Cuba in 10 days: the ultimate itinerary
From stepping back in time to explore the hallowed streets of Old Havana to enjoying the best mojito of your life on a beautiful Caribbean beach, a trip to Cuba is the experience of a lifetime. Whether you’re a backpacker on a budget or a luxury honeymooner, Cuba has something to suit every travel style. But in saying that, it’s important to have a solid itinerary mapped out before you leave. Here are our top tips on making the most of your time in this intoxicating country. Plan your accommodation ahead of time This isn’t really a turn-up-and-book-a-hotel kind of place. Making changes to holiday plans last minute isn't always easy in Cuba. With minimal internet access and certain go-to travel sites like Airbnb blocked once inside the country, simple tasks like booking last-minute accommodation suddenly become annoyingly difficult. Apps to download before you leave home First things first, download the apps. No, I’m not talking about Tinder, rather Triposo, CityMaps2Go and Google Translate. These three apps saved our behinds a number of times and all work perfectly offline. Triposo Triposo is like your portable travel guide. It grabs information from Wikipedia, Wikitravel, and elsewhere, and bundles it all together into a useful, easy-to-use offline guide, which you download prior to arrival. After you’ve downloaded the data pack of the country you’re heading to you’ll have activities, hotels, restaurants, maps and basic directions, all at your fingertips. CityMaps2Go Next, we recommend CityMaps2Go. Pretty similar to Triposo, as in you download a data pack prior to arrival. In this case we downloaded the entire road map of Cuba, making navigating the country super easy and convenient. Google Translate and Duolingo And lastly, Google Translate and Duolingo. New Year’s Eve 2017: among some other rather vain resolutions about chiselling a six pack and whitening my teeth, I vowed to learn Spanish for my impending visit to Cuba.   Via Duolingo I proposed to spend at least half an hour each day learning the basics. Come June and my New Year’s resolution was about as complete as Donald Trump’s wall, as I’d only reached a 7 per cent fluency rate. So unless someone was saying hello or goodbye, my Spanish was pretty useless. If in doubt just use Google Translate.   Now for the fun part. We split our trip up into two parts. Landing in Havana, we allowed ourselves five days and then bussed down to Trinidad for four days, then back to Havana for the final two. Havana ooh na na Touching down in Havana, we are buzzing and excited to sink our teeth into the city we’d read so much about. Lo and behold a 1950s Chevrolet Bel Air – slightly beat up but seriously impressive – greeted us on arrival.   Eagerly jumping in, our authentic Cuban experience had started straight off the plane. As our driver began to leave the airport we both instinctively reached for the non-existent seat belts, which I have to admit took some getting used to. The option to jump in a safer more modern car is always there, but make sure you negotiate the price before you commit to the journey. Where to stay in Havana We booked our accommodation – a casa particular – in the heart of the old town and found it via Airbnb. A common accommodation option throughout the country, a casa particular is a privately owned house that rents out either rooms or the entire place to visitors.   It had a bed and breakfast-type feel, with hosts offering meals, assisting with transport and giving local tips and tricks on what to see, eat and explore. For this leg of our journey, we booked a casa which consisted of the entire place, rather than staying with a family.   Alternatively there are loads of hotels to stay in but most are rather expensive and government-owned, which doesn't really help the Cuban people. We also found that hotels just kind of gave themselves their own star rating. Most claiming to be four star-plus, when in actual fact their fans don’t work and their light switches may electrocute you. So do your research. The best things to do in Havana Explore the cobbled streets of Old Havana We were taken back in time as kids played soccer in the street and old men played checkers on the side of the road. Horse-led carts cruised through the narrow alleys carrying fresh fruit and vegetables, while a man went restaurant to restaurant trying to sell today’s catch, lugging huge fish on his back. The absence of wi-fi – something we’re increasingly taking for granted in cities today – means that the streets were full of interaction, making for an extremely buzzing and lively city. [caption id="attachment_32537" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Havana, the capital of Cuba, is one of the oldest cities in the Caribbean. 'Old Havana' is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.[/caption] From Plaza Vieja, a giant square filled with bars, restaurants and music to Obispo Street, which runs all the way into one of Hemingway’s favourite bars, El Floridita, you’ll smash your 10,000 steps before lunch and that's only scratching the surface. Walk and relax at the Malecón The Malecón photographs better than a sunset over Waikiki and comes jam-packed with people-watching entertainment.   