What to do and see in…
Though the first impression may be shocking or maybe even disappointing, because just like the majority of travelers we are used to taking photos of well preserved and maintained historic places, adorable old buildings in the city centre, which is something you will rarely see in Havana.
The fact is, Havana used to have such a city centre, but the US embargo that lasted for 55 years has resulted in extreme poverty of the Cuban people and a slow decay of their architecture. It is very sad to walk the streets of Habana Vieja (the historic hub) and watch these magnificent colonial buildings crumble down, but at the same time you become overwhelmed with positive feelings, caused by the warmth of local dwellers and relaxed atmosphere of many small bars and restaurants which, mind you, all offer live music all day long. It is not uncommon to see people dance salsa in a bar at noon! It is probably the only capital where you will feel totally safe even at night, as there is no street violence. However, make sure you do not fall prey to the jineteros, the local swindlers who target the tourists in order to sell them some black-market goods or, usually unsolicited, personal services.
The main attractions in Havana include: Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, Paseo del Prado, El Capitolio, Gran Teatro and El Morro. Most of them are located centrally and it is fairly easy to spot them while you are strolling around la Habana Vieja. To visit el Morro or to go to Vedado (where most clubs, restaurants and hotels are situated, and the famous Plaza de la Revolución as well) you will have to take a taxi (a regular one or a coco taxi).
One of the most popular locations in Havana is Malecón, a broad esplanade that stretches along the coast in Havana, where many Cubans gather when the sun goes down, as it is a lively place buzzing with music and other forms of entertainment. Hemingway fans may want to visit the famous bars the writer frequented when he lived in Cuba (la Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita) and his estate, La Finca Vigia, a 15 minute ride out of Havana.
When you grow tired of all this buzz and heat, you can seek refreshment at Playas del Este, in the vicinity of the city.
All in all, Havana may be shabby and dirty, but gets under your skin and it will lure you to come back.
Indulge yourself with an unforgettable experience of horseback riding across the sugar cane fields to the nearby forest, where you can freshen up in a crystal clear pond underneath a lovely waterfall or have a home-made cup of coffee prepared in the woods by a local farmer. Spend an evening watching a sunset at a rooftop terrace with wonderful views of this charming colonial town with a cold mojito or daiquiri in your hand. Or if you feel like dancing, there are live bands on the main square every night that will guarantee a great party with hot salsa rhythms.
Hop on a bici-taxi and enjoy in an exciting ride along the beautiful avenues of the Pearl of the South. This coastal town abounds in well preserved villas and palaces from the era of the French colonialism, and most them boast spectacular seaviews. Treat yourself with some of the freshest local seafood specialties while listening to a band play traditional Cuban music. Let’s make this holiday a bit more active: explore the fortress of Castillo de Jagua, go swimming at the Rancho Luna beach or visit some natural beauties: the El Nicho waterfalls or the botanical garden. For those who enjoy boatrides, there is also a nice little natural park, the Guanaroca lagoon, where you can observe flamingos in their natural habitat.
Santiago de Cuba?
This, second-largest, Cuban city has a lot to offer too. For stunning views of the coastline climb the 17th century San Pedro de la Roca del Morro fort and pay a visit to the only Piracy Museum in Cuba. Nature enthusiasts will be delighted by La Gran Piedra, a 1,200 meter high gigantic monolith, which provides one of the best views of lush tropical mountain forests in Cuba. Not only is it a great viewpoint, but it is also a great choice for a hiking trip in the mountains. There is also a small coffee plantation and a coffee museum nearby, where you can enjoy a great cup of coffee. Travelers who seek authentic atmosphere with traditional arts and music may want to visit Casa de las Tradiciones, Casa de la Trova or Casa de la Musica. At reasonable prices one can grab a refreshing mojito and listen to live music (groups of Cuban singers entertaining in the “son” style) or dance salsa with the locals.
Cuba has many beautiful cemeteries, but the one in Santiago is really worth a visit. Why? If you want to see the tombs of famous Cubans, like Compay Segundo or Emilio Bacardi, and the mausoleum of the greatest Cuban poet – Jose Martí, you should visit Cementerio Santa Ifigenia.
Once you have finished the tour of the historic centre, you can get some rest in the Cespedes Park – a beautiful and a quiet place in the heart of the old town. Locals gather there for entertainment, as there is often a good choice of live music.
If you are an architecture junkie, this is a place for you. Holguín abounds in colonial architecture, galleries, museums and churches. Located just a short drive from beautiful beaches such as Guardalavaca and Emerald Beach, Holguín is also a great starting point of nature trips to nearby La Mensura and Alejandro de Humboldt national parks where you can enjoy backcountry camping, or staying in a lodge accommodation.
Perhaps you are a history addict? In that case you should not miss the place where the decisive battle of the Cuban Revolution was fought. Santa Clara is the historic town that boasts as well the mausoleum and memorial of Che Guevara. Here you can also visit one of the best tobacco factories in Cuba that manufactures the famous brands of Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta.
No. Cuba is not only tropical sandy beaches and charming colonial towns. Let’s go somewhere different now. Why not try the most beautiful rural region of Cuba? Located just 184 km away from Havana, this traditional town prides itself on unique landscape dotted with gigantic karst formations called mogotes surrounding a lovely valley known for its rich red earth, vast fields and impressive palm trees. This is one of Cuba’s most fertile areas and where some of the world’s best tobacco is grown, harvested, dried and processed. Nearby tobacco and rum factories are open to visitors and there you can get familiar with the production process. Pay a visit to some of the local eco-farms, stop to watch the spectacular sunset at the Jazmines lookout, take a photo of the breathtaking Mural of Prehistory painted on the slope of a hill, explore the natural caves, their underground rivers and swimming pools, embark on a 4-hour hike across the tobacco fields and smoke a cigar with the local guajiro. And if you get bored of the stunning natural beauty of the Cuban village, you can always spend a day on the beaches of Cayo Levisa or Cayo Jutias.