Ever since December when there were public comments by the government about potentially lifting the 50-year embargo on Cuba, people have been asking me non-stop about Cuba. Is it safe to go to Cuba? What’s it like in Cuba? Is everything going to change once Americans are allowed to go to Cuba? How can you go to Cuba?
The answers to those questions could easily each be a separate post but the most important thing is it’s very safe to go to Cuba. It’s important to also remember, the issues regarding Cuba go one way: the Cuban people love Americans and want us there.
That said here are 5 essential places to visit in Cuba once you decide to go-and you should! I did these as a weeklong road trip where we drove in a circle more or less from Havana to Varadero to Santa Clara to Trinidad to Cienfuegos and back to Havana.
A funny thing happened to me with Havana on my latest trip to Cuba. This was my third trip to Cuba although only my second to the mainland and the capital-the other visit was a memorable visit to Guantanamo Bay. Havana was a lot better than I remembered it and I had a great time in the Cuban capital.
Havana is not a great city and I still say that Americans should manage their expectations on Havana but there are a lot of good things going on and it’s a very cool place to be. First and foremost the heart of Havana is the Malecón.
The Malecón is a somewhat dilapidated road that goes along the coast basically the full length of the main city of Havana. This is where cars can drive, people can run, ride bikes, stroll, gaze out into the ocean, watch the amazing Havana sunsets and for locals it is also the center of nightlife. It’s where everyone gathers at night with friends and family and has a little party, a fiesta if you will, along the wall.
So the best thing to do is join them. Grab some Bucanero’s or Cristal’s or whatever your drink of choice and go hang out on the Malecón. Locals will come and chat with you and you really feel a part of the city.
Another can’t miss experience in Havana is to go to Habana Vieja or Old Havana. This is where the beautiful crumbling architecture actually is pretty well preserved and in some parts, it’s phenomenal. When I named Havana one of the 30 best cities in Latin America, it was essentially because of Habana Vieja.
Walking the narrow alleyways or climbing the creaky church stairs and gazing out over the city makes you realize that things are not as bad as people might think in Havana. While poverty and education is still at a very poor level, it is not nearly as bad as some other countries.
The other thing about Habana Vieja that was apparent to me that wasn’t back in 2008 when I went for the first time was the amount of tourists. There were a ton of Americans, Canadians, Europeans and Asians and I mean a ton of Asians!
Everyone was strolling the streets of the old city and taking it all in from the numerous churches to the Castillo de la Real Fuerza taking photos. It made you feel like you were in any other foreign tourist town.
It was very refreshing and in my opinion, no matter what happens with the embargo, it will still be 15-20 years before there is major change in Havana and the rest of Cuba-if at all.
Finally do not miss the Tropicana Nightclub on the outskirts of Havana. This is one of the few remaining bastions of the flashy Havana before the Castro’s came to power, before the revolution.
It’s an open-air cabaret that I’ve now had the good fortune of seeing twice. The pictures speak for themselves and your $110 front row ticket comes with dinner, dessert, champagne, bottle of Havana Club rum, cigar and a lot of fun. I definitely recommend ponying up and spending a few more bucks for the best seats, it’s only a few bucks more for the best seats-just do it!
If you’re lucky or perhaps unlucky, if you have white-guy syndrome and can’t dance like me, you may be called up on stage to dance with some beautiful dancers! Whether you can dance or not, it’s an experience worth doing-trust me on that one!
Also, I stayed at the Hotel Presidente each night I was in Havana. It’s not up to US standards for a top line hotel but it gets the job done and is very popular as it has the best Wi-Fi in town, a good bar and decent pool. Don’t eat the food-it’s terrible, especially the pizza, and make sure the air conditioning works in your room before you agree to stay!
Varadero is simply put, one of the 30 best beaches in the world without question. It is a 20km stretch of perfect white sand and perfect crystal clear water. It is as picturesque as the Cuba you dream about. The beach is perfect.
Varadero is about a 2:15hr drive from Havana and all the hotels more or less are all-inclusive. This is fine; it’s basically like Cuba’s version of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, but with a nicer beach. The hotels though are not my favorite.
Big European chains like Melia and Iberostar dominate the hotels along the beach. That’s fine of course but the tastes are geared toward Europeans as in the food prepared and the culture of the pool, bar and beach. That is something that will change as Americans move in and take over some of the hotels but for now, it’s very European.
