In timeless Cuba, fifties-style American cadillacs roll through the faded colonial streets, while in the music halls rum flows freely. Beyond the island's iconic cities, find wild landscapes, from forests to dramatic limestone hills, as well as the beautiful Caribbean coastline. Colonial Trinidad - Music bursts from every corner of this colourful, cobbled old town; explore it from privately run homestays and get a deeper experience of local life Escambray Mountains - Walk through mountain forests, swim in fresh water pools and camp out under the stars Revolutionary history - Get underneath the revolution with visits to Castro and Che's mountain hideout as well as the Bay of Pigs museum.
Arrive in Havana. Built around a deep natural harbour, Havana is one of the most impressive cities in the Americas. It's also one of the most exciting: the modern city is a fascinating mix of old and new, with crumbling tenement blocks and 1950s American Cadillacs rubbing shoulders with grand colonial buildings and monuments to the revolution. Due to the number of evening flights into Havana, our local Leader plans to do the welcome briefing in the morning of day two, and will leave a message in reception with details on timings and everything else that you'll need for the day. There are no other activities planned today, so you are free to arrive in Havana at any time. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you'll need to arrive into Havana's Jose Marti International Airport (airport code: HAV) which is 23km, around 45 minutes from the airport. A representative from our local partners in Cuba will meet you at Havana Airport and assist you with the transfer formalities. If your flight arrives earlier in the day, perhaps you might choose head out to explore Old Havana, just a short walk from the elegant Capitolio building and the scenic Malecon sea esplanade with fine views of the city. There are several restaurants and bars within walking distance and you're likely to hear the hypnotic rhythms of salsa, trova and son being played along the Paseo del Prado.
We explore the city this morning, driving past art deco style buildings along the coastal esplanade of the Malecon and through the Vedado and Miramar suburbs. On our travels, we will see many brightly-painted vintage cars - the result of legislation enforced until 2011 ruling that only cars built before the 1959 revolution could be sold. We'll also notice the lack of advertising - nothing but political exhortations are allowed. On foot, we explore the Vieja (old) district, with its baroque cathedral, beautiful neoclassical buildings and the Plaza de Armas (main square). During your free afternoon you may choose to visit the fascinating Museum of the Revolution, housed in the impressive former Presidential Palace. It's a good place to start delving into Cuba's absorbing history. The City Museum is also worth a visit, exhibiting art and historical artefacts in rooms preserved with their original Colonial decoration. Alternatively, you may prefer to visit the famous cigar factory or relax in one of the many bars of the city. Later this afternoon, we will get into Cuba's quintessential culture with a rum and tobacco pairing, before having the evening free to sample some of the nightlife of the capital.
Travelling west of Havana today, our destination is arguably the most picturesque part of Cuba - the Vinales region. Here, surreal mountains jut out of the landscape, formed by the erosion of limestone over millions of years. These 'mogotes' translate as 'haystacks' - a good word for them considering their steep sides and rounded jungly tops. Around them, the iron-rich, red soil creates a patchwork of fields growing some of the best tobacco in the world - the raw material for Cuba's celebrated cigars. We can look forward to a two-hour easy trek through the valleys of this remarkable landscape to the village of El Palmerito. Mogotes tower above us as we pass through tobacco fields and past drying barns. After our cigar pairing yesterday it's interesting to compare the commercial cigar market with the farmers who actually grow the tobacco, and we'll meet some of these along the way. After this walk you may wish to visit the Cueva del Indio - one of the many caves in this area - or take a swim in the hotel pool.
We have a long drive of 450km today, past Havana and east to Santa Clara in the centre of Cuba. We'll stop regularly to break up the journey, notably at the stunning Soroa Rainforest where we take a walk to see the orchids. Nearer to Santa Clara, we'll visit the Che Guevara monument, with an enormous transcription of Che's last letter to Fidel - your tour leader can translate this for you - it's fascinating to read about how much the revolution meant to both of them. The town of Santa Clara was originally a prosperous agricultural area, well-placed on the island's trading route. Now, it is most famous as the site of the last battle of the Revolution in which Che Guevara's troops took the city, causing the Cuban dictator, Batista, to flee into exile. Because of this, the town was chosen as the final resting place for the national hero and we'll explore some more of the Che Guevara sites tomorrow.
This morning, we visit the centre of Santa Clara and the Tren Blindado Memorial, before moving on to Che's Mausoleum. Guevara was buried here with full military honours in 1997 after his exhumed remains were discovered in Bolivia and returned to Cuba. A flame lit by Fidel Castro burns eternally to honour a man who played a key role in Cuba's revolution and whose image is routinely displayed throughout the country. We will also visit the museum dedicated to Guevara's life, containing many interesting letters and artefacts. Back on the road, we continue to Sancti Spiritus, one of the original seven settlements founded by Diego Velasquez when he claimed Cuba for Spain, before continuing our drive across the flattest province in Cuba - Ciego de Avila. We pass through land predominantly used for cattle ranching, sugar growing and citrus fruit production. Continuing up into the hills of the Sierra de Cubitas, by late afternoon we reach the provincial capital of Camaguey - Cuba's third largest city and a cultural centre for music, ballet and art. Our hotel is near to the Old Town, allowing for easy exploration on foot.
