Twenty-first century Cuba promises to be like nowhere else you’ve ever visited: economically poor, but culturally rich; visibly mildewed, but architecturally magnificent; infuriating, yet at the same time, strangely uplifting. Here are the top activities that really embody Cuba’s essence and everything this unique country has to offer.
1. Havana’s Malecón
Only a fool comes to Havana and misses out on the Malecón sea-drive, 8km of shabby magnificence that stretches the breadth of the city from Havana Vieja to Miramar and acts as a substitute living room for tens of thousands of cavorting, canoodling, romance-seeking habaneros. Traverse it during a storm when giant waves breach the wall, or tackle it at sunset with Benny Moré on your iPod, a bottle of Havana Club in your hand and the notion that anything is possible come 10pm.
Crocodiles aside, Cuba has little impressive fauna, but the paucity of animals is more than made up for by the abundance of bird life. Approximately 350 species inhabit the shores of this distinct and ecologically weird tropical archipelago, a good two dozen of them endemic. Look out in particular for the colorful tocororo, the tiny bee hummingbird, the critically endangered ivory-billed woodpecker, and the world’s largest flamingo nesting site. Guided bird-watching trips are a national specialty.
3. Cuba’s revolutionary heritage
An improbable escape from a shipwrecked leisure yacht, handsome bearded guerrillas meting out Robin Hood–style justice, and a classic David v Goliath struggle that was won convincingly by the (extreme) underdogs; Cuba’s revolutionary war reads like the pages of a – ahem – Steven Soderbergh movie script. Better than watching it on the big screen is the opportunity to visit the revolutionary sites in person. Little changed in over 50 years are the disembarkation point of the Granma and Fidel’s wartime HQ at mountaintop Commandancia de la Plata.
4. Ciénaga de Zapata’s wildlife
One of the few parts of Cuba that has never been truly tamed, the Zapata swamp is as close to pure wilderness as the country gets. This is the home of the endangered Cuban crocodile, various amphibians, the bee hummingbird and over a dozen different plant habitats. It also qualifies as the Caribbean’s largest wetlands, protected in numerous ways, most importantly as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve and Ramsar Convention Site. Come here to fish, bird-watch, hike, and see nature at its most pure.
5. Time-warped Trinidad
Soporific Trinidad went to sleep in 1850 and never really woke up. This strange twist of fate is good news for modern travelers who can roam freely through the perfectly preserved mid-19th-century sugar town like voyeurs from another era. Though it’s no secret these days, the time-warped streets still have the power to enchant with their grand colonial home-stays, easily accessible countryside and exciting live music scene. But this is also a real working town loaded with all the foibles and fun of 21st-century Cuba.
6. Biking through the Valle de Viñales
With less traffic on the roads than 1940s Britain, Cuba is ideal for cycling and there’s no better place to do it than in one of its most quintessential rural environments – the Viñales Valley. Viñales offers all the ingredients of a tropical Tour de France: craggy mogotes, impossibly green tobacco fields, bucolic campesino huts and spirit-lifting viewpoints at every gear change. Fortunately the terrain is relatively flat and, if you can procure a decent bike, your biggest dilemma will be where to stop for your sunset-toasting mojito.
7. Youthful nightlife of Santa Clara
Check your preconceived ideas about this country at the city limits. Santa Clara promises to be everything you thought Cuba wasn’t. Erudite students, spontaneous nightlife, daring creativity and private home-stays in abodes stuffed with more antiques than the local decorative-arts museum. If you thought of Cuba as just another totalitarian state damping down debate and stifling artistic creativity, then pop into the drag show at Club Mejunje, or hang out for a while with the enthusiastic students in La Casa de la Ciudad.
8. Baracoa’s spicy food & culture
Over the hills and far away on the easternmost limb of Guantánamo province lies isolated Baracoa, a small yet historically significant settlement, weird even by Cuban standards for its fickle Atlantic weather, eccentric local populace and unrelenting desire to be – well – different. Watch locals scale coconut palms, listen to local bands play kiribá, the local take on son and – above all – enjoy the infinitely spicier, richer and more inventive food starting with the sweet treat, cucuruchu.
9. Pico Turquino – Cuba’s highest mountain
In a country where the right to roam isn’t quite as hallowed as the right to free health care and education, the trek up Cuba’s highest mountain, Pico Turquino , is a rare privilege. Guides are mandatory for this tough two- to three-day 17km trek through the steep broccoli-green forests of the Sierra Maestra that acts a kind of history lesson, nature trail and bird-watching extravaganza all rolled into one. Revolutionary buffs should make a side trip to Fidel’s wartime jungle HQ on the way up.
10. Labyrinthine streets of Camagüey
Get lost! No, that’s not an abrupt British put down; rather it’s a savvy recommendation for any traveler passing through the city of tinajones, churches and erstwhile pirates – aka Camagüey. A perennial rule-breaker, Camagüey was founded on street grid that deviated from almost every other Spanish colonial city in Latin America. Here the lanes are as labyrinthine as a Moroccan medina hiding Catholic churches and triangular plazas, and revealing leftfield artistic secrets at every turn.