Crumbling colonial architecture, vintage cars and soulful salsa tumbling out of tinny speakers – Cuba is a land frozen in time. Protected from modern interference by six decades of self-imposed communism, Cuba’s cities and villages have changed little since the revolution, with grandiose squares, cobbled streets and music on every corner.

Yet, behind this dilapidated facade lies a country beating with inspiration. From salsa to ballet,santeria temples to avant-garde art, Cuban creativity and experimentation have been a necessity through its years in exile. As the barriers between Cuba and its neighbours begin to come down, the time is now to visit this beguiling Caribbean island – before it changes once again.

  • Baracoa

  • Las Terrazas

  • Havana



Cuba Unwrapped

The island, the people, the culture

Countries like Cuba pose a dilemma to travel writers and guidebook editors. The idea is to cut through the hyperbole with simple language and honest descriptions. But there are a few places where the breathless superlatives all come true true and where the travel writing clichés all make sense. Cuba is one such place.

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Seasons and climate

Cuba has an eternal summer. It's hot year round – averaging 26C (78F) and the temperature varies only slightly with the seasons.

June to August are the hottest and wettest months, when intermittent rain comes in the the form of tropical storms or brief afternoon downpours that quickly clear.

June to November is hurricane season – you’re more likely to experience tropical storms than a true hurricane, but be prepared! (It’s also worth noting that Cuba is extremely well prepared for tropical weather, with no lives lost to hurricanes in decades.)

November to February see the lowest temperatures, averaging around 24C (75F) and very occasionally dropping to around 15C (59F).

Climate-wise the most pleasant season is between December and April, and this coincides with peak season for visitors from the northern hemisphere. Availability may be limited at this time – especially at casa particulares in smaller towns, so be sure to book well in advance.

Low season runs from June to September. Availability is better and you’ll have more to yourself, but bring rain gear just in case.

Cuban food has long endured a reputation as bland and unimaginative, but considering the country’s recent history, perhaps allowances can be made. The “special period” following the demise of the USSR — Cuba’s main trading partner — and the US embargo, caused imports of oil, fertiliser and basic food staples to plummet, bringing the country dangerously close to famine. For a long time the state was primarily concerned with keeping mouths fed — fine dining doesn’t feature highly in communist economics.


Interestingly, that period of extreme hardship led to a blossoming of sustainable agriculture in Cuba as people turned to low oil and organic production, resulting in the emergence of organopónicos — organic urban gardens created by local communities to keep themselves fed. These gardens are still tended today and you can see them in Havana and other cities.

Now that the worst is behind them the Cubans are busy catching up with the rest of the world and culinary standards are rising fast.

Large state-run restaurants, even in Havana, may still feel uninspired compared to elsewhere, but the country’s paladares (private family-run restaurants) are an absolute treat. Step out of your hotel, find a good paladar and dig into Cuban culinary culture.

What to eat and drink

Cuban food is not hot or spicy but, when done well, it’s delicious. The staple of most meals is black beans and rice, usually accompanied by pork or beef shreddings (called ropa vieja) and chicharritas or tostones (plaintain fritters).

Other traditional dishes include tamales (the Cuban version is made from corn with a pork filling and served in corn leaves), yuca con mojo and congrís (a drier version of black beans and rice where it’s all cooked together).

When it comes to desserts try casquitos de guayaba (sweetened and cooked guava peelings or shells served with cream cheese), flan de calabaza (pumpkin flan), and dulce de leche (thick, very sweet, evaporated milk).

Cuba produces some incredible chocolate, with cocoa beans grown in the microclimates of Baracoa (px). Baracoa chocolate has a flavour like no other. Buy a Guamá bar or two to take home and enjoy handmade chocolate delicacies at the Museo del Chocolate in Old Havana.


What to drink

While the food may have lacked imagination, the country more than made up for it with the drink. Cuba produces some of the world’s finest rum. The country was home to the Bacardi family (which fled to the US after the revolution) and also to national brands Ron Caney, Ron Santiago, Ron Varadero and, of course, the prestigious Havana Club.

Note that under the new rules affecting US travellers, visitors are now allowed to bring home rum, tobacco and other Cuban products — provided they’re for personal use only.

Naturally all that rum was put to good use, and Cuba is the home of the mojito and daiquirí cocktails which were invented in the Havana bars La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita respectively. Both were frequented by Ernest Hemingway and you can follow in his footsteps today (although you’ll find a far better mojito elsewhere).


Why does Cuba have two currencies?

Why does Cuba have two currencies?
Cuba has a somewhat complex dual currency system, using both the Cuban Peso (Moneda Nacional / CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

The CUP is the everyday currency for Cubans: people are paid in CUP and it’s what they use on public transport, in state-owned stores, etc.

Tourists will use the CUC to pay for pretty much everything: hotels, meals, entry to museums, concerts, etc., although there’s nothing stopping you from getting your hands on some CUP for small purchases such as ice cream, snacks and street food.

An easy way to remember the difference: CUP bills have pictures of national heroes, while CUC bills have pictures of national monuments.

How do I exchange money?
Cuban currency isn’t available internationally, so you’ll need to bring cash with you and exchange it when you arrive. The CUC is pegged to the US dollar (1:1) and there is a 10 per cent fee for exchanging US dollars.

It’s best to exchange money at a bank, at bureaus (casa de cambio), airports or hotels. Never change money with anyone on the street, no matter how friendly or honest they may look.

Will my credit card work in Cuba?
Most European and Canadian credit cards will work as normal in Cuba. Cards from European and Canadian banks should work in ATMs, although fees may vary (in addition to your bank fee). It’s always smart to check with your bank before you travel.

Most American debit and credit cards won’t work in Cuba, either for making payments or in ATMs. Bring plenty of cash and leave the plastic behind.

How will we get around?
Organised tours will use private cars or minibuses for small and private groups, or larger buses for big group tours.

Depending on your itinerary you may take a short internal flight, such as from Havana to Santiago. Flight services can be unreliable, but your tour operator will handle any complications.

Is Cuba child and family friendly?
ubans are fanatical about children and will go out of their way to bring a smile to their faces, but the tourist infrastructure is still fairly patchy and facilities for infants and younger children can be lacking.

