Travelling to Cuba? If you’re thinking of heading to Cuba, now is the time. The country is rapidly changing and opening up, which is excellent news for both the locals and travellers wanting to make their way there. The logistics of travel to Cuba has never been easier, with AirBnB listings, new hotels planned and direct flights from some US cities to Cuba. If you’re looking to travel independently, my guide for travelling to Cuba will give you all the information you need. For a taste of what life is like in this fascinating country, give yourself at least 10 days in Cuba. This Cuba travel itinerary will be just enough to take in the highlights – from the colourful streets of Havana, to the serene mogotes and tobacco farms of Vinales, and the picturesque cobblestone streets of Trinidad.
10 days in Cuba | Days 1-3: Havana highlights
The first few days of your 10 days in Cuba will be in Havana, Cuba’s lively capital city. Havana is a study in contrasts, filled with both crumbling buildings and beautifully restored heritage architecture. Old Havana in particular is a treasure trove of beautiful urban vistas, historical churches and wonderful plazas to while away your time in.
Start your Havana exploration with a walking tour of the four main plazas, starting from Plaza de la Catedral, dominated by the bulk of the cathedral at one end. From here, follow Calle Mercaderes to Plaza de Armas. This leafy spot was used for military exercises but now you’re more likely to find a flea market on sunny weekends selling everything from antiques to books.
From Plaza de Arms, make your way to Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, dominated by the church and monastery of the same name. If you take Calle Brasil from here, you’ll end up at Plaza Vieja, where there’s plenty of al fresco restaurants and bars for a midday refreshment. Try the craft beer and pub food at La Factoria Plaza Vieja, Havana’s only microbrewery.
Make a reservation for dinner at Mama Ines, located on Obrapia, just behind Plaza de San Francisco. Inside a beautiful colonial building is this little paladar, serving everything from ropa vieja or shredded beef, to breaded prawns and roast pork.
On your first night in Havana, take your dancing shoes to La Casa de la Musica Centro Habana, the most popular spot in the city. Cover charges vary according to who’s playing on the night, and the crowd is a good mix of both locals and tourists.
The next day, take a long, wandering walk around Havana Centro. The beating heart of Havana, this is where most of the locals live and play. You’ll see grandmothers in rocking chairs on their front porches, a flickering TV playing in the living room. You’ll see ladies walking the streets selling everything from brooms and mops to street food. There’ll be men tinkering with their vintage cars by the side of the road, and children playing soccer in the streets. Visit at first light and last light, when the sun casts long shadows into the grid of streets that lie just beyond the Malecon.
Emerge from Havana Centro at sunset, and breathe in the sea air and crashing waves at the Malecon. Long known as Havana’s living room, the Malecon is best as the sun goes down. Fishermen, families, friends with beers and guitars all turn out to see and be seen along the Malecon’s long stretch.
Note: Havana is generally extremely safe, but all the usual precautions in a big city apply – be aware of your surroundings, don’t flaunt your valuables and be friendly but not gullible. I walked around for hours here and while we were approached a few times, the level of hassle in Havana is much lower than other places I’ve been in. Don’t bring your valuables with you at night to the Malecon, and stick to the busy sections.
Once you’ve had your fill, head to Jazz Café in Vedado, a jazz supper club with live music and a decent menu. If jazz isn’t your thing, park yourself on a bar stool in Sloppy Joe’s, in Havana Centro, and watch the flow of tourists as they come in through the door.
On your last day in Havana, pay homage to Cuba’s revolution at the Museo del Revolucion, housed in what used to be Batista’s old palace. The displays here are interesting and informative, veering a little into propaganda. There’s also an outdoor section with the remnants of the plane that was shot down during the infamous Bay of Pigs incident.
From the museum, saunter by the Prado, a wide, leafy pedestrian friendly road leading up to Parque Central. Here, locals gather in tight knots to talk baseball, a Cuban obsession. Stop for a drink and perhaps a meal at the Hotel Inglaterre, a gloriously colonial hotel next to the Capitol building, which should look familiar – it’s almost identical to the one in Washington.
There ought to be plenty of taxis happy and willing to take you for a ride in a restored vintage car, or alemendron. You can customise your experience as you like – a full tour around Havana’s highlights with an English speaking driver, or just a ride down the Malecon to the Hotel Nacional with the top down in a convertible? Rates as at March 2016 was around CUC30 for an hour’s joyride. Make sure you agree on rates before you get into the car.
The Hotel Nacional is worth a visit if only to take a peek into its cavernous Art Deco lobby. Infamous as the venue where the US mafia hosted its largest ever gathering under the cover of a Frank Sinatra concerts. Order an overpriced cigar and a drink in its breezy courtyard – the views overlooking the Malecon are worth it.
Eating out in Havana can be a little hit or miss, and the best meals are often at paladars or local kitchens. Space is limited, so make sure you’ve made a reservation in advance (ask your casa to call ahead for you, and request a cab too, while you’re at it) for Café Laurent in Vedado. Here, on the 5th floor of an unassuming block of 1950s flats, you’ll find starched white linen, shining glassware and a stunning view of Havana – a fitting end to your first few days here.
