When travelling to a new country, it is so important to understand the culture, soak up the vibes of new places and get in touch with locals in order to really experience how the country and the people are. And when travelling to Cuba, this understanding is especially important.
Don’t turn your back to the culture, the people and their problems. Rather, watch, understand, be aware and open your mind.
I can’t understand people who travel to Cuba and just stay at their all-inclusive resort for 2 weeks. This is in Cuba often the case. I met so many tourists who were just stuck in their all-inclusive resort for two weeks hanging around at the beach and pool bar most of the time. But please please, I beg you, don’t do that when travelling to Cuba. Firstly, you are missing out so much. Secondly, there is no need to go all the way to Cuba if you are only interested in beach and not the culture. And last but not least, you won’t be happy about your holidays if you don’t understand the circumstances and know about the history of the country.
(Also read my post about the most important things to know about Cuba before you go)
That is why I created a list for you about things which you have to do and experience when travelling to Cuba. This will help you to understand the country and its culture, but also to enjoy your holidays and the bright sides of the country more.
You were not in Cuba when you didn’t…
The capital of Cuba is so versatile. It is so charming due to its colonial houses and old-timer cars. It is full of history. It is so pretty in one street and so poor in the next street. It is so fun and full of joy due to the live music and the delicious cocktails at every corner. It is so creative and full of art.
I could have spent hours strolling through the streets and just discover what is behind the next corner. Or just look what is hidden behind the open front doors: a woman sitting at a desk, 10 nail polish bottles set out in a row, making the nails of another woman, little dark rooms which turn out as butchers or bakeries or just the living room of a Cuban old man watching TV. In the streets, you’ll see guys repairing their cars, school classes having sports lessons at Plaza Vieja or dance groups practising a new choreography in the middle of a busy street.
Havanna is absolutely a must-go place when travelling to Cuba. Also, check my blog post about the best restaurants in Havanna – also suitable for vegetarians!
…sip a cocktail!
Vitamin R(um) makes life better according to Cubans. And there are so many great cocktails which can be mixed with Vitamin R. Don’t miss out and try at least the most famous ones when travelling to Cuba: everybody’s darling Mojito (made with Rum, mint, lime), Ernest Hemingway’s favorite drink Daiquiri (made with sirup, pink grapefruit, rum, lime, Maraschino liqueur) and it’s various variations – I recommend Strawberry Daiquiri (delicious in „El Enfrente“ in Havana) or sweet Piña Colada (made with coconut milk, rum, pineapple juice, cinnamon and sugar), which is way better in Cuba than anywhere else in the world due to the use of coconut milk and pinch of cinnamon – YUMMI!
…visit an organic tobacco farm and smoke a cigar!
Cuba’s industries are quite limited to tourism, tobacco plantation and sugar plantation. Even if you are a non-smoker, like I am, I definitely recommend going to an organic tobacco farm. It is quite stunning how tobacco plants are grown and harvested and cigars are produced without using any machines. Just by the pure hands of hard-working farmers who put their heart and soul into the production.
I can also recommend buying cigars at these organic tobacco farms instead of buying them in the souvenir shop of your hotel. These organic farms sell cigars cheaper because they are not allowed to use the official labels such as Romeo and Julia or Monte Christo even if they exactly produce these kinds. Thus A) You’ll gonna buy a 100% bio and organic cigars there rather than a machine-made one. And B) you support the farmers a lot. They have to give 90% of their harvest and production to the government and only 10% are for their own use and selling. By buying the cigars from the farmers in Viñales valley you’ll support the people a lot to make some extra money. And C) It is cheaper for you as well. I think you call that win-win-situation.
…support the people!
I’m not getting tired of mentioning the situation of the people when speaking about Cuba. And this is a fact which you should definitely have in mind when visiting this country. The average income of a Cuban is around 20 Euros per month. There are some branches which earn more and some which earn less. This means the money an average Cuban earns is not enough for a living.
Even if Cubans don’t have to suffer hunger because they receive staple food such as rice, beans or flour for free from the government, plus many don’t have to pay rent, their salary is not enough for having a good life. A simple example is the wife of a tour guide to whom I spoke. His mother is actually a surgeon in the hospital. But her salary is so little that she prefers working as a maid in a hotel. By the tip of in average 1 to 2 Euros per room, she earns way more as she would as a surgeon. That is why many people aim to work in tourism. And that is why you support the people so much when giving tips. Always remember, 1 CUC for the cleaning lady in front of a toilet doesn’t hurt you, but it helps her many times more.
