Cuba is more than white sand, 50s vintage cars, and cigars. It is also a leap into times gone by. Yet a trip to Cuba is primarily associated with contrasts, where the poverty of the people is just as great as the cultural wealth of the country. While Havana seems to be the hotspot of cultural and political changes, time stands still in remote villages.
This is exactly what makes the trip to the Caribbean island so worth it and special! What you have to pay attention to during your trip to Cuba and what there is to discover, I tell you here!
This trip was in part sponsored by Cuba Buddy. Thanks a lot for all the great organisation, it wouldn’t have been possible to experience Cuba this way without your Insider knowledge and contacts!
General travel tips for your Cuba vacation
Cuba Airport, Entry & Flight Duration
The country’s largest airport is called José Martí and is located in the capital, Havana. It is the hub of countless international visitors who arrive and depart here every year. Another major international airport is Varadero Juan Gualberto Gomez, located east of Havana. If you are flying directly to Cuba from Germany, be prepared for a 10-12 hour flight.
You can only enter Cuba with a passport that is valid for at least 6 months. In addition, you need a visa, the so-called “tourist card”. You must take care of this in advance because this is not issued at the borders. You can apply for the tourist card either at the Cuban embassy in Germany, at some airlines at the airport, or at the tour operator (e.g. Cuba Buddy).
For the entry to Cuba, there is also a health insurance obligation. A corresponding proof, e.g. in the form of an insurance certificate or an insurance card, can be easily requested from the health insurance company. Make sure that the certificate is issued in both Spanish and English – this way you will avoid problems and delays at the airport.
With all the necessary documents, nothing stands in the way of traveling to Cuba! In total, you can explore the island for a maximum of 30 days. It is even possible to get a one-time extension of another 30 days.
Best Cuba Travel Time
My previous inquiry for the best time to travel to Cuba revealed the winter months and so I flew there in January. According to research, there are a maximum of 1-2 rainy days at this time, if at all. However, the Cuba weather surprised us with 10! On-site, I then learned that by now April is more pleasant, so I will tackle that again next year. I rather love the hot temperatures of well over 30 degrees and not 27 degrees as we had it at the beginning of the year. You should definitely keep in mind that it cools down a lot in the evening, so better pack a pair of pants and a sweater more. In any case, the wind and the cold rain made me shiver. Unfortunately, in the moments also the shower has hardly helped because we had consistently only warm water available. On hot days of course enough, but on these fresh rainy days unfortunately too little.
Tip: Take some games with you for such days, because if there is bad weather in Cuba, then especially outside of Havana there is nothing going on. Most clubs are outdoors and not “rainproof” and maybe you don’t want to dance Salsa every day ;-). But if you do, don’t forget your dancing clothes!
Is Cuba safe?
Yes, very safe! Outside of the big cities, people seemed almost too gullible to me because they were so warm and open. In Havana, it’s a bit different. There are clearly more criminals on the road, who regularly steal bags and valuables. They often take advantage of the ignorance of the tourists and take a dollar or two from them.
Basic rule: If someone speaks to you in English, they are probably trying to rip you off. If they speak to you in Spanish, then continue in broken English (because you probably don’t understand) you usually have nothing to worry about.
How much time to plan for Cuba?
The longer you stay in a country, the deeper you logically dive into the culture and discover sides that most tourists would probably have missed. In my opinion, you need at least 2 weeks just for the west of Cuba to be able to get involved with the country and the people in peace.
Tourism and going out
If you visit Cuba and pay attention, you will not only encounter the charm of colonial times gone by, but also great poverty. You will experience tourism in a different way than you may have encountered before. Compare it with the Barcelona beach “Barceloneta”. There, touristy means that you are lying next to each other like mikado sticks and can hardly move because of lack of space.
Tourism in Cuba, on the other hand, means that you will encounter more tourists than locals, but for a completely different reason. First of all, Cuba is not as crowded as other well-known tourist destinations, but the real and sad background is that Cubans do not have the financial means to go out and visit the nice restaurants and countless bars. The nightlife of the Cubans takes place in the clubs, where you will surely meet them on the dance floor!
There are two different currencies in Cuba:
The Pesos Convertible (CUC) is reserved for tourists and is based 1:1 on the American dollar. And the Cuban Pesos (CUP) for the countrymen, where 1 CUC = 24 CUP. The additional confusing thing here is that some products, such as a television, can only be paid for with CUC.
