Cuba: Havana, Vinales and Trinidad

19 Jun

It’s been about  2 weeks since I returned from my trip to Cuba. So, before it turns into a memory rather than something that just happened, I’m going to write two blog posts. One which details what I got up to (this post) and another which should help and solo travelers heading to Cuba in the near future… there was a LOT of learned going it alone which I think will really help people planning a trip, whether they’re doing it solo or not.
When I’ve written it, the blog post will be available here (so click!)
Have a read of what I got up to on my 10 day sojourn to one of the most colourful and interesting places I’ve visited. Introducing Havana, Viñales and Trinidad city.

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(All prices listed in CUC, the ‘tourist’ Cubvan Convertable Peso. It’s exactly the same exchange rate as the dollar, so about £7 for every 10CUC.) Also, as nowhere in Cuba really has a website (lack of internet, etc) I’ve hyperlinked the restaurant name to its location on Google maps.

EAT: The best place I ate in Havana was situated on the outskirts of Veija (the Old Town) and it’s called La Familia (no. 65 on this street). I know, sounds well gangster. Weirdly it gets bad reviews on Tripadvisor, but I was recommended it by the woman who owns the casa I stayed in and I had a really good experience there.

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Yes, it’s pricy. Probably the most expensive place I ate (by expensive I mean 15CUC for a main meal and 4CUC for a daiquiri. So, actually, I aid about £15 for a huge, delicious meal and a cocktail). I had the traditional Cuban meal of Ropa Veija – shredded beef served in a tomato sauce with the likes of pepper, onion and other veg. All Cuban meals seem to come with a HUGE number of extras: plantain chips, tomato, cucumber, rice and beans and potato. The photo above doesn’t do the plate justice, it was huge.


The place itself is pretty damn cool too. The staff were a bit rubbish (slow, etc) but I had a long chat with a musician who plays there regularly and he was really interesting. The decor is cool (lots of signs, posters, fishtanks…) and to access the restaurant you have to enter through a nothing-y door, climb three flights of steep stairs and goes up onto the terrace. However, being up high and seeing how people live on the rooftops of Havana while you eat is a worthwhile experience.

Basically, go here while you still have cash / if you still have cash before you leave. Either way, it’s worth a visit.

EAT: In Cuba, you’ll come across a lot of holes in the wall selling water, beer and pizza. ‘Peso’ pizza costs (you guessed it) one peso. A peso is the currency the people of Cuba use and it’s 25cents (CUC). Which is about $1. Basically, cheap, tasty pizza. A peso pizza joint appears in most of my Havana photos, but I actually waited until Trinidad to have some (that’s when I was running out of cash). Honestly; one of these for lunch every other day would totally hit the spot.

EAT: Ok, so I ended up really disliking using the Lonely Planet travel guide. When they say ‘the most popular guide to Cuba’ they effing mean it – true, it’s well laid out, but every single place listed is over-run by tourists and there’s no trace of Cuba left. Well, for the most part.

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Anyway, one of the places Lonely Planet recommends is really worth going to. It’s actually the first place I tried Ropa Veija in Cuba (along with Mojitos, Daiquiris and Pina Coladas…) It’s really well situated too – just off the square where the Cathedral is located, sits Pala Dona Eutemina.

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Same deal as a lot of places in that with the meat you get a HUGE amount of extras – a whole bowl of black beans in sauce, rice, plantain, veg. YUM. Also, I had their special frozen mojito and it rocked, as well as being super-green. Go, it’s in a lovely corner of the old town and there’s usually music played outside live.

EAT: Habana 61 was one of the least Cuban, most ‘modern’ restaurants I visited. It’s right on the corner of the Old Town and looks less like a private residence and more like a trendy bar. Hilariously, I stumbled across it on my own and went in, only to see the woman who’s house I was staying in turn up 15 minutes later for a meal with her family! So long as the locals visit, I’m happy 🙂


Didn’t actually have Ropa Veija here! I went for pork with plantain and onions (came with rice and beans, as does everything in central American/Caribbean!). SO TASTY. The pork was incredibly tender – and I don’t usually like pork THAT much. The mojitos were pretty good too… then again, all mojitos in Cuba are better than the UK, so maybe that doesn’t mean much.

