Where to stay in
Cuba was pretty much cut off from most of the world until the 1990s, making it the perfect place to visit if you’re looking for a country not overly influenced by modern consumerism and the western world. It truly is a country that feels like you’re stepping back in time, from the colourful buildings to the classic cars that line the roads and the cobbled walkways.
But this all begs the question: now that you’ve decided you’re going, where are you going to stay? There are clearly many different options in terms of location, but what about hotel versus hostel? And have you heard of a casa particular? Probably not.
To help you plan your trip to Cuba – because everyone needs a little bit of help every now and then – we’ve created this handy little guide that breaks down the types of accommodation, and the best places to stay depending on what type of trip you’re going on.
Cuba doesn’t really have hostels, not in the way you might think anyway. Typically, a hostel consists of dorm beds, a communal kitchen, cheap activities available; basically, a complete backpacker, gap year traveller vibe. Instead, Cuba has Casa Particulares (more on that in a minute), which are more like B&Bs, to be honest.
However, a lot of homeowners have started advertising these Casas on websites such as HostelWorld.com, so that’s something to be aware of if what you’re really looking for in a hostel. I mean, the only real difference is a few bunk beds, but some people just really want that vibe, you know?
Surprisingly, hotels are not the most common type of accommodation for tourists and travellers in Cuba – and the country has a lot less of them than you would expect from such a popular tourist destination. While there are some 5-star hotels, typically these won’t be what you would expect from a 5-star hotel – but it’ll still have the same price tag.
Prices for hotels can start at anything from $600 a night, and in reality, it will the equivalent of a 3, or maybe a 4-star hotel in the UK. Most of them will be pretty outdated – including the furniture, architecture, and decoration – and most of the hotels in Cuba are actually run by the government. Not a massive issue, it just means that the prices are usually higher, but the hotels struggle to get funding for necessary updates.
Some of the best hotels in the capital city (maybe the only place you could really justify staying in a hotel) include the Melia Habana, Tryp Habana Libre, and the Hotel Saratoga. There’s also, of course, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which is considered a symbol of history, culture and Cuban identity. Plus, the guns that made up the old Santa Clara Battery are on exhibition in the hotel’s garden and were declared part of the World Heritage Site.
The most popular type of accommodation, Casa Particulares are private homes in Cuba, that Cuban families rent out – either the whole house or just a room – to travellers for very reasonable prices. Typically, the owner will live next door, or maybe down the road, but occasionally you stumble across a Casa where the owner will live in the same house as you’re staying in – which, to be fair, could be worse as they’ll normally cook you up some pretty incredible food while you’re there.
These homes are designed for travellers to stay in them. They’ll have anything from one to five private rooms, normally with an attached (and, therefore, private) bathroom, air conditioning for the humid weather, and basic furniture. Pretty much your average holiday home, to be honest – but with a very low price.
Old Town, Havana
So, it’s your first trip to Cuba, where do you go? A very daunting question, I’ll grant you, seeing as there are so many amazing places to visit and things to do in Cuba. Honestly, if it’s your first time, you want to head to Old Town, Havana. The beating heart of the capital city, Old Havana is full of narrow streets and cobbled lanes, historical fortresses, picturesque castles, cathedrals – basically, anything you could ask for in a city famous for its charm and character.
There are so many different things to do in Old Town, from a visit to Castillo de Morro, an old fortress and former guarding entrance to Havana, or a visit to the Catedral de San Cristobal, known as one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. If history is more your thing then check out the Museum of the Revolution, or learn about the history of Cuban Run and how it’s made at the Museo del Ron Havana Club.
Sort of like Havana’s little sibling, Varadero is the resort destination of Cuba – making it perfect for families. Found along the northern coast, tourists flock here thanks to its amazing beaches – and where there are tourists, there are big hotels and beach resorts full of fun activities to amuse any screaming toddler. Such as Sol Sirenas Coral Resort, which has everything from tennis courts to pools, and even a kid’s club.
While you’re in Varadero, there’s plenty to do, and not all of it is specifically aimed at kids (although kids will enjoy it too. Hopefully). You want to head to Parque Josone to see the birds, listen to live music, and enjoy a camel ride or two. Or, you want to go snorkelling along the coral barrier reef and visit the Delfinario to watch the dolphins jump around during the dolphin show. There’s also the Varadero Street Market which is perfect for finding souvenirs, as well as the oldest tourist attraction in Cuba: the Bellamar Caves.
Okay, so you’re probably not going to spend your whole time at Playa Ancón, I will admit that’s a little bit unrealistic. But if you’re a backpacker, then you’re going to be visiting towns and cities and beaches all over the country right? so, basically, you just want to make sure this one is, at the very least, on your list. And to be honest, I would suggest staying for longer than one night.
