5 Days in Cuba
In order to make my three city stop in Cuba cost-effective I selected an affordable resort and booked Roc Arenas Doradas for five nights. I planned on leaving the resort for two nights to stay in Havana and determined that buying an all-inclusive package from Toronto would be cheaper than booking the flights and hotels separately. As someone who isn’t afraid to skip posh accommodation in favour of other must haves on my vacation bucket list, where I sleep is always negotiable. On a recent trip to Montreal I stayed at a YMCA with a shared washroom so I could spend way more on great food, a vacation must for me! I found the resort to be a decent size, with a beautiful beach (I mean I was in Cuba for the beach), and clean rooms. For more details see my review of the resort on TripAdvisor below.
Recommendation: If you choose Roc Arenas Doradas you will not be disappointed with the beach! I especially loved the coffee bar and my favourite drink was the Zagma coffee with white rum, sugar and ice.
Travel Tip! How to pick a resort on a budget: Know your must haves for a resort and read through TripAdvisor reviews; pay close attention to the negative reviews to see if there are any personal deal breakers. For my trip I focused my choice on an affordable resort with: clean rooms, hot showers, a fabulous beach, and a variety of food selections.
Travel day from Varadero to Havana
A nearly two hour taxi drive took us from quiet beaches of Varadero to the bustling city of Havana. Warming up to Havana was difficult; the duality of the crumbled city paired with intricate architecture made it complex and challenging to fall in love with.
We stayed at a Casa Israel and selected the accommodation because of its central location and the “clean and quiet” reviews. It turned out to be a great decision! Ari and Israel took great care of us. Ari gave us great sightseeing tips and Israel made a wicked breakfast of fresh fruits, three types of bread, omelettes, fresh juice, and amazing coffee.
Travel Tip! Highly recommend: Casa Israel or other Casa (bed and breakfast) type accommodations over a stay at a hotel. A stay at a Casa will cost an average of 25 CUC a night and provide travelers the unique experience of staying with a local. We were given great tips on where to visit, and breakfast was only 4 CUC.
Dinner at La Guarida
Getting to the highly recommended restaurant La Guarida was a little difficult and even with Google walking directions it was hard to navigate our way because there aren’t many street signs. Finally, tucked away in the heart of Havana we found what looked like an abandoned building. There were men at the door who eventually recognized we were tourists and not locals so led us to the restaurant, which was upstairs. Downstairs was hauntingly beautiful with great pillars, staircases, and stripped walls. The view from the upstairs bar is exceptional. We spent an hour watching the sunset, having a glass of mojito, then made our way back downstairs for our meal.
First Impression: We came an hour before our reservation and before the sunset for the view. Framed with an actual white frame, the perspective was a breathtaking view that simultaneously amazed and broke my heart. I heard Havana was chic (and I saw the chic spots), but plenty of it is rough. Born and raised in Jamaica I know what poverty can do to the psyche of people and you can see it in the hustle and the desire to etch ahead. Every time we talked to the local the story remained the same, “We all have great ideas but our hands are tied”.
Day in Havana, Setting out to embrace Havana
Every time I go to a new country or city I love to take beautiful photos. This serves as memorabilia for my adventures, but photographers also double as great tour guides. I booked a Cuban photographer and we spent the morning visiting some of the most architecturally intricate and beautiful places in the city. We went to the local markets and even into private buildings.
We spent the day walking in the city. Some of the top stops on our walking tour were Iglesia Del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, Modern Partagas Cigar Factory, Salchi Pizza, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas, and the Great Theatre of Havana.
Travel Tip! Search for moments: I love food and that led me to Salchi Pizza, founded by a Michelin star chef who returned home from Italy. We enjoyed a bite of bread, some soda and rested our tired feet after hours of walking. As a bonus on our way we found Casa de Vinos, a store that sells Havana made wine. I bought red wine for 2 CUC!
Dinner at San Cristobal
We had reservations for San Cristobal at 9:00pm, but weren’t seated until 10:20pm. I was okay with the hour and twenty minute wait because a number of others were also waiting and they gave us mojitos to quell our restless spirits. However, when they seated a gentleman and his son who had a 9:30 reservation before us, it felt careless, so I asked for the manager. This restaurant has served high-end clientele including the Obamas, Queen B Beyoncé, Jay-Z and many others. Their response to my concerns proved that they are a class act and is surely a reason why they attract such noteworthy diners. They apologized, seated us in one of their private rooms, offered a beautiful complimentary starter platter, and the host who had seated us incorrectly provided a fantastic tour. The food was classic Cuban style and extremely tasty! We had pork, beef, a potato dish, and two glasses of wine for only 26 CUC.
Day trip to Viñales
As beautiful as the beaches were in Varadero, and as intrigued as I was with the complexity of Havana, it was Viñales that stole my heart! I booked a tour with Discover Viñales and the trip was amazing! After our beautiful breakfast spread at the Casa, our driver arrived early and took us on a 2.5 hour drive to the west of the island, driving through beautiful landscapes and farms.
Our first stop was Lookout Los Jazmines, the most famous view of the valley. We visited a tobacco sorting facility where only ladies classified the leaves according to their size and the quality. We also learned about the fermentation, drying process, and packing of the tobacco. As a wine lover I thoroughly enjoyed learning the process, which is similar to wine making. Next we went on a walking tour in the Viñales Valley, where we visit a traditional tobacco farm. To get to the farm we had to walk across a river on a log, and I’m certain I get extra adventure points for that! We were served coconut water, honey and rum cocktails and learned about the traditions and customs of the farmers.
Travel Tip! Listen to the experts: The farmer advised us not to use a cigar cutter as it tampers with the integrity of the cigar. Simply put a hole in the cigar and add some honey to both protect the lips and add a sweet element. Duly noted when I have my cigars!
Our last stop was a lunch that provided the most amazing farm to table dining experience! All of the food was grown on the same property and the meat was provided from neighbouring farms. The restaurant had a picturesque view and the lunch spread was to die for; vegetable soup, fried cassava, beef, pork, chicken, rice and beans, and so much more!
After our tour in Vinales we headed back to Varadero, I napped for the 2.5 hours of travel to Havana, and then again during the 1.5 hour drive to Varadero. I love sleeping, especially on vacation, and sleep is a restorative pastime!
Final Days: Varadero, More Resort Living
We enjoyed the last full day in Cuba on the beach, and lucked out since it was ‘Cuban Day’ at the resort so we caught the best day. We enjoyed live Cuban traditional performances all day, dancers teaching rumba, and a beach side pork roast. We went into Varadero town (because it turns out we can’t sit still) and enjoyed a walk in the markets. On our way back home we stopped at duty-free and stocked up on rum, Cohiba Cigars, and coffee. There is no longer a 25 CUC tax to leave the country so we splurged on extra gifts from duty free!
To get the full itinerary breakdown, specific costing for travel for two, walking maps, or answers to any questions about this trip feel free to contact me at email@example.com