Why am I fascinated with Cuba? Well there are two Cuba’s as far as tourism goes, and they are quite different. One is the string of beach resorts strung (along Cuba’s best beaches) on the north coast – with direct charter flights from Europe or Canada and all-inclusive resorts. It can probably be compared to the next Cancun or Costa Del Sol – great if that’s what you are looking for.
The other Cuba is the one the Cuban’s live in, and it is an intoxicating mix of Caribbean color with Spanish heritage with the uniqueness that the 47 years of blockade and its own unique blend of communism have brought. Cuba is the largest Caribbean island and there is a real diversity of places and people to explore. So here are my top 5 places to visit in Cuba:
#1 – Trinidad
Trinidad is my absolute favorite. A small town of only 60,000 people on Cuba’s southern coast, Trinidad is a picture postcard of what we all expect Cuba to look like. All cobblestones and pastel Spanish architecture, but not flash and renovated like Havana; it has more character, if character is a mix of the renovated, and the well worn, and the completely derelict. A great place for salsa lessons, and there are dozens of places to indulge in dance. There’s the Casa De La Trova for the traditional Buena Vista Social club style, great to practice those salsa steps. There’s afro-caribbean and drumming clubs for a more frenetic pace. There is the free band and dancing in the town square every night, another great place to practice your dance steps with the locals.
There’s even Ayala, the disco in a cave up the hill, yes a real ’80s retro nightclub with lasers and videos projected on the cave walls and Madonna and Latino boy bands on high rotation – it was enough to drive me to drink – another rum and coke thanks.
There’s fascinating museums, old bell towers to climb, and little illegal hole in the wall pizza shops that pop up every lunch time and then close down within an hour when their stock is sold – you don’t know where they are going to open but you’ll recognise them from the queue, delicious and about 50 cents each. There is the classic white sand turquoise water Caribbean beach at Ancon beach, a couple of miles out of town ( the town sits slightly inland these days) Float in the warm water, soak up the sun, watch the sunset, sit under the palm trees or catch a hobicat out to some good snorkeling spots.
#2 – Camaguey
Camaguey, in the centre of the island and the centre of cattle country. Yes this is as close to being in Argentina you are going to get in Cuba. It’s still the most “Spanish” of the Cuban cities, and the locals look more Spanish than afro caribbean here too. It traditionally had been a wealthy centre, and that still shows in the architecture – the houses are bigger (but may have many more families and generations sharing them now), the churches more numerous and impressive, but the limitations on maintenance clearly show.
It’s a very “lived in” city centre compared to Havana, the kids are playing stick ball in the streets, the old men or woman are sitting on the doorsteps watching the world go by. I loved walking every city in Cuba but this was the most walkable and most interesting of all. The streets are a maze designed to confuse the pirates of centuries ago (I never quite understood that given it is about as far from the coast as you can get in cuba but its not too hard to use the church spires to navigate your way around. So many art galleries here too, a thriving artist population, from the traditional to the avant-garde.
My favorite was to visit the house of Ileana Sanchez & Joel Jover, two well known Cuban artists, Their front door opens onto the Plaza de la Independence, and the public are free to visit their two front rooms – absolutely covered from floor to the very high ceilings with a maze of their own art, other artists they have collected around the world, as well as things that inspire them – it is a veritable treasure trove. We were lucky enough to get invited into the rest of the house, their amazing sculpture garden, and met the artists themselves around their kitchen table. I loved their art and left Cuba the proud owner of a Joel Jover original.
There is a process to getting a licence to take art out of cuba, mainly designed to make sure the artist is declaring their sales to the government I think, if you don’t have the requisite licence they will confiscate your art at the airport when you leave as they assume you bought it on the black market. However the artists know this process does put us off buying and so they do it for you – I made my purchase at about 10 pm at night, just after dinner, and they had arranged the licence and had it ready for me before my bus left at 8am the next morning – I have no idea how they managed to get a government office to do that in the middle of the night but they certainly made it easy for me.
Camaguey was one of the places hit hard by the three huge hurricanes in 2008, and many of the shops were still being repaired, but luckily for us at least one of the ice cream parlours’ had reopened – the Copellia’s are not to be missed.
