Havana > Cienfuegos > Viñales > Havana
Timeworn but magnificent, dilapidated but dignified, fun yet maddeningly frustrating – Cuba is a country of indefinable magic.
Expect the Unexpected
Cuba is like a prince in a poor man’s coat: behind the sometimes shabby facades, gold dust lingers. It’s these rich dichotomies that make travel here the exciting, exhilarating roller-coaster ride it is. Trapped in a time warp and reeling from an economic embargo that has grated for more than half a century, this is a country where you can wave goodbye to everyday assumptions and expect the unexpected. If Cuba were a book, it would be James Joyce’s Ulysses: layered, hard to grasp, frequently misunderstood, but – above all – a classic.
These juxtapositions were totally consistent with our Cuba experience. If we had to give our cuban travels a theme, it would be “Es Complicado”, which was the phrase that came up in just about every conversation we had with locals, especially when talking about the government. And that’s not to say complicated = bad, in fact, complicated makes for some wonderfully colorful and nuanced travel experiences.
But even just trying to talk about traveling in Cuba es complicado. The friends we were traveling with arrived a couple days before us in Havana, so they called us just before we boarded our flight to give us a heads up in case there was anything we should be prepared for upon arrival (the rules for Americans traveling to Cuba had changed after our booking of this trip and none of us were sure what to expect on either end). Before I could even say hello, Jocie squealed, “OMG Havana is dirty and smelly and noisy and it’s AWESOME!!!” And all of those things are true.
Because of this, we wouldn’t say Cuba is a destination that’s ideal for a novice traveler, or someone who is super attached to their creature comforts (toilet seats, the internet, paper products). At points during our trip, even while staying in an Airbnb that could have been straight out of Architectural Digest, it felt like we had to have a camping mentality. Do we have enough drinking water to get through the day? Check. Do we each have our own roll of TP and a Kleenex packet? Check. Do we have our hardcopy or previously downloaded Google maps of this location? Check. That said, as long as you do your research, pack smartly, and keep an open mind, you’re going to fall in love with Cuba.
The Elephant in the Room
As Americans, given the current Administration, we were a bit nervous that we’d not exactly be welcomed with open arms. But it quickly became apparent that Cubans have a long history of being able to separate the people of a country from their government. Most locals assumed we were French at first, but once they asked where we were from we’d always get, “We love Americans!”, or some variation of, “We love Obama! Fuck Trump!”
A few friends who had visited Cuba previously had warned us not to try to talk politics with the locals, as if we tried we’d only get propaganda in response. That was not our experience in any way. The Cuban friends we made and locals we spoke with were extremely educated, informed and more than happy to have insightful in-depth conversations about both Cuban and American politics, daily life and everything in between.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
When we booked, the people-to-people option was still one of the 12 valid pulldown options that was part of the airfare booking process. From what we understand it’s still possible to visit, but you may have to go as part of a tour or as “support for the Cuban people” which is another pulldown.
Currently, there are no direct flights out of Philly, so we opted for flying out of Newark, which was super smooth. You get your visa before going through security, which is one extra line and $75/person, but the whole process was quite efficient.
We booked our transfers between towns prior to our trip, since we knew finding vehicles for 6 people + luggage would be a challenge. Once there, it’s pretty easy to grab a cab/bike/motorcycle/horse in any of the towns (I’m not kidding about the horse thing, horses are definitely still a prominent form of transportation outside of Havana), although it’s good to know some Spanish and definitely negotiate the fare before getting in.
THINGS TO KNOW
We were told to “lower our expectations” by several friends, so maybe because of that we were pleasantly surprised in several cases. In both Havana and Viñales, there were plenty of international options. In Cienfuegos there were fewer international options, so that’s where we ate mostly traditional Cuban fare. Spices do seem to be lacking in general, and if you go into it expecting Cuba Libre, you’re going to be disappointed. Breakfasts tended to be fairly consistent: eggs, fruit, bread or a crepe, coffee and juice. The thing we weren’t prepared for was that the portions at our hotels and Airbnbs, tended to be huge. So in order to not feel gluttonous and guilty (because we knew most locals didn’t have access to the same ingredients or quantities that tourists get), we started ordering half as much food and just sharing.
In our experience, the food at the privately owned restaurants and hotels was significantly better than the government-run options. We used a combo of Lonely Planet guidebook recommendations along with the A La Mesa app, which works offline as long as you download it before you arrive.
If you stay at an Airbnb or Casa Particulares, you’ll likely have the option of them preparing you breakfast for about 5CUC/person. Definitely take them up on it at least once. It’s a good opportunity to hang out with your host for a bit and have some great conversation.