EAT: Cafe Bohemia was just round the corner from where I was stayed, so I went here a couple of times, mainly for their insanely delicious desserts. For about 3CUC for can get two big coconut brownies (they are uh-may-zing) as are the rest of their sweet treats.

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I went for a sandwich and lemon tart for lunch (and a daiquiri, of course) and the whole thing came to about 10CUC. It’s more a lunch/drink place than a dinner place, but it’s well situated on the square and a good place to rest for a bit out of the sun.

SEE: Right, let’s get this out of the way. The classic cars are EVERYWHERE. The photos you’ve seen are all true, they’re everywhere. Every cab I got to and from the airport or to and from the bus station were classic cars. If you want to see a lot of beautiful, clean cars all lined up head to Parque Central; you won’t be able to miss them.


Scrap that, head ANYWHERE in Cuba and you won’t be able to miss them! If I were you I’d hold off getting one from Parque Central unless you want an open-top car. Otherwise, just have your casa owner call the local cab company and one will definitely rock up.

SEE: So, I stayed in the tourist-y bit, the Old Town called Veija. It’s touristy because the entire area is a Unesco World Heritage Site, due to its historical importance. The area is a series of blocks, with towering buildings, beautiful buildings, with life on every corner. Street art and rubbles adorns the streets and one moment you’ll be walked down a cracked road with reggaetron music blaring from someone’s house five stories up and then all of a sudden you’ll be walking down a street with flowers, eateries and men with saxophones playing jazz and salsa.


There are no number of photos I can post that will adequately describe what the place is like.  I spend 3 of my 5 days in Havana wandering around Veija and Central Habana, most of the time just looking at people, houses, listening to conversations… (and getting hit on, but read more about that in the ‘LOVE’ section). Grab a beer and walk around just trying to take everything in (and not get run over by the numerous bike taxis).


There are endless guidebook (and this blog post) that can give you things to do and see in the Old Town, but personally I just loved wandering. So much so that I racked up a 15 mile walk one of the days without even leaving the area!

SEE: Ok, so this is quite far out of town but SO WORTH IT. On the outskirts of Havana you’ll find a series of roads that have been converted by a Cuban artist to be an entire work of art. Inspired by Guadi (of Barcelona fame – y’know, with the colourful mosaics and unusual architecture) Jose Fuster decided to create what has been dubbed as ‘Fustalandia’ –  a small section in the suburb of Jaimanitas that is completely mesmerising.


The above are just the streets leading up to Jose’s house. His actual house is insane – it’s pretty much what my dreams look like. Colourful, layer upon layer of beautiful artwork. Hearts everywhere; including a heart barred window. His house is free to wander around – make sure you look inside his studio as well as admiring all the incredible twists and turns he’s built into his house.


To get there, take the T1 tourist bus from Parque Central all the way to the end of the route (about 30-40mins) and it stops at Restaurant Cecila. When you get in the T1 ask if the T2 is running – apparently it’s totally on and off. Once you’re on the T1, you’ll be dropped off near a weird circus tent where the T2 will pick you up… at some point. Seems to turn up once every few hours, so make sure you ask when it’ll be there! Once you’re on the T2 (it’s not an open top bus, it’s a small one) then it only takes 10 minutes to get to Fustalandia. Tell the driver where you want to go and they’ll let you know when you get there!

SEE: Cemetery de Colon was one of the highlights of my trip. True, I have a ‘thing’ for cemeteries (endlessly peaceful, beautiful, completely removed from the real work) – so much so I’ve visited them all over the world. But Cemetery Colon is up there with the cemeteries of New Orleans.

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Again, get the T1 tourist bus (cannot reiterate how useful that bus is!) and get off at, you guessed it, Cemetery de Colon. It’s surrounded by a yellow wall with crosses on and it’s huge, you can see the beautiful white iron and graves from a way off. Once you’re in, simply wander around. There is so much beautiful in there and it stretches for miles. I ended up spending 2 hours just wandering about and despite the GORGEOUS pink blooms and numerous trees, aim to go when it’s sunny, but a little cooler so you don’t have to hide from the sun too much.


Again – highlight of Havana. One grave comes with a legend; a woman was buried with her baby and her husband visited her grave every day. When leaving, his walked away backwards, so he could see her for as long as possible. When the Spanish were being dicks she was exhumed and, apparently after being buried with her baby at her feet, she was found with the baby resting on her chest. Super creepy story (which I love) and the grave it covered in flowers… make sure you walk away backwards from it!