For Americans on “people-to-people” trips, a packed, cultural itinerary with little beach time might not be ideal for younger kids but could make an eye-opening experience for adolescents.

If travelling with infants be sure to bring enough diapers and formula for your entire trip, as stores often run short.

On the plus side, children are never seen as an annoyance in Cuba and they will be given constant attention. Remember that it’s a touchy-feely culture – don’t be upset by friendly patting and hair stroking, it’s all meant with the utmost affection.

What vaccinations are required?
There are no specific shots required for Cuba, aside from the standard travel vaccinations (exact recommendations vary by country / healthcare provider).

That said there are a number of illnesses that travellers should be aware of, most notably dengue and zika – both of which are carried by mosquitoes. Practice common sense mosquito precautions, bring a good repellent and use it liberally, especially during dusk and evening.

Unboiled tap water should be avoided. If you’re served drinking water or juice it will probably be bottled water, but feel free to double check without causing any offence.

Is Cuba safe?
Cuba is one of the safest countries in the Americas. You can feel at ease even in the biggest cities and most crime is non-violent, opportunistic theft. Practice the same common sense you’d use anywhere else: don’t wear flashy jewelry, keep an eye on your valuables and don’t find yourself on a quiet street late at night.

Mild annoyances in the cities include hustlers trying to sell you fake cigars, offering to exchange dodgy money in the street, or other sharp-talking (but usually good natured) con artists. Keep your wits about you and you’ll enjoy a perfectly pleasant trip.

The Cuban Revolution

Cuba's most important moment in history

No visitor to Cuba can avoid the story of the revolution. The unlikely tale of an untrained and ill-equipped band of rebels taking on and triumphing over a corrupt regime which had had the full backing of the US, resonates in every part of the country.

The story of a famous victory spearheaded by the charismatic Fidel Castro and Ernesto Ché Guevara is woven deeply into a fabric of Cuban life – you’ll find it in the place names and the museums and mausoleums. You’ll find it in the statues you’ll see, and the stories you’ll hear.


The background

It all started in 1952 when former Cuban president Fulgencio Batista seized power. It looked like he was about to lose elections, so he simply cancelled them. One young lawyer who was expecting to stand in those elections was Fidel Castro.

Batista ran a deeply corrupt and repressive regime. He enriched himself and had close links to organised crime, while Cubans suffered and thousands of dissidents were executed. But he benefited from military and economic support from the US.

In 1963, John F Kennedy was quoted as saying: “There is no country in the world…where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies.”


The revolution

Castro launched the revolution on July 26, 1953, with an attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago. The attack failed, many rebels and 19 soldiers died, and Fidel and his brother Raul were captured. Castro managed to use his trial to spotlight the illegality of the regime, saying famously: “La historia me absolverá (History will absolve me)”. Suddenly, he was a symbol of resistance and a hero to many of his countrymen and women.

He was sentenced to 15 years, but was released in 1955 as Batista, under international pressure to reform, freed a number of political prisoners. The Castro brothers left for Mexico where they formed the 26th of July Movement. One of their new recruits was young Argentine doctor Ernesto Ché Guevara.

These three were among a small band who headed back to Cuba to take the battle to Batista. It was November 1956, and there were just 82 of them on board a small yacht called the Granma.

Outnumbered and outgunned they camped in the remote highlands, slowly gaining power, new members, and weapons. Other rebel groups joined in with the guerrilla tactics to deliver morale-sapping hits on the regime. Increasingly, government soldiers abandoned their units to change sides.

By 1958 Castro’s forces were liberating more and more towns and villages and being welcomed by the inhabitants as heroes.

The coup de grace came on December 30 at the city of Santa Clara (px) when Ché and his heavily outnumbered fighters managed to defeat Batista’s troops, and capture a haul of weapons.

For Batista, the writing was on the wall. Within days he had gathered up his loot – hundreds of millions of dollars – and fled the country.

The Castros quickly took charge of the country, clearing away whatever and whoever was left from the Batista regime. “War criminals” were tried and executed.

Under their leadership Cuba became aligned with the Soviet Union which exacerbated tensions with the US and resulted in crises such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis, and the trade embargo.



Portugal, which at the time was run by another dictator, Antonio Salazar, granted Batista asylum and he died in 1973.

Ché Guevara left Cuba to join and lead other revolutionary movements but in Bolivia in 1967 he was captured and executed by government special forces. In 1997 his remains were rediscovered, brought to Santa Clara and housed in a specially-built mausoleum.

Fidel Castro remained leader of Cuba until 2006 when ill-health forced him to step down, to be succeeded by his brother Raul. Fidel died on November 25, 2016, and was buried in Santiago de Cuba next to another Cuban hero, Jose Marti.

Things to do in Havana

Cuba's famous heartland

A tumultuous past and a challenging present collide to make Havana one of the most gloriously contradictory cities in the world. Add the buzz and energy of the Cuban capital and stir in the sights and sounds of a city that for so long had little outside intervention, and you have a place that offers the visitor rare magic. There's plenty to do in Havana, which is much more than a time capsule.

You’ll see the classic cars clanking along cobbled streets, and the once majestic but now crumbling colonial architecture, but then your gaze will flit to the beautifully restored buildings standing alongside in perfect disharmony. Not surprisingly, Havana is the most international city in Cuba, the most exposed to tourism and the most modern, but it is still full of history – and life. It must be seen and experienced to be believed.

Credit: possohh ©


Havana’s richness and diversity demand more than a day. In fact, you could easily spend a week here and barely scratch the surface.

Follow the trail of narrow cobbled streets and admire the colourful colonial architecture in Old Havana. Admire the historic plazas along the way and take a minute to absorb their beauty. Hop from Plaza de Armas to Plaza Vieja (the largest and most picturesque square) to Plaza de la Catedral where, beyond the church itself, you'll find elements of Afro-Cuban heritage in the shape of colourfully dressed ladies, eager to read your fortune after a throw of cards.

Walk down Obispo Street in Old Havana, losing yourself among the flurry of shoppers, and get a real feel for the daily life of habaneros in this part of the city. This long and bustling pedestrian street is packed with stores and restaurants. This is a great place for people-watching and immersing yourself in the dynamics of local life.

