The New Cuba: a Guide for Smart Travelers

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Like many people of my generation, I learned about Cuba during my adolescence, when I first listened to the poetic lyrics of Buena Vista Social Club. Those simple, yet powerful songs seemed to harmoniously depict humanity full of pride, humor, and romanticism. Now knowing better their beautiful island’s history, this band, and the country’s music, in general, defines Cubans quite accurately. The sounds are a combination of multicultural rhythms and traditions. This is true of countless forms of art in Cuba. In fact, the country has always been a great source of inspiration for writers, painters, and photographers thanks to both its controversial history and its genuine beauty.

Photo by Conor Luddy

According to Patricia, an interior designer that lives between New York and her native Havana, after the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States in 2014, the city became even more of a magnet for creative minds around the world. Their creativity is stimulated by the artistic mixture of colonial architecture, art deco, art nouveau, and Russian constructivism. Everyday life reflected in revolutionary slogans, food carts, and washing lines inspires these creatives as well. Groups of people who left Cuba 10 to 20 years ago are now trying to create new business opportunities on the island. Many artists, who found international success abroad, have returned and have begun to collaborate with other Cubans back in their homeland.

Cuba is finally opening its doors to the world. This huge shift comes after many years of social and economical restrictions. Its residents, who have always shown the warmest hospitality, now can literally embrace visitors. It is a cultural exchange some next thought possible. Cubans use the opportunity to try to absorb as much as they can from a modern style of life they’ve only dreamt about. Although political changes haven’t brought radical transformations, this is probably the best time to visit the country’s capital, soak in the creative atmosphere of its streets and mingle with locals.

Charming Havana & its Best Boroughs

  1. Stay at a casa particular, in private accommodations or at a bed and breakfast. This choice will allow you to enjoy and experience local life. 
  2. Plan ahead! Keep in mind that most of the city can’t rely on a stable Wi-Fi connection. This makes a map and a detailed itinerary absolutely essential. If you really need the Internet, find a spot close to a big hotel. They usually have a reliable connection. 
  3. Explore Havana by its different district zones. This is an essential step to understand the city. Read further for the most interesting boroughs for first-time visitors.

Habana Vieja

Photo: Flickr

Habana Vieja is like a living time capsule, packed with history and intrigue. As a beautiful and important UNESCO world heritage site, its cobblestone streets are filled more now with tourists, eager for a walking tour. Stroll through the very popular Plaza Vieja, up to El Capitolio and El Gran Teatro de La Habana, and walk down Paseo del Prado, which designates the border between Old and Central Havana. 

What to do in Habana Vieja:

  • Stop in Plaza Vieja for a coffee and admire the beautiful architecture.
  • Avoid the most popular souvenir shops and stop by Clandestina Store, where you can find very original, authentic goods made locally.
  • Visit the José Martí Theatre, a restored gem recently reopened to the public.
  • Treat yourself to a great, traditional meal at Callejón del Chorro in the charming Plaza de la Catedral.
  • Make your way through crowded Calle Obispo for a refreshing gelato at Coco Glace.
  • Try a craft beer at La Factoria.
  • Snag a rooftop view and the local catch of the day at El del Frente.
  • Explore the local market at Plaza de Armas, where you can talk to vendors about Cuban life and history.
  • After the sun goes down, ask young locals for directions to Buda Bar. It’s the ultimate secret spot in La Habana Vieja.
  • Have a daiquiri at La Bodeguita del Medio, Hemingway’s favorite bar!

El Vedado

El Vedado, Havana
El Vedado, Havana. Photo: Hostal Aptofive

To really learn about Cuban culture, this borough is the best bet. This is the newest center of business and commerce, home to some of the wealthier Cubans and the location of the University of Havana. This neighborhood is packed with bars, restaurants, music venues and, above all, regular Cubans. Here, the best way to have fun and interact with locals is hanging out at El Malecon, the sea wall that runs along the northern edge of the city. Because of its oceanside location, Cubans consider this a place of therapy and escape, and come here to gather, drink, meditate, cry, laugh and fall in love.

Don’t Miss:

  • Go to the marvelous Plaza de la Revolucion, which used to host massive crowds during political rallies and celebrations, when it is empty. Imagine all the marches and commemorations that took place over the years in this very spot. It will be a breathtaking experience!
  • The tallest building in the city, El Edificio Focsa.
  • The Hotel Habana Libre (relax in the lounge and take advantage of a working Internet connection!)
  • La Fabrica de Arte. This factory, abandoned for many years, is now a labyrinth of creativity that hosts art exhibitions and music concerts. Definitely the sign of a Cuba that’s quickly changing.
  • Enjoy a meal at Cafe Mamaine, Rio Mar, or Starbien.
  • Have a cocktail at Madrigal Bar Cafe or Sarao Bar.

