Backpacking through Cuba


Hello again, I am back with part 2 of my Cuban adventure (which is really the middle part of my trip but anyway), all about the places we visited outside of the capital city of Havana. If you came here for info about Havana, let me casually redirect you to the one which I made earlier.

In summary, it is awesome and I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to go.

Introduction to our trip

I should also state for anyone who hasn’t read the Havana page, that Craig and I chose to do our trip around Cuba with an Australian company called Intrepid Travel. We had travelled with them before and liked them, and we knew from our research that Cuba isn’t the easiest place to travel solo if you want to see places other than Havana or Verdado (the resort area, which apparently has stunning beaches), due to the lack of public transport infrastructure. The railway is mainly used for industrial purposes and is wildly unreliable and the local buses are often little more than converted trucks packed leaving people standing in cramped conditions for hours. I have no idea how easy it is to hire a car, but there was some questionable driving and very narrow roads so definitely not ideal for me since as we found out in LA, I cannot judge small spaces on the wrong side of the road… So we opted to go on the ‘Cuba on a shoestring’ tour which they operate, that way all the transport is arranged for you with no hassle.

For anyone interested, here is the link so you can check out what they have to say about the trip and its itinerary.

A Casa Particulares under a rooftop restaurant we ate at in Trinidad

 

Where to stay – Casa Particulares

For the trip, we were staying in guesthouses, know in Cuba as Casa Particulares. These are regulated and licensed by the Government, and all of them have to register their guests in a Government book, much like a hostel or a hotel taking your details.

You are often sometimes staying in a family’s house with them, and other times it is just a rented out place with staff. I went there with fairly low expectations of these given that Cuba is still a developing country, expecting to have dodgy/no aircon, shared bathrooms and so on, but it turns out Intrepid only use places on their trips with aircon, a safe, a private bathroom, so I needn’t have been concerned, most of them exceeded my expectations by far.

They also all provided you with breakfast in the morning, which usually consisted of fresh fruits and fruit juice, breads, cheeses, meats, eggs, tomatoes and sometimes other things like pancakes, plus tea and coffee which was generally pretty delicious, although I did get sick of omelettes by the end.

Vegetable Paella

 

The Intrepid tour

We had our welcome talk, which you always have on these tours, on Sunday evening, with our guide, Adita. We all introduced ourselves, and there was a good mix of people travelling – solo travellers from Switzerland, Germany, Norway, and UK plus couples, all of whom were from the UK except the Australian couple. The talk went on for a pretty long time, and it started to rain while we were on the roof terrace so we had to find shelter, but then it was time for our first group dinner which most people came to, with us heading to Mojito Mojito, which had a decent menu, a big cocktail menu and a live band. Amazingly there were several other veggies/semi-veggies (like me, an avoider of meat in certain countries thanks to some nasty food poisoning in Bangkok which I am still scarred by) on this trip, unlike in Vietnam where it was just me so that was nice.

I had the veg paella and it was ginormous and a Havana Especial cocktail which was tiny – it came in a champagne glass while everyone else had mojitos etc so I had to have one of those too cos I got FOMO. This was also the start of my collection of cheap plastic drink stirrers on the trip in an attempt to save the planet by not letting them get thrown out to use them for cocktails at home, which happen more than you might expect oops.

After this most people were jet lagged having arrived the night before, but Craig and I and our new Swiss friend Patrick went for a beer in the brewery round the corner to wait out the rain, as it had begun to absolutely hammer it down. At 11 they closed and we had to venture back to our guesthouses, but fortunately the rain had stopped as is often the case in the tropics.

In the morning we packed up and took our stuff to the bus and left it in there whilst we had our walking tour of Havana with our guide. This was very informative, but since Craig and I had been there a few days we had already seen most of the stuff so I was a little annoyed at how long it was taking, particularly as it was more of a standing and listening in the 32 degree heat tour than a walking tour, we did less than 4000 steps over the 3 hours, so I personally found the pace pretty frustrating as I am not a big fan of standing around.