SEE: Right, so the Museum of the Revolution isn’t your usual museum. It’s the most one-sided museum I’ve ever been to. To the point it’s hilarious. It’s like Fidel Castro wrote the entire thing himself (probs did). Batista (the President of Cuba who Castro overthrew) is called an ‘evil tyrant’ throughout the museum and the revolution is, of course, referred to as glorious’.

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Highlight is, of course, the HILARIOUS mural located in the entrance hallway. ‘Corner of the Cretins’ features numerous world leaders who, at some point, have come up against Castro. Most notably included are American Presidents, and George W Bush’s characterisation is incredible. Also, as the museum is located in the old Palace, which Che Guavara/Castro’s army stormed in the revolution, so you can actually see the bullet holes in the marble from when stormed the place!

SEE: Ok, final ‘see’ highlight:  Casablanca and the forts. The forts are aren’t on the main land of Havana, you have to get to them via a tunnel (taxi) or the local ferry. Of course, I went for the ferry.


I decided to do the 30 minute walk to the fort, which was easy enough, but did involve a walk to see a giant Jesus. Once you pass Jesus, it’s a straight road to the forts. Basically, if you like cannons, amazing views of the ocean and imposing architecture, this is for you.


LISTEN: The streets are busy, buzzing, dirty, thriving, winding, noisy, quiet and a million other things. Above all, they should absolutely not be explored with headphones in. Listen to the noise and the arguments, the music… everything. If you don’t, you’re missing out.

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And make sure you stray out of the Old Town – central Havana has so much to offer and is no less beautiful and a far more realistic insight into Cuba life in the capital city. A stroll down the Malecon (below) can work wonders too.

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LISTEN: I have a thing for dive bars. Mainly because I don’t dress all fancy and I don’t want to sip expensive cocktails. So I kept my eyes peeled for a dive bar and I managed to find the Cuban equivalent!


It’s located here and called El Chanchullero. The cocktails are strong and cheap, the decor is rustic and basic (scribbles on the ceiling, kinda hipster clientele, nice vibes. Good music too; all Spanish/Cuban of course, but with a slightly rockier edge than the jazz, reggae and salsa you hear elsewhere. Worth a shout if you’re in Cuba with friends, or alone.

LOVE: Right, so however I put this it’s going to sound like I’m bragging or that I’m lying. But I’m not. So here goes.

My whole experience in Cuba was like a ridiculous Lynx advert. It’s like I had sprayed ‘single female with curves and not Spanish’ all over me and guys decided to go mental. Now, I stress – the fact I got cat-called, blown kisses, called beautiful and asked on dates every 2 minutes has nothing to do with me, not really. But it was a LOT to start with.

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Firstly, it was because I was on my own and I also happen to not be skinny. I spoke with a lot of other female tourists (who were with friends, husbands, boyfriends etc) and none of them believed me when I told them about getting hit on every block. But that’s because they were always with someone. The reason I mention not being skinny is because I DID see a few women walking around on their own, but they just weren’t getting hit on. Which I thought was weird, until I asked the woman whose house I was staying in to translate the Spanish words that kept getting shouted at me. Turns out, it was ‘eyes’, ‘legs’ and ‘bum’. If you haven’t seen me, I have a big bum, thunder thighs and apparently this is what Cuban men are all about (no bad thing, haha)!

Secondly, the fact I’m white and clearly a tourist was obviously another big reason for it. Plenty of curvy local women wandering around and not getting harassed – the reputation of us white Western girls obviously precedes us…

I must stress, at no point did I feel threatened. It was just an odd experience, but no one followed me (for that long), threatened me. It wasn’t like in the UK where men believe they’re entitled to your attention – I could happily walk past and ignore the kisses and I wouldn’t get shouted at. It’s just something to be aware of, and not be scared of, if you’re planning a solo trip to Cuba!

MISS: Don’t bother to going to the Hemmingway haunts. Seriously. Wander past El Floridita and El Bodigueta. Firstly, because they’re insane tourist traps. Secondly, because Hemmingway liked them because they did the ‘best’ rum cocktails. That is no longer true (I had one at El Floridita) – not only are the cocktails cheaper elsewhere, but they’re better too. Take a photo, then move on.

