Cuba had already been on my bucket list for five or six years. It was high time that I did something about it and I’m glad I did. Cuba is magic, full of wonderful places and with a rich history. This country really has something for everybody. However, a little more attention than usual is needed when planning a Cuba itinerary.
Are you also planning a trip to Cuba? Great! It’s a great time to do it. It has become far easier to travel the country, but at the same time, this means that you might not be able to experience it stuck in a time warp in the near future anymore. Cuba will always have its own charm, but it is constantly evolving. The sooner you decide to give it a chance, the better.
I’ve spent 15 days in Cuba, between the 25th of January and 9th of February 2019 and I would like to present you my itinerary as inspiration. This country is truly amazing and I’m sure I’ve let a lot of wonderful places out, but I think this is a great itinerary for first-time travelers to Cuba. It should allow you to know some of the key features of the country, while also giving you enough time in every place to actually live it.
How long to stay in Cuba?
I truly believe that the right answer would be as long as you can. The longer, the better. However, even a short stay is better than nothing. I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to spend two weeks in this country.
For starters, Cuba is much larger than I thought. After booking the tickets, we believed 15 days were far too many to spend in Cuba and tried to find a connection for Jamaica, but I could not find one that did not involve a stay over in the United States. We’ve finally decided to stay in Cuba and allow more time to know people and places. However, only when I started planning our Cuba itinerary did I realize how big this island was, how many places there were to see and the limited options for transportation.
I’m glad I’ve spent two weeks in Cuba and I would return anytime for more of it. I’ve barely succeeded to scratch the surface of what Cuba means and left without touching more than two-thirds of the country. I would have loved to stay more. At the same time, in two weeks we were able to explore some beautiful cities, beaches, and nature spots, without the feeling of rushing around.
How to travel around Cuba?
Renting a car in Cuba can be very expensive, around 1000 $ for 10 days. Full insurance is mandatory and fuel adds up. If you are traveling in a group of four, the taxi is a good option as the price is usually the same as for a bus ticket and they are faster.
As we were only two, we’ve decided to use the Viazul tourist buses to move from one place to another. I will write a more comprehensive article about traveling in Cuba by Viazul. In the meantime, make sure to check the schedule and book in advance, if this is also your choice. There is also the option to travel with Cubatur, but you can not book it online, only directly with Cubacan.
There are trains in Cuba, but they can’t be booked online either. From what I’ve understood, the schedule is not the same every day and it is not posted online. It may be a good option for someone who has more time or wants to get from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, as there is a night train.
Where to stay in Cuba?
Except for Varadero, where we went for an all-inclusive option just for the sake of tasting both worlds, we chose to stay in people’s homes, known as casas particulares. We’ve booked most of them in advance on Airbnb and the last night in Havana was booked by our first guesthouse with a friend of them, as they did not have any room free when we were supposed to return to Havana. Staying in with the people is a great way to meet Cubans and learn more about their daily life and wonderful culture. There are a lot of options to choose from, even from as little as 15 CUC. I’ve even heard of 10 CUC from a guy traveling on a budget on the bus. If you have never used Airbnb before, get 40$ credit on your first trip by using this link.
Our suggested Cuba itinerary
Days 1-3: Havana
There is a high chance that your first stop on your Cuba itinerary will be Havana. This will be a great place to make acquaintance with this country. We had 3 nights and 2 days and a half in Havana after flying in, which was enough to see some of the highlights in Havana Vieja, Havana Centro, Chinatown, La Cabaña and Vedado. On our last day in Cuba, we also got to see a little of Miramar.
We got in Havana at night, at around 2 am, but were up before 8 am, ready to meet our hosts and explore the city. After a delicious breakfast served on the roof terrace we were ready to go for a stroll in the old town. We decided not to bother with the bus tour, but to explore the city on foot. A walking tour is available and starts at the Gran Teatro at 10 o’clock 3 days a week. Better check with your casa particular, as this might change. The guy that runs the tour is friendly and you will find out some interesting things about Havana and its rich history.
The rest of the time, we advise you to just walk the streets and take in the old architecture, the beautiful crumbling buildings, the culture, and the classic cars. Listen to the groups of musicians in the squares and try some cha cha cha and salsa steps. Take a stroll in Havana Centro where there are not so many tourists wandering around and watch the people go about their daily life.
One of the afternoons, get a ferry from Old Havana to see El Cristo statue on La Cabaña which overlooks Havana Bay and wonder at the dramatic views of the city. Check out the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña and witness the “cañonazos” at El Morro.
Days 3-6: Viñales
Viñales makes for a great option to continue your Cuba itinerary. This small village surrounded by fields of tobacco and strange limestone formations known as mogotes is a must-see. There are a lot of activities you can try in this area, from hiking, horseback riding, cycling to climbing.
Go to El Paraiso, Hotel Los Jasmines, the Tourist Information Center or all of them for some wonderful views over the valley. Even if not very interesting, visit Mural de la Prehistoria, a massive colorful painting of dinosaurs on a mogote. There are a lot of caves into the mogotes. Visit at least one of them. The most popular among tourists and the one we visited is Cueva del Indio.
