Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, but it sometimes seems the message hasn't gotten through – many travellers seriously underestimate how much time is needed to explore Cuba properly. A few days in Havana and then a quick dash out to Trinidad, although better than nothing, really isn’t enough to see all this fascinating country has to offer.
Whether you’re pressed for time or have weeks to spare, here are five sights or activities that you won’t want to miss.
Cruise Havana in a classic car
OK, it’s a bit of a cliché, but cruising Havana (or anywhere else) in one of Cuba’s classic American cars is a must. There are still thousands of these 1950s monsters on the road so hiring one for a few hours or longer is easy.
I’ve noticed that in recent years there is an increasing number of newly restored cars, some of which now have Japanese engines due to the difficulty in finding genuine spare parts. So if you’re a purist you might want to ask around or choose a car in more original condition. Bear in mind that this could mean climbing in over a jammed door, or an unscheduled stop along the way while your driver and sundry passers-by peer under the bonnet.
Spend a night in a Casa Particulare
Stay in one of the new wave of Casas Particulares (Cuban bed and breakfasts). You can find these in the heart of old Havana and in the historic centres of Trinidad and Cienfuegos. You will be literally in the centre of the action because life in Cuba happens on the streets and through the open doorways and windows of the houses. Sitting in a rocking chair by the bow window of an 18th century house in Trinidad, watching the street life outside, was a Cuba travel highlight for me.
Make sure you agree on the price of your room beforehand though, as demand for the casas is exploding and some less than scrupulous owners have been putting up their prices even during guests’ stays! Also check the rooms – for example a room without aircon but with fan might sound OK, but if the room has no outside windows (and some don’t) you might regret that choice.
Have a night out – in fact, don’t have a night in!
Cuba is famous for its live music and salsa dancing, but nowadays there are a growing array of excellent restaurants and cafes too. Gone are the days when if you didn’t like fried chicken, beans and rice you’d be going hungry. Now that more private enterprise is allowed, new eateries are springing up, especially in Havana. Just wander the streets and test them out. You’ll find the old favourites such as mojitos – and of course beans and rice – but also mango smoothies, bruschetta and beautifully cooked (as opposed to cooked to death) lobster.
And then there’s the music. There’s no need to stick to the touristy bars because there are quality musicians everywhere. One of my favourite memories was visiting an orchid garden and a five-piece group materialised from the shrubbery as we gathered near the loos. If you plan to dance but can’t salsa already, I suggest you get some lessons before you go: this is not the place to have two left feet on the dance floor!
If you want a rather retro night out, book in for the show at Havana’s Tropicana Night Club, still going strong almost 80 years after it opened. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition of Las Vegas glamour and old-world Communist Cuba, with its feathers, thongs and sequins – and bottles of rum and cigars for every table.
Watch some sport
Cubans are passionate about sport so any sports-mad Kiwi will feel right at home. Baseball is to Cuba what rugby is to NZ. The season runs through the main tourist season (December to April) so finding a game to attend should be easy. If you really can’t face baseball, Cubans are also world renowned for their prowess at boxing, basketball and volleyball.
And if attending a big game sounds a bit too daunting, another favourite pastime, mostly among men, is dominoes. You’ll find players (and a surrounding huddle of spectators) set up on footpaths, even on the streets themselves. They usually don’t mind an audience, but avoid interrupting their concentration unless you want a swift telling off.
Hit the beach
You’re in the Caribbean after all! Take some time out from museums, history and culture and head for the beach.
The resorts of Varadero on the northern coast are famed for their beaches but you don’t need to join the package tourists to enjoy the sea. Ancon beach close to Trinidad is the best on the southern coast. There are stretches linked with hotels but also plenty of public beach space where you can still rent an umbrella and sunbed. Another great place to swim – one that combines history with fun in the sun – is the beach at the Bay of Pigs (Bahia de Cochinos), where the failed US-backed invasion took place in 1961. Located a short walk from the museum, Playa Giron is a peaceful, beautiful curve of white sandy beach and vivid blue Caribbean Sea.