Also, I’d recommend giving Placa de la Revolution a miss. Go past it on the tourist bus, but you’re basically there to see the guy below. It’s a really uninspiring place – concrete, no shade, nothing else to do apart from look at the fellas below. So… yeah. Give it a miss.


For tips on Havana, including best places to get money changed, where to stay, how to use the cheap and REALLY useful tourist buses and how to get out of Havana to see via Viazul and Connectado buses, where to buy cigars and how to prepare for the ridiculous amount of men hitting on you if you’re a single woman, click on my Cuba Tips post!

VINALES

EAT: OMG GO TO RESTURANT BUENA VISTA!

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Ok, so the name tells you the highlight: the view is to die for. I mean… it’s incredible. It’s the most stunning view of the Vinales fields and the restaurant is perfectly positioned for the sunset too. It’s romantic, it’s peaceful and it’s awe-inspiring.

Plus, the restaurant itself is lovely (it used to be called Balcon du Valle). A cute bar, gorgeous iron tables and chairs and a HUGE balcony too. It’s pretty much the perfect setting for, well, everything. Not only that, but I honestly loved the food, the drinks and the people who work there.


I had two drinks there: a strong daiquiri and a Pina Colada. The Pina Colada is amazing – they serve it up as a virgin drink and bring a bottle of rum to your table and then just tell you to pour as much in as you want. I had a few gulps of the virgin drink and put in about a double and they laughed and told me to put in more, bless ’em.


The food is insane. It’s traditional Creole/Cuban cooking. You basically choose a meat you want and all of the sides are included in the price. You can have as many as you want, from sweet potato, salad, rice, beans, plantain chips… the list goes on. And the portions are huge. For the meat, I went for the barbecued chicken, which I watched them cook in the restaurant garden as a loads of chickens walked past me (slight pang of guilt, but the chicken ended up tasting so good the guilt quickly passed and I ended up thanking the living chickens for being so damn tasty).

Plus, as I mentioned, the staff are lovely and very happy to chat. I just loved the place – plus, while there I found out they also rent our two of their rooms. It’s basically honeymoon heaven, so if you’re getting hitched stay in their rooms with huge windows and gaze upon this when you wake up AND then later on while you eat ❤

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EAT: Vinales is stunning and I spent a stupid amount of time wandering around fields, over brooks and streams (jumped over one, nearly fell in). On the road that leads you to a gorgeous farm (the next ‘see’) is a charming mojito bar.

It’s really small and located here, with lovely wooden seats and about ten different types of mojitos, all damn cheap. I wanted a mango one but they’d run out, so I went for coconut instead. It was suitably epic, of course, and I sipped it underneath a pink cherry blossom tree whilst listening to horse and carts trundle past. LIKE A FREAKIN’ DREAM.

SEE: As I just mentioned, you go to Vinales for the land. It’s farmland; most of Cuba’s tobacco is grown in the area. There are chickens wandering around everywhere. Horses are ten-a-penny. It’s just amazing to get out in the sunshine and soak in the views.


I started by taking this route, you end up walking down a road, walking over a small bridge and then you’re met with greenery (and loud music). Take the left fork in the road and wander under the trees up a dirt track until you see a bar on your left (it’s a wooden shack kinda bar!) and walk past it for about 20 metres. On your left is a fence and a stunning view: walk towards the farm buildings and you’ll be met by the farmer (speaks NO English at all) but he does serve up drinks and cigars. I got 10 cigars for about $5 and I spoke to a few locals after my trek and it turns out this farms happens to be known locally for making some of the best cigars in Vinales 🙂

SEE: Yes, there’s lots of fields in Vinales. But there’s also a botanic garden which is WELL worth exploring, especially when it’s midday and you want to get out of the heat!


The garden is really central and the entrance is a bit hidden away, but you’ll spot the trees and flowers easily. The gardens were run by two old women who passed away within the last 5 years and it continue to be run free of charge, only accepting donations in order to maintain the garden. It’s just a lovely, peaceful place to spend an hour.

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Also, there is a section of the garden which is now only filled with gorgeous flowers and plants (and pineapples and parrots too) but old, creepy dolls tied to trees. Yup. Really creepy. Especially if you wander into the section and suddenly see one. Obviously, this made me love the place even more then I already did haha.