In general, it is advisable to have enough cash with you during the entire trip, because outside the larger cities you will often search in vain for an ATM.
By the way, the import and export of both Cuban currencies are not allowed, which is why you have to exchange your money either directly at the airport or in a government exchange office. Sometimes larger hotels in Cuba and also banks offer this service.
Internet in Cuba
The rumor that there is no internet in Cuba is fortunately not true. In certain public places, you will find WiFi hotspotsand also in the very good hotels, where you can log on with an internet card. You can buy these small “Nauta cards” at special “telepuntos” (small street stalls) and then dial into the local ETECSA network for 1 or 5 hours at a time after scratching the code free. The hotspots are easily recognizable by the crowds of people blissfully looking at their cell phones.
Tip: You want to explore Cuba without having to shimmy from spot to spot? Then make sure you install Maps. me. This will provide you with an offline map with restaurant and hotel recommendations and a navigation system as if you actually had the Internet. An absolute must-have!
Hablas algo de español?
Do you speak a few sentences of Spanish? Then the ice is quickly broken and the Cubans will do everything to make you feel comfortable in their homes. And it is completely irrelevant whether it is only 5 words or you explain with hands and feet. The Cubans really appreciate your effort! I had the feeling that they were busy the whole day with cleaning and tidying up, that’s how much they care about the well-being of their guests. These accommodations are their only and most valuable possession, and yet an overnight stay costs on average only about €10.00. If you want to experience Cuba more tangibly, you will experience more valuable moments with the hospitable people in the casas than in an anonymous hotel. And don’t worry, the younger people also speak English.
How expensive is Cuba?
- Breakfast: € 3,50 in the taverns, € 5,00 in the casas.
- Dinner: € 10,00 in the casas and outside.
- Mojito: € 1,00-3,00, depending on whether you order the drink in Havana or outside.
- Overnight stay: € 10,00 in the average casas, € 15,00 in the better equipped casas
If you want to get around Cuba properly, sooner or later you will have to deal with the transport options on the island. The good news is: there is something for every budget and every travel pace.
Car rental in Cuba
With a rental car, you have of course the ultimate freedom and can also explore the less accessible places. However, with a daily rate of 40-70€, a rental car is quite expensive and spontaneously you can usually not book a rental car. In addition, you should not disregard the Cuban traffic, the poor signage, and the sometimes heavily potholed roads.
If you don’t dare to drive yourself, you also have the option to book a car with a driver. This is a great way to get around and discover places that only locals have on their radar – and valuable first-hand Cuba travel tips are usually on top.
In Cuba, you will find two different cabs: the coco cab and the tourist cab. The coco cab is generally cheaper, but due to the lack of a meter, the chance of being ripped off is high. The tourist cabs, on the other hand, drive with a meter – so you always have the amount in view.
With the so-called “cab collectivo” even longer distances can be overcome by cab. Since you share the cost of the ride with other travelers, you not only save a lot of money but also reach your destination quite quickly.
Bus in Cuba
The bus is pretty much the cheapest way to get from A to B in Cuba. A good place to start for long-distance buses is the bus company VIAZUL. The route network is well developed and the buses can largely keep up with European standards in terms of comfort and equipment.
Accommodation & Hotels in Cuba
It is hard for me to imagine that a Cuban doctor can earn a maximum of 50 CUC, that is 50 dollars a month (!). Teachers don’t even bring home half of that. The locals-only have the possibility to earn from the tourists and so they cherish their homes to offer their casa particular (private house) to the vacationers. Of course they don’t have many possibilities and you won’t find high-quality equipment there, but I would like to recommend the lovingly prepared casas to you. On the one hand, you support the local population and on the other hand, it is 90% cleaner than in the hotels, some of which have not been renovated for 30 years and still carry 4 stars.
Instead of booking the accommodation in a casa in advance, I recommend you to look for a suitable place to stay on site. This way you can get an idea of the accommodation and decide if you want to stay there or if you want to look for an alternative. Outside of Havana, you can stay for only 10€ per person plus 5€ for breakfast.
Tip: If you are not a big fan of searching and comparing, you are in good hands with Cuba Buddy. The tour operator takes care of the hotels, transportation and activities. Your trip still remains authentic and individual.
My recommendations for Casas & Hotels in Cuba
Trinidad, our Cuba Buddy organized for us the Hostal Zobeida with great roof terrace, where you can relax super especially in the evening. The rooms were clean and the staff very friendly and helpful. Even if the food in the accommodation was okay, I recommend you better go out to eat. I give recommendations for restaurants in Cuba below.
