Wreathed in glorious beaches and beautiful seas, Cuba’s 6,000 kilometre long coastline makes this sun-kissed island, the biggest in the Caribbean, a fantastic destination for package holidaymakers. Resort Varadero is an excellent all-inclusive resort. But explore beyond its coastline and you won’t be disappointed.
Awaiting you is a word of vintage cars, hand-rolled cigars, sexy salsa rhythms and colourful icons from Che Guevara to Ernest Hemmingway. Together they make a trip to this Caribbean island a truly unique experience.
Getting there, getting around Cuba
Jose Marti International Airport is at Rancho Boyeros near to Havana. Buses from there to the centre can get overcrowded and taxis shouldn’t cost more than £15. Charter flights go to Varadero Airport – transfers to the resort itself take around 40 minutes. From Holguin Airport, it takes about one hour to reach the resort of Guardalavaca.
Central Havana has no train or metro system and its local bus service can be confusing to non-Spanish speakers. Taxis are the best way to get around – journeys within the capital shouldn’t cost more than £1-£2, although you’ll pay more to sit in an vintage American car, popular with tourists. In addition, there are coco-taxis (coconut-shaped auto-rickshaws), bicycle rickshaws and horse and carriage rides.
There is an excellent long distance bus network with Viazul if you’re travelling between major resorts and cities and most tour operators offer organised excursions. Internal air travel is possible but some airlines are deemed unsafe.
Beaches around Cuba
Cuba is fringed by the Atlantic Ocean in the north and the Caribbean Sea in the south. And there are around 300 natural beaches on the island boasting powdery white sand and topaz seas.
Varadero is the country’s largest resort. It boasts 12 miles of pristine white-sand lined with world-class hotels, most of which are all-inclusive. Excellent watersports facilities are available, including diving, sailing and fishing and there’s a good selection of nightlife. It also has an internantional golf course and is ideal for couples or families.
Elsewhere, the Holguin province is home to the small but burgeoning resort of Guardalavaca where picture-perfect sand cascades down into warm, turquoise waters. There are a variety of watersports on offer, including a diving centre. Playa Pesquero is a more exclusive resort and can be found on the Costa Verde, or Green Coast.
From Havana, the nearest beaches are about 18 kilometres away at Playas del Este. If you’re in Trinidad, you can take a bus or taxi to the nearest beaches 15 minutes away at Playa Ancon.
The islands of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo are also extremely popular, with modern resorts and fantastic beaches. Maria La Gorda in the exteme south west is more remote but is a paradise for scuba divers and snorkellers.
Sightseeing around Cuba
If you’re staying in a beach resort, consider an overnight trip to Havana or better still, opt for a holiday where you get to enjoy both. You won’t regret it.
Havana, where you’ll find beautiful churches, palaces, castles and museums and classic American cars chugging along every street, boasts a distinctive faded grandeur. The district of Habana Vieja, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the best place to start, before you should stroll to the Plaza de la Catedral and Plaza de Armas with their striking colonial buildings. The Capitolio Nacional and neighbouring Gran Teatro are also must-sees.
Rum lovers should check out tours at Museo del Ron and anyone with even the slightest interest in the island’s communist history should head for the Museo de la Revolucion. Tours of the Partagas cigar factory offer a grim but gritty insight into one of the country’s most important exports.
South-west of Havana, head to tranquil and pretty Vinales distinguished by its fertile valleys strewn with palm trees, tobacco and sugar cane plantations and overlooked by strange-shaped hills known as mogotes.
For many, Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second city, is just as impressive as Havana. For starters, it’s the home of Cuba’s oldest palaces and museums, including the Casa de Diego Velasquez and Museo Municipal Bacardi. Trinidad’s grand old buildings are a reminder of its more prosperous past. Its cobbled streets, pastel buildings and nearby mountains are postcard perfect. Picturesque Baracoa houses some impressive forts while off-the-beaten track Pinar del Rio province is a boon for divers and hikers.