Hate to say it, but you’re probably going to get a better mojito at home. That’s not to say they’re bad, we did have several quite yummy ones, but they’re not super consistent. It definitely helps if you ask for the Premium rum. Same goes for Cuba Libres (coke + light rum) and Cubatas (coke + dark rum). As for beer, your choices are basically light or dark (Negro), but calling it dark is a stretch, it’s more like what we’d call an Amber. Bucanero Fuerte was our go-to beer and is their strongest (hence, the Fuerte) at 5.4%.
Toilet paper is scarce and not the quality you’re probably used to. Bring a couple rolls of your own, plus 2-3 of those purse-size Kleenex packs to keep on you at all times, and either some wipes or hand sanitizer. Whenever you go to a public restroom, including restaurants, there’s a woman sitting outside with a little table and a plate. You put some change on the plate and she hands you 3-4 squares of TP. That’s it. Paper towels don’t seem to exist and there’s rarely a hand dryer. Most public toilets have no seats, so your squat game gets strong (on the plus side, if you’re not working out while on vacation, you’re still getting your squats in). And in the more rural areas/farms/cafes, wooden outhouses are not uncommon.
Like in other parts of the Caribbean, you’re not supposed to flush the TP – it should be placed in the small trash can near the toilet.
In the somewhat related category, definitely bring plenty of Imodium AD – that’s not something you can easily find once there and all six of us needed it at some point during the trip. Ladies, also be sure to bring however many tampons or pads you’ll need, because that’s another thing you won’t have access to once you’re there.
Wifi access is hard to come by, and when it’s available it’s often unreliable and expensive ($4.50/hr in Havana, $2.50/hr in Viñales). This is, on the other hand, a great opportunity to take a break from modern devices and have a true holiday. There was many a time that we had a question we normally would have just Googled (customary tipping in Cuba), and that is not an option, so we definitely recommend bringing an old-school hardcopy travel guide.
If you can’t go without, no matter where you’re trying to log on, you’re going to need an official ETECSA Wifi card. You can stand in the long line at an ETECSA store to buy one or you can just grab one from most hotel front desks, which will be quicker (in Havana, at least). We recommend going to a hotel, buying the card from them, and then grabbing a drink while you use their internet. A few public parks are also hotspots, although the connection is going to be much weaker than at a hotel, and you still need the card.
One tip we learned from a friend: If the login page doesn’t pop up (it usually didn’t for us), try typing 22.214.171.124 directly into the search bar, and that should bring you to the site. If it just searches Google for 126.96.36.199, keep trying until the page comes up. Use this to log out too – if you don’t manually log out, it will keep docking time from your hour even if you’re done using the internet.
Cash only. No American credit cards or debit cards will work. It’s best to convert USD to Euros BEFORE you leave the US (I know, it sounds crazy, but we did the math and you do save $ doing it this way) and then convert the Euros to CUC upon arrival. Right outside the airport (to the left when you walk outside) there’s a money exchange office.
We were traveling for 10 days, as a family of 3 and brought the equivalent of $3000US (about 2400Euros). We spent about 550Euros in transfers/daytrip transports, plus about 250 in hotels (the Airbnb’s were paid in advance with credit card before we arrived) and still had about $500 left at the end of the trip.
Don’t forget you’ll need your passport to do any money exchanges.
Cuba has two currencies. One is the convertible Peso (CUC) and the other is the Cuban Peso (CUP). CUC is what tourists use, and 1 CUC is roughly the same as $1. CUP is what locals use, and it’s worth a lot less. You’re allowed to use CUP, but you likely never will since there isn’t really a need to. 1 CUC is something like 25 CUP, so you should know the visual difference between the two, since sometimes people will try to give you change in CUP instead of CUC, and that’s a big difference. We only had one driver give us change in CUP, but it’s still good to be aware of.
Also, its a good idea to keep maybe $10-$20 worth of CUCs if/when you change back your money to Euros, so that if there’s a delay at the Havana airport you can still buy some snacks.
You can walk anytime of the day or night without problems or heavy solicitation. Guys will ask if you need a ride, or if you need help with anything. Ladies, be aware that guys make a cat call sound that seems offensive at first, but is actually used toward both men and women interchangeably and doesn’t seem to mean the same thing as it does in the States.
There are definitely piles of trash in Havana, and a fair amount of litter tossed on the streets of other areas as well. Santeria is still practiced, so it’s not unusual to see decapitated chickens in the streets. So heads up on that, whomp whomp.
Bringing things home
We were told that cigars should be in your carry on, not in your checked luggage, which we did and had no problems. We were also told that if we purchased street art we should get a certificate from the artist and that should also be kept out of checked luggage. We did purchase art from a street artist, but he didn’t have certificates. He warned us we may need to pay a small tax at the airport, but we didn’t call attention to it and they didn’t ask us any questions about it.
We only spent one night here before heading out of Havana to Cienfuegos, but Melvis and her son Jorge were super sweet. While not the most picturesque block at street level, the location is extremely centrally located in Old Havana (Havana Vieja), and the views from the balconies are amazing.