Don’t miss the opportunity to find out from the farmers about the process of growing, cutting, drying and preserving the tobacco leaves. See one or two phases of the process, depending on the season. We are not into smoking, but even so, Cuba’s cigars are famous worldwide and it is interesting to learn more about them and try one or two. You might also want to buy some as souvenirs. While you are there, why not find out more about coffee also?
Cuba is an island and you can still enjoy its beautiful beaches if you take day trips to Cayo Jutias or Cayo Levisa. As the weather was not that great when we were there, we did not look much into this.
Days 6-7: Cienfuegos
Cienfuegos does not get as many tourists as its neighbor, Trinidad. It seems much quieter and authentic. The city is the only one in Cuba that was founded by French colonists instead of Spanish ones as they fled from Haiti because of the revolution.
The city is beautiful and it is totally worth a day or two. Spend some time relaxing and people-watching in the Jose Marti square, walk the Paseo del Prado, admire the Palacio de Valle and have a mojito on its roof terrace. Do not miss watching the sunset from El Malecon, the best place in Cienfuegos to do so.
If you decide to stay longer, there are some nice places around the town that you might want to check. I would have loved to take a boat trip to Laguna Guanaroca and watch the flamingos. On my way back, I would have stopped at El Castillo, a fort that protected the city from pirates. El Nicho is another good option for a day-trip. It is said to be the most beautiful waterfall in Cuba, with natural pools to swim in. We thought we would be able to find a trip from Trinidad, but it seems that it is closer to Cienfuegos and the prices are lower there, as there are fewer tourists.
Days 7-9: Playa Giron
This is the place that I had most doubts about. I kept wondering whether to include it into our trip or not and I’m really happy I did. There are some nice snorkeling spots close to it, the vibe of this small village is really cool, the people are nice and the food was overall the best we had in Cuba. I can’t imagine now what our trip would have been like without it.
If you want some snorkeling with fish and corals, Cueva de los Peces is a great place for this and you can spend a nice day at the beach at Caleta Buena. If you are interested in Fidel’s crocodile farm, a bus can take you there. This village has also an interesting history and you can find out more about it at the museum right across the Viazul bus station.
Days 9-12: Trinidad
Trinidad is a tourists’ favorite and I can’t condemn them, as it is indeed beautiful. It has succeeded to keep its small-town charm, even if more and more tourists visit the region.
By day, go for a stroll on the cobbled streets through the colorful houses and climb one or both of the towers in the city center for the scenic views.
Trinidad has a bustling nightlife. Do not miss it! Join the locals and tourists at Casa de la Musica and listen to a live performance. Learn to dance a little salsa. From what I saw, there is not much salsa dancing in Cuba anymore, more salsa listening, but this is as good as it can get. Afterward, walk up the hill to La Cueva/Disco Ayala, a famous club in a cave, for more modern dancing with other tourists and locals.
Close to the town you can go to Playa Ancon, said to be the most beautiful beach on the southern coast or take a horseback riding trip to Salto de Cubano. Stop at a cigar and coffee hut along the way and jump in the pool at the base of the waterfall. Other options would be the Topes de Collantes waterfall or a train ride in the Valle de los Ingenios.
Days 12-15: Varadero
At the end of the trip, we wanted a few days to relax, soak up the sun and see what the other side of Cuba looks like. To be honest, I would skip it now, as it was pretty boring, but I am sure most of you will not listen to me and still do it.
Make yourself a favor and look into a hotel with very good reviews for the animation team otherwise, it will be very boring. Note that the beach is the same from Varadero up to Bella Costa and it is public, so there is no need to look for the hotel with the most beautiful beach. I insist that you should check more the animation team.
If you should choose to spend some time there or not, mostly depends on your interests. On the whole, Varadero feels very touristy, like any other beachside resort town. It is not a true reflection of Cuba’s complex culture and is as far away from the real Cuba as it can get. On the other hand, it is a great place to buy some souvenirs and just relax on white sand beaches. Everyone feels the need for this from now to then.
If you are not staying in an all-inclusive resort, but with the locals, which is what I would do next time, you might want to check Coral Beach and Saturn Cave.
Day 15: Havana
On our last afternoon and evening, after checking in, drinking one more Cristal beer and exploring a little more of Centro Havana, we took a taxi to Casa de la Musica Miramar for 8 CUC. Surprisingly, the coco-taxis seemed to be more expensive, as they asked for 10-15 CUC and would not accept less, even if it was raining outside, so we would have gotten wet. There was a matiné concert of El Niño y la Verdad for 10 CUC. The music was nice, even if the acoustic was pretty bad and there was almost no place to dance. However, not many people tried to do it either. It was a nice way to end our trip to Cuba.
I hope you enjoyed this post and that it will help you plan your perfect Cuba itinerary. This country has a lot to offer and I recommend you to try to spend as much time as possible in it. Try to discover as many aspects of it as possible and talk to the people. This will help you make the most out of you trip to this amazing country.