Situated in an idyllic spot in the beautiful Caribbean, Cuba is a destination that continues to intrigue and amaze visitors. Though it’s economically poor, it’s culturally rich and is full of surprises for travellers. Just when you think you have it all figured out, you’ll stumble across something new that could totally transform the way you think.
What to do in Cuba?
It is impossible to write a guide to Cuba without mentioning the breathtaking beaches. It is however wise to know how the beaches work and where you’re best advised to head to. When Fidel Castro opened Cuba up to tourism, he had concerns about Westerners polluting Cubana culture. As such, three types of beach exist. There are the ones purely for Westerners, those where travellers can mix with locals, and the ones that are best avoided. If you enjoy being a beach bum for a while, head to Playas del Este, which is considered to be the Havana Riviera. You’ll find 10 miles of white beaches just a short journey from Havana.
Salsa is another element of Cuba that is not to be missed. Take one of the many classes to get in the swing of things, then head out for an evening at one of the local salsa clubs. The night is sure to be exciting and vibrant, and it also gives you a pretty good workout.
If you like hiking, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy here. There are some truly beautiful routes available that show off the landscape, and getting away from the hustle and bustle of the busier areas such as Havana could be just the ticket if you’re looking for a little relaxation. Parque Natural Majayara is a great spot to start, and there are several pretty picnic spots along the way.
While you’re here, make sure that you also take a little time out to get to know the locals. Though material possessions in Cuba are in short supply, the passion and energy of Cubans will make travellers rethink the way that they live their lives. From the taxi drivers that quote Hemingway, right through to the old ladies who can whip together culinary masterpieces from next to nothing, the locals will open your eyes to a whole new world.
Cuba’s culinary delights
Before the revolution, food in Cuba was centered around Spanish flavours with an African influence. With mildly spicy dishes with plenty of fresh vegetables and hints of foreign influence. Sadly, the food industry in Cuba has declined since the revolution.
This does not however mean that you won’t be in for a treat if you know where to go. Paladar la Guarida
has received rave reviews from the likes of the Guardian and the New York Times, and has even featured in films including Fresa y Chocolate. It’s widely considered to be one of the best restaurants in Havana, and it’s definitely worth making a reservation if you’re a foodie.
Drinking in Cuba is a delight! The beers are exceptional, largely because the technology has not yet arrived to make bad beer. Fizzy and gassy drinks that you’d find further afield simply don’t make an appearance. Of course, Cuba is also famous for its rum, and the Daiquiri and the Mojito are some of the best choices. Though the wine is cheap at around $5 per bottle in a restaurant, the results are often mixed. You’re far better off sticking with the beer and cocktails.
Getting around in Cuba
Most major cities in Cuba have a ready supply of taxis that are geared towards tourists. You can expect to pay $2-$4 for a short journey, and up to $6 for a ride across Havana. Try to get a cab in the street rather than from outside a hotel, where the hotel will usually take a cut, resulting in a higher fare. Cabs love to stop for tourists, so you’ll have no problems with flagging one down. If uncertain, ask them to put the meter on. Unofficial cabs also operate, usually in the form of old American or Russian cars. The fares are slightly less if you use this option.
Cuban buses are probably best avoided. Though they will only cost a couple of cents, they tend to be packed out and you’ll be waiting a while before one comes along that you can squeeze onto. You’ll also be in for a pretty bumpy ride.
There is also the option to hire a car or scooter. The roads are generally in fairly good condition other than the odd pothole, and the countryside can be a pleasure to drive round. Getting a rental car can work out to be pretty costly though. In addition to this, the cars have often seen better days.
Rental properties in Cuba
The hotels in Cuba tend to be of varying quality, so it’s always worthwhile to do your research in advance. In the tourist areas, you’ll find many large complexes that tend to be of average standard. Power cuts and problems with hot water are fairly common. Staying in a cabana rather than in a room in the complex can be a good option. If this is what you book, make sure that you insist on it when you arrive. Sometimes hoteliers will try to give you a normal room instead.
Though all inclusive and full board options are becoming more and more readily available, the food tends to be bad. Though the prices aren’t high, you’re often better off going for a self-catered option and eating outside of the hotel unless you plan on following a strict liquid diet. As tourism develops in Cuba, more and more hotels are becoming full of groups and large parties. This may not bother you if you are simply looking for a beach holiday but some think that this detracts from the Cuban vibe.
Of course, hotels are not the only option. Many private rentals exist, from small apartments through to larger villas, and tend to be reasonably priced by Western standards. Those with mod cons such as wireless internet access and cooking facilities are pretty easy to come by, which can be a wise option if you are travelling with children or have business to take care of. Make sure that you ask about air conditioning. Some rentals will have window units only in the bedrooms but higher end Vacation Rentals will have central air. Another thing to look out for is the neighborhood you are in and the security of the Rental House in Cuba. The prohibitive cost of goods from outside for Cubans might put your laptop at risk so alarm systems, safes, gated communities and security guards are Vacation Rental amenities you might be interested in in Cuba.
Have a blast, drink a little, dance some salsa, get a tan! But most importantly, make some friends and relax. You will love Cuba!
About the author: Ruth Richards
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Photo by Doug