Playa Ancón is great because it’s off the beaten track, kind of. As in, it barely gets any touristy footfall – way less than many of the big cities and beaches. But, it’s pretty enough and has enough activities and opportunities to make it worthy of being a tourist destination, it’s just often overlooked on the way to Varadero or Guardalavaca. Seriously, you get the pure white sand and the crystal clear blue water, you just get the added bonus of no tourists.
It’s the perfect place to relax for a few days and unwind, which is always needed when you’re travelling. Plus, if you get bored of sunbathing, it’s a really amazing place to go snorkelling and diving. It’s only 40 minutes away from Trinidad s you can easily move on if you get bored, but there are some cracking casas particulares in the nearby towns of La Boca and Casilda that definitely deserve a visit.
Easily one of Cuba’s most underrated cities, Viñales is perfect for a solo traveller – especially a solo traveller who’s’ fairly new to the whole solo thing and isn’t too comfortable having to trek out for miles every day to find things to do. There are literally tonnes of different things to do here: from smoking cigars on horseback to swimming and diving around the local coast, or even learn all about the process of growing, drying, and rolling cigars.
If you want to get some good pics for the gram then head to Hotel Los Jazmines, where you can take a dip in the swimming pool and have an utterly shameless photo shoot overlooking the valley (trust me, everyone does this. I think). Or try Finca Agroecologica, a local farm that grows organic, non-GMO vegetables and offers up a twenty-five plate meal for only $10. Which is pretty insane.
On a Friday or Saturday, Viñales is home to Palenque, also known as the Cave Party, which starts off with a comedy show but at midnight it turns into a club and you’ll find yourself dancing in a cave where runaway slaves used to hide. Very much getting close to history.
The best thing about Viñales though, the thing that really sets it apart from Havana, is the fact that you don’t have to pay to get a picture with one of the old classic cars. And by that, I mean you don’t have to book a tour in one or hire one out for an hour – which is the only way you can get a picture in the capital. Instead, the owners here actually welcome it because they’re proud of their cars and want to show them off. And to be honest, in a country where the average monthly salary is $30 and it’s ridiculously hard to buy a car, you can understand why they’d be proud of theirs.
If you’re looking for a cheap trip that still takes in the sights, you probably want to stay away from Havana, or Varadero. Both amazing cities, but they hike the prices up thanks to their great reputation. No, instead you want to go to Santa Clara, Cuba’s most revolutionary city. The site of the last battle of the Revolutionary War, it was here in Santa Clara that the iconic political figure, Che Guevera, was laid to rest.
Santa Clara isn’t just all about politics though; it’s home to a number of fantastic parks (And wildlife), great live music, such as the music you can listen to at Club Mejunje, an arty bar that combines the rebellious with amazing cocktails. Or, you could head to the Melaíto Murals (a series of comic book-style paintings by local graphic artists) to get a pic for the ‘gram or try one of the famously cheap espresso coffees at one of the cafes on Main Street. If politics is your thing though, you should definitely check out the Mausoleo del Che Guevara, an amazing monument to the political fighter.
Sure, old Havana is where you go if you’ve never visited the country before, but if you’re heading over just for the nightlife then you already know what to expect. So, why bother beating around the bush when we all know that the best nightlife on offer is, of course, in the middle of the capital city itself: Havana. Bordered by the Cerro, Vedado, and Old Havana, it’s full of history and culture, but it’s sure enough of itself that it’s also established its own mini culture, away from the stereotypical historical aspects of the country.
Central Havana is made up of cool jazz bars, vivacious dance clubs, and plenty of general fun, funky, upbeat, vibey bars. One thing you have to make sure you do is try a daiquiri at El Floridita Bar, famous for being Ernest Hemingway’s old jaunt in the 20th century. Apart from that though, you also need to make sure you include La Zorra y el Cuervo for a night of amazing jazz music and definitely see a cabaret show in Tropicana nightclub. It’s iconically famous for a reason.
Arguably one of the coolest places to visit in Cuba, Trinidad can be found on the south coast and is one of the best-preserved colonial towns on the whole island. In fact, the oldest part of the city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. Ultimately, the city is famous for its vibrant and colourful decoration and architecture – making it one of the most Instagram worthy spots in Cuba, to be honest.
Just a little bit outside of the city, any willing traveller will discover some amazing natural attractions: from pristine beaches to the blue waters and picture-perfect waterfalls, and even lush forests, there’s plenty of options to fill up the grid. Make sure you take a walk through the Plaza Mayor and climb to the top of the National Historic Museum tower where you can take in the amazing panoramic view of the city. Another good trip is definitely to Topes de Collantes, which is an incredible nature preserve that is home to hiking trails, waterfalls, and plenty of natural scenery to fill you with awe.
Clearly, there are plenty of different places to stay, and plenty of different options depending on what you’re looking for. Although just to be clear, we’re not saying that these are the only places you should visit – not by any stretch of the imagination. There are literally tonnes of things to do, places to visit, beaches to explore, diving spots to experience and mountains to climb all over Cuba. So, please don’t take this list as exhaustive, but it’s definitely a good place to start.