NEIGHBORHOODS OF HAVANA
The first time you enter the narrow cobblestoned streets of Havana Vieja, you’ll find yourself surrounded by five centuries worth of majestic Spanish architecture. Here, you will see the magnificent El Morro Castle looming across the Bay of Havana like an image from a fairytale. You might walk along a residential street where crumbling facades stand beside buildings restored to perfection and laundry hangs from nearby windows. Suddenly, Salsa music might reverberate through the air as locals welcome 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 elevated pedestrian oases 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.
Miramar is a stunning neighborhood comprised of grand 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. Along the waterfront, you’ll find saltwater pools where locals come to beat the heat. 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, 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 traditional African faiths rooted in 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 Río
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. So are the smiles from local residents, who will welcome you into their lives and may even prepare a home-cooked meal for you. As you stroll through the town, observe the overwhelming number of architectural columns while listening to traditional music performed 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 evoke another time and place. Watch as the tobacco farmers return home on horseback from a long day’s work in the fields. If you close your eyes and listen to the sound of horses galloping through the cobblestone streets, you might swear you’re visiting a different era.
Soroa is a scenic 50-mile drive west of Havana. Where sugarcane fields and quaint villages end, you’ll reach a picturesque resort 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 known for their medicinal benefits.
Walking the footpaths of this UNESCO Biospehere reserve, you can view an astonishing number of bird and plant species (at last count, more than 70 and 800, respectively). The natural beauty of Las Terrazas would be hard to top. Its artistic treasures can also be seen at open studios and various craft workshops. Once home to numerous coffee plantations, this picturesque community features whitewashed houses with colorful rooftops and Cuba’s famously welcoming locals.
You’ll soon discover why Cienfuegos is often called “the Pearl of the South.” Watch city residents gather at the shaded main square. Walk down the Punta Gorda peninsula and take in the orange-tiled houses set against a backdrop of turquoise water. Does it get any better than this? Actually, it might: toward the end of the peninsula, a palace of tiles and turrets appears in the distance, inviting travelers inside for a cocktail.
Most of Trinidad’s visitors can’t decide where to look first. 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 is a colonial head-turner with freshly painted pastel homes, cobblestoned streets and impressive plazas. Don’t let Trinidad’s soporific aura fool you: as soon as the day is done, lively musical performances kick off to keep visitors and locals dancing into the night.
Matanzas is home to 21 bridges. The center of town is found between two rivers and a bay that gently opens into the Straits of Florida. Many great works of literature were written in Matanzas, earning it the title “the Athens of Cuba.” Matanzas is the kind of place often overlooked by tourists, but adored by travelers who want a more authentic visit. It’s not unusual to see old men playing dominoes 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.
A refuge from populous Cuban cities, Remedios is a charming town year round. At Christmastime, however, its reputation for quiet gets turned upside down as fireworks explode and the local people put on parrandas: carnivals characterized by 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, represents the youth and vitality of this university city at Cuba’s center. The famous monument of Che brings pilgrims from all corners of the country. Vendors sell everything from colorful flowers to piping-hot sugared doughnuts and other treats. Immerse yourself in one of Cuba’s long-standing traditions with a visit to Santa Clara’s tobacco factory.
As soon as you set foot on the powdery white-sand beaches of this once off-limits paradise, you’ll understand why Varadero is one of the most desirable beach destinations in the Caribbean. You’ll find the turquoise water of this coastal town in the Cuban sun so mesmerizing, you may never want to leave. Varadero covers Cuba’s narrow Hicacos Peninsula, part of the eastern tip of the island. Nearby, you’ll discover the Reserva Ecológica Varahicacos, a preserve with lush green trails and an ancient burial cave. Throughout its history, this enchanting Cuban beach has attracted those with an affinity for glamour. Gangster Al Capone was just one of its notable visitors.
Playa Larga and Playa Giron
To get to Playa Larga and Playa Giron, one must travel through the idyllic Cuban countryside. Playa Larga seems like the end of the road, but it’s that secluded agrarian environment that fosters its famous wildlife. It may be sparsely populated by humans, but hosts a variety of birds and animals unknown elsewhere in the Caribbean. Playa Giron, also known as the Bay of Pigs, represents not only a beautiful white sand beach, but also an important chance to learn about the history between the U.S. and Cuba.
This seaside community, known as “Villa Blanca” or “White Town,” will welcome you to its pristine beaches—where you’ll quickly see how the town got its nickname. If you’re there in December, you’ll be in for a treat: Caibarién hosts one of Cuba’s best-known parrandas (or, carnivals) each year. Far removed from tourist hotels and attractions, Caibarién concentrates on cooking the best crab on the island. Its citizens have been described as “ultra friendly” and its vibe as “real.”
Cayo Santa Maria
Thatch umbrellas hover over white sand extending to azure waters, where scores of tropical fish swim. Palm trees sway gently in warm breezes. Only in the past fifteen years has this small and lovely island even seen a hotel. (Not only is the land unspoiled, but also, these new hotels are magnificent.) Cayo Santa Maria, linked to the mainland by a long causeway, defines “paradise.”
From the top of Holguín’s 16-foot-tall Loma de la Cruz, visitors can gaze down at the community’s many charming parks and galleries, its baseball field, brewery and small-town amusements. Columbus is believed to have landed here in 1492, and declared it, “the most beautiful land eyes have ever seen." Playa Esmeralda enchants travelers with gentle waves and the bright green water that gives the beach its name.
Dunes rise above beautiful beaches surrounding Bahia de Miel (the “Bay of Honey”). The aroma of chocolate wafts through quiet streets of pastel-colored houses. You’re in Cuba’s oldest city. Baracoa’s beauty and quirky charm enchant visitors, but it is the ancient town’s flavor that captivates. Stop in at Casa de Chocolate for locally produced hot or cold chocolate, or buy a cucuruchu (candied coconut with other fruits and honey or sugar, wrapped in a palm leaf) from any of numerous vendors. Halfway up the nearby El Yunque peak, you can even find a fruit farmer who makes his wares available at a bargain. Baracoa may not be the most-traveled destination, but it is one of the most delicious.
Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is the island’s cultural pulse. It occupies a striking spot of land between the azure Caribbean Sea and the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Bongos sound on dusty street corners while son and salsa music fill the air. Everything about Santiago sizzles with passion and heat. It hosts more festivals than any other place in Cuba. Horse-drawn carts are commonplace on the cobblestone streets, and vendors sell drinks in banana-leaf cups. Santiago is Afro-Cuban to the core, as evidenced by the white clothing of Santeria initiates and the Caribbean cadences heard all around town.
Bayamo is a chess player’s dream. North of the Sierra Maestra mountain range, a street party called Fiesta De La Cubania breaks out every weekend along Calle Saco. As with most Cuban festivals, you can count on lots of dancing, music, and a pig roast. But this party offers something more: chessboards sit on makeshift tables lining the street, as if inviting all comers to test their skill against local players.
Did Camagüey’s maze-like streets develop over time—or was Cuba’s third-largest city designed to thwart further pirate attacks? No one knows for sure, but each local you ask will probably offer a different theory. As in other parts of Cuba, you’ll see several styles and centuries represented in the local architecture. No fewer than 15 churches grace this UNESCO World Heritage Site, where rainwater is stored in the clay pots that have come to symbolize Camagüey. Artistically impressive Ignacio Agramonte Square plays host to political rallies and speeches. Fidel Castro spoke here in 1989.