On an Island with stunning Caribbean beaches, lush tobacco fields, battered cities and remnants of a famous revolution, we found experiences no other place can provide. Here are our top things to do in Cuba.
Christmas in Cuba was reinstated in 1992.
This is just one of the many legacies of Cuban history. A legacy that today provides travellers with enthralling things to do in Cuba; with experiences that are unique and weird. Experiences that can only be found here.
Since the Spanish tried to whiten the population in the colonial years, Cuba has been a melting pot of cultural influences. African slaves were used to work the highly lucrative sugar industry, only to be replaced by a cheap Chinese workforce in 1886 when the practice was abolished. Later, Fidel Castro’s revolution shaped the country.
But it was perhaps the Soviet Union that had the biggest impact on the experience of visiting Cuba today. For years the Soviet Union funded Castro’s communist regime. The signs of Soviet influence are everywhere. But when the iron curtain fell, Cuba was left politically and economically stranded. Great swathes of poverty fell on the country.
Cuba had to change.
The army took over the tourist industry and built hotels; private restaurants were permitted and residents gained the right to buy and sell their property. A somewhat insular country was created. One where the state is still heavily present, but private enterprise is finding its feet.
It may not feel like Christmas every day in Cuba, but it certainly feels like an authentic, unique experience.
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1 / STROL THE BACKSTREETS IN HAVANA
Simply strolling around and exploring the fascinating, crumbling old town of Havana is one of the best things to do in Cuba – something we discovered completely unintentionally.
We were keen to visit the Real Partagas Cigar Factory but discovered the Cuban authorities had decided to sell tickets from Hotel Inglaterra – a 30-minute walk away. So, we collected our tickets and started walking the backstreets of Havana to our destination.
Strolling past the imposing Capitolio Nacional and around Calle Maloja and Calle Sitios, the benefit of the ticket collection process started to make perfect sense. Free from the muster of other tourists, the back streets of Havana buzzed with local life. Atmospheric crumbling buildings were covered with evocative art and colourful murals. Kids played in abandoned ruins while their parents sold knick-knacks on the street corners.
The trip down to the Real Partagas Cigar Factory was just the beginning of our back-street Havana wanderings. The southern part of the old town near the Pharmacy Museum, the San José Almacenes Artisanal Centre and the Rafael Trejo Boxing Centre unearthed many hidden gems. This is a much older and far more photogenic part of town that oozes the battered colonial charm that Havana is famous for.
Our wander through old Havana was capped off by admiring the quirky shops, bars and galleries along Calle Obispo, Calle O’Reilly and Calle Mercaderes. The highlight of our tour of crumbling Havana? Listening to the five-piece band in the lane outside Nao bar.
Tours – If you’re interested in a tour with a local, rather than wandering around yourself, we recommend this guided tour of Havana.
More Reading – Our 3-day Havana Itinerary
2 / HIKING IN VIÑALES VALLEY
Viñales is the fertile cradle of western Cuba. It’s ground zero for the Cuban obsession with yucca; a major staple food in the developing world – and the centre of the country’s sweet potato crop.
But it’s the tobacco fields that give Viñales its unmistakable lush green setting.
We descended into the valley at Viñales after a stunning sunset from Los Jazmines Hotel, ready to start our self-guided hike. With no guide and minimal directions, we ambled through idyllic farms still leading a way of life that has long been abandoned by western countries.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost access to its biggest source of funding and could no longer buy oil at prices well below market value. As a result, Cuban farmers who couldn’t afford to own or run farm machinery reverted back to using animals to tend to their crops.
This legacy lives on in Viñales today.
We passed friendly farmers on homemade contraptions pulled along by oxen. Cowboys on horseback who wouldn’t look out of place in an old western movie, ambled slowly down country roads – cigars never leaving their lips. Old characters slept under the shade of trees.
Viñales is uncomplicated and slow. Easily, one of the best things to do in Cuba.
