The itinerary in this blog takes you to casa particulares at different places throughout western and central Cuba in 16-18 days:
- Havana (3 nights)
- Maria la Gorda (min. 2 nights)
- Viñales (min. 2 nights)
- Matanzas (1 night)
- Santa Clara (1-2 nights)
- Cayo Coco (3 nights)
- Trinidad (2 nights)
- Cienfuegos (1 night or stop-over)
- Havana (1 night)
If you have less time but want to get a taste of the real Cuba, my advice would be to go at least to Havana, Viñales and Trinidad. If possible also Santa Clara for a short pit stop. These places felt most authentic, and have reasonable road connections and distance for a great 8-12 days’ trip. If combined with some days at the beach (Varadero, which is closer to Havana than Cayo Coco for example), your itinerary could look for example like this:
- Havana (2 nights)
- Viñales (2 nights)
- Varadero (3 nights)
- Santa Clara (1 night)
- Trinidad (2 nights)
- Havana (1 night)
In case you didn’t notice yet: there are two other blog posts about Cuba on flitterfever.com:
- more general considerations in blog post Accommodation and Transport in Cuba
- practical tips in blog post My practical tips for your perfect Cuba trip
We went for 2.5 weeks so decided not to go any more east than the line of Jardin del Reyes–Ciego de Avila–Trinidad. Despite the fact that Camagüey (in central Cuba, not so far from Trinidad and Jardin del Reyes) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we decided to skip it. Because of time, but also because we heard/read quite some negative stories on cars’ tires slashed and difficulty to get into the city as it was originally built as a labyrinth to confuse pirates.
In the far east of Cuba there is of course Santiago de Cuba. An acquaintance of mine goes there almost every year for the Cuban music and dancing in the first half of March. A friend of mine didn’t like the city at all though, I guess it’s very personal. From my cousin who went on this group trip with Intrepid, I know that Baracoa is a very nice authentic town to visit. Many tourists go to Holguín as some charter airlines fly there (for example TUIfly). For a full round trip over the island of Cuba you will need at least 3.5-4 weeks.
After the arrival of your flight at José Martí International Airport (IATA: HAV) in Havana, it is highly likely that you will have to wait a few hours for your suitcase to appear on the luggage belt at the baggage hall. Let the holidays begin! Before leaving the airport, make sure you trade enough cash euro for cash CUC to cover your complete costs (accommodation, gas, food, etc.), or at least until you come back to Havana or Varadero. More about Cuban money in my blog My practical tips for your perfect Cuba trip.
Before going to Cuba, ask your Havana accommodation host for a driver to pick you up from the airport; he will be waiting with your name sign at the arrivals hall. Better pay a few CUC more to the host than getting ripped off by a local taxi driver is my humble opinion…
Sarita Rooms, Padre Varela (Belascoain) 360, ap. 4 / 2 floor – Havana Centro, phone: +53 7878 2656, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Sarita is a lovely host. Her messages ended with “Kiss” before we even met. This 50+ lady is runs her casa in Habana Centro with true passion. Our rooms with bright turquoise walls made me feel home instantly. Of course, there is no elevator to the 4th floor, the curtains, shower, etc. are not exactly at Hilton standard, but you get so much enthusiasm and love in return! “La Linda” (beautiful) she said every time she saw us – well thanks! Money from all over the world on the walls. We liked it so much we came back at the end of our trip! Sarita Rooms has great reviews on Tripadvisor too, and she deserves all credits. For 3 nights we paid 85CUC, plus 25CUC for the airport pick up.
So, what to see in Havana? Most attractions are based in Havana Vieja (old town), Habana Centro and Vedado. Vieja is the most attractive, neat looking neighborhood and feels quite safe at night. After sunset I would suggest to take a taxi from/to your casa or hotel in Habano Centro or Vedado. I’m not trying to rewrite the travel guides here, only highlighting my personal favorites and recommendations such as bars and restaurants.
Callejon de Hamel
Street full of local, colorful and weird art in Habana Centro. Live music and rumba on Sundays. Be aware: uninvited guide will ask for money.
Plaza San Francisco & Plaza de Armas
Stroll past the book stalls and enjoy the lobster and live music at La Mina restaurant (Plaza de Armas).
Sip a mojito at Telegrafo Hotel, or sleep there too if you want, with roof top pool! From here it is convenient to take a ride with an old timer, there are plenty of them lined up at the park. Tip: check the color and fabric of the seating as one time it made my pale pink dress blue…
Enjoy the architecture of this beautiful square from the terrace of bar restaurant La Vitrola. You might like their mini croquettes. Often live music next door.
