Our top destinations in Cuba
By Cesar Suarez
Updated on October 6th 2018
Reading Time: 10 minutes
When people travel to Cuba they often find themselves with a dilemma: Only a limited amount of days and no idea where to spend them. It’s true that Cuba has a lot to offer and everywhere you turn you will find things to do and places to visit. But, what if you had a list of the most exciting places? That way, you could distribute your days so you get the most out of your trip? The result is this short list that we have elaborated as a result of years of experience. We also have been carefully listening to the feedback of our previous clients and learning from it.
As you will see, the list cover cities and towns spread all around the country. That doesn’t means that you will have to visit all of them. The destinations are sorted in a certain way so you can choose them in order; attending to how many days you have planned to stay. If your intention is to cover the whole island, you should be able to do it in less than 18 days. Obviously, you won’t be seeing everything Cuba has to offer. But you will get a very good idea of what Cuba is about.
A small note:
We don’t believe spending a week in a beach resort is the right way to discover Cuba. Furthermore, we decided not to offer that kind of places because. Doing so goes against our philosophy of showing our clients the true and authentic character of our beloved island. We do offer a type of tour we call “city and sea“, which is a way to approach our clients to Cuban history and culture. And, why not? Relaxing in a nice sandy beach from time to time. Honestly, if you are looking just to lay on the sand for a week, we would recommend you to go with our competition. They are experts on mainstream holidays packages. With no further cheap chat, I’ll leave you to the list.
No one could have invented Havana. It’s too audacious, too contradictory, and – despite 50 years of withering neglect – too beautiful. The attraction and addictive atmosphere of Havana is difficult, to sum up in words. Maybe it’s the swashbuckling history still almost perceptible in atmospheric colonial streets; the survivalist spirit of a people scarred by two independence wars, a revolution and a US trade embargo; then couple this with the indefatigable salsa energy that ricochets off the walls of the narrow streets, it is alive in the people.
Cuba 360 would encourage you to arrive with an open mind and prepare for a long, slow seduction. It may not be like Paris’ or London as a capital city; but the art and culture in Havana is one of the city’s biggest surprises. The creativity is, of course, nothing new as Cuban artists have been quietly challenging cultural elites ever since native-born José Nicolás de la Escalera started painting black slaves in the 18th century. Today the work of Escalera and others is splendidly displayed in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. If you prefer your culture on a more contemporary base then perhaps the electrifying ‘happenings’ at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, the center of Havana’s contemporary art scene will be for you.
Things are starting to change in Havana, although the thawing of relations with the US under the Obama administration has stalled under Trump. But Havana is going through an interesting stage in its development albeit slowly. Cuba is, however, still a communist country with an economy that reflects this. Designer shopping is not something you will need to reserve a lot of time for. As a result of this transition, the city is rife with experimentation; there are bars and cafés along the streets, some are modern and very crisp and businesslike, whilst others are more like a bohemian artist’s lair. All welcome travelers to relax and take in the atmosphere. Perhaps it is something they put in the mojitos, but the face of Cuban cafe culture has never looked so good.
Trinidad is one of a kind, a perfectly preserved Spanish colonial settlement. Here, the clocks stopped in 1850 and other than by the watches of tourists have yet to restart. The city developed in hand with the sugar industry and basked in the reflected glory sugar fortunes amassed in the nearby Valle de los Ingenios during the early 19th century. All that remains of these illustrious times are preserved in the city’s museums. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988, Cuba’s oldest and most enchanting ‘outdoor museum’ makes it a very popular destination for day visitors. The cobblestone streets, are brought alive by the leather-faced country folk (guajiros), baying horses and melodic troubadours, retain a quiet air. Come nightfall, the live-music scene is particularly good. For the young at heart, a late night trip to ‘The Cave’ (Disco Ayala) is always a seductive option.
Trinidad is also ringed by sparkling natural attractions. 12 km south lies the platinum-blond Playa Ancón, the best beach of Cuba’s south coast. Looming 18km to the north, you’ll find the purple-hued shadows of the Sierra del Escambray (Mountains); offering a lush adventure playground with horse riding, hiking trails and waterfalls.
Embellished by soaring pine trees and bulbous limestone cliffs that teeter like top-heavy haystacks above placid tobacco plantations, Parque Nacional Viñales is one of Cuba’s most magnificent natural settings. Wedged spectacularly into the Sierra de los Órganos mountain range, this 11km long and 5km wide valley was recognized as a national monument in 1979. With UNESCO World Heritage status following in 1999 for its dramatic steep-sided limestone outcrops (known as mogotes). The countryside is dotted with small traditional farms.
Viñales is also known for its fertile soil, which along with its natural micro climate, make the land suitable to grow some of the finest tobacco in Cuba, hence, the world. A visit to the plantations around Viñales is a must for those cigar aficionados who go on holiday in Cuba.
Viñales some of the best casas in Cuba (B&B in private homes). Despite drawing in day-trippers by the busload, the area’s well-protected and spread-out natural attractions have somehow managed to escape the frenzied tourist circus of other less well-managed places, while the atmosphere in and around the town remains refreshingly hassle-free.
In his song ‘Cienfuegos,’ Benny Moré described his home city as the city he liked best. He wasn’t the settlement’s only cheerleader. Cuba’s so-called ‘Pearl of the South’ has long seduced travelers from around the island with its elegance, enlightened French airs and feisty Caribbean spirit. If Cuba has a Paris, this is most definitely it. Arranged around the country’s most spectacular natural bay, Cienfuegos is a nautical city founded in 1819 by the French its elegant classical architecture earned it a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing in 2005.
