Landing in Havana on a balmy evening on my 36th birthday, I fell in love.
Straight up at the immigration desk you are greeted with a postal brown, art-deco curved booth with communist-red signage. There is no mistaking that you have landed in a different place.
Cuba is known for being stuck in a time warp, due to the embargo, which was in effect for over half a century restricting flow of capital and people.
Cuba is so much more than spotting Cadillacs and smoking Cristos. It’s a hot pot of culture, activism, natural beauty and courage. It’s a place that stays with you long after you leave.
We were travelling through Cuba on 11 April 2015 when Presidents Obama and Castro shook hands at the Summit of the Americas in Panama. At that moment you could sense the change coming.
Here are ten reasons to visit Cuba now.
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If you didn’t know or hadn’t guessed, Richard is a musician. As a drummer, he loves a good beat and when you are in Cuba you are surrounded by the powerful pulse of the country and its people.
Every night, locals and tourists alike mingle together to the seductive sounds of Cuban music. You can’t escape it and why would you?
Casa de la Trova (house of musicians, specifically troubadores) is where you need to go to get your fill. Passion-filled voices playing ballads with their cadre will keep you there for hours. Tap your feet or get up and dance and with just enough cuba libres you will soon forget how left-footed you are in comparison to the locals.
Where to hear it?
Santiago de Cuba with its Afro-Cuban heritage has a buzzing music scene. Some of Cuba’s most famous musicians, including Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Eliades Ochoa (all of whom participated in the Buena Vista Social Club) were born here or nearby.
The Casa de la Trova is famous here. Whilst we were there, renovation work was taking place and we instead opted for a night at Hotel Casa Granda. A renowned group was playing and the rooftop balcony was packed. There was an entry fee of US$10, but $8 went towards your drinks bill. It is geared towards tourists and does not have the atmosphere of a traditional Casa de la Trova, but a great experience to be able to listen to such amazing musicians.
In Trinidad at the top of the hill at the meeting spot known simply as ‘The Steps’, was a great place to soak up the city life and lights. It’s free to listen to the music pour out of the restaurants whilst you enjoy mojitos made by the make-shift cocktail bars on the cobbled streets for $1 CUC. Also in Trinidad is Casa de la Musica with great music to pair with your cuba libres.
Colonial and revolutionary heritage
Everywhere you look in Cuba has been stamped by its past. A past they want to remember, interrogate and celebrate.
Colourful, colonial buildings freshly painted side by side with those ready to receive a facelift or fall down. Plazas built around wealth and religion. Large monuments pay homage to the revolutionary leaders. Lush green fields silently speak the slave trade stories.
It is in these places you are reminded of a history spanning centuries of struggle. It comes out in the music, dance, food, art and the people. You only have to look past the bright smiles to know they are aware of the impermanence of things.
A recent survey placed Cuba with the lowest quality of life in the world, but I don’t see it. I am aware of the dire average wages, but people do live long into their years, enjoy the spirit of their past and are working towards a bright future for their children. They are resourceful, happy people waiting for changes to come, but recognise the importance of now.
Where to learn about it?
Museo de la Revolucion, Havana. Spend a good half-day exploring the Museum. Signage is in English and there are guided tours you can take up.
If you want to learn more about the revolutionary hero, Ernesto Che Guevara, make your way to Santa Clara. A personally moving experience, where you can visit a museum detailing his life, a mausoleum holding Guevara’s remains and finally reflect on the huge statue of him.
In Trinidad take a taxi drive about 30 minutes out of town to the Valle de Los Ingenios to the sugar-cane plantations of old. Enjoy pure sugar cane juice and learn about the rise and fall of the families of the area.
Be a pirate for a day. On the coast of Santiago de Cuba, take a visit to Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, it is the best-preserved monument of Spanish-American military architecture. Afterwards you can have a meal where Paul McCartney ate.
Rum and Coffee
As I write about Cuba, I’m constantly referring to my notes, not remembering a great deal and that may have something to do with all the rum fun.
If it wasn’t a sure fire route to liver complications, I would live off espresso and mojitos.
Okay, what’s there to say about Cuban rum that hasn’t been said before. White rum for cocktails, dark rum drink neat. Got it?
When it comes to the black gold, Cuba’s history of the coffee bean is an interesting one. According to the Tea and Coffee magazine, coffee production was introduced to Cuban society in the mid-18th century.
By the 1820s, coffee production was contributing even more to Cuba’s economy than sugar. In the years right before the Cuban Revolution (1956), Cuba’s coffee exports were valued at $21.5 million.
With the Cuban Revolution came the nationalisation of the coffee farms and the decline of the coffee industry in general. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the industry had a slight recovery only to be devastated once again with the fall of the Soviet Union (Cuba’s principle benefactor) in 1990.
Now the majority of Cubans make do with their fortnightly ration of coffee.