The eight-kilometre strip, which runs from Havana Harbour in the old town to the central business district of Vedado, is loved by both locals and tourists, who set up camp in the late afternoon to farewell the Caribbean sun with a rum and a rumba. Find a good spot, BYO rum and don’t forget your sunglasses. Take a day trip to Santa Maria del Mar With white sand and clear blue waters all around, this coastline is about a 30-minute taxi ride from Havana and will cost you about 25 bucks each way. The hardest part of your day will be deciding which beach bar to commit to.   The whole strip consists of small bars offering refreshments, beach umbrellas and chairs. Relax as the ocean laps on the shore accompanied by the distant sound of locals trying to sell hats, bracelets and massages. Meet the locals and learn to salsa Cuba is synonymous with salsa, and at night most Havana bars and nightclubs turn into salsa clubs. It’s up to you to ask for a dance. This might sound intimidating, but I found that more often than not, the friendly pros were willing to help a goofy westerner with two left feet like me learn the basics. [caption id="attachment_16882" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Local school children look especially cute in their uniforms[/caption] Treat yourself to luxury Four words...Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski. Yes it’s a mouthful, yes it’s expensive and yes the elevator is slightly frightening, but save this for your last day in the country as you unwind and relax. Disclaimer: we did not stay here – it’s around $400 USD per night.   We did however pay $60 USD to use its facilities, which include a panoramic pool terrace, where the city views and the infinity pool become one, a gym and state-of-the-art day spa that includes daybeds, an ice bath, a steam room, a sauna, a massage spa, relaxation areas and free fruit and water. I left feeling a million bucks and about five years younger. Trinidad If you’re an Instagram advocate, Trinidad will get your wall buzzing faster than a bee hive. This picturesque preserved colonial town is absolutely gorgeous, with brightly coloured buildings and cobblestone streets. Not to mention being located on the foothills of the Topes de Collantes national park and just 15 minutes from beautiful Playa Ancón. Where to stay in Trinidad Getting to Trinidad involved a six-hour bus ride from Havana and was actually pretty easy. We once again stayed at a local casa particular but this time opted to stay with a Cuban family, which gave us an interesting insight into everyday life. The host also did our washing, which was super handy. The best things to do in Trinidad While this this town offers a variety of activities for both the evening and during the day, it relies heavily on tourism, so you find yourself being almost overwhelmed by local touts. I would recommend spending three to four days here. A day for the beach, a day for the national park and waterfalls and day to explore the town (where you’ll most likely end up back at the beach). Hire bikes and ride down to Playa Ancón The gorgeous sands of Playa Ancón are about a 15-kilometre bike ride (mostly downhill) from the centre of town. The ride takes you through some truly beautiful countryside and small towns, giving you the option to stop and swim along the way.   You’ll be dodging small crabs that scurry across the road as you embark on the journey to the main beach. Once you’ve arrived, you can park your bike and (just like the beaches in Havana) hire a chair and umbrella for the rest of the day. Hike to a waterfall and swim under it Within an hour’s drive of Trinidad, there are hundreds of waterfalls and hikes ready to be explored. Vegas Grande is about a six-kilometre hike and a little hard to get to, but leads to one of the most picturesque waterfalls I have ever seen.   We got a local taxi driver from town to run us up the mountain and wait for us as we embarked on the journey. If you’ve seen The Beach, it’s pretty close to the scene when the three explorers struggle through the bushland to finally emerge into paradise. We were lucky enough to have it all to ourselves– besides the Cuban lifeguard who was napping anyway. Experience Disco Ayala What would you get if Calvin Harris went hiking and stumbled upon a huge cave? A nightclub of the most unique persuasion. Disco Ayala is a five-minute walk from the centre of town and kicks off at about 11pm.   This giant cave has been transformed into what is probably one of the coolest nightclubs in the world. Descending down the winding staircase, you’ll find yourself suddenly on a dancefloor surrounded by dripping walls, disco balls and great music. Explore and have a drink on the staircase next to Casa de la Música Like Havana, Trinidad has winding streets and alleys that could be explored for hours. Wandering around the cobblestone streets, it won’t be long before you’ll find yourself rather thirsty. The staircase next to the Casa de la Música offers fresh mojitos and live music and also acts as a gathering place for many tourists as it’s a wi-fi hotspot. Don’t forget to wear flats. The cobblestones are hard enough to negotiate even before adding alcohol.
