Travelling to Cuba is like travelling back in time to the 1950s; the cars and the lack of both internet and emphasis on material possessions. There are many things that struck us which we’ll try and capture here to give you a sense of what the country is like, but it’s somewhere definitely worth seeing for yourself. We’ll start with general observations, what we did there, and then give you some practical travel tips if you end up travelling there yourself 🙂
Living in Cuba
Walking around Havana and Trinidad it is apparent that Cuba was once a very wealthy country (thanks primarily to sugar), with opulent architecture influenced by its Spanish and French settlers. But if you walk just a few blocks from these historic centres you’ll be faced with the reality of living in Cuba today. People live in basic homes; with dated furniture and enough chairs to accommodate the number of people living there, no more. The only sign of modernisation is a large TV, the size of which only serves to emphasis the poor quality of TV programming and reception they have.

Other evidence of Cuba’s socialist history is that ration books still exist to this day and allows Cubans to collect a set amount of staple foods (bread, rice, flour, sugar, salt, etc) at a subsidised rate from a prescribed local store. Beyond that you have to purchase your food at a ‘normal’ supermarket, which is more like a corner store but is very limited in what it stocks (e.g. one type of biscuit across 4 shelves and lots of other bare shelves).
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If you’re wanting to purchase furniture you could go to a ‘department store’ which is more like an empty room with one table over here and one chair over there. There are still handprinted signs of Fidel, Che and general pro-socialism slogans around the place.
Recent changes (aka post-Fidel and Obama)
One significant change the country has seen, is that Raul Castro has allowed some level of privatisation, allowing individuals to earn above the national wage (of US$25/month). The most common small businesses are casa particulars (renting out a room in your home) and taxi driving, making these Cubans the wealthiest of the working population who are likely to be the sole source of income for their whole family.
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Another type of small business
There is almost non-existent homelessness, begging and crime, but there is significant underemployment (an orthopaedic surgeon earns the same $25/month as the local shop keeper) and unemployment, so it’s a common sight to see people standing in their doorway watching the world go by or just popping in to see their neighbour unannounced.

A typical home and hobby… watching the world go by

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Sense of community… dominoes in the street

Obama lifted the embargo with Cuba back in 2015 allowing Americans to finally travel to Cuba, though it needs to be for one of twelve exceptions, tourists are using the people to people contact exception.
Getting around
Getting around in Cuba definitely enhances the 1950s feeling, whether it be the 1950s American classics synonymous with Cuba (or perhaps it’s a 1980s Russian Lada bought by a grandfather on a payment plan when he was working for the government).
Equally, you could be getting around on a horse and cart (or just ride bareback), in a bus or the back of truck laden with tens of other people, or humming along silently on an electric motorbike. All of which are acceptable methods of transport on a highway, where you’ll also see hundreds of people trying to hitch a ride somewhere.
Because private forms of transport are such a vital source of income they are beautifully maintained. Additionally, because importing new cars isn’t an option the car market is very limited and even an old ‘bomb’ (as we would know it that would head straight for a compactor) is worth US$18,000 (or $25,000 if diesel). The benefit is that these cars are more easily maintained than modern cars and so people tend to be their own mechanics, but parts are difficult to come back so people get creative; where a door handle has broken it is replaced with the window winder handle… don’t try opening your ‘window’ on the highway! There are no seatbelts, but don’t worry because cars are such prized possessions and parts are so limited people are very careful not to have crashes – we didn’t see one! Drivers are more concerned about massive potholes or livestock charging on to the road.
The only con with taxi professionals are there are so many of them so you are asked multiple times on one street if you want a taxi, slightly annoying!
Speaking of safety, Cuba is an incredibly safe place, even walking through the poorest of neighbourhoods we were greeted by locals and sometimes asked if we had soap or a pen they could have, or if you walked with a baseball in the side pocket of your daypack you would be surrounded by smiling faces asking for it. The most dangerous part of Cuba are the footpaths… keep your eyes on where you’re walking since there may be a significant hole (up to 6 foot deep).
Eating and drinking
We had been warned that the food in Cuba wasn’t great. The food we ate was good, but the problem is that it is very repetitive – we’re taking a break from rice, bean, grilled chicken and pork for a while! The main thing is just not to eat in government restaurants since they are rationed monthly and by the end of the month you could literally have one choice on the entire menu available. Instead, we definitely recommend eating in your casa or neighbour’s casa. The cocktails on the other hand are reputed to be amazing, but we have to disagree here again. Yes, they are very strong cocktails and a bargain, but the ice used in them is not made with filtered water and therefore we were glad we came prepared with Imodium and so we had an unexpected detox while in Cuba!
