Sun, sea and salsa: our guide to Cuba

By , 4th February 2016

The embargo has lifted and Cuba is all set for its tourism industry to boom! So why not beat the crowds and be amongst the first to visit this beautiful island, filled with music, salsa, incredible beaches, friendly locals and a deeply interesting history.

To help you plan your trip, we’ve put together our guide to Cuba, with all the highlights from what to see, to where to sleep.

Cheap flights to Cuba tend to favour Varadero and Holguin, Cuba’s two largest beach resorts. If you’re looking to combine a beach holiday with some time in Havana or perhaps some hiking and climbing in Vinales then Varadero is by far the more convenient of the two resorts.

Beach Resorts |See & Do | Eat & Drink | Nightlife | Sleep

Beach Resorts

From both Varadero and Jibacoa you can enjoy a variety of water sports, hiking trips in the country, day trips to Havana and/or Vinales. Another great daytrip option is to take a bus to the Zapata Swamps and the notorious Bay of Pigs, where you can see incredible wildlife, including rare bird species flamingoes and the endangered Cuban Crocodile.

Varadero

[caption id="attachment_9929" align="alignnone" width="1200"]Beach, Varadero (1) Varadero Beach | Photo by The Social Notes[/caption]

A spit of land with pure white beaches on either side, this part of Cuba is designed for tourists and is therefore fairly built up with well-equipped and modern hotels. Varadero has long been a popular destination for international tourists (particularly Canadians as the island is just a four-hour flight from Toronto),  so you can expect hotels that have enjoyed a roaring tourist trade for the past fifteen years – as well as some friendly Canadian accents.

Jibacoa

[caption id="attachment_9932" align="alignnone" width="1200"]Walkway to Beach Sunshine and beaches in Jibacoa | Photo by The Social Notes[/caption]

If you want to beat the crowds then head along the coast to Jibacoa which positions you between Havana and Varadero and in a slightly less busy area. From here, you can enjoy luxurious hotels, white sandy beaches, sailing trips and some of the best snorkeling on the island is accessible directly from the beach.

See & Do

Havana

[caption id="attachment_9931" align="alignnone" width="1900"]Havana capitolio Old town Havana | Photo by The Social Notes[/caption]

There is no city on earth like Havana. The streets buzz with the sounds of Latin beats, as a myriad of 1950’s Chevrolets chug past. The remnants of colonial buildings are caught in a state of decadent decay and add an air of old-world nostalgia and glamour to the city’s infectious atmosphere.

Havana’s more of a city where you just ‘be’ rather than ‘do’ – we’ve highlighted a few unmissable sights below, but exploring the city on foot and listening to live bands in cafés is the best way to soak up the city’s atmosphere.

[caption id="attachment_9930" align="alignnone" width="1200"]havana Ks 4 Chevrolet’s in Havana | Photo by The Social Notes[/caption]

Old Havana is a great place to explore if you want to see the old colonial town and visit the haunts of Hemingway and Mafioso’s like Al Capone and Frank Sinatra, who came to the Island for much needed respite. In central Havana you can also enjoy famous landmarks such as the Hotel Inglaterra, El Capitolio and the Museum of the Revolution.

[caption id="attachment_9933" align="alignnone" width="1200"]Malecon The Malecón | Photo by The Social Notes[/caption]

A sea promenade, The Malecón, is ideal for anyone who enjoys seaside walks under the warm Caribbean sun – which we’re pretty sure is all of us! Watch as the waves crash against the sea wall and the spray splashes. Also a firm favourite with locals, you’ll meet many Cubans relaxing along the boardwalk as well as jumping off nearby rocks to cool down from the city heat.

[caption id="attachment_9935" align="alignnone" width="1200"]museum of the revolution The impressive ceiling of the old Presidential Palace | Photo by The social Notes[/caption]

Housed in the old Presidential Palace, the Museum of the Revolution is well worth a trip to learn more about Cuba’s interesting history. Go with an open mind ready to analyse the information presented to you, but definitely have a quick read-up beforehand otherwise you may come out with more questions than answers. Nevertheless, it’s an informative trip and some of the artefacts on show are fascinating with lots of nostalgic Che Guevara memorabilia.

[caption id="attachment_9937" align="alignnone" width="1200"]cuban cigar factory Cuban cigar factory | Photo by Brian Geltner (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)[/caption]

Romeo y Julieta cigars are some of the best in the world and so-named because when the workers were read to during working hours, Romeo and Juliet was their favourite story. The Romeo y Julieta Cigar Factory actually roll some Montecristo’s and a large proportion of H. Upmann’s cigars too, but it’s one of the best factories to visit for this reason. It is also boasts beautiful architectural features. You can buy large boxes of cigars at the factories for a far smaller price than in Europe, but be sure to buy from official sellers as you may be asked to show a receipt when you leave the country.

Cuban Ballet

It’s no secret that Cubans love to dance and being the home of Mambo and the Cha-cha-cha, there’s plenty of places to practice your steps. Most tourists will favour cabarets such as The Cabaret Parisien and The Tropicana, however in reality these shows can be overpriced, touristy and a tad seedy. So if you really want to catch some Cuban dance in action, with beautiful costumes, and a long history of excellence then head to the Cuban National Ballet at the Gran Teatro de la Habana. The building is beautiful and the Cuban interpretation of ballet is far more soulful and oozes Latin passion.

