Cuba is on everyone’s radar, especially since travel for Americans has become more lenient in the past year. Traveling to Cuba is like stepping back in time, to a time when the internet didn’t rule over our attention and days went by slowly. Friendly smiles greet you as you stroll lazily around town. For American travelers, travel is still restricted to a dozen broad categories in order to obtain a visa. Once you get this detail sorted, check out this biking guide by MI OLA brand ambassador Briana (@wanderlovebri) to #GetOutThere in Cuba!
#GetOutThere Guide: Cuba
We arrived in to Havana mid-week, in the afternoon. The sun was blazing. After a Rocky Mountain winter, there is nothing like Caribbean humidity! Long distance biking was at the top of our list so we headed directly to a small bike shop to set ourselves up for a week in Cuba. The best part about this trip was the minimal planning, which set us up for many moments of adventure and spontaneity. The only plan we had upon arrival was to rent bikes, aim toward Trinidad and take each day as it was.
Day 1: Bike ~20 km from Havana to Guanabo.
Havana is bustling, full of locals and tourists, cars older than my grandparents, beautiful architecture and crumbling buildings. All together in one city, beside the sea. The energy of the city will bring you to life! Our bike path wandered along residential streets and along busy streets. We eventually met the ocean and followed along the shoreline until we arrived at the ferry dock. A ferry is one of two options to cross from Havana to Casa Blanca: cars and buses commute through a tunnel and cyclists and pedestrians travel by ferry. The adventure in Cuba began!
Biking out of the city and into the country felt invigorating and inspiring. We biked through small towns, heading west. The hills are sustained and the descents are refreshing. At times the ocean was in our view, watching the sun move effortlessly through the humid air. As the sun approached the horizon, it was clearly time to discover accommodations for the first night. “Casa Particulares” are home stay lodging options that range from hostel style rooms to private apartments. Government authorized Casas display a blue and white symbol on the entry way. Rooms can be reserved in advance but since internet usage is so limited here, we decided to find a room by biking around each evening in the local town.
Day 2: Bike ~80 km from Guanabo to Matanzas.
We woke up to a view of the ocean from our Casa. On the second day, the bikes felt heavy. We loaded up our things, strapped everything on, and trudged up the first hill of the day. It seemed that our initial optimism drowned out the reality of many hill climbs. I highly recommend a topography map or a slower pace if you have intentions to bike around Cuba!
Day 3: Beach Day!
Its hard to believe that we spent a week on a Caribbean Island and only got a single beach day! I packed four MI OLA bikinis, hopeful that I would find myself living in them, beachside everyday. But the long mileage objectives the first couple of days meant that we had limited beach access. This morning, I made clear that we weren’t doing anything important- I needed to feel the sand between my toes, the exfoliation on my tired body, and the warm salt water to revive me!
With some pieced-together Spanish dialogue, we found the local bus, which is really just some benches in the back of a big truck, and headed to Varadero. This peninsula is a resort filled area with a stunning 18km long beach. Initially we were concerned it was too developed and wouldn’t be peaceful. But, to our surprise, it was sleepy enough, and we found a slice of heaven on a nearly deserted beach. The water was so blue, with some of the most beautiful shades of aquamarine I’ve never seen before. The fine sand is like magical fairy dust. I strapped on my goggles and walked into the great ocean. Floating in the water was perfection; letting the gentle movement of the waves carry me into shore and out to sea, back and forth.
Later, we found all the resorts we had worried about, but they are clumped into an area on the end of peninsula. Don’t let this change your plans to enjoy this beautiful area. You can walk along the long stretch of white sand, wander the streets of Varadero, or hike around the Reserva Ecologica Varahicacos (a nature preserve with a simple trail system). While resorts often seem ubiquitous with tourists, it should be noted that this area is also enjoyed by locals. It isn’t far from Havana (a couple hours by bus) so even a single day or night venture is possible.
Day 4-6: Havana City Exploration.