Geographically, the city was split into two distinct parts: the central zone with its memorable Paseo del Prado, which hosts the statue of Benny More the prodigal son of Cienfuegos and a graceful park; whilst Punta Gorda is a thin knife of land slicing into the bay which boasts some eccentric buildings as Palacio de Valle the area was built by the moneyed classes in the 1920s. These buildings, of course, became out of touch with reality following the revolution in 1959.
5. Bay of Pigs and Playa Larga
Bay of Pigs is a small bay on the southern coast of Cuba. It is infamous in that it was invaded on April 17th 1961, by approximately 1,400 Cuban exiles organized and armed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The invasion was meant to appear to be an attempt by independent Cuban rebels to overthrow Communist government of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, but became known as an American project, and confirmed when President John F. Kennedy immediately admitted responsibility when the invasion failed.
Zapata Swamp is located on the Zapata Peninsula in the southern Matanzas province of Cuba. It is located less than 150 kilometers (93 mi) southeast of Havana. Within the Zapata Swamp are over 900 endemic plant species, 175 species of birds, 31 species of reptiles and over 1000 species of invertebrates. Some of the most notable are local endemics to Cuba, for birds it would include the Zapata Wren, Zapata Rail, and the Zapata Sparrow, this area in the number one birding areas in Cuba. Many of Cuba 360’s specialist guided birding tours are based in this area of Cuba.
6. Santiago de Cuba
Cuba’s cultural capital and second largest city Santiago is a frenetic, passionate and noisy beauty. Situated closer to Haiti and the Dominican Republic than to Havana, it leans east rather than west, a crucial factor shaping this city’s unique identity steeped in Afro-Caribbean, entrepreneurial and rebel influences. Santiago has always been defined by it trailblazing characters and a resounding sense of historical destiny. Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar made Santiago his second capital, Fidel Castro used it to launch his embryonic revolution, Don Facundo Bacardí based his first-ever rum factory here, and nearly every Cuban music genre from salsa to son (salsa roots) first emanated from these dusty, rhythmic and sensuous streets.
Caught dramatically between the indomitable Sierra Maestra and the azure Caribbean, the colonial historic center (casco histórico) retains a time-worn air which is perhaps reminiscent of Salvador in Brazil or forgotten New Orleans.
Baracoa’s cobblestone streets are lined with one-story buildings whose peeling, carnival colored paint jobs and weathered tile roofs add, rather than detract, from their charm. Local people watch you curiously from wide verandas. Some may approach you to sell sweets, but they are not offended if you decline, after all they are Cuban. Baracoa, where cocoa trees grow in abundance, is famous for its white chocolate sold in round, flat cakes encased in palm bark. Also, try the cucurucho, an ambrosia of honey, coconut, nuts and fresh seasonal fruit served in cones of palm bark.
Baracoa is just beginning to be discovered by tourists due to its geographic isolation in relation to other parts of Cuba. Those who venture to this remote northeastern corner of the island will discover an almost unspoiled colonial village setting surrounded by secluded beaches and virgin rain forest. On the horizon looms the most recognizable local landmark, a table-topped hill called El Yunque. Well worth the effort towards the end of one of Cuba 360’s fifteen-day tour.
Cuba’s third-largest city is easily the most sophisticated after Havana. Art galleries are in abundance and it’s also the bastion of the Catholic Church in Cuba. Its resilient citizens are called agramontinos by other Cubans, after local First War of Independence hero Ignacio Agramonte; who co-author of the Guáimaro constitution and courageous leader of Cuba’s finest cavalry brigade. Also, agramontinos are well known for going their own way in times of crisis.
Camagüey’s pastel colonial homes built along the warren-like streets are inspiring. If you wish to explore the hidden plazas, baroque churches, riveting galleries and congenial bars and restaurants. In 2008, Camagüey’s well-preserved historical center was made Cuba’s ninth UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also the city celebrated its quin-centennial in 2014.
9. Santa Clara
Santa Clara is Cuba’s most revolutionary city – and not just because of its historical connection with Argentinian doctor turned guerrillero Che Guevara. Smack bang in the geographic center of Cuba, this is a city of new trends and insatiable creativity, where an edgy youth culture has been testing the boundaries of Cuba’s censorship police for years. Unique Santa Clara offerings include Cuba’s only official drag show; a graphic artists’ collective that produces satirical political cartoons; and the best rock festival in the country: Ciudad Metal.
The city’s fiery personality has been shaped over time by the presence of the nation’s most prestigious university outside Havana, and a long association with Che Guevara; whose liberation of Santa Clara in December 1958 marked the end of the Batista regime. Little cultural revolutions have been erupting here ever since.
Expectations of Varadero vary wildly: some people anticipate a picture-perfect seaside paradise; some hope for a hedonistic party resort; while others dismiss it altogether, assuming it to be a synthetic, characterless place devoid of Cubans. In reality, it is none of these extremes, though it is the package holiday resort in Cuba. The stunning feature is the sheer length of its brilliant white-sand beach; a highway of sand running virtually the entire length of an almost ruler-straight 25km peninsula; jutting out from the mainland. The blues and greens of the calm waters create a stunning turquoise barrier between the land and the Florida Straits; because the peninsula rarely exceeds half a kilometer in width, the beach is rarely over a five-minute walk away.