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So much food, but so repetitive!
Internet and Communication
One thing we mentioned was the lack of internet (it’s currently illegal to have internet in your home in Cuba) and so people congregate at all hours of day and night in local plazas to get online where wifi is available – it looks like a Pokestop/ with everyone’s faces glowing with blue light from their phones. It creates a wonderful sense of community and togetherness, but at the same time for an unprepared traveller it would be a nightmare, so be sure to plan your trip before you leave, otherwise you’ll be relying on your casa owners and other travellers for information.
History and Future 
In terms of the history, we would recommend knowing the history of Cuba before you travel, it provides so much context (unlike the Museum of the Revolution in Havana). There is a fabulous documentary on Netlix called Cuba Libre. In terms of the future though, since the Cubans are so reliant on tourism their major concern is not what will happen next year when Raul Castro steps down, but rather whether Trump will close the US doors. However, considering his interests in the hotel business, I doubt he’ll be closing the door!
This is what we got up to:
  • Vinales (we’d recommend 3 full days): the scenery here is gorgeous and the town is beautiful
    • Don’t plan on doing too much on any one day, it’s hot and you’ll need an afternoon nap or just time to watch the world go by.
    • Horse riding in the valley through tobacco fields and to a cave: We did 4 hours on horses exploring the valley in the morning, which was perfect since you got to cover more ground. Kellie’s horse (Moro) was super cooperative and was keen to trot and canter, Mike’s horse (Caramello) was less keen and munched on his shirt.
    • We enjoyed an afternoon ice-cream overlooking the Valle de Vinales from Hotel Jasmines (ice-cream is super hard to come by!)
    • We tried to hike to Valle de Silencio twice, but Kellie got a heat rash and we couldn’t go on. Apparently it’s gorgeous, but if you’re short for time you could just do the horse riding
    • Maybe add an extra day if you want to go to Playa Juetes (beach)
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Horse riding in Valle de Vinales
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Valle de Vinales
  • Trinidad (rec. 3 full day): this is small town with cobbled streets, beautiful Spanish colonial buildings vibrantly painted, with men on horse and cart calling out what they have to sell, waking you early in a very authentic Cuban way. The wealth is confined to a handful of blocks near the Plaza Mayor built on the huge sugar fortunes in the 19th century.
    • We walked up the Cerro de la Vigia hill for sunset (pic below) to the radio tower behind the town for 360 views. A security guard who was minding the tower invited us in and showed as a platform round the back for great view of the mountains (we gave him a couple of dollars as a thanks)
    • Go to the museum, not for the museum but from the views (pics below)
    • Casa de la Musica – an open air alfresco area on the steps beside the Plaza Mayor. Great atmosphere with locals and tourists alike. Apparently we should have kicked on to the Cave nightclub.
    • City walk suggested by the Lonely Planet guide
    • Hike to Javira Waterfall along the 3.6km Huellas de la Historia to swim in natural pools. We went past a rural farm house with no water and electricity. The owner invited us in to see how he lived, it was very primitive but well kept.
    • This is definitely an exception to the “eat in your casa” rule, Taberna La Botilja had fabulous food! It was a tapas restaurant recommended by our Casa host and the Lonely Plant. The walls had antique slavery irons, chains and a gallo from the slave history
    • We did a morning trip from Cienfuegos to be rowed out onto a lagoon to see hundreds of flamingoes – amazing! You could try to do this from Trinidad too
    • Maybe an extra day if you want to go to Playa Ancon or Isle of the Iguanas
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View from Cerro de la Vigia hill
  • Havana (rec. 4 full days)
    • The tourist bus: We’re not usually a fan of this, but the city is HUGE and so this is a great way to see everything outside of the Old Havana, including the famous Che Guevara profile on the side of the building
    • You must get a ride in an old timer at some point, we met Javier who was fabulous! The drive along the Malecon with the roof down of his pink 1957 Ford Thunderbird sitting on the parcel shelf after a night of salsa was one of the most joyous moment of our lives. He speaks some English and is a lovely person. Please look him up when you’re in town, ask your casa to call him or try and find him on the main square, Parque Central.
