Highlights Around Havana: Nine Days in Cuba
Immediately after writing that title, I could practically hear a chorus exclaiming,
“NINE DAYS? THAT’S NOT ENOUGH TIME!”
Trust me, I know that! As a full-time student, I was lucky enough to take advantage of my class break this spring to visit this amazing country. Most of the other travellers we came across were staying for weeks to a month, but there were others like us who had to keep their time short and sweet. For those of you who read my past article, you’ll remember that I was totally unprepared for my time in Cuba and that I arrived with no itinerary, plan, or map! Somehow, we still managed to pull out four great destinations without too much stress-related hair loss. That being said, we did a lot of backtracking and probably spent more money than necessary in the process.
A recurring theme that seems to be coming out of my writing is that I make a lot of mistakes while traveling. A LOT. For me this is all a part of the fun, but if I can help the next gal from making the same mistake, it at least gives me some false sense of importance. That’s why I’ve created this itinerary with all of the great destinations we were able to check out, but re-arranged to cut out all of the unnecessary time and bills we spent getting there! The best part? They’re all within three hours of Havana, which is likely to be your arrival destination.
Day 1 & 2: Havana
This itinerary is like one of those crazy fad diets you always see on infomercials- if you want it to work, you have to commit! We flew into Havana late and immediately crashed, so by the next morning we were biting at the bit to get out and explore. We knew that our time in Havana was going to be limited and that we really had to tear up this city in order to do it justice. The only problem? That aforementioned lack of any maps or guide books. If for no reason other than making sure you don’t miss out on Havana’s highlights, just bite the bullet and bring one. I know we missed out on a lot of the city’s best sights because we simply had no idea that they were there. Most travellers we came across swore by their Lonely Planet or Rough Guide and thought we were absolute lunatics for not having one.
Parque Central is a great place to start, as this is the major tourist hub. Once you’re there, you can start wandering onto the different side streets that will show you everything from the gorgeous National Capitol building to restored cigar factories and hip art districts. Havana is a fairly walkable city in areas like this, but a lot of the highlights are out of the main loop. That’s why we splurged for a one-hour ride in one of the restored convertibles to show us the things we likely would have missed in our time there. These cars are lined up in the park so that you can have your literal pick of the lot for your cruise! This is another situation where it’s smart to pair up with other travellers, because the cost of a ride is 30 CUC, whether the car is full or not. Our ride included a trip to the Plaza de la Revolution, Vedado, and a cruise down the Malecon. Grab a few road beers and you’re in for a seriously fun ride!
The rest of your time in Havana should be catered to your own taste. This city has top-notch art, nightlife, history, and even beaches, so it’s easy to find whatever blows your hair back!
Day 3 & 4: Viñales
At some point during your time in Havana, be sure to stop at the Viazul bus station in Vedado to buy your ticket to Viñales; the buses run twice daily and sell out quickly in advance. If you would rather take the quicker (and pricier) route, collectivo drivers will be waiting at the station to lump you with other travellers. The ride should cost no more than 80 CUC per car, or 20 per person, compared to the 12 CUC bus ticket. Either way you should elbow your way into a window seat, because the ride is beautiful.
Booking a casa particular in advance for Viñales is totally unnecessary because the streets are literally lined with them- every other house is a particular! I recommend staying off the main street, as it’s way easier to escape the tourist traps and soak in local life.
Viñales Valley is explorable by pretty much every kind of wheel under the sun, but we loved doing it by horseback. You will never feel cooler (and look more tacky) than the time you explored the tobacco fields on a horse, smoking a freshly rolled cigar. For more information of exploring Viñales by horse, check out my last article!
Day 5 & 6: Varadero
Saying the word “Varadero” on the Cuba backpacking trail is like the equivalent of saying “Voldemort” at Hogwarts. Some people will gasp, others will cover their ears like a child having a tantrum. Varadero has a reputation for being a total tourist wasteland and as a result a lot of people turn their noses up at it and refuse to visit. But here’s the thing about Varadero- it’s easy. For the first half of the trip, we had no idea what the heck was going on. We had worn ourselves out trying to navigate a new language, a tricky transportation system, and a backpacking style that was totally new for us. We needed a day to totally recharge, or as we so eloquently put it,
“We need to go to a beach, get drunk on mojitos and get a little burnt.”
And that we did, my friends. To get to Varadero you can either take the bus into Havana and transfer to a Varadero route, or take a direct collectivo. The town of Varadero itself is not the prettiest, but it is also tucked away from the stretch of resorts that brings in most of the tourists. This is the one place on this itinerary that I fully recommend booking a casa in advance, because after a long day of travel to get here, searching for two hours for a family that had room to host us really brought out my crazy eyes.
Arriving at the beach, I expected a little more of the dramatic letdown we had heard about, full of empty margarita glasses, speedos, and Pitbull music. Yes, there were more tourists than what we’d gotten used to (whenever you see a lifeguard you know you’re in gringo centro), but honestly all we saw was that gorgeous beach. Varadero is an international tourist attraction for a reason, and that crystal clear water and icing sugar sand says it all. Try the access points between calle 23 and 26 and wander for a few minutes to find a reasonable amount of privacy. Despite the terrifying rumours you might have heard along the way, Varadero is fine, it just doesn’t ooze the Cuban culture like the rest of the country.
Day 7 & 8: Guanabo
For those of you disappointed in my last beach pick, I’m about to give you the perfect compromise between culture and beach bumming. Guanabo is about an hour and a half away from Varadero and 45 minutes from Havana, where all of the locals come to escape for the weekend. Guanabo is not a tourist destination so you won’t be finding any public transportation to get you here, but a collectivo should be reasonable.
Honestly, the actual beach of Guanabo is not the nicest. When you move away from the well-maintained but busy stretch, the beach becomes rocky and a little dirty. However, the water is just as nice as Varadero, and it was by far the best people-watching of our entire trip. Guanabo is where Cubans come to spend time with their families and friends, and people are still genuinely pleased and surprised to see you there. We actually had people coming up to us and asking for photos, which seemed totally bizarre after our past week! We met two or three other tourists during our time there, but for the most part we were an anomaly. If that was’t enough to talk you into a visit, private beachfront accommodation is completely affordable! We had our own private apartment steps off the beach for the same price as a tiny room in Havana. Guanabo was the most random stop on our trip, but the sunsets alone made it one of our favourite finds.
A tip on the house: Be sure to treat yourself to a dinner at Rico Rico! The food and atmosphere made it our favourite restaurant in the area.
Day 9: Havana
By now you’ve probably had the chance to chat with other travellers and realize all of the cool things you missed in the city. That one last day makes sure that you leave with no regrets, but you’ll probably end up seeing enough to lure you back for another trip.
For those of you planning a longer stay, you’re lucky to have the luxury of total freedom on your trip! But I quickly learned that when you have a tight timeframe between return flights, having a loose itinerary is not the worst idea!
I’d love to hear about your guys’ favourite spots around Havana! Did I miss any classics?
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