While visitors can spend as much time in Cuba learning every facet of the interesting country, I wanted to share our experience for those who have limited time to visit. Read on for our itinerary, what’s really worth your time, and how much time to allocate to those cities.
(Side note: This post is heavy with the photos since I always find that photos help me to figure out what I want to see when I am planning a trip. Apologies in advance if it takes a while to load!)
We spent 8 days in Cuba, flying in and out of Havana, and saw several cities: Havana, Viñales Valley, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Matanzas. Here is how we divvied up our time among the cities:
Day 1 – Havana: Arrival into Havana and city driving tour at night. Overnight in Havana.
Day 2 – Havana: Walking tour of old Havana and sample the best churros in Havana, ride a classic convertible around the city, visit the National Hotel, and visit the Spanish Fortress at night to see the nightly canon shot. Overnight in Havana.
Day 3 – Viñales Valley: Drive to Viñales and walk around town. Walk through a cave. Overnight in Viñales.
Day 4 – Pinar del Rio: Visit a cigar farm in Pinar del Rio and drive to Cienega de Zapata, a national park. En route, visit an old coffee plantation. Overnight in Cienega de Zapata.
Day 5 – Cienfuegos: Visit a crocodile breeding farm in Cienega de Zapata where we fed huge crocodiles and held a baby crocodile. Ride a speedboat on the Laguna del Tesero. Stop at a wildlife reserve to try Cuba’s best coffee (sweetened with sugar cane!), ride a bull, and pet goats among other animals on the reserve. Stop by a fish cave where you can go for a dip (we did not). Visit the museum in Giron where the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred. Continue to Cienfuegos and visit the city. Drive to Trinidad to overnight. .
Day 6 – Trinidad: Walking tour of the colonial part of Trinidad, visit Ancon beach in the afternoon, and wrap up with a walking tour of the “real” Trinidad. Overnight in Trinidad.
Day 7 – Matanzas: Drive to Matanzas City with a stop at Varadero, the resort section of Cuba. Most tourists go to Varadero and never see the rest of the country. Driving tour of Matanzas city including a visit to one of the world’s oldest French pharmacies. Overnight in Matanzas.
Day 8 – Havana: Drive back to Havana. Visit the Spanish Fortress again (during the day this time) and see the world’s longest cigar, take a tour of the Havana Club and sample rums, try the best ice cream in Havana, visit Fusterlandia, and head back to the airport to catch our evening flight home.
As you can tell, it was a whirlwind trip and we moved around a lot. We saw the highlights but didn’t get a chance to dig deeper or linger in any city. For instance, I would have liked to roam around old Havana myself after the walking tour. Our days started around 10am since we had to keep to Traveler #3’s schedule (and we tried to keep her on Pacific time where feasible). Once we left Havana, we drove anywhere from 2-4 hours a day to get from city to city, but we did have several stops in between so it never felt like we were trapped in the car for long stretches.
How we did it:
We hired a guide who provided an initial itinerary of the highlights of the country. I worked with him to tailor the itinerary to account for our 18-month-old’s schedule and additional sites I wanted to see. While the tour normally includes the accommodations, I ended up selecting and booking all the accommodations myself with the exception of one; I just couldn’t find any good options in Matanzas so I just went with the guide’s suggestion. The guide had suggested I do this because I had some specific requests: cribs, bathtubs, blackout curtains, and a quiet room. While it turned out that I couldn’t find any place that fulfilled all those requests, I was at least satisfied with the places I booked. I did think it was odd that the guide would suggest I do the research myself, but I understood why he said that once we arrived in Cuba and saw how painfully slow and difficult it is to do any kind of research online. In the end, it all worked out. The guide also provided a driver for the whole trip and made restaurant suggestions for each day based on the fact that I told him we wanted good food even if it meant we would eat in “hole in the wall” places.
Which cities are worth your time?
