Colonial mansions with crumbling facades. Big, fat cigars, revolutionary billboards, salsa and sandy beaches — you’ve seen them all in your travel fantasies. Now let expert Claire Boobbyer show you how to make the dream a reality…
With its cigar-smoking rebels, sparkling seas, vintage vehicles, potent music, and locals who survive on their wits and humour, Cuba will almost certainly steal your heart. But like so many seducers, this tropical island, shaded a Socialist red on the map, is complicated. It’s at once gorgeous and falling apart; ridiculously rich in culture, but short on basic goods and common conveniences. (Cuba’s not for you if you need Instagram connection 24/7; or if you don’t handle train cancellations well; or if you come over shaky when you can’t find a breakfast latte with soya milk.)
The island’s fairly large and packs in a lot of encounters and experiences, so you’ll need two weeks to do it justice. For us, that means seeing the highlights and a bit more: the capital Havana; lush Viñales Valley; Trinidad and Santiago cities; and the distant east – jungly Oriente is Cuba’s best-kept secret and you won’t regret stretching your time. Anxious about bypassing urbane Santa Clara and coastal Cienfuegos towns? You’ll get more colonial grandeur and better beaches on the route mapped out here.
Delays and safety concerns make domestic flights a bad idea and car hire is expensive and convoluted. Instead, do as most travellers do and take cross-country coaches or hire a car and driver. Pack patience, flexibility, your sense of humour and your glad rags. Cuba’s infectious magic will knock you sideways. From cutting-edge arta and hip-swivelling music to wild beaches, colonial hotspots and brilliant B&Bs, here’s how to pack it all in…
Havana is utterly beautiful. Not quite the starlet she once was, perhaps, but her 500-year-old bone structure is still there, in primped-up plazas and swanky mansions. The city is Cuba’s political and cultural capital and, more prosaically, has the biggest airport for arrivals. Most flights touch down in time for dinner and drinks, and you’d be nuts not to take advantage. From the airport, Havana is 40 minutes by taxi via a flipbook of socialist billboards. Few places on Earth offer stays in such splendour for such great value – think Spanish colonial romance meets Art Deco. Havana is a city on the up, and you’ll find its coolest creative types on the rooftop at El del Frente (O’Reilly 303). Come and dine alfresco, then slip into speakeasy-feel Cero Habana (Aguiar 209). Prefer somewhere more established? Anyone with a guidebook will know about Ernest Hemingway’s favourite haunts. By all means take a stool at his favoured spot, El Floridita (Obispo 557), and drink in the long, classy lounge and live music along with your drink. But avoid La Bodeguita del Medio (Empedrado 207), which does the city’s worst Mojito.
The plundered loot of Spain’s Latin American empire was funnelled through Havana for more than 200 years, via the so-called treasure fleets. And the silver cascading through the Atlantic-facing city needed protection — with forts mostly built by African slaves — to defy those pirates of the Caribbean. Havana’s wealth was later bolstered by sugar exports, and profits were invested in handsome bricks and mortar. Now those Old Havana streets are made for walking, between UNESCO-protected Baroque churches, bougainvillea-draped portals, lofty mansions, muscular fortresses and kerbside cafés. The four main plazas — Catedral, Armas, Vieja and San Francisco — are highlights. Devote time to the plush presidential-palaceturned-Museum of the Revolution, which charts Cuba’s history of rebellion. In the Museum of Fine Arts, take a guided tour of the Cuban collection (make for the avant-garde and contemporary art floors). Artsy types can go further with a curator-guide (Sussette Martínez; email@example.com), visiting artists’ home-studios: maybe see a Cadillac converted into a submarine, or a Che Guevara ‘Turin’ shroud.
Wherever you’re going, grab a rickshaw-style bicycle taxi for speed. Havana’s almendrón taxi system — classic cars running fixed routes — has disintegrated somewhat. Now, you’ll pay $6-$9 for taxis for journeys of up to 4km. The hop-on-hop-off circulating red tourist bus is for people with plenty of time.
