Cuba is still a raw and unspoiled travel destination without being infected by a modern “McDonald’s” attitude. The island is a living museum to classic cars and Mediterranean colonial living. It is becoming more and more popular, with marvelous resorts being built to accommodate visits. Now is still the time to experience Cuba at its purest.
Cuba, an island country in the West Indies, is nestled between the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean, a mere 90 miles south of Florida. At 42,800 square miles, it is one of the largest Caribbean island archipelagoes. Away from its 3,500-mile coastline, Cuba’s inland becomes quite mountainous.
The island was one of Columbus’ first island discoveries in 1492, with Spain immediately taking an interest in its valuable sugar industry. Cuba remained under Spanish rule until 1898, when the US took over the territory following the Spanish-American War. While Cuba regained its independence quickly, it has always lived under the shadow of the nearby United States.
In the 1930s, Cuba, and the Hotel Ambos Mundos, became a favorite getaway of writer Ernest Hemingway for 30 years. Today, his presence is still felt in the many Havanan bookstores that hawk his books, as well as several museums dedicated to him. Throughout Havana, there are “Papa” signature drinks, tours, and statues to keep his memory alive. Strangely, the famed American author is one of Cuba’s best-known luminaries. He didn’t permanently leave the island until the onset of the Cold War in the 1960s.
The radical Fidel Castro began a revolution and overtook the government in 1961, a move that isolated Cuba from much of the outside world. Not until 2014 did the U.S. resume relations with Cuba.
Havana is Cuba’s capital and major city; it is where most of the action happens. The harbor (so beloved by Hemingway) is scenic, as are the surrounding beaches. For cultural and historical legacies, the Cuban cities of Santiago and Trinidad are another great source.
In addition to Hemingway, Cuba is associated with two things – cigars and classic old cars. Cuban hand-rolled cigars are said to be the finest smokes in the world. Smoking them is a ritual that usually includes friends within a social gathering.
Classic cars, such as Oldsmobiles, Fords, and others, fill the streets of Havana. These vintage beauties still run and are a treasured part of Cuba’s capital.
Baseball is another Cuban obsession. Perhaps the ultimate island fantasy would be to smoke a stogie while driving a 1960 Olds to a game. This small country has 16 professional baseball teams. When they aren’t watching baseball, they are discussing the latest game.
Languages Spoken in Cuba
Eleven million Cubans speak a slight variation of Spanish – a throwback to the Spanish occupation of the island. Three hundred thousand Cubans, mainly Haitian refugees who fled to Cuba in the 18th century, speak Haitian Creole. This dialect is spreading to non-Haitians, and it even has its own radio program.
Visitors are expected to use the Cuban Peso when dining and shopping. Travelers cannot use the US dollar, although locals can. For US travelers, it is a good idea to exchange dollars for pesos before the beginning of the trip. While in Cuba, dollars (and other currencies) can be exchanged at banks, currency exchanges, and most hotels. It is not recommended that travelers exchange their currency from local street vendors offering them a “good deal.”
Things to Do in Cuba
From museums to beaches to revolutionary history, there is a lot to experience in Havana and Cuba’s countryside.
Old Havana is one of the oldest parts of the Americas, with stunning churches and palaces. The seafront is lined with four separate fortresses erected to protect the city from 18th-century piracy. Castillo de la Real Fuerza is the oldest fortress and functions as a naval museum. La Punta and El Morro stand watch above the harbor. La Cabaña is one of the largest fortresses in all the Americas and is now a museum exhibiting military history. A cannon shot is fired each evening from La Cabaña, an old-time signal to close Havana’s gates.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
The massive Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is one of the most striking art museums in the entire Caribbean. The two separate structures contain the largest Cuban art anywhere, as well as a large international exhibit that goes back to ancient Greek.
Museum of the Revolution
The Museum of the Revolution is an impressive palace worth seeing for its stunning architecture alone. It was erected to impressive visitors, and it fulfills its mission. The museum tells the story of Cuba’s revolution, although possibly with some bias and propaganda in favor of the victor, Castro.
The top floor features history from the pre-Spanish era. The Salón de los Espejos is a grandiose attempt to imitate Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors. Moving through the museum, one of the main attraction is the sculptures of Castro’s chief aide, Che Guevara.
The first floor serves as a post-revolutionary exhibit, including the Bay of Pigs, with the actual tank used on display by the main entrance.
Hiking Through the Sierra Maestra
The Sierra Maestra is the perfect tranquil wilderness, with impressive mountains and green valleys stretching to the Caribbean Sea. It ranks among Cuba’s most visited attractions with several resorts to accommodate a longer stay. While the beauty of the mountains is breathtaking, there is even more to the Sierra Maestra. The forest made the ideal hideout for Castro and his fellow revolutionaries. Hikers can check out the cabin where the revolutionaries stayed and hid.