If you’re in Varadero, visit Cardenas, Matanzas and the Zapata Peninsula for more cultural, historical and natural attractions.
Family attractions around Cuba
Most of the hotels cater specifically for children while beaches and watersports should keep them happy too. Many excursions can be booked in your resort.
In Cayo Coco, take the children to see fantastic birdlife, including flamingoes. In Guardalavaca, there’s the opportunity to visit a replica Indian village and swim with dolphins at Fantastica. In Trinidad, horse riding trips, hikes and waterfall swims can be arranged to the pristine Valle de los Ingenios.
In Varadero, enjoy a horse and buggy ride through Josone Park, a nature area with restaurants and cultural events. Visit the Dolphin Aquarium, or take a jet ski jungle tour through the mangroves. There are also caves and stunning cays to explore at one end of the peninsula.
Day trips around Cuba
From Havana, visit sprawling Parque Lenin which features a man-made lake, an aquarium and a narrow-gauge railway line and ceramics workshop. Activities include boating and horse riding.
Marina Hemmingway is about 20 kilometres west of the capital and offers a day’s sea fishing, yachting or scuba diving. Alternatively, take the ferry trip to Parque Historico Militar Morro-Cabana which offers fantastic city views from across the bay. The main attractions are the ruins of two old forts, one of which dates back to the 16th century. Ernest Hemmingway fans can visit Finca la Vigia in San Francisco de Paula, the novelist’s private home for more than 70 years.
Guardalavaca is close to Banes, the archeological capital of the island, while Gibara is a rustic Cuban walled city. From Trinidad, visit Cienfugos, a French-style town known as the Pearl of the South, take a steam train to one of the former sugar estates in the region or go trekking in Topes de Collantes.
Eating out in Cuba
Despite the fact Spanish and African influences have impacted on Cuban food, it’s not as spicy as that fournd on other Caribbean islands and tends to be fairly unremarkable. Pork, chicken, rice and beans feature strongly on local menus, while cheap pizzerias are common in the capital. Vegetarians will have to contend with basic salad and vegetable dishes, or umpteen omelettes and cheese sandwiches. Grilled fish is excellent however, and lobster and crab are delicious if you’re staying in coastal resorts.
There some notably excellent restaurants known as paladares which are small-family run restaurants set within people’s homes. These include: Havana’s La Guarida where advance booking is essential and the Paladar Sol y Son or Paladar Estela in Trinidad, both serving excellent fish dishes.
You’ll be able to find more variety and global cuisine in a resort hotel. If you enjoy a tipple, do a rum factory tour and discover the home of Bacardi. Mojito cocktails laced with rum, lime and mint are popular.
Nightlife in Cuba
Most of the hotel beach resorts in Cuba will have their own bar or club and will organise cabaret-style entertainment but it would be a shame if you didn’t venture out and sample some authentic hotspots. Varadero town has a good selection of late night watering holes.
Havana’s legendary nightlife more than lives up to the hype. From jazz to rumba, R&B and reggae, it serves up the lot. But it’s the sound of salsa pulsing on almost every street corner which gives the city its unique vibe. Calle Obispo is one of the liveliest areas – drink daiquiris in El Floridita, a former Hemingway hang-out, or dance til the early hours in Hotel Florida or the more superior Casa de La Musica, popular with locals. The Tropicana Nightclub is the city’s most famous club and although it’s touristy, its cabaret shows should not be missed.
In Trinidad, the atmosphere sizzles in the open air Casa de la Musica close to Plaza Mayor, while live bands perform nightly at Casa de la Trova.
Shopping in Cuba
Havana’s Palacio de la Artesania sells lots of arts and crafts under one roof. Feria de la Artesania is another alternative. It’s an excellent open-air market that even sells quality handmade shoes. The local artwork is also interesting and there are a number of places in the city where you can watch artists at work. But remember that larger pieces of art must be accompanied by an export certificate before you leave the country.
Other popular souvenirs include cigars, (Cohiba, Bolivar and Romeo y Julieta are good brands), a bottle of rum or a salsa CD.