While in Old Havana, take a minute or two to admire El Capitolio, a replica of the Capitol Building in Washington, housing the Statue of the Republic, world’s third largest indoor sculpture.

While away a few evening hours on El Malecon, one of downtown Havana’s most popular gathering places and recreational hotspots. This panoramic esplanade and seawall runs along the city’s coast for 8km, with plenty of sights to take in along the way. At night it comes alive with the sound of impromptu troubadours.

Get a feel for Castro's Cuba at Revolution Square. No other place in Cuba is quite as evocative of the Cuban revolution as this wide space, crowned by a star-shaped tower and the vast sculpture of independence hero, Jose Marti. Few can resist taking a picture against the colossal image of Che Guevara captioned by his famous phrase “Hasta la victoria siempre” (“Onwards to victory always”).

Meet young Cuban entrepreneurs in the Barber Shop’s alleyway (Callejón de los Peluqueros) in the atmospheric Barrio del Santo Angel (also known as Loma del Angel), a charming little neighbourhood that inspired Cecilia Valdes, one of the classic Cuban novels.

Explore Ernest Hemingway's Havana at his former home in Finca Vigia, maintained in its original state with his personal objects, hunting trophies, manuscripts and other memorabilia. Outside you’ll be able to gaze at the pool where Ava Gardner once reportedly swam naked.

Speaking of Hemingway, don’t skip La Bodeguita del Medio, the birthplace of the mojito, or El Floridita, where you can order Hemingway’s special (double rum, no sugar). A life-size statue of the old man props up the bar, smiling knowingly.

Book yourself in for a performance of the Buena Vista Social Club. Most of the original members may no longer be with us, but you’ll be treated to the band’s classics all the same -- a perfect way to round of your time in Havana.

​At a glance

  • Founded in 1515, Havana is Cuba’s largest city by area and by population, with 2.1 million inhabitants.

  • During the first half of the 20th century, Havana became the hedonistic capital of the Americas with booming casinos and nightclubs that dwarfed even those of Las Vegas.

  • The party came to an end in 1959 when Fidel Castro’s communist government seized all private property to fund its programme of health, education, housing and social reform.

What’s that sound?

There’s much more to Cuban music than salsa. Cubans traditionally prefer the more free-flowing casino and most so-called salsa bands actually play timba, a salsa subgenre. Cuba was also the birthplace of mambo, son, danzón, guagancó and cha-cha-cha, so there’s plenty to get acquainted with!


Need to know

If you’re based in Old Havana, Centro Habana or El Vedado, you’ll be able to access much of the city on foot. The state-owned yellow cabs are modern and air-conditioned, and can be flagged down in the street.

If you want to be adventurous and rub shoulders with habaneros, look out for the shabbier looking classic cars with a Taxi sign at the front – these offer cheaper rides for locals, charging 20 Cuban pesos (a little less than a US dollar). They operate fixed routes, more like minibuses, so a little Spanish is useful to establish where they’re headed.

Things to do in Santiago de Cuba

Havana's older, more relaxed sibling

Extrovert, charismatic, extravagant, and above all, revolutionary to the core, it's no accident that this eastern city was bestowed with the title Ciudad Héroe (Heroic City).

Despite being noticeably shabbier than other Cuban cities, resilient Santiagueros wear broad smiles and eagerly join the conga at the annual Carnival – Cuba’s biggest. This is the city that gave Cuba many of its most famous musicians including Buena Vista Social Club members Eliades Ochoa, Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer.



Santiago was the cradle of the Cuban Revolution; the starting point for Fidel’s audacious, scarcely believable campaign against dictator Fulgencio Batista. Many of the icons of the revolution are found in the city.

The Moncada Barracks is an imposing art deco building which went down in national legend as the site of Fidel’s first attack on the Batista regime. The building houses one of Cuba's most insightful museums on the history of the revolution.

The UNESCO-listed San Pedro de La Roca del Morro fortress sits at the entrance of Santiago’s harbour, some 10km southwest of the city centre. Guarding this once prosperous city against the threat of pirates, the magnificent structure couldn't be in a more idyllic setting overlooking the bay.

The fort houses the Museo de Piratería (Pirate museum) along with exhibits on the Spanish–American naval battle that took place here in 1898. There is a daily cannon firing ceremony at sunset, complete with costumed actors.

Plaza de Marte marks the entrance to Santiago's pretty and historic city centre, perhaps not as visually striking or colourful as Havana's but with plenty to capture your imagination. It’s hard to imagine that this lovely square was once the site of public executions of local rebels by Spanish troops. The park now hosts Santiago’s esquina caliente (hot corner) where heated baseball discussions take place as fans of the local team discuss tactics against arch-enemy, Havana’s Industriales.

Parque Céspedes is a great spot from which to observe the comings and goings of the Santiagueros and people-watch as they go about their daily lives, flirting, chatting, wolf-whistling and guitar-strumming.

The park is flanked by most of Santiago’s historic buildings including Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, a magnificent structure and Santiago's most important church, built in 1922.

Casa de La Trova “Bartolomé Masó” is a living shrine to the city’s fine music traditions. Live acts usually get started in the afternoon and continue into the night. The surrounding area is famous for its music joints.

Santiago inevitably has a Plaza de la Revolución of its own, this one dedicated to local hero Antonio Maceo, dubbed Titán de Bronce (Bronze titan) for the many gunshot wounds he suffered fighting the Spanish. His gigantic statue towers over the square surrounded by 23 raised machetes.

Also outside the city centre is the cemetery Santa Ifigenia, the final resting place of the country’s two national heroes: José Martí and Fidel Castro himself. Also here are the tombs of Antonio Maceo, Emilio Bacardí, Compay Segundo and a long list of heroes from the wars of independence.

Walk around the French quarter of Tivolí with its centuries-old steps on Padre Pico street, the unofficial gateway to the 18th-century neighbourhood.

At a glance

  • Cuba’s second city doesn’t enjoy playing second fiddle to Havana, especially since it was the country’s first capital city.

  • A relatively short distance from Haiti and Jamaica, Santiago is Cuba's most Caribbean city and is home to many Caribbean immigrants that settled here over the years.

