TOP 5 MUST SEE PLACES IN CUBA:
It is now time to pick up the places you want to visit: Cuba is a beautiful country and you may spend a good 2 months wondering around and still be left wanting to see more.
Chances are you will board your return flight wishing you had more time to travel and hoping you can go back as soon as possible.
Keeping in mind that most of us can’t travel full time and have a limited budget and time when on vacation, here is completely deliberate list of the top 5 places I think anybody going to Cuba shall not miss.
1 | HAVANA -ARTEMISA AND MAYABEQUE PROVINCE:
This should be your first stop in Cuba, the perfect place to spend a few days to wander around, sleep off the jet lag and get accustomed to the local culture.
Do you really need to know why you should go to Havana? I am sure you don’t, but just in case… This is is a city of paradox and contradictions: next to the grandeur of the Capitol building, you will be charmed by decrepit apartment blocks that look like they may fall apart any minute. That’s until you realize people do live in there.
Vintage cars line at traffic lights; sidecars zip about; bici-taxi drivers lazily wait for customers. There are so many museums, historic buildings and places of interests, restaurants, bars and live music (jazz lovers will have a blast at the Festival Internacional de Jazz in February) to keep you entertained for a good week.
Founded in 1514 by Diego Velaxquez de Cuellar, San Cristobal de la Habana’s initial location was moved a few times to escape the mosquitoes plaguing the area.
Its definitive location was found in 1519. Throughout history, Havana has been sacked by pirates several times, and various fortresses were built to protect it. However, these did not stop the English army, which in 1762 managed to conquer and occupy the city for 11 months.
When the Spaniards finally took control of the city again, they built a new fortress, La Cabaña, completed by 1774 and making Havana the most fortified city in the “new world”. Equally popular among Cubans and foreigners, the ceremony of “el cañonazo de las nueve” takes place every night at 9 pm, when soldiers dress in the suits of the old times and cannons shoot a warning to close the doors or the walls surrounding the city.
HAVANA INTERESTING PLACES
It is an interesting show, and your ticket will also include a drink. The view of Havana at night from La Cabaña is spectacular, not to mention that the place is great to visit: museums, small art parlours, exhibitions, and it is pleasant to walk around. You can get here by taxi; there are plenty to go back to town and you should pay no more than 3 CUC each way.
If you want to have a better understanding of the Cuban revolution, make sure you visit the Museo de la Revolucion – be prepared to read a lot.
Other sites of interest are:
- Plaza de la Catedral.
- Plaza de Armas with its book market.
- Plaza Vieja.
- Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas.
- Capitolio Nacional.
- El Barrio Chino (where there are no Chinese people left!).
- If you like street art, walk along the Callejon de Hamel to take a look at the funky murals and curious shops.
EL MALECON WALK:
By all means, do not miss a sunset walk on El Malecon – 8 km of paved road along the sea, where you can see the waves splashing and can spot locals relaxing after a day of work.
Along the Malecon, make a stop at Hotel Nacional, a beautiful neoclassic/art decò building which was used as the base of the biggest mafia convention, when gangsters met there with the excuse to attend a Frank Sinatra concert. Hotel Nacional has a beautiful view over the Malecon and it’s the perfect place to stop for a pre-dinner mojito.
Walking along the Malecon, you can get to the Vedado, a lovely residential area of Havana with huge colonial buildings, parks and lush gardens.
If you would like to follow the footsteps of Hemingway, have a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio, and a daiquiri at El Floridita – although I must warn you that these are tourist spots and much pricier than the average Cuban bar (5 CUC for a drink). Nevertheless, they are nice to see and you may be lucky enough to get a bit of live music.
WHERE TO SLEEP IN HAVANA:
My favorite place to stay in Havana is Casa Particular Abalidia in Vedado, in calle 15, between E and F. Felix and Lidia are the perfect hosts.
Lidia is motherly sweet, but never pushy.She is an excellent chef and her breakfast, lobster dinners and congrì are memorable.