- Floridita is probably the most famous cocktail bar of Havana. Hemingway used to come here, his statue is at the bar. Floridita is not cheap and can be crowded but offers high quality drinks and live music. It’s located close to Parque Central. You might like to take a ride with a fun yellow three-wheeler taxi from here, back to your hotel or the next bar!
- La Bodeguita del Medio is another famous cocktail bar. Apparently Hemmingway said that his favorite mojito came from La Bodeguita, and his favorite daiquiri from Floridita… Happy tasting! The walls are full of writings from visitors. Upstairs there is also a restaurant (not really good but OK).
Malecon is a long boulevard between the city and the sea. Many streets and squares end up at Malecon, it’s the artery of Havana. A smart orientation point when going in or out of the city. On the sidewalks you will see many people and some interesting art works. There are even small beaches on the side walk!
Obviously Hotel Nacional is a state owned accommodation. This is where you can get cash CUC. If you have enough money you could also consider to sleep here. At least you can enjoy the historic architecture and take a ride with an old timer through the city from here. We also had lunch in the garden restaurant but it was rather disappointing to be honest.
Paseo del Prado
Walking boulevard from Parque Central all the way to the Malecon with lots of local art for sale.
Plaza de la Revolucion
Big wide square with 109m statue of José Martí, governmental buildings, and wall images of national revolution heroes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Plaza de la revolucion is also where Fidel Castro and the Pope held speeches.
Plaza de la Catedral
Check out your travel book for more places to visit including museums. Many travel guides write about Heladeria Coppelia (ice cream) but we felt it was nothing special at all. Before going to Cuba you might want to check out Tripadvisor for the better restaurants in the city as we found it quite a challenge to find a good restaurant that serves tasty food. And as mentioned in my earlier blog with practical tips for your perfect Cuba trip; without internet you are at the mercy of co-incidence to get some ‘good food’.
Maria La Gorda
Hotel Gaviota Villa Maria La Gorda, Cabo Corrientes, Guanahacabibes, Sandino, Maria la Gorda, phone: +53 48 773 067, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Do you like diving? You like the pictures of sand and palm trees? Like tranquility? Adventure? Don’t mind a long drive? Then Maria la Gorda might be the right place for you! The beach is actually quite stunning.
Maria La Gorda is an internationally well-known diving spot (50), only not so crowded (yet), I guess because it’s not so easy to reach. Contact Hotel Gaviota Villa Maria La Gorda for diving trips via above mentioned email address. By the time we arrived in Maria la Gorda, all snorkel gear was already rented out for the next day, bummer! So either take your own, book in advance, or stay longer (at least 2 nights). One other tip: don’t feed the street cats! (if you do, they are likely to bite, as we experienced).
The food in the buffet restaurant (the only one around) was quite good. Bring your anti-mosquito spray and after-mosquito-bite cream, not sure if the sand flies are seasonally or not… We paid CUC50 per night including breakfast. A full day is what it took us to drive from Havana to Maria la Gorda. After Pinar del Rio the high way ends, so local roads remain. If you have more time, you might want to make a pit-stop at Viñales. We only did this on the way back from Maria la Gorda.
Viñales Villa Vista al Valle, Street Adela Azcuy norte No. 18 B J, Viñales, phone: +53 48 695668
Viñales is a wonderful little town full of life, old timers, colorful houses, beautiful orange trees, etc. We stayed at the one of our favorite casas on Cuba, Viñales Villa Vista al Valle, owned by Osiris Veliz Cruzada and Dunia Díaz Chávez. The casa is located at a side street of what can be called the main village road of Viñales, you can park on the driveway (grass).
The casa owners are a bit shy, they speak only a few words of English. There are a few rooms, all located in a separate blue building next to the family house. This casa is the only one we booked indirect via mycasaparticular.com, who require a down payment to guarantee booking. We paid EUR14.55 in total in advance and CUC20 cash to the casa host.
When we arrived the blow-up pool was broken but that did not spoil the fun. The little bar and terrace provide a stunning view over the country side and mountain, which will not easily bore you. A farmer that walks over his land, some chickens scurrying around, a pig is growling at the tree, some cowboys pass by on their horses… Welcome to rural Cuba! What a fantastic place. You can order mojito’s and the lady of the house is a great cook; this is where we ate the best chicken and lobster of our whole Cuba trip!
