Want to know exactly what a Stubborn Mule Cuba trip is like, day by day?

Here, Helene shares her ‘mule musings’ – effectively a daily postcard – on what she experienced as it happened.

Us? Jealous? You better believe it…

Postcard from Cuba - blogger Helene beside vintage cars in Havana

Stubborn Mule’s Helene Cooper with airport transportation

Arriba Havana

Old ‘Habana’

“I’m sending you to Cuba,” the boss said. “You’ll love it! I need beaches recce’d and restaurants checked out.” And so, mere days later, I find myself arriving in Havana, in the midst of the rainy season, on a mission. Welcome to Cuba! After an intense 24hrs in Havana ticking off all the necessary elements – classic car tour of the modern city, walking tour of old ‘Habana’, enjoying my first rum cocktail in a music bar (and discovering I was more of a daiquiri than a mojito girl), receiving attention from the local lotharios which, as a mature mum of three was quite amusing, and getting soaked in a violent tropical storm – it was time to head out and see the country.

Andreas our driver arrived at our hotel dead on 9am. A good sign. An extremely warm, friendly man with a twinkle in his eye and who spoke perfect English, I took to him immediately and spent the next hour picking his brains on how to improve our itineraries, where the best spots for families were, the ever-changing political situation in Cuba and, of course, the price of fuel. Andreas had been a diplomat for the Cuban government before switching to the tourism business so I found myself in the slightly surreal situation of discussing what life was like for a Cuban in the Congo whilst speeding along the highway to Las Terrazas.

Las Terrazas is a unique eco-community high in the hills of the biosphere of Sierra Rosario, an hour West of Havana. Hotel La Moka is the main focal point and I would urge you to stay at least one night here to enjoy the stunning and very peaceful surroundings a million miles away from the busy Havana streets. Perfect for children who can roam around freely, enjoy the hotel pool, follow an easy walking trail, take a fffffreezing dip beneath the San Juan Waterfalls or get high in the canopy on a zip wire excursion.

There are 6 sections of wire but only 2 were open today due to repairs. They were the best 2 though, criss crossing high above the central lake. My Stubborn Mule sidekick (excuse the pun) had never tried it before and looked slightly pale as we were hoisted into our harnesses, hard hat and protective gloves. And so, a mere 2 months after swooping between tropical islands with my 5 year old in Borneo, I found myself shrieking my way, like a 5yr old, high above Las Terrazas. Such fun and over far too quickly. It’s not for everyone however and my sidekick needed a stiff rum afterwards. Top tip – try and avoid weekends and arrive either at 9 or wait till 4 else you’ll spend more time standing around between sections than you will up in the air.

You can easily enjoy a day amidst the lush scenery of Las Terrazas, enjoy a seafood meal at the Boathouse on the lake, start the souvenir shopping at the craft stalls or soak in your hotel bath with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the forest. Genuine immersion in Cuban countryside.

Next stop, Vinales…

Viva Vinales!

Cuba blog - Vinales - family travel

Vinales Valley… Cuba’s activity heaven

Vinales is fab. I absolutely loved it. The gorgeous pastel coloured houses lining the Main Street, the lively cafes and bars filled with competing Cuban rhythms, souvenir shops and outdoor markets – but no hard sell. As the rain poured down forcing the market to close (we named this regular afternoon event the Curse of the Marios – husbands – as it curtailed shopping time) we retreated to a chilled out tapas bar to contemplate the next day’s excursion.

From Vinales you can take a variety of excursions – by foot, by bike, in the back of a bullock cart or on horseback – through the stunning landscape of limestone outcrops and fields of sugarcane, coffee and corn. But it’s way too hot to walk or bike. For youngsters I’d take (I never thought I’d say this) the bullock and for older families the horses are perfect although there are no hard hats available. The horses (thankfully well behaved seeing as the last time I rode was over 25yrs ago) take you on winding trails through farms and past remote, rural settlements. A wonderful way to see the Cuban countryside. We stopped at a coffee farm and also learnt about rum production. The most important crop here however is tobacco.

