Day 1: Trip begins in Havana
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.
You will be met on arrival at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport (airport code HAV), by an airport representative, who will arrange the taxi transfer to your hotel, approximately a 45 minute drive away. There are no activities planned today, so feel free to arrive in Havana Airport at any time. During the trip we stay in 'casas particulares', which are local Cuban guesthouses. We have links with a range of excellent casas, superbly located in Old Havana. However, for those booking their own flights, it's essential that you let us know your flight details no later than three weeks prior to departure in order for us to meet you on arrival and ensure that you are driven to the casa that we have booked for your stay in Havana.
The majority of flights from Europe arrive into Cuba in the evening, but if your flight arrives earlier in the day, you might choose to head out to explore Old Havana, or take a walk down the scenic Malecon esplanade with fine views of the city.
Day 2: Tour of Havana's highlights; cocktail-making class
Explore modern-day Havana with a local guide this morning, who will help you discover it's marvellous array of restored and crumbling architectural gems. Setting out at approximately 9.30am and walking through the Vieja (old) district, you'll pass beautiful neoclassical buildings, the old Baroque cathedral and the main square - the Plaza de Armas. While some buildings have been repurposed or developed into small cafes or tourist shops, the many winding sidestreets are vivid with life, and the sound of music can always be heard coming from some window or car door. Passing by the famous Capitolio building, modelled on the White House, you'll see rows upon rows of amazing brightly-painted 50s cars, the result of legislation enforced until 2011 ruling that only cars built before the 1959 revolution could be sold.
We have purposely left this three-hour walking tour flexible, and after introducing you to the highlights of Havana Vieja the local guide will be able to tailor the tour to suit your interest. If there is somewhere that you really wish to visit, then you can discuss this with the guide and pay locally the entrance fee. If you're particularly interested in Cuba's revolutionary history, the Museum of the Revolution is a must-see (albeit marginally biased!), housed in the impressive former Presidential Palace. Alternatively the Museum of Artes Decorativas or the Bellas Artes Museum are perfect for art lovers, or the Havana Club Rum Museum for a surprisingly fascinating insight into the country's famous export.
You'll have some free time in the early afternoon to explore, perhaps revisiting some of the sights from this morning or strolling along the Malecon to get some of the sea air. Later on at approximately 5pm, learn how to make perfect Cuban cocktails (and of course, get to drink them!) in a local bar and community project located in a neighbourhood in Old Havana. This two-hour mixology class includes three cocktails, some local snacks and is a great introduction to Cuba's excellent rums. Please note that the cocktail class is not possible on Fridays, but can be organised on Day 3 instead if Day 2 in Havana falls on a Friday.
Day 3: Free day in Havana
Today is completely at your leisure to enjoy Havana. And there is a lot to enjoy! Try visiting one of the cigar factories, taking a ride in one of the many classic cars found near Old Havana, or visiting the tiny passageway of the Callejon de Hamel where (on Sundays) rumba musicians gather and dancers move to the pulsating rhythms. Head to one of the many museums in town, or get your fix of live salsa this evening at one of the city's many excellent bars. For something a little more off the beaten track, walk along the Malecon and go 'inland' at the famous Hotel Nacional (you can stop here for a drink - there are amazing views from the enormous garden over the Caribbean). This area of the city, called Vedado, is more residential, but you will find the Museum of Artes Decorativas here, a stunning collection of furniture, porcelain and art pieces from the 16th to 20th centuries, housed in one of Vedado's grandest mansions. Nearby, you'll find the headquarters of a Cuban institution - the Coppelia icecream chain. You'll see these across the country, with sporadic queues of Cubans lining up outside their doors for their fix of icecream. The building in Vedado is special - a brutalist masterpiece with a spiral staircase that connects five large circular spaces all under one roof. There is actually a 'tourist' entrance, if you can find it, but half the fun is in queuing up and braving the odd looks from the locals.
Day 4: Drive to Vinales via Soroa's orchid garden
A couple of hours west lies what 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.