Next we went to a place for lunch which I cannot remember the name of for the life of me but it had a random rock theme with rolling stones pictures and different records and cassettes decorating the walls. I had my weirdest meal here, which was fried eggs, rice and fried plantain… wasn’t actually that bad and certainly a new experience, possibly better than the ‘chicken fajitas’ they did which came with some rather dry bread rather than wraps!

Vinales

After this interesting meal, we finally set out from Havana on our bus for the week with our driver Miguel and guide and headed to Vinales, a small town situated in the heart of the tobacco valley, famous for producing the leaves for cigars. The journey took about 2.5 hours and just before we arrived we stopped to have a look at the viewing point up above the valley by one of the hotels.

The view was absolutely breathtaking. The random formation of small mountains reminded us of Ha Long bay in Vietnam, but on land. It also totally looked like the set of Jurassic Park, which our guide said was a location considered but due to US-Cuba relations and the embargo was not chosen.

Small roof terrace on top of our Casa

The town

We drove down into the village amongst smatterings of rain. Our guesthouses were all located along the main road. We noticed that almost every house we passed had the casa particulars symbol on it, with our guide explaining that renting out extra rooms is one of the best ways for locals to earn money due to the low salaries they receive.

Ours was a cute little one storey property (as most of them in the town seemed to be although there were a couple of two level buildings. The owner was lovely and she made us all tea and coffee, which we had before heading out for our orientation walk. This was much shorter than the walk in Havana and mainly pointed out where we could buy water, get money out, there were even a few bars here that had their own wi-fi that you didn’t need a card to access.

When we finished the walk, which was only along the main street really, we all went for tapas at a restaurant which our guide recommended, which was pretty good. My favourite thing however was not the food, but that when you ordered pina coladas they gave you the bottle of rum and you got to add your own!

 The nightlife


Doug in his element at the salsa club

After this we thought it would be fun to go and try out one of the local salsa clubs, which was situated just off of the main square. It was 1CUC to enter, and was an open air space with roofing around the outside where the bar and much of the seating was. It wasn’t too busy when we arrived and the Australian gentleman on our trip, Doug, was straight out onto the dance floor living his best life and thoroughly entertaining the rest of the group.

The place soon packed out and the dance floor was rammed. Sadly I wasn’t feeling great after dinner but I still sat drinking water and still had a great time considering, plus it was a great excuse not to dance because I am a terrible dancer and all the Cubans were amazing…

Everyone dances with each other whether friends or strangers, our guide told us that if you dance with someone 3+ times they may take that to mean you were interested in them so we were enjoying people watching and counting dances. They had a live band and singers and some dancers who came out every now and then and encouraged audience participation in things such as a giant conga line. It was such a fun atmosphere and we had a great time, and headed off to bed fairly late that night.

The tobacco fields

Tobacco fields

We were up for breakfast bright and early to meet for our guided tour through the tobacco fields, which everyone in the group had wanted to do. Our guide, Lloyd, made a LOT of jokes about his mother in law, but knew a lot about local plants and wildlife and told us all about baseball and football in Cuba as we passed the local baseball stadium.

We walked through the farm and saw all the plants growing plus watched lots of chickens running around. Inside the drying huts, the leaves were piled up and hung from beams on the ceiling.

Inside a tobacco drying hut

You could already smell the tobacco, it genuinely smelt like a giant pouch of rolling tobacco in there. Our walk then continued and we watched how the cigars were stripped of their veins (which contain the heaviest concentration of nicotine and are removed) and then rolled up into cigars.

We were then able to try the cigars, which most of us did although not very well in my case (never really understood cigars, why would you want to hold smoke in your mouth?) lots of people bought bundles of cigars as gifts or for themselves, which were 25CUC for 10.