In the mood to so something else than sipping mojitos while enjoying the landscape view? There are two things I would highly recommend to do in this area:
- Visit a tobacco plantation. The Viñales area is where leaf tobacco is grown. We went to Vegas Robaina (established 1845) of Don Alejandro Robaina (bless his soul) in El Pinar. Not easy to find. For more information on cigars see my earlier blog with practical tips.
- Go horse riding! I love going horse riding abroad. If you are not experienced, make sure your ride will not take 4 hours or something. And that they have proper riding gear. My sister in law could not walk without muscle pain for days after her Cuban horse riding adventure…
Casa Hostal Idael & Dania, Street Solis (147) #24811 / Levante (248) & Logia (254), Playa (Beach Area), Matanzas (Artemisa), home: +53 45 283000, mobile: +53 5296 2427, email: email@example.com
You might want to consider to spend at least a night at Matanzas, for example a good place to stopover between Viñales and Santa Clara. The location of Casa Hostal Idael & Dania is in the middle of a Cuban neighborhood, with houses in a row, children playing outside. The blue room has a balcony with street view, the brown/green room is more colonial style. Casa host Ideal was so friendly to let us use both rooms while we only booked one. Idael is a super friendly guy who obviously has lots of experience with tourists, actually the only Cuban we came across that speaks good English and really understood what tourists need. A delight!
The casa has a very nice patio and tropical garden with banana leaves and a parrot. This is also where breakfast is served, and where you can enjoy drinks, dinner, etc. Had a long drive? Enjoy the complimentary mojito welcome drink. In the mood for a chilled glass of white wine? No problem! Ideal and Dania will arrange it for you. Ideal understands the importance of English, which he teaches his beautiful young daughters on Saturdays. If you are lucky, he might take his beautiful old timer out of the garage. We paid CUC30 per night including breakfast.
As an alternative for Matanzas and/or Cayo Coco, between Viñales or Havana and Santa Clara or Trinidad, you could choose to stay at Varadero instead, enjoy the beach for a couple of days. Don’t expect lots of authenticity and be picky on the hotel (see also my blog Accommodation and Transport in Cuba).
Santa Clara was the site of the last battle in the Cuban Revolution in late 1958. This city is home to a mausoleum which houses the remains of national hero Che Guevara (who was born in Argentina) and sixteen of his fellow combatants killed in 1967. Elsewhere in town you can find Tren Blindado (Spanish for ‘armored train’), a national monument of the Cuban Revolution.
Santa Clara’s center of town is located around Parque Vidal, where you can spot lots of locals strolling around. This is also where you can find the ‘MacDunald’ I spoke about in my previous blog post about Cuba.
Casa Santa Clara
Hostal La Casona Jover (Denis), Colón No.167 entre Ave. 9 de Abril (San Miguel) y Serafín García (Nazareno), Santa Clara, home: +53 42 204458, mobile +53 5356 3829, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hostal La Casona Jover is located just around the corner of Parque Vidal. Owner Denis has traveled the world and speaks English quite well. What we did not know in advance, is that the hostal has a pool in the middle of all the rooms. What a pleasant surprise! Whoop whoop, bikini on, order a cocktail (1.50CUC each LOL) and relax baby! For the room we paid CUC35 per night. We can also recommend to have dinner here (±CUC10 pp).
We visited Remedios on our way from Santa Clara to Cayo Coco (Jardines del Rey). A charming little town. You can stroll around for a couple of hours and enjoy a refreshing drink at the terrace of the bar facing the square and yellow church.
Jardines Del Rey, Ciego De Avila, Zip: 67210, Cayo Coco, booking via Gala Hotels
We liked the idea of staying a few nights at a nice beach hotel for a little luxury break. We stayed at Colonial Cayo Coco Hotel at Jardines del Rey (previously known as Blau Colonial) as it looked really promising on the pictures. The name ‘Cayo Coco’ alone already sounds very exotic, right? Spanish colonial architecture, beach access plus multiple swimming pools, all-inclusive resort… We imagined ourselves already on a sunbed sipping a tasty mojito!
Unfortunately Colonial Cayo Coco Hotel was very disappointing. On the pictures it looks great but while staying there we looked more and more forward toour next cozy casa particulares. It’s a pity this hotel isn’t run with a bit more love. Imagine what you can make out of a pretty place like this. Won’t go into much detail here, but for example the music was so loud we could not think any more, while all we wanted was relax and read a book. And eating at the same dull buffet restaurant 4 days in a row is not my cup of tea either.