  • Santiago is the birthplace of Cuban rum, including world-famous Bacardi. Ron Santiago, Ron Varadero and Ron Caney are all made at Bacardí's former distillery. No factory tours are available but an adjacent bar offers tastings.

  • The rivalry between Havana and Santiago is very real, best exemplified with the fierce competition between the two cities’ baseball teams – Santiago’s Orientales and Havana’s Industriales.

  • British novelist Graham Greene once found inspiration for his writings on the terrace bar of Hotel Casa Granda.


Movimiento 26 Julio

Despite ending in failure, the attack on Moncada Barracks on 26 July 1953 is celebrated as a pivotal moment in the history of the Cuban revolution. Outnumbered 10 to one, more than 60 rebels died (along with 19 government soldiers) and Fidel was captured and put on trial. True to form, he used the trial as a platform to deliver one of his greatest speeches, titled La historia me absolverá (History will absolve me). And, for most Cubans at least, he was proved right.

Need to know

Santiago is one of the hottest places in Cuba so dress as lightly as you can, apply sunscreen often and never be without bottled water.

Santiagueros are immensely proud of their city and history, and don't get them started on stuffy, snooty habaneros. They'll show you how they can be more fun, carefree and less prejudiced than their western counterparts. That said, this audacious personality has a flip side and visitors are known to fall prey to scams – be careful where you exchange money and keep an eye on your pockets and valuables.

Things to do in Trinidad

A taste of old Cuba

Cuba’s open-air museum, the exquisitely-preserved colonial city of Trinidad, is a place that seems to defy time itself. Forever stuck in the 19th century with its mansions, cobblestone streets and the echoes of a more prosperous era, this quaint town may be small but it packs a serious historical punch.



Trinidad’s opulence was built on the backs of slavery and sugar plantations and the town’s handful of landowners certainly knew how to spend their wealth. With ornate ironwork, wood carvings, Italian frescoes, French chandeliers and Wedgwood china, no detail was overlooked.

Take some time to explore Trinidad's charismatic Plaza Mayor, home to some of the town’s best architecture. At its centre is a marble sculpture of Terpsichore, the Greek muse of dance, poetry and music.

Admire one of Cuba’s biggest churches, Iglesia Mayor Santisima Trinidad or Church of the Holy Trinity. Dating back to 1817, the church took no less than 75 years to complete, and as a result spans a variety of styles from neoclassical to Greek. It was built on the site of an older church that was destroyed during a hurricane in 1812, and prior to that was ransacked by English pirate Charles Gant.

Revel in the enchanting beauty of Palacio Brunet, nowadays known as Museo Romantico, directly facing Plaza Mayor with its unmistakable two-story ochre-coloured façade. This palatial building houses a collection of 19th-century antiques, from furniture to ornaments, immaculately preserved china, and valuable artwork.

Palacio Cantero is another grand house that belonged to one of Trinidad's wealthiest citizens, Justo Cantero, a doctor of German descent. The building is divided into four large open-plan rooms, each taking you through Trinidad's history with a display of vintage maps, rare documents, exhibits of the nearby Valle de Los Ingenios and the wars of independence. Climb the spiral staircase to enjoy some splendid views over the city – extra special at sunset.

Enjoy fine art and vintage treasures at the art gallery in Casa Aldeman Ortiz, an 1809 mansion built for Trinidad's mayor. Pay special attention to the beautiful frescoes and ornate ceilings.

If you stay the night be sure to stop by Casa de la Musica to get down to some traditional Cuban tunes. Most gather on the staircase beside the church and the show gets started around 10pm every night.

Make an obligatory journey to the stunning Valley of the Sugar Mills, 12km east of Trinidad, the meeting point of three valleys, beautifully framed by the surrounding lush mountains.

At a glance

  • The local drink is the canchánchara – a brew made of rum, honey, lemon and water and most famously sold at Taberna La Canchánchara. Stop by for jam sessions with local musicians and slightly inebriated crowds that often break into spontaneous dancing.
  • Locals affectionately refer to Plaza Mayor as parque de los perros (park of the dogs) so named after the two bronze greyhounds that guard the entrance from Desengaño Street.

  • With its seven stories and 136 steps, Manaca Iznaga Tower, in the Valley of the Sugar Mills, offers 360-degree views of the valley.


Divine intervention

The Iglesia Mayor altar is home to an unusual object: the famous Cristo de la Veracruz (Veracruz Christ). This wooden, 18th century sculpture was destined for a church in Veracruz, Mexico, but the ship was forced to return to Trinidad three times due to poor weather. Only after it abandoned its cargo could it complete its journey, which was taken as a sign of divine intervention by the people of Trinidad who kept the statue and gave it pride of place in the town’s church.

Need to know

Trinidad is best discovered on foot, with the entire town within easy walking distance.

Trinidad is roughly 4.5 hours from Havana. Organised tours may stop off for a couple of hours in Santa Clara (px) en route to break up the journey, but you’ll want to spend at least two nights in Trinidad to see all the sights.

Things to do in Santa Clara

Che Guevara's final home

Santa Clara holds a special place in the history of the Cuban revolution. It was the location of the rebels’ decisive victory over the Batista regime in 1958, and is the final resting place of the war’s most famous hero, Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Cuba_Santa Clara_hotel


Santa Clara's Ernesto "Che" Guevara Mausoleum is the main reason most people visit the city.

The focal point is the 67-metre tall bronze statue of the man himself atop a 16-metre high pedestal emblazoned with his famous catchphrase: “Hasta la victoria siempre” (“Onwards to victory always”).

The site also has a museum to Guevara's fascinating life. Whatever your own political persuasions, it’s intriguing to discover how the cult of Che originated and how he became a posthumous advocate for the world’s poor.

Elsewhere in Santa Clara, Parque Vidal offers a colourful slice of local life. The municipal orchestra has been playing here every Thursday and Sunday at 8pm since 1902. Don’t miss one of the city’s few non-Che related icons: the bronze statue of El niño de la bota (The boy with the boot), a child holding up a leaky boot from which water trickles into the pool below.