10 days in Cuba | Days 4-5: Vinales
Located only 3 hours away from the hustle of Havana is the sleepy town of Vinales. Nestled in amongst mogotes, or limestone outcrops, the area is known for its tobacco production. Catch a Viazul bus (CUC15 as at March 2016), catch a collectivo or shared taxi (CUC20), or book a private taxi (CUC80) from Havana to Vinales – bus tickets should be bought in advance.
If Havana felt like a step back in time, Vinales should feel like a leap back into the past. Laconic farmers bring their goods into town with horse and cart, selling pineapples on the morning round. Grandmothers sit on front porches, slowly rocking themselves and gossiping about the going ons. Musicians ply street corners and son powers the dancing at the town square at night.
Take a day to slow down your pace and soak in the atmosphere here. A horse ride into the hills are a requisite – make sure your horses are in good condition before agreeing to anything. Your casa will be able to sort you out for any tours you’d like to take, whether to a local tobacco farm, the caves in the region or simply a ride around the Valle del Silencio. You’ll see red, rich earth and rows of tobacco plants, the A frames of drying barns. Children playing in the dirt and older kids in school uniforms.
Vinales is the best place to buy cigars, if you’re not after branded products. Buying directly from the farmers here also by-passes the state and helps put money directly into their pockets.
You can also take a walk or a taxi up to Los Jasmines, a hotel overlooking the Valle del Silencio. Non hotel guests can use the pool for a small fee. After you’ve had a refreshing swim and sunbake, head over to nearby El Balcon for a drink as the sun goes down. You could eat, but the food wasn’t anything to shout about when I was here, so I’d recommend heading back to your casa for a (pre-booked) home made dinner instead. Olivo, in the heart of town, is also a good bet for dinner.
10 days in Cuba | Days 6-9: Trinidad
Getting from Vinales to Trinidad will take almost the full day, so make sure you’re provisioned – water, snacks, a travel pillow and your own music will help take the edge off. The Viazul buses are safe and airconditioned. They don’t come with onboard bathrooms, but there will be stops along the way.
After a week in Cuba, you’ll find yourself in Trinidad, a perfectly preserved Spanish colonial town where the clocks feel like they stopped ticking in the 18th century. There are beautiful colonial mansions still filled with frescoes, good Wedgewood china and French chandeliers, the floors a faded mosaic of Italian marble and the ceilings above made from intricate plaster of Paris.
Trinidad originally found fame from the sugar fortunes of the nearby Valle de los Ingenios – now a Unesco World Heritage Site famed for the beauty of its colonial ruins and pastoral fields. The brooding Sierra del Escambray overlooks both Trinidad and the valley.
There are plenty of museums and galleries to choose from in Trinidad, but most of Trinidad’s charm lies outside in its local streets. Pick just one museum to visit and make it the Museo Historica Municipal to give you an overview of Trinidad’s history. Beat the tour groups and go either before 11am or after 3pm.
Another interesting site in Trinidad is the Casa Templo de Santeria Yemaya – a temple dedicated to Yemaya the Goddess of the Sea. Santeria is a major fact of life for many Cubans – you will see initiates everywhere in Havana and Trinidad, dressed in their eye catching white from head to toe. The temple is technically free, but it’s best (and polite!) to pay a local priest to show you around and explain everything you see.
At night, venture out to La Botija for an early or late dinner. The crowds here can get hectic, so time your arrival carefully. The restaurant is open till late, so come back when it’s less busy. The portions here are huge, so it’s best to come with friends and share the tapas.
On day 8, venture outside of Trinidad. Hire a bike (ask your casa) and cycle the 18km to Playa Ancon, a paradise of white sand and turquoise waters. This is Caribbean Cuba, all sunshine and surf. There are resorts nearby where you can pay a fee to use the facilities. Food and drink are readily available for order from the boys who wander up and down the beach offering peso pizza, coconut juice, beers and set lunches. If you’d rather take it easy, organise a cab to drop you off and pick you up instead.
Before you leave Trinidad, make sure you spend a few hours wandering around Barrio Los Tres Cruces. Trinidadian life plays out here like it has for centuries. Ladies in curlers sit on their doorsteps, catching up the days’ news while keeping an eye on their children. Cowboys with their horses clip clop up the street, their heads held low after a long day. Neighbours play dominos in the street and old men sit shooting the breeze in doorways. This is authentic Cuba at its rawest and most beautiful.
10 days in Cuba | Day 10: Havana and home
On your last day in Cuba, make your way back to Havana from Trinidad, retracing your steps before your flight home. If you have time, stock up on Cuban cigars from the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas. Formally a factory, this site no longer manufactures cigars, but you can still buy them. For rum, visit the Fundacion Havana Club shop at the Museo de Ron – dark rum or ron anejo is considered more popular. Other things to buy include art, coffee, and antiques.
10 days in Cuba is barely enough to see the highlights of this fascinating country, but it’s a good start to your explorations. This travel itinerary is based on my own travels in Cuba in March 2016. Prices, restaurant locations or paladars may have changed since then. It’s always best to request your casa to phone ahead to check if you don’t like surprises.