Way back in April, I jetted off to Cuba for a two-week adventure around a country that has been on my bucket list for years. With no solid plans in place beyond three nights of accommodation in Havana, one of my best travel buddies and I improvised our way around Cuba with no internet for a whole fortnight, staying in casa particulares arranged by our host in Havana and car sharing between towns in ancient collectivos (if you don’t know what either of those terms mean, check out my know-before-you-go guide to Cuba). Once we’d subtracted flying time we had thirteen full days to see as much as we could – this is how we chose to spend out time.
What can I say about Havana. I am so glad that I got to spend another day here before flying home, because I almost forgot how much I loved it. Without having visited every city in Cuba I feel safe saying that Havana is the true heart of the country, and it’s no mystery why so many travellers name it among their favourite cities. The bright colours, the noise, the cobbled streets of the old town…everything about Havana seems designed to get under your skin. Although fewer cruise day-trippers would be no bad thing.
We had three days in Havana plus another before we flew home, and we filled every minute. The old town is worthy of a day on its own, and we spent another day covering Revolution Plaza, Colon Cemetery and the neighbourhoods of Vedado and Miramar. We used our last day to take the boat to El Morro fort, and couldn’t resist indulging in a few tourist gimmicks – drinking in Hemingway’s favourite bars and cruising down the Malecon in an open-top classic car.
Viñales is only a tiny town about an hour and a half west of Havana, but is absolutely worth the trip. Because while the town itself doesn’t have much to offer beyond one main street full of restaurants and a small square, it sits among the tobacco farms and limestone mogotes of the spectacular Viñales Valley. We went on a day hike with a local guide who fed us facts about the area and took us to a tobacco farm where we had a smoke with the farmer and learned how to roll cigars. We also ventured through some tiny limestone caves and stopped for a break at a bar in the middle of nowhere that served refreshing glasses of Canchánchara, a delicious Cuban cocktail made with rum and honey.
One of the best things about Viñales was our casa particular – though basic we felt like it was the most authentic homestay experience of our trip. The family spoke no English and we spoke almost no Spanish so the majority of our conversation consisted of mime and frequent references to Google Translate, but they were so welcoming and while it’s standard for casas to provide breakfast they also offered us dinner, and we ended up having home-cooked meals both nights rather than eat out.
Cienfuegos took me completely by surprise – far from the Latin American style of most Cuban cities, Cienfuegos’ wide tree-lined main street and ornate lamp posts made me feel like I had arrived in Paris. The residential streets of Cienfuegos are rundown in a picturesque way, but the main square is the attention-grabber with its stately buildings and bold colours. Punta Gorda is also worth the walk; the neighbourhood sits right on the sea and is home to an amazing seafood restaurant called Finca del Mar.
Half-day trip: Get out into the mountains and swim in the pools at El Nicho waterfalls. El Nicho is about a 2-hour drive from Cienfuegos, but if you have some extra time in the city it’s the best day trip option – from the ticket office it’s an easy walk around the falls that would probably take an hour maximum if you didn’t stop, but you will want to break to take a dip in the crystal clear water. You can book a tour, but a taxi is faster and you can enjoy a swim without being crowded out by the tour groups.
Trinidad was smaller than I expected and we probably had a little longer here than we needed, but it was still the most charmingly beautiful city we visited on our trip. I loved wandering the uneven cobbled streets, stumbling upon colonial squares and staring out at the views from the top of the church towers. I’m not usually one for slobbing on beaches but the trip out to Playa Ancon is a real highlight – you can rent a bike from the nearest shop and once you’re out of town you basically follow one road until you reach the sea. The beach is beautiful and so peaceful; we arrived early expecting it to get busier, but there were only a handful of people around us the whole day.
The only thing that taints Trinidad is that it’s swarming with tour groups that must be shipped in from a beach resort somewhere nearby. I was never more aware than in Trinidad of the speed with which Cuba is being commodified for tourists.
Half-day trip: Take the vintage train into Valle de los Ingenios to see the Manaca Iznaga tower and old sugar cane mills. The train is touristy and pretty twee, all kitted out with a mojito bar and guitarist singing Guantanamera, but the scenery on the journey is beautiful.
Ah, Camagüey is a tricky one. On the one hand, it’s a really cool city – while most Cuban cities are arranged in grids, Camagüey was built as a labyrinth of winding alleys to confuse invading pirates, and the streets are lined with crumbling, pastel-coloured houses. It has some gorgeous communal squares, a street dedicated completely to cinema, and an amazing dive bar called El Cambio with graffiti and Hunter S. Thompson references scrawled all over the walls. It’s worth knowing that you can cover the city’s main sights in a day, but with two and a half to spend there before our flight back to Havana we were able to take out time, hanging out in cafes and really getting lost in the maze-like streets.
However, on the other hand… catcalling is fairly pervasive in Cuban culture and to an extent we’d become used to it, but Camagüey was on a whole new level. We tried not to let it rattle us – we knew from experience that in Cuba catcalling rarely progresses to physical touching – but it was so incessant that it did get us down, and when well-meaning guys did approach us our instinct was to ignore them or react defensively. I would be lying if I said it didn’t ruin the city a bit for me.
So that’s my two week Cuba itinerary! If you loved (or hated) the same places or have any other recommendations, let me know in the comments!