Felix is a University professor with a special love for anything Italian, and a walking encyclopedia on Cuban history: he will lecture you on Havana’s history and must-sees, he will suggest itineraries, advice on prices for cabs, tell you where to eat.
He will sit around with you at night, to have a rum and a chat. He may even offer to take you around town if he has time. The house is a lovely colonial building, with a nice patio at the back. There are only two rooms that are rent out.
Felix does check his email and you can also get in touch with his Italian counterpart in Rome and she will arrange things for you. The email is firstname.lastname@example.org; the Italian contact is Lucia Nardi, email@example.com.
The bonus? If you stay at Abalidia you can ask to be picked up at the airport by one of Felix’ friends, who has a perfectly kept and renovated Ford 1956. I could not believe my eyes when I saw that amazing car: not a bad ride after a long flight.
It’s difficult to book a Hotel in Cuba, you can check the best deals on Tripadvisor in here.
2 | BARACOA -GUANTANAMO PROVINCE:
You have hardly heard of it before, right? Never mind, once you get to see it, you will remember it forever. Let’s say this is somehow the hidden gem of Cuba.
Not many people go there, as it is considerably isolated from the rest of the country: La Farola (the lighthouse road), is the only way connecting Baracoa to Santiago de Cuba and the rest of the country; and it was only built in 1964 thanks to Fidel Castro, who wanted to show the appreciation for the support he received from Baracoa while hiding in the mountains.
The view is spectacular and is an attraction in and of itself: hills, deep forest, and hardly anybody in sight.
HOW TO GET TO BARACOA
There are supposedly regular flights from Havana to Baracoa (apparently twice a week, but I could find none when I travelled).
If you want to make it there, can’t find a direct flight but have little time to travel all the way down by bus, I would advise to catch a direct flight from Havana to Santiago de Cuba with Cubana de Aviacion (these are actual regular flights), then get a 5 hours Viazul bus to Baracoa that will take you along La Farola.
You may have to stop for a night in Santiago de Cuba in order to make all the coincidences – make sure that once you are in Santiago you go to the bus station to put your name in the waiting list for the bus.
There will be taxi drivers outside telling you that there are no bus seats left and offer you a ride, but go ahead and put your name on the list.
WHERE TO SLEEP IN SANTIAGO DE CUBA
If you have to stop in Santiago, Maruchi has a fabulous casa particular in Hartmann 357, between General Portuondo and Maximo Gomez.She is among the odd Cubans using the internet for business, and you can make reservations via email by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For as dirty, noisy and polluted as Santiago may be, Maruchi’s casa is an oasis of peace and will make your stay in Santiago memorable, pointing you to the right attractions, and infusing you with a truly Caribbean atmosphere.
Insiders’ information: Maruchi is a santera, a representative of “santeria”, a syncretic religion that hides its African roots under Catholic symbolism and whose name is due to the colonizers who made fun of the African slaves’ way to pray to the saints. Don’t ask her about it though: just appreciate the aura around her.
BARACOA HIGHLIGHTS AND TIPS
Anyhow, let’s get back to Baracoa where I hope you have finally landed after 5 hours on a Viazul bus – never mind if the bus gets a flat tire: the driver will promptly change this; never mind the many stops along the way: this is your chance to snap pictures of the amazing scenery or to finally grab that cucuruchu you wanted to try.
Baracoa is really tiny – it won’t take more than a couple of hours to explore it. The city is pretty, if only a bit beat up by the weather: This is where it gets really tropical, with proper Caribbean rain almost every afternoon.
Che Guevara and other revolution heroes murales are all over. However, what makes this place worth a visit is its surroundings. After all, this is known locally as the city of the 29 rivers. And rivers won’t be missed: pretty much wherever you go around Baracoa you will have to cross a river.
Hop on a cayuca boat to roam around the Rio Toa, where you most certainly will want to swim (the water is clean, inviting and refreshing). Use a cayuca (if you get hold of one) or get wet to cross the river on the way to El Yunque, the mysterious mountain that can be seen from Baracoa and that anybody visiting the region will hike.
