Planning a trip to Cuba can be a tricky, especially when – like us – you’ve found up-to-date research on this enigmatic island nation hard to come by. We decided to book a small-group tour around Cuba and it turned out to be the best travel decision we’ve made for ages.
Cuba’s been a dream destination for us for years now. But whenever it came to that time to start looking at the year’s travel plans, a cursory search would always throw up obstacles that would put us off.
Outdated information, horror stories, gaps in people’s travel facts… they all led us to put Cuba on the back burner.
Things have changed a lot since our trip to Cuba. Check out 10 things you need to know about Cuba on Y Travel blog here.
Thankfully, this was a mistake we’ve finally remedied and we found Cuba’s not so difficult after all.
We dug a bit deeper and looked at what we could do when we got to Cuba. We didn’t have a lot of time to spare, so we decided a tour would be the best way to see as much of Cuba as possible in a short time.
The thing is, we don’t usually do the tour group thing. We prefer to find our own way. With this in mind, we looked for small-group tours that would guide us through the country but also allow us freedom to explore on our own as well.
As chance would have it, the company we went with – Cuban Adventures Cuba Tours – is based here in Sydney. John, the director, travels to Cuba several times a year and has a great relationship with the locals he deals with.
The groups are a maximum of 12 people with an average of 7, and are led by local Cuban tour guides.
Cuban Adventures does a load of different tours all over the country, and offers bespoke and individual touring options too.
The 8-day tour we decided on was great, but I wish we’d spent the 3 extra days we had there differently… but that’s a story for another time.
The price of the tour includes airport transfers from arrivals, a couple of tours, and accommodation each night and breakfast each morning.
A note on accommodation
There are three types of accommodation in Cuba. All-inclusive resorts, which we cannot and will not recommend, hotels, which are expensive – and probably hard to find out of the big cities, and the casa particulares, which we do recommend.
A few years ago, the Castro government allowed Cubans to let out rooms in their houses to tourists. For the locals these casa particulares licences are an incredible opportunity to earn more money, and for us, it’s a great way to experience real Cuba and to also give back to the community instead of some big company.
We’ll give you more information about casa particulares in another post, so for now, take it from us: they are the way to travel in Cuba.
In fact Havana Boutique Hotels – a Cuban accommodation booking site – works with specially selected casa particulares that offer particularly good service. Check these guys out for some amazing prices on the best casas in Havana.
You pay wholesale rates, you can pay with a credit card online and they don’t charge you card or booking fees, they give you real-time availability and your online booking is instant – no waiting for confirmation. Best of all, the money you pay for the casa still goes back to the local owners of the casa. Winning all round.
Our tour used 3 major destinations as night stops with lots of other highlights throughout each day. Here’s our itinerary – a summary of it all is at the end of this post:
Day 1: Havana
We were already in Cuba so arrived back in the city after lunch and checked our casa particulare in the Old Town. This was a free day and the group met up for dinner in the evening and to discuss our plans for the rest of the tour.
Day 2: Havana to Viñales
In the morning we explored the grand crumbling beauty of the old town on an historical walking tour with a local guide.
Then we headed west to Viñales, a town in the lush valleys where Cuba’s best tobacco’s grown. The countryside here is spectacular.
That evening we went to a Cuban dance club for a night of entertainment.
Day 3: Viñales
Among the range of different options our guide gave us to do, we all decided to go on a hike through the tobacco fields. We met a tobacco farmer who showed us how cigars are rolled.
This was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
After lunch we took an old American car to a cave complex with a boat ride through it. The stalactites and stalagmites throughout the caves were impressive.
That night we all had dinner in an organic farm. It’s an incredible place with views out over the valley. The enormous mountains of delicious food we were served for dinner made this a superb end to a spectacular day.
Day 4: Viñales to Cienfuegos
The morning was probably Mrs Romance’s favourite part of the trip. We sat in the rocking chairs outside our casa particulare and watched people going by. In the space of about 10 minutes, we saw an incredible range of transportation:
From Viñales we headed to the Bay of Pigs – the site of the turning point in the attempted invasion by the CIA in 1961.
We also paid a quick visit to Australia, which threw me a bit. The town built up around a sugar mill named Australia by the owner’s daughters who’d fallen in love with a visiting Australian family years earlier.
Just outside Cienfuegos we stopped for a swim in a cenote – an incredible 80m-deep sinkhole in the rock – though they’re still finding new sections to this underwater cave network. Fresh water mixes with seawater from the nearby beach attracting plenty of fish.
That night we stayed in the pretty little town of Cienfuegos and had dinner at El Tranvia, a restaurant themed around the old tram system that used to run there.
The trams all stopped when Ford, who supplied the carriages, removed the trams in the ‘50s because they weren’t making any money. The place is a lot of fun and food isn’t too bad at all. Make sure you try the traditional roast pork dish there.
Day 5: Cienfuegos to Trinidad
In the morning, we walked around town to check out the architecture and the local galleries around the municipal park Parque José Marti.
All the art there is unique to the area and comes with a licence from the government to show its authenticity. There are some great pieces there, so make sure you take some spare cash! They also need your passport to fill in forms of purchase for customs.
From Cienfuegos we high-tailed it along the coast the town of Trinidad – not to be confused with the country of course!
The town of Trinidad is UNESCO listed and is, in short, stunning. The old town is restricted to pedestrians, and – get this – horse and carts!
Much like Havana – Trinidad’s grace is in its own decay. The crumbling walls of the buildings and the narrow cobbled streets give a unique old-world atmosphere to this coastal town.
