Cuba is a contrasting country that you will love and hate at the same time. A mixture of authentic culture with the constraints imposed by decades of communism, untouched nature with poorly-exploited touristic locations, impressive old architecture, but ruined buildings lived by poor people. Still, a trip to Cuba has a particular charm and offers an experience you can’t find anywhere else.
You have here a short selection of what you should do during your vacation in Cuba. Of course, there are much more to be explored here. We limited our journey through Cuba to locations not very far from Havana. Traveling to Cuba with a toddler raises more concerns than other destinations, especially related to food and transportation.
1. Take a Havana tour in a classic car
When you say Cuba, one of the first things that comes to your mind is a 60 year old American car on Havana’s streets. Taking a trip in one is a must for everyone visiting Cuba! It doesn’t matter if you are a backpacker traveling on a budget, a couple on a luxurious holiday, a group of friends or a family with kids, exploring Havana in a classic car is for you!
In the center of Havana, old cars are lined up waiting for tourists. In a very good shape, shiny and colourful, you can’t miss them. Make sure you negotiate well your price in advance. We paid 30 $ for one hour tour, which was 25% less than initially asked.
2. Stay in a “Casa Particular”
This is the most authentic accommodation in Cuba, and the most convenient too! This is the way Cuban people are allowed to make business in the tourism field, renting rooms in their own homes. They vary from shared apartments to separate entrance rooms in the family house or even entire apartments arranged for tourists, in the building where the host lives.
You can book on AirBnb, like we did, or just wait until you get to your destination, for more flexibility. There are plenty of options to choose from! We found all our Cuban hosts very attentive to our needs, especially when it was about Eric. They can also arrange all kind of stuff for you, from cooking breakfast, to dealing with laundry or booking tours and transfers.
3. Eat in a “Paladar”
Small family restaurants, the Paladars offer great food options at very decent prices. The downside is the menu does not vary much one to another, so after a few days you’ll be bored of the same food, no matter how delicious it is. Still, much better than the state owned restaurants, like we found in Varadero, with dull food and rude waiters.
Bonus points for small restaurants in Havana, you can eat lobster for 10$, including side dish and salad. And it is absolutely delicious. We had lobster a few times during our time there, so even Eric started to ask for lobster when he was hungry… I truly hope he won’t turn into a food snob!
4. Take a taxi colectivo
Bus rides in Cuba are painful to organise. It is impossible to do anything online and you need to buy tickets at least one day in advance. The trips are long and not necessarily cheap.
So, instead of busses, better try a local option. Taxi colectivo is basically car sharing and it can be arranged by your host one day in advance. Most likely you’ll ride in an old car, but this time it will be an overused one. This is how we traveled between Havana, Varadero and Vinales, with no issues. Still, don’t expect to get a car seat for kids, most cars don’t even have seat belts.
5. Drink rum cocktails
In Cuba you can’t buy lots of stuff from the stores. But you can always find rum, actually a really good one. All restaurants and bars have various rum based cocktails, but we had the best ones in Vinales, at CuBar. So good that we ended up having dinner plus mojito with them during our whole stay in Vinales!
If mojito is not for you, maybe you fancy a Pina Colada. It was one a the few things I loved in Varadero, a tasty cocktail made with fresh pineapple and coconut, served in the remaining pineapple’s skin. Just make sure you don’t order in a place where canned juice or artificial flavours are added to the drink!
6. Visit a tobacco farm
Smoking was imported to Europe from these lands. So there’s no better place to hear passionate stories about tobacco, see how it is grown and processed in a traditional way. Unfortunately the tobacco fields were empty when we visited Cuba, as it was quite before the plantation season. We just saw the red soil, best for agriculture, and the curing barns, where the leaves are dried before they turn into cigars.
I always hated the smell of cigar smoke, as it used to make me cough. But I Cuba I learned that is due to the chemicals, not to the tobacco itself. The cigars crafted by the farmers have a softer smell, quite nice actually. I would highly advise you to buy them straight from the farm, not official stores, or worse, from the streets, as you’ll get better quality. Just make sure you negotiate you price!
7. Take a break on the beach
You can’t visit a Caribbean island without at least 1-2 days dedicated to the beach. The Caribbean sea is absolutely amazing! We did not particularly liked Varadero, but the white sandy beach and turquoise waters considerably increased our mood there. If you have enough time, I would advise you to skip Varadero and head to one “cayo” in the north-east. Unfortunately we did not had a chance to reach that region, but I was told to be wonderful.
8. Music & dance
Cuban life is all about music and enjoying life. Doesn’t matter how hard life is and how bad some neighbourhoods look, it all turns better in on the rhythm of drums and guitars. You can hear live Cuban music all over Havana and it is impossible not to be caught by its spirit. Lucky for Andrei, we had a toddler with us, otherwise I would have probably dragged him to some salsa lessons too!
9. Ride a horse through Vinales
No trip to Cuba is complete without a stop in Vinales. The rural area is listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its picturesque landscape and well preserved traditions. The best option to explore Vinales is to take a horse ride through one of the Valleys. The red soil is perfect for tobacco and other crops, while the limestone mogotes offer a unique perspective to the area.
I’ll come back with a more detailed post on Vinales. It was our favourite place in Cuba and it is worth a full article.
10. Splurge on a luxury hotel
After almost 2 weeks of wandering through Cuba, I have to admit we were pretty tired about it. Cuba is amazing, but it is a huge gap to the highly developed US or Europe. It was a big step even for us, born in an ex-communist country. So I would advise, if budget allows, to end your Cuban adventure with 1-2 lazy days in a fancy hotel. It will help you “digest” better all you’ve seen over there.
I generally hate traveling in a “bubble” and no seeing the real life. But in Cuba I really felt I need a break and stay somewhere with a homey, European feeling.
So we spent our last two days at Grand Manzana Kempinski, the first luxury hotel in Cuba. Everything was perfect, from the moment we set foot in the lobby; I have never seen before so much attention to details. We spent most of our stay relaxing at the roof top pool, with amazing views towards old Havana. Still, it made me feel guilty to enjoy such luxury, after I’ve seen the real life, poverty and misery on Havana’s streets.
The Manzana building, originated in the end of XIXth century, has an impressive architecture, with high ceilings and marble stairs. The most appreciated piece from our room was the huge walk-in shower where Eric spend at least half an hour with water pouring on him, whispering “Mum, I’m still need to wash my hair a bit more”. After almost 2 weeks in Cuba, another big hit for our toddler was the breakfast, delicious and with an extensive offer that I couldn’t believe to be available in Cuba.
For more information on how to plan a trip to Cuba, check our article on 5 things to know before traveling to Cuba. If you’ve traveled to Cuba, I’d love to hear your advice on what you loved there and what should be avoided.
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Disclosure: We received a complimentary stay at Grand Hotel Manzana Kempinski. All the opinions expressed here are our own.