Beguiling and enigmatic in no small measure, Havana ignites the collective imagination. Clearly a dose of magic is at work here: how else could Cubans keep those pre-1960 jalopies on the road, fight global isolation for more than half a century and continue dancing and laughing in spite of it all? The bewitching Cuban capital is addictive, but as with any vice, survival may require respite from the irresistible.
When the urge (or necessity) to get out of town hits, a day away at one of these restorative spots – each within striking distance of Havana – will help recharge your battery.
Located just 30 minutes from the hustle and grit of the Centro Habana neighborhood is a Caribbean beach grandeur that most glossy tourist brochures call the Havana Riviera. But to locals, the 50km of palm-fringed coast are known simply as the Playas del Este (Eastern Beaches). There are half a dozen beaches out this way, but Santa María – with appreciable shade and the softest, cleanest sand – is the best. Head to the beach town of Guanabo to hang with locals, while the stretch near Boca Ciega is a traditional LGBT hangout. Most Cubans will not go near the beach in the 'cold' winter months between January and April, but during the peak summer season these beaches get incredibly crowded.
Riding the Hershey Train
If you get dewy-eyed from chugging through pretty villages on tracks laid long ago, with the wind whipping by and the train whistle blowing, hop on board the Hershey train. The electric conveyance was established by the chocolate giant in the early 20th century, along with a sugar mill and model town. It makes more than three dozen stops as it wends its way through the palm-studded Yumurí Valley to Matanzas; daily departures for the four-hour adventure leave from the Casablanca station located next to the ferry wharf on the east side of Havana’s harbor.
About an hour east of Havana, Jibacoa is made up of several beaches and a small town backed by cliffs and caves that are so scenic it is amazing this area continues to fly under the tourist radar. So what if word gets out about the snorkeling, hiking and caving opportunities that complement basking on the tawny sands? There is enough beach for everyone, but please: keep secluded Playa de los Artistas (with the best snorkeling) under wraps.
Las Terrazas and Soroa
Heading for the hills has been an effective tactic in these parts since Fidel Castro and a ragtag guerrilla band waged their against-all-odds revolution from the Sierra Maestra mountain range. Not much has changed in the intervening 50 years, and a Sunday drive into the heart of the undulating and verdant Sierra del Rosario range (Cuba’s first Unesco Biosphere Reserve), 45 minutes west of Havana, is a sure tonic for fatigue and woe. Las Terrazas is an artist colony cum eco-tourism experiment with open studios, ziplines, hiking, birding and swimming in river cascades. Nearby Soroa is famed for its Orquideario – an orchid garden and research station with more than 700 species that bloom between December and March.
Cuba’s version of Cancún, a 20km-long peninsula with powdery sand, bathtub-temperature sea and all-inclusive resorts, has all the amenities required to keep package tourists fed and happy. But monumental changes are afoot. For the first time since 1959 residents can rent out rooms and open private restaurants, which translates into sorely-needed diversity. Most intriguing is the flood of Cubans who are opting for Varadero getaways – something denied them for decades under a discriminatory policy that reserved the island’s best beaches for visitors (it was rescinded in 2008).
The Viñales Valley, peppered with rare pin-cushion hills, is spectacular enough to warrant longer than a day trip, if you have the time. The town is quaint in that ceramic-roof, cane-rocker-on-the-porch kind of way and the hospitality of Cuban guajiros (countryfolk) is unsurpassed. Accept any invite to go horseback riding or hiking amid the oddly bulbous limestone hills; Viñales becomes a rock climbing mecca from December through April. And the A-frame structures covered in shaggy fronds you will see are drying houses for the world’s finest cigar tobacco, grown throughout this part of Pinar del Río province.