First time in Cuba Travel guide: Tips, Itinerary and Things to do

No doubt Cuba has been on my wish list for the longest time. My dream to visit Cuba started few years ago, ultimately I made it happen. In fact I wanted to see Cuba before it gets taken over by Starbucks, KFC and high-speed WiFi cafes. Of course Cuba have already changed but still the change is slow and the real Cuba is visible.

Havana, Cuba
Havana, Cuba

Traveling to Cuba was like traveling through time. Everything was like a movie set, classic American cars, colorful colonial buildings in addition to live music on every corner. Presently, access to Internet is still limited so you still feel a bit disconnected from the outside world. Anywhere but Cuba seems like another planet in another time. 

 

Colorful streets of Old Havana
Colorful streets of Old Havana

Here is a summary of my trip. 

Route

First, my flight from Bahrain to Paris was with Gulf air (7 hours direct) on Economy class I chose the first seat in Economy class and paid an extra BD 20. On the flight back to Bahrain I was lucky to get a free upgrade to business class (Thank you Gulf air!). 

Second, my flight from Paris to Havana was with Air France (10 hours direct) on Economy premium class. I received a good offer to upgrade to business class at a good bargain. It was well worth it. Business class was defiantly comfy.

Third, on the flight back from Havana/Paris on Economy premium. Regrettably it was a smaller plane so no upgrade was available. However Economy premium was still OK and better than Economy class. In any case I exhausted from the trip and slept the whole way.

Finally I stayed for a couple of nights in Paris. It was a good choice to relax in Paris and ease my way back to life after Cuba.

Trinidad Cuba
Trinidad Cuba

 Visa

I got my visa (Tourist card) arranged through the Cuban Embassy in Riyadh. I sent my passport, the application form along with the requested documents through DHL. The process was quick and easy. I got my passport back within a week. However DHL was expensive. All in all, the visa fees with shipment on both ways costed me around BD 60 ($ 160).

Trinidad Cuba
Trinidad Cuba

My itinerary

5 Days in Havana

2 Days in Trinidad

1 Day in Viñales

Was it enough days to cover Cuba ?

I’d say yes for a first time visit to Cuba 8 days was enough. Still, if I had to change anything I would have allocated a day to visit beach resort area Varadero. 

Accommodations

In Cuba you have two accommodation options. Hotels (usually old and dated) or Casa Particular (guest house). Hotels offer the comfort of room service and Internet access. On the other hand the Casa experience is cozy and you get to know Cuban hospitality and mingle with other like-minded travelers. For this reason the Casas are more popular among tourists seeking personalized experience. Furthermore they are much cheaper than hotels. However hotels offer more privacy and comfort.

Room view from Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana
Room view from Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana

Havana

The first part of Havana trip visit I stayed in Kempinski Gran Manzana hotel, the newest 5 star hotel in Havana. As a matter of fact, the hotel has just opened for only two weeks when we stayed there. It was a good choice and comfy as expected. In addition, Internet was free and fast (Cuban speed standards!). Similarly the rooftop restaurant and bar views were just stunning.

Roof top bar and pool at Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana
Roof top bar and pool at Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana

The other half of Havana trip I decided to try staying at a Casa Particular. I stayed at Casa called Casa Obispo 307. The Casa is at the heart of a vibrant and busy Obispo street where live music is still played past my bed time. In my opinion, the Casa experience is a must if you want to have the full Cuba experience.

Cubans are really friendly people
Cubans are really friendly people

Trinidad

In Trinidad we stayed in Iberostar hotel. The hotel was a bit dated but the location was great. I wanted to stay in a Casa in Trinidad but all the Casas I contacted were full. It is wise to book way ahead if you’re planning to stay in a Casa because most Casas are small. The other problem I faced when trying to book a Casa is their limited access to Emails. For example when I sent several emails to check if the Casas were available I would only hear back from the owners after a day or two. 

Classic American cars in Trinidad Cuba
Classic American cars in Trinidad Cuba

Viñales

Viñales was our last stop in Cuba. We stayed in a new Casa called “Mis Cumbres 2”We totally loved the experience. Our hosts Senior Ridel and his wife were wonderful, they took good care of our needs and arranged the horse riding tour for us. The Casa was brand new and spotless. We had a light lunch and breakfast. Both were delicious.

