Planning a trip to Cuba: A 5-day Cuba Travel Itinerary
This guest post has been contributed by my friend, Karan Dhruve, an avid traveler who’s been to 12 countries in 2017 alone!
Cuba is an untouched country with the right mix of natural beauty, history, and culture. I spent 5 days there last year in November. Here’s a travel itinerary for 5 days in Cuba to help you plan your trip.
Getting to Cuba:
The biggest airports in Cuba are Havana, Santa Clara, and Cienfuegos. We flew into Santa Clara. Tourists typically fly to Cuba via Mexico or as of 2016, through the U.S. (usually through Miami). Some European airlines, like Air France and Swiss Air, fly to Cuba. However, these flights may be more expensive.
There are two types of visas that can get you entry into Cuba – a tourist visa that you apply for at the Cuban embassy in your country, and tourist cards that you obtain at airports in Mexico or by applying online via a US airline. However, depending on your nationality, you may only be eligible for one of these visas. This information is constantly changing therefore it’s best to speak to someone at the Cuban embassy when you are planning your visit (more reliable than their website).
Travel itinerary for 5 days in Cuba:
We did 2 days in the town of Trinidad, 2 days in Havana and a day-trip to Vinales. In addition, other spots that people usually hit up are Cienfuegos (known for its architecture and history) and Varadero (known for its beaches). See below for a detailed day-by-day travel itinerary for 5 days in Cuba.
Pro tips for getting around Cuba:
Traveling around: The easiest way to travel between cities in Cuba is pre-booked taxis. We used ‘Taxi Vinales’, which was very reliable and affordable. The exact price depends on the number of people and the duration (e.g., ~20-25 CUCs per person for a 2 hour drive). You should submit a request online before getting to Cuba – they are very prompt in getting back to you. It will help to have your Cuba travel itinerary ready in advance. This company accepts U.S. issued credit cards (which not all companies do).
Accommodation: There are only few hotels in Cuba, so we decided to stay in homestays booked through Airbnb (links here for Trinidad and Havana). These are houses where the owner and family live in one part of the house and the rest is rented out. It was a pretty unique experience. Best of all, the hosts at these homestays cook you a fresh breakfast every morning (including some of the freshest fruit) – a great way to start your day!
Currency: Most credit and debit cards don’t work in Cuba. It’s easiest to carry Euros or Canadian Dollars and exchange them for the local currency (the CUC or Cuban Convertible Peso). The CUC is pegged to the USD and the current exchange rate is around 1 CUC = 0.9 USD. You can exchange USDs too, but the locations are limited and there’s an additional 10% fee. Note that locals use a different currency from tourists (CUP or the Cuban Peso).
Connectivity: In general, expect to be disconnected throughout the country. Some network carriers have spotty service, but there are no international roaming packs, so be aware that any connectivity is expensive. The bigger cities have ‘hot-spots’ where you can purchase wifi cards if you want to be connected. 1 hour access usually costs 3 CUC (or USD 2.7).
5 day travel itinerary for Cuba: a detailed day-by-day breakdown
Day 1, Trinidad: Explore the main square at night
After flying into Santa Clara airport (SNU), we went to Trinidad (~2 hour drive). In Trinidad, you can stay either near the center of the town, or near La Boca, a nearby beach area. We opted for the second option. After arriving in Trinidad around 7pm, we spent the rest of the evening in Plaza Mayor – the main square of Trinidad. This square is buzzing with tourists and has several options for restaurants and bars. We picked a restaurant with an open rooftop (called Salon), and grabbed one of the mojitos in the square while we waited for our table. Post dinner, we went to Casa De La Musica, an open-air bar right on the square. If you are interested in salsa dancing, then you should definitely check out this place. The music was great, the drinks were affordable and there was a 1 CUC entrance fee.
Day 2, Trinidad: Check out the beach and explore some local monuments
We spent the entire morning on the second day at Playa Ancon beach (a 10 minute drive from La Boca). The beach has clear waters, and multiple bars and restaurants so make sure to try the daiquiris and mojitos there! There are beach chairs which you can rent for 2 CUCs for the afternoon. Additionally, there are street vendors serving fresh coconuts at inexpensive prices that are definitely recommended!
In the afternoon, we went back into town to walk around Plaza Mayor. The square takes on a different character in the day, when it is quieter and has less tourists, so we spent some time walking around the cobblestone streets. Make sure to climb the La Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco – a bell tower which had a bird’s eye view of the entire town. Probably one of the best views I’ve seen! Closeby, make sure to visit the souvenir shops for some local art pieces as well as funky magnets.