Nearby is the Caridad Theatre, an architectural masterpiece which was declared a National Monument in 1999. It’s the official headquarters of the Compañía Danza Abierta (Open Dance Company), the Banda de Conciertos de Santa Clara (Santa Clara Concert Band) and the Orquesta Sinfonica Provincial (Provincial Symphonic Orchestra) and there are usually plenty of live acts to catch.

For some authentic local ambience head to La Marquesina, a bar adjacent to the theatre with a colourful clientele of students, bohemian souls, cigar-factory workers and bici-taxi riders.

If you’re interested in the art of cigar-making, visit the Fábrica de Tabacos Constantino Pérez Carrodegua, which is more low-key and less rushed than the cigar factories in Havana. This is where brands like Montecristo, Partagas and Romeo Julieta are manufactured. It's also a great place to buy cheap rum.

At a glance

  • On Parque Vidal is a statue of Marta Abreu, an activist in the Cuban wars of independence. Rumour has it that under her pedestal is a time capsule hidden for future generations.
  • In Catedral de las Santas Hermanas de Santa Clara de Asís, three blocks west of Parque Vidal, you’ll find a statue of La Virgen de La Charca (Virgin of the Pond) which is said to have been discovered in a ditch decades after disappearing mysteriously during the cathedral's consecration in 1954.

  • Calle Independencia is full of shoppers by day and bar-hoppers at night and is great for people-watching


The making of an icon

The story of Che Guevara could easily be a work of epic fiction. The Argentine was radicalised as a young man when he saw at first hand South America’s extreme poverty. A chance encounter in Mexico with exiled Fidel and Raúl Castro led to one of the most remarkable stories of the 20th century. Helping to spearhead the revolution in 1956 and later dedicating his life to spreading “anti-imperialism” around the world, Che was finally undone in Bolivia in 1967 when he was captured and executed. Left in an unmarked grave until 1997, he was finally returned to Santa Clara, the scene of his most illustrious victory.

Need to know

Santa Clara is 277 km from Havana, approximately 2.5 hours by car. Most visitors only call in for a few hours to see the mausoleum but if you wish to linger, nearby Remedios is a picturesque and lesser-visited coastal town.

Despite its beautiful façade, hotel Santa Clara Libre isn't great for overnight stays. If you’re staying in town find a casa particular, and expand your circle of Cuban friends instead.

Things to do in Baracoa

Salsa and sun in Cuba's oldest city

Cuba’s oldest city, Baracoa, perches on the country’s far eastern tip amid a stunning backdrop of forest-clad mountains, serene blue waters and secluded, evocative coves.

But there’s much more to the city than the scenery. Inaccessible by road until relatively recently, Baracoa has developed a style and character all its own. In their remoteness, residents nurtured unique traditions and peculiar characters, giving the city an enigmatic, other-worldly feel.



El Yunque is a 575-metre high, flat-topped mountain that dominates the city from all angles. The views from the top are truly special and well worth the climb. This is a great spot for bird and nature spotting. If you’re lucky you might get a glimpse of a tocororo (Cuba’s national bird) or the zunzuncito (the bee hummingbird, the world's smallest bird). It's a strenuous and muddy hike, so take plenty of water.

The picturesque Parque de la Independencia is flanked by numerous pastel-coloured colonial-era buildings and is a popular hang-out spot for locals. Order a mojito at one of the nearby bars, sit back and enjoy people-watching under the shade of a leafy tree.

Facing the square on its southern corner is the stately Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. It has been on the receiving end of plenty of hurricanes over the years but was recently restored with Italian funding. Its most prized possession is the Cruz de la Parra, the only surviving wooden cross of the 29 that were placed in Cuba by Columbus on his first visit to the island.

Next to the cathedral, you'll find Casa de la Trova “Victorino Rodríguez,” the island's tiniest, wackiest and wildest music house, swaying to the voodoo-like tunes of son montuno and changüi, a style that originated in Baracoa.

Nearby is Casa del Chocolate. Baracoa is Cuba's biggest producer of cacao and the city produces some of the finest chocolate you’ll ever taste.

A stroll along the Malecon is a pleasant way to spend the early evening, with views of the city's three Spanish fortresses: El Castillo Seboruco (which now functions as a hotel and is hardly recognisable as a fort), Fuerte Matachín (with a great museum), and Fuerte de La Punta (now home to a restaurant).

The archaeological museum La Cueva del Paraíso contains a series of caves that were used as Taíno burial chambers. Exhibits include 2,000 skeletons, ceramics, 3,000-year-old petroglyphs and the pièce de résistance: the Idolo del Tabaco (Tobacco idol) which was discovered in 1903 and is considered one of the Caribbean's most significant Taíno artefacts.

After all that walking you’ll be ready for a dip in the ocean. The area’s two best beaches are Playa Blanca and Playa Maguana. The latter boasts fine white sands and is blissfully free of the overdevelopment found elsewhere in Cuba and the wider Caribbean.

At a glance

  • Known as ciudad primada (first city), Baracoa was established way back in 1511.
  • The city is small, with a population of just 81,800 – you’ll never feel crowded here.

  • Various historians have suggested that Baracoa was the landing point for Columbus’s first mission and although the general consensus is that Holguín has that honour, locals continue to assert their city’s place in the history books.

The birthplace of magical realism

The Hispanic literary style known as magical realism was popularised by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. But one of the genre’s early founders was Alejo Carpentier, a Cuban who drew much inspiration from Baracoa and its intriguing, fantastical atmosphere.


Need to know

Baracoa was badly damaged by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, the strongest storm to hit the Caribbean in almost a decade. Thankfully no deaths were reported and the city is recovering quickly.

Baracoa is remote and is a long drive from pretty much anywhere. Visitors either arrive on one of the thrice-weekly flights or via the impossibly scenic La Farola road from Santiago.

Things to do in Pinar del Río and Viñales

Cuba's green and mystical valley

A trip to Pinar del Río and UNESCO-listed Viñales, one of the greenest, most laid-back parts of Cuba, makes a refreshing break from the bustle of Havana. Here's what to do in Viñales.

