The highlights of Cuba
By Kaya Brown
When you arrive on the Caribbean island of Cuba you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d travelled back in time. Vintage Cadillac cars cruise around the streets, internet connection is often unavailable and life moves at a considerably slower pace. If you’re looking for a holiday destination where everything runs smoothly, complete with luxurious hotels, lavish restaurants and impeccable service, then Cuba is likely not for you (at least, not right now). But, if you are searching for a destination steeped in character, with stunning scenery, fascinating history and an endearingly laid-back attitude to almost everything, then continue reading to discover our highlights for this Central American island.
Wander the streets of Havana
Our first highlight is the country’s capital. Like many places on the island Havana is UNESCO listed, and it’s easy to see why, the colourful facades of colonial houses broken up by sprawling plazas and ornate baroque buildings such as the Catedral de San Cristobal - the whole city is picture perfect.
We recommend taking a walking tour of the city to get your bearings or, if you prefer to travel in style, then hop in the back of a 1950s convertible and have a local show you the sights on a classic car tour. Residents of Havana are referred to as Habaneros and they are incredibly friendly and hospitable. As well as offering tours of the city, many locals make an income by running paladares - tiny private restaurants set up in a local’s house which offer a great insight into authentic Cuban cuisine.
Cuba’s dry season is December to April, but if you’re particularly interested in the country’s thriving music scene then we would recommend timing your visit to coincide with the world-renowned International Havana Jazz Festival. This celebration of Cuba’s ongoing love for the genre takes place every December over the course of nine days, and musicians flock from all over the world to take part.
Explore the tobacco fields of Viñales Valley
Located just two and a half hours drive from the capital, Viñales Valley is the country’s main tobacco growing region. Vast expanses of crop fields sprawl as far as the eye can see and rocky outcrops puncture the landscape making for a striking view. Hire a bicycle and cycle through the fields, basking in the peace and quiet of the rural farmland. Alternatively, this region is also popular for rock climbing and it is possible to kit up and scale the large rocks dotted about the area.
Whilst in Viñales it is well worth making the trip to one of the local tobacco farms to see how the famous Cuban cigar is made. Even for a non-smoker the process is fascinating, and you get to observe how the cigar is produced right from the picking of the tobacco to the final rolling of the finished product.
Hike through the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve
The Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve is located in the east of the country, approximately 130 km from Havana. Listed as a UNESCO biosphere reserve due to the efforts poured into conservation and ecosystem management in the area, this reserve is full of rolling mountains, verdant forests and abundant plant life. It’s these rolling mountains which makes the reserve an excellent location for hiking, especially for less experienced ramblers who prefer to stick to shorter or more gentle hikes.
If hiking is not your forte, then be sure to visit the Jardín Botánico Orquideario Soroa. With more than 700 species of orchid, and thousands of other plant species kept in the well-tended botanical garden, this is an oasis for any green-fingered visitors.
Lounge on Caribbean beaches
Surrounded by miles of uninterrupted coastline, Cuba’s beaches are near incomparable and there is something for everyone to be discovered, whether you want a deserted paradise, a lively party destination or a family friendly beach with amenities close by. Whilst it would take far too long to list all of the country’s top spots, we’ve chosen just two to recommend.
Our first recommendation is Playa Pilar on Cayo Guillermo, which was given its namesake after Ernest Hemingway’s fishing boat, Pilar. The author lived on the outskirts of Havana for roughly twenty years, but would often take to the seas around this particular stretch of coast to go on fishing trips. Azure waters and sun-baked sand certainly add to the relaxing atmosphere of this beach and it’s easy to see why Hemingway favoured this area over others.
Playa Ancón is another Cuban gem located only 15 km from the popular town of Trinidad. Many visitors choose to make the journey by bike, working up a sweat on the way there to then take a refreshing dip in the sea on arrival. Once you get there, there are plenty of sun loungers to relax and unwind on as you listen to the sounds of the waves lapping the shore.
Learn to Salsa dance in Trinidad
If you plan on visiting Playa Ancón it is worth spending a night or two in Trinidad, located only a stone's throw away from the beach. Once the heart of the Cuban sugar trade, the fading opulence of the colonial architecture is still visible throughout the town and, like the capital city, Trinidad is also UNESCO listed.
Whilst in Trinidad we would highly recommend checking out the city’s live Salsa scene. Every evening, locals, professional dancers and tourists alike take to the steps of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Plaza Mayor for a night of dancing, drinking and general merriment. The price of entry and cocktails are cheap, and when the music begins everyone gets up from their tables and joins the makeshift dance floor regardless of their ability.
Go diving in the Jardines de la Reina
If you’d to explore the seas around Cuba in a little more depth then be sure to head to the Jardines de la Reina. Literally translated as Gardens of the Queen this archipelago is located 80 km south of the main island, and is part of a national park which includes more than 600 small islands and outcrops.
This archipelago is one of the best dive sights around Cuba, and is particularly special if you’re a big fan of sharks. With species such as the Caribbean reef shark and the silky shark in abundance, you’re almost guaranteed to spot at least one on a dive here, and there is even the possibility to swim with whale sharks during the months of July to November.
Spot impressive wildlife in the Zapata Swamp
Our final Cuban highlight is the Zapata Swamp. Found in the Peninsula de Zapata National Park, this wetland is over 4,000 square kilometres in size and is a haven for wildlife - including over 900 species of plant, 175 species of bird and 31 species of reptile. Traverse the waters by boat as you keep your eyes peeled for tiny creatures such as the bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird, or the beady eyes of an elusive crocodile peeking above the water.
The western side of the park is delineated by the Bay of Pigs, made famous as the landing site for the failed American invasion in 1961. Nowadays this inlet looks like any other pretty cove on the island, however many visitors choose to go diving in this area to explore the purpose-sunk Jaruca wreck which lies beneath the shore. This marooned vessel makes a brilliant dive site due to the large schools of fish which congregate around its decks and interior for protection from larger predators.
Make it happen
If Cuba’s alluring cities, uninterrupted coastline and relaxed attitude to life has captured your interest then get in touch with our local experts in the region. They know Cuba better than anyone else and can plan your bespoke trip based around your wants and preferences. Send them an enquiry today or if you’d like to speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.