One of the town’s main meeting points is on the steps in the north of the old town. During the day it’s a popular place to stop by, have a beer and maybe a bite to eat. At night, the band strikes up and the dancing begins. It’s a great outdoor venue.
Trinidad was another all-time highlight for us. Our guide organised a barbecue on the beach for us for about AU$15 each (not including drinks). Everyone piled into 2 old American cars and the guys set up. Meanwhile we went for a dip in the Caribbean to watch the sun go down with a beer in hand.
The ‘barbecue’ was a huge table of whole roast red snapper, a big pizza, black beans and rice, and a whole host of delicious sides. We even had a barman making us cocktails.
The two-man band played us music while we dried out and ate next to the big bonfire they’d made on the beach. It was an incredible experience.
The night didn’t end there though. After a shower, we headed to the steps to see the bands and dancing. Then, at about 11pm, we headed to what we ended up calling ‘The Rave Cave’. Disco Ayala is literally a nightclub in a cave.
At the top of the town in the nearby hills, you climb down steps into the ground. The steps lead you down into the cave and straight to the bar. We took our guide’s advice and used the free drink voucher you get with the cover charge to buy a can of cola each.
Then we all chipped in for a bottle of rum for the table, where we mixed our own drinks. It seems to be a popular way to do things in Cuba – everyone else was doing it!
Day 6: Trinidad
The following day we were free to explore the town on our own. We walked for hours, taking millions of photos of this amazingly picturesque place.
We visited the Museo Romántico, which was a bit odd to be honest. It’s full of old furniture, paintings and ornaments from different eras of Cuba. There’s stuff here from France, the UK, Spain, the USA… it’s an impressive collection I suppose, but the view over the town from the 2nd floor balcony is worth the entrance fee.
The people-watching from the balcony is awesome!
That night we put the challenge of an affordable but delicious dinner to our guide. We’d learnt to trust his decisions by then and it paid off. We have no idea where he took us, but it was spot on.
Day 7: Havana via Santa Clara
An early start saw us heading back to Havana in the morning. But we were going via Santa Clara and Che Guevara’s tomb. The earlier you can get there the better, because the queue to get in can get pretty long.
The tomb itself is very somber – as you’d expect. It holds the remains of Che himself and the other 29 men he was fighting with in Bolivia when they were caught and executed.
Next-door is the museum, which displays artefacts documenting Guevara’s life. Outside is the impressive 7m statue of Che.
The reason the mausoleum is in Santa Clara is because at the height of the revolution, Castro ordered Guevara to stop a train delivering arms and supplies to the government troops.
At great risk, Guevara and his men held up the train, removed the tracks behind it, then forced it back towards town where it derailed. It spelled the beginning of the end of Batista’s rule and the start of Castro’s.
Once back in Havana, Mrs R and I had enough time to explore the town for a couple of hours before we all met again for dinner. We made sure our last night was a good one. By that stage we’d all become firm friends and I’m sure we’ll all stay in touch.
Emma, Darren, Wayne, Ryan, Paras, Lucy and Emma – thank you for being such great travel companions!
Day 8: Havana
This was sadly our last day in Cuba so we toured the city as much as possible before we had to leave. We realised you need a lot more time to explore Havana and we can’t wait to go back.
Our guide, Valeri, was awesome and I hope we get to meet him again some day. He was knowledgeable, generous to a fault and the loveliest guy you’ll meet. You can see his profile on Cuban Adventures’ website.
After breakfast in our casa we made ready to head back to the airport. They like you to be at check-in 3 hours before you board, so it’s always a long day. Thankfully Havana Airport is pretty comfortable.
Keep a few CUC pesos handy though. There’s an internet cafe and some reasonable souvenir shops in the terminal.
Day 1/Night 1 – Arrival Day Havana
Meet the group and have dinner together
Day 2 – Havana to Viñales
Havana historic walking tour
Drive to Viñales
Viñales salsa club
Day 3 – Viñales
Tobacco fields hike
Cave boat trip
Organic farm dinner
Day 4 – Viñales to Cienfuegos
Bay of Pigs
Dinner at El Trania in Cienfuegos
Day 5 – Cienfuegos to Trinidad
Tour and explore Cienfuegos town and galleries
Arrive in Trinidad
Barbecue on the beach
Watch salsa bands
Day 6 – Trinidad
Day to explore on our own
Day 7 – Trinidad to Havana via Santa Clara
Che Guevara mausoleum in Santa Clara
Time to self in Havana
Dinner and final party in Havana
Day 8 – Departure Day from Havana
Leave Cuba (like we did) or continue on your journey. Cuban Adventures has a range of extras you can tag onto the end of your trip. See their site for details.
Included: accommodation, breakfast, tour guide throughout, transport between each stop, airport arrival transfer, a walking tour of Old Havana and entry into the Che Guevara Museum in Santa Clara.
At each major destination our guide Valeri gave us all a map and a list of other possible activities we could do while we were there. And if there was anything else we wanted to do, Val would do his best to make it happen.
And that’s the real beauty of this tour. Because of its size, it’s a very agile trip. If you want to do something else along the way, you can tell the guide, who will try and make it happen for you.
Cuba is one of those places that promises an adventure – no matter what you do there. For us this trip was one of those times in our lives we know we’re never going to forget.
Have you been to Cuba or the Caribbean? Do you often join tours or usually travel independently? Where has been that number 1 trip that will stay in your memory forever? Tell us in the comments!