Help us plan our trip to Cuba!
July 20, 2015 10:32 AM   Subscribe

My fiance and I are going to Cuba TOMORROW. We've got our flights (departing 6am tomorrow, returning a week later) and hotels booked, but nothing else planned at all. Please give us all your tips on what to do & see.

We've got nothing planned at all besides hotels and flights.

We will be spending the first 5 days in Havana, then the last 2 days at Varadero. We are booked into your usual 4/5 star hotel, but are happy to slum it for sights, eats, etc.

My understanding is that we can't obtain Cuban currency until we get there. We're going from Canada and planning to exchange CAD for local currency.

What should we do/see in Havana? Any short day trips in the vicinity that are recommended?

At Varadero beach, what to do besides just relax?

I've heard that food can a bit disappointing in Cuba...any tips on finding yummy meals are appreciated, although I'm not terribly fussed about that.

I am reasonably fluent in Spanish. I have spent a lot of time in Mexico (especially D.F.), and a bit of time in other parts of Latin America. My partner doesn't speak a lick of it.

Many thanks.
posted by wutangclan to Travel & Transportation around Cuba (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Visit the Hemingway house, I think it's called La Finca.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:35 AM on July 20, 2015

I go to Cuba as a total tourist a couple of times per year. Most of the time we chill around Varadero, and since I used to live there as a child, I've seen the 'real' Cuba plenty. (We still have lots of friends there and it's easier to stay at a resort than impose on them when we visit.)

Bring stuff to give away. Clothes especially, adult and kids is very appreciated. Batteries, Spanish-English pocket dictionaries, chocolates and candy. Like, literally hit a dollar store for stuff to give away, today if you can.

Food can be disappointing, but you can find good food - ask around - cabbies, hotel staff should be able to point the way, and many times you can find a private dinner made for you - paid of course - do not hesitate to accept. In Varadero visit Al Capone's former house-turned restaurant - the food is excellent, as are the views.

From Varadero - yeah only two days on the beach - maximize it. Relax, get up to see at least one sunrise - trust me. Go for a morning swim in crystal smooth water. If you want to do more stuff take a day trip booked through the hotel - you can do a snorkel trip or scuba dive or something, but with just two days - relax - the beaches alone are amazing.

Cuba is... magical. You'll love it. Especially with fluent Spanish at your disposal.
posted by tatiana131 at 10:53 AM on July 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

gothamist just did a couple of Cuba visiting guides after a recent journo trip there

- general info
- nightlife stuff
posted by poffin boffin at 10:55 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Havana - eat at "Paladars" which are independently run restaurants and much better than any government owned restaurant. I can personally recommend Cafe Laurent, Dona Eutimia and Atelier. But yes the food is disappointing and can drain on you after a week.

Yes buy the currency down there. Things are changing but I found in Havana people still asked me for soap on the streets so kindly bring bars of soap to give away. Also tip the chambermaids in toiletries.

If you want I can recommend a good Casa Paticulare near Plaza Vieja Havana which is a cuban home stay - Cuban people rent out their rooms to make money on the side. Totally legit. Memail me if needed (I paid $30 CUCs/night).

There's a Museum Napoleon that we liked very much. Also the standard places like revolucion square, old Havana are nice to see. And the San Jose artisans Market. It's EXHAUSTING and by the end we couldn't bother bartering. They're pretty aggressive but it's still fun to go see. If you're into art there are a LOT of artists in Havana, look for the more professional state-run galleries.

If you're REALLLY adventerous, you can take the Hershey Train from Havana to Varadero (well, Matanzas, then get a cab or bus to Varadero). Old, cheap, slow, but will take you through the innards of the island and is an experience in and of itself.

Varadero - honestly its a tiny beach town and with only 2 days, I would spend 100% of my time drinking mojitos on the beach. There is really nothing to see or buy. But you will never be near such a gorgeous beach again so take advantage of it.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:10 AM on July 20, 2015

I bought some prints by Cuban artist Carlos Guzman, the last time I was in Cuba. I'd never heard of him, but I googled him when I got home and apparently it's ok to just stop by his studio. So next time I'm in Havana I'm going to do that. Maybe you might like to do it, too.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:27 AM on July 20, 2015

Havana: Wander down Obispo and browse the book market in the square at the end (Plaza de Armas I think?) - buy some screen-printed film posters or Cuban bric a brac. Obispo's kind of touristy but a good place to acclimatise when you first arrive. Then just walk. Honestly, you could spend weeks in Havana just walking and watching the world go by. Even though it's hot, you'll be better off in comfy trainers/sneakers than sandals, because you'll just want to keep walking.

On a street corner somewhere just behind the Capitolo and the Gran Teatro there's a yard full of massive, rusting old steam trains: It's not a museum or anything, they're just sitting there rusting away with a guy on a chair keeping an eye. Even after a week in Cuba getting used to all the old cars, it stopped me in my tracks (ha) with amazement. I wandered into the yard and gawped freely at them and slipped the guy a little cash on the way out but he was very laid back and didn't mind me being there. It was just amazing to see them all sitting there. I have no idea why they're there.

Although the Malecon (the big seafront road) is kind of just a busy road, it's not a bad place to get chatting to Cubans if you want to - stroll/sit on the sea wall long enough and you'll probably find someone engages you in conversation. (I also went for a run there at dawn on Christmas Day and got soaked by enormous waves crashing over the sea wall - that was pretty special!)

