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For a long time, Cuba was considered forbidden fruit, especially for United States citizens. With its proximity to and complicated relationship with the U.S., the country has always held a certain mystery, intriguing those who were once prohibited from traveling to this enchanting Caribbean island.

In 2015, the U.S. reestablished relations with Cuba, causing a surge in the number of visitors traveling to the island nation from the U.S. Tourism is one of the island’s main sources of revenue, and Cuba welcomed approximately five million visitors in 2018 alone. Travelers from around the world flock to Cuba for its rich history, stunning beaches, favorable climate, and colonial architecture.

Havana is typically the first stop on a trip to Cuba, since it’s the nation’s capital city, and most international flights arrive at Havana’s main airport. And while Havana is certainly a must-visit, visitors shouldn’t miss out on seeing the surrounding area, where several towns serve as ideal day trips from Havana.

From white-sand beaches to quaint towns, these six great day trips from Havana will allow you to see another side of the country.

Vinales Valley in Cuba.
Alexandra Mahoney

1. Vinales

Situated just 2.5 hours west of Havana, Vinales is undeniably Cuba’s most popular country town, known for its dramatic karst landscapes and tobacco plantations. This stunning and quaint village attracts visitors for its laid-back atmosphere, offering a relaxing getaway from the hustle and bustle of Havana.

One of the best ways to see Vinales on a day trip is to go on a horseback riding tour. On your tour, you’ll trot through Vinales Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999. Horseback riding tours normally include visits to local tobacco and coffee plantations, along with opportunities to go swimming in nearby lakes and caves, all surrounded by unparalleled views of Vinales Valley.

How To Get There From Havana

The drive from Havana to Vinales takes about 2.5 hours, and the easiest way to get from Havana to Vinales is to have your Airbnb host arrange a taxi for you. When I visited Vinales, my taxi cost $20 each way.

The most affordable way to get to Vinales from Havana, however, is by bus. Known as guagua, public transportation by bus in Cuba is provided by a company called Viazul. Buses travel to Vinales from Havana twice daily. While this form of transportation is cheaper -- $12 each way -- the ride takes a bit longer -- about 3 hours and 40 minutes. While the buses don’t usually have air conditioning, a trip to Cuba wouldn’t be complete without taking at least one bumpy bus ride.

Cienfuegos in Cuba.

2. Cienfuegos

Located on Cuba’s southern coast, Cienfuegos serves as one of the country’s main industrial centers and is known for its colonial-era buildings. One of the island’s most impressive cities, Cienfuegos is bursting with color and charm, and you’ll see plenty of friendly locals enjoying a carefree lifestyle here.

When visiting Cienfuegos from Havana, be sure to check out the city’s main square, Parque Jose Marti. This picturesque plaza is surrounded by 19th-century buildings, including the Tomas Terry Theater, the Provincial Museum, and the Arco de Triunfo.

How To Get There From Havana

Cienfuegos is located 2 hours and 40 minutes southeast of Havana. While taxi prices vary, you can expect to pay $20 to $30 for a one-way ride. Viazul buses depart Havana for Cienfuegos three times daily and cost $20 each way.

To avoid any hassle, be sure to book your bus at least one day in advance. If you show up at the bus station without a reservation, you may end up waiting for hours for the next bus, since the buses normally fill up quickly.

White sand beach in Veradero.
Alexandra Mahoney

3. Varadero

One of Cuba’s most stunning white-sand beaches, Varadero is an ideal destination for a day spent soaking up the sun and splashing around in the Caribbean waves. Varadero covers Cuba’s Hicacos Peninsula and is a popular resort town for foreign visitors.

While the best thing to do in Varadero is to relax on the beach, there are several nearby golf courses and spa complexes you could visit. On the eastern tip of the peninsula is the Varahicacos Ecological Reserve, a preserve with walking trails and an ancient burial cave.

How To Get There From Havana

While you can take a shared or private taxi to Varadero from Havana for the same price it costs to get to Vinales or Cienfuegos, one of the best ways to get to Varadero for the day is by booking a complete tour in advance.

Tours to Varadero from Havana include round-trip transfers, a stop at the beautiful Bacunayagua viewpoint, a swim at the Cave of Saturn, a traditional Cuban lunch at a local restaurant, and about 4 hours on one of Cuba’s most striking beaches.

Main square of Matanzas, Cuba.