Beware, it is compulsory to hire a guide for the hike, he will be able to point you the cocoa plantations,and it is muddy and slippery due to the rain and vegetation: wear appropriate shoes and your bikini because you will cross rivers, jump in natural pools and waterfalls, and may well fall in the mud – you can’t really say you have been to El Yunque if you don’t get back covered in mud.
Bike along the lovely coast to reach the Boca de Yumurì, where you can rent a pedal boat to explore the river. Top this off with a lazy day at Playa Maguana – no further explanation needed.
FOOD IN BARACOA
Should this not be enough to convince you to visit Baracoa, I will resort to appealing your palate. Baracoa is by far the gourmet capital of Cuba.
Even someone like me who normally has not much of an interest in food had to admit that it was – to put it mildly – heavenly. I would honestly go back again just to savor the local cuisine.
The best food in town can be found at Nilson’s Paladar, in Flor Combret 143 (he also rents out some rooms). Don’t even bother looking at the menu: order the shrimps in coconut sauce, rice to accompany it, a salad, fried bananas, and a beer. At 6 CUC per person, it is a delicious bargain.
WHERE TO STAY IN BARACOA
In the very unlikely event you don’t have a place to stay yet (remember, owners of casas will try to place you in the house of a friend on your next stops so will go above and beyond to make that reservations for you and keep their friends in good business), do not worry.You will find accommodation.
If you do have a reservation for a casa already, do not get a taxi: the city is really small and it is pointless to pay to go for just a few blocks.
My recommendation in Baracoa is Casa Colonial Gustavo y Yalina, in Flor Combret 125. It is a lovely colonial house, the very big rooms all face an internal yard so you won’t get any noise from the street. Yalina is sweet and helpful and her lobster in coconut sauce is to die for.
3 | TRINIDAD – SANCTI SPIRITUS PROVINCE:
Possibly the most touristic destination in Cuba (aside from all-inclusive resorts in Varadero which I do not dare visiting, but never say never!).
I think there is a reason everyone wants to visit it: it is a beautiful city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a very well preserved exemple of a colonial city. The overall impression you get here is that time has stopped in the 19th century.
This was the commercial heart of Cuba, and a huge wealth was accumulated here in the past. No cars are allowed in the city centre, but you will see donkey and horse carriages, so you can quietly roam around the Artesania shops and the painters’ studios.
INTERESTING PLACES TO SEE AND DO IN TRINIDAD:
The city is packed with museums and places of interest. The streets are cobbled, the colonial buildings so preserved that some even have original furnishings, and the balconies are covered in colourful bouganvilles.
Music is played randomly in each corner, and every night a live band plays in the staircase right next to the cathedral, attracting locals and tourists alike.
The surroundings areas are packed with sites of historical interest.
- Hiking junkies will have a blast in the Topes de Collantes. Sure, if you are used to great peaks the 1156 meters of Pico de San Juan won’t seem difficult. But put together the heat, the humidity, the thick vegetation and you will have a rather difficult hike.
- Do not miss the Valle de los Ingenios, where you can get a better understanding of Trinidad history: visit the Manaca Iznaga, a former sugar cane plantation whose owner, Pedro Iznaga, used to be one of the richest men in Cuba thanks to the slave trade.
- The bonus is the waterfalls of Salto de Caburnì, where you can swim in the natural pools (best seen during the rainy season). The water is freezing cold, but trust me, you will want to jump in.
- Beach bums can enjoy their day in Playa Ancon, which is easily reached by Trinidad. A taxi ride should not cost more than 5 CUC.
Trinidad is the only place where I participated in organized tours, booked in the offices of Cubatours. No negotiations involved, advanced (cash) payment, and no guarantee you will enjoy your day.
Yes you read that right! I was 100% happy with my guides for the hike to Topes de Collantes and Valle de los Ingenios. However, I did not enjoy the trip to Cayo Blanco.