Centro Habana

Photo: Flickr

Centro Habana is a densely populated, urban neighborhood, located between Vedado and Habana Vieja. Bordered by the Malecon, the district has many restaurants, bars, stores, and discos. This noisy, lively neighborhood makes it seem like every day is a festival or an occasion. Dogs bark and people talk loudly. Men pushcarts filled with bread and produce, shouting and singing about their products and prices. 
Known for its Afro-Cuban culture, Callejón de Hamel is definitely worth a visit and a dance! Plan ahead and make a reservation at San Cristobal, famous for feeding the likes of President Obama and Jay-Z. There can be a bit of a wait, but the delicious food, flawless service, and complimentary rum and cigar to finish make it totally worth it!

Driving Around the Island

Photo: Flickr

When you finally need a change of scenery and grow tired of the capital city’s vibrant boroughs, rent a car and head to the natural paradises and historical towns dotting the island. You might opt to hire a local driver. Prices are very reasonable and it may save you from the stress of Cuba’s infrastructure. The streets are barely marked and directions are sometimes non-existent. Despite the charm of the vintage cars you see in every Instagram post, which are largely still used on the island, you should opt for a modern vehicle. Long road trips can quickly become uncomfortable in those older models. Also, with new direct flights going to the airport at Santa Clara, US travelers now have the option of skipping out on Havana and getting straight to some of the smaller cities of.

Trinidad

Photo: Bud Ellison

Trinidad is a small town on the south coast of Cuba, near the midpoint of the island. Its history dates back more than 500 years, making it one of the oldest towns in the country. The town is has been very well maintained, with mostly original architecture, tight, winding cobblestone streets, and picturesque surroundings of hills, valleys, farms, and even a nearby beach. Although this is one of the most popular destinations for tourists, its colonial flavor and rich artisanal production make it worth a visit. Avoid the morning crowd of tourists. Have a drink at Playa Ancon beach at sunset and end your day with some amazing live music at Casa de la Musica.

Cienfuegos

Photo: Joe Ross

Cienfuegos’ urban historic center is framed with bountiful amounts of gorgeous French architecture. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the country. Carve out at least an afternoon to explore this exquisite UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to visiting the town’s historical attractions, head to Punta Gorda, the upper-class neighborhood of Cienfuegos. You can reach it on foot (3km walk) by following the Malecon sea wall. Or, if you’re not up for walking, jump in a cab or hail the iconic bici taxi (a bike taxi). Enjoy the gorgeous view from the terrace of Palacio de Valle. The legendary Bahia de Cochinos (The Bay of Pigs) is only an hour and a half from Cienfuegos. While the region may be recognized for its historical importance, the acclaimed white sand beaches of Playa Girón and Playa Larga are reason enough to visit the area. Halfway between the two beaches lies Cueva de los Peces, a cenote whose pools are connected to the sea by submerged tunnels; a challenging cave system that beckons adventurous divers.

Viñales

Photo: Nadine Johnson

Viñales is located in the Pinar del Rio province, which is to tobacco what Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Napa Valley are to wine. If you enjoy a good cigar, add this to your itinerary. Beyond tobacco, the region is also home to some of Cuba’s most stunning sceneries with limestone mogotes piercing the sky. Viñales qualified as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999. From here, it’s not hard to get off the beaten path to the small towns along the Northern coast, the city of Pinar del Rio and the mountain resorts of Soroa and Las Terrazas.

Tips by Locals

Most times the best tips come from those who know a place best. Here are a few more tips from a Cuban who deeply loves her country and knows some secret spots around the island.

Photo: Anton Novoselov

For beaches and hiking…

  • If you are up for a more local experience, choose a beach like Santa Maria del Mar, part of Playas del Este, instead of Varadero, which is gorgeous but extremely touristy.
  • Other great suggestions are Puerto Escondido and Jibacoa, both good for camping. You can reach the Bacunayagua campground by hiking along the river from the Puente de Bacunayagua (the tallest bridge in Cuba). It is an incredible experience that should be followed by a sunset swim in the pristine waters.
Photo: Flickr

For nature lovers…

Pinar del Rio province can be also reached by bicycle from Havana. Visit Los Mogotes, La Bahia de Viñales, El Orquiedeario de Soroa and Las Terrazas. These places are good for hiking, climbing and in general spending time outdoors. Sleep at La Moka, a gorgeous hotel nestled in the virgin forest, where trees interlay with the architecture.

Photo: Marika Bortolami

Go rural and local…

A visit to Santiago de Cuba, near the largest mountain range Sierra Maestra, will allow you to see how Cubans live in rural areas. Here, some of the campesinos still inhabit houses built with palm trees and used by the aboriginals before the Spaniards’ colonization. The rum Santiago de Cuba, which is beloved by locals, is produced in this area as well.

Cover Photo by Pedro Szekely

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