My absolute favorite among the casas in Cuba is definitely Ca’ del Sol Cuba. The owner is a really nice guy – always friendly and courteous. The food was delicious and the rooms clean. The beach is right next to the accommodation and there are great dive spots and a wide variety of animals and plants nearby.
If you want to visit the city of Varadero, I recommend staying at the accommodation Casa BettyMar Varadero. The owners of the accommodation attach great importance to cleanliness and take very good care of their guests.
In Viñales I can recommend the Villa Paraiso to stay overnight. Nice owners and overall a successful stay.
The Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana is the only luxury hotel in Cuba and is located in the capital Havana. You can expect a spacious, well-kept hotel complex with a breathtaking roof terrace and pool. The complex is located in the middle of the old town of Cuba with a view of the Capitol.
Highlights & Activities in Cuba
The city is pretty centrally located in Cuba and by far the most beautiful city on the island! Here you can expect the best Cuban flair in the midst of brightly painted houses and always warm people. Besides the delicious food, I still rave about the beautiful beach Playa Ancon, which was only 10 minutes by car from our accommodation.
This Cuba beach is located directly on the Bay of Pigs, which is certainly already a household name for many. Especially divers are always attracted to this relaxed place because there are underground tunnel systems to explore. Playa Larga is also directly connected to the National Park Gran Parque Natural Montemar. During a tour, you can explore the diverse flora and fauna.
Viñales is a rural town in the west of Cuba with wonderful views and landscapes that characterize the appearance of the town. If you are interested in Cuba’s historical past, Viñales is the place to be. The best way to explore the town is on foot during a hike through the valley. The tour operator Cuba Buddy organized a great guide for us for this occasion, who knew a lot to tell and gave us an unforgettable day with exciting details about the country, culture, and climate.
Colorfully painted houses are undoubtedly part of Havana’s cityscape. But who actually paints the walls and facades of the city? The artist José Fuster is responsible for many of the works of art, who unceremoniously turned his home into a museum that is freely accessible. Whether you are an art enthusiast or not, a visit to the whimsical, but worth seeing the world of José Fuster is worthwhile!
Important: For outdoor activities, be it horseback riding or hiking, I definitely advise tick spray! Just in case, it does not hurt to have tick pliers in your luggage. Unfortunately, we had to make the experience of a tick bite – therefore, take care of appropriate protection and scan yourself in the evening for possible ticks.
This beach has an absolute Caribbean feeling, where the beautiful sandy beach meets turquoise water. Compared to other beaches, there are few people here, which makes the place so perfect for relaxing. The beach is especially popular with divers, as there are numerous dive spots to explore in the area. Since the activities are really only limited to diving and lazing around, I think one day is quite enough – even though the place is beautiful.
If you are looking for suitable spots for diving and snorkeling, the best place to stop is Caleta Buena beach. The water is clean, clear and the many colorful sea creatures are definitely worth a dive. Since you will mostly encounter rocky landscapes at this place, I can’t recommend the beach as a typical relaxation spot.
The beach is about an hour’s drive from Viñales and is simply THE natural beach. Because of the roads, the approach is a bit adventurous, but the way is worth it! There is a small fee to enter, but it is immediately compensated by beautiful views of the sea with a deeply relaxed atmosphere.
Visit National Parks
The green, wild Cuba can be explored long and wide in various national parks. The areas around El Cubano Natural Park, the Topes de Collantes, or El Nicho with the waterfall of the same name can be explored on foot or on horseback (be sure to use insect repellent!). If you visit El Nicho, you can look forward to rock faces up to 30 meters high, from which large amounts of water plunge into the depths. It is best to get up early to escape the large crowds of tourists.
Tip: Be sure to bring a bathing suit, because you can expect a pleasant cooling at the foot of the waterfall.
Callejon de Hamel
The streets of Cuba are already colorfully and strikingly painted and designed. The street Callejon de Hamel goes one better: colorful art, curious sculptures and great photo motifs as far as the eye can see. Bars and restaurants complement the streetscape and offer the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere over a cup of coffee or a cool drink. However, what distinguishes the bars in Cuba from the ones around the world is the use of modern bar supplies in such spaces. These days, people do not have to ask the waiter to serve them a chilled mug of beer. All they need to do is go over to the draft beer dispenser, fill up their mugs, and make the payment then and there.