Shimmy along for matinee rumba at tight, sweaty and untouristy El Jelengue de Areito in Centro Habana, a dilapidated residential zone. After dinner, look out for the green light bulb on Calle 11 marking under-the-radar La Casa de la Bombilla Verde, to hear live nueva trova music. Your next address is the city’s Fábrica de Arte Cubano for challenging photography, singer-songwriters, avant-garde dance and the chance to mingle with Cuban entrepreneurs. Do this lot and you’ll have captured Cuba’s political, social and cultural zeitgeist. You can sleep when you get home.
Take the strain off your feet on your last day in Havana and make your way through Centro by bicycle taxi for a window onto street life — having first bought a cigar factory ticket, available from any hotel. The H Upmann Factory tour reveals one of the world’s most aromatic and elaborate crafts. Buy cigars from official ‘Habanos’ stores only (on the street, you might get fakes made of dried banana).
If cigars aren’t your bag, try a farm-to-table cooking class at organic paradise Finca Tungasuk (tungasuk.com) in buried-in-the-bushes Caimito, 40 minutes from Havana. Or make like Rihanna in Havana and hire a Cadillac with driver (malecon663.com). Explore the two castles defending the Bay of Havana, then motor to the leafy, artsy El Vedado district, home to wedding-cake mansions, top paladares (private restaurants), and music venues. After snapping the monumental Plaza de la Revolución, step into Christopher Columbus Cemetery for the largest communion of marble angels in Latin America (see a husband’s devotion embodied in bronze, stone and Lalique glass at Catalina Lasa’s tomb). In the golden hour before sunset, cruise up and down Havana’s seaside boulevard, the Malecón, with its hymn to fabulous, colourful architectural eclecticism
Toast your time in Havana with a drink on the roof of the Kempinski hotel; you’ll have a great view of curlicued motifs on theatres and museums. Partygoers should end the night dancing salsa in front of a live band at alfresco Club 1830. In the Old Town, music-crawl the lounges of Calle Obispo: La Lluvia de Oro is a winner for its old-time looks and live bands.
Rise early for Víazul’s 9am coach to Viñales, 180km west of Havana. You’ll want as much time as transport allows in the town and its lush valley. UNESCO-protected Viñales Valley is a vision of velvet-green mountains rising from palms, tobacco plants and ruddy red soil tilled by oxen and plough. Besides the country air, its greatest draws are the organic food, horse-riding and rock-climbing. And you’ll see much better valley sights than those tipped in the guidebooks on a walk with a guide from the Visitors’ Centre (close to Hotel Los Jazmines; 8.30am-5pm). Otherwise, stroll around a private mogote with farmer Omar from Casa Omar y Mayra (firstname.lastname@example.org), or ask your B&B to help you hire horses for a guided ride to the unspoilt Valley of Silence. Swap valley sunsets the next day for tangerine-coloured starfish at Cayo Jutías, a sparkling white beach that’s an easy day-trip with one of the travel agencies on the small main strip. Or hire a taxi to take you to the tobacco farm of Hector Luis Prieto (hectorfinca.com). He does a superb tour and creole lunch for a bargain price. The insatiable could squeeze in both by private taxi.
Trinidad: colonial splendour
There’s no quick fix to reach Trinidad, but it’s a must-visit for its pistachio-and cinnamon-coloured homes, dreamy palaces, and coppery horses ridden by mangón (very good-looking) cowboys trotting through town. Víazul’s daily bus from Viñales takes nine-and-a-half hours (or rent a car). But if you’re prepared for a little organised chaos, you can keep it to six or seven hours by taking collective taxis. Vintage vehicles pick up passengers from Viñales B&Bs and drive them to a highway restaurant; you could then be shifted to another vehicle and redirected to Trinidad. It sounds like a jumbled plan, but go with it you’ll never be stranded in Cuba.
