Sip a taste of Cuba
The passion of Cuba vibrates in dazzling sunlight by day and pounds from the streets by night. Join the music of numerous live bands and dance to the exotic rhythms. Discover the untouched streets, see the crumbling buildings and colonial grandeur. Sip a rum Cuba Libre cocktail, dine on red snapper at a friendly paladar and savour a cigar at a local café. Swim in clear Caribbean waters, explore stunning landscapes, tobacco fields, strange caves. Among all the many things to do, you decide which suits you best.
In Havana, you get the perfect sensation of a culture the rest of the world has pretty much ignored for so many years. No wonder Havana is Cuba’s capital with its sensation of a city full of life, living night & day, that is a specimen of what to expect in the rest of the country. From the crumbling buildings to its curious narrow streets, to ocean at your feet and music pouring out from every other corner, Havana is a true screenshot.
Havana’s rich history is displayed in its architecture with a complex mix of Spanish colonial, Art Deco, 1950s modern and Soviet era concrete-block buildings.
Things to see
- Revolution Square: The square is notable as being where many political rallies take place in Cuba. You’ll see the important figures of the revolution; Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and Castro's inspiration Jose Marti.
- El Capitolio: National Capitol Building
- The Museum of the Revolution: A must stop on a trip to Havana. Formerly the Presidential Palace, the Museum has exhibits detailing Spain’s colonization of the island, the period of Batista’s dictatorship, the armed struggle that over threw him and American attempts at intervention like the Bay of Pigs.
- The Malecón: The esplanade curves along the contours of the seawall that protects the city from the ocean.
- Morro Castle (Castillo del Morro): It was built to protect the entrance to Havana harbor from pirates and foreign invaders.
Havana_Castillo el Morro
- Hotel Nacional de Cuba: Named a UNESCO world heritage site, there's a lot to discover at Hotel Nacional from its role in the Cuban Missile Crisis to its high profile guest list. If you can't afford a stay here, make sure to sip a mojito or two in its beautiful garden overlooking the Malecón & Gulf of Mexico.
- The Cathedral of Havana: Dominated by two unequal towers and framed by a theatrical baroque facade, the cathedral has been called "music cast into stone." Inside, its impressive vaulted ceilings are breathtaking as well.
- Old Havana: touristy area with the busiest street called Obispo for culinary tasting & shopping.
- Vedado: Where locals come to have fun and relax; 23rd street (La Rampa) is the most popular street in Havana.
- Far from being scary, Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón (Colón Cemetery) is one of the most remarkable cemeteries in the world. Containing over 500 major mausoleums, chapels, and family vaults, with styles running from renaissance to neoclassical to art deco, the cemetery's layout organizes the occupants of the cemetery according to their rank and social status.
- La Bodeguita del Medio: Made famous thanks to the exploits of Ernest Hemingway, this is Havana's most celebrated bar with excellent mojitos and traditional Cuban dish.
- El Floridita: This legendary coctail bar was also popularized by Hemmingway. Yet long before he dropped in, it was a favorite of expat Americans, hence the name (which means 'Little Florida'). It's famous for its daiquiris invented by the bartender Constante Ribalaigua soon after WWI.
- The music called “son”: Popularized by the movie, the Buena Vista Social Club, you can enjoy small bands playing in cafés and bars.
- Salsa nights: You will surely be stopped by a Havanian and invited to a salsa party.
- Vintage American cars: These iconic features of Havana will take you a step back in time. Why not enjoy the warm breeze on your face when you are riding in the back seat of a beautifully restored Pontiac, Chrysler Plymouth or Ford Fairlane?
- Playas del Este: Enjoy the sun & the ocean at the closest beach to Havana.
- Paladares: Small dining establishments set up by families in their homes. Some, like La Guarida serve European style cuisines in settings that look very much like upscale restaurants, where others like Ivan Chef Justo still feel like you are eating in a family’s home.
From the mountains surrounding it, to the little dance club behind the main square, Viñales represents regional Cuban life.
This tiny town has a huge influence over the rest of the country, with the very best tobacco grown for the biggest cigar brands like Cohiba, Montecristo, Cuaba.
Viñales has beautiful steep-sided limestone hills, known as mogotes.
Consider a tour where you could visit all; mogotes, caves, farms, tobacco plantation, cigar factories.
Standing high on a hill, a soaring bronze statue of Che Guevara bears witness to Santa Clara where his and 29 other guerrillas' remains lie. The memorial, commemorating the battle against Fulgencio Batista, includes a museum detailing the life of Guevara and a mausoleum. Do pay a visit to see the kind of respect & love Cubans have for Che Guevara. It is so rare, I can say it's similar to us Turks' love to Atatürk.
About an hour and a half west along the coast from the Bay of Pigs, this harbour side town is full of art, culture and history.
The strong French influence in town’s customs and architecture gives a european feel to it. Locals seem to be the most westernised, beautiful and cultured.
Things to see
- Tomás Terry Theatre: Even if you don't have a chance watch a local band or touring acts, it is still worthwhile to visit the theatre for its intriguing ceiling frescoes, magnificent Carrara-marble carvings and handcrafted Cuban-hardwood ornamentation. Admire the eclectic fusion of Italian and French influence in the building’s neoclassical exterior.