Cubans are very creative in making money by the way. Such as these guys strolling through Havana with their ponies and trying to sell pony riding for kids:
…bring cosmetic products and treats as donations!
What is also luxury goods in Cuba are cosmetic products such as shower gel, shampoo, conditioner or body lotions. Carry some little ones in your handbag or take the ones from your hotel room and give it to people when they ask you. The maids are also happy about your half full shampoo bottle which you don’t want to carry home anymore. Or if you brought some shirts you don’t necessarily need anymore, leave it to the maid! She will be happy about it.
When driving in the countryside you will often see children standing next to the streets and waving to tourists. Take some candy, cookies or chips and give it to them and you will make their day. Nothing is more heartwarming than the sparkling eyes and the happy smile of a kid receiving treats which their parents can’t afford to buy. And to be honest, didn’t you already gain some weight in your all-inclusive resort in Varadero?!
Be generous! Give tips! Bring cosmetic products and candy for the little ones!
…enjoy the beachside!
Cuba faces some serious problems. But Cuba also means endless white beaches with crystal clear water. Don’t miss to enjoy the bride sides of Cuba at one of numerous beach of your choice. I recommend to combine it with Must-do #2 Sip a cocktail.
I didn’t visit many different beaches in Cuba, thus I can mainly speak about Varadero. Varadero’s beach is endless long and beautiful. But it is the major tourist beach of the country, meaning that you won’t be the only one – no matter how far you walk in either direction. The prettiest part of the beach is around Varadero village. Because it is a part without sun loungers and umbrellas at the beach and a bit more natural with trees and palm trees. Whereas at most other spots you will see hotel facilities directly at the beach, almost no palm trees and that is where people accumulate as well due to the proximity of the hotel facilities.
During my research before going to Cuba, I discovered the following beaches which seemed to be the prettiest. At the same time they are hard to reach if you don’t have a car: Cayo Guillermo, Cayo Coco as well as Cayo largo del sur. All are absolutely paradise beaches. For time reasons we decided not to go there. If you have been at one of this beaches, drop me a comment and tell me about your experience!
…discover the countryside (on the back of a horse)!
Untouched valleys, lush greenery, endless views – this is how the back country of Varadero or the Viñales Valley and more natural parks of Cuba look like. Except tobacco and sugar, almost nothing else is cultivated in Cuba. Therefore the countryside often looks very untouched and beautiful. There is many parts of Cuba where you can discover this. I recommend staying some days in Viñales Valley. It is a very fertile, green valley with little population and an area of 132 km2.
There are some major attractions like caves, a very beautiful view point at Hote Los Yazmines or the Mural of Pre-history. I wish we would have had some more days to discover the beautiful landscape characterized by huge limestones. You can do that by hiking, cycling or on the back of the horse. The best and most authentic way to live in Viñales Valley is to stay in a casa particular. This is your chance to be far away from big hotels and crowds of people and a great way to calm down and enjoy the calm beauty of this area.
…stay at a casa particular!
There are two options of accommodations in Cuba: Hotels and casas particulars. Hotels are government-owned, thus the earnings go to the government.
Casas particulars are private accommodations, which are mostly very simple, often in the house of Cubans. The money, or at least a part of it, goes directly to the owner. This means you’ll support people a lot by staying in a casa particular. Plus when living with a Cuban family you are able to learn more about daily life in Cuba, you can ask them everything you ever wanted to know and the can give you tips where to go and what to do. Often they serve breakfast and even dinner.
On the other hand, hotels are the more comfortable way to stay. I have to admit that sometimes it is better to choose hotels over casas particulars as it is often difficult in Cuba to find supermarkets or restaurants. In Havana it is not a problem at all of course. Varadero village hosts some restaurants as well. But on the countryside or in smaller towns food is not available at every corner. So, if you want to enjoy some easy-going days at the beach without any hassle, it is smarter to choose a hotel.
…listen to street music and dance salsa!
Deeeespaaaaciiiitooooo! I guess it rings a bell for most of you when I would start singing this song. And even in Cuba it is super famous. At every restaurant, in every street, there is live music. Salsa, Tango, Reggaeton or Bachata. You can not avoid moving your hips when sipping a cocktail and listening to all these great Cuban street artists. Don’t forget to tip them! They make their living by performing in the streets.
Never stop exploring!