A series of things made for a terrible day, but the worst was the fact that the catamaran that took us to the Cayo did not stop to allow passengers to snorkel around the coral reef as it was supposed to, without providing any explanation.
I dared complain at the office once back in town, but only wasted my time and energy in having a terrible argument (in Spanish!) with the Cubatour agent. There is no concept of customer service and customer satisfaction in Cuba – you are warned.
RESTAURANTS IN TRINIDAD
As you can imagine, being a very touristy destination Trinidad is more expensive than the rest of the country. Prices of casas particulares are roughly around 30 CUC for a double room, and a meal in a good restaurant (there are many) will be more or less 25 CUC.
I loved Paladar Sol y Son, in Simon Bolivar 283 between Frank Pais and Jose Marti. Fair enough it is geared to tourist, but it looks like a museum, and the food is amazing.
I had roast chicken and it was totally worth the price. I also tried the local cocktail, canchanchara, made with aguardiente, rum, honey and lime and served in traditional earthenware: I still prefer my mojitos, thank you!
ACCOMMODATION / CASAS IN TRINIDAD
Rooms in Trinidad are as easy to find as anywhere else, but try not to get here too late at night in case you have no arrangements. I got there from Camaguey by taxi and I had to knock on every single door with the blue symbol indicating casas particulares to find a room, and most of them had no vacancies.
I ended up randomly picking up one that actually had no name as it had just opened (we were their third guests ever), and it was a great choice: spacious room, modern bathroom, huge comfortable bed and the room even had air conditioning. It was in Callejon de Peña, at the back of a beautiful jewelry shop which you actually have to walk through to get to the house.
HOW TO GET THERE
Trinidad is well connected by bus, but the schedule can be a bit prohibitive at times, if you do enjoy your beauty sleep. There are 2 buses per day from Havana (at 8:15 am and at 1 pm, the ride takes about 6 hours).
There is a bus from Santiago at 7:30 pm. Beware that the bus ride takes 12 hours and it stops in Camaguey to pick up more passengers. If you are traveling from Baracoa, you will be tired after the 5 hours drive to Santiago where you will have to change, and knowing there will be 12 more hours on that freezing cold bus will seem like torture.
You will then be tempted to break the journey in Camaguey.
Tip number 1: book your bus ride in advance.
Tip number 2 : Carry a good jacket to wear on Viazul buses: it may be 35 degrees outside, but the airconditioning is kept so low that it is 18 degrees on the bus.
Tip number 3: since you have a jacket, be brave, face the airconditioner and stay on that bus.
Tip number 4: if all I have said is not enough to discourage you from getting off the bus, be warned: go to Camaguey at your own risk.
I hated it: it was hot, polluted, crowded, and after visiting the very few interesting places in town I found it impossible to go elsewhere in the vicinity (ie Moron and the northern cayos) as it was too difficult and expensive.
4 | CIENFUEGOS – CIENFUEGOS PROVINCE:
Quite close to Trinidad :6 buses per day connect the two cities in little over one hour, and at 6 hours from Havana and 7 from Vinales (there are daily direct buses) it could not be more different from it but it is just as splendid.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Cienfuegos is so chilled and breezy that you will fall completely in love with it (bonus point: there are very few jineteros here).
Founded in 1819, the city is right by the sea, which you can admire from El Malecon or from Punta Gorda.
INTERESTING PLACES TO SEE IN CIENFUEGOS:
- Botanical Gardens:A bit off the city center, the lush botanical gardens are perfect for a relaxing walk and for observing various plants including different kinds of bamboo. What’s best, Cienfuegos it is an excellent starting point for amazing daily excursions.
- If you are in search of crystal clear waters, the Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of the Pigs) is a must see.Famous for being the starting point from where the Kennedy administration memorably failed to invade Cuba in 1961, the bay offers spectacularly clear and calm waters, great coral reefs and the possibility of scuba diving.
