Nestled in the Caribbean, the island country of Cuba boasts great vacation spots like white sand beaches, lush mountains and old towns with well-preserved colonial architecture. The best time to visit here is December to April, when the weather is not too warm nor too rainy. Most travellers are required to get a tourist visa card, locally known as visa de tarjeta del turista, before entering the country.
Start planning your trip now, we’ve got you covered — here are some of the most exciting activities waiting for you in the beautiful country also known as La Isla Grande!
1. Enjoy a 360 degree view of Havana
Great views await travellers at Camera Obscura, an optical device found on top of a tall tower in Havana. A lift takes guests from the building lobby to the roof, where there is a viewing area and a projection giving real time views of the old city, the river and the port. It is a must-see because, apparently, Havana’s Camera Obscura is one of only a couple of Camera Obscuras in the world that are still in operation.
2. See Neoclassical and Baroque buildings at a UNESCO site
Wear a comfortable pair of shoes and don’t miss the opportunity to see admirable architectural gems in Old Havana! Since the 17th century, Havana has played an important role in the shipbuilding industry in the Caribbean. Today, despite belonging to a progressive metropolitan area, Old Havana has admirably preserved its Neoclassical and Baroque buildings, which are now a part of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Other things you should look out for are private houses, intricately designed balconies and gorgeous courtyards.
3. Appreciate Cuban music in Trinidad
Learn how to enjoy Cuban nightlife the local way! For some good Cuban music paired with refreshing drinks, come to Casa de La Trova, a former colonial mansion turned night club. Many great local musicians play here every night, including Semillas del Son, Santa Palabra and Israel Moreno. There are also talented dancers who provide entertainment to guests. If you want to get a good seat, make sure to arrive early, especially during the weekends.
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4. Visit the old churches of Camagüey
Camagüey, a city located in central Cuba, has some of the oldest and most beautiful churches in the country. There’s Catedral de Señora de la Candelaria, a 19th century cathedral that was restored before Pope John Paul’s visit in 1998. You may go inside for free, but you will need to purchase a ticket to be allowed to enter the stairs leading up to the church’s tower. Another must-see church is Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Merced where the silver Holy Sepulcher is kept. The church features a Baroque façade, while its interior is filled with unique murals. Other churches you should visit when in Camagüey are Iglesia de la Soledad and Church of San Juan de Dios.
5. Catch a glimpse of dolphins
Easily reachable by boat, the Dolphinarium at Cayo Naranjo is a popular attraction located on a manmade island in the middle of a bay. It was constructed in 1994 and remains home to a number of dolphins as well as sea lions, all of which are trained to be able to interact well with visitors. You may swim with them, if you wish, or you may simply watch them do their cute tricks in a show. Entrance fee includes access to the Dolphinarium open bar.
6. Go hiking in Baracoa
If you are looking for an outdoor adventure, El Yunque in Baracoa is a great choice for a day trip. Standing 575 meters (1886 ft) high, the mountain has a shape that resembles that of an anvil. There is an entrance fee you will need to pay before entering. The hike to the summit takes approximately two hours and is suitable even for beginners although the trail has some muddy parts. The views awaiting you from the peak are stunning and definitely worth the climb.
7. Learn about Che Guevara’s legacy
Che Guevara, a revolutionary, is known around the world as one of Cuba’s most iconic figures. You can learn about his interesting life at the Mausoleo del Che Guevara (Che Guevara Mausoleum) in the city of Santa Clara. There is an exhibit containing photos and artifacts related to his legacy, giving the visitors a glimpse of what life must have been like for Guevara. His actual remains are also located here. Please note that it is common courtesy to keep quiet and refrain from taking photos when you are inside the mausoleum. For photo opportunities, you can go Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Square) just outside the building.
8. See beautiful waterfalls
Let nature take your breath away! El Nicho Waterfalls, a two-hour drive from the city of Cienfuegos, is an ideal destination for both nature lovers and thrill seekers. It has a series of beautiful waterfalls and clear pools where visitors can take a dip, as well as a hiking trail along the creek above the waterfalls. If you are not into hiking, you can go horseback riding instead. There’s a restaurant nearby, but you can also bring your own food for a fun picnic amidst the cascading waters and lush flora!
9. Ride a boat through a cave in Pinar del Rio
Can’t get enough of Cuba’s natural wonders? Visit Pinar del Rio and head over to Cueva de Santo Tomas, the largest cave system in the country. It spans approximately 46 kilometers (28.5 mi) with galleries on eight levels but only a one-kilometer (0.62 mi) section is accessible to visitors. Without any artificial lighting inside except for a headlamp, you will get to see rock formations, stalagmites, stalactites and underground pools. Guests planning to come here are advised to wear suitable shoes because aside from the boat ride, you will need to go through some steep climbs and slippery rocks.
10. Bask in a white sand beach at Matanzas
Forget bustling city life even just for a day. Pack your beach essentials and go to the sandy paradise that is Cayo Blanco! Located in Matanzas, it boasts of white sand, clear blue waters and rich marine life. The best way to enjoy this beach is by a catamaran, a watercraft with parallel twin hulls. Catamaran tours are widely available, even in other resorts near the beach. It can bring you to the best spots for snorkelling and also to a dolphin reserve where you can play with the well-trained ocean mammals!
