Last updated on October 16th, 2018 at 11:34 am
My first time in Cuba was 20 years ago. Not many options were given on where to stay in Cuba back then. Things have changed dramatically in the last few years.
Officially you could stay only in state-run hotels, it’s not anymore the case now, which is great.
Travelling was challenging back then. Now it is so much easier. So many options I will explain later.
And if it is true that the best place to stay in Cuba is Havana, then it is also true that you would miss a lot if you would not include a trip to other parts of the island, like Vinales, one of the best areas to stay in Cuba, or a couple of towns on the west side of the island with Trinidad on top.
Later in the post, you can also find a suggested plan for a 1, 2 or 4 weeks stay in Cuba
Once in Cuba, you will come to learn a new vocabulary, as in any trip, and “casa particular” is one of the most important expression to keep in mind.
What does it mean?
Basically, it has the same meaning as AirBnb (rooms or house to rent). A few existed also 20 years ago, on my first visit, however, they were illegal. They are now legal and in some popular places, for every second house you will find a “casa particular”.
Great, you may think, more possibilities to get an awesome place to stay in Cuba. This is true up to a certain extent because most of them are objectively dark and small, without a proper toilette, cold shower and, interesting thing, they charge as much as the good ones.
Why you may ask. I believe the best answer is that the Cubans still do not have a perception of value for money. The market is very young. I was once answered that the $25 charge was based on the neighbour’s same price although they have windows and an ensuite that she can’t offer (it makes sense, isn’t it 🙂 )
This is where past and repetitive experience comes handy.
By the way, if you want to keep up with the Cuban news in the English language you may have a look at the Havana Times. It’s updated quite frequently. I personally like the Photo section, a good place to start being inspired 🙂
Another way to get inspired is to check the post with my 55 best photos of Cuba. You will not get disappointed.
You will very likely to arrive in Cuba through the Havana International Airport, the main gateway to the country.
The alternative is the Varadero Internation Airport, however, this one is more dedicated to full package holidays and charters.
The map below organises Cuba in 6 areas. Visiting all of them requires at least 4 weeks if you want to enjoy every single place, or 2 weeks for a touch and go.
Accommodations in Cuba can be simply divided in:
Let me be honest and say that hotels in Cuba can be quite bad. They are run by the state and they are generally not good value for money. They are however very safe. I remember I had once a room with a big hole in the wall used every sunset by tons of mosquitos to plan the attack on my blood LOL I had to close it with towels!
There are however some exceptions that I will list where applicable
Now about the casa particular
Should you book in advance or knock the door once there (old style)?
Both approaches have benefits as well as drawbacks. Booking in advance will save you time and possibly hassle of people at the stations offering you a room (many many people).
You may have, however, to read more before the trip and book your room based on internet suggestions (I would personally not trust the TripAdvisor ones, I came through some weird ones in Cuba).
Knocking the door may save you some money (usually $5-10, the AirBnb/Booking.com charge to the owners) and you will see the room as actually is (photos can sometimes be misleading).
Tip #1: if you visit Cuba in peak season (December to March and July to August) book your room in advance, it may be challenging otherwise.
Tip #2: if you are not a solo traveller, say no to the multitude of people offering a room, go to a bar or cafe, one person keeps a look at the backpacks and the other(s) can look for the room(s) without being stopped by everyone in the street (if they see you with a backpack they assume you are looking for accommodation).
In this way you are free to choose what you want. Of course, if you are taken by a local then expect a higher price (basically the person’s commission, $2-3).
Only a small number of casa particular offer a safe. I personally lock my valuables in my backpack when I leave the room. Better safe than sorry. In saying that I never ever had problems in this sense. My experience with Cubans has been always great.
Be aware that good hotels are very rare and I would personally suggest booking well in advance if you find one you like.
If you need more information on how to organise the trip, including the best way to fly in, visa, restrictions and all you need in case you are American, or any other nationality than check this great post on how to plan your Cuba trip
Let’s start with the good news, Havana is not a big city. Now the bad one, the local transportation is either slow or expensive.
This is why the best place to stay in Havana can save you heaps of time and money.
There are fundamentally 4 areas where travellers tend to stay. These are the easiest neighbourhoods to spend one or more days, with a good choice of restaurants and bars. I have tried to organise them in this map below
My suggestion for the best area to stay in Havana goes to Vedado. Why:
Most of the Casa Particular in Havana, as well as the rest of Cuba, cost between $20 and $45. Hotels are more expensive
If you are looking for an iconic hotel to stay in Cuba than look no further than the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. It’s a historic icon declared National Monument located right in the middle of Vedado. Many personalities stayed in this hotel, from Frank Sinatra to Ava Gardner, from Churchill to Alexander Flemming. It’s almost like staying in a museum
Casa Monica in Vedado is an amazing Casa Particular to stay. Simple, clean and with a fantastic veranda.