Setting off to this magical landscape around 9am, you'll be travelling with a driver-guide and taking several stops en route. First, visit the UNESCO-preserved Eco Reserve of Las Terrazas, an internationally acclaimed reforestation project and model 1970s communist settlement, set in the mountains at altitudes of around 500 metres where pine forests alternate with old coffee plantations. It is in these forested hills that Che Guevara trained his revolutionaries to successfully defend Cuba against the US-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs; a significant world event in the 1960s. Visit the partially restored coffee plantation house and learn about Cuba's association with coffee production and the slave trade. Zip wiring is available at the village for those who wish, and there will be time to explore the village and its artisan workshops.
Further along the road lie the Soroa's Botanical Gardens, the largest collection of Orchids that can be found in Latin America. With magnificent views of the rolling palm clad hills of the Sierra Del Rosario the gardens are beautiful and contain over 700 species of Orchid alone. Continue from Soroa to Vinales, arriving in the early afternoon at your casa particular.
The transfers throughout this trip are not private, and you may be joined by other people making the same journey. An average number of passengers would be 4-6 people in the vehicle, although occasionally you may find yourselves travelling alone.
Day 5: Full day in Vinales; options to explore on foot or by bike
Today is free in Vinales for you to explore. Vinales is a great place to be active, with cycling and hiking being popular ways of discovering the bizarre landscape. We therefore have three different options for you, from a full day tour to more active options, which should be pre-booked before travel in order to ensure the availability of the right guides.
The first option is a day trip around the valley, covering the highlights as well as a few little unknown gems added in along the way. You'll visit the famous Vinales viewpoint where the entire valley, dotted with tobacco-drying houses and spectacular limestone scenery, stretches before you. You'll see the enormous 120-meter tall Pre-History Mural, commissioned by Fidel Castro in 1961, which depicts the pre-historical time in Vinales, as well as visiting a local tobacco small-holding where tobacco leaves are produced and graded before being sent off to the famous cigar houses in Havana - it's a fascinating process and the farmers are allotted a small amount of leaves that they are allowed to sell for their own benefit. Buying from these local farmers is a good way of supplementing their low government stipend. Take a boat ride through the limestone caves of El Indio, visit an artist project where a local farmer has created unique and amazing wood sculptures from roots and foliage found in the valley, and eat a delicious lunch at a family-run cooperative farm.
If you are a hiker, you could opt for a full-day walk amid this spectacular landscape. There are different levels, from 'beginner' hikes to much more advanced, and your guide can flex this to suit you. The mogotes and tobacco fields are stunning on foot, as the green of the vegetation contrasts with the red of the soil and the grey of the limestone. En route you'll have a packed lunch, and you'll have the opportunity to visit a tobacco small-holding to witness this production first-hand.
The third option sees you jumping on a bike for a two-hour leisurely cycle around the paths and trails of Vinales. Cuba has one of the lowest concentrations of cars to humans of any country in the world, and in Vinales this is even more pronounced with many locals getting around on buffalo or horsecarts. It makes this area the perfect place to cycle - as well as being predominantly flat. If you opt for a cycle ride, you'll still have the rest of the day free to explore at your own leisure.
If these options don't spark your interest, there is plenty to do in Vinales and the casa owners are some of the best people to speak to about getting around.
Day 6: Drive to Cienfuegos via the Bay of Pigs; swim in the Caribbean
Departing early, head east across Cuba, on a full day drive through giant citrus and sugar plantations and out on to the Zapata Peninsula. The journey is broken up with several visits, including at Guama, a replica village of Cuba's earliest settlers - the Taino Indians - who lived on the island in the 1100s. After a trip through the mangroves by boat and a relaxing lunch in the area, drive on and take a wonderful swimming opportunity in the natural pool at the Cueva de los Peces (remember to pack your swimming costume and towel in your daysack!). Arriving in Playa Giron by mid-afternoon, 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. Continuing to Cienfuegos, you will hopefully arrive in time for the sunset across the bay.