Tours – If you only have time for a day trip from Havana, try this full-day tour.
More Reading – Read our guide to hiking in Viñales for all the detailed instructions, or our self-guide cycling tour of Viñales.
3 / CUBAN ART & MUSIC AT FÁBRICA DE ARTE CUBANO
Fábrica de Arte Cubano is an experience in Cuban art and music; an expression of a nation defying the struggle it’s been to get here.
In a country where art was once heavily monitored by the state, Fábrica de Arte Cubano is a tribute to the passion and resilience of the Cuban people – something that definitely forms part of the Cuban experience. But, perhaps more importantly, it’s a great night out in Havana and one of our favourite things to do in this mystifying country.
Like most things in Cuba, the entry process for Fábrica de Arte Cubano was convoluted. A queue snaked around a holding pen fashioned out of poles and ropes. Confused future patrons – us included – shuffled along to the first stop where we received a stamp. At the next stop we were provided a bar code and indecipherable instructions. The next stop an unofficial-looking official took money from us – presumably, this was payment.
Finally, we were released from our holding pen.
Dazed and confused we stumbled around with our fellow inductees. One narrow corridor leads past a series of abstract oil paintings to a small room with a guy bewildering an intimate group with his sublime guitar skills. Another passage lead to a communist-themed art installation. Beyond a suspension bridge, a narrow corridor opened to a cavernous dancefloor with heavy beats pumping.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano is a mish mash of art, music, cocktails and Cuban process. It’s a top thing to do in Cuba with a little something for everyone.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano – 18:00 – Midnight Thu-Sun | Price: $US 25 | Location: Calle 26, Corner 11, Vedado
4 / BIRDWATCHING IN CIÉNAGA DE ZAPATA
The Ciénaga de Zapata National Park is a smorgasbord of ecosystems including swamps, mangrove forests, wetlands and underwater canyons. Of the 28 birds endemic to Cuba, 15 of them can be found here. Carlos had high hopes we would see them all.
At our first stop, our guide Carlos beckoned creatures with recordings saved on his iPhone designed to entice the more reluctant exotic specimen. Inching along behind Carlos, we got terse looks every time we stepped on crunchy leaves. This was serious business.
And it was worth it. On our tour we saw a tocororo, Cuban tody, Cuan parrot, a pygmy owl, and we think a hummingbird and lots more. We were thoroughly impressed, but Carlos was bitterly disappointed. Only a full flush of the complete 15 birds in the Zapata catalogue would be good enough.
Desperate to find more, we stopped at a local farm where we were enthralled by the antiquated machinery and manual processes. Carlos sought out the last remaining birds we hadn’t yet witnessed.
We didn’t find them all but the beautiful scenery, local life and Carlos made it a top thing to do in Cuba. Read more in our guide to Ciénaga de Zapata.
Ciénaga de Zapata National Park Office – 8:00 – 16:30 | Guides: CUC15 per person | Location: On the main road in Playa Larga. Alternatively, your casa particular host will be able to book for you.
More Reading – Our complete guide to Ciénaga de Zapata
5 / SOAK UP THE VIBES AT PLAYA LARGA
An old Swiss couple, perhaps in their 70’s strolled onto the beach at Playa Larga. Unable to find somewhere to sit that capitalised on the stunning sunset that was unfolding, the barman from Tony’s Bar found a bench for them. After a bit of negotiation, the perfect location was settled upon.
An eccentric British chap entertained his friend from Nashville with stories grand and great. Nashville looked disconnected and needy; the British was in his element. Who was he? What was he doing in Playa Larga? How was it that he knew everyone including the Cuban guy and his Swiss wife who now live in Sweden?
While the band warmed up, feet in the sand, we ordered a Piña Colada from Tony and assessed the rest of the crowd at Playa Larga beach. Apart from British, Nashville and their growing collection of cronies, one thing stood out about the crowd assembled in front of the promising sunset: everyone was reading.