- Not far from it, Caleta Buena is a beach perfect for snorkeling and observing more marine species: here sweet and sea waters meet, and the kind of fishes present is different from the rest of the area. The entrance fee to Caleta Buena includes sunbeds and all you can drink cocktails. It is perfect for relaxing.
- Many will appreciate a visit to the Cienaga de Zapata, a huge fen that homes some of the most varied ecosystems in the country, with different kinds of vegetation, numerous species of birds and reptiles – there even is a criadero de cocodrilos, where crocodiles are bred as an endangered species.
- Not far from it, the Cuevas de los Peces is a cenote (underground lake) deep about 70 meters, where various species of tropical fish live: bring snorkeling gear to better explore it.
- A top daily excursion that not many consider is that to El Nicho, which actually is at the other side of the national park of Topes de Collantes. This is actually a series of beautiful waterfalls on the Rio Hanabanilla, but there also is a hiking trail, natural pools and caves.
Do carry your swimsuit and a towel: the water is cold, but the topaz colors and transparency will tempt you to jump in. There are various pools, some perfect to run and jump. Those on the right-hand side of the road are more touristic. If you walk down on the left side, there are fewer people.
WHERE TO STAY IN CIENFUEGOS
My choice of casa particular in Cienfuegos is Olga and Eugenio, in Avenida 50 n. 4109, between Calle 41 and 43.
This is an absolutely lovely family, and possibly the casa I enjoyed the most in Cuba because of the relaxed atmosphere. It is very good value for money :only 15 CUC for a double room with private bathroom.
It is located very close to the center of town and the bus station. The house is really beautiful, and Eugenio and Olga are very modest, yet so popular in the area that friends and neighbors often walk in to have a cup of coffee or a meal.
Olga is a bit shy, but 100% lovely. Eugenio speaks a bit of English and will go out of his way to help you and protect you from scams, he will put you in touch with good local guides and taxi drivers, point you to good paladares, and welcome you to sit at the table with him for a chat.
Breakfast is so huge that one portion would be enough for two persons, and dinner is equally good.
WHERE TO EAT IN CIENFUEGOS
Many may be tempted to have a sunset mojito at Palacio del Valle terrace, in Punta Gorda. The view from the roof terrace is certainly worth admiring, but the cocktails are watered down and the prices are high.
Las Mamparas, in Calle 37 n. 4004, is a very good paladar. This is very popular among the locals and you may have to wait a while to be seated, but it is worth it.
They have set menu options, or you can have your picks. Either way, you won’t be disappointed: at 6 CUC for a full meal (and drinks) portions are huge and the food is delicious – opt for the fried shrimps, you won’t regret it! Restaurante Dona Nora in Calle 37 has a lovely balcony overlooking the Prado and prices are just as modest. I got to try the lamb stew and it was truly tasty.
5 | VALLE DE VINALES -PINAR DEL RIO PROVINCE:
The Valley of Viñales is one of the must-sees in Cuba. It is thus really well connected to the rest of the country. There are plenty of daily buses from Havana, and a few direct ones from Cienfuegos and Trinidad too.
My two cents? Whatever your itinerary is, leave Viñales as your last stop. You won’t regret this, it will be that very much wanted cherry on the cake.
It is one of the most paradisiac places you can imagine, that perfect mix of a pretty yet very small town, lovely countryside, close by incredible beaches, tobacco and coffee plantations. It is very well geared to tourism yet retains all of its original characters, making it a real Cuban must see.
The town is a little more than a few streets – the main one, with a cultural centre facing the main square, a small artesania market with lots of street food stalls, and a few side streets which connect to the mountains and countryside around.
HOW TO MOVE AROUND
It is pleasant to walk around: life goes by at a slow pace here. An information desk is conveniently located right by the Viazul bus stop. There, you can inquire about – and book – the various daily activities offered, which include day trips to the cayos with the possibility of snorkeling in the coral reef, hiking, biking or horse riding around the valley, and even salsa lessons.
