Cuba

High up on the list of travelers’ top destinations and perhaps due to the block on travel for US citizens to Cuba, this Caribbean island has a kudos that is perhaps unrivaled across Latin America. Visiting Cuba is like stepping back in time, with the pre-1960s old American cars alongside the traditional methods of farming and colonial architecture abounding.

Cuba has a bit of everything. From white sandy beaches to a fascinating and well-documented recent history and an interesting colonial past, to unique and spectacular mountainous scenery and farmland, there’s a lot to keep the traveler occupied. It is easy to spend a month in Cuba and not see everything that the country has to offer.

Cubans say that there are three things you must do while in their country. You should dance salsa, drink rum and smoke cigars. If you travel around a little, it is hard to miss being able to do all three, often at the same time. Even the smallest towns usually have at least one place to go at night to experience live music and to relax.

Cuba is surprisingly easy to get around due to the government’s policy of trying to provide a sanitized experience for the tourists. There are buses specifically for tourists and buses are clean, well-run and run to schedule. While getting around is easy, sometimes dealings with the locals can be challenging. This is because those working in tourism-related fields make significantly more than those in other professions, meaning that everyone is trying to muscle in on the tourism in some small way or another. A little patience goes a long way, but be firm.

Cuba is not cheap, this is not a destination that the backpacker should head to, hoping to spend just a few dollars a night. The absolute cheapest legal accommodation to be found is somewhere between $10 to $15 per night, with most places coming in around $20 or $25 per night. But this is where Cuba is unique, with its emphasis on homestays, rather than the typical hostel experience that one might expect elsewhere in Latin America. This allows for an opportunity to understand a bit about Cuban life first hand. Hostels are more or less non-existent here. This means that while getting around can be easy, and while the experience itself is interesting, it can be more difficult to meet other travelers.

Special highlights of Cuba are:

Havana is not to be missed. While rather run down in parts of the city, the old town is beginning to be gentrified and it is possible to get a good feel for how life in pre-revolution Cuba was. With continued restoration, this city could easily become one of the most beautiful in the world. Get a feel for the Soviet-influence on the country by heading to the Plaza de la Revolucion, learn more about the revolution and post-revolutionary years by a visit to the Museo de la Revolucion, or just wander around the colonial old town and take in the sights. There is plenty to keep the traveler busy here for a number of days.

To the west of Havana, in the Pinar del Río province, Viñales offers unusual “mogote” landscape—dramatic karst scenery—and the chance to kick back for a couple of days and experience life in the Cuban countryside. Here, there are caves, hiking and climbing to keep the traveler occupied. Beaches such as Cayo Levisa are fairly accessible from here also.

East of Havana, on the northern coast is resort-town Varadero. While the beach is disappointingly lined with numerous large resorts, the playa itself is spectacularly beautiful with crystal clear waters and powdery white sands.

South of Havana on the southern coast is the colonial jewel, Trinidad. It is easy to spend a number of days in this town in the Sancti Spíritus province. This primarily cobbled-street town is a pretty historical base from which to explore the surrounding attractions, including the Valle de Ingenios, Playa Ancon and the Topes de Collantes National Park. It is also easy to while away a day just wandering the streets of the town itself and observing local life.

To the far east of Cuba, the second city, Santiago de Cuba can be found. This city was one of the hotbeds of the revolution and there is still much evidence of the town’s dramatic history to be found through the streets. Close by, Baracoa also offers beautiful beaches with a mountainous backdrop.