Taking a break during the horse riding tour in Viñales valley
Taking a break during the horse riding tour in Viñales valley

Things to do in Cuba

    • Horse riding tour in Viñales valley a UNESCO World Heritage Site
    • Join a Salsa class
    • Attend a show in Tropicana Cabaret that started in 1939
    • Take a Classic car tour in Havana
    • Visit Che Guevara’s Monument and Mausoleum in Santa Clara
With Che Guevara mural
With Che Guevara mural

Cuba is for which type of travelers?

First, Adventure seekers looking to try new places. Second, cultural and art lovers. Third, either Solo or couple will both enjoy traveling through the island safely. In fact I think it is a good honeymoon destination if planned well. In addition you can always jump on a cruise and visit other Caribbean countries. 

Habana Street
Habana Street

Best time to visit

November till March are the best months to visit Cuba however I visited Cuba end of Jun/Jul. It was very hot but we survived. I would love to visit again in cooler weather. 

Old Havana
Old Havana

Food in Cuba

Expect to find mostly seafood. The food there was a bit bland as Cubans don’t usually use spices in their cooking. We enjoyed Lobster tails and Mango almost every day. 

Is it safe to travel to Cuba solo ?

Yes. However, I did travel with a friend. We were two Muslim ladies covering our hair. We felt very safe and at times I would head out alone to take photos. It was safe to walk even at night. I also noticed police force were present on the main streets of Havana specially on tourist areas. In conclusion and from my own experience I felt Cuba was one of the safest countries I traveled to. Still, caution is always advised. 

Classic American car in Havana
Classic American car in Havana

Insider Tips

Some tips if you plan to stay in a Casa Particular which you should !

  • Book way ahead 
  • Bring your own toiletries including your personal towel
  • Spend time with the host family and ask for their recommendation on things to do
  • Always haggle with taxis and agree ahead
  • If you want to help out Cubans. Bring soap bars or shampoos with you to distribute to normal people on the streets. These essentials are very expensive in Cuba.
Cuba-tips
Cuba-tips

To stay up-to-date with my travels, follow me on Instagram @Rshrsho

  • Maha

    Thanks habibti for this article! It brought back beautiful memories! I can’t believe only last week I was experiencing this too!!
    I agree with all that you’ve said, I think for a first time visit a week would be enough to get a taste of Cuba, but it can also be hectic if you decide to do all three cities (we also spent a day at the beach near Vinales/less popular than Veradero but really nice) – I am not jet lagged but definitely exhausted, haha
    Since I flew from Toronto, I had a much shorter trip (3.5hrs) direct flight, and didn’t have to worry about visa since I live in Canada (we only had to fill out a form, get it stamped and on our way out gave it back)
    Me and my friend personally took a chance on bookings, we only booked the first two nights at a Casa particular and left everything else for when we arrived there. Luckily our host for the first two nights (in Central Havana) was such a helpful guy who sat with us, asked us what we’d like to do in Cuba and suggested an itinerary, he then went ahead and arranged for casa bookings and transportation, which was seriously sweet of him, our only issue was transportation, we had no idea we were booked with “Taxi collectivo” that didn’t have air conditioning and is shared with many other people (there were lots of squeezing, haha)! Yup! So much fun in July heat!! And we found that prices on the internet were cheaper than reality in most cases!
    Food-wise, I agree, it didn’t work for me at all, but the fruits were AH-MAZING! The mangoes, papaya, pineapple! And avocados are good! I loved the Lobster our casa host cooked for us, and I could have easily had rice and black beans everyday! I totally recommend eating at your Casa as opposed to restaurants! We never stayed in hotels, so I don’t know what they’re like, the casa’s were nice and clean, but not the most comfortable ever, you’ll have to deal with water pressure/sometimes lack of hot water/uncomfortable mattresses…etc) if someone is picky about that, it won’t work, our casa in Trinidad had a window AC unit and it was really loud! But it was right smack in the middle of everything and the price was great! In all fairness, they had the best and cheapest cheese sandwich I had in Cuba, haha
    I can talk so much more, but this will become a very long comment, one last thing, bring your mosquito repellent and after bite, I was almost eaten alive and had to deal with an allergic reaction!
    Oh oh and I highly suggest the “Free Walking Tour – Havana” on your first day, it will give you a great insight on old Havana!