Whichever way you decide to explore the valley, you will enjoy it – but do make sure to wear sunblock, a hat, sunglasses and carry lots of water. I love biking, and I found this was the perfect way to take a closer look to the mogotes – which are isolated steep-sided residual hills generally having a rounded, tower-like shape and are usually surrounded by nearly flat alluvial plains.
PLACES TO SEE IN VALLE DE VINALES
- Campismo dos Hermanas is located between the Dos Hermanas (literally “two sisters”) mogotes and really close to the Mural de la Prehistoria, which is meant to portray world history up until the age of humans on a rock wall.
- The Cuevas del Indio are well lit caves which you can cross by boat (the entrance fee is around 5 CUC). You will also have a chance to visit a tobacco plantation and observe how artesanal cigars are made.You can buy handmade cigars here, and will receive a good lecture on how to preserve them. Take good notes!
- Cuevas de Palmerito, a cave system with an underground river where you may even be able to swim – although at times the maintenance works mean you can’t go inside.
- Los Aquaticos: Should you decide to go by bike,you will have to leave them at some point and hike up there. This is a very small community of people who, as the name say, believe in the power of water, thinking all illnesses can be cured by it. The view of the Valley from Los Aquaticos is splendid, and it is silent and peaceful there: there is no electricity!
- Hotel Los Jazmines: there is a public terrace that offers an incredible view of the valley and mogotes.
OTHER DAY TRIPS FROM VALLE DE VINALES
Other incredible day trips from Viñales include that to Cayo Jutias or to Cayo Levisa. I picked Cayo Jutias mainly for some reason: Cubans are not allowed to go to Cayo Levisa.
I did not like the idea that a specific place would be off limits for the locals. Cayo Jutias met all my expectations: a long, white and sandy beach, with mangroves growing wildly on it, reached via a lovely road that goes through a pedraplen (embankment).
It is perfect for relaxing and snorkeling. You can participate in a snorkeling expedition for about 12 CUC, and the guide will take you on a boat straight to the coral reef, you will be given the appropriate gear and he will point the most amazing corals and fish – I recommend carrying a go pro or waterproof camera for this incredible experience.
You can also rent pedal boats or, simply, relax in the sun. If you opt for the all-inclusive tour you will have access to a beach bed, lunch and a drink included, aside from transportation.
I would actually recommend to go indipendently – just negotiate the price of transportation from Viñales. Why? There are fishermen that walk by the beach, and for a very reasonable price they offer to catch and cook lobster for you. I am always up for freshly cooked lobster!
WHERE TO SLEEP IN VINALES
There are many options to sleep in Viñales. I had a lovely time at Casa Dovales, of Dr. Aracelys Dovales Corrales, in Adela Azcuy n. 2. tel 0053 48 696 669. The room was nice and clean, in a silent area; the landlady lovely (she saved me one too many times from being ripped off!), and the food amazing.
In fact, my recommendation here is to eat at your casa for best quality food. If anything, opt for street food (there is a wide abundance of it in Viñales) rather than restaurants which are pricey and at times tasteless – for example, state owned La Casa de Don Tomas – Salvador Cisneros 140 – is tasteless.
Despite being a small place, Viñales offers the chance for a good nightlife. There are a few bars around the main square and on the main street; and a few place have salsa music and dance, or even more traditional music.
Centro Cultural Polo Montañez has a weekly “festa del campesino” (peasant’s party), with local peasants participating in an improvisation singing game the results of which can be hilarious. Locals are the majority here, so you can have a real experience, not to mention a good laugh at the impossible singing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Claudia Tavani: A former human rights lawyer and academic, Sardinian, Claudia is an animal lover and more than anything, a traveller who craves to see the world. In November 2013, she decided that it was time to embarked on a 6 months trip through Central and South America, which changed her life and gave her the final input to live as a writing nomad. Her mission is to let people dream through her travels, providing guidance and inspiration to other backpachers. You can follow her adventures on www.myadventuresacrosstheworld.com, and her Facebook page. To read more, check Claudia’s blog section on Cuba.