The morning is free to wander around Camaguey. What may strike you about this city is its labyrinth street layout - a fascinating by-product of pirate-fighting. With more similarities to a Moroccan medina than the geometric street planning you might expect, legend has it that it was designed to confuse pillaging invaders and provide cover for its residents. If the heat gets too much, you might prefer to explore the city's hidden plazas and baroque churches by bicitaxi. However you choose to get around, we recommend a visit to the bustling farmer's market - one of the largest in Cuba. In the afternoon, we travel to Bayamo, another of the original seven Spanish settlements. However the inhabitants burned it to the ground in 1869 in an act of rebellion against the Spanish, so there is little colonial architecture left to see. Our journey continues east towards the Sierra Maestra Mountains - the highest mountain range in Cuba, where we spend the night in a small hotel either in Bartolome Maso or Santo Domingo.
This morning, a convoy of 4WD vehicles carry us up a steep asphalted road to El Alto de Naranjo, 950 metres above sea level. We then trek for three kilometres through virgin rainforest to La Comandancia de La Plata. The path is uneven and can be muddy, helping us to understand the appeal of its remoteness. It was here that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara took refuge after an unsuccessful uprising against the Cuban dictator, Batista, in 1956. As you walk around this hideaway, which became the revolutionaries' headquarters until Batista fled Cuba in 1959, you gain a real sense of their two year residency here. Castro's simple camp bed and fridge (which someone impressively carted up the mountain for him) still remain, along with a trap door for a speedy exit if under attack. Also, the original broadcast hut for 'Radio Rebelde' still stands, as well as Che's hospital hut where he worked as a doctor. Previously forbidden, it is now possible to take photos around the site for a small fee. After lunch at Villa Santo Domingo, we drive inland towards the lively former Cuban capital of Santiago, where we check-in to our hotel on the outskirts of the city. If there is time this evening, we'll head to El Morro Fort for the firing of the cannon, happening each night at sunset.
Surrounded by hills and looking-out over the Caribbean, Santiago is another of the original seven Spanish settlements, and has a wonderful architectural heritage from Spanish colonial, through to art deco influences. It has quite a different feel to Havana, but retains its own charm. This morning, we'll have a brief tour of the city and will see the Moncada Barracks, which still have bullet holes on the outside after an unsuccessful attack by Castro and 118 students in 1953. After our short overview of the city, we'll drive the 300km to Santa Lucia, approximately 5 hours, on Cuba's north coast. With 20km of golden sand, Santa Lucia is an idyllic Cuban beach perfect for an afternoon swim. The resorts in the area are typically Cuban - that is to say, somewhat past their best. However, the beach can't be beaten and the calm turquoise water is very inviting.
After having a relaxing swim this morning, we leave Santa Lucia behind and head towards Trinidad. We stop at the Valle de los Ingenios, also known as the Valley of the Sugar Mills en route. This was the centre of sugar production for 100 years from the late 18th century, and at its peak, it was home to 30,000 slaves working in the mills and surrounding plantations. Today, the ruined sugar mills and mansions lining the valley bear witness to the previous prosperity in the area. We stop at the infamous Torre de Manaca Iznaga, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This seven floor tower was built to watch over the slaves working in the fields and had two bells. One was rung when the slaves could stop working and take a meal, the other when a slave escaped. By early evening, we will arrive at our casa particular just outside the beautiful Spanish colonial town of Trinidad. 'Casas particulares', or local guesthouses, are a style of accommodation unique to Cuba. The industry began in the early '90s when entrepreneurial homeowners rented out rooms in their houses for a little extra cash, a side hustle that was initially illegal in a country that did not allow for private enterprise. In 1997 the Cuban government legalised the business, and while you can now find some large casas that are run more as a typical bed and breakfast, the majority are still a couple of rooms in the owner's house. The beauty of the casas is that each one is very different. You will have ensuite bathrooms, hot water, a delicious breakfast and air conditioning across the board, but that is where the similarities end. Décor and aesthetics vary dramatically not just between cities but also between streets. Some are still the primary residence for the owners, which is a great opportunity to interact with local people, or practice your Spanish. In other cases, the owner may live elsewhere. In Trinidad, many (although not all) of the casas have some outdoor space, whether it is a terrace, balcony or courtyard. So while everyone's experience will be different, using casas gives us a great alternative to staying in standard hotels, and a new perspective on Cuban life.