- Plaza de Armas: Jose Marti Park in Plaza de Armas is a World Heritage site including landmarks like Arco de Triunfo dedicated to Cuban independence, former Palacio Ferre, Palacio de Gobierno, Cathedral de la Purisma Concepcion, the statue of Jose Marti, and the Museo Provincial.
- Punta Gorda: the upper-end neighbourhood of Cienfuegos is home to interesting architectural pieces as well as a beautiful marina. Palacio Azul (Blue Palace) is now renovated into a quaint hostel offering panoramic views. Book in advance as it has only 7 rooms or make sure to pay a visit to see. Palacio de Valle is all in one; a place of cultural events, a luxury restaurant (specializing in seafood) and a museum. You can witness Spanish-Moorish art with influences of Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and Mudejar arts. Do pop in for lovely views from its terrace. Club Cienfuegos is also a great choice to watch the sunset.
- The Bahia de Jagua: the bay that makes Cienfuegos the pearl of the south.
The Bay of Pigs
From / on your way to Cienfuegos, you may consider learning more about Cuba’s passionate and revolutionary heritage. The Bay of Pigs is the location where CIA-backed attempt by Cuban exiles to invade and overthrow Castro, took place. It’s a stunning coastal (and coral) area more suited to a photo shoot rather than a military action. The Museo de Playa Girón’s exhibition of conflict and combat is a far cry from the relaxing environment one will find in the general Playa Girón area.
The narrow cobbled streets and the pastel colored houses topped with terracotta tiled roofs are iconic to this UNESCO heritage city (yes, you've read it right, the whole city!). Trinidad is backdropped by rolling green hills of the adjacent Valle de los Ingenios and the indigo blue Caribbean Sea in the far distance. South coast’s best beach, Playa Ancón, is 12 km south while Sierra del Escambray mountains packed full of hiking trails and waterfalls are 18km to the north of the city.
Things to see
- Old Town: Take a stroll in the cobbled streets of Old Town where it is only accessible on foot or horseback.
- Plaza Mayor: Palacio Brunet houses the Romantic Museum (Museo Romántico) that has a collection of the wealthy sugar baron Brunet's possessions. The colonial mansion is great for a view out over the city. Holy Trinity Church is a marvelous representation of the neoclassical architecture, housing "the Lord of the True Cross", a wooden sculpture of Christ which could never be shipped to Veracruz, Mexico, in several attempts, all due to bad weather.
- San Francisco de Asis Convent: Today functions as the Museum of the Cuban people's struggle against the counterrevolution.
- Plaza de Santa Ana: The former Spanish prison has been converted into the Plaza Santa Ana tourist center consisting of an art gallery, handicraft market, bars and restaurants.
- Casa de la Musica: an open-air bar during the day and live music venue at night. Here you can fill up on Cuban rum and dance the night away to classic Cuban salsa music.
Keep in mind
- A knowledge of basic Spanish (or even just a few phrases) will exponentially enhance opportunities for connection, and be appreciated by nearly everyone encountered.
- No platform offers a better opportunity for connection than homestays, known as casa particulares. For travelers, the reward is twofold: money goes directly to locals and you engage in daily life with a family.
- Public transport is non-existent, look for a tuk-tuk or a taxi.
- There are no credit card facilities so you must take cash. They actually have 2 currencies – The CUC (Cuban Convertible) and the CUP (Cuban Peso). You’ll be using CUCs as this is the currency specifically for tourists.
- Don’t miss the opportunity for dance lessons.
- Swim in mojitos or daiquiri, you’ll never get a better taste and cheaper prices.
- Cuba is not ideal to use a town as a hub to travel to other places. I recommend, you take a tour like Cuban Adventures' and enjoy the island, hustle free of transportation & accommodation drama.
- Bring along soap and shampoo! Don't think you can find it free in the room or buy it from a market. They're the things locals appreciate the most, they beg for soap rather than money, imagine 🙁 (You can consider bringing along small souvenirs as gifts, too). The best way to solve it is carrying a sanitizer with you. Cause trust me, they don't exist even at restaurants & bars.
- Forget about finding goods, etc at markets. Markets themselves are hard to find! Only one or two in Havana, nothing more.
- Try not to get sunburnt like I had. The sun at the beach doesn't feel as strong as it does in the streets, so if you have accidentally left some area undone, you pay the price.
- Avoid tap water. Chances are higher than usual for traveler's diarrhea so watch out and have an anti diarrhea medicine with you. No vaccinations are officially required, however visitors are advised to take precautions against typhoid, particularly if travelling to rural areas. It is still common and the first thing they wanna take off the list with similar symptoms is it.
- Locals will try to approach you (sometimes along with a friendly chat of a couple inviting you to salsa party with cheaper tickets sold by them) so ignorance can be bliss.
- The main source of living is now tourism, therefore even a picture will cost you, remember. Cubans are pretty well educated but they work for tourism, driving a car or being a guide because they can't find a job as a mechanical engineer or a nurse. So, a chat with them is a delight, don't miss.
As you may feel, I can't say I had the time of my life in Cuba. Along with medical issues, also probably because the expectation was super high. So, do your homework before your trip, pay attention especially to the "keep in mind" part in my post, and be prepared. It could be thrilling like so many others'.
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