Where to drink it?
I don’t remember ever having a bad drink of rum or coffee. Each cubre libre, mojito and frozen daiquiri was great. Get to a Casa de la Trova in the town you are in, order from a bar along the Malecon, taste the local cocktail of Trinidad of rum, honey, lemon, ice and sugar from La Canchanchara, buy a bottle from a local supermarket and enjoy with your homestay family. Or if you partake in tubular tobacco, there’s a cigar shop (can’t remember the name) in Old Havana across from the plaza with a Guayasamin statue where you can have a smoke paired with a quality rum.
A café Cubano will get you going in the morning. The sweet espresso is commonly offered when you enter a Cuban home, so enjoy it at your homestays. Other spots to people watch and sip life’s energy source is in Havana’s Casa Del Café on Plaza Vieja. Hang out with the intellectuals at Café Ciudad in Camaguey. Or Las Ruinas Bar in Trinidad near the Casa de la Trova.
This section is kindly inspired by my friend Arlita. You see, I salsa danced on a river bed, a sandy beach and in the halls of a studio, but I didn’t dare take my 1-2-3-4 into the realm of a club.
Why? Well these Cubans know how to move. I fancy myself as someone who has a little rhythm, but damn, it’s like the Casa de la Trovas are their home and the musicians are their snake charmers.
Where to bust a move?
I would highly recommend getting a salsa dancing lesson or two. You’ll finish looking like a muy caliente mess, but super fun. Ask your homestay for a recommendation.
If you find yourself in Trinidad, then find Disco Ayala. It’s a disco in a cave where you can wiggle your tail amid the stalactites.
In happening Havana you could try Café Taberna for their nightly Buena Vista Social Club style concerts, Hotel Nacional on a Saturday night or Plaza Américas Salon Plenario in Varadero where successors of the BVSC play regularly. Each costing from $25 CUC.
In some ways, it is crazy to put this on the top ten list, because the food is good, but not great.
If food will make or break your holiday, then be prepared to spend money to eat at fancy restaurants and hotels to enjoy a variety.
For us, eating out in a new destination is just as much part of the adventure as the sights. I love soup. It may sound crazy to be tucking into a hot dish in the middle of the day, but Cuba has some of the best chicken soups around.
The rest of the food can be pretty predictable. Chicken or pork with rice and beans accompanied with the salad trio of cucumber, tomato and cabbage. If you are adventurous, try the street pizza costing you about 50c in their national currency (not CUCs). In saying all of this, if you like seafood and shellfish, you wont be disappointed with the quality.
Cubans appear to be conservative with their spices and most dishes need a bit of a kick, so bring your own, many people do.
But what I really love is their not-so-secret affair with dessert. It is common to see people cycle their just frosted delight down the road in the middle of the day. I heard that the state actually supplies them free for children’s birthdays up to the age of 15.
Where to taste it?
Join one of the lines of locals around Coppelias – the state subsidised ice-cream parlours. It’s an experience worth getting sticky for. In Havana there is an entire block devoted to the consumption of icecream on Calle 23.
Eat at your homestay. We enjoyed numerous great meals from our homestay hosts and always ordered the breakfast which was eggs with bread, fruit and coffee ($4CUC). If you are in a homestay that offers other meals then you could expect to be treated to lobster, octopus, chicken, pork (depending on your location and season) with rice and beans. Portions can be big, so watch how much you order. Main meals are priced between $6 – $14CUC depending on where you eat and what you order.
Architecture and Art
Highly influenced by the Spanish conquistadors and past inhabitants, Cuba’s architecture spans 5 centuries, bringing together colonial, baroque, neogothic, neoclassical, art deco, modern and post-modern architectural styles.
When we visited in April 2014, a number of towns were celebrating or about to celebrate their 500th anniversary, meaning many buildings of significance had received considerable money from the government for restoration. It was a delight to see plazas restored to their former glory.
Described as one of the most culturally rich destinations in the Caribbean, Cuba has numerous art galleries and museums to visit. There’s even a chess museum in Santiago. The exciting contemporary art scene can also be enjoyed at a number of artist studios open to the public.
Where to see it?
Get to Camaguey and take a bicycle taxi tour around this beautiful town filled with art-deco buildings and contemporary artist studios. Whilst it is small enough to get around by foot, the city was planned in a deliberately irregular and confusing pattern hoping to disorient any would-be attackers. A particular highlight was seeing a folklore concert of dance and song sat with locals and families of the performers.
Old Havana (Habana Vieja) has over 900 buildings of historical significance, so get your walking shoes on, take some water and get lost in amongst the cobble-stone streets. Or if you rather take a look from up high at Camara Obscura in Plaza Vieja providing a 360 degree, real-time view of Havana life. I would also make a detour to Callejon de Hamel on a Sunday to experience live music and view Santeria murals. (A system of beliefs inspired by the African slaves, with Christianity and Indigenous American traditions).
