Words: Erin Hardie | Photos: Ryan Platten | If I had to describe Cuba in just one phrase it would be “Cuba land of mañana”. Mañana means tomorrow in Spanish, but do not make the mistake of interpreting my phrase in the sci-fi sense of “Cuba land of tomorrow” (as in the future!) Cuba is indeed still in many ways the land of the past that one hopes for and expects, the time warp of life pre-internet circa the 1960s. In this land of the “past” one instead encounters mañana in the Spanish sense as described by Orwell (and paraphrased by me!): take it easy, it will still be there tomorrow. So whilst it’s possible to see a lot in one week, for one week in Cuba we would advise rather to slow your pace right down, or else you may face a lot of frustration!
When visiting Cuba take your time to meander through the humid lethargic heat; expect things like your accommodation check in or icy mojitos to take time; do not expect places, like the local bank to open on time or stay open for the fully expected length of time. If you can mentally prepare for such a topsy-turvy world from the efficiencies of home then you will thrive in Cuba today and mañana ad infinitum, or as long as your visa lasts… We certainly wish we had more than one week in Cuba! Read on for our lazy-paced guide to one week in Cuba!
One Week in Cuba – A Lazy Paced Guide
Our one week in Cuba guide is split into two sections, that is Havana and Trinidad (not the Caribbean Trinidad you may know, but a smaller Cuban UNESCO World Heritage beach town that you may not have heard of, but will recognise the pastel painted houses from!). Even if you have only one week in Cuba we still think you should try and see at least one other city to it’s capital Havana. Other smaller Cuban cities and towns have a different feel, and the drive between them is in itself enjoyable and eye-opening for gaining a better perspective on what daily Cuban life is like (see picture above!). Make sure also that you’ve read our general guide to Cuba which covers currency, climate, travel to and around and more, available here. The guide that follows are some suggestions for things to see and do slowly in 3-4 days in Havana and 3 days beachside in Trinidad.
One Week in Cuba – Havana (3 – 4 Days)
Walk the Malecon (el Malecón)
The Malecon is the sea wall path that extends 8km around the coast from Old Havana (Habana Vedado), to the Havana Harbour Mouth. Beautiful both day and night, but be sure to take a walk or taxi at night to see the late-night lovers and fishermen, and in the right weather waves that break over this sea wall.
Eat at the Torreón de la Chorrera
Cuba is sadly not a foodies destination. This restaurant typifies Cuban food in its serving mainly items constructed of ham, cheese and disinterest. Have your worst-ever “canteen food” meal with the best-ever view here at the Torreón de la Chorrera. This fort built in 1643 sits on the very start of the Malecon at the Harbour Mouth, a good eight kilometres walk from Havana Old Town. We went at night and watched waves crash over the sea wall, into the courtyard at our alfresco table.
A Walking Pub Crawl of Havana Vedado
- Take your self-guided tour at night, and especially on a public holiday, and you will be sure to see and hopefully meet local Cubans partying in the streets. We met a Cuban family who plied us with soup and cake on the cobblestone streets of the vedado neighbourhood one evening. (Read more in our general guide to Cuba here). There are paid tours you can take also which will go all day and include a day trip out to the Hemingway Museum (his former residence outside Havana; Finca Vigia, where you can only view the grounds not inside), but again you could do this independently to save money/take it at your own pace.
- Ernest Hemingway’s likeness lives on at the first and most important stop on our recommended Hemingway pub crawl: El Floridita. We recommend stopping here first as it is a bit of a tourist trap and busy most of the time but less so in the early afternoon. Have a drink and a photo with the man himself (a life-size bronze statue forever propping up the bar as an eternal regular). Order the Hemingway Daiquiri at least once; it’s the drink inspired by Papa Doble (Father Double) as Hemingway was cheekily known.
- Less than a kilometre up further into Old Havana find down an alley the hole-in-the-wall bar La Bodeguita del Medio. Hemingway is touted as a regular here too but these claims are suspected false. Plenty of other famous authors including Gabriel Garcia Marquez have stopped by though, and the bar’s walls teem with photographs and autographs of familiar and unfamiliar faces. Drink your mojito wherever you can find a space, even if it means spilling out onto the cobblestones of the street. Just be sure to make your mark on the graffiti-welcome walls before you leave.
- Five minutes walk away is the Hotel Ambos, Hemingway’s residence of 7 years in Old Havana, another must-stop for a drink and with a view from the rooftop! Drink on into the night at any of the beautiful alfresco bars you find in the very centre of Old Havana, particularly lining the edges of the many squares such as El Patio in Plaza de la Catedral . Stay in the Obispo neighbourhood and wherever you end up you will be sure to encounter live music, views of grand buildings and the cannon and cobblestone lined streets of this magical area dating back to the 14th century. During our one week in Cuba we certainly did this more than once… it’s good every night!
