Neighborhoods of Havana
The first time you enter the narrow cobblestoned streets of Havana Vieja, you’ll bask in five centuries worth of majestic Spanish architecture. Here you will find the magnificent El Morro Castle looming across the Bay of Havana like an image from a fairytale. You might be walking along a quiet residential street where laundry hangs from windows and buildings crumble next to those that have been restored to perfection, when suddenly Salsa music reverberates through the air and a family of Cubans welcomes you into their home.
Vedado is all about the spirit of Havana’s people and provides a firsthand look at the promise of the future. Children play kickball on an elevated pedestrian oasis in the middle of wide avenues while classic American cars cruise by. Parents return home from work as students close their books and unwind with friends along the Malecón. No trip to Vedado is complete without a stop at Coppelia for some of its famous ice cream. Here, you’ll sway to the melodies of life and groove to the music at clubs frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway.
The neighborhood of Miramar is simply stunning. It’s comprised of grandiose mansions and palatial estates. Prior to the Revolution, Havana’s most affluent citizens lived here. Today, it’s an ideal place to enjoy a peaceful walk along the avenues in the shade of broad, leafy trees. If there is a foreign presence in Cuba, it's here at the embassies, office buildings, international banks and European-owned hotels. Right along the waterfront you’ll find saltwater pools where Cubans come to beat the heat, and for a truly authentic Cuban music experience, it’s hard to top Casa de la Música’s performances.
Located just 5km east of historic Old Havana, the “bewitched” town of Guanabacoa beats at the heart of Afro-Cuban religion. Explore a city bustling with the activity of Santería practitioners immersed in ritual, and become mesmerized by manifestations of traditional African faiths involving magic. A short ferry ride across the harbor from Old Havana rests the former fishing village and current port town of Regla, whose history has been shaped by the sea …or the spirit who controls it. Here you can join the faithful and behold “La Virgen de Regla” – the patron saint of Havana, protector of fishermen, and African goddess of the sea.
Pinar del Rio
Pinar Del Río is home to mountain ranges and expansive fields bursting with tobacco and sugarcane. The tantalizing fragrance wafting from the world’s finest tobacco is omnipresent throughout this provincial capital, like the smiles from local residents, who will welcome you into their lives and may even prepare a meal for you in their home for you. As you stroll throughout town, observe the overwhelming number of architectural columns while listening to traditional musical performances by farmers known as guajiros, whose stories are told through song.
In the verdant agricultural village of Viñales, he who has the least gives the most. In Viñales, the surrounding limestone formations create an ambiance reminiscent of another time and place. Watch as the tobacco farmers return home on horseback from a long days work in the fields. You’ll be tempted to close your eyes and drift away to the sound of horses galloping through the cobblestoned streets, taking you to a place where dreams blur the lines of reality.
Soroa is a scenic 50-mile drive west of Havana. When sugarcane fields and quaint villages come to an end, you’ll reach a picturesque resort located in the center of a tropical forest, known as “The Rainbow of Cuba,” hidden high in the mountains. Thousands of ornamental plants, trees and flowers, along with 700 species of orchids thrive throughout this 86,500-acre wonderland. Cool off at a nearby waterfall that cascades 72 feet into pools that are known for their medicinal benefits.
Cienfuegos is referred to as the “Pearl of the South,” a moniker that is felt from the moment one steps into this well-heeled city. A cooling breeze cuts through the air and the shaded main square is the perfect place to watch city residents gather. On a sunny day, taking a walk down the Punta Gorda peninsula, filled with orange-tiled houses set against a backdrop of turquoise blue water, is a great way to reflect on the beauty of Cuba. Just when you think things couldn’t get more awe-inspiring, a palace made of tiles and turrets appears in the distance, inviting those who stumble upon it inside for a cocktail.
When arriving in Trinidad, visitors can’t decide where to look first. Sandwiched between the majestic purple-hued Escambray Mountains to the North and the translucent blue of the Caribbean Sea to the South, Trinidad’s location couldn’t be more stunning. The town itself is a colonial head-turner with freshly painted pastel homes, rambling cobblestoned streets and impressive plazas. Don’t let Trinidad’s soporific nature fool you, because as soon as the day is done, several excellent musical experiences kick off to keep visitors and locals dancing into the night.
Matanzas is home to twenty-one bridges, the center of town is found between two rivers and a bay that gently opens up into the Straits of Florida. Great works of literature were written here, earning it the title, “Athens of Cuba.” Matanzas is the kind of place often overlooked by tourists, but adored by travelers who want a more authentic look at Cuba. It’s not surprising to see old men playing dominoes in the afternoon or friends laughing over a cold beer. The allure of Matanzas continues outside of town with the promise of river trips, 300,000 year old caves and coral reefs.
Remediosis a peaceful town, where the possibilities of the Atlantic Ocean beckon. A refuge from populous Cuban cities, Remedios is a charming town year round, unless a visit is timed during the week of Christmas for the parranda. At this time, any pre-conceived notions travelers may have of Remedios get turned upside down, as fireworks whiz by and the local people put on parades adorned with elaborate floats. Remedios becomes the ultimate party town as the citizens drink rum, form snaking conga lines and salsa until the pink morning sun rises in the sky.
Santa Clara’s local hero, Che Guevara, is a representation of the youth and vitality of this university city located in the center of Cuba. The famous monument of Che brings pilgrims from all corners of the country. There are a multitude of vendors selling everything from colorful flowers to piping hot sugared doughnuts and many other treats. A visit to Santa Clara’s tobacco factory to see cigars being rolled is a great way to immerse yourself in one of Cuba’s long-standing traditions.
Playa Larga and Playa Giron
To get to Playa Larga and Playa Giron, one has to travel through the idyllic Cuban countryside. Playa Larga seems like the end of the road, but it’s that secluded agrarian environment that makes it renowned for its wildlife. While it may be sparsely populated by humans, it has a variety of birds and animals unrivaled elsewhere in the Caribbean. Playa Giron, also known as the Bay of Pigs, presents itself not only as a beautiful white sand beach, but also as an important chance to learn about the history between the U.S. and Cuba.
Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is the island’s cultural pulse and occupies a striking spot of land between the azure Caribbean Sea and the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Bongos are played on dusty street corners while son and salsa music fill the air. Everything about Santiago sizzles with passion and heat as it hosts more festivals than any other place in Cuba. Horse drawn carts are commonplace on the cobblestoned streets and vendors try to entice customers by selling drinks in cups made of banana leaves. Santiago is Afro-Cuban to the core, witnessed by the white clothing of Santeria initiates and the fast-talking nature of its residents.
Bayamo is a chess players dream. North of the Sierra Maestra mountain range, a street party called Fiesta De La Cubania breaks out every weekend along Calle Saco and as with most Cuban festivals, you can count on lots of dancing, music and a pig roast. At this celebration, an added component exists: chessboards sit on makeshift tables lining the street. Though it may seem like a special occasion to an outsider, this block party happens every week and is a perfect representation of the people of Bayamo, both laid-back and fun loving.