Can you travel to Cuba? Yes, you can! Sun bathing, staying in the island’s top hotels and eating at state-run restaurants are off-limits due to US government rules. But here’s the thing, the travel American citizens can do in Cuba is more authentic, deeply immersive and way more interesting. Go to the island under the ‘Support for the Cuban people’ category of travel. This Cuba travel itinerary is all about staying with the locals in B&Bs, eating at locally run restaurants and cafés, and seeing the sights and taking tours with local experts.
As the island emerges from the Covid pandemic, here are our tips for how to get genuinely off the beaten track and see Cuba in all its glory: the good, the great and the absolutely superb.
Leave