LISTEN: Walk from your casa and head to the fields. Walk for about 20 minutes until you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. And at no point have your headphones in. That’s the beauty of Vinales; soak in the views and enjoy the silence. In fact, there’s a valley called the Valley of Silence a little way out of Vinales (you can get there easily with a tour guide or a taxi) which I’m gutted I didn’t manage to do, but if you go tell me what I missed out on 😦

LOVE: Ok, so this is about what I loved rather than love generally. Once again, I’m going to make a case for the tourist buses. I KNOW, I KNOW. I fully consider myself a traveler at all times and not a tourist, but the buses are really useful and worth using. Only 5CUC for unlimited day ticket and there’s one bus every 90 minutes.


The bus takes you past the beautiful views up to Restaurant Buena Vista and a valley viewpoint. It also takes you to one of the caves which has been turned into a bar and is meant to be a great place to explore. And the Mural de la Historica, which is absolutely not worth going out of your way to visit, but the tourist bus drives past, so get out and take a photo while you’re there etc but… yeah. Not worth a dedicated trip to see!

For tips on Vinales, including how to get wifi, where to stay, how to use the cheap and REALLY useful tourist buses, buses in and out of Havana, best places to hike and more visit this blog post (when it’s written).
TRINIDAD
Trinidad is over 500 years old. It’s a colourful UNESCO World Heritage site and is located on the Caribbean side of Cuba.


EAT
: Peso pizza is everywhere in Cuba. Since Raul Castro legalised private businesses (small private businesses) a few years back, people have opened up their homes to travelers… to be fair, the Cuban culture is so welcoming that their homes were already open. There was someone dropping by every casa I stayed in every hour!

So, when I was in Trindad towards the end of my trip and money was getting a little tight (Mastercards don’t work in Cuban ATMs fyi!) I decided it was the perfect opportunity to have Peso pizza. One peso (CUC) is about a dollar,and for one dollar you can either pick up a delicious pizza from a hole in the wall (the hole usually being in someone’s kitchen) or, like I did, you can walk into someone’s home and sit down.

The peso pizza I had was roughly located here (can’t remember the exact house, but deffo on this street!). I was welcomed immediately into the house and they’ve crudely turned their entrance hallways into a bar with stools and a place to eat. The menu is basic and everything is cooked right in front of you in their kitchen.

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While I munched my pizza and sipped my daiquiri, the La Liga final was taking place. Real Madrid were playing and, Cuba being a ‘Spanish’ country, EVERYONE was watching it. I was taking a bit of my pizza when Real Madrid scored and everyone started going insane. Water bottles were being hit against doors, everyone was cheering and I got to see a family kissing and hugging and going mental while I sat in their kitchen. The guy came over, kissed me on both cheeks and continued celebrating. It was lovely – both that, and the pizza!

Don’t get me wrong, peso pizza it great a few times a week but I think more than that it’ll just get too stodgy. You can’t go to Cuba without trying it though!

EAT: Want good coffee? Head to Cafe Don Pepe. It’s in a lovely location and… yeah. Does good coffee. Cool decor too.

EAT/LISTEN: Ok, so every now and again one of the Lonely Planet recommendations is still good, despite having lost most of their Cuban charm. If you want good music and good tapas, then head to La Botija.

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I went for sweetcorn fritters, ham and cheese and something else which I now can’t remember. But it’s whatever was in those fried ball things. I remember they tasted good, so my tongue memory (that’s a thing, shut up) is on point.

The music was a mix of classical and guitar, combined with a soulful voice and it was really good. Apparently the music here is usually jazz/classical/soul and if it was anything like the musicians I got to see, it’s well worth a visit!

SEE: Ok, so there are a lot of ‘Sees’ for Trinidad, so I’m going to try and keep them short and sweet. First up, is a hike (stay with me) to the top of a big hill overlooking Trinidad. The views are spectacular, the hike isn’t actually THAT bad (I did it at midday and managed it fine).

To get up there you’ll have to walk through the poorer part of Trinidad. It’s perfectly safe, you’ll just have people asking you to buy things a little more than usual. Keep walking and eventually you’ll come to Disco Ayala, a club that takes place in a cave. (For 10CUC you get entry and as many mojitos as you can sink. Glorious nightmare.)