We continued walking around the farm and observing the locals and were then taken to a small bar for refreshments, I decided to take this opportunity to drink a cocktail out of a coconut, which was called a coco-loco, which again we added our own rum to. It was only about 11 in the morning but when on holiday eh?

Coco Loco yes please

Whilst we were there some people rode by on horseback, which we had wanted to do but were told they didn’t do tours like that, although having seen one horse bolt off with its very alarmed looking rider and losing her hat in the process maybe it was for the best that we went on foot – I have only been horse riding once so am not exactly too confident around them to be honest.

Afternoon activities

For lunch, Craig and I chose to venture to one of the wi-fi cafes since we hadn’t had any internet access in 5 days at this point and had some serious instagramming of our adventures to do! He also got to try ropa vieja or ‘old clothes’, which is a traditional Cuban dish usually served with pork – I had a pizza and a bright blue daiquiri because I am slightly obsessed with blue drinks.

After getting our internet fix, we headed to our casa to pick up swimming stuff and decided to walk the 1.5km uphill to a second hotel located at the top of the hill to admire the view and have some relaxation time. It was absolutely boiling on the way there and we enjoyed the sun for about half an hour before it suddenly clouded over, having paid our 3CUC for use of the pool area.

poolside in the clouds

We were hopeful that this would pass and the sun would return. Another couple from the trip had also come to the hotel too, so we had some drinks with them whilst attempting to sunbathe but watching those storm clouds roll ever closer.

It started to rain. For 15 mins it was just very light rain, and then the heavens opened. It was pouring down and it was all we could do to take shelter in the poolside bar and watch the Tottenham game which they handily had on the tv in there – luckily the beers were only 1.5CUC which is about as cheap as we had found them in a bar, Sarah chose to eat ice cream instead which looked pretty great. The rain was so heavy we couldn’t even see the mountains anymore and the water was flowing down the roof very quickly and practically into the bar.

Tropical rainstorm view from the bar

We decided to have the  hotel order us a taxi as we didn’t fancy the half hour walk in the torrential rain. This was an experience in a very old car with no seatbelts, but we survived and stopped at a wifi bar for a quick drink, before heading back to the casa to change before heading to a viewpoint restaurant. Fortunately it had now stopped raining, even if it was still rather cloudy.

Dinner

Dinner with a breathtaking view

The restaurant was situated in a lovely location overlooking the valley. It was however on a rather rickety wooden balcony which was a little concerning but all part of the charm!

At this place you ordered a main and then lots of rice, salad, soup etc was brought out for everyone to share. Lots of the group tried the red snapper, which came with head and tail still attached. I on the other hand had a vegetable omelette, which was actually not too bad but had lots of raw red onion in which I am not overly fond of.

After the meal we headed back to the town on our bus and a few people wanted to go back to the salsa club so we thought why not. The vibe was a bit more chilled that night and it definitely wasn’t as good the second time round and everyone left much earlier.

However a group of us went to another bar called Robertos and ordered some cocktails, which is where we made the excellent discovery of a local cocktail from Trinidad on the south of the island, called canchanchara, which would become legendary on our trip. It is firewater rum mixed with lime and honey, which tended to come on the end of a wooden stick in the drink which you mixed in yourself. It was pretty awesome and is a really cool named drink that seemed fairly unique to the smaller towns in Cuba – we struggled to find any in Havana on our return which was greatly disappointing.

The most ridiculous strawberry daiquiri

Playa Laga and The Bay of Pigs

The next morning we were off again, this time to Playa Larga, where the bay of pigs is located, where the Americans famously tried to invade Cuba in 1961 (it didn’t go very well, as our guide taught us on the way there).

It rained all the way there which put everyone in slightly damp spirits, and the rather tiny sandwiches we had at the service station we stopped at did not lift the mood – they were pretty average and not all that filling. But eventually we made it and were shown the way to the beach, which we popped to for a quick look.

Fortunately the rain was now very light and the sky looked as though it might brighten up, so we all got back into the bus after changing in our casas to try and go snorkelling/swimming in the bay of pigs.