Credit: Marcin Jucha ©

Highlights of Viñales

Visit Cuba's mystical valley

Simply put, there's no other place quite like Viñales on earth. The valley's flat-topped rock formations, known as mogotes, and the palm trees in the background give it an almost supernatural, mystical feel. The valley can be explored on horseback, by cycling, or by simply hiking.

Drop by the Alejandro Robaina Tobacco Plantation, the most famous and prestigious in the country, where they have been growing quality tobacco since 1845. Tours are organised daily and many horseback rides include a stop here.

If you can spare the time pay a visit to Jardín Botánico de Viñales, a formerly private garden with fragrant paths full of exotic plants, cascades of orchids, orange lilies and the odd turkey running around.

Explore Cuba’s largest cave system at the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, a colossal cavern that spreads across eight levels. It’s a demanding, two-hour subterranean hike taking you past crystalline pools, clouds of bats, incredible rock formations and, for good measure, a replica of a native Indian mural.

The Mural de la Prehistoria is somewhat divisive – people either love it or hate it. The 120-metre high rock painting was designed by muralist Leovigildo Gonzalez Morillo in 1961 and took four years to complete. Some say it looks gaudy and unnatural, others love how it appears to blend in with the landscape and the valley’s topography. Make your own mind up.

Beyond Viñales, in the wider Pinar del Río region, is Soroa, part of the Sierra del Rosario mountain range and dubbed “Cuba’s rainbow” with its colourful vegetation, tall trees and orchids. This is a wonderful place to explore by bike or with some moderate hiking.

Las Terrazas – 20 minutes from Soroa – is a lovely eco-village with scenic hikes, cycling trips and horseback rides along the San Juan River.

If you need some beach time, Cayo Jutías is less than an hour from Viñales with 3 km of pure white beach lapped by impossibly turquoise waters.

The busier but prettier Cayo Levisa is a more developed spot, first “discovered” by Hemingway and widely considered to be Pinar del Rio's best beach.

The paradisiac enclave of Maria La Gorda is the number one diving centre in western Cuba. The warm crystalline waters are home to no fewer than 50 different diving spots and the diving centre will equip you with all you need.

At a glance

  • This is Cuba’s largest province by area but one of the least populated.

  • Viñales was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in November 1999 for its unique karst landscape, indigenous architecture of thatched-roof houses, and traditional crafts and music.

  • Before settlement by Europeans, Viñales was inhabited by a large population of Taino people, many of whom were later enslaved to work in the region’s tobacco industry.

  • Birdwatchers be aware -- Viñales and Soroa are great places for spotting some wonderful birdlife. Guided birdwatching tours are available

  • The Viñales Valley with its craggy, jungle-clad mountains, is the number one destination in Cuba for climbing. Climbing gear can be hired in town.


Don’t judge a book by its cover

Pinar del Río is so slow-paced that Cubans often use the pejorative term pinareño to mean dim-witted. They may be the butt of the nation’s jokes but don’t confuse pinareños' laidback approach to life with foolishness; perhaps they are the real wise ones!

Need to know

The town of Viñales is quaint, safe and very small. You can easily get around by foot day and night.

Bars, banks and paladares (privately-run restaurants) are all to be found on the main street – Calle Salvador Cisneros. The village is becoming increasingly popular with tourists. If you’re looking for a more secluded experience, ask your tour operator about staying further afield in the surrounding countryside.

Most organised trips to Pinar del Río start and end in Havana, a pleasant 2.5 hour journey by car.

One of Cuba’s richest and largest ecosystems, this UNESCO-listed Biosphere Reserve of Ciénaga de Zapata is home to the country’s largest colony of endemic crocodiles, a population of American flamingos and the world's smallest hummingbird. Vast and virtually uninhabited, Zapata is a paradise for birdwatchers and nature lovers.

But there's more to this peninsula than its natural riches. It also goes down in history as the backdrop of the failed CIA-sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 – and the Cubans certainly haven’t forgotten.



This region is one of the quietest and most unassuming spots in Cuba, a world away from the hustle and bustle of elsewhere. Spend some time at Playa Larga, where there are some lovely casa particulares directly facing the beach.

Most visitors spend at least half a day exploring the mangroves and lagoons of Ciénaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve, typically with a guided nature walk. It’s a great spot for birdwatching, crocodile spotting and catch-and-release fishing, although access is limited and only possible with a guide.

Commemorating one of the most bizarre episodes of the Cold War years, Museo Playa Girón tells the story of the Bay of Pigs invasion attempt of 1961, offering some context to the invasion and its aftermath. Exhibits include personal items of fallen soldiers, tactical maps and some of the military hardware used in the battle.

Guamá is a recreation of an indigenous Taíno village complete with life-size statues, thatched roof bohíos and the obligatory snack bar and gift shop. The highlight is a boat ride through the mangroves and across the mirror-like lake.

Around 8km southeast of Playa Girón is Caleta Buena, an idyllic spot for snorkelling and diving.

At a glance

  • Ciénaga de Zapata is also known for the annual migration of red and yellow crab, when up to 10 million of the critters make a perilous journey from forest to sea, crossing roads, puncturing tyres and invading locals’ homes along the way. Locals revel in the madness and you can witness the spectacle between April and July, which is also a great time to taste fresh yellow crab meat (the red variety is toxic!).

  • At over 6,000 square km, the Ciénaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve is the Caribbean’s largest protected area and the best-preserved wetlands in the Antilles. The Ramsar Convention of Wetlands declared it a Wetland of International Importance in 1971 and by 2001 an additional 4,520 square km of the peninsula was declared a Ramsar Site.

Cuba_bayof Pigs_crocadile

What’s in a name?

Playa Girón or Bay of Pigs? It's actually both. The invasion force landed at Playa Girón, which is part of the larger Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). Anti-Castro voices use the latter for its derogatory overtones while most Cubans prefer to call it the battle of Playa Girón.

Need to know

Getting around the area can be tricky, unless you’re visiting as part of an organised tour.

Ciénaga de Zapata is part of Matanzas province, also known for the mass-tourism resorts of Varadero. Do yourself a favour, steer clear from the all-inclusives and get a feel for the real Cuba instead.