Eat & Drink

It’s important to remember that Cuba still enforces food rations for the locals and while you won’t find gourmet cooking, there are some great places to experience:

[caption id="attachment_9943" align="alignnone" width="1200"]cuban Food Delicious Cuban food | Photo by Edsel Little (CC BY-SA 2.0)[/caption]

El Chanchullero is a cosy restaurant with a menu of delicious local tapas dishes that cover seafood, chicken and several types of sausage. Beef is not really common in Cuba due to their rationing system, although you will see lots of black market meat sellers around the city, they are mostly selling pork cuts. So when you’re in Cuba it’s best to enjoy the fresh seafood as there’s lots of it.

[caption id="attachment_9952" align="alignnone" width="1200"]cuban roast chicken Cuban Roast Chicken | Photo by jeffreyw (CC BY 2.0)[/caption]

It’s commitment to freshness, means El Literol Habana has an ever-changing menu full of high-quality local ingredients sourced from the local markets. Situated along The Malecón, it’s within easy reach of Old or Central Havana and is therefore the perfect stop for lunch or dinner.

[caption id="attachment_9947" align="alignnone" width="1200"]cuban seafood risotto Cuban seafood risotto | Photo by Ben Sutherland (CC BY 2.0)[/caption]

With large windows opening onto the sights and sounds of Cuba, Castas y Tal or C & T as it’s also known, serves traditional Cuban food – think white rice, black beans and delicious fried plantain. A big hit on the menu is the shredded lamb or the chicken breast in orange sauce.

Nightlife

[caption id="attachment_9941" align="alignnone" width="1200"]cuban salsa Salsa dancing | Photo by David & Paulina (CC BY-SA 2.0)[/caption]

 Unofficially known as the centre of salsa, the Casa de la Musica is a dancehall and night club which boasts energetic live salsa shows. Whether you’re a beginner or expert mover on the dancefloor, this a great opportunity to salsa the night away and dance like a local.

While a little pricey by Havana standards, Casa de le Musica is well worth it. Be sure to dress up as the bouncers will turn you away if you’re attire is a little too casual – for girls, think summer dress and dancing shoes. For boys, jeans and a smart shirt.

[caption id="attachment_9939" align="alignnone" width="1200"]Fabrica de Arte The exterior of the Fabrica de Arte[/caption]

Somewhere between a salsa club and a gallery the Fabrica de Art is one of Havana’s best hidden gems. The other side of Havana to the Old Town, it blends a trendy young crowd with fascinating art work, lively DJ’s and various live acts from dance performances to live gigs and poetry. The space is located in the renovated El Cocinero oil factory giving the place a ‘warehouse party’ vibe.

Sleep

Iberostar Tainos

Varadero

[caption id="attachment_9949" align="alignnone" width="1200"]Ibero Tainos, Varadero Ibero Tainos, Varadero[/caption]

Based in Varadero, this is a slightly smaller resort than some of the super-clubs and is therefore more intimate with staff on hand to provide a friendly face. The rooms are in spacious bungalows with modern amenities. Just minutes away from the pristine white beaches and with a glorious outdoor pool, there’s plenty of options of where to luxuriate in the sunshine.

Iberostar Tainos is an all-inclusive resort (very common in Caribbean beach resorts) and their food is some of the best and most diverse in the region ensuring tasty, freshly cooked food that never gets boring. There are three restaurants to choose from, a main restaurant, which serves local and International cuisine, an Indian-inspired restaurant and a fancier a la carte restaurant.

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Meliá Cohiba

Havana

[caption id="attachment_9950" align="alignnone" width="1200"]Melia cohiba, Havana The rooftop pool at the Meliá Cohiba, Havana[/caption]

A gorgeous five-star hotel along The Malecón, this is a great base for exploring Central Havana. Although on the other side of town it’s well within reach of Revolution Square and El Capitol by taxi, coco taxi, rickshaw or collectivo.

Although a bit of a concrete breeze-block from the outside, it’s a palace of shiny marble on the inside – there’s even great air-conditioning. A welcome retreat from the busy streets of Havana, there are several restaurants within the hotel as well as a spa, gym and a hot-to-trot rooftop pool which overlooks the city.

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Hotel Terral

Havana

[caption id="attachment_9957" align="alignnone" width="1200"]Malecon, hotel views View over the Malecon | Photo by Martin Abegglen (CC BY-SA 2.0)[/caption]

A relatively small hotel, Terral has just 14 rooms allowing for a more personal and friendly service. Situated along the Malecón but within walking distance of Central Havana and the Old Town, the hotel boasts a great location along with modern amenities and spectacular ocean views.

The jazz and Latin tunes waft on the air from the lobby bar and just a few steps from the hotel is a popular resting place along the Malecón. Checkout some of their honeymoon arrival deals if you’re thinking of making your trip extra special.

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Got a recommendation for Cuba? Let us know in the comments below!