I have always longed to go to Cuba. My mother, a complete socialist, would always lament over the old revolutionaries, which naturally included Castro and Che Guevara, and I, (and I have no shame in saying this), fell in love with the film Dirty Dancing 2, which was set in Havana. A combination of revolution and dancing basically made me dream of visiting the streets of Cuba one day, and this Christmas I finally made it over there.
With such high expectations, I did wonder if it would be all I had hoped it would be, and it was more. There are some places you visit and just fall completely in love with, and Cuba stole my heart. It’s as if time stopped in that country and it decided to stay in its own magical bubble, uncaring and disloyal to the changes of the rest of the world. It removed me so completely from the world that I knew and forced me to experience a country in a real, genuine way.
I’ve posted so many pictures on my Instagram, obviously because Cuba is possibly one of the most picture-perfect places I’ve ever been to, but what I found is that so many people were reaching out to me for recommendations so I wanted to write it all up. Due to changing trade routes with America and the recent passing of Fidel Castro, Cuba is increasingly becoming a destination that travelers feel more comfortable going to, so here’s the breakdown. And if you can go, I urge, plead, encourage and insist that you go. It’s beyond wonderful.
Where I stayed
In Cuba you can either stay in Casa Particulars, private homes that are rented out, or hotels, normally which are quite expensive as they’re five stars and there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground for hotels. I was adamant that I would stay in a Casa Particular as I wanted to talk to a family and live an actual Cuban experience. For some reason (let’s say I was very busy, but in truth I was just winging it) I arrived in Havana with absolutely nothing booked, a suitcase that had gotten lost in Miami and nowhere to stay for the night, with no clothes or toiletries. Do not, I repeat DO NOT try this yourself. If you’re arriving in Cuba in high season, do yourself a favour and make sure you’ve booked somewhere to stay. Unless those types of situations don’t phase you, in which case wing it all the way. I was disgruntled about my missing suitcase but I have no problem wondering around cities looking for places to sleep. I mean, it’s all part of the adventure of travelling, right? At least, that’s what I tell myself.
Luckily, I found the most charming Casa, with the most wonderful host, which lead me to believe that sometimes winging it really is for the best. It was called Madero, and had just opened up so didn’t even have a proper website up and running at the time, so had I looked for it before my trip, I never would have found it. THERE IS A HIGHER PLAN ALWAYS!
I cannot recommend staying here enough. It was gorgeously decorated, absolutely spotless and Juan (the owner) was an absolute darling who made our trip to Havana seamless. He helped my friend and I with anything we needed, even calling his cousin to drive us back to the airport to search for our missing luggage. This is the only spot in Havana you should consider staying at, and if you do, tell Juan that Salma and Linda sent you. He’ll know who we are 🙂
After spending a few days roaming around Havana, learning her history and eating A LOT of plantain, which felt like heaven to me, I packed my bags again and trotted off to Varadero for some beach time.
Stop what you’re doing and listen to me when I tell you this, Varadero is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a lot of beaches around the world and across continents. It’s miles of white sands and water that is every shade of blue. With sand reefs far out, you can walk really far out from shore and still only be ankle deep, which means you can really surround yourself with blue seas and relax. It’s honestly paradise-like.
I stayed in a hotel here as I only stayed for a couple of days and I wanted to be right next to the water. It’s quite hard to find a Casa in Varadero and if you do, they’re quite far out. I stayed at the Barcelo Solymar Resort and it’s selling point is its own access to the beach.
However, a country staying stuck in a period of history means that it’s hotels do too, and this one was in particular need of a makeover. The staff were all lovely and helpful, but it almost feels like the building is crumbling around you, and this was a four-star hotel. The furniture was old, the shower door broke off in my hand when I was trying to get out the shower and my friends bed broke in the middle of the night. While she was sleeping on it. Have you ever woken up to the crack of your friend’s bed next to you? It gives you both the biggest fright, and quite possibly the biggest laugh of your life. We’re still laughing about it now. Again, that’s just travelling right!
Nothing but every shade of blue you ever dreamt of.
The walkway from my hotel directly onto the beach.
Nothing but palm trees and blue skies.
There’s tons of ways to get around the country, but when staying in cities I always recommend letting your feet take you places. It’s one of the best ways to discover and get to know a place. Naturally there’s taxis and tuk tuks in Havana that can take you around, and if you’re interested in visiting other places like Varadero, hop on the official transport provider, Transtur. They pick up from all the major hotels and you can buy your tickets in advance. Something Juan, our amazing host, helped us with. The busses are relatively cheap and it cost me 25 CUCs to get to Varadero, a two-hour drive from Havana.
There is so much to do in Havana from Revolutionary Square to visiting the Cathedral to walking along the Malecon. The place is dripping in history and everyone is kind, wonderful and helpful. Put a bottle of water in your backpack and let the city take over you. Dive into the museums you see, learn about significant revolutionary spots and look in art galleries that are hidden throughout the city.
The cars in the city are incredible. We hired one and took a driving tour of the city and it was well worth it. And then just by accident, I found all these pink cars in a row so naturally, had to take a picture.
There are so many incredible squares with churches and buildings that you chance upon when you’re walking down winding roads.
The Malecon at dusk. Definitely take a walk down here to watch the sunset.
Some important things to know: (naturally, wifi is at the top of this list)
Wifi – it’s very limited in Cuba and there is no open access, which oddly enough, is a really nice break. Even for someone like me who lives on the internet. If you want to get online you need to buy a NAUTA internet card which you can get from most hotel lobbies. The card gives you an hour online and prices range from between 2-5 CUCs. Most major hotels will have wifi so either hang about outside (you will see groups of people gathered at particular spots and that’s when you know there’s a bit of wifi), or go inside a buy a drink in the hotel bar and spend an hour online. I would spend one hour online a day in the evening after dinner. I would get all my posting done, message family and friends and then get off after an hour. It was actually perfection. I mean, I’m not trying to live like that every day, but for a week it was a nice little change.
Money – You can change money at the airport or around the city. Cash machines are rare and hard to come by, so take a load of cash with you. The currency on the island is CUC, and there is one for the Cubans and one for tourists.
Visa – Definitely need one of these before going. It’s easy to get and not a long process if you’re British or American. I applied online a couple of weeks before I went. It costs £23 depending on your postage option, but not much more than that. You can do it right here and make sure you safeguard it with your life. You will need it to get in and out of Cuba.
I could tell you a million more things and I know I could go on writing about Cuba all evening, but I know this is already too long and I should stop at some point. I travel a lot, and it’s not often I fall in love so completely with a place. I have nothing bad to say about it. It’s been utterly dreamy. Take yourself away to Cuba if you can and sink yourself into a rich history and a country that truly stands apart from the rest of the world.