Snorkelling

We arrived there and were first shown the small sinkhole / cenote that exists at the site. It wasn’t quite what I pictured having seen all the amazing cenotes which fellow travellers have posted about on Instagram with clear water in great caverns. No, it was still cool but the water was pitch black and the depth 70 metres so I didn’t much fancy it – I am not very happy being out of my depth in water, despite being a perfectly good swimmer.

A few fishies

The sides were covered in red, black and orange crabs, who Adita told us walk across to the sea every day to lay their eggs and then go back. There were hundreds of them!

The squad, thanks for blocking my face Craig

Across on the coastal side, There was an area for swimming and snorkelling. All the snorkel vendors had gone home according to the bartender, due to the rain stopping people from coming, but fortunately one person had their own mask so those who wanted to snorkel could have a go with that.

I have a tendency to panic in snorkel masks (which combined with the deep water thing is fun on snorkelling trips) so I just swam around and observed the fish as the water was so clear you could!

It was great fun, the water was a lovely temperature and so very near. The fish were amazing too, possibly the best I have ever seen and this was definitely one of my highlights of the trip. I definitely want to build up my confidence before we go to Panama next year so that I can snorkel and see them properly!

Rum tasting and beach bars

A lone coconut on the beach

After the swim we went back to shower and had some free time before our rum tasting session and dinner at the main casa. Craig and I chose to hang out on the beach on some deck chairs with a cocktail which was lovely and the sun had even started to poke its head through just in time for sunset.

Canchanchara

They were so good

The rum tasting was good fun, we tried 4 different Havana rums – white, 3 year, Especial and 7 year, plus firewater and Santiago de Cuba. We then popped up to the roof terrace to watch the sunset which was very cool, before heading back down for dinner.

After dinner a group of us went to the beach to a bar and hung out there with many stray dogs and some scandinavians who were on a G adventures tour, which seemed to have a much younger age group – I was the youngest on our trip, these two were 19 and 20! Plus they seemed to be drinking with their bus driver, who was enjoying blasting Pitbull  songs from his phone… I had a green cocktail called a ‘green day’ it was probably the worst cocktail I have ever had so wouldn’t recommend it, was a waste of perfectly good Havana 7.

Worst drink I have ever tasted

We were also followed home by a dog with a broken leg – animal welfare isn’t quite what it is in Western Europe, so any animal lovers who want to visit please be warned you will see stuff like animals in very small cages or very neglected looking strays everywhere you go, which is pretty sad.

Cienfuegos

The main square

The harbour

Colourful buildings

Morning arrived and we were once again off bright and early, although we had time for a sneaky picture of the beach in the sun. We were headed to Cienfuegos for a look around, on our way to the old colonial town of Trinidad.

Random first experience in Cienfuegos, we went for a loo break in the museum in the square and the ladies had 2 toilets with a wall between but no doors so we had to go in 2 at a time…

After that ordeal we went for a walk and were told a bit about the history in the square, and shown the main market street. After that half the group decided to get some ice cream, but a few of us when for a walk down to the harbour. Considering it is referred to as the pearl of the south we were a little disappointed, as it just seemed like a grubby harbour filled with litter with a view of oil tankers in the distance…

Then we wandered back along the market road and spoke to some local vendors who were trying to make sales but interesting to chat to for a bit nonetheless. After gathering back in the square we waited for one member of the group who had gone to buy a painting – there is a huge amount of artwork in Cuba and it would have been cool to get some if I actually had somewhere to put it but alas.

The drive to Trinidad took almost an hour, although we stopped 20 or so minutes outside of the town for lunch, which was a buffet style restaurant which looked as though it was on the top floor terrace of someones house – the food was pretty good though and there was lots of fruit, ice cream and a local kind of caramel cake for dessert which was pretty exciting!