    • Walking tour around Old Havana (per Lonely Planet)
    • Dancing! (see below)
  • Varadero if you’re seriously looking for an all inclusive beach (totally un-Cuban) holiday, we hear the beaches there are gorgeous!
  • Be sure to allow for travel days in between since the distances are quite large, plus roads and cars are quite slow
Having met dancing at a Cuban salsa club in London in 2008, we had always dreamt of going to Cuba and dancing salsa there – it was on our bucket list! So as you can imagine, we also had a fabulous time dancing and even if you can’t dance you should at least watch the Cubans dance – they’re famous for it with good reason. We had a fabulous time dancing until early in the mornings! Our favourite places were:
  • Havana: Jardines 1830 (dancing in the open air by the water, especially on Thursday or Sundays) or everyday at Hotel Florida on Obispo (the big hotel halfway along the street has a small bar, don’t get confused with Bar Floridita at the end of the street). Don’t go to Casa de la Musica it’s expensive, the music is too loud and there’s no room to dance.
  • Trinidad: Casa de la Musica (open air dancing) and the Cave nightclub (we didn’t go, but apparently we missed out)
Other things we’d recommend if you’re planning on going are:
  • Be sure to check in advance what vaccinations you might need
  • Money:
    • ATMS: If you’re coming from the US, your bank card will most likely not work. It is meant to work if you’re from other countries, but be sure to tell your bank you’re travelling to Cuba so they don’t  block your card… because if they do you will have a hard time phoning and getting hold of them
    • Cash: We brought Canadian dollars with us and exchanged some of it at the airport when we landed.  We then exchanged more as we travelled at the Cadecas (these are safe and the FX rate is standard).
    • **Don’t bring USD, it is exchanged at a very unfavourable rate!**
  • Take (lots of) Imodium – just in case
  • Whilst people are learning English, any Spanish you speak is useful and warmly welcomed.
  • Bring mosquito spray and sunscreen
  • Buying cigars: best to buy direct from the farmer in Vinales or from the Casa del Habano in Havana. Don’t fall for the “today is the one day a month farmers can sell direct to the public, follow me” scam, you could well up buying banana leaves. In terms of quantity you can currently take 25 unringed (farmer) or 50 ringed (government sold) cigars out of the country.
  • The casas we’d stay at again:
    • Trinidad: We stayed two nights at Hostal El Veterano a beautiful colonial house on a nice street not far from the main plaza. Yanira the host, her husband, parents and dog all lived there, our room was built separately up stairs with a private balcony overlooking the rooftops which was a great place to have a beer before heading out in the evenings!
      • Hostal El Veterano (Yanira Garmas Castillo), Calle San Procopio (Calle General Lino Pérez (San Proscopio), No 176, and Frank Pais (Del Cramen) and Pedro Zerquera (Aguacate)
      • Phone: +53 5433 9123
    • Vinales: Such a lovely and generous family and best shower we had! They organised our horse riding tour for us and generally made us feel the most welcome of any casa
      • Casa 2 Sonrisas (Daily and Carlos Arencibia), Sergio Dopico 28, Vinales, Pinar del Rio 22400
      • Phone: +53 5834 2922
    • Matanzas (near Varadero): If you end up here Andres is an incredible host who speaks perfect English and is happy to talk about politics
      • Villa Diane y Andre, Calle 190, No 14700, entre 147 y 149, Peñas Altas, Matanzas, 40100
      • Phone: +53 5387 3072
    • A nice touch would be to email your casa owner ahead of time and ask whether there is anything they would like you to bring with you
  • How we got around
    • Private taxi drivers we used
      • Havana: Javier, details to follow
      • Havana to Trinidad: Orlando Cano, arranged through Jaun ( +53(01)52710699. He is a retired physical education teacher who taught pistol and rifle shooting – I wonder what the UK/Australian education minister would think about that!) has a 36 year old Peugeot. Sure, there are no seat belts, the speedometer was stuck at 180km/h and he spoke no English, but it was a safe ride and he did his best to speak English with us and entertained our terrible Spanish.
      • Havana to Vinales: details to follow
    • You could try booking on to Viazul (well in advance) or on Transtur buses.
    • You could also get around with collectivo (shared) taxis, which are cheaper but are packed full of people and bags, so you may not want to do this on long journeys