Dubbed La perla del sur (The pearl of the south), Cienfuegos boasts a certain chic elegance – perhaps unsurprising as it was settled by French immigrants in the 19th century. Nestling around a spectacular bay, this colonial gem was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005 for its well-preserved historic centre and classical buildings.



Most of the main sights are found around the central Parque Jose Martí. The park itself is a National Monument and Cienfuegos' historic heart.

The Teatro Tomás Terry was built between 1887 and 1889 in a French-Italian style, including gold-leafed mosaics on its façade. It once hosted acclaimed performers such as Enrico Caruso and Anna Pavlova and if you think it looks grand from the outside just wait until you step inside. Its 950-seat auditorium is decorated with Carrara marble, ceiling frescoes and hand-carved hardwoods.

Also nearby is the Arco de Triunfo, the only “arch of triumph” in Cuba, and the Antiguo Ayuntamiento (Old Town Hall), modelled after Havana's Capitolio and now housing the provincial assembly.

Palacio Ferrer was built by sugar baron Jose Ferrer Sires in the early 1900s in Catalan modernist style. Climb the dome-tower for great views over the square and the city beyond.

The stunning Catedral de la Purísima Concepción (Cathedral of Immaculate Conception) was built between 1833 and 1869 and features a neoclassical façade, two bell towers of differing heights and exquisite French stained-glass windows.

The Malecon running along the seafront offers sublime views. Just like Havana’s longer version, the seawall comes alive at night with romancing couples and impromptu troubadours.

On the other side of the bay stands Castillo de Jagua, a fortress that predates the founding of Cienfuegos by almost a century.

For a dip in the sea, try Playa Rancho Luna, 18km from the city centre. Popular with locals, its white sands are gently lapped by crystalline turquoise waters and the thriving coral and shipwrecks make for great snorkelling and diving.

At a glance

  • Paseo del Prado is Cuba's longest street. It runs for 2km from the Inglés river to Punta Gorda.

  • Where Avenida 54 meets Paseo del Prado, you'll find a statue of Benny Moré, the charismatic Cuban singer and composer who popularised mambo, guaracha, bolero and son montuno. Listen to his infectious songs, particularly the one he dedicated to his hometown, aptly named “Cienfuegos”.

Need to know

Cienfuegos is around 250km from Havana. Few organised tours stop here overnight, but you can stop for lunch en route to Trinidad. It’s an easy-going sort of place and not particularly known for its nightlife, so don’t expect raucous nightclubs and steamy salsa venues – with the notable exception of the Benny Moré nightclub which is lively enough.

Virtually unknown to the foreign traveller, yet historically significant and undeniably elegant, Bayamo doesn’t feature in many travel guides and perhaps that’s for the best. This is a crowd-free, unrushed oasis with time-warped streets that echo to the clip-clop of horse hooves.

Bayamo is the capital of Granma province and is renowned as one of the most fiercely patriotic parts of the country. It was the first city to be liberated in the wars of independence, and its citizens went as far as to burn the city to the ground rather than let it fall back into Spanish hands. Other cities like Guaimaro and Las Tunas would follow with similar burnings, but brave Bayamo was the first.



The city's focal point is Parque Céspedes, surrounding which you'll find some of Bayamo's main attractions, from colonial mansions to elegant bars, cafes and local art displays. The Bayamo Band performs live at the park every Sunday.

The Iglesia San Salvador de Bayamo dates to 1516 and was elevated to cathedral status in the 20th century. Next door is an 18th-century chapel called Capilla de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores.

Stop by Casa Natal de Céspedes, the birthplace of Cuba's first national hero, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, “the father of the homeland”, who first declared war on Spain in October 1868. Inside you'll find personal memorabilia and vintage furniture. Adjacent to the house is a clock that marks every hour aptly with the first few bars of Cuba's national anthem, La Bayamesa.

A pedestrianised stretch known as Paseo Bayamés is a colourful shopping artery featuring funky artwork and Cuba's only wax museum, with some admirable attempts at depicting some Cuban and international celebrities.

The peaceful Plaza de Revolución was the site of Céspedes’ proclamation of independence in 1868, right in front of the Ayuntamiento (City Hall). Nowadays it's the city's most popular outdoor concert venue with orchestras playing regularly. Nearby check out Fábrica de los Coches, the country’s only producer of handcrafted horse carts. You can meet the craftsmen and buy miniature models of the four-wheeled carts.

South of Bayamo is Sierra Maestra, one of Cuba’s most impressive mountain ranges. The mountains have a long history of guerrilla warfare, from Taíno rebellions to the Cuban Wars of Independence and the Cuban Revolution. Most notably it was the hiding place of Fidel’s small band of renegades after their failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953.

At a glance

  • Not many know it, but Bayamo was the second settlement to be established in Cuba, beating Havana and Santiago by two years

  • Cuba's first president, Tomas Estrada Palma, was born in Bayamo

  • Once more proving Bayamo is a city of firsts, it was here that Cuba's first flag (flag of the “Republica en Armas”) was sewn. For these reasons Bayamo is dubbed “The Cradle of Cuban Nationality.”

La Bayamesa

Cuba's national anthem, La Bayamesa is a battle cry that was composed in Bayamo at the start of The Ten Years' War with Spain and was inspired by France's La Marseillaise. As rebel forces liberated the city, joyous crowds urged the song’s composer Perucho Figueredo to write the lyrics and he instantly obliged while still riding his horse.

Need to know

Despite its feisty history, the Bayamese are charming and laidback, although they have a passionate reverence for the old days. Share that respect with the locals you meet and join in their admiration for their city, and you’ll quickly connect and make lifelong friends.

Bayamo is a surprising leader in sustainable transportation, with only 15% of commuters using motorised transport. Most locals get around using the 500 licensed horse-drawn carriages, the rest walk, cycle, or hop on a bici-taxi.

Despite being in one of Cuba's hottest regions, Bayamo has a balmy climate with forgiving weather and fresh winds.

Things to do in Holguín Province

Sleepy beaches and provincial towns

Although Holguín city is relatively humble, the wider province boasts some delightful beaches. The coastline is particularly popular for travellers seeking a tranquil beach break away from the crowds of Varadero.