Another hotel, Melia Cayo Coco is heard of to be better, but comes with a price (count on at least 170EUR per night). Colonial Cayo Coco Hotel was EUR86 per night all-inclusive (via Gala). A bit too much? Consider a nice, comfy casa in a town on the main land instead, for example in Ciego de Avila (city) or Remedios (later more about this town). Or go to Varadero.
Trinidad is one of the most photogenic cities of Cuba. Despite it rained cats and dogs almost all day, we enjoyed strolling around in Trinidad. What a beautiful city! Lovely swinging music performances in the open air at Casa de la Musica. Buy some beautiful local art in one of the shops at the streets around Iglesia de la Santisma and Plaza Mayor.
Hostal Las Margaritas, Clemente Pereira no 53, Cruz Verde, Trinidad 62600, home: +53 41 998 562, mobile: +53 5251 2083, email: email@example.com
Hostal Las Margaritas is a good, affordable place to stay, a few blocks from Plaza Mayor (Main Square). The owners of the casa, Janio and Yahima Montero, and their two children are super nice. We could park our car in the garage of one of the owners, which was extra beneficial when the street flooded the next day due to heavy rain fall. Breakfast is served on the terrace. We paid CUC20 per night for the room, CUC5 for breakfast and CUC3 for secured parking per day.
Go out for lunch and dinner. For example to Los Conspiradores, at the bottom of the stairs at Casa de la Musica – loved especially their fried shrimps!
Originally we were planning to stay at the beach of Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) at Playa Larga with Casa Zuleyda (Cienaga de Zapata 3, phone: +53 45 987 599). Due to the weather forecast and stories from people we met on the road, we decided to stay the night at Cienfuegos instead. And then back to Havana for one last night at Sarita Rooms before flying back home. We never regretted this decision!
Hostal Marilu, Av. 56 nr. 2321, v. Calle 25, 55100 Cienfuegos, phone: (043) 513218
In Cienfuegos we stayed at Hostal Marilu. Husband and wife run this casa located in an apartment on the second floor, on the corner of Parque Jose Marti. The husband used to be a bodybuilder, his prices are displayed in the breakfast room. Grandma lives in the house too! The room was ±CUC20-25 including breakfast.
Parque Jose Marti is actually more like a square with some trees, statues and small round music stage in the middle. The square is surrounded by some beautiful authentic buildings, including the town hall, old theatre and church. We parked our car in front of the town hall as there are cameras. From the casa, at the opposite side of the square, there starts a shopping street. Don’t get your hopes up; most stores are shockingly empty. At one of the side streets of this shopping street, close to the square, there is a nice diner called De Paris Restaurante Bar.
For this self-organized trip of 17 days, 16 nights (including 1 night in airplane) we paid:
- Accommodation: 405 CUC (excluding additional drinks and dinners), ±EUR630 (EUR315 pp). The average casa particulares cost us EUR18.75 per night.
- Rental car (13x 24h): EUR766 in total so EUR58.92 per day including insurance excluding gas and second driver (app. CUC3 per day). Usually the car rental company wants to charge your car for any possible damage on the car that is not covered by the insurance (unless you rent with REX, which is the only one with all-risk insurance), count on ±US$200, which will be held on your creditcard (Visa or Mastercard, no AmEx). As mentioned before, renting your car for Cuba via Cuba Incentives is something I can recommend, they provide good rates and service. Elsewhere quotes varied between 850 and 1350 EUR.
- Return flight Amsterdam-Havana: EUR742.45 per person including taxes and luggage with KLM. Of course prices for flights really depend on your home base, time of booking, etc. Check Skyscanner for your rates. KLM now has an offering starting at €669.
In total this trip cost us EUR1475 per person including accommodation, transportation, road map and visa, excluding drinks, food, gas and activities. If we would have stayed at casas particulares only, so not at the hotel in Cayo Coco, the total would have been EUR1400 per person, for a 16-night/17-day trip.
To compare, package quotes for similar self-drive trips, staying mostly at casas and 3 nights at beach hotel via several travel agencies (such as Fox) started at EUR4300 in total, so EUR2150 per person. If you take the hours of searching, booking, etc. in consideration needed to organize this trip, and you do not know Spanish, the margin is justified, however personally I prefer to do it myself and with this blog it became much easier for you to do the same & save!
Many thanks to my friend Melissa for taking all the photos that I am on individually in this post and joining me on this trip. I know I can be a pain in the ass sometimes with all those pictures, so thank you very much for your patience and efforts. Hope you like the result!