In the evening, we ate dinner at El Dorado, a short walk from the square. This restaurant had authentic local cuisine with some vegetarian options as well. Cuban cuisine consists of fried plantains, rice, farm fresh vegetables, arroz con maiz (rice and corn cooked in a pot), and bread pudding – rather delicious stuff! We ended the night at Disco Ayala – a club inside a cave! Most definitely visit this if you are in the mood for some dancing. The club plays a combination of Salsa music, mixed with Top 40/Commercial hits, and the drinks are extremely cheap too! Bottles of rum cost only 20-25 CUC.
Day 3, Havana: Grab sunset drinks and visit a club in an art gallery
After getting to Havana by the afternoon (~4.5 hour drive from Trinidad booked with the same pre-booking taxi mentioned earlier), we spent some time exploring our neighborhood. Havana is filled with history and culture! We stayed in the Vedado area, which was a ~15 minute cab ride away from Old Havana. Close to our Airbnb was Hotel Nacional de Cuba, one of Havana’s historic and majestic hotels. Some of the art in the hotel dates back to the 1930s. The hotel has a large open courtyard which looks upon the waters of the Bahia de la Habana, so we got cocktails here in the evening. The views during sunset are phenomenal!
Finally, at night, we went to Fabrico de Arte Cubano (or FAC). Definitely visit this place – it’s a contemporary art gallery that has been turned into a party spot. Different rooms throughout the gallery have different setups, ranging from live EDM bands to movie screenings. The lines get pretty long so be prepared to wait.
Day 4: Day trip to Vinales
Vinales is a small town located ~2 hours outside of Havana. We did a day trip with a tour company called Havana tours which was ~ USD 75/person and included lunch. Definitely recommend this tour company – our guide spoke perfect English and we had interesting conversations throughout the day on the history of Cuba. We left the city around 9am and were back by 7pm. The tour included 5 stops:
- A viewpoint: panoramic views of the entire Vinales valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Lunch at an organic farm: a true farm-to-table experience! The food was fresh and absolutely delicious. The meal included everything from fresh meat and fish, to fresh vegetables cooked in Cuban spices. Our table was in a little hut that overlooked the lush valley.
- Cueva del Indo: an underground boat ride through historic caves of Vinales
- Viñales Mural de la Prehistoria: a large colorful mural painted on the side of a mountain. The mural represents evolution from early sea-organisms to humans. However, we just stopped here for 10 minutes.
- A tobacco farm tour: Vinales valley is known for its tobacco plantations. We had the opportunity to see a farmer roll a cigar live and also bought some Cuban cigars at a great price (~20-30 CUCs for 10 cigars).
After returning to Havana, we went to La Guarida for dinner. This is one of Havana’s most iconic restaurants located in a building which dates back to the 20th century. Celebrities often visit this restaurant – make sure to secure a reservation! We sat on the open rooftop and the food was delicious, although pricey (~USD 40-60/person). If you want to avoid the food, you can also visit the bar and grab a cocktail at sunset.
Day 5, Havana: Explore Old Havana
We spent this entire day exploring many of Havana’s key landmarks. Start in the center of Old Havana and see the 4 main plazas – Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Plaza del Cristo, and Plaza de la Cathedral. These areas have a similar charm to many of Europe’s old cities: cobblestone streets, quaint houses, cathedrals and other local monuments all line the square. Walking through these streets will give you a chance to explore many of Havana’s old, colorful buildings and souvenir shops.
This area is also home to some of the best bars. Head to La Bodeguita del Medio for the best mojito (one of Havana’s oldest bars) or to Floridita for daiquiris (this was the iconic bar Ernest Hemingway frequented). We also went to 304 O’Reilly, which was a little tapas spot with a great vibe and fantastic drinks.
Close to one of the main streets in Old Havana (Calle Obispo), you can take a vintage car tour that will drive you around Old Havana and along the Malecon esplanade. At sunset, we walked along the esplanade, which is one of the most picturesque walks in the city. The walk is oddly peaceful, with waves hitting the coast on one side and quaint, colorful buildings on the other. In the distance, you can also spot the Hotel Nacional de Cuba that stands out when lit amongst the other shorter buildings around it.
We ended the night at Casa de la Musica, one of Havana’s oldest salsa clubs. There is a ~30 minute professional performance, which is followed by an open floor for dancing. The cover charge varies depending on when you get there, but is ~10 CUCs/person on a busy night.
Staying in Cuba for more than 5 days:
If you plan to stay in Cuba for longer, you can consider some of these other activities:
- Go horseback riding in Trinidad or Vinales
- Take a rum distillery tour and cigar factory tour in Havana
- Visit the Revolution Museum and the Museo de Bella Artes (a huge international art museum) in Havana
- Check out the Havana flea market for souvenirs
- Explore Zorra y El Cuervo, Havana’s famous jazz club