If you plan to stay in the Old city (Havana Vieja) then I suggest staying at the Estancia Bohemia. It’s an old colonial house, with plenty of natural light, in a great location, 2 lanes from the busy part
The public transportation between any of these areas is not great, to use a euphemism. A taxi is the best bet. During the day you will be charged between $4 and $7 for a one-way trip. Double that, at least, for the night.
If you plan to visit multiple locations during the day then it may be convenient to get a taxi for half or full day. It will cost $30-$40 for 4 hours, and a bit more for 6 hours.
In any case you need to bargain and sometimes leave them going if not happy with the price, or the car. Another taxi driver will stop anyway in seconds.
Taxi can be official and “not official”, a sort of UberX. Prices for tourists are always inflated, don’t be upset, take it as a contribution to the locals. Just keep in mind that a used Lada of the 50s still costs US$25-30K, a basic KIA engine (not a car) costs US$8-10K installed. Add the fact that buying any new part implies being enrolled in a long waiting list.
For a 2-hour drive with an old 50s American convertible budget $40-$50 based on the car (they have few preset trips however you may customise them at your wish).
My tip here is to check the car, before even agreeing on any price. There are really so many rusted and painted over cars that you wonder how do they still move. If in a group of 4 people, go for the big models, even if slightly more expensive otherwise be ready for an elbow to elbow fight LOL
In true honesty, I must say that it is impossible to get bored in the capital. It’s probably one of the most vibrant cities I have ever experienced in my life.
Beside the well known icons like the Museum of the Revolution, el Capitolio etc, here below you can find some unusual places to visit in Havana.
Well, read on and you will see. By the way, most of them are not even listed in Google Map
The Viñales Valley is a unique destination in Cuba dedicated to the nature lovers.
It is such a pity that drones are not allowed in Cuba.
Because I would have loved to film the limestone cliffs rising in the Viñales Valley like an archipelago of islands in an ocean of tobacco plantations spaced out by random palm trees. Just so beautiful.
Add the fact that many of these mountains hide humungous caves that you can explore with the help of the locals guiding you through the labyrinth of entrances and halls. In one of them you can even have a swim in a natural pool (keep reading for more information on this).
How can you visit this area?
Simply by horseback riding ($15) or just renting your mountain bike for a day ($10).
I personally prefer the bike to the horse, especially because you are free to explore as you wish without any pre-planned program including visits to tobacco plantations, coffee shops etc.
Very important tip: download maps.me with the Cuba map. This is an amazing app with an offline map made with the most detailed cycling and trekking paths. I never got lost with it
Another plus of Vinales is the proximity to the Playa de Cayo Jutías, an impressive beach with one of the bluest seas I have ever seen in my life. Obviously there are tourists around but most definitely not overcrowded like Varadero, in fact, you can find even isolated corners.
Transportation to the Cayo Jutías can be organised through your accommodation ($15-$20). If you can, try to set a group of 3-4 of you and organise your private taxi. It will cost the same however it will save you at least 1 hour on your trip, besides being much more comfortable.
Any activity can be booked at your accommodation, just ask. The price is the same wherever you go. If you are in a group of 3 or 4 people ask for discounts.
The trip from Havana to Vinales costs $15 to $25. If you can, organise the trip with other people on a private taxi and ask to stop along the route at Antigua Cafetal Angeroma (it’s not on Google Map however you will find it on Maps.me). You can visit the ruins of a coffee plantation 200 years old. It suddenly seems to be in Angkor Wat.
Viazul, the government run bus company, travels regularly between Havana and Vinales however it always tends to be quite booked out (as any bus in Cuba).
Honestly, the best way to visit Cuba is carpooling (called colectivo). It costs the same as a bus, it’s quicker and it’s a door-to-door service. Ask the accommodation and they usually organise it for you. Or go to the bus station and surely you will be asked if you need a colectivo for the morning after, to any destination, as easy as that.
I would not come to Cuba just for Vinales however I would add it to the bucket list of the places to stay in Cuba. It’s only 2.5 hours from Havana, perfect even for just 3 days.
Less important tip: if the taxi or the colectivo driver asks you if he can take you to a restaurant, tobacco farm etc…..just decline. Most probably he will take you to a setup place where you will feel the pressure to buy or eat at a much higher price that should be.