If you’re headed to Cuba, the must-see cities are Havana and Trinidad. At a minimum, Havana is worth 3 whole days (more if you’re into museums or want to check out the club scene – clearly we couldn’t do that with Traveler #3). Trinidad is a small city and the town can be seen in an afternoon or a day, but since it’s so picturesque (this city is a photographer’s dream), you really should stay longer to enjoy it. There are also several day trips and tours you can take from Trinidad so you could find enough to keep you occupied for at least 3 days, if not more. Some examples of excursions include hikes to Topes de Collante park, a train ride to a sugar mill, a day out at sea, a day at the beach, horseback riding, and biking. We, unfortunately, didn’t have time to do these since we were there for just a day, but if I return to Cuba, I’m going directly to Trinidad and spending 5 days there to relax and check out the excursions.
If you have more time, spend it in Viñales. The valley is super green and lush and you get a glimpse into the slower paced agricultural side of Cuba. This area is also where the tobacco farms are so if you go during the right time of year, you’ll be able to see the farm in action. The town itself is small and good for a stroll or for finding a meal. Viñales is worth a day but you could spend an extra day there if you want to just relax.
If you have even more time after that, then check out the Cienega da Zapata area. This is the swampy part of Cuba and has several things to keep you occupied for 2 days including the crocodile farm, the fast speed boat to see some islands and a mock village of what indigenous life is like, and the wildlife preserve. If you’re into bird watching, this is the place to be; we are not bird enthusiasts so opted out this. At the right time of year, you can also spot flamingos. Once you’ve seen all the wildlife, you can visit the museum with exhibits on the Bay of Pigs (it’s small so you can be in and out in less than 30 min), relax on the beach, or swim in the fish cave. While I’d pick Viñales over Cienega de Zapata, animal enthusiasts should opt for Cienega de Zapata first.
The other cities I saw – Matanzas, Varadero, and Cienfuegos – are fine to skip. Well, let me rephrase that. If you’re in Cuba just to hang at a resort like all the non-Americans who’ve been visiting for years already, then head to Varadero. Personally, I’d rather visit a resort in another country considering the hotels in Cuba are not up to the standards elsewhere in the world. The Varadero beach is a nice big stretch of white sand but not something remarkably unique that you’re be missing much if you skipped it. Cienfuegos is only worth a pit stop if you’re looking for a bathroom break, want to stretch your legs, or are a huge fan of Benny More. He lived there and has a small statue in the city.
Is a tour the way to go?
The private tour option worked out well for us. Public transportation isn’t reliable and I’m not sure there’s even public transport to get to all these cities. You can hitchhike since that’s a safe alternative in Cuba, but that’s not an option I’ve ever been comfortable exploring. Additionally, since the tour was private, we were able to start the day when we wanted and spend as much or as little time in a place as we wanted. It really was the best option for us when traveling with a baby. That said, even if you don’t have a baby, I still think a tour is the way to go. You can’t beat the convenience factor of having your own guide and driver, the flexibility of tailoring the day on a whim, and access to locals who can answer any and all questions about what it’s really like to live in Cuba. It’s like having a friend in Cuba show you around!
Isn’t a private tour expensive?
Not in Cuba. We paid approximately $230USD a day for the tour which included the guide, driver, and airport transfers. We paid extra for the 1-hour ride we took in a convertible ($30USD) since that was just a taxi convertible (all the taxis in Havana are in classic American cars!) that the guide arranged for us. Food and entry fees were extra but weren’t outrageous. We paid for our own accommodations. When compared to how much all day tours typically cost, $230 a day for 2 adults and a baby is quite reasonable.
Finally, a last tip if you’re going to do a tour:
There are official and unofficial guides in Cuba. Official ones are registered with the government and theoretically, should be the ones you go with. I didn’t know this at the time, but after our trip, I suspected our guide was unofficial. There are a lot of unofficial things and businesses in Cuba (ahem, private enterprise) because of all the restrictions the government places on Cubans. That coupled with paltry monthly salaries of $25-$30 and it’s no wonder people take on second jobs. The reasons I suspect our guide was unofficial is because there were places I wanted to visit that he hadn’t ever heard of or been to! Our guide also had another day job and mentioned he wanted to build up his tour business. The good news is that he took us everywhere we wanted to go and gave us great insight into Cuban life. So, the tip here is, don’t sweat it if you have an official or an unofficial guide, but if you have an unofficial one, you may want to do some research to suggest other places of interest you want to check out.
If you’re interested in learning more about Cuba, stay tuned as I will be sharing more posts on our travels there soon!