Where to stay and where to go in Havana, Cuba
9 must-see sights of Old Town, Havana
The Cuban capital still appears to be trapped in a ’50s time-warp, but this unique city is slowly finding its way into the 21st century. 1. Plaza de la Catedral Start your day among the Cuban Baroque architecture of this 18th-century square; in fact the most recent in Havana’s old heart. [caption id="attachment_35224" align="alignleft" width="716"] While nothing quite beats Havana, Cuba has plenty of other highlights too.[/caption] Get up early to attend mass in the Catedral de la Habana (7:15am weekdays); a great way to see Havanans start their day. 2. Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña A huge 18th-century fort built by the Spanish, it became the headquarters of Che Guevara following the revolution.   You’ll also find the Museo de Comandancia del Che here, a good place to start unravelling Che’s fascinating life story. 3. Plaza Vieja Head back to the Old Town to spend a while at the 16th-century Plaza Vieja; Havana at its pastel-hued best.   People-watch with a drink on a second-floor balcony. You’ll pay a little more up here but the view of the square is worth it. 4. Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás See how Cuba’s most famous export is made at this old cigar factory. [caption id="attachment_16884" align="alignleft" width="667"] Old Havana also known as ‘Habana Vieja’ has been World Heritage listed with UNESCO since 1982 and with good reason.The crumbling architecture and the scale of these beautiful buildings have to be seen to be believed – and families still routinely live in these palatial apartments.The size of the French doors gives an idea of the ceiling height inside.[/caption] Take a factory tour and you’ll find some 400 workers here who spend 12 hours a day rolling the famous Montecristo and Cohiba cigars. 5. Paseo del Prado Stroll up this tree-lined walkway that runs from the Capitol building up to the Malecón.   It’s filled with street artists, exclusive hotels, theatres and crumbling mansions, plus lots of marble benches to rest on. 6. Malecón Take a walk along this broad seafront esplanade. It’s the best place in the city to see the classic cars that Havana is famous for. Barter with the driver of a ’57 Chevy taxi here to take you around the city for an hour in style. 7. Museo de laRevolución One of Havana’s most opulent buildings is also an important part of Cuba’s post-revolutionary history.It was inaugurated as the Presidential Palace in 1920 and was used by a succession of presidents until dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown in 1959.   Following the revolution, the building was used as a government headquarters, and in 1974 it became a museum dedicated to the revolution. [caption id="attachment_19374" align="alignleft" width="1500"] 86. Havana, Cuba[/caption] In 2010, it was designated a National Monument.   Today, visitors can trace the progress of revolution and cast an eye over historical curiosities including the Granma, the 18-metre yacht that carried Fidel Castro, Che and 80 other revolutionaries from exile in Mexico to overthrow Batista.   In contrast to communist ideals, the building’s interiors were decorated by Tiffany & Co. and visitors can explore highlights like the Salón de los Espejos, a replica of the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.  
Baroque facade of Hotel Raquel in Old Havana, Cuba.