It’s the Caribbean – you won’t be disappointed.
Get to the beach wherever you can which shouldn’t be hard with over 300 beaches covering the island and averaging 330 days of sunshine. Pick a beach and a day – perfect match!
Where to splash around in it?
Check out Cuba’s Tourism website for a full list of beaches by town. We had loads of fun on Playa Ancon snorkeling and sunbathing. If you book on the Intrepid tour, you will likely enjoy an unforgettable picnic feast watching the sun set over the sea whilst busting out some salsa moves on the sand.
After tackling the Inca Trail, Patagonia’s W-trek and many, many steps up and down Mayan ruins, I thought I had enough of taking a jaunt into the wild. I was so very wrong. Give me a slippery clay track and some unidentified wildlife and I’m there.
Cuba gets it and is investing and growing their selection of activities for eco-tourists. There are hiking trails to magical lookouts and waterfalls; horseback riding, cycling tours, and spelunking. That’s right, spelunking. You will be forgiven if you thought (like I did) that it is something that happens involuntary after too much Cuban rum and street stall pizzas, but no…it’s all about caving.
Where to enjoy it?
Baracoa (meaning elevated land in the Arawak language), is where you want to be at. Located on the far-eastern tip of the island, Baracoa has mountains, waterfalls, crystal clear rivers, curious looking wildlife and chocolate trees (okay, there’s a process, but the cacao fruit is delicious too). Get muddy and give El Yunque (The Anvil) a climb. At an easy pace its about a 5 hour return hike and you get to wade through a river at the start and then having a refreshing and clay-cleaning dip at the end. Tie it all together with a spit-roast pork supper on the riverbank.
If you are a horse person, then Trinidad’s cowboy tours I hear are a great day out. The scenery and company are meant to be quite lush!
The national sport and passion for the Cubans.
Not someone who really follows any league of sport, I found this to be some of the most fun in Cuba. In Baracoa we walked along the beachfront to a falling down stadium. We were told not to sit in the stands as the roof is known to relieve a few rocks onto your head. Join the locals (almost all men) in chearing the local team on. In this case it was a training practice and free to watch, but most are about $3 CUC for tourists.
Where to cheer ‘em on?
If it’s during the season (November – March/April) your homestay will likely be screening the games. There may also be some practice games to be found. We didn’t get a chance to visit, but the Estadio Latinamericano in Havana and reviews of the games are legendary. Make your visit special by finding out about a game near you.
The tourism website for Cuba says it best “For a small country, Cuba has a very large soul.” It is so true. People can be quite reserved at the beginning, but once you establish a rapport, they open up and want you to experience the best of the town to be had.
Where to meet them?
Anywhere and everywhere.
It could be your hiking guide pointing out interesting specimens and offering different fruits to try. The two chaps who roasted the suckling pig wanting to find out more about your country. The salsa dancing assistant instructor who wants you to really understand how the moves all work together. The barber you found off the square in Santiago whose face just shone when met with Richard’s curly locks. Even the chap who scammed a couple of bucks from you for ‘balloons’ was charming and interesting.
We enjoyed staying at homestays over hotels. You are living with the family (in your own private room with ensuite) and experience much more of the Cuban life than a hotel would offer. Plus it’s more affordable and helps the family. As we booked onto a tour we didn’t have to worry about organising accommodation in advance, but other tourists we spoke to had their future accommodation organised by their current homestay family. It seems someone knows someone in the town you are going to and can hook you up. Otherwise this site looks very helpful for finding appropriate accommodation.
Thoughts from a fellow traveller, Arlita
My key tip with Cuba is that it helps to have a local with you as many of the AWESOME places are hidden (upstairs kitchens, basement clubs, organic farms that “host” visitors)… People warned me to get used to eating fried beans and stale bread (this is the experience in tourist traps) but my experience could’ve been the polar opposite. A lot of establishments are self sufficient produce-wise, ingredients were fresh and organic. Again this could’ve changed since Cuba has opened up travel… I just hope it doesn’t lose it’s charming and grounded character to commercialisation.
If you got to the end, well done! I know it was a long post, but hopefully it provided some useful information and inspiration to think about Cuba for your next holiday.
Exchange rate – $1CUC to $1US.
Travel money – Forget about visa and mastercard and all Australian bankcards as they have links to US banks. Bring Canadian dollars or Euros and exchange upon arrival at the airport. There’s always a massive queue, but you will eventually get there. We got lucky and could use Richard’s credit union bankcard to withdraw money over the counter on route.
Also have some local pesos on hand for street food. 1CUC is about 24 pesos.
We travelled in early April on Intrepid’s Best of Cuba tour.
Intrepid Best of Cuba Trip notes and AutenticaCuba.com