Day 7: Drive to Trinidad and walk in the Escambray Mountains
Continue westwards towards Trinidad, detouring through the Escambray Mountains into Topes de Collantes National Park, specifically visiting El Nicho. This area really showcases Cuba's natural beauty, being a haven of waterfalls and natural pools, hidden amount the mountains. El Nicho Waterfall itself is a drop of over 30 metres, and as well as discovering this scenic paradise, you'll have the opportunity to walk through a variety of paths - from the gentle trail of 'El Reino de la Aguas' at only two kilometres, or the more strenuous trails that also exist here. Cool river pools abound so there will certainly be swimming opportunities during the day, and you'll enjoy a traditional Cuban-style lunch at one of the haciendas here before driving through the national reserve back towards the coast, at Trinidad. The estimated arrival time is 4pm.
Day 8: In Trinidad; walking tour of this pretty colonial town
Wander through the cobbled streets of the old centre of Trinidad this morning with a local guide, 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.
The town is tiny, so after a two-hour walking tour to orient you in the cobblestoned centre, take some time at your leisure to explore. It's worth climbing the stairs of the bell tower at the small Museo de la Lucha contra Bandidos, purely for the views across the roofs of Trinidad out to the Caribbean at one side and the Escambray mountains at the other. You're also a 15-20 minute drive away from the gorgeous white sands of the Caribbean at Playa Ancon, so you may wish to jump in a taxi and spend the afternoon at the beach. Taxi drivers are used to day trippers, so usually you can ask the taxi driver to return at a specific time and pick you up, but there are always taxis around in the area to take you back to the centre of town.
In the evening, you may wish to head to the open-air Casa de la Musica, just off the main square, where live bands and salsa dancing locals do their thing until late.
Day 9: Return to Havana via Santa Clara and the Route of the Sugar Mills
Bid farewell to Trinidad and take another guided drive back to Havana. Visit the historic Sugar Mill valley, the site of the former sugar plantations and a key location in Cuba's brutal slave history. See the old plantation houses and the bell tower of Manaca Iznaga, offering an impressive panoramic view of the area.
Take the road back into the Escambray Mountains, stopping at a local farmer's house to see the traditional farming practices in the mountains and partake in a traditional coffee. Descending from the mountains again past numerous small rural villages, reach Santa Clara, a city of major historical significance. This pleasant university town 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. After visiting the Tren Blindado Memorial commemorating this historic event, move 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 national hero who played a key role in Cuba's revolution and whose image is routinely displayed throughout the country. Visit the museum dedicated to Guevara's life, containing many interesting letters and artefacts, before lunch in the city of Santa Clara.
Continue to Havana, arriving around 6pm - just in time to enjoy a final dinner.
Day 10: Transfer to Playa Jibacoa; afternoon on the beach
Travel to Playa Jibacoa for two nights on the beach, leaving in the afternoon in time for check-in. Around an hour's drive will lead you to the beach hotel, the 4* Memories Jibacoa, where the next two nights can be spent relaxing. Whether you would like to lie in the sun, soaking up some warmth, or take a dip in the beautiful ocean; your time at Jibacoa can be as active or as relaxing as you feel. If you fancy stretching your legs the town is backed by a limestone ridge, with excellent cliff top views and some easy paths for you to enjoy.
Day 11: Free day on the beach
The hotel here is an all-inclusive, which means that you are at your leisure to enjoy everything that the beach and hotel have to offer. The area is blessed with a coral reef located just a few metres from shore, and the hotel provides snorkelling gear and kayaks for you to explore the turquoise waters and reef. Nestled between the leafy mountains and golden sands, the hotel is beautifully situated with a tempting pool and lush green hills with easy-to-follow trails for keen hikers, offering spectacular views over the ocean.
Day 12: Morning on the beach, afternoon drive to Havana Airport
Your trip ends today, and you will be taken to the airport to meet your international flight. There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Havana's Jose Marti International Airport (airport code: HAV), which is about 1.5 hours from the hotel. Depending on your flight time, you may need to check-out of the hotel before your airport transfer but you will still be able to make use of the hotel's services until your departure, and there is baggage storage available for you.