Holguín city doesn’t have a huge number of tourist attractions, but this gives it a charm of its own: there are few tourist touts here and you’ll be able to get a clearer view of provincial life in western Cuba.



The main draw is the sleepy seaside town of Guardalavaca with its stunning beaches, Playa Esmeralda, and the more secluded Playa Pesquero.

Further west from the beach resorts of Guardalavaca is Gibara, called Cuba’s best-kept secret and not (yet) on the tourist trail. This idyllic seaside town sits on a beautiful bay and has a pleasant, laid-back vibe. There is a cigar factory, the impressive colonial-era Hotel Ordoño, and the Caverna de Panaderos cave system with 19 galleries and a lengthy underground trail.

South of Guardalavaca is Banes, a former sugar town but now known as the archaeological capital of Cuba with a good museum on the Taino, Cuba’s indigenous people.

The Chorro de Maíta archaeological site and live museum puts on dance and ritual displays of the Taíno.

There’s a dolphinarium at Bahía de Naranjo but with major welfare concerns around captive marine mammals, you’re probably better off sticking to snorkelling and enjoying nature in its proper surroundings.

Most of the sightseeing in Holguín city is centred around Parque Calixto García, named for a local hero of Cuba's wars of independence.

Adjacent to the park you'll find Holguín's premier theatre, Teatro Comandante Eddy Suñol, an art deco beauty that frequently hosts the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and the Teatro Lírico Rodrigo Prats. It's famous for its Spanish musicals, dance performances and operettas.

Make a stop at Casa de la Trova “El Guayabero” to enjoy a live serenade by guayabera-clad musicians and dancing couples in their Sunday best swaying to the rhythm of a timeless danzón.

Catedral de San Isidoro, one of the city's most imposing sights, dates back to 1720 and houses a hyper-realistic sculpture of Pope John Paul II.

The Mural de Origen (Origins mural) depicts the development of Cuba and Holguín throughout the ages.

Go off the beaten track and head to nearby Birán, Fidel Castro's birthplace. The house where the leader of the Cuban Revolution was born is now a museum, but access is with prior reservation only.

At a glance

  • Holguín is Cuba's fourth largest city, after Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey.
  • Bordering the provinces of Holguín and Guantánamo is Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, officially the most humid spot in all Cuba.

Europe arrives

Christopher Columbus first landed in 1492 in Holguín, declaring it to be “the fairest land human eyes had ever seen”. A nearby Taíno museum documents the destructive clash of civilisations that was to ensue.

Need to know

In April, charming Gibara hosts the Festival Internacional del Cine Pobre (Low budget film festival) which draws films and filmmakers from all over the world.

Holguín is home to the large Fábrica de la Cerveceria Bucanero which brews the nation’s three most popular beers, Cristal, Bucanero and Mayabe.

There is a hop on/hop off double-decker bus that links all three beach areas: Guardalavaca, Playa Pesquero, and Playa Esmeralda.

In addition to inland excursions, there is also a myriad of watersports and water-based excursions available.

The end of people-to-people travel in Cuba?

How President Trump's foreign policy is impacting US-Cuba relations?

What the embargo means for the future of tourism in Cuba

An enduring theme running through Cuba’s history is its thorny relationship with the behemoth neighbour just 90 miles across the Florida Straits. Since 1958, relations between the United States and Cuba have been defined by the longest running trade embargo in modern history, limiting virtually all imports/exports and severely restricting travel between the two countries.

Over the years the embargo has come under fierce criticism, both in the US and abroad. The United Nations General Assembly passes an annual resolution condemning the embargo, and organisations as diverse as the United States Chamber of Commerce and Amnesty International criticise the restrictions for their economic, social and human impact.

There was considerable excitement when, in December 2014, former US President Barack Obama announced plans to normalise relations between the United States and Cuba and work towards a gradual easing of the embargo.

One of the first changes was a loosening of the rules governing travel by US citizens. Whereas US travellers previously required a pre-approved license to visit Cuba (more precisely, to spend money in Cuba), the US Department of the Treasury issued several “general licenses” which permitted travel without prior approval in certain circumstances.

Credit: Photo © Jim O'Donnell

People-to-people tourism

One such general license was for travel with an “educational” purpose, or which facilitated “people-to-people” contact between US and Cuban citizens.

The definition of “people-to-people” travel was left vague. Officially, the rules stated that travellers must “maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveller and individuals in Cuba.”

So, a programme of visiting art galleries and ballet performances in Cuba would count as meaningful, but a week on a luxury resort in Varadero was not.

The revised regulations also stated that US visitors must keep records for up to five years of their transactions while in Cuba to demonstrate a full-time schedule of authorised activities.

However, all that changed with the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. In 2017, he reversed the policy, stipulating that Americans could only visit Cuba as part of an organised tour. A couple of months later, the Trump administration banned Americans from staying at certain hotels linked to the Cuban government.

Then, in April 2019, Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton announced plans for new regulations “to restrict non-family travel to Cuba”, with the aim of stopping American dollars reaching Cuba.

As yet, there has been no information about when the new regulations come into force or how this will affect American travellers wishing to visit Cuba. However, the impact on tourists, operators and cruise lines is likely to be severe.

At a time when relations between Cuba and the United States seemed to be normalising, this new ban on integration is likely to see a regression to previously hostile relations -- a move which can only be bad for travellers.

Things to do in Cuba

Our recommended experiences and activities

Havana’s Revolution Square

Havana’s Revolution Square

Nowhere is more evocative of Cuba’s revolutionary spirit than this central square crowned by an imposing statue of Jose Marti and giant mural of Che Guevara.

Casa particulares

Casa particulares

Forget the mega resorts, the Cuban homestay is the original AirBnB and locals have been opening their homes to visitors for decades. Casas are a great way to live like a local.

Santeria in Trinidad

Santeria in Trinidad

Cuba’s Santeria merges aspects of Yoruba religion brought from West Africa, Christianity and native Cuban spiritualism. Visit Santeria priests and see performances in Trinidad.

Drink a daiquiri in Hemingway’s honour

Drink a daiquiri in Hemingway’s honour

Author Ernest Hemingway’s time in Cuba was famously spent mostly drinking in its bars. Sample an authentic mojito or daiquiri in Havana.

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