No one was on their phones; no one was playing annoying loud music. There was a little kid who wanted to show the band the chords he had learnt on the guitar while they listened intently – but that was about it.
The second thing that stood out was the Piña Colada. Easily the best in Cuba. All in all, the experience of watching the sunset over Playa Larga is one of the best things to do in Cuba.
More Reading – Read our Quick Guide to Playa Larga
6 / WILD SWIMMING EL NICHO
Cuba is a hot place. And there are few places hotter in Cuba than the inside of a vintage car. As a sticky legacy of previous US sanctions, Cuba’s stock of old cars is a necessity rather than a romantic ride for tourists. Maintained over the years, they still have the mod-cons they were bestowed with in the 1950s.
So, with sweaty skin sticking to plastic seats, we took a colectivo from Cienfuegos to El Nicho. The one window handle that was still operational was passed around anytime someone wanted to wind their window down. Then passed back when the noise and dust became too much.
After a couple of hours, we arrived at El Nicho. We peeled ourselves off the seats and inhaled the cool mountain air. The walk up through the jungle was a welcome relief from the confines of the rusty colectivo. As we approached, leaves glistened with fine mist, the roar of cascading water slowly became more audible. Kids were yelling with the bliss that only a wild swimming spot can produce.
And what a swimming spot it is. El Nicho is an idyllic waterfall mid-way between Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Layers of palm trees frame a crystal clear pool at the base of the falls. We knew it was going to bite, but after a couple of hours in a hot colectivo, the icy waters of El Nicho was just what we needed.
Parque El Nicho – 8:00 – 17:00 | Price: 10 CUC per person payable at the entrance gate.
Read More – Our complete guide to El Nicho
7 / CONTRABAND BEEF AND OTHER STORIES
“People pretend to work in Cuba because the government pretends to pay us.”
We were reclining on the patio of Tony’s B&B in Playa Giron as Tony tried to convey the complexities of living in a country that could no longer afford their political ideals.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Castro eventually allowed private bars and restaurants to open in 1993. However, their success was more than the Cuban leader could stomach; later restricting restaurants to a maximum of 12 tables so they didn’t make too much money.
The compromise between a low government salary and tricky public sector restrictions is one Cuban people face on a daily basis. Beef is only permissible for pregnant women and the sick; cigar rollers earn more than teachers and doctors; the government confiscates 90% of tobacco crops.
This is a fascinating, complicated country and one of the best things to do in Cuba is to understand daily life.
On a tour of the tobacco factory in Havana, we learnt about the highly desirable cigar rolling gig. In Parque Guanayara we discovered the tough existence of coffee farmers who donate 80% of their hard work to the state. At Valle de Los Ingenios we learnt about the slave heritage of Cuba that fuelled its once prosperous sugar industry.
And at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana, we learnt about propaganda. Every day in Cuba is a chance to learn about this strange country.
8 / THE BACKSTREETS OF COLONIAL TRINIDAD
As we bounced along the cobbled streets of Trinidad in our packed colectivo, the colourful façades glowed in late afternoon light. Unlike many towns in Cuba which have an independent ruggedness, Trinidad is pretty. But, we soon learnt there’s more to Trinidad than colourful, colonial charm and vibrant squares
Once we disembarked from our sweltering ride, we took to the streets of Trinidad to explore. The views from the bell tower of the Museo de Historica Municipal were as good as Instagram had depicted. The church ruins in the Plaza de Santa Ana captured the afternoon light with ease.
But, it was the less-visited much lived-in backstreets that really captured our attention and earnt Trinidad a place in our best things to do in Cuba list.
Calle Amarguar up to Plaza de las Cruces was a vignette of Cuban life. Locals lined the street, sitting in the doorstep watching the world go by. Adults played dominoes on fold-out tables while their kids kicked a football around to the rhythm of regular ticking-off.