4. Matanzas

Located approximately 55 miles east of Havana, Matanzas is a cultural hub and hidden gem known for its Afro-Cuban folklore, poets, and culture. Nicknamed the City of Bridges, Matanzas is home to 17 bridges that cross the three rivers that run through the city.

One of Cuba’s largest underground cave systems, Bellamar Caves, delves 130 feet underground and extends for nearly half a mile. This collection of dramatic stalactites and stalagmites is popular with locals and tourists alike. While visiting Matanzas, be sure to also check out San Severino Castle and the Junco Palace Museum.

How To Get There From Havana

Situated just 1.5 hours from Havana, Matanzas is an easy taxi or bus ride away. However, an exciting and adventurous way to get there is by taking Cuba’s Hershey Train.

The Hershey Train is an electric railcar that departs three times daily from Casablanca Station on the eastern end of Havana Harbor. The best way to reach Casablanca Station is by taking the Casablanca ferry from the harbor; it only costs $1. Once you arrive on land, you will see Casablanca Station to the west. The Hershey Train to Matanzas costs only $3 each way.

The Soroa Waterfall in Cuba.
Alexandra Mahoney

5. Soroa

A spectacular day trip from Havana for nature lovers, Soroa is one of Cuba’s lesser-known destinations and is teeming with natural beauty and scenic landscapes. Located just an hour west of Havana, Soroa has been named a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

The best thing to do at this off-the-beaten-path spot is to indulge in the surrounding natural beauty, filled with mountain and river landscapes. When visiting Soroa, you can see the Soroa Waterfall and the Los Manantiales Waterfall. You can even take a dip in the crystal-clear waters and soak up the sun!

How To Get There From Havana

The quickest and most comfortable way to reach Soroa from Havana is by hiring a private or shared taxi. Taxis to Soroa should only cost $15 to $20 each way.

Views of Las Terrazas in Cuba.
Alexandra Mahoney

6. Las Terrazas

A great place to visit in conjunction with Soroa is Las Terrazas. Las Terrazas is located approximately an hour away from Havana and only a 10-minute drive from Soroa. Las Terrazas is a small community and nature reserve located in the Sierra del Rosario mountain range, another UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve.

When I visited Las Terrazas last December, people kept insisting that I visit the house of Polo Montanez (Casa Museo de Polo Montanez). Polo Montanez is one of Cuba’s most beloved musicians, a folklore singer who gained international fame overnight. Las Terrazas is home to the singer’s former lakeside house, which has since been converted into a small museum containing an assortment of gold records and other memorabilia.

How To Get There From Havana

Las Terrazas and Soroa can easily be visited on the same day, since they are only about a 10-minute drive from one another.

While a one-way ride to each destination should only cost about $15 to $20 per person, you might have trouble finding a taxi back to Havana, since these are both lesser-known destinations.

The best way to see both locations in one day is by haggling with a taxi driver to take you to both spots and the popular surrounding areas within each destination. The total cost for this for two people should be about $100. Though this will be a pricier excursion, these two breathtaking destinations shouldn’t be missed when visiting Cuba.

A car on a beach in Havana, Cuba.

Traveling To Cuba From The United States

It should be noted that there is a travel ban in place for U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba.

In 2015, President Barack Obama lifted the embargo against Cuba, allowing U.S. citizens to travel there for the first time since 1962. In June 2019, however, President Donald Trump announced new travel restrictions on visits to Cuba -- you can read more about the ban here. In short, recreational and educational travel to Cuba, including cruise travel, is now prohibited.

Despite the recent ban, U.S. citizens can still visit Cuba; they simply must mark one of 12 options on their visa. The most common of these is “support for the Cuban people.”

Under this form of travel, U.S. citizens are required to support only the local economy in Cuba and are prohibited from partaking in any activity or staying in any accommodation funded by the government. For example, since many resorts and hotels are funded by the Cuban government, U.S. citizens must stay in Airbnbs, known in Cuba as casas particulares.

Before heading to Cuba, I was quite worried about the recent travel ban and wondered how much it would affect my trip. Thankfully, the only time the ban was apparent was at airports in the U.S. I was required to provide my reasoning for traveling to Cuba when checking into my flight, and I was asked for my reasoning again when going through customs on my way back home.

For more information on how to visit Cuba from the U.S. in 2020, see this piece.

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