We headed back to Havana by bus after the reality of distance, humidity, and a short length of time shifted our biking objectives. When in Cuba, plan to move leisurely and without too much planning! Here, plans evolve, buses don’t rush, and people are just living a relaxed island lifestyle.
I’m not much a city explorer; I prefer wide open spaces along the sea and in the mountains. But, here are some must sees in Havana:
Mercado Tulipa: The markets are the heart of the people. Everywhere I travel, I seek the markets to enjoy local fruits and vegetables, to find spices to bring home, and to enjoy the local foods. This market is just outside the city center. You can get here by bus, taxi, or a nice walk through some of the historics sites along the way.
Eat street food: In many places around the world, street food gets a bad reputation for making people sick. But, this is where the local flavors are and for cheap! For less than a dollar you can enjoy fresh breads piled with smoked meat, arroz con griz (rice and beans), and fresh juices. La Riviera in the heart of downtown offered the absolute best Pan con Lechon! Think fresh rolls with freshly sliced pork roast, a pinch of salt and some pepper infused vinegar. So delicious! And don’t forget to get an orange soda to wash it all down. Enjoy the bustling city street as you sit on the sidewalk and basque in the energy of Havana.
Callejon de Hamel: On Sunday at 12pm every week, locals and tourists gather in an alleyway that has been covered in art. It is a cultural hub for Afrocubana art and music. There is live music, dancing, good food, galleries to explore and art hanging from ornately created pillars of what most would consider junk. It is beautiful and vibrant. If you visit any other day, it is likely to be much quieter than Sundays- this is the gathering day! At every turn, your imagination will come to life.
Coppelia: Cubans love their ice cream. There are little spots to get a cone of delicious ice cream all over the place. But here at Coppelia, it’s a scene worth seeing. Stand in line for a while then get guided into the largest ice cream parlor you’ve probably ever seen. Its a gathering place for the local people and well worth a visit. They only serve ice cream in a variety of ways- scoops, sundaes, shakes. But only ice cream!
Walk around: Make time to walk around the city. The architecture, corridors of culture, colors and energy are best enjoyed by foot. There is so much to see and feel that this experience should not be rushed. If you want to cover a little more ground, consider a bike rental. Ruta Bikes offers an inexpensive bike rental with lock, helmet, and everything you need to stroll around the city. At some point, jump in an old classic car to feel the energy of the 50s, but trust me on the walking part- move slow.
Other Cuba Tips:
Get out of the city! Beautiful beaches, lush green forest, sleepy fishing villages, and a truly connected experience exist away from the bustling city. Bike, train, bus, taxi, and car are all great options for exploring. Many locals bike so drivers are very respectful and give plenty of space (except in the tight city streets). Trains are few and slow. Buses are relatively frequent yet they are not cheap. There are a few types of public transportation, but many are segregated between locals and tourists. If you are well spoken in Spanish and can talk your way on to a co-operativo bus, you are guaranteed friendly interaction with local people. The tourist buses are more comfortable, with air conditioning and wi-fi, but the local modes of transport are vibrant and give beautiful insight to how the people move. Taxis are a great way to get around the city or across short distances, but they will get quite expensive if you intend to use them for long distances. Be sure to agree on a taxi price before getting in. Lastly, cars are an option for exploration although without personal experience with renting, insurance, etc, I don’t have much to offer for tips.
Don’t expect to find much wi-fi connection. For the moments when a connection is absolutely necessary, locate a wi-fi park on a map. Yes, its an outdoor plaza where there is a random internet connection. Look for someone selling wi-fi cards at about $3 cuc for an hour. Where the people are congregating is likely the best connection. Then log on and enjoy your brief connection into modern time…then log off and enjoy the simplicity of life without constant connection.
Download Cuba maps on Maps.me . These maps are great for seeing wi-fi zones (parks with wi-fi), casa particulares, playas (beaches), and more.
When: We visited in early May. The weather was hot, & humid: island perfection!
How to get there: Flying in and out of Havana from the states is simple and direct. While Havana has a lot of character and historic sites to see, I highly recommend wandering outside the city to truly experience the Cuban culture.