We had a day trip from Havana to Viñales which included a walk through tobacco fields to a farmer's house to see him rolling cigars on his kitchen table, buying cigars and coffee from him, wandering through a pineapple field and arriving at a cabaña where we were given virgin piña coladas and a bottle of white rum to make them as strong as we liked. It was pure tourism, but one of my favourite parts of the trip - the set-up might have been a bit contrived, but he was a real farmer, was happy to talk to us, and we were getting to put some cash direct in his pockets.

Varadero is... just a beach. Unless it's changed recently, there's really nothing else to do there at all, except be on the beach.

When I was last there (the Christmas before last), our guide made us line up at the airport when we arrived to buy our currency there. It was a looong wait, but he said the hotels in town often ran out, so we should get it there while we had the chance. The change place wasn't in the arrivals hall - you came out of the terminal, turned right and went back in the other half of the airport (presumably departures though I don't remember for sure!)

And yep, take kids' toys, soap, shampoo, pens etc. I didn't take much of that kind of stuff because I couldn't imagine who we'd give it to, but I regretted it because we were approached on the streets by so many people asking us for things - particularly outside Havana. We were all giving away our hotel soaps and anything else we could think of; as St Peepsburg mentioned, we left behind all our toiletries for the chambermaids.

Food - I don't remember anywhere particularly great, most places serve variations on fried chicken or fish with rice and a few veg. Get your kicks from the cocktails instead.

Just reread this and it doesn't convey even a hint of the wondrousness that is a visit to Cuba! Honestly, without even going to see any "sights" you'll have an amazing time just being there - I'm jealous!
posted by penguin pie at 12:23 PM on July 20, 2015

Canadian who just went to Varadero this past spring and stayed in a casa particulare in town, not a resort.

At Varadero beach, what to do besides just relax?

We rented scooters from a resort for 24 hours and it was awesome! It really lets you see the area and explore further than if you were on foot. We went all the way to the tip of Varadero which really just ends in a marina, however, it was nice to say that we did it. I had never driven a scooter before and was completely comfortable within the first few hours. 100++ would do again.

We also had some artwork painted by Richel Manuel Fundora Alvarez from Artista Platico at Calle 29. You just need to give him a color print of the image you want and he can turn it around in 1-2 days depending on how busy he is. Inexpensive and a nice keepsake from the trip.

We would have gone to Playa Coral for snorkelling, however, the water was really choppy and we were told that we wouldn't see anything anyways. It would have been nice to have gone, however, it was a 40 minute drive away and we didn't want to take the chance of going and being disappointed.

I've heard that food can a bit disappointing in Cuba...any tips on finding yummy meals are appreciated, although I'm not terribly fussed about that.

Super Machi on Calle 15 is where the locals eat and the food is delicious and cheap. We ate here for dinner many times. Think outdoor barbecue.

Bring toilet paper! We brought clothes to give away that was appreciated by both men and women. The women ESPECIALLY loved makeup like eyeliners and lipstick. Oh, and watch out for heng heng (sp) around dusk if you don't have bug spray on. These are little bugs that bite and make you itch like crazy if you're not covered up or wearing spray.
posted by KathyK at 12:32 PM on July 20, 2015

We were there in April earlier this year, 4 days in Varadero and 3 days in Havana. You will be glad to know some Spanish, I wish I knew more when we went.

I wouldn't bother bringing stuff to give away, it's not critical. Unless you go far, the places you'll be going are places where people get stuff handed out to them all the time, so I don't think you'll be reaching the people who "really need it"... we went on some excursions around Varadero and they literally lined up the kids and moms with babies on the streets, hands outstretched expecting to get stuff. I watched them turn their noses up at crappy candy and pencils. Men hung out at the tourist traps with sob stories about their "kids" asking you to pay high prices for a nice seashell or any kinds of things you had to give away. Some people we went with on an excursion brought a bunch of candy and trinkets in a bag and ended up giving the whole thing to a small handful of kids we came across, because they didn't have much other opportunity to go. Wasn't exactly the feel-good lengthy doling out of goodies they'd hoped for.

One cuban convertible peso (CUC) is a lot of money to them though, so instead of dollarama stuff it may be better to just have spare CUC coins to hand out. People in Havana would chat us up and point out some "cool" places to go, sketchy as it seemed, and then ask us for "just one CUC... for my kid, it's hard to look after him".

My big tip to you is to convert more Canadian money to CUCs than you think you'll need, even though they say you'll probably only need $100 per day. Your credit cards will probably not work in nearly all the places you go. The most stressful thing to us about being in Cuba was feeling like we'd not have enough cuban cash at the end of the night to get home, just because things ended up costing more than we'd expected. We were expecting things to be a lot cheaper than they were. It wasn't worth the stress of not having money, to worry about converting money back and losing cash to fees.

We did enjoy the excursions, but with only 2 days in Varadero, I concur with other people that you should just drink on the beach there.

The Tropicana show was actually worthwhile seeing, I recommend going. It was something like 3 hours long of people dancing and singing, and after that followed a "night" show. You can order supper there as well.

We went to the Floridita for daiquiris in Havana, which was a lovely experience. Had some Cuban sandwiches there for lunch, which were very nice.
posted by lizbunny at 12:54 PM on July 20, 2015

Response by poster: Many thanks for input provided so far. One thing -- I like taking pictures, have a DSLR. Bad idea to carry it around with me?
posted by wutangclan at 1:27 PM on July 20, 2015

There are dedicated (and pretty effective) tourist police, so it felt pretty safe. I guess you might feel a bit ostentatious wandering around with such an obvious token of wealth around your neck, so you could take a small point-and-shoot too in case you find yourself feeling that way. But I don't think tourist muggings are a huge problem.
posted by penguin pie at 2:29 PM on July 20, 2015

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