fun.
If you don’t fancy hiring a car, you have bus services to most places. The standard ones have only a few seats for tourists and no air conditionning. The special tourist ones are more comfortable, have air-conn and are only slightly more expensive.
For accomodation, I suggest you stay at a “casa particular”. Cubans can hire rooms in their own homes and it is the best way to stay in Cuba: you are with the locals and it’s cheaper than the bland state run hotels. See www.webhavana.com, www.particularcuba.com or www.casaparticularcuba.org. It’s a shame I don’t have the details of the places I stayed at anymore.
For food, the best is the small family run restaurants. They are legally limited to 12 diners but you will find nice cheap food there. They are normally only allowed to sell beef, pork or chicken but most of them unoficially have lobster on the menu (for the same price than chicken!)
I hope this was useful. Enjoy Cuba, it is a beautiful place!
Trinidad is very lovely, and it’s just a classic old cab ride to a long large beach.
The area to the far west around Pinar del Rio is very impressive also – limestone that’s collapsed in areas, leaving huge flat walled mountains. (There’s an area in southern China that is very similar, but I’m forgetting all the names and the technical terms.) Plenty of things to do here too (horseback riding, hiking, etc), and the scenery is far beyond the usual green hills and mountains, really staggeringly georgeous.
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