Travel to Cuba for salsa under the Caribbean sun

The Che Guevara legacy, the cigars, the salsa - the name of this Caribbean island alone drums up scintillating images in even the most unimaginative of minds.
  • Cuba / luoman
  • Cuba
    Karel Miragaya / 123RF
Amy Adejokun
Amy Adejokun Expert destination Cuba

Time travel

By Caribbean standards, this island is a giant. Every inch of its 42,000 square miles hums with rhythmic salsa, charming architecture and sanctified traditions. Walk its streets, ride through its countryside, trek its mountains - however you explore it, this country will take you on a journey through the twists and turns of Caribbean history.

An open-air museum

Of all Cuba's attractions, its capital is a city of diamonds hidden in the rough. For centuries Havana was Spain's most important gate into its colonial empire, an incredible testament to the power of the ruling classes and the resplendent resources of the island itself. Since then, the city has weathered wars, as well as the passage of time, and today stands as an open-air museum of Spanish dominance, socialist conquest and political defiance.

Finding that local flavour

Take a short trip out of the pulsating centre and you'll come to the Playas del Este, where you'll find a stretch of great beaches, calm sea and as much Cuban atmosphere as you can imagine. The Habaneros take every chance they get to leave the stifling city walls behind and embrace a day on the beach, filled with rum coconuts, plenty of music and pedalo rides out into the clear blue Caribbean Sea.

The eastern tip

But don't simply stop at Havana, at the other end of the island lies a city to rival both its cultural treasures and political power. Santiago's Centro neighbourhood is home to one of the most beautiful squares in the country, the Parque Cespedes, with its gossiping old ladies, scantily-clad dames and some of the finest troubadours on the island at Casa de la Trova.

Trinidad and Camaguey

Once you've seen off Cuba's two cultural giants, the town of Trinidad should be your next port of call. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, it's an incredible warren of brightly coloured houses, great museums and, a little further out, some of the best beaches the country has to offer. Hot on the heels of Trinidad is neighbouring Camaguey, loaded with labyrinthine streets of colonial architecture and tightly-packed squares.

Take to the beach

If it's sun, sea and sand you're after, there's only one place to head, Varadero. The biggest and best seaside resort on the island has grand hotels, paradise beaches and not a lot else. The hotels here are often off limits to Cubans, so it lacks the authentic flair and immersive culture of the rest of the island. Otherwise, take a trip out to the island's many cayos. Coco, Largo, Guillermo, Santa Maria, these little rocks are equipped with good hotels and out-of-this-world beaches on which to drift into heaven.

The good life

If it's nature you're after, the Cuban countryside is nothing but vast, rust-coloured plantations, leaf-shaded mountains and patches of swaying plantain trees. Take a trip to the lush valley of Vinales, where life drifts by to the pace of an ox-driven cart and afternoons are appreciated from the rocking chair of a shaded veranda. Here, as in most Cuban villages, you'll find a quiet population of hard-working farmers with the ability to appreciate the most ordinary occurrence, as well as a unique mix of nostalgia for a glorious past and hope for an improved future.

Cuba: the key figures

Surface area : 42803.0 km2

Population : 11451652 inhabitants

Time difference : -7 hours GMT

  • Music is everywhere.
  • A rich cultural and architectural heritage.
  • It is as if time stopped in the fifties.
  • The best cigars in the world.
  • The locals, often looking to make some extra money to supplement their minimal wages, can be difficult to negotiate with.
  • The food is nothing exceptional.
  • The seaside resorts are like a form of tourist "lock-in", with no locals allowed.

Cuba: what to visit?

Cuba: what to buy?

Cuban craftsmanship is nothing exceptional. You can find all sorts of craft objects, as well as paintings, in all busy tourist areas such as the cathedral in Old Havana or the central square in Trinidad.

No one should leave the island without buying a bottle of rum and a box of cigars. The best rum is indisputably Havana Club, aged by 3, 5 or 7 years, whilst the best cigars can be found in the grand hotels, or in the casas del tabacco, which are plentiful in all the tourist spots of the major cities.

Be aware that even in Cuba, a good make of cigar is worth well over a Dollar, the cheapest are around $40 to $50. On the other hand, official guides should be able to recommend good private salesmen.

Cuba: what to eat?

Cuban cooking is above all 'rustic'. Rice, sweet potatoes or plantain bananas are traditionally served with every dish and pork is usually the meat of choice, either fried or oven-cooked. Picadillo and Ropa Vieja are both traditional dishes made from minced beef with garlic, onions, tomatoes and lime - amongst some of the most flavoursome dishes you can expect to find here.

Don't expect to see a lot of seafood, however famous Cuba may be for its lobster. Some restaurants in Havana do great shrimp for affordable prices, though fish is scarce in the capital. The embargo often means that certain products simply run out for a couple of months so be prepared for last-minute changes to the menu.

There's only one choice when it comes to a drink, a minty and refreshing mojito with a generous measure of Havana Club and a splash of bitters. The local beers, Cristal and Bucanero, don't inspire much but at a dollar a can, they offer a refreshing break from the hot Caribbean sun.

Cuba: what are the cultural particularities?

Dance, music, rum and cigars - these longstanding Cuban traditions all carry the mark of hedonism. Let your body move with the rhythm, forget Western life and live in the present.

As so many have so little, helping one another is part of the Cuban lifestyle and warmth and friendship permeate day-to-day meetings. They kiss, hold each other by the shoulder and call each other "my beloved" and "my life".

Unfortunately, machismo is still very present in mentalities. For Cuban men, whistling, hissing at or approaching a woman on the street is an everyday way of expressing admiration. Be prepared to hear the names jinetero and jinetera - commonly used for male and female prostitutes who approach tourists in bars, hotels and on beaches.

Cuba: travel tips

Those who come only to enjoy the beaches, though beautiful, miss out on the most unique and awe-inspiring part of this island. The hotels in Varadero often lack the service and food of other five-star establishments in the Caribbean but equally, no other island can boast the authentic buzz of Havana or the colonial grace of Trinidad.

If you're wondering when to take a trip, do it sooner rather than later. With the slow restarting of relations between Cuba and the United States, changes will flow in thick and fast to the Caribbean island and much of its unique charm will be lost. Huge hotels will arrive to ruin the picturesque coastlines, shops will populate every street corner and you'll never be far from a fast-food joint.

Before you leave, get as many one dollar bills as you can and even American cents. It is cheaper than trying to change money when you arrive and makes it easier to negotiate - taxi drivers and shopkeepers rarely have change and they will appreciate dollars more than local pesos. Many will try to charge you exorbitant amounts, especially when you first arrive, but be on your guard and try to wise up as quickly as possible on accepted prices for different commodities. That said, tip as generously as you can - salaries in Cuba are extremely low and the locals will appreciate anything extra you can give them.

Make the most of the plentiful casas particulares, where you can stay with a local for next to nothing and get a flavour for Cuban life and food. The rooms are basic but comfortable and more often than not, the owners will dish you up the best and most generous plate of food in town - including excellent seafood in coastal areas.

Cuba: Latest hotel reviews
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