9 Reasons to Visit Cuba
Featured destinations: Cuba
Published 26 September 2016
Cuba is a timewarp. The charming, pastel-coloured buildings are weather-worn, the car of choice is a 50s American muscle motor, and an air of faded grandeur washes through the streets. But linger a little and you’ll start to hear the rumbling sound of salsa music rising from deep within, urging your legs to move to the beat as it infuses with the heady aroma of rum and cigars. This truly is the Caribbean at its most unique and there are innumerable reasons to visit beyond the classic sandy beaches. Here are just nine of them:
From Columbus landing in Baracoa in 1492, to Castro’s revolution in the sixties, Cuba has seen its fair share of drama over the centuries. And it all makes for a fascinating visit. The country is understandably laden with historic sites – head for UNESCO-inscribed Old Havana to see the original Spanish city walls, hosting a fusion of Baroque and neoclassical architecture within, or take in the 16th century city of Trinidad, with its labyrinth of colonial buildings. If its Castro’s ally, Che Guevara, that tempts you to Cuba, stopping off at his monument in Santa Clara is a must. It includes a bronze statue of Che, as well as a museum and mausoleum. And if you’d like to know where Cuba has been stowing all its cash, check out the Museo de la Revolucion in the former Presidential Palace. Tiffany’s of New York decorated the interior here when it was constructed in the early 1900s, just to give you a flavour of its opulence.
Havana is legendary
Despite being dilapidated and neglected for decades, Havana still somehow manages to maintain an arresting, near-legendary beauty. Perhaps it’s the technicolour buildings, or maybe it’s the smattering of quaint, cobblestoned streets like Calle Mercaderes, or the coastal fortress that is Morro Castle? Signs of Che and Castro’s revolution are everywhere – it’s as if no time has passed at all. But more than anything, it’s the people that make Havana so special. Home to 2.1 million, the city has some pretty special characters. The locals here have faced many hardships, which makes their friendly, helpful and kind nature all the more heartwarming.
It’s got beautiful beaches
Now I know I said Cuba was about more than those classic Caribbean sands, but it does have some pretty incredible beaches that are worth raving about. You know the ones: swaying palms, swimming pool-style seas and pearly-white silica.
For starters there’s Varadero – a 12-mile stretch of peninsula coastline that’s blessed with blinding-white sand and flanked by a string of all-inclusive resorts that take luxury to the next level. Beyond that there’s the Cayos of the Jardines del Rey chain of islands, off Cuba’s north coast, which was used a hideaway for buccaneers in early colonial times, and is now home to high-end hotels and beaches that are perfect for snorkelling and watching the sunset from. And if its secluded sands your prefer, opt for Cayo Guillermo and the untouched Playa Pilar. The south offers the never-ending Playa Ancon – a stone’s throw from colonial Trindad – while the north-east is home to Guardalavaca, where sugar cane fields meet vibrant reefs, sun-dappled sands and tamarind trees laden with pod-like fruit.
Cuban architecture is more striking than most because, much like everything else in this colourful country, it’s incredibly diverse. It doesn’t focus on one era or style; instead its cityscapes showcase a hodgepodge of colour, size, ideas, influences and time periods. Moorish, Baroque, Gallic, Art Deco and neoclassical all make an appearance, with recurring features being technicolour brickwork, abundant columns and over the top mansions. Must-visit architectural gems include the Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana (Havana Cathedral), the grand Capitolio Nacional and the Palacio del Centro Asturiano.
There’s live music everywhere
From Havana to Trinidad, Cuban streets all have one thing in common: the pulsating thunder of live music as it reverberates through the pavement. Rumba, live musicians and a plethora of clubs keep the beats going all night long, and watching – or rather, dancing – to Cuban beats is easily the best way to get immersed in this eclectic country’s culture.
You can salsa in the streets
Speaking of dancing – where better to salsa than Cuba? Cuban salsa first came to life in the seventies. It’s even more sensual than your bog-standard salsa and the focus is on being close to your partner, as opposed to the fancy footwork. Houses, bars, cars and even bicycles with fitted speakers blast the accompanying salsa music, forcing an intoxicating rhythm to overtake the passersby in the streets.
…and go hiking
When you think of Cuba, hiking isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind. But this eclectic Caribbean isle is all about surprises – which is where spots like Pico Turquino (1972m) and Vinales come in. If you’re looking for a challenge, the former, the country’s highest peak, offers just that. It towers above the Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra, the sublime, jungle-clad spot where Castro and his rebels overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. So if you want follow in his footsteps – not by starting a rebellion, but by summiting the moderately-difficult-to-climb Pico Turquino – you can do so, all the while getting views of the vibrant forests and misty hills below. Start from Las Cuevas or Santo Domingo for more of a challenge, but definitely enlist the help of a tour guide first.
For something simpler, Vinales offers a gentle mile-long hike to the working tobacco plantation known as Finca Raul Reyes. From here you can continue onto Cueva de la Vaca, where you can stop for vistas of the wide-open Valle de Vinales.
…and learn all there is to know about cigar rolling
There’s a reason why whenever anyone asks for a cigar, they go Cuban. Laden with tobacco fields and knowledgeable workers who can roll these intensely-flavoured, smoky masterpieces by hand, the cigars that come out of Cuba are undoubtedly the envy of the world. And if you’re lucky enough to visit a factory on your travels, you can learn how to make your own. Rolled in dehydrated tobacco leaves, these skilled workers don’t skimp on the rich tobacco, packing the handmade tube to the brim before resting it in a plastic mould for 20 minutes. Lastly: cut off the head, light the foot, and take a puff. Even if you don’t smoke, it’s a rite of passage.
Plus: Ernest Hemingway lived here
…and if it’s good enough for one of the biggest literary giants out there, then it’s good enough for you. Hemingway frequented El Floridita (pictured), a cocktail bar in Old Havana, and lived on a farm ‘La Finca Vigía’ just outside the city for nearly 20 years with his wife(s) and an abundance of cats. It’s here that he wrote the vast majority of The Old Man and the Sea, one of his most famous literary works – unsurprising given how much of a rugged and inspirational place Cuba is.