Trinidad

A typical street in Trinidad

We arrived in Trinidad and were shown to our guesthouses. Ours was a small one which had a cockatoo in a rather small cage which was unsurprisingly rather noisy, poor thing. The family gave us welcome juice though and wifi cards for half an hour which was nice.

We had a fair amount of time before our orientation walk, as this was to take place early evening to avoid the the strong heat. Craig and I went for a fairly extensive wander, taking in the cobbled streets, small bright coloured houses and impressive towers that make up this UNESCO protected town.

The music steps

There are famously some steps in one of the main squares which sees live music played all day at the halfway point, with the whole staircase covered in tables and chairs.

The band

We stopped for some drinks in the sun and watched the band play a few very upbeat numbers before heading back to get ready for the walk and most importantly, the trip to the nightclub in the cave.

 

Pretty square

The town

After the walk, which was much like all the others on the trip with important buildings and useful amenities pointed out, we headed to a Canchancara bar. Canchancara’s come from Trinidad so our guide was keen to take us to have the real deal. They were great and there was of course a live band and a whole bunch of people in the bar having a dance to various tunes including of course Despacito, which we must have heard hundreds of times on this trip!

The canchancara’s were of course delicious, and when they had all gone we went to find somewhere for dinner. We had planned to go to a tapas place, however the queue was very long and there were so many of us we knew we wouldn’t be able to sit together, so our guide got us a big table on a sunset view terrace place nearby, which was really cool but had a lot of stairs!

Giant Canchancara

Sunset on the roof

Trinidad cave nightclub

More canchancaras were ordered throughout the dinner, and when we were done, a solid group of us headed up the hill towards the cave hotel, where there was a nightclub situated within a cave. Most of us had seen this in our research before the trip and had been looking forward to this evening immensely.

The cave did not disappoint. It really was a giant network of caves, which had been converted into a night club, with two levels, big screens playing latin music videos, and two bars. Despite being told it opened at 10, we arrived at 11 and were still the first people in after paying our 5CUC entry, which included one drink, although it was not long before lots of people appeared.

It was soon packed out and everyone was dancing – we had found a good table on the edge by the bar, but it wasn’t long before the girls all decided it was time for a dance, and the boys came to join us fairly soon after.

Cave bar

Randomly at about 12.30, some performers cleared a big space in the middle of the dance floor and performed tricks such as picking up tables with their mouths and pretending to eat/lie on glass (I picked up a piece they failed to gather and it was the weird see through plastic paper you get – cool illusion though), this was a bit annoying really as it kind of killed the dance vibes and it felt like everyone just wanted to get back to that, and we were very excited when after only hearing spanish music, they launched into a few 90s dance/club classics.

About 1.30am we decided it was time to leave as it was very hot and busy and we had all been up since about 7.30am. A few of the group stopped at the 24 hour tapas bar on the way down for some drunk snacks but we fell straight into bed after the walk back down to the guesthouse after a pretty awesome night.

The beach

Beach Pina Colada

The sea was beautiful

The morning came and we had had a choice of activities for the day as there were many things to do near Trinidad. We really wished that we could have had at least one extra day to do some of the activities – there was a catamaran cruise which lasted all day (very early start – it left the harbour which was 15km away at 8am – which included food and all drinks, snorkelling and a trip to an island with iguanas and tree rats living on it.

I really wanted to do that, but it was 50 CUC which is a fair bit and the early start after the cave rave was not very appealing. There were also several waterfalls one could go to, most of which involved hiking and cost at least 35 CUC as they were a fair distance away.

We decided to have some nice chill time at the nearby beach instead, which was much cheaper, and as lots of us decided to do this the tour bus took us there in the morning. It was a little cloudy when we got there and stayed that way until about 1pm, when the sun broke through and was positively scorching.

