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Our top authentic things to do in Cuba
Classic cars, cigars, salsa, colourful colonial houses, mojitos, and not to forget white sandy beaches and turquoise seas – these are usually the first things that come to mind when planning a trip to Cuba. But what’s the best way to experience this unique country in an authentic, immersive way?
As the country of revolution is slowly opening up to the rest of the world, Cuba fascinates the masses and has been one of the most popular places to visit in past years. For lots of travellers, it’s an opportunity to cross long-awaited wishes off their bucket list. Driving in an old classic car, dancing salsa with the locals in the streets of Trinidad, or drinking a mojito on one of the many white sandy beaches…
Cuba is learning how to adapt and cater to this high demand, and the chance of experiencing these once-in-a-lifetime highlights is available to everyone. A classic car tour in Havana or the horseback-riding excursion in Vinales are unforgettable ‘must-dos’, but there’s also plenty here which might not come onto everyone’s radar. Here’s a list of some of our favourite lesser-known Cuban experiences:
1. Get lost in Central Havana
That’s right! Put away your tourist map of Old Havana, leave its cobbled streets and cross the Paseo de Marti into Central Havana. Whilst the streets here might not be quite as picturesque, this is where the local life takes place. You’ll find old men sitting in front of their house playing chess, neighbours talking to each other across their balconies, groups of kids playing football and people queuing at the ‘Bodega’ to collect their rationings every fortnight. From here you can make your way along the famous Malecon to get back to your accommodation in the Old Town.
Download the offline app ‘map.me’ so that, once you’ve taken it all in, you can check your location and find your way back – or simply hop in a taxi or motor-rickshaw.
2. Vinales – more than just tobacco fields
We think that the best way to experience the lush tobacco fields of Vinales is on horseback. Not only does it give you the advantage of a higher viewpoint, but you’ll also have the chance to look at the stunning landscape around you and try the local way of getting around. However, you’ll be surprised how much more Vinales has to offer: stunning viewpoints, caves, hiking trails and lovely restaurants. It’s easy to explore these by bike, or by the hop-on bus that takes you past most of the area’s highlights.
Just outside of Vinales you will find the lovely eco-farm ‘Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso’ which offers great food, stunning views and some interesting walks.
3. Take a dip in the natural pools at Las Terrazas
Las Terrazas is well known for being the only eco-biosphere in Cuba, and whilst the landscapes you’ll see are partly shaped by man, it is surrounded by lush flora and fauna, offering a break from the buzzing Cuban cities and villages. You’ll mainly find tourists staying at the unique eco-hotel La Moka, but many Cubans also make the day trip to Las Terrazas during the weekend or public holidays to relax in the cool highlands of Las Terrazas.
Take a walk to the ‘Banos del San Juan’ and have a swim in the natural pools to enjoy the small waterfall. Many locals choose this spot for an afternoon BBQ with their family.
4. Salsa with the locals… in a cave – Trinidad
Salsa is an important part of the Cuban culture and you’ll hear music being played throughout the streets. However, besides taking an organised salsa lesson, it might be somewhat intimidating to mix with the locals and ask them for a dance on the streets.
In Trinidad, we found the perfect place to do so. ‘La Cueva’, a popular nightclub, is built inside a massive cave with installed lights, bars and screens. Locals and tourists alike mix on the dancefloor, and it’s a spectacle worth seeing, even for the rhythmically-challenged amongst us!
TOP TIP: To get there from the main square, follow the streets up to the hills on the northern edge of the town. The locals, who are used to the lost-looking faces, will encourage you to continue walking until you reach a small field and the entry to the cave. Have a drink along the way – bars here offer mojitos at half the price (as if they weren’t cheap enough already!).
BONUS TIP: Do the morning Bici-taxi tour first and then plan your night out.
5. Learn how to cook a traditional Cuban meal in Sancti Spiritus
Sancti Spiritus is a place that is often overlooked in favour of well-known places such as Havana, Vinales and Trinidad. However, if you are looking for a local town with a lot of character and few tourists, this is it. While there, why not try a cooking class and learn how to prepare a traditional Cuban meal? Spoiler alert: there will be rice and beans. Even if cooking is not your thing, it’s a great opportunity to speak with the locals, spend some time in their kitchen and enjoy a delicious home-cooked meal.
It can be tricky to find interesting herbs and ingredients in Cuba. It will be a lovely surprise for the chef if you bring a small gift with you, like some spices or a sauce from home.
6. Relax on a secluded beach
At the end of an exciting adventure, a spot of relaxation on a quiet beach is usually on the cards for most people. Avoid the rows of big all-inclusive hotels and busy beaches that line much of Cuba’s coastline with some of our favourite, lesser-known havens.
Cayo Levisa is a quiet island off the mainland, with only one full-board hotel and a beautiful white sand beach. It isn’t high-end luxury, but this could be the little slice of Caribbean bliss you’re looking for.
Hire a paddle boat to explore a bit of the island.
Boca de Camarioca is a small village on Cuba’s north coast. Whilst there is only one small local beach, it’s a very quiet place and you get to experience the local lifestyle.
TOP TIP: If you fancy a night out you can hop on a local bus (1CUC) to explore Varadero, which is only 20min away.