As a non-smoker I was sceptical how interesting I (and children) would find a ‘tobacco-rolling’ class. But I had a surprising amount of fun learning how the locals remove the stem of the tobacco leaf which is where nicotine comes from making non-commercial cigars non-addictive – even ‘healthy’…. Thus I found myself puffing on a big fat cigar, dipped in honey Che Guevara-style, sipping a mojito at 9.30 in the morning. When in Cuba…..

PS Virgin Mojitos available for Little People!

Cha Cha Cha in Trinidad

Post cards from Cuba with Cuban dancers

Ed Balls eat your heart out…

Just how much fun can one rhythmic Cuban chap and two English ladies have in a hot sweaty room in Trinidad? Tongue in cheek of course. We were booked in for an hour’s salsa class with the extremely tolerant Yusel. Full of trepidation we embarked on our first basic steps. So far so good. Then a couple of Dutch guys turned up early for their class. So we merged lessons. Soooo much fun. My partner (most disconcertingly the spitting image of an ex) was highly amusing. To paraphrase a certain Mr Morecambe – he had all the right moves, just not necessarily in the right order. Sunshine.

But it was massive fun. I honestly haven’t laughed whilst simultaneously working really hard since, well, being back in the office! I was whirled around the dance floor, turning left then right, backwards and forwards, even vaguely in time to the music. Kids would love it honest. Even if they got bored after half an hour they could still have a laugh at their parents dancing like Ed Balls from Strictly.

I came away with aching calf muscles (too much ballet as a child meant I danced mostly high on the balls of my feet – not great for the triathlon I’d entered the Stubborn Mule team into in a few months time) but also with a real sense of accomplishment. So much so that we booked again for a second session the next day. And Yusel even gave us a very sweet thumbs up so we can’t have been that bad even though surprisingly after three children I seem to lack a bit of hip action. I do have video as proof so I can giggle with the kids over it later. I reckon they’ll ‘do a Len’ and give me a SEVENNNN!

Cuban Top Towns

Beautiful city scape of Trinidad - postcard from Cuba

Gorgeous Trinidad…

Cuban cities and towns are absolutely stunning – though I am well aware they may hold little interest for youngsters. Just how many gorgeous, pastel-coloured colonial buildings can one take? Here are my top towns that would also conveniently fit into a two-week circuit of the island.

Vinales
I’m starting here as that is the first place we headed to from Havana. It was also my favourite place. Not necessarily for its architecture but more for the general vibe on the Main Street. And it really is just one street – with lovely cafes, restaurants, tapas bars, souvenir shops and stalls – even a little supermarket (selling very little). Although we arrived in the pouring rain I still enjoyed it and it’s a great base for all the various activities in the valley – walks, tobacco farm visits, coffee plantations, riding, bullock cart rides etc….

Cienfuegos
An easy hop from the beaches of the Zapata Peninsula lies this elegant coastal city. With an easy grid pattern you can wander the pedestrianised streets and enjoy the stunning buildings of the main square before driving along the Prado past the brightly coloured grand houses leading to the seafront. A perfect stop for lunch en route to Trinidad.

Trinidad
The quintessential Cuban city. Unbelievably picturesque, mostly pedestrianised, old churches, immaculately restored mansions – and extremely touristy. With cruise ships stopping more regularly now, the pestering in the markets and from ad hoc sellers and hopeful taxi drivers is only going to increase. Lovely but not as relaxing as other places.

Santa Clara
Home of the impressive Che Guevara monument and the famous armoured train. Definitely worth a lunchtime stop and kids will love clambering through the train carriages and ogling at the armoury (entrance is free). It has more of a feel of a working city so I am not sure it would be worth an overnight here.

Remedios
If you are heading to Cayo Santa Maria this little gem of a place is definitely worth a visit. Exquisite architecture, an extremely tranquil feel – I felt I had landed in the Wild West as it has a dusty, cowboy town feel to it. I took more photos here of classic cars next to horse and carts in front of beautiful buildings than I did in Trinidad.