We stayed out in it until about 3, when we decided it would be best to go for some lunch in the shade at one of the beach bars. We then headed back to our sun loungers for another hour or so. The loungers are owned by the nearby hotels, and someone comes round to collect the money. Beware of scammers, a guy asked us to pay who wasn’t in hotel gear before we had asked about the paying system and demanded we pay – most of us didn’t have change anyway and were suspicious so said we had to get change. He wasn’t happy but left, and it turns out he wasn’t the hotel guy who was going around, so make sure to check with the hotel who you should be paying before handing over any money!

Despite having an umbrella and spending time in the shade, most of us managed to get at least a little burnt.

We also went to get a taxi back, having been told there would be normal yellow taxis available outside the hotel. We couldn’t find any so asked the hotel to call us some. Two very old cars showed up and charged us double what we were expecting, but since we had no other choice we got in, and felt as if we may die the entire way back – there were holes in the floor, missing glass panes, all sorts.

Local dinner

Having made it alive, we agreed to meet at the music steps for a drink before heading to the meeting place for dinner. Craig and I made it first and secured a spot and he made friends with a local talking about cigars. We had some very tasty pina coladas and then headed to dinner, where a local family was going to be cooking for us.

This reminded me of a lot of the meals we had in Vietnam on our trip, where no orders were taken, just mountains of food brought. There was all sorts of seafood and meat and some rice, salad, pasta. Far too much food for us, and then there was traditional cuban cake, which weirdly is iced with marshmallow and was super sweet.

Traditional cake

After dinner we went to the jazz bar by our guesthouse street for a night cap. Everyone was rather tired after the late night the previous night and spending all day in the sun does make you sleepy! The drinks took absolutely ages to arrive, so we drank ours pretty swiftly and headed to bed, armed with aloe vera which had kindly been loaned to us for our burns.

 

Sunset

A view down the stairs

Santa Clara

We were pretty sad to be leaving picturesque Trinidad and as I say, would have liked an extra day to explore and check out the nightlife some more but oh well. We were heading back to the slightly cooler north of the island, via Santa Clara.

This is where the Che Guevara museum and memorial site is. We had a look round there, although most of the information was in spanish, luckily our guide explained the important parts to us, but we did enjoy some of the very tenuously linked items which were featured in the museum, including my personal favourite, a peach pit carved to look like his face.

Still it was good to stop and see the site and soak in some history. We then headed to the site of the train that was famously derailed, which was carrying weapons for the revolutionary forces. There isn’t much there other than a few restored carriages with photos and so forth but still cool to see an important piece of Cuba’s history.

The Che Guevara memorial museum

Gigantic flag and tiny human

The derailed train

And with that, we were back on the road headed back to Havana, with one last stop on the way for roadside lunch. This one had chips which everyone was pretty excited about as we hadn’t really seen any in a while!

Also, miraculously after failing to find any anywhere in Trinidad, the convenience store there sold aftersun. Even weirder, the pharmacy did not. But we had our aftersun and that was a victory.

We headed back to Havana for our final night, checking in to our final guesthouse, which was much closer to the historical centre. This was the worst of our guesthouses, having no real window and tiny bathrooms, plus rather small beds.

We ended up being moved in the middle of the night on returning from the Buena Vista social club due to there being no aircon as it had broken, which we were not too sad about, even though we spent 10 mins catching flies in the other place as they were everywhere and we didn’t fancy being bitten.

 

Emergency casa

The rest of the trip was spent in Havana, and has been covered in my Havana post, which you should obviously read for the full picture of the trip if you haven’t already!

 

Havana street art

Thank you all for reading, I hope that this post and the Havana post have been helpful and informative and demonstrated what it is like to visit the island of Cuba. I cannot recommend it enough, it is definitely in my top 5 countries which I have visited, and I would suggest going sooner as tourist levels are not too high at the moment.

Intrepid were great and it was definitely really handy having all our travel and accommodation sorted for us. It was a great introduction to the Caribbean and I can’t wait to see some more in the future.

 

 

Categories: Adventure, bars, Cuba, Food & Drink, Havana, Travel, travelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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