Cuba is a confusing country. Part Caribbean paradise, part Communist backwater. Part bustling metropolis, part unspoiled jungle. Part welcoming with open arms, part openly hostile. It is certainly unique though. Our 9 days there were not enough to sample the whole country but we got a good feel for it. This is how:
For the geographically challenged among us, Cuba is an island, so the only way in is to fly. Most of the major towns have airports but the cheapest and biggest by far is Havana. Now the US-Cuban embargo has been consigned to history, you can fly direct from a lot of American cities, Miami, New York and Atlanta included, as well as Cancun in Mexico, San Jose in Costa Rica (we did this), Panama City and a few European cities too, Madrid and Cologne two of the biggest. Cancun tends to have the cheapest return flights.
This is one of Cuba’s most challenging aspects. Inter-city transport for non-Cubans is very expensive and very limited. The most common way between places is with the Viazul bus network. This state-owned company is responsible for shipping tourists all over the place, and on two of our three journeys they were fine. The third was an utter shambles and the customer service is worse than awful.
Your other choice is a private transfer. Most Cubans with a car are happy to be a taxi, for the right price. If you are in a group of 4, or can find a few mates to buddy up with, a private taxi will normally cost about the same as a Viazul bus, and you might get the added fun of going in a classic car too.
Getting around the cities is a similar kind of story. Buses aren’t really an option for non-Cubans, so taxis are the main option. Collectivo taxis run in some places which are cheaper than private ones. As in most of Latin America, agree your price first.
We spent all our time in Cuba in a type of accommodation called a Casa Particular. These are essentially B&Bs licensed by the government, and they can vary from a simple room to your own private bar and restaurant. We booked through a company called BBInns Vinales, purely because they had a good web presence which is very rare in Cuba. We stayed at Casa Monzon in Varadero and Hostal Casa Mia in Trinidad, both of which were great but the latter was truly fantastic. We stayed at Casa Havana Blues in Havana, which was absolutely fine, but was always set up for a fall after the excellence of our Trinidad Casa.
The alternative is hotels. The hotels we saw in Cuba looked, to be frank, a bit grim. Unless you have an insane budget, do some TripAdvisor-ing and find yourself a good Casa. You won’t regret it.
Places to Visit
- Varadero – Go here for some unashamed relaxation. Objectively, there is very little to do in Varadero, and in a country as culturally rich as Cuba some see it as sacrilege to “waste” your time on a beach. I respectfully disagree. The Varadero beach is as pristine as you will find anywhere in the world, and the huge number of holidaymakers (not backpackers) actually means that there are quite a few decent and inexpensive food options, which is a bit unusual for Cuba.
- Trinidad – A jewel of a colonial town on Cuba’s South Coast. Cobbled streets, beautiful buildings, classic cars, salsa music and a great beach. Trinidad literally has everything you could want in Cuba in a tiny little town. There is a reason everyone who goes there loves it. Check out an evening of salsa at Casa de la Musica, and drink the local Canchancharra cocktails.
- Havana – Where to start with Havana, or La Habana as the locals call it. Sprawling, chaotic, at times beautiful and at others hideous. Frustrating, rewarding, roasting hot and really damn cool, it is a city of contradiction, contravention and of course, revolution. The place throbs to the beat of non-stop salsa, the plazas and little streets of Old Havana are amazing places to get lost and hide amazing secrets, the architecture is beautiful and above all it is, well, Don’t miss the Plaza Vieja for cocktails and people watching, the Revolution Museum for a dose of history and the enormous souvenir market by the waterfront for your retail fix.
Food and Drink
Sadly, eating in Cuba can be a very hit and miss experience. With some prior research, we managed to avoid the local takeaway staples – such as the “food tubers” (no idea) and the congealed spaghetti drizzled with tomato ketchup, and has some truly fantastic meals.
Although eating isn’t exactly super cheap – bar the aforementioned food tubers – as long as you are picky about where you eat Cuban food can be incredibly good value. For instance, we had an 3 course lobster dinner (see image – they were whoppers) with complimentary free cocktails for $12 at our amazing Casa in Havana. Seafood is very reasonable, with prawn dinners (with the standard rice, beans, salad and sauce) costing around $6-$9 and seafood pasta and pizzas ranging from around $6-$8 dollars. Follow our tips for reasonable and amazing food.
- Rule number 1 – find a decent Casa with a great reputation for food. Not only will you get to eat in the comfort of your own home, get brilliant private service and actually hand out with some locals, you’ll also find some of the best and most reasonable food in Cuba. Expect around $5 for breakfast (decent size – tends to include eggs, a fruit salad, fresh fruit juice, bread, jam and some kind of pastry) and $8-$10 for vegetarian/pork/chicken/beef lunches and dinners, prawn dishes at around $12 and lobster between $14-$15. Lunches tend to include a salad and a coffee, while dinners will include the aforementioned along with a hefty portion of dessert. If you’re staying at a place for a few days they may well offer your additional reduced prices, and if you strike gold you may well end up with some free drinks to boot. Cocktails tend to be around $2 while beers will set you back $1.50-$2.