Review: Hotel Raquel, Old Havana, Cuba
Economically poor, but culturally rich: chaotic Cuba is like nowhere you’ve visited before. Nigel Herbert finds this haven in Old Havana. The quest for communist utopia has extracted a price on Cuba. Cuban history With over 600 years of history, this port city’s architecture reflects the conquest, occupation and plundering of the victors of the island state. But for many of these buildings it is the end of days. A tropical climate and 50 years of neglect from a centrally planned economy has taken its toll.   The Cubans even have a word for it: Derrumbe. It means building collapse. Many of these once magnificent buildings are inexorably decaying from the inside. And it’s heartbreaking to see. [caption id="attachment_3500" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Hotel Raquel's vaulted foyer.[/caption] Spectacular buildings that would be preserved by stern faced ladies in Birkenstocks and their bearded husbands in the western world are simply not a priority in Cuba.   It’s understandable. People are just trying to do enough to make ends meet with their miserable government stipend. When your biggest concern is how you are going to feed your family – saving something architecturally significant is never going to be a priority. So it’s a pleasure to find one of these majestic old buildings has been lovingly restored and converted into a hotel. Getting to the hotel If it’s your first visit to Cuba and you go straight to the Hotel Raquel from the airport in your shiny, nearly new 1956 taxi, the ride is a real eye opener. You will pass kilometres of huge decaying warehouses on roads that become progressively more potholed. As you near Old Havana your thoughts will turn from “we were just overtaken by a guy driving a tractor” to “where the bloody hell has the road gone?”   After 10 minutes you realise that this is a magnificent chaos. A safe chaos. But just one giant, bewildering mess. As an elderly German confided in me quite conspiratorially “Eeett eez like Berlin in 1946”. And I can only assume he is correct. The facade and rooms Hotel Raquel sits with its ornate baroque façade in the ancient cobblestoned streets amongst this chaos. The building feels like Sydney’s QVB was converted into a hotel, then dropped into a Parisian street that was abandoned… at the end of WWII. In fact it was originally a bank built in 1908. [caption id="attachment_3502" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Nigel compared Hotel Raquel with Sydney's QVB building - well, sort of.[/caption] With its huge vaulted foyer and stained glass roof, the building is spectacular. But unfortunately, like everything Cuban there are contradictions and riddles throughout. For instance, a large number of the rooms in the hotel have no windows. But the bedrooms are large with huge ceilings, air conditioning and a palatial feel. The bathroom is well appointed and there is plenty of storage. There is even a gleaming old-school 34-centimetre TV encased in a cupboard.   All in all the rooms feel right. The renovation has been sympathetic to the period – not easy for a hotel that has an ornate brass elevator over 100 years old that you need to open and close yourself. [caption id="attachment_3501" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Hotel Raquel's rooms have the spacious, palatial feel to them.[/caption] The service, food and drinks And the service is strange. Everyone on the service staff should be congratulated for their attentiveness, but less so for their working style. For instance, breakfast at the hotel is like breakfast served at almost every other hotel in Cuba: terrible. The eggs are cooked many, many, many hours prior and left to toast in a bain-marie. There might be some tomato if you are lucky. Cuba's attempt at a western-style breakfast buffet is truly horrible. The bread and the coffee? Divine. But they have been doing that for years.   Where it gets really interesting is watching the waiter clear the table next to mine while I eat breakfast. He would go to the table, take a plate and return to the kitchen. Thirty seconds later he was back. To collect another plate or possibly a glass, then return to the kitchen.   Anyone who works in the service industry would be mortified, but it’s the Cuban way, as the well dressed man in the Panama hat a few tables away explained to me. A communist country has no real motivation to seek any efficiency. And it percolates into their way of doing business with tourists. So grumbling bell boys and waiters behaving strangely are just something you need to get used to and, after a couple of days, embrace.   You want a mojito? The staff at the Hotel Raquel will rustle one up quickly and it will be just heavenly. Mojito, like coffee, is local – something they are used to and can do well.   That’s what makes Cuba so great. Sure it’s chaotic, but people are eager to please. Even if it means cooking you horrific eggs. The Details   Hotel Raquel, Calle Amargura, No. 103 esq. a San Ignacio, Old Havana, Cuba. see the website. [caption id="attachment_3504" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Old Havana style.[/caption] The IT verdict   Nigel Herbert, who visited anonymously and paid his own way, says: “A remarkable hotel. Remarkable because it only has 24 rooms and it is one of the only hotels in Old Havana that have the internet. This hotel anywhere else in the world would cost $500 a night. When Cuba get’s its mojo back this will be in all the catalogues of expensive, romantic weekend away destinations.”   Nigel paid $108 per night for a standard room.   Bias-free: All IT reviews are conducted anonymously, and our writers pay their own way – so we experience exactly what you would