Trinidad was central to Cuba’s 19th-century sugar boom, and its wealthy sugar barons enshrined egos in stone: palaces embellished with all the finest furniture, frescoes and chandeliers money could buy. You can sleep amid the grandeur at some of the small city’s finest homes. The next day, gain full immersion by just wandering. A cluster of music venues, all within a stone’s throw of each other, makes flirting with each one a cinch. Top dazzler is Casa de la Trova, a traditional colonial home with live bands and a patio for dancing. If you know the moves, wait at the edge for a partner to approach. If you’re a learner, standby, too. It’s the only way to improve and Cubans are accommodating.
Morning light spills over Trinidad in a golden sheen. Photographer Julio Muñoz has been capturing life there for years. His easy manner and contacts make his street-photography tour a nuanced introduction beyond the city’s UNESCO-protected chocolate-box façade. Later, climb the observation tower at the Cantero Palace history museum, where a central fountain once sprinkled eau de cologne for the ladies and spirits for society gents. Look out for the faces of Trinidad’s elderly folk exquisitely carved into abandoned door pieces at the gallery of Lázaro Niebla Castro.
Sights and salsa in Santiago
Santiago is steeped in history, humidity and a rocking music scene. With African, Haitian and Jamaican roots, its vibe is more Caribbean than Havana’s. To get there from Trinidad, don’t spend a day on Víazul’s direct route: (12hr 50min); instead take a $50 taxi to Sancti Spíritus (about one hour north) and catch the 3.10pm bus or an overnighter (9.10pm and 1.50am; 10hr 20min).
Don’t pack all the sights into your first day — plan a siesta, breaks on the Casa Granda hotel terrace or coffee at museum café Casa Dranguet. Explore highlights of the 500-year-old historic core on foot: the first governor’s mansion and the Moncada Museum, charting Fidel Castro’s rise to power.
Start the night at funky alfresco chess café, Café Ajedrez, with its live bands, followed by evening ensembles at Casa de la Trova, and a storming end-of-night salsa shiver at Bar Claqueta. Next day, swap city for country and hire a car and driver through Out of the Box (outofthebox.zone). Plan to take in glorious Avenida Manduley mansions in the Vista Alegre district, Fidel Castro’s tomb at magnificent marble Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, and impressive UNESCO-protected El Morro Castle at the mouth of Santiago Bay. Time your visit for the sunset cannon-firing ceremony. Fancy carnival? Come in July, prepared for stifling temperatures.
‘Christopher Columbus said of Baracoa: ‘so much beauty that I can find no words to describe it’’
Baracoa: beautiful beaches
Baracoa is spellbinding. Some of the world’s smallest species of bird, frog and bat live here, as does the rainbow-coloured hyper-local natural beauty the polymita snail. These small wonders inhabit the coconut palms, cocoa trees, coffee bushes and pine forests of this Atlantic region. When Christopher Columbus first glimpsed the wild beaches and green slopes in 1492, he wrote there was ‘so much beauty that I can find no words to describe it’.
A Víazul bus from Santiago at 7.40am can get you to this tropical enclave in time for lunch. Climb the hill to Hotel El Castillo for lush views of anvil-flat mountain El Yunque, and map out the following days’ plans. For wild beach exploration, head south, going off-piste on hired bikes (baracoabikerental.com) or in a cab ($30 return). At Manglito Beach, sink into an Adirondack chair with a drink, and order fresh seafood from Tato’s food shack. Hike up through palms the next day to El Yunque’s summit. The views of the nibbled Atlantic coastline — a jade-green forest hemline against a peacock-blue sea — are awesome. After that you’ll want relaxation. You can find it at Maguana, the cutest beach corner in Cuba, a rugged 22km north of Baracoa.
‘Maguana is the cutest beach corner in Cuba. If you squeezed in a dip in the area’s glassy River of Honey, legend says you’ll return To Baracoa’
Then grit your teeth, book a cab to Baracoa’s bus station, and catch the 1pm coach all the way back to Havana (17hr 30min). If you squeezed in a dip in the area’s glassy River of Honey, legend says you’ll return to Baracoa. You know you will.
Words by Claire Boobbyer