Havana
Or La Habana as it is known locally. The Big One. I am going to be frank here. At Stubborn Mule Travel we believe in a warts and all approach to reviews – it pays to be honest after all. I didn’t fall in love with Havana the way I expected to. Perhaps it was the exhaust fumes from the classic cars, the afternoon deluge from a tropical storm making a walking tour impossible, the surprising lack of musicians on street corners – one of my main interests in coming to Cuba – and also the attention we garnered from various ‘young men’ whilst we were sitting peacefully at cafes. Very flattering of course being of a certain age and with five children between us but rather unwanted.

It is a stunning city and with the old quarter mostly pedestrianised, very safe for children – parents could sit over a mojito in a bar whilst kids play happily in the open squares. And of course the classic cars and colourful coco taxis would provide constant entertainment. But I still feel two days maximum would be enough here. Stay at the Hotel Sevilla (with pool), just in front of the Museo de Revoluccion with its impressive array of tanks and planes outside, take a ride along the Malecon to watch the nightly firing of canons from the old fort and just enjoy the general rhythm of the city. Then head out and explore the gorgeous countryside.

Life’s a beach

Cuba postcard - Varadero beach

Varadero… not the devil’s spawn after all!

So the ultimate question to come out of my trip to Cuba has to be “Which was the best beach?” Well, as usual there are no straight answers as it very much depends what you are looking for as a family.

The idyllic Robinson Crusoe island of Cayo Levisa was definitely the most perfect beach setting I experienced. Picture postcard white sand, dazzling turquoise sea with crystal clear water, totally laid-back with absolutely nothing to do there but relax. However that might also prove an issue for more active families and in any case I would suggest three nights is enough.

The beach at Playa Larga seems to experience seasonal variations quite dramatically. When I was there the sea was not really suitable for swimming (although the locals were) as it was too rough and a bit churned up with reeds. All the beaches along this stretch of the Bay of Pigs felt the same – more of a locals’ beach. But I did see photos of beautiful calm water and some fantastic diving and snorkelling a short boat ride away on the reef so perhaps one for Xmas/Easter. A day or two here should be enough though.

We are often asked about the beaches near Trinidad. We usually allow three days here as there is so much to do with the city itself and the nearby Topes de Collante Mountains. And there are various beach options, starting with La Boca at 6km the closest to town. More for locals, a better bet is Playa Ancon 15 mins from Trinidad. Nice enough with a reasonable hotel in Las Brisas but the beach is a public one.

An option here if swimming is a must would be to stay here with its pool and beach and just drive into town when you wanted. Staying in Trinidad does offer more atmosphere though. Highly recommended is the day trip to Cayo Iguana for snorkelling, swimming and checking out the Iguanas who rule the island. There are also other swimming options up in the mountains beneath waterfalls and natural pools so maybe think outside the beach.

Heading to the north coast and although the long journey along the causeway to Cayo Santa Maria may feel laborious, it is a lovely spot with good quality hotels. They are all-inclusive though so do go prepared for endless classes around the pool, various organised beach activities and nightly entertainment. Peaceful it was not but the facilities were great. Apart from the sea, which was way too rough to even enter. Worse than Felixstowe during a North Sea storm! Again it was the time of year as the staff said at Easter it is much calmer – though a tad chilly at Xmas. It is a long way though – a good 5 hours from Havana. So there is the infamous Varadero option.

I say infamous as of course most people envisage this ghastly row upon row of hotels providing accommodation for the two-week package tourists interested solely in getting a tan. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. The old town itself is lovely – good shops and bars with a nice feel to it. The beach here is fine too so there is always the option of staying in a casa and enjoying the sea from here. Alternatively if you are prepared to bite the all-inclusive bullet there are numerous options along the peninsular all offering the usual kids facilities and dubious buffet meals. My children would have loved it – myself not so much but fine for a few days and with several excursions to caves and the dolphinarium nearby it need not just mean being stuck poolside by the flume.