CasaPaticular Old Havana
Maykel, the host, has done a beautiful job of rehabbing and designing this gorgeous airy space. And Maykel, himself, is also a highlight of this experience – he’s full of knowledge, very easy to communicate with and someone you just really want to hang out with. Be sure to take him up on breakfast – it was the best breakfast we had during our 10 days in Cuba. Plus, it gives you time to have conversation and get true insight into Cuba and its beautiful, joyful people. The location is in the Belem neighborhood, which is on the outer rim of Old Havana, so it is a slightly further walk to some of the sights (we’re still only talking 10-15min), but that gives it a much more authentic experience than some of the more central touristy locations.
Adorable, privately-owned, and also has the best restaurant in Cienfuegos. The staff here is excellent, especially our new friend and server, Felix. Wilbur, the concierge, was very helpful in booking our transportation for our day trip to El Nicho Falls. Rooms (there are only three) are fairly basic, but comfortable and clean. Our rooms were only about $50/night and that included a huge breakfast and welcome drink. The lunches and dinners are HUGE, with 3 courses, so two of us often split one meal. We found out after the fact we could have been ordering a la carte (the menu doesn’t make it clear that’s an option), so that’s probably the way to go if you’re not super hungry.
Villa Vista al Valle
OK, so yes, the rooms appear to have been decorated by my husband’s grandmother circa 1970. There are frilly sateen comforters and some very fancy Asian-esque wall fans. But everything else about this place is awesome. And honestly, you’re going to be hard pressed to find a better designed option in Viñales, at least as of the time of our visit. Although given the volume of international tourists here and the direction the newer restaurants seem to be going, I imagine it won’t be long before the design hipsters get their hands on this area. The rooms are a nice size, clean, extremely affordable (we paid under $40/night), the breakfast is yummy and the location/view is AMAZING. The owners, Osiris and Dunia, are super sweet. As an added bonus, while we were there, in addition to the roosters and piglets, there were puppies, which the kids absolutely adored.
THINGS TO DO & EAT
O’Reilly #304 | Habana & Aguiar
Small, quirky, fun and yummy
58 San Juan de Dios | e/ Habana y Compostela
Funky hip airy space with cool menus, delicious food and great music. The women’s bathroom is surprisingly spacious.
La Bien Paga
Tiny sandwich shop. Super cheap (sandwiches are about $2-$4) and the Ropa Vieja sandwich was one of the most delicious things we ate during our entire trip. It’s perfect for take out, but there’s also a little vintage seating area in the back with tasty milkshakes. Highly recommend grabbing a couple sandwiches from here to bring with you to the airport for snacking on while waiting for your flight on departure day.
Cerveceria Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco
Avenida Puerto y San Pedro
One of the two breweries in Havana, with a nice location on the waterfront. Your choices are light or dark (negro). The food is just ok, but it’s worth a stop in to checkout the warehouse space and grab a beer.
Calle Sol N.12 entre Oficios y Ave. del Puerto
Great breakfast spot just off the Plaza de la Catedral. Excellent coffee and crepes. Be sure to walk through the art gallery at the end of the block where you can actually watch the artists at work.
Av. del Prado No. 111 e/ Genios y Refugio
Rosario is the real deal, in that she is the Director and Choreographer of her own dance company. For $25/pp/hr we were each paired up, individually, with one of her dancers, while she taught us the basic steps, and then we broke off into pairs to practice. The dancers were so sweet and patient with us, and man can they move. Definitely a highlight.
Street 35, No. 4B, e/ Avenue 0 y Litoral
The best food we had in Cienfuegos, and great location right on the water.
Poco Bonito gallery
Calle 29 | #5008 e/52 y 54. Centro Historico
Check out some super cool street art, particularly by the artist known as Tooth Fairy, who’s basically the Cuban Banksy (except not anonymous, you can actually meet him).
El Nicho Falls
About 1.5 hours from Cienfuegos, and definitely worth a day trip. Lovely series of waterfalls. Be sure to bring your passport, as this is a Natl. Park. The restaurant onsite is state-run, so we’d recommend eating at an independent restaurant/farm in the vicinity. Our driver took us to a little farm/restaurant just a few minutes away called El Indio, which was great (huge portions, recommend the fish), but it’s not the kind of place that has a website, or probably even an address. They do serve tree rat, however, so there’s that.
Calle Salvador Cisneros, Viñales
Tasty Mediterranean/Italian; mushroom risotto and the cannelloni were both great
53 Salvador Cisneros, Viñales
Light bites and great drinks in a cool little space. Be sure to sign the wall.
Tres Jotas (J3)
45 Calle Salvador Cisneros, Vinales
We call the family we travel with J3, collectively, because all of their names start with J, so we absolutely had to try this place and it was awesome. Yummy tapas and drinks in a cool atmosphere.
Horse back riding tour of the local tobacco and coffee/rum farms
Your host or hotel will be able to set this up for you. It’s a must do.