Cuba's Beguiling Heritage - From Colonial Culture to Revolution
Havana is the undeniable jewel in Cuba’s dazzling crown. A heady blend of dishevelled beauty, timeless style, cultural attractions and living, breathing Cuban vibrancy. A place to kick off your heels after dancing the night away, with salsa music and cigar smoke seemingly drifting from every building. Havana is also (arguably) the best place to kick off your Cuban cultural experiences. The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site - merely meandering its streets allows lucky visitors to absorb a whole lot of Cuban spirit and history. After a day exploring - on foot, or else in an impossibly cool vintage car that’ll never age - head to the majestic Hotel Nacional for a cocktail on the elegant terrace.
Founded in 1514, the city of Trinidad (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is another top place for discovering Cuban culture and heritage, with Plaza Mayor at its passionately pounding heart. Encased by pastel-coloured colonial mansions, the Plaza boasts an excellent art gallery and several museums, among them the unmissable Museo Romántico.
When it comes to Cuba’s unique modern history and political culture, it’s fair to say that times sure are a-changin’: 2021 saw the first non-Castro take the most powerful position in Cuban politics (First Secretary of the Communist Party) since the revolution. That said, Cuba’s extraordinary political past remains an extraordinary experience for visitors to discover, with spectacular Santiago de Cuba being an excellent starting point. It was here in the Moncada Barracks that the first strike of the Cuban Revolution took place. Further back in time, the city also brims with seventeenth-century piratical intrigue (the Museo de la Piratería is a must-visit), while its contemporary carnival rivals that of Rio de Janeiro (really).
Santa Clara is another unmissable site for visitors keen to uncover more about Cuba’s revolution. Also known as “The City of the Heroic Guerrilla”, and long a place of pilgrimage for Che Guevara worshippers, this was the scene of a decisive rebel victory under his command. Today two monuments and a museum commemorate the man and the role he played in the Cuban Revolution.
Cuba's Breath-taking Beaches and Underwater Adventures
Cuba’s beaches are just as beguiling as its history, with the Jardines del Rey (King’s Gardens) cays especially beloved by beach connoisseurs. Though home to a plethora of hotels, Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo retain a real “away-from-it” feel. Cayo Guillermo’s Playa Pilar, for example (named after Ernest Hemingway’s yacht, and the author’s favourite Cuban hideaway), is one such jewel, with calm, clear waters to bathe in, and the softest of sand to stretch out on.
But you’d be missing out if you spent all your time lounging around. Jardines del Rey is fringed by 400km of coral reef, with over forty dive sites to explore. Expect to be dazzled by shoals of angel fish, butterfly fish, nurse sharks and surgeon fish as they weave through magical forests of colourful sponges. And fear not if you’ve never dived - experienced operators are on hand to help you take the plunge. Alternatively, the snorkelling is superb too, with top sites easily accessible from the shore. The cays are also known for their wildlife-rich lagoons and flamboyant flamingo populations.
Another region well-known for its pristine beaches is Varadero. As with Jardines del Rey, Varadero combines the convenience (and comfort) of elegant resorts with opportunities for outdoor adventuring. In short, you can have it all. Relax in turquoise waters. Learn to kitesurf or dive. Get back to nature. Talking of which…
Cuba's Wildlife Wonders and Epic Landscapes
Cuba is every bit as rewarding for active types and nature-lovers as it is for sun-seekers, with the Península de Zapata National Park sitting near the top of Cuba’s natural attractions tree. This UNESCO-declared biosphere reserve is a wild, unspoilt paradise for Cuban wildlife - expect to see boar, mongoose, iguana and crocodile alongside a bedazzling array of birdlife, including the endemic Zapata rail and the elusive Cuban pygmy owl.
Yet more epic natural wonders await in Viñales, a national park with striking prehistoric landscapes, and an alluringly serene atmosphere. This lost-world charm comes courtesy of its mogote marvels - boulder-like hills that look like they’ve dropped from the sky.
Elsewhere, Cuba offers opportunities to enjoy seriously satisfying trekking, not least in the pine-thick Sierra del Escambray, and the enchanting cloud forests of the Sierra Maestra. Alternatively, why not go all-out and ascend the squared-off summit of Baracoa’s El Yunque? Giving a glimpse into historic revolutionary rebel hideouts alongside breath-taking scenery (think wild waterfalls), this is ideal for travellers who like to dig deep into all aspects of the countries they visit. If, however, you’re struggling to pick between experiences, consider taking a tailor-made trip that combines a few of them - why limit yourself to one bite of the cherry when you can gorge on a basketful?
Cuba Guide: Eat, Drink, Dance and be (Mucho) Merry
While Cuba doesn’t have a big reputation for its cuisine, these days the island’s locally-grown, organic fruit and veg, and succulent seafood (especially lobster, shrimp and octopus) are well served by a proliferation of quality restaurants, especially in Havana. Meanwhile, in rural areas, dishes like ropa vieja (shredded beef or lamb prepared over a slow-heat stew), and lechón (a delicacy of spit-roasted suckling pig marinated in garlic, onions and herbs) deliver a whole lot of hearty, home-cooked flavour. That said, Cuba is justifiably better known for its drink. And by drink, we mean rum. Given that the island produces some of the world’s most respected rums, it’d be rude not to imbibe the good stuff during a visit.
Whether enjoyed neat (Havana Club Gran Reserva and Santiago de Cuba Extra Añejo are recommended for that), or in a cocktail (Cuban classics include the mojito, daiquiri and Cuba libre), it’s often the case that where there’s rum, there’s music, and where there’s music, there’s dancing (and maybe spot of moonlight, love and romance, too). When in Cuba, music and dancing (like rum) are not to be missed. Who cares if you’re rusty? Who cares if you’ve never danced salsa before? No one, that’s who. Cubans are nothing but exuberantly welcoming. You could take lessons, or just seize the day (and maybe another mojito while you’re at it).
If you’re feeling inspired and fancy taking your first steps onto that Cuban dance floor, with Rough Guides Tailor-Made Trips you can choose from existing (fully customisable) itineraries that cover the Cuban hotspots mentioned above, or else take a trip to over 60 other destinations. If you‘d prefer to create your trip from scratch, the Rough Guides team can connect you to a local expert who will personally curate an experience that’s perfect for you. Let Rough Guides Tailor-Made Trips take the hassle out of planning your next adventure, so all you have to do is enjoy it.