This city is just a big WOW!! It’s like suddenly stepping back 500 years ago, it was actually funded in 1514 and probably never changed since. It is so well preserved that you may think you are in a film set and it’s not a real town.
Most definitely a must visit when in Cuba, otherwise you would miss out a lot.
But let me tell you what is the best place to stay in Trinidad de Cuba and what area to avoid.
Well, first of all, Trinidad is the most touristic place in Cuba, similar to the old city of Havana. There are lots of visitors, especially from December to March. It’s just packed!
Should this make you skip this town?
Simple answer, No. Trinidad is too nice, I personally do not like to have so many tourists around, similar to when you visit Florence or Venice in Italy, but hey that’s ok for few days when you experience such a beautiful place.
The main square is just packed at night with lots of loud music all around. Definitely an area to avoid if you are after a quiet room to have a good sleep.
Another area to avoid is the east side of the square, up to the hill. Unfortunately, there is a nightclub in a cave which is not that noisy by itself however in the last 2 years a multitude of bars and small nightclubs opened around it making the entire area way too noisy. Avoid Calle Polvora, the main street taking to the cave. Just one bar after the next fighting to be the lauder of the block.
The west side of the square works instead great, nice and quiet. Stay a couple of lanes away and you will have a nice night sleep 🙂
My suggestion is to spend at least 3 nights in Trinidad. It could be combined with a trip to Cienfuegos too (1 night is enough)
There are so many great lanes, small alleys, tiny squares, hidden corners to discover that will keep you busy for the full day. So beautiful also walking at night, with the dimmed street lights.
For sunset, I suggest two spots.
The first one is to walk up the church San Francisco de Asis bell tower. Amazing view of the town in every direction. Usually, they close around sunset time
The other spot is the rooftop of the Restaurante El Tenedor. I had only drinks here (usual prices like Mojito for $3) as the food did not look great. Such a beautiful view, usually with live music. Difficult to beat
Plan half a day, if not all of it, for the Playa Ancon, an amazing beach said to be the most beautiful one on the south coast of Cuba.
If you are into cycling, rent a bike at your local accommodation and have a ride to the beach (around 15km one way) taking the road through the village of La Boca, so picturesque. The coastal road is just amazing with small coves here and there, so many great memories.
Another great experience to plan is the trekking in the forest around Topes de Collantes. The area is so green and full of waterfalls and waterholes. It is actually a great spot to spend a few days if you like walking and being in contact with nature.
The cost of the trekking is between $15 and $30 based on where you want to go from Trinidad (organise a taxi or ask at the accommodation). You need to add another $10 on top for the park entrance.
My favourite one is the Parque Guanayara, probably the farthest excursion from Trinidad ($30 + $10). It’s quite secluded and it’s very unlikely you will meet more than 10 people in a day (a few more at the waterhole, a natural pool with a small waterfall).
The full trekking takes around 4-5 hours with stops for swimming and photos (many). The walk is along a river and it crosses also a huge waterfall, called Salto del Rocio, and a suspension bridge.
The app Maps.me has the full trekking marked, impossible to get lost. You can also take a guide if you really want to, however, the app really works great (no relationship or affiliations with it, by the way)
Where should I start?
Probably from the amazing beach, the unique blue of the sea and the many resorts in this peninsula called Hicacos, if this is the type of accommodations you are looking for.
On the other side, expect lots of tourists and a lack of Cubans, if not the ones working at the resorts.
Varadero, the main town in Hicacos, may be actually a great choice if you are after a package deal with a beach to remember for the life.
There are even direct international flights to Varadero for people that just want to land, sit and relax for a week.
There is a choice of over 60 resorts in the Hicacos Peninsula, difficult not to find one that fits the own needs.
If you are travelling independently then you may want to think twice about it.
Most of the resorts are catered for all-inclusive, including shows at night and nightclubs too. You may not have access to them if you do not stay there.
If you are after a local experience, a Cuban dancing place or a Cuban bar, then look somewhere else.
Still, you can find a good casa particular and, again, it works great if you are after a relaxing time made of sunbathing and book reading. Usually the casa particular can cook for you all meals which makes it even more easy-going 🙂
If you are after the lot, which includes a nice town, some local culture, nice architecture and a great beach I would personally suggest to spend more days in Trinidad and visit Playa Ancon for some sunbathing. Or even stay in the village of La Boca for a quiet time, facing the sea, really a lovely and local stay. But no resorts here (there is actually one in Ancon but more of a Russian style building)
Two simple words about Camaguey: get lost.
