Things to do in Cuba
What is it that makes Cuba such a desirable location to visit? This once forbidden island has been in a standstill for decades and the fascination of visiting a place frozen in time is appealing to most. With more and more flights starting service to and from the United States and Cuba, visitors are flocking to the island to catch a glimpse of history, before major changes take place. Havana is the perfect starting point, but don’t let it suck you in and drain your entire visit, because Cuba’s interior and southern region have just as much, if not more to offer visitors. Wondering what to do in Cuba? Mr Hudson has got you covered.
Good Cuban food is worth searching for. In recent years, the government has permitted families to open small restaurants in their homes. Known as “paladars,” these are pretty much the only way to go. The food will always be tastier and more affordable than the government-run restaurants set up for tourists. And while there are hotels in Havana and Santiago, in addition to some of the smaller cities within Cuba, the best experience is hands down staying in a private home. The government approves these private home stays as they happily take their cut.
Welcome to Havana
Renting a car is costly but a great way to get around the city and venture to other parts of the country. Note that there is no GPS and no cell phone service for international carriers, so you must rely on a good old-fashioned road map, and knowing some basic Spanish will come in handy. The roads are not perfect and the signage throughout the highways and streets is limited, so don’t get frustrated if it takes a few extra turns and possibly hours, when going long distances, to get somewhere. The airport has new cars for tourists to rent so although you may dream of driving around in a ’57 Chevy, your best bet is getting the Audi with air conditioning and doors that lock. You can always opt for a day rental of a classic car while in Havana, but those classics are not worth driving outside of the city limits.
Havana is home to Cuban cigars, Havana rum and tourists. The old town, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, has been under construction for years in an effort to improve it for tourism. The European style buildings and pastel colours all appear to be in great shape, and that’s mainly due to the tons of money the government has spent in restoring its appearance. There are also plenty of places to eat and enjoy some beers. There are two official beers in Cuba, both light, but one has a higher alcohol concentration. But here in the old city, you will stumble upon craft brews at the outdoor patio restaurants. They are easy to find, just listen for the live music and search for the abundance of non-locals sitting outside. While enjoying some beer, you will most likely be sketched by a local artist who surprises you with a drawing he made of you, probably drinking a beer. It’s all part of the charm and experience.
If you are specifically wanting a gay night out, there are a few bars that cater to gay men
What to see in Havana
A few kilometres away from the old town is the “real” Havana and here is where you will find a healthy mix of tourists and locals and some of the best places to visit in Cuba. A great starting point is the Hotel Nacional, which was built in the 1930s as a copy of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. It’s an emblem of the city and it sits right on the edge of the ocean, on a part a stretch of road known as the malecón, which we will get to shortly. The pricey Hotel Nacional is great to see during the day. The art deco design and grounds are both beautiful. Non-guests can partake in a free guided tour if they so choose, but it’s easy to just walk around and then have a mojito in the gardens while watching the ocean waves crash over the walls of the malecón, which is an 8km stretch of road that begins in old town Havana. This area is full of people at night and acts as a place to hang out and drink – a perfect way to start the night. At times, the waves do crash over the wall and provide some refreshing sprays of water, so be careful not to get too wet.
Afterwards, for some Havana nightlife, there are lots of options. If you are specifically wanting a gay night out, there are a few bars that cater to gay men, and the best way to find out where they are is to head to the Cine Yara just down the road from Hotel Nacional. This is where you will see many people just hanging out, and it’s also the place to ask about the gay parties for that evening. What most likely will happen is an attractive young man will guide you in the right direction and possibly join you. In this scenario, the appropriate thing to do is pay for his entrance to the party and then part ways. Otherwise, the night will end up being much more expensive. If you just want some general nightlife, Cine Yara is still a good place to ask as different nights are better for certain clubs and bars, and locals are extremely friendly and know that tourists go to that particular spot in search of answers.
Casa de la Musica, with two locations that have big salsa bands and tight spaces for dancing
For live entertainment, some of the venues play host to great talent. Right across from the Cine Yara is El Turquino, which is located on the top floor of one of the taller buildings. It has a tricky entrance, so just get used to asking for help. Once inside, the pricey $10 cover charge will be worth it. There is a live band and actual show that takes place leading up to midnight when the dance floor opens to the public, and the roof of the building opens up to reveal the night sky and provide moonlight for some late-night salsa dancing. There is also Casa de la Musica, with two locations that have big salsa bands and tight spaces for dancing, but here is where you will find the more prominent names in Salsa if you happen to be a fanatic. Additionally, and for a more kitschy experience, a reservation at the world-famous Tropicana is a Las Vegas-style cabaret that has barely changed since its 1950 heyday, which is part of the charm of the overpriced experience.
The best beach in Cuba
This is the place you see on all the postcards in Cuba. Ask a local about Varadero Beach and they will describe the most picturesque of scenes, but will then tell you they’ve never seen it. Designed for tourists, the well-preserved and maintained beaches of Varadero are the perfect getaway for some fun in the sun after exploring the city of Havana, as it’s just a couple hours drive away.
Take a step back even further
The city of Trinidad, like most of Cuba, is frozen in time, although here it’s more stuck in 1850. One of the oldest colonial towns in Cuba, everything is perfectly preserved here, including the super slippery and uncomfortable cobblestone streets, so wear appropriate shoes when wandering the town. It’s a great stop on your Cuba journey to enjoy the vibrant music scene. One of the more popular spots is located in the centre, just up the steps to the right of the massive church.
Jumping on a horse is a great experience while visiting and all you need to do to find the perfect horse tour is head to the main plaza and walk around. Various men with horses, selling you on why they are better than the other, will approach visitors. They all go to the same waterfall and take you to the same ranch for lunch. Just be sure to ask for their operator identification to legitimize their business. Also, be sure you are comfortable on a horse, and if you are not, do let the tour guide know in advance. Additionally, Playa Ancón is a gorgeous white sand beach that is close to Trinidad and there are buses going to and from all day long.
The more Afro-Cuban centric Santiago has different styles of food and music as opposed to Havana
Cienfuegos is the next logical stop if driving south from Trinidad and the buildings here are just visually stunning. The entire city of is a UNESCO Heritage site, with many of its landmarks like the Valle Palace and Triumph Arch being built in the early 19th century. Just outside of the city is El Nicho, a popular waterfall located near Topes de Collantes Natural Park. Beyond the waterfall, there are two natural swimming pools and caves to visit.
Further south still is Santiago de Cuba, the second most important city in the country after Havana. Located next to Baconao National Park and just a short drive away from the beaches of Aguadores and La Estrella, this is a massive city, with lots to do. The more Afro-Cuban centric Santiago has different styles of food and music as opposed to Havana; so make some time to enjoy the nightlife, as it’s an experience that rivals Havana. There is a major airport here, so if you do drive, you can plan to part ways with your rental and fly back to Havana.
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Varadero | Photo: David Duran
Trinidad | Photo: David Duran