There are so many amazing things to do in Cuba. Visitors to Cuba travel through a land that’s rich in natural beauty with a melting-pot culture and a strong sense of history. It is a place to be savoured and explored, whether with a sundowner on the beach or by mingling with the locals on Havana’s back streets.
Take these 10 things to do and give them time, an open mind and plenty of enthusiasm.
Take a Walk Around Old Havana
Visitors to Cuba usually stop first in the capital city of Havana. It’s one of those places you can’t help falling in love with, both relaxed and vibrant with plenty to see and do around every corner. It’s best seen on foot, rather than rushed through in a tour bus. Its brightly coloured buildings have a ramshackle but seductive beauty and serve as the perfect backdrop to the city’s famous antique cars. Old Havana is the most touristy part of the city, but you’ll rub shoulders with locals there. You’ll see children playing in the streets, watched over by old men playing chess. Some of Old Havana has been renovated and preserved, but much of it is crumbling and raw. Wander down cobbled side streets, pause to people watch in the plazas and take in the beautiful colonial mansions. It’s a place to be as much as to do.
Ride in an Antique Car
One of the most enduring images of Cuba is of the classic American cars that tour the streets of Havana and beyond. Few have visited Cuba without taking a ride. The cars are Chevrolets and Fords from the 30s to the 60s, colourful and still going strong. They’re the result of a 40 year ban that former leader, Fidel Castro, placed on imports of anything foreign. Cubans had to make do with the cars they had, and they have kept them running with improvised parts and mechanical skill. The ban has now been lifted, but the cars remain and, for now at least, Cuba still resembles a living car museum. There are numerous companies that will take you on car tours of Havana, and some that hire out antique cars for you to self-drive. For the ultimate experience, make sure you get a convertible.
Sip a Mojito
Cubans love to party, and if you want to join them, what better way to do it than with a mojito in hand? The mojito, made with rum, lime, mint and sugar, emerged when American bartenders found their way to Cuba during the prohibition era. Cuba had the raw ingredients, and they had the skill to create a classic. It’s best enjoyed at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, the birthplace of the drink and once a haunt of Ernest Hemingway. Take a seat at the worn wooden bar and watch the Mojito masters at work. You’ll struggle to resist a second. And if you’d like a Cuban cigar to go with it, you’ll have no problems finding one from one of the many cigar stores in OId Havana.
Visit the Sea Turtles
Cuba’s isolation from the rest of the world has brought benefits for its natural environment, including clean beaches and seas that are largely unaffected by mass tourism. The country is home to a number of breeding populations of sea turtles, the biggest of which can be found at Cayo Largo Island and in the Guanahacabibes National park. Cayo Largo is a small, quiet resort island, with pristine beaches and a real Robinson Crusoe feel. Guanahacabibes covers 150 square metres at the western edge of Cuba’s main island, taking in the virgin sand, mangrove swamps and tropical forests. Tour companies organise trips to both locations, and both are part of conservation projects, so visiting them helps fund sea turtle research and protection projects.
Trinidad is a stunning town of cobbled streets, elegant plazas and colourful houses, nestled in the mountains. Founded in Spanish colonial times, it was built on the back of the slave trade, with the colonialists who built it getting rich quick from their sugar and tobacco plantations. The town is packed with extravagant mansions, where Spanish plantation owners would have once have lived. Today, it is full of charm, a wonderful place to wander and soak up some atmosphere. And, despite being busy with tourists, it’s easy to lose yourself in its Cuban vibes. Grab a seat in one of the squares and enjoy the bustle of the town’s people and the occasional donkey.
Learn to Dance Salsa de Cuba
One of the truly essential things to do in Cuba, salsa is not just something to watch, but something to take part in. Cuban salsa, known as Casino, combines Spanish and African rhythms to produce a hypnotic, energetic dance. You’ll find Cubans of all ages out dancing the night away in salsa clubs, dressed up to the nines (and making it all seem a little like a Miss Cuba contest at times). You’ll also find salsa dancing in huge outdoor venues like Havana’s La Cecilia, on the beach, in the street and in their homes. It’s fun to watch, but it’s better to learn. If you’re lucky, you might find you’re offered an impromptu lesson by a friendly Cuban. But if you’re serious about salsa, seek out one of the many salsa schools in Havana and elsewhere.
Relax on Varadero Beach
Varadero Beach is one of the best-known places to visit in Cuba, and the centre of the country’s package tourism industry It is busy and maybe a little brash for some, and is often avoided by independent travellers seeking authentic Cuban thrills. But, as it boasts one of the world’s best beaches, Varadero is worth a visit. It has over 20km of beautiful white sand and lots of good-time vibes. It’s one of those places to kick back on a sun-lounger, order a cocktail and spend a few days doing nothing but relaxing (and maybe a little partying). If you get itchy feet, take a trip to the Parque Josone, beautifully landscaped green garden with a lake, centred around a neoclassical mansion. In the evening, head up to the clifftop Mansion Xanadu Hotel for a drink and watch the sun set over the ocean.
See the Valle de Vinales
The Valle de Vinales is a remote valley and national park around 200km from Havana. It’s one Cuba’s biggest and best natural attractions, a place to marvel at the scenery and relish being away from the tourist crowds and among traditional farming people. 11km long, the valley boasts dramatic rocky outcrops that have earned it UNESCO world heritage status. A visit to Valle de Vinales is a must for anyone who loves hiking or horse-riding, both brilliant ways to take in its sleepy villages and scenery. There are plenty of trails to choose from and guides readily available. It is a major tobacco growing region, so you can expect to see tobacco curing barns in the fields and can visit a tobacco farm to learn more about the history of Cuba’s famous cigar trade. Valle de Vinales is also known for its many caves, the most impressive of which is Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, the largest cave system in the Caribbean.
Go Scuba Diving
Cuba is a paradise for scuba divers, packed with dive sites that will suit all levels of diver and provide excellent year-round diving. Water temperatures average a balmy 24 degrees, and its coral reefs are very well-preserved. You’ll find a dive site or two off beaches all around Cuba’s coast but there are some areas that are particularly worth a visit. The island of Cayo Largo is a favourite, easily accessible with over 30 dive sites. It’s a fabulous spot for an all-round beach holiday, making it perfect for mixed groups of divers and non-divers. Some of the best dive sites are best reached on a liveaboard trip, including the Jardines de la Reina. This protected archipelagio of 600 mangrove islands and coral cays offers seemingly endless diving, with reef sharks and even crocodiles commonly seen.
Eat at a Paladar
Cuba’s Paladars are small family run restaurants, many of which are in local people’s homes. They usually serve traditional fare, and while Cuban food isn’t known for its variety, you’ll often be surprised at the quality and taste on offer. Cuban cuisine marries African and Spanish influences with Caribbean ingredients. Rice and beans are a staple, but there are plenty of other tasty dishes to look out for. Ropa Vieja, Cuba’s national dish, is a spicy shredded beef stew, slow-cooked with tomatoes and onions. Piquant chicken and fish stews are also common. If you’re by the coast, make sure you try some fresh fish or seafood, often served with a garlic sauce and fresh vegetables.