The centre of the city (nation’s third largest) is a real labyrinth. And getting lost is a pass time because so many beautiful small squares, crazy corners, pieces of street art and tiny alley can be discovered.
If you are into photography take a second memory card with you as you will exhaust the first one very quickly, so many opportunities.
By the way, why is it a maze?
There are many explanations, of which the most fascinating one is that the design was made to complicate, or make impossible, any kind of invasion back in the 16th century.
Locals, however, suggest that it was just poor planning. I prefer to believe to the first and official explanation, I am a dreamer LOL
Camaguey is a city devoted to culture and art. You can literally spend the all day visiting galleries, besides the great street art and graffiti.
You may plan a visit to the Martha Jimenez workshop, one of the most important Cuban artists with exhibitions all around the world.
Also, Pepe Gutierrez and his leather sculptures should be on the bucket list.
Another great workshop is the Estudio Galeria Magdiel of Magdiel Garcia Almanza. He is an artist working mainly with wood, sometimes making provocative pieces with clear sexual references.
Facing the Iglesia Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria you can also find the gallery of Joel Jovier, another well-known artist in Camaguey. The series of portraits of Cuban Revolutionary soldiers will surely impress you. In saying that explore more into the gallery as his style spaces through many techniques
There is another great alternative, spend the night at the cinema in one of the few in Calle Ignacio Agramonte or just walk around the city and eat in one Paladar (private restaurant)
The cost north of Camaguey has plenty of beautiful beaches to have a swim and relax like:
I would personally add Camaguey, the north coast and the east of Cuba only if your stay is 3 weeks or more.
Do not keep me wrong, it’s a beautiful town to visit however it’s far away from Havana. It takes around 7 hours by colectivo and much more by bus. The trip cost is $35.
I would definitely stop in Camaguey if planning to visit Santiago.
You can also fly to Camaguey from Havana, however, the ticket cost is probably not worthy, again unless you plan to visit the east from here
When travelling eastern you will soon notice how the Spanish touch tends to become softer and the Afro-Caribbean culture tends to become more dominant.
Santiago is the second largest city in Cuba and it can be reached with a direct flight from Havana or with a long bus trip. I would personally suggest stopping in Camaguey (5 hours away) and have a break there for at least a couple of nights.
From Santiago started the Communist Revolution. The most famous Cuban music, son, has its origin in Santiago. You may remember the great voice and sound of Compay Segundo. And if you still wonder what it is, just play the video below.
I am sure you now recognise it, as famous as beautiful.
This is to say how nostalgic can be Santiago, romantic, full of culture however at the same time a bit frenetic and noisy.
Santiago is a city of almost half a million people. It is sometimes described as busier than Havana. It can be with 3 cars in the street instead of 2 LOL
Plaza de Marte is considered to be the centre and it’s actually a nice place to have a walkabout for street photography. Some interesting people around.
Places to visit in Santiago should include:
Outside Santiago, I suggest a visit to Baracoa on the far east part of Cuba. Christopher Columbus disembarked here on November 27, 1492. It was the first Spanish settlement as well as the first capital of Cuba.
I was super lucky on my visit. I could not get any better day than that. It was the carnival day when literally everyone is in the street dancing and partying until the late hours of the night.
Santiago and the east are a bit different from the rest of Cuba, however, I would suggest a visit only if you plan a 3-4 weeks trip or you decide to fly to Santiago, otherwise the travelling time can be really long.
Let me say that visiting all of Cuba in 1 week is probably mission impossible unless you just want to do a touch and go experience.
With 7 nights I would personally suggest one of these 2 itineraries
If you plan to see Cuba in 2 weeks then you should concentrate either on the west-centre or the centre-east.
These are 2 possible itineraries
Itinerary 1, west-centre
Itinerary 2, centre-east
Get ready to experience the lot. Consider also renting a car to go off the touristic route.
If you are not too keen on Varadero then give it a miss as you would be able to visit many other great beaches in the centre north or close to Baracoa in the far east of Cuba.
Once in Vinales plan also a day tour at María la Gorda, one of the best natural parks in the world. It’s far away but worth the trip. You will be able to swim with turtles.
Consider also spending the first 3 nights and the last 3 nights in Havana. It’s really a great city that deserves lots of time. Weekends tend to be better in the capital’s events and dancing clubs
Stef Ferro is the founder and editor of MEL365, a travel & photography website made to enhance the travelling experience and improve the photography work.
Stef is a professional travel photographer with past experience in the cycling and film industry.
Stef runs travel photography workshops in Melbourne and around the world.