The souvenir store in Varadero holds many treasures, such as cute dresses and real pearl necklaces. This is the perfect place to stock up on souvenirs and gifts to give to friends and family.
Cuban Art Factory
In Havana, you should definitely visit the Cuban Art Factory. In the middle of an old oil factory, an established nightlife culture meets modern art. The mixture of galleries, exhibitions, bars, and clubs is a must-see for all travelers to Cuba.
Paladar La Guarida
This is not only a great restaurant with delicious food but also a popular photo hotspot for tourists. No wonder, because the location on the roof terrace has so much to offer. Whether you’re just stopping by for a drink or staying for dinner, it’s worth a visit for the ambiance alone.
Food in Cuba
In the casas you are usually offered 3 different menus in the evening. The food is good, but in the restaurants at about the same price even more recommendable.
Also in gastronomy, some restaurants are privately run (so-called Paladares) and are not in the hands of the gobierno (government). In contrast to the overabundance in the hotels, you will get to know the family atmosphere and hospitality of the Cubans directly in the paladars and casas. The food is very, very tasty and plentiful. Unfortunately, private restaurants are not always recognizable from the outside.
Here’s my insider tip: Find the smallest and most remote restaurant. The more hidden, the better it is! Searching is worth it!
Precious good: drinking water!
If you are on the road for some time with a private oldtimer or cab and discover the possibility to buy drinking water, then it is best to do it in stock! Unfortunately, there are not so many places where you can buy water at all. In the cities it is not so complicated, but if you have planned a trip, then you better stock up properly or use every chance because you should not drink the tap water for hygienic reasons!
My restaurant recommendations in Cuba
In Trinidad, I really liked the Sol & Son Restaurant. Located in the courtyard, there is a relaxed atmosphere with a great ambiance. Regional musicians perform here regularly and provide a good atmosphere with live music.
The Taberna El Barracon also more than convinced me in Trinidad. On the roof terrace, you can end the day with super delicious cocktails. There is a beautiful view for free on top.
The restaurant at Casa Las Tres Cruces serves excellent food, which I still remember today. Even if the restaurant is located in the middle of nowhere, you should definitely pay a visit to the restaurant in Trinidad.
The disco La Cueva is very popular with tourists and accordingly well attended. Unfortunately, the drinks were of low quality and there were hardly any places to retreat. Therefore, we went to smaller bars, where the drinks were tasty and the atmosphere was more relaxed.
If you are looking for a cool location with suitable music, you should try Piña Colada Abella at Playa Larga. You get to talk to a lot of people and the delicious mojitos you get here for 1CUC (1,00 €).
You can also get delicious cocktails at Salsa Suarez Restaurant y Bar. But not only that – the dishes almost resemble a work of art, as they are nicely arranged on the plate. Absolute recommendation!
In Cuba’s capital Havana, I highly recommend the Zarzal Restaurant. The prices are affordable and the food is prepared in a traditional way. The balcony offers a great view of the quiet but busy street next door.
Less touristy and more among locals, you can also dine at Paladar La Rosita in Viñales. The food is very authentic and always worth a visit!
Other recommended restaurants in Viñales:
- El Qba Libre
- La Cocinita del Medio
- Patio del Decimista
- Dulcinea Pandaria (coffee and cake)
- Paladar La Cuenca
- El Olivo (for steak lovers)
- Tareco’s Bar
- 3J Tapas bar
- El Bily
- El Colonial (nightclub with life music)
- Centro Cultural Polo Montañez (cultural center with club and bar; it is great to dance salsa outdoors)
Meaningful guest gifts
To show your appreciation to the Cuban people, it is advisable to bring small gifts. In the past, these were soap and the coveted ballpoint pens, but I would advise you against this because nowadays these are also partly available in Cuba and the presentation leaves a queasy feeling. To avoid being embarrassed with your gift, chocolate and snacks are always a good idea! At home, we can buy chocolate at almost any place at almost any time – but in Cuba, it is extremely rare and hard to come by. Even the cab driver’s eyes lit up and he willingly told us anecdotes about his country. So in addition to a few words of Spanish, chocolate is also a bit of an icebreaker.
Conclusion of my Cuba trip
The impending changes in the country are also clearly noticeable as a tourist. Nevertheless, the towns of the island are always lined with a relaxed flair, warm people, and a firmly anchored culture, which the locals know how to present with pride. Therefore, I can only recommend a trip to Cuba to everyone – and be sure to not forget the hostess gift!