^Anyway. When you get to the top, you’re met with a beautiful view of the ocean, Trinidad town and on the other side of the hill, the sugar plantations. You can actually see as far as Manaca Iznaga, which is famed for the huge tower which the Spanish land-owners used to climb to ensure the slaves weren’t trying to escape from the sugar plantations.

There’s also a guy who works at the top (it’s a telephone mast) and he’s very happy to lead you up the structure for you to get a better look! Plus, you can get water and beer at the top of the hill too. Win, win, win.

SEE: Trinidad has a whole lotta history and, like Havana, stunning houses. There are beautiful squares and plenty of opportunities to step inside the colonial house museums.

First museum I went to was the Museo de Arquitectura Trinitara – it’s essentially a public display of wealth and a chance to wander around a house that’s from the 18th and 19th centuries (it’s actually two houses, now combines). In the garden is a Victorian shower and gorgeous tiling in the drawing room (plus a chandelier).

Second crazy rich colonial house I went to was the Museo Historico Minuicipal; it used to belong to a man who, apparently acquired loads of sugar plantations (and, therefore, money) by poisoning an old slave trader and marrying his widow. Swell guy. The house is incredibly ornate with a stunning courtyard. It doesn’t take long to wander round, but seeing the inside of these places really brings the history to life!

SEE: So, I didn’t TECHNICALLY see Parque El Cubano but I tried to get there, twice, but failed. This is what the National Parque looks like (and why I wanted to go):

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I love waterfalls… so… y’know. Also, I infinitely prefer architecture and National Parks to beaches, hence why I decided to try and get to the park and didn’t bother going to Playa Ancon (a nice Caribbean beach very close to Trinidad).

Anyway, first I tried to walk into the park via some weird little trail which I thought I found via Google maps. I didn’t. Google was wrong. I ended up walking down this farm track to some old train lines and bumped into a group of yoofs who offered to take me to the waterfall but I declined. Second time I decided to go the legit route (the Lonely Planet guide) which involved me walking to the ‘Welcome to Trinidad’ sign, over a bridge, up a steep slope… as you can tell I did not managed to do the 15k all-in walk because it was BOILING HOT and SO SO HOT. And DID I MENTION IT WAS REALLY HOT?… and I had so little money at this point in my trip I couldn’t justify the taxi fare there. Go, tell me about it, but go in a taxi!

 SEE: One of my highlights the church with bell tower just off Plaza Mayor. You can’t miss it – it’s big and yellow. Basically. I know, I should write guide books.

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Inside, you’ll find Museo de la Lucha which features lots of political photos, the fuselage of a US spy plane that was shot down over Cuba and a beautiful bell tower.

Climb the bell tower. DO IT. Gorgeous views: first floor gives you access to the roof, second floor takes you up past the bells and amazing views of the hills surrounding Trinidad.

It costs 1CUC to get in and it’s absolutely worth it for the views from the bell tower!

LISTEN: There’s an old theatre (Brunet) which is now a beer hall and entertainment venue. I went there a couple of times to read my guidebook (and travel magazines) – it’s a big space and is gorgeous.

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It’s a good place for a big group (huge tables, cheap beer) but if you go just before sunset there’s a HUGE plant growing over the ruined theatre pillars and what sounded like dozens of birds nest in there. Basically, this is a good place for glorious birdsong and a casual night out.

LOVE: I adored Cuba. The people are open and welcoming and I felt safe at all times. Havana, Vinales and Trinidad were all gorgeous, there was always someone to lend a hand and I’m sure my experience would have been the same, nice, if I could speak Spanish. Despite the language barrier, I had people be kind and helpful and honestly, didn’t have a single person to really rude to me or scare me.

If you’re travelling in Cuba alone, I honestly wouldn’t be afraid. Step outside your comfort zone and give it a go! And do it soon: I shared a cab with a woman from the Vinales bus stop to central Havana and she said that she’s been visiting Cuba every year for 15 years. Apparently she’s noticed more change in the last year than the 14 years previous to that. Wifi, ATMs… these appeared in Cuba VERY recently and already American music is becoming more popular. If you want to see the Cuba that puts people before profit, go soon. And hope that things don’t change for the worse.

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