#3 – Havana
Havana – the original Vegas before there was a Vegas. The old town, all cobbled streets and beautiful Spanish buildings and pastel colors and a wonderful European flavor. Much of the old town has been restored with UNESCO money, the plaza’s have cafes and great coffee and handmade chocolate shops, along with the expected rum, cigars, Hemingway nostalgia and the home of the mojito’s. Walk through the old town, zigzagging around every block, until you hit the Prado, browse the art on display while walking towards the Malecon, the sea wall and walkway around the seafront that runs for miles. Walk it in the evening and see the teenagers hanging out, the families cooling down after the heat of the day, the couples out on a date.
And walk it again in the daytime and see the kids swimming, the families strolling, the jazz musicians (playing for the tourists, but boy it still sounds good), the fishermen, the cyclists, the sheer variety of life. When you get tired of walking catch a coco cab – like a tuk-tuk with a large round plastic shell, looks like a motorized coconut – or hire one of the old Cadillac convertibles that run as taxi’s and get them to take you sightseeing for an hour –the other visitors will be snapping your photo as you go past.
Visit the outdoor book market in treelined square at the northeast of the old town, or the artisan market stalls by the canal at the northern end of the old town, for the best selection of souvenirs you will find in Cuba. When things get too hot or too crowded, there are many rooftop bars where you can retire and relax with a cool drink.
#4 – Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba – the port town with a great old castle. With its location on the southeastern tip of Cuba, Santiago has been a key defense spot for cuba for centuries. Castillo del Morro is a 16th century citadel with turrets and a drawbridge and dungeons and cannons and a maze of stairs and tunnels and everything a great castle should have, high on a promontory at the harbor entrance, with fantastic views up the coastline, so the defenders could see the enemy coming.
Your inner child can play happily here for hours. The castle was last used in the Spanish/US war, the Spanish army were in Cuba and Cuba had sought help from the US to get rid of them and gain independence (yes the US and Cuba were once friends) They say that when the Spanish troops in Castillo del Morro saw the US ships coming, they didn’t stay and fight, they turned tail and ran, so the US didn’t even have to fight to win. Our local guide described the spanish troops as “sissy”.
For a great lunch break, take a 10 minute boat trip from the yacht club to Cayo Granma in the middle of the harbor. Before the revolution the island was being developed as holiday homes for the rich, and after the revolution became the home of local fishing families, it is very run down and charmingly decrepid now.
However a lobster lunch with cold cervesa sitting on a terrace over the harbor is wonderful, followed by a stroll around the island. Santiago de Cuba is also famous for its role in the Cuban revolution, here Fidel Castro lead the failed 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks, which led to his capture, trial, incarceration and eventual release, followed by his travels to Mexico when he then met up with Che Guevara – and the rest, as they say, is history.
You can visit the Barracks and go through the fascinating museum, the only downside is you have to go around with an assigned guide, and what could be an intriguing one hour tour is, in perhaps the most stereotypically traditionally communist style I met in Cuba, turned into a 3-hour endurance test that completely sucked all interest out of me!
#5 – Baracoa
The hottest and steamiest of them all. Baracoa is about as far away and hard to get to as you can get in Cuba – on the far southeast coast – go through Santiago, keep going past Guantanamo Bay (yes that one) and head over a mountain range of tropical rainforest on a very twisty road, and eventually you will get to Baracoa.
It is noticeably hotter and more humid than the rest of Cuba, which was warm enough anyway. The beaches are black sand, the coastline is jagged black rock, the sea is rougher, the pace of life seems slower and more brooding, it is a dark clouds and thunderstorm type of heat, not a sunshiny heat. It didn’t seem at all surprising that the lovely Casa Particular we stayed at was next door to the Funeral Home, it was just that sort of place!
But out of this seemed to come some very vibrant art and music, great food and drink, and the dancing is a whole lot raunchier down this end of the island too. There is swimming and kayaking and waterfalls and treks to do, or just laze around town and watch the world go by, and understand that this is like no where else in the world.
Interested in Cuba? Read Victoria’s previous blog post about Cuba.