Varadero is a complete change from history, museums, and revolution. It is a resort district by the Caribbean specifically created to increase Cuba’s tourism. With over 60 hotels, stores, golfing, and every type of watersport, it might be the size of a small country. The beautiful beach spans 20 kilometers to create one of the Caribbean’s finest shorelines. Instead of Cuba standing out as a cultural icon, in Varadero it turns into a surprise beach holiday.
Best Cities to Visit in Cuba
Havana has vibes. It is a beautiful city that has withstood colonialism, pirates, and revolution. The city is best experienced while walking and feeling the energy in one’s bones. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is one of the most significant museums in the Caribbean.
The sidewalks of Havana are 500 years old – a place where anti-piracy fortresses can still be viewed, and where history comes alive at the Necrópolis Cristóbal, one of the largest and most beautiful cemeteries in the Americas. It is a living museum to its past as it is busy creating a future.
For a culinary thrill, stop by Mama Ines, reputed to serve the finest ropa vieja and other Cuban dishes in the city.
Perhaps one of the most thrilling parts of Havana is the Malecón, the seven-kilometer seaside avenue. The ocean is on one side, while colorful neoclassicist architecture is on the other. Everyone comes here to meet, eat, and just enjoy.
A visit to the small town of Vinales, a two-hour drive from Havana, equals the exploration of the great outdoors. The best time to visit is between December and May, during the non-rainy season. The best way to see this lovely scenery is on a guided horseback tour.
Vinales is well-known for its great tobacco plantations. Take a tour and learn all about the harvesting of your favorite cigar. Pick up a box to take and share.
Lovely Vinales has more than a good smoke. Visitors shouldn’t miss the Cueva del Indio, a pre-Colombian cave system that has a river running through it and can be toured by boat. While there are many caves, the 45-kilometer Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás cave is the largest cave in the Caribbean, although only a part of the system is open to the public.
Before leaving Vinales, enjoy one of Cuba’s finest tapas at Tres Jotas.
Cienfuegos is a different type of Cuban city in that it has a heavy French influence. It is frequently referred to as the “Pearl of the South.” Stroll through Cienfuegos and visit the galleries, the stunning Bahia de Jagua Bay, and the Arc de Triumph within the Jose Marti Park
Before leaving Cienfuegos, enjoy one of the finest dinners in town at the El Tranvia.
When visiting Trinidad, you’ll be time traveling to the 1850s and the 1950s. It is a colonial town still filled with 19th-century architecture, which can be seen while driving one of Cuba’s ubiquitous 1950s cars. The soul of the city is Plaza Mayor, with its colorful plantation mansions and churches. The mansions are now mostly museums which can be visited. The Palacio Brunet, now one of the museums, exhibits Cuba’s luxurious 17th-century living, which includes a huge marble bathtub.
When you’ve had enough of Trinidad’s culture, join the locals at the Casa de Musica each evening and simply dance the salsa in the streets.
Best All-Inclusive Resort or Hotel in Cuba
The Royalton Hicacos in Varadero is an adults-only resort that has earned the TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Award, as well as being named one of the “Most Popular Hotels in Cuba.” Rooms have a balcony view of one of the best beaches in Varadero, and pampered guests have a choice of four restaurants.
The Diamond Club features butler service to tend to every need, an exclusive lounge with drinks and snack service, all-inclusive breakfast and lunch, and a special member beach area with waiter service. The swim-up pool has a waterfall and regular parties with singing and dancing.
Best Resort or Hotel for Couples in Cuba
The Paradisus Rio de Oro Resort is an all-inclusive couples-only resort and a favorite for honeymooners. Meals and drinks are included. The resort is by the Playa Esmeralda in Holguin and is surrounded by lush, beautiful gardens that are ideal for a romantic stroll.
Some accommodations come with butler service. The beach is great for snorkeling, and guests have a choice of eights restaurants, including beach dining, and eight bars. Certain bars are exclusive for upgraded Royal Service guests. Couple massages and loungers by the beach help relieve any and all stress.
Best Resort or Hotel for Families in Costa Rica
The all-inclusive Hotel Roc Arenas Doradas in Varadero is surrounded by the sea and gorgeous tropical gardens. The large rooms are ideal for families, and the four all-inclusive restaurants and bars give everyone plenty of choices.
The Hotel Roc has free water sports equipment, such as snorkel and windsurfing gears, available for guests. Guests can also enjoy basketball, volleyball, tennis, and more. For indoors, there are aerobics and dance classes.
Children aged 4 through 12 have their own club with suitable activities.