A country on the cusp of change, now is the time to visit Cuba.
A hustling, bustling, living museum where crumbling Neoclassical architecture sits alongside the maintained palatial grandeur of Old Havana. Cruise down the Malecón coastal front in a 1950’s classic American soft top to take in this city’s sights and smells; an intoxicating mix of cigar smoke, gasoline, and salty sea air. Every crack in this city’s infrastructure tells a story and is one best told on foot as the sun sets and the Caribbean heat drops. After dark is also a time that Havana comes to life in music that seems to just emanate from rooftops.
Where to stay: Saratoga Hotel offers an unrivalled rooftop poolside view of the domed National Capitol building (and free, if patchy, wi-fi). Disclaimer: the guide books will tell you this is Havana’s most expensive hotel. Believe it.
Where to eat: Brimming with antiques and olde worlde knick-knacks, San Cristóbal on the edge of Old Havana serves up a delectable menu of traditional Cuban and Caribbean dishes. Think lobster, fried plantain, black beans and rice. A place where the digestif is a 16-year-old rum and no meal is complete without an offering of Cuban cigars. The restaurant counts Beyoncé and the Obamas as recent diners.
For more low-key dining, also try El Dandy (brunch/bar) and Habana 61 (informal paladar – book in advance).
Where to drink: For the best daiquiris in town, head to Bar Floridita; the once favoured watering hole of Ernest Hemingway and where you can still join him at the bar (albeit a bronze version).
Other: The original Club Tropicana can be found in Havana. A tourist hot spot, it is also priced accordingly. For a taste of Cuba’s jazz scene instead, La Zorra Y El Cuervo is the place to go. Descend into this underground club via a not-so-inconspicuous London telephone box.
Four hours south east of Havana is the 16th century, Unesco world heritage site of Trinidad. Horse and carts still pace the cobbled streets here, which are themselves lined with pastel coloured buildings and crowned by the Convento San Francisco de Asis tower. Life happens at a much slower pace, and the entire town is best explored on foot.
Where to stay: Seek out a casa particular (see below) for your stay here and live like a local. Ours had fresh mangoes growing in the garden, which we’d eat out on a veranda for breakfast each morning, under the shade of an avocado tree.
Where to eat: Trinidad’s restaurant scene has exploded in recent years. Whilst it still has some catching up to do with Havana, La Reddación is stand-out for quality, decent cocktails and bustling atmosphere.
Where to drink: Coffee lovers must drop by Café Don Pepe. The menu includes everything from a simple café con leche, to the Spanish-rooted café bombón (espresso and shot of condensed milk over ice). Enjoy under a mango canopy – and watch your head if the wind blows!
Other: Trinidad is on the edge of the Topes de Collantes national park. A guided tour here will take you through the forest, sampling native regional “pear-apples” straight from the tree and take a refreshing dip into waterfall backdropped plunge pools for all your hiking efforts.
If you can excuse the gaudy all-inclusive resorts that monopolise this sun bleached peninsula, it is worth the two and a half hour journey from Havana to beach bum for a few days. Fine, white sands make up this 20km stretch which is only made more spectacular by its vivid turquoise, shallow Caribbean waters. Paradise.
Tobacco is a major export for Cuba and Viñales is the place to see the cigar making process. Most plantations are only accessible by horse or on foot, but the views of this national park en route make the sweaty hike worth it.
If you’re going to buy cigars anywhere in Cuba, make it at the plantations. By law, producers must sell 90% of their crop to the government, and much of this goes on to make recognised branded Cuban cigars. The process at the plantation (rolling by hand, removal of the stem where 70% of nicotine is found, fermenting with natural fruit juices and securing with honey) ensure a high quality product and proceeds, of course, go directly to farmers.
Helpful tips for navigating Cuba
- Internet: With the exception of hotel wi-fi, getting any sort of internet connection in Cuba is through the use of pre-paid ETECSA (state-owned telecommunications provider) cards and accessed through public internet hot spots. These are dotted around large towns and cities, generally localised to parks or town squares and easy to find. Actually getting a connection is less so. Expect connectivity to drop frequently!
- Currency: A dual currency operates in Cuba but tourists will typically use the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) which you can only buy once you’ve arrived. There are a number of exchange bureaus at the airport, but expect long queues! US dollars won’t be accepted and, on a related point, it’s currently not possible to make any debit or credit card transactions if your card provider is a US bank.
- Taxis: Two different types of taxi operate in Cuba. Official cars are marked yellow and are generally modern vehicles with air conditioning, etc. You’ll see Cubans sharing old style local taxis – or collectivos – which can range from well-maintained classic American cars to fumy, oil-leaking, no seat belt, door-on-its-last-hinge, rust buckets. As you might expect, these are typically cheaper but always agree a price beforehand.
- Navigating: Download a GPS-based map app to guide yourself around and pin attractions / restaurants, that you want to drop by. Most will also identify nearby services and amenities – helpful when you’re tracking down an ATM.
- “This is Cuba!”: One local’s phrase, delivered with a wry shrug during one leg of our journey. Systems, processes, journey times, etc. can all be frustratingly inefficient here (*despairingly recalls a one hour door-to-door passenger pick-up tour around Havana of a supposedly two hour shared taxi to Viñales; a journey that turned into an epic five hours*). Bear with it. You soon learn its all part of Cuba’s uniqueness and charm (even in the back of a hot, fragrant car).
- Casa Particulares: If you want to experience real Cuban life, homestays in Cuba’s vast network of private homes is a must. Most places you can just turn up (look for the blue anchor-shaped logo that identifies registered homes). AirBnB also hosts properties if you want to book in advance. All hotels in Cuba are either entirely or majority state-owned, so the overall standard (service, food and cleanliness) is much, much higher in casas.
- Food: Avoid the questionable ham and cheese sandwiches of street vendors and definitely only drink bottled water. Outside of casas, the best food is found in private restaurants, or paladares, that are leading the way for Cuba’s up and coming food scene.
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