There are also beaches 20 minutes north of Havana – again more local beaches but perfectly fine to enjoy an afternoon at. Ultimately though one had to decide what the priorities are. Most families do a bit of touring and then crash at a beach at the end. I personally quite liked slotting in a beach day or two here at various points of the trip. But one thing is for sure, I certainly couldn’t spend two weeks at any of the beaches I visited. Purely personal – I just need other elements to create a good holiday. And, although my children may disagree, they also enjoy heading away from the beach, climbing the odd mountain, taking a night safari etc…. Life isn’t just a beach.

Top tips from the road

Postcards from Cuba - photo of things to pack

What not to forget…

These are some unexciting but useful advice for travelling with the children through Cuba, based on my own trip. Never forget to take a sense of humour with you and a huge amount of patience. Things will undoubtedly not quite go according to plan so just relax into the Cuban pace of life and go with the flow.

Plugs
…the electric kind. Cuba uses the flat two prong plugs as well as the round two prong sockets. Sometimes there was only one option, other times both were available. Take both adaptors to be on the safe side.

Plugs
…the sink kind. I didn’t see a single sink plug the entire time I was in Cuba. Even in five star resorts. Very annoying if you need to do any washing or rinsing out of ice-cream stained t-shirts. Bring a universal plug.

Beach towels
Yes, I know they’re cumbersome especially when wet but I found that many hotels and definitely the casas did not provide them. The larger beach resorts did but had strict rules about leaving them in the room at check out so if you are staying on to use the facilities you’ll have no towel. Day trips to islands, walks to waterfalls and pools or popping to the local’s beach will all mean having a towel will come in handy. A sarong or quick drying pack towel are good alternatives.

Insect repellent – Even in Havana there were mossies around. Worst place was Cayo Levisa and Playa Larga. Try the insect repellent bracelets, which will undoubtedly go down better with kids rather than the suffocating Deet spray.

Special equipment
Child seats are pretty non-existent in Cuba so take your own booster seat – the blow up ones work well and some double as rucksacks. Note there are no seat belts on the classic cars. Small child life jackets are also a good idea to take out and snorkelling gear for rent is sometimes of dubious quality so take your own if this is important to you. Riding/bike helmets are also not widely available so again, take your own. Umbrellas are provided in most places for those tropical downpours but a lightweight poncho might also be a good idea. Very lightweight though – it’s hot and humid in Cuba!

Snacks – And lots of them. It was really hard to find any type of snacks on the road in Cuba. People still queue up outside supermarkets with empty shelves or have to purchase goods through bar-fronted shops. We take Tesco Express for granted in the UK.

An extra bag for souvenirs
There are some wonderful souvenirs to be had from roadside stalls and markets and all  at extremely reasonable prices. Fridge magnets are $1, pretty hand made dresses $10, shell jewellery from $4. You can sometimes haggle and everyone is usually really friendly (and speak English).

Apps
If you are self-driving in Cuba I recommend downloading a navigation app before you go. There is no GPS in Cuba (only PPS – people positioning service but if your Spanish is not up to much you may find it hard asking for directions. Road maps are constantly changing too so do plenty of prep before you go and always check about the state of the roads before you leave.

Mini toiletries
Most casas and all hotels provide the basic shampoo/shower gel but it might be good to err on the safe side and pack a few minis. I left selections behind for the cleaning staff as toiletries are also hard to come by in Cuba.

Cash
And lots of it. There are ATMs around but they are only in the big cities and can be hard to find as well as being out of action at times. Credit cards are not widely used (except at the large beach resorts) so just make sure you take enough Sterling or Euros for your stay. You can change money everywhere and the rate in the hotel does not differ much from the bank or Cambio.

Bueno Suerte!

More straight from the mule’s mouth!

If you enjoyed Helene’s Postcards from Cuba blog and would like to start planning a trip, do ring us or get in touch via our website contact form… we’d love to hear from you.

You can also check out our Cuba family holidays section and see two example Cuba itineraries. Or read our Cuba with kids top 10 favourite activities blog complete with photos. And for more about the weather visit When to go to Cuba.

Telephone: 01728 752751
Email: info@stubbornmuletravel.com