Right now I wish I was in Cuba, sitting in a the sunshine in a square with a jazz band playing while sipping on a freshly made mojito. Instead I am in London where the skies are gray and dark and it is pouring down outside. This sudden Cuba craving has come about because my friend The London Foodie is planning a trip there and asked for some tips. He said it was difficult to find information about how to travel independently in Cuba rather than as part of a tour or just staying at a resort so I thought it might be worthwhile sharing my tips from my travels there three years ago more widely. Although my recommendations are a little dated I have rechecked all this information and it seems to still hold true. That’s the great thing about Cuba for visitors, it doesn’t really change and is like stepping back into the 1950’s. Not so great if you are a Cuban though.
A vintage car cruising past revolutionary slogans in Cuba
Where to go
I spent just under two weeks in Cuba with MTV boyfriend and we divided our time between a couple of nights in Havana, a couple of nights in Trinidad and a couple of nights in Vinales. It is probably also worth spending some time at one of Cuba’s beach towns but I gave this a miss as I had just been on a beach holiday.
Havana is a beautiful city and strolling the streets looking at the crumbling colonial architecture and vintage cars is an activity in itself. We particularly enjoyed visiting a cigar factory to see the cigars being hand rolled in a large room where one person’s job was to read aloud from the paper in the morning and a novel in the afternoon to entertain their fellow workers.
Beautiful Trinidad complete with a donkey
For a change of pace from city life, Trinidad is an old colonial town set in lush countryside. The bright colours of the houses and cobble stoned streets are picture perfect and there are a few interesting museums to have a poke around in and lots of great open air jazz performances.
To experience a little of rural Cuba we also visited Vinales an area of stunning scenery characterised by clusters of large domed mountains. We spent our time riding horses through the tobacco fields and swimming in waterfalls under the mountains.
Inside Paladar La Guarida. This visit was pre Gourmet Chick so I took pictures of the interior rather than the food – sorry!
Where to eat
Most of the restaurants in Cuba are State run and so while they are cheap the food is pretty bland and uninspired. A much better option is to hunt down Paladares where people cook in their homes (the original version of London’s supper club trend). One of our favourites was Paladar la Guarida in Havana. Set in a little bit of a dodgy neighbourhood, the paladar is housed up a three flights of winding stairs in an old colonial mansion. The rooms which house the paladar are incredibly atmospheric and are crammed with bric-a-bracs with every inch of space filled or decorated including the walls lined with black and white photographs. The paladar serves great seafood and for dessert its famous home made chocolate.
Details: Paladar la Guarida, Calle Concordia 418, Havana, Cuba (Ph +7 264 4940)
Inside Coppelia ice-cream park
Another Havana institution is the ice-cream park. It is so famous that it is the star of Cuba’s most well known movie Fresa y Chocolat. Coppelia is a whole park serving only ice-cream which is heavily subsidised by the government. There are long queues to enter the perfectly preserved art deco building where the ice-cream is served and families bring buckets in order to stock up on the ice-cream. You can only pay in Cuban pesos rather than the Cuban dollars that are accepted (and expected) everywhere else so make sure to change some at the street vendors before you go in. Once inside don’t make the same mistake as us and ask for four serves each only to be given four bowls of ice-cream rather than the four scoops expected. Flavours are limited. On our visit there was only fresa and chocolat available and the ice-cream tastes like standard commercial fare but the whole setting and experience is pretty magical.
Details: Coppelia, Calle 23 and L Vedado, Havana, Cuba
Damage: Such a bargain even my mother would approve
Four serves of ice-cream means four bowls not four scoops
Special mention should also be made of the drinks in Cuba. The mojitos are seriously amazing. I’m not sure whether it is the so-fresh-they-often-grow-it-at-the-bar mint used or the actual sugar cane syrup rather than sugar syrup but the mojitos in Cuba will leave every other mojito you ever have in your life for dead. The Cuba libre which is a popular dark rum and coke mix is not bad either.
Where to stay
The best places to stay are the Casa Particulares which essentially means just staying in the spare room of a local. The most popular Casa Particulares are listed in guidebooks and websites and you can try and pre book or just turn up at a recommended one and if they do not have room they will direct you to one that does. Casa Particulares are also marked on the outside with a blue and green triangular sign so you can literally just wander the streets looking for them. The cost is around $25 for a room for the night. The more enterprising Casa Particulares often offer breakfast and perhaps drinks for an additional price.
Our horse riding guide in Vinales (a friend of the family who ran the Casa Particulare) expertly hand rolls a cigar while riding
Our favourite Casa Particulare was in Vinales. It was run by a friendly family who engaged us in competitive games of dominoes (a particular Cuban pastime) and the casa had a roof terrace where you could admire the view and sip on mojitos that the family prepared.
Details: Casa la Cabana, Calle C 3, e / 1 ra y 3ra, Reparto la Carbonera, Vinales, Cuba
Damage: Such a bargain my mother would approve. Around $20 a night for a room.
How to get there and around
It is hard to get direct flights to Cuba. We flew from Cancun in Mexico to Havana. You can fly with Cuba Jet for around £180 return. Once in Cuba we caught taxis and buses. The Viazul bus and Astro buses cover most of the island and were pretty reliable. If you have more cash renting a car is another option.
If you liked reading this you might be interested in reading about Cuban food in London at Asia de Cuba.