Back in December, my best friend Mallory gave me a cigar box with two cards inside; one asked me if I would be her Maid of Honor and the other said, “Will you go to Cuba with me?” with a plane ticket attached.
We set off on our Cuban adventure in February with two of our other closest friends. We had four days to visit, but you could spend months and never get bored. I have NEVER returned from a trip and received so many texts, DMs, emails, etc. from people asking me for tips and suggestions so I thought I’d make this easier for everyone to share with their friends, etc. by writing it all here.
Below are some tips and tricks, as well as our itinerary. I linked to Instagram geolocations so you can visually see what these places are like. Hope this is helpful for everyone planning a trip to Cuba!
- exchange USD to CAD or Euro before you go and then to CUC when you arrive — much better exchange rate
- was very easy to get the visa, and to return to the US. There will be a special check in kiosk for travelers going to Cuba. We flew United from Newark. We walked up to a small desk, bought our visas (no one at the visa desk even questioned us), and then we went to check-in like you would for any normal flight; the woman there asked us our purpose for traveling to Cuba. I said journalism and showed her my camera, the other three girls said ‘people to people exchange.’ No one even questioned us at customs on the return.
- know that the money exchange at the airport has a HUGE line. we stood in it for 30 minutes and didn’t move so told our taxi drive to take us to the bank in Old Havana — still a big line there too. From the time we landed to getting checked in to our AirBnB was 3 hours so expect things to be slow. Also don’t pay more than 25cuc to get from airport to Old Havana
- DEFINITELY download the maps.me app and download the Cuba map before leaving — this saved us. we had 0 service and never saw any wifi but on the maps.me app you can zoom in, and even search so it’s like having GPS it was great.
- take toilet paper – we didn’t see much
- GIFTS — they are appreciative of so many things, but really need things like toiletries, diapers, tampons, etc. I gave our hosts’ son a Mets hat and he was so excited.
- take pepto and any other nausea medicine; two out of the four of us got sick
- The drive from Old Havana to Vinales should be $80CUC in a private car each way. DON’T let them rip you off like they did us. Going to Vinales we paid $20CUC each and ended up being shoved into a van that had to make several stops to pick up other travelers + went very far out of the way to drop a couple off somewhere else that wasn’t even close to Vinales. They lied to us and tried to pretend it was a language barrier but they knew what they were doing. On the way back to Havana we had our own private taxi for $80CUC total.
Below is what we did:
Thursday, February 23rd
2pm: landed. It took us probably 1 hour at the airport from finding our driver (who we arranged through our AirBnB)
3:30pm: made it to Old Havana, had our driver take us to the bank where we waited for probably 30 mins to exchange our money. He finally had us follow him to another money exchange place where we paid the guy maybe $5 and he let us cut the line
5:30pm: finally checked into our AirBnB — it was perfect for us but we don’t ask for much. The house was clean. There was always someone there which made us feel safe. It was in a good location. It was so cheap.
7:00pm: rooftop drinks at Ambos Mundos hotel (a really pretty view of the city)
8:00pm: El Bodeguita del Media for a Mojito, apparently Hemingway’s favorite Mojito joint. This place was fun. You can get drinks and stand out in the street, there was also live music. Definitely on the tourist list maybe but we liked it.
9:30pm: dinner at Ivan Chef Justo. We had heard about this place and didn’t have a reservation. We went and put our name in and then went back to El Bodeguita del Medio for more mojitos. We had to wait one hour. We luckily got a spot on the roof which was nice and quaint. The food was not very exciting, but the atmosphere was nice.
10:30pm: Fabrica del Arte — modern night life (right next door to Cocinero restaurant so if you want to do both it might be smart to do them both in the same night) — #1 spot in Havana Thursday through Sunday nights. Art gallery, live bands, restaurant, cinema,and DJ music all for a $2 cover. BEWARE of LONG lines. We arrived on a Thursday night (apparently their biggest night) and the line was so long, it went and curved around the block. We ended up paying a guy to cut the line for us. It was fun here, felt kind of like NYC. Definitely not where the locals go.