11. Experience bird watching at the Escambray Mountains
Spot some unique fowls at Topes de Collantes, a nature reserve park nestled in the Escambray Mountain range. It is a well-known destination among birdwatchers since it is home to Cuba’s national bird called tocororo and other bird species like cartacuba, Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker and hummingbirds. Visitors are not recommended to just walk-in and explore on their own inside the premises. It would be better and safer if you join a tour group that includes bird watching on the itinerary. Other things you can see at Topes de Collantes include rivers, falls and grottos.
12. Imagine what it was like in colonial Cuba
Take a peek into Cuba’s colonial past by stepping inside one of Trinidad’s most renowned attractions — the Romance Museum! It is a mansion from the 1740 named Palacio Brunet, that is converted into a gallery of 18th century furniture, porcelain, silverware, paintings and other items telling the story of its wealthy owners when the town was still a Spanish colony. For some souvenir shopping, the museum has a shop where you can buy locally-made products.
13. Ride the waves at Varadero
Although it is not exactly known as a destination for surfers, Cuba has nice surfing spots worthy of a visit. There’s Varadero for an instance, boasting of a 20-kilometre stretch of Atlantic Ocean coastline and an array of all-inclusive hotels. On a perfect windy day, the crashing waves at this beach are truly breathtaking. December is one of the most ideal months to try surfing here. Varadero also has nice sandbars that you can explore freely.
14. Explore the dive sites in Nueva Gerona
See Cuba’s underwater life up close in Nueva Gerona, particularly at Punta Frances Marine National Park. Getting to the dive spots aboard a boat might take an hour or two, but a glimpse of wonderful corals and many underwater creatures will make up for it. Another thing that makes Punta Frances an ideal place for diving are its sunken galleons and underwater caves. Most diving tours offer food on board, since there are no restaurants or hotels within the national park.
15. Go on a countryside trip in Vinales
Experience the beauty of the authentic Cuban countryside life with a visit to Valle de Viñales (Viñales Valley), a town surrounded by mountains and dramatic rock formations. The valley was hailed as a national monument in 1979 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. It is home to endemic plant species like mountain palms and microcycas, and fauna like bee hummingbirds and Cuban trogon. Aside from these natural wonders, Vinales draws tourists for the quietness and peacefulness of the local life. Here, the people still use the traditional way of farming and agriculture. One of their major products is tobacco.
16. View interesting Cuban art collections
Whether you are a fan of colonial art or of contemporary masterpieces, the National Museum of Fine Arts is a must-see when visiting Cuba. It was founded in 1913 and now includes two beautiful buildings: one filled with Cuban Arts and the other one dedicated to Universal Arts. Some of the most notable art pieces you will see here are extensive Spanish collections including a canvas by El Greco and Roman mosaics, which are dated at 2000 years old. For a dose of contemporary art, look out for works by Rafael Blanco and Raúl Martínez.
17. Visit a neighborhood filled with mosaic art
Speaking of contemporary art, there is a neighborhood within Havana that boasts of colourful mosaics on houses, streets, walls, balconies and every surface there is. It is called Fusterlandia, named after the brilliant artists Jose Fuster who started this project. A mix of Gaudi’s and Brancusi’s styles are noticeable in the masterpieces, because Fuster himself was inspired by these iconic artists’ works. Today, almost 80 of Fuster’s neighbors have allowed him to decorate their homes to be a part of Fusterlandia.
18. See where Ernest Hemingway lived in Cuba
Ernest Hemingway, an American novelist, spent a great amount of time living in Cuba. His former house has been converted to a museum, just a few miles out of the city center in Havana. It is now known as Finca Vigia and it contains an ensemble of mementos from his writing career, including sharpened pencils and a large book collection. Hemingway’s other interests are also well represented, with hunting trophies and his fishing boat he called Pilar on display. Outside the house, you will see Banyan trees, tombstones of his pets and a tiled bar.
19. Listen to interesting Cuban folktales
Going on a cemetery tour might not sound like an interesting activity for most travellers, but at Cementerio de Colon in Cuba, it means learning about rich local folktales. There are local tour providers that bring guests to this cemetery that was founded in 1876 in a neighborhood in Havana. With a guide, you can explore passageways, huge mausoleums and other forms of tributes of families for their lost loved ones. One of the most notable graves here is that of the “Milagrosa,” a woman buried with her child in 1901. Stories say that when her grave was opened, her flesh remained unblemished.
20. Watch a ballet
Catch a ballet at Gran Teatro de La Habana, located in the Paseo del Prado of Havana. The Neobaroque building has been a witness to the progress of the Cuban National Ballet and has also been a host to the International Ballet Festival of Havana. Inside, you will find theatres, a concert hall, an art gallery, a choral centre and rehearsal areas. Most of the performances take place during the weekends, but you can still visit on weekdays for a guided tour.
Good to know: basic English is spoken in Cuba, while its official language, Spanish, is a slightly different variation from the one actually used in Spain. When greeting someone of the same age, you may say “que vola?” which is an informal term meaning “what’s up?”
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