- Eat Italian. Pizzas and pastas are absolutely everywhere and tend to be the cheapest thing on a menu.
- Tripadvisor that bitch. A lot of places match their prices, and often the more expensive ones (read: government owned) aren’t necessarily any better, Quality really varies. We found some amazing restaurants (see below) by actually researching the places people bothered reviewing. If in doubt, follow the westerners and some truly inventive Cuban grub will await you.
- Drink cocktails, or beer if you’re too manly for that. Rum is crazy cheap ($4 a bottle of decent Havana rum in the supermarket) and Cubans make excellent cocktails. Cuban wine however, is sadly rather shit.
- Don’t rely on grocery shopping. The Cuban shopping system is baffling and leaves so very much to be desired. Bring staples if you plan on cooking and ask your casa if there are any decent fresh food markets about – imported goods are very expensive.
Habana 61 – Brilliant Cuban fusion cuisine. Very reasonably prices and one of the best meals we’ve had. We went twice in three days and loved everything on the menu. Eat the croquettes and thank me later.
ArtPub – Simple and understated cool little bar, open all day. Go for the beer ($2), massive cocktails ($3-$5) and insanely good sandwiches (all huge, priced at $4.50 and include a salad). They also do takeaway with equally satisfying portions. The Cuban sandwich was our fave.
Factoria Vieja – Skip the food (looked OK and not at all that cheap) and be wary of the service charges/general overcharging, but definitely indulge in a few beverages at this wonderfully located spot. Overlooking the plaza and often accompanied by a salsa band, the serve good cocktails for around $2-$3 and are one of the few places that serve decent beer by the pint. Cracking afternoon spot.
Nameless but very kind churros man – Located next to the Museo de Chocolate, he sells amazing churros for $0.50 from 10-7pm every day. Be extremely wary of the many other churros sellers who try and charge you $5 CUC for a lesser version.
Hostal Casa Mia – exclusively for Casa guests (and it does book up in advance) we ate here literally every meal we could. Best food we had in Cuba and brilliant hosts. They will try and get you drunk though – you’ve been warned.
Note: Varadero was strangely the most reasonable place we found for food, seafood especially, but the options are more limited and quality varies.
Kiki’s club – Very cheap and good carby food. Pizzas, pastas and a few Cuban staples are on offer. Drinks are also very reasonable and it has a great view of the seafront too.
El Caney – We ate here twice and loved this place. Exceptionally reasonable, great service and a really diverse menu which they actually did well. The $6.50 fillet mignon was surprisingly great. Cheapest drinks we found in Cuba too.
- The main tip we can give is be wary. As Westerns you are basically a walking dollar sign. The average Cuban earns a disgraceful $20 a month ($60 for doctors) and yet you will be expected to pay $25 for a fifteen minute taxi. As a result a double economy has formed – those who are becoming very wealthy through overpriced CUC-fuelled tourism, and those on CUP salaries. It’s easier to see why this has bred an environment of scamming, bad service and people essentially with their hands out, but swallow it all with a healthy dose of cynicism. If you get good service tip (10% or under is plenty) because it will make a real difference to them, if you don’t, or random strangers try to ask you for it – don’t. It is a very thin line between charity and exploitation.
- Likewise, if someone overcharged – challenge it. If you think the price is higher than that listed, ask for a receipt. Don’t be a mug essentially.
- If you can, get your hands on some CUP. Luxury items (i.e. any decent restaurant, alcohol, imported goods and merchandise) will all be sold in CUC, but a lot of the cheap (but often shit) food joints still sell in CUP – and more often than they ignore any kind of conversion rate.
- Often smaller stalls will try and charge you in CUC what a local would pay in CUP. You are paying 25x over the odds in this case. Politely tell the seller where to go and find someone who isn’t robbing you blind.
- In the markets do barter, but don’t expect the kind of reduction you get elsewhere. If you’ve saved a few dollars you’ve done alright.
- Let go. You can do Cuba on a budget, but it really is a holiday destination through and through. Have the lobster. Drink some cocktails. You deserve it.
- Buy some food in advance for Havana airport. You think you’ve seen some crappy overpriced airport food? Think again.
- As mentioned, you have every right to get angry at the odd intricacies of Cuba, but don’t let it spoil your holiday. There are some amazingly generous Cubans out there and a lot of places are worth the prices they charge – yes they are high, but we are incredibly lucky to be able to pay for it in the first place.