Be that as it may, just head out onto the beach and you’ll forget about the bad food, crappy drinks in little plastic cups and speedos! For me at least, a great beach conquers all!
The other thing that was surprising to me about Varadero is that it actually has some decent nightlife-Havana does not. My buddy Joe and I went to the Beatles Bar twice, which is by far the most popular bar in Varadero.
They play rock and roll covers all night long with charismatic Cuban singers belting out great vocals. The beers cost $2 and they do not stop! It’s a great time and a great place to meet people as long as you don’t mind other tourists.
There’s not much in terms of Cuban culture in Varadero-it is plain and simple a package tourist resort with charter planes taking hordes of people from Canada and Europe direct-basically it’s a cash cow for the Cuban government-true story. If you accept that and go with it, Varadero is awesome!
Santa Clara was the biggest surprise of our road trip. It was fantastic. I fully admit that I didn’t know much about and went to it en route to Trinidad on recommendation from Lonely Planet-yes that’s embarrassing. However, I am so glad we did!
Santa Clara was the first city liberated in December 1958; which essentially marked the end of the Batista regime. The legendary revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara or simply Che liberated it.
There is a massive mausoleum, monument, garden and museum dedicated to Che. There is even an eternal flame that was lit by Fidel Castro himself. This is also the resting place of Che’s remains, which were unearthed decades after his assassination in Bolivia from a mass grave and moved to Cuba.
The museum is absolutely fascinating, whether or not you feel strongly for or against the revolution, Che or the Castro’s, it is still history. The museum is full of incredible photos, artifacts from Che’s life and basically acts as a timeline of his life and the Cuban revolution.
It also details Che’s activities in other revolutions around the world-even in the Congo. You’re not allowed to take photos but I couldn’t resist the photo of Che, Raul and Fidel Castro-really cool stuff!
The rest of Santa Clara isn’t really worth spending much time although it’s said to have the most prestigious Cuban university outside of Havana. The state of the town is crumbling and there’s not much else to look at but do not miss the Che Mausoleum and monument-you’ll be glad you went out of your way to the very center of Cuba to see it.
When the Spanish Empire moved west to the Americas centuries ago they created cities like Trinidad. Very few are still standing as they once were. Trinidad is basically as it was in 1850-less the tourists!
Trinidad is a magical place that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The cobblestoned streets are basically perfect. Around every corner is another picturesque scene that will leave you clicking constantly on your camera. Take some time to get onto a rooftop restaurant to get some unique views and don’t forget to chill. That’s what you do in Trinidad-you chill!
The best place in town, well actually about 10 miles out of town, to chill is Playa Ancon. It is the best beach on the southern coast of Cuba. Taxis can take you out there for almost nothing and they will wait for you or come back and get you whenever you want.
There is a great stretch of beach with 3 big hotels where tourists stay. We didn’t stay out there but it’s definitely worth a visit if you didn’t get enough sun in Varadero!
Trinidad may be a 6-hour drive from Havana but it is definitely worth it-just watch out for horsesh*t on the streets! There’s so many horse and carriages clopping around, you can easily step in it if you’re not looking-trust me!
Cienfuegos is said to be the Paris of Cuba. I was a little hesitant about that title as I once heard that Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East and Beirut wasn’t that nice! I don’t know if I’d compare it to Paris but Cienfuegos did not disappoint.
First, our hotel, the Hotel La Union, is a must stay. It’s a block off the main square, Parque Jose Marti, and the best place in town with a great rooftop and off-lobby bar. The pool is incredible as well.
Stroll into the main square and you will be surrounded by European style, grandiose, beautiful buildings. There is also an arch, which is why I think they compare it to Paris but the Arc de Triomphe it is not!
After exploring the square, be sure to walk along the coastal walk to Punta Gorda where the most beautiful buildings and mansions are along the Bay of Pigs-yes that Bay of Pigs; which is actually quite beautiful!
Have a look inside Club Cienfuegos. It’s the only real marina I saw in all of Cuba and also a favorite of former Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez. His picture is all over the beautiful club and it’s easy to see why Chavez liked it so much.
So basically go to Cuba, go now, go soon, just go and make sure to see these 5 essential places to visit in Cuba. It’s a unique place for sure and while it won’t change anytime soon, it will change. Just picture yourself on the Malecón looking at a sunset like this…ahhhhhhh!
By Lee Abbamonte