Far from the picture-perfect squares of Trinidad, this part of town was a breath of fresh air. Gone were the regular shouts of “Taxi!” or “Tour!” Here, locals wanted our opinion on the strategic placement of their dominoes, or to say hello and show off their English. This was an altogether different part of Trinidad, only minutes away from the maddening crowd.
Read More – All our favourite places to eat and drink, and top things to do are in our Complete Guide to Trinidad.
9 / SOVIET RESORTS IN VARADERO
“The beach must be nice.”
This was how we consoled ourselves when we first arrived in Varadero. A place this unloved must have something going for it. So, we left the highway that is the main road and made our way to the popular tourist resorts and hotels lining the beach. Perhaps Varadero, is about high-end luxury.
The hotels are a 1970’s minimum security prison, re-imagined as a 5-star resort [SIC] with Soviet stylings and a beach littered with plastic rubbish.
So we ventured on, perhaps Varadero is about the nightlife and beach-front bars. Armed with new hope, we found a bar on the beach with the most spectacular view across the glistening turquoise Caribbean waters.
“Amazing! We’ve got the whole place to ourselves”
We had the whole place to ourselves because after 10 minutes of sitting at a wonky plastic table with perhaps the best views in Cuba, still no one had come to offer us a drink. I’m pretty sure no one had ever secured a drink at that bar.
Maybe Varadero is about good food, something unattainable in Cuba. Our very helpful casa particular host armed us with a number of restaurants in the area. He said we could find Cuban. Italian. Cuban-Italian fusion. Cuban-Italian fusion that is only frequented by locals.
“Excellent, which is your favourite?” I enquired.
“Local people never go to restaurants,” he responded.
We later learnt that Varadero is most definitely not about the food.
After trying various ways to embrace Varadero, we stumbled across Hotel Dos Mares beach bar. Hidden behind bushes obstructing the view of the ugly resort complexes, Dos Mares was a stunning Caribbean beach. Soft white sand, clear turquoise waters and cheap, plentiful cocktails. It’s relaxing and it’s local.
And, after we joined the French kids collecting rubbish that was scattered along the beach, it was beautiful.
10 / CLASSIC CARS AND THE CUBAN’S KEEPING THEM RUNNING
As we bundled into a taxi to go to Havana’s leafy Verado suburb, disappointment was high. Anticipating a ride in a sexy vintage car, we found ourselves in a decidedly unsexy Soviet Lada.
Those sexy vintage cars (which we were not in) had been arriving in Cuba from the US since the turn of the century. By 1956 there were 145,000 American cars on Cuban roads. After the revolution, this all came to a halt, when not so much as a bolt could be imported from the US.
And so, history had lead us to the point where we were riding in one of the fallback options provided by the USSR – an unsexy Lada.
The proper wheels – the chrome-framed vividly-coloured American relics from the 1950s – are now too good to be a simple taxi. Painstakingly restored over the years by their drivers, or boteros (boatmen) these classic cars bedazzle tourists for around 35 CUC per hour.
Whether we were riding in a beat-up old Lada, a glossed up Chevy or a vessel that has morphed into something in between, riding vintage cars is one of the best things to do in Cuba. Not so much for the car or the ride, more for the sheer perseverance that has kept these things on the road.
The boteros maintain their relics with finesse, dedication and cheap polish knock-offs.
Classic Car Tour – Book your tour in a classic car with a complimentary cocktail to experience a unique side of Cuba.
MORE CUBA READING
Cuba is a unique place. Years of Soviet-funded political ideology created a strong- if slightly confusing – sense of national identity. Soviet, American, Spanish, Caribbean and African influences fuse together to create a fascinating place to visit. Here is some more of our reading about this fascinating place.
Exploring Ciénaga de Zapata
3 days in Havana – a city of decaying grandeur
Quick guide to Playa Larga
Best things to do in Trinidad
Explore the best scenery in Cuba on this Viñales Valley hike
Impressions of Havana – a story from the streets
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