This morning, we wander through the cobbled streets of the old centre of Trinidad, discovering its fine palaces, churches and cafes. A paradise for photographers, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a perfectly preserved colonial settlement unlike any other. In the early 19th century, French settlers fleeing a slave revolt in Haiti, landed here and started to grow sugar cane in the Valle de Los Ingenios. This crop generated considerable wealth and consequently the town had to be regularly defended from pirates. Nowadays it's a fantastic place to get lost in, with a small centre and shady plazas. Subject to opening hours, we will visit a local museum before our free afternoon. You may choose to relax on the six kilometres of Playa Ancon's white sand beach, just a 15 minute taxi ride away, or explore some more of Trinidad's museums and local art galleries. There is also the opportunity to take a salsa lesson with a local teacher. Later, the open-air Casa de la Musica is a great place to listen to some live Cuban music, sipping a mojito under the stars.
Today we travel inland to Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve Park, famous for its many endemic species of flora and fauna. We can look forward to a two-night stay here to explore this glorious area. After a ride in an old Russian military-style truck up a steep, switch-back road into the lush Escambray Mountains, we arrive at the park entrance. Here we meet our local guide who, along with our Leader, will help us to explore the park. -There is an eight kilometre trek to our hacienda accommodation. Those who would prefer not to walk can continue with the truck to the hacienda. Our hike can vary slightly, depending on the weather and the group, but it is likely to take us into the coffee-growing valley of the Guayanara River. The paths are undulating and can be uneven underfoot, but the views and sense of remoteness are truly rewarding. Along our route, we see Cuba's highest lake, Embalse Hanabanilla, pass rural homes and watch shepherds minding their herds of goats. After about four hours' walking, we arrive at our hacienda, a small farmstead set in a rocky valley, for lunch. The afternoon is free. However, we recommend the five kilometre circular walk (approximately three hours) to the Salto de Rocio Waterfall - an area flush with trogons, hummingbirds and woodpeckers. To get to the waterfall we follow a riverside track where we are likely to see impressive tree fern, bromeliad and orchid species. On arrival at the spectacular waterfalls and lakes, adventurous swimmers can enjoy a dip, while others may choose to relax on the banks. The accommodation at the hacienda is simple. After supper, we sleep out under the eaves of the hacienda's veranda or in tents, with male and female washing facilities in a block nearby. Foam mattresses are provided, but you will benefit from bringing a sleeping bag. The fresh mountain air and the peace and quiet of the night, with its canopy of stars, is usually enough to ensure a good night's sleep. Day 5 and 6 may be swapped around.
This morning, we start with a short drive in our Russian truck to the start of our four-hour trek (approximately eight kilometres). Again, anyone not wanting to make the walk can travel on to the Hacienda with the truck. We walk through an unspoilt land of forest, water-eroded valleys, rushing waterfalls and underground rivers. We trek through pine forest and along paths bordered by mahogany and hibiscus. If we're lucky, we may see brightly-coloured hummingbirds flash past, darting from flower to flower, searching for nectar. When we reach La Batata, there is an opportunity to swim in an open cave through which an underground river gently carves out rock pools. The water rarely exceeds 20°C, so it's exhilarating! We then trek on through the forest until we reach an isolated, century-old hacienda, set in a lush valley. This is our base for the night and where we will have lunch. In the afternoon, our local guide takes us on a circular trail (approximately one and a half kilometres), discussing the orchids and medicinal plants that we find en route. We are also taken down through a cave, La Cueva del Altar, emerging on the other side of the hill to beautiful views of the Caribbean. This evening, we are treated to more Cuban hospitality and we can expect our accommodation to be similar to the previous night.
Leaving the Escambray Mountains behind, we set off west, hugging the coastline with views over the sparkling turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. We plan to break our journey back to Havana with several stops, the first of which is at the colonial seaport of Cienfuegos. Here, we'll have a walking tour of the town, including the Marti Park overlooked by the grand Italian-style Tomas Terry theatre. Our journey continues to Playa Giron, arriving in the early afternoon, and here we'll visit the museum dedicated to the infamous 'Bay of Pigs' invasion' - a US-supported attack by Cuban exiles which failed to overthrow the Communist regime in 1961. The final stop on the Zapata Peninsula is a wonderful swimming opportunity in a 'cenote' (pool) where the ceiling of an underground river has collapsed. By the evening we'll have arrived back in Havana at our hotel.
Today you are completely at leisure to enjoy the sights and sounds of Havana. Visit some of the city's museums, or perhaps one of the famous cigar factories. Walking around the city is easy, but there are also plenty of vintage cars that you can hire to see the city in style.
The trip ends after breakfast at our hotel in Havana. There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Havana at any time. If your flight is departing later in the day luggage storage facilities are available at our hotel. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you need to depart from Havana's Jose Marti International Airport (airport code: HAV) which is 23km, around 45 minutes from the hotel.
14 Break Fast(s) 3 Lunch(es) 2 Dinner(s)
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