Cuba really does live up to cliches (in the best possible way), it’s full to bursting with life, music and passion and it’s without a doubt one of the most unique destinations I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit. I spent four days in Havana but getting out of the capital helped me really understand what made this intriguing country tick…
My first stop was tobacco country, and the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Vinales Valley. From the small town of Vinales, a popular way to get around the plantations and the caves that dot the area is by horseback, and it’s not long before you convince yourself you’re an authentic guajiro (cigar and sombrero almost obligatory, bushy moustache optional). After sampling hand-rolled cigars we went swimming in a cave, and the scenery all around you is beautiful – among the best in the country, with towering karst formations providing an epic backdrop.
After a day in the saddle, I recommend taking a short walk up to the La Ermita hotel, and have a drink while watching the sunset over the valley. From Vinales, there are several day-trips available – I went to Maria La Gorda (which sounds much nicer than its literal translation of “Maria the Fatso”!) for a bit of beach time and snorkelling.
From Vinales, I ventured to Cienfuegos, with its neoclassical architecture and lovely bayside location. While not as vibrant or vital as Havana (admittedly, few places are) it’s still a worthwhile stopover, and the nearby Laguna Guanaroca is worth a trip to see hundreds of gorgeous pink flamingos. While the architecture of central Cienfuegos can be a little underwhelming, a wander along the malecon at sunset down to Punta Gorda will bring you to the magnificent Palacio de Valle, a building that rivals the best of Havana.
Barely 90 minutes further east, is Trinidad – a town arguably caught in a time warp even more than Havana. But then the capital doesn’t have a nightclub in a genuine cave (Disco Alaya), which provides one of Trinidad’s most memorable experiences. The main square, Plaza Mayor, is even more beautiful if you manage to get there around sunset, as the golden light hits the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad.
If you charter a taxi or go on a tour, you can also visit the Topes de Collantes national park and hike to the attractive Salto del Caburni waterfall.
Deciding to limit my travels to the western and central part of Cuba, my final stop was Santa Clara – the resting place of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. It also has a noticeably younger vibe – perhaps due to the large student population – and a visit to the esoteric El Mejunje club. Adorned with graffiti outside, and adorned inside with all the local eccentrics that seem to be off the radar in the rest of the country.
After my Cuba ended I felt like I was asked if I wanted a taxi roughly 2000 times – which coincidentally is probably also the amount of times I had eggs, fruit and bread for breakfast, or a cheese and ham pizza for lunch. Best to get used to it ASAP. On the bright side, the portions are huge so you won’t go hungry – though I found it definitely easier to buy rum than it was to buy water (perhaps due to the recent cholera outbreak when I visited). You may also find it harder to meet other travellers than in other countries – my advice would be to either travel to Cuba with someone else or be able to speak Spanish. Otherwise, it might end up a somewhat lonely trip!
Visiting from a country, like many in the West, where individual businesses are gradually being eroded and consumed by the onward march of chain brands and global corporations, it’s so refreshing to visit a country with no commercial advertising (although with lots of propaganda in its place), and little regard to bowing down to the demands of rampant consumerism. Cubans are incredibly resourceful, they make do with what they’ve got, and consequently, there is very little wastage – an ethos we could certainly learn from. I look forward to my return.
All words and photos are by regular contributor Lee Hubbard.