Havana by Cadillac
Having walked Havana Vedado by temperate night, now return in style during the oppressive heat of the day to capture the colour of Havana’s truly sensational buildings. Cadillac tours are for the most part privately operated by the owner drivers. Top Tip: If your Spanish is weak head to the Hotel Nacional to have the bellhop assist in securing a driver for an agreed time frame, itinerary and fare (just pretend you are a hotel guest if not staying here ;))
Hotel Nacional Tours
These tours run daily (10am and 3pm when we were there) and are free! There are two parts to the tour and you can do one or both as you wish. The first part is the hotel tour where a guide with wonderful English takes you around the hotel’s most famous rooms still left very much in-situ from when the very famous guests once stayed there, in particular the second floor where the American Mafia bosses used to stay! The other part of the tour is outside the hotel in the grounds overlooking the Malecon. Here there are tunnels and underground bunkers you can walk through from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis – a fascinating look from the other side of this tumultuous time in history!
Cuban Political History
Another historical figure of great importance and interest to follow around Havana is of course Che Guevara. First stop the Museum of the Revolution of course to bone up on your Che and Cuban historical-political knowledge including exhibits such as the small yacht on which Che travelled from Mexico to Cuba. On your way back to the famed Havana sight Revolution Plaza, stop past the Habana Libre Hotel, which was the Havana Hilton until it was taken over in 1959 as Fidel Castro’s headquarters for the impending Bay of Pigs. At Revolution Plaza you can take in faces of both Che Guevara and Camillo Cienfuegos as immortalised in steel onto the facades of communist ministry buildings. Opposite these is the Jose Marti Memorial tower and behind that the Palace of the Revolution, the now seat of the Cuban Communist Government.
If you have a great interest in Che Guevara you may wish to travel to Santa Clara rather than Trinidad as your secondary Cuban city of choice. In Santa Clara you will find Che in his final resting place at the Che Guevara Mausoleum as well as the less known wreckage of the Tren Blindado (the armoured train successfully ambushed by Che and just 18 guerrilla fighters).
One Week in Cuba – Trinidad (3 Days)
The Ancon Beach Peninsula Trinidad
Looking for a Caribbean beach with white sands, aquamarine warm waters and palm-fronded cabanas? You’re looking for Ancon Beach on the peninsula of the same name in Trinidad. Actually the peninsula stretches for 12km from Trinidad town centre with coastline on the one side and swampy marshlands on the other – a beautiful drive in itself! Ancon beach is also where many of the all-inclusive resort hotels are located plus a few beach bars. As we visited during hurricane season only one bar was open and the resorts all seemed eerily shut. Which meant we had the beach basically to ourselves, huzzah! For a more local beach you could instead try La Boca, just 5 minutes from the town centre and with casa particular options if you like to stay seaside but want a more authentic experience. Either way be sure to pack the sunscreen as the sun will burn you even in the off season!
Plaza Mayor and Casa de la Musica
Plaza Mayor is worth a visit by day and again by night. You want to see it by day as this is the jewel that the incredibly picturesque colonial town of Trinidad centres around. The buildings are all mostly 18th and 19th century and plenty of locals meet on the little benches of the square at all times of the day, even during siesta hours. Off the Plaza Mayor on Calle Cristo you will find La Casa de la Musica. This is not a building but an open air square as well where you can purchase entry and drinks to view and/or join in the nightly dancing to live latin music. Sedate seating is available on the lower platform below the steps, but if we had our time again we would go for the “standing-room only” upper steps looking down over the dance floor where people sit more informally with their drinks and watch over the dancers/ jump in from time to time. Top Tip: Be sure to have plenty of small CUP change on you to use the paid bathroom provided here.
A nightclub in a cave…
Yes that’s right, a nightclub in a cave! Even if you only have one week in Cuba do not miss this unique venue! The Disco Ayala is open nightly from 11pm ish… we found it not to be prompt in opening on the night of our visit, being told to return at midnight instead. No worries, just a little ways back down the steep street we had ascended were several family owned bars being operated literally out of their living rooms and backyards to cater for the over-eager would be club-goers such as ourselves. Worth a stop in even if you are already running fashionably late! Once at the club there is a small cover charge and mostly reggaeton music, with more and more people arriving and joining the dance floor, until closing time at 3am.
Personally I feel that one week in Cuba was not enough! I could keep coming back time and again like Hemingway! If you’ve been to Cuba we’d love to hear your favourite things to do in Cuba in the comments section below. Until next time ¡Salud! (Cheers) Erin & Ryan.