Friday, February 24th
9:00am: breakfast at El Dandy (great for breakfast and coffee before getting your day started in Habana Vieja and it was right by our AirBnB). We actually became friends with two of our waiters from Ambos Mundos and they met us for breakfast and decided to show us around the city on their day off. We explored Old Havana just walking the streets, paid 40cuc for an old car to drive us around the city. Had lunch at La Guarida. Really beautiful, I almost feel like it’s better to go during the day than at night just to see the interiors (first picture below of the girls coming down the stairs) and go up and see the view from the rooftop (which is also pictured below). You definitely have to make a reservation, do so by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
4:00pm: we stopped in at Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym. This training gym is linked to many successful boxers. It was fun to see all the kids there right after school.
5:00pm: explored Old Havana more, found a cool little basketball court where we sat and watched the kids play. Found this amazing coconut ice cream that is literally served in half of a coconut.
9pm: Sia Kara Bar — good for drinks and live music, Cubans actually go here, was recommended by some people and also where the AirBnB ‘experience’ takes you. Seemed cool and trendy but the service was not that great and food was just okay.
10:30pm: went to Casa de la Musica that night (beware it is about a 30 min taxi from Old Havana — was super cool but we showed up at 10:30, doors didn’t open until 11pm and the music did not come on until probably 12:45 which was annoying as people were getting frustrated and wanted the show to start. But definitely was cool! I suggest arriving at around 11:45, we were there way too early. Everyone gets up and dances, it was neat.
Saturday, February 25th
8am: pick up time. Hired a driver through our AirBnB, who I mentioned earlier ripped us off. You can take a PRIVATE TAXI for $80CUC each way to Vinales.
12pm: check in to our Casa in Vinales. It was AMAZING!! We absolutely loved our host. She spoke perfect English and did everything for us. She was so great. The house was clean and beautiful and had an amazing roof. Here is the AirBnB link.
1pm: lunch at Paladar El Paraiso, it was the most amazing local food in Vinales, recommended by several people. It’s part organic farm or finca and part family-run restaurant owned by Wilfredo and his daughters; lunch is served at their farm house. Avoid going there when tour buses are in the driveway for a more authentic experience.We booked a horseback riding tour through the valley through our AirBnB house — she was seriously amazing, she organized everything for us. We paid $5CUC per person, per hour for the horseback ride. As we were leaving lunch, we were looking for our taxi that was supposed to be waiting for us and all of a sudden we hear horse hooves coming up the street and we joked saying “there’s our ride!” … it actually was our ride haha. He picked us up with the horses and we hopped on and rode through the valley; first stop: a coffee plantation where we got to try the coffee with honey that was also grown there; second stop: tobacco plantation where we got to see the the tobacco-to-cigar process and the girls got to smoke cigars. Was a very, very cool experience.
NIGHT: Vinales is just one street; the square has dance parties every night (this was SO FUN, a kid literally had a DJ table set up and there were people of all ages dancing–literally grandmas to 4 year olds), and theres’a a little bar in the corner off in the distance with dancing and live music. El Campesino was really good for dinner, it was a little further from the ‘main strip’ but really delicious. There is a ‘cave disco’ on Saturday nights in Vinales, we didn’t get that memo until Sunday morning! So ask around.
Sunday, February 26th
6:15am: call time
6:30am: sunrise hike.You literally start the hike in the pitch black darkness so take your iPhone so you can use the flashlight. We hiked up to a small farm (this family is one of the only families that lives on the mogote). We got to try coffee that was grown there and just sit and take in how beautiful and peaceful the valley was. The fog was rising below us as the sky was turning all kinds of beautiful colors above us. The hike took probably 45 mins up. Our guide Fidel was the best! Here is his email if you want to do the hike: email@example.com. This was one of my favorite things we did on the trip.
9:30am: driver picked up and took us to Cayo Jutias — gorgeous beach, no hotels just one bar where you can have lobster lunch and drinks. Relaxed, can rent snorkel gear and lounge chairs for VERY cheap. It was a little far from Vinales, probably an hour and a half to two hours. Very beautiful beach though and very relaxing. Supposedly they have starfish all over the beach but we never saw any.
7pm: took a private taxi back to Havana for $80CUC (about a three hour drive)
Monday, February 27th
10:30am: coffee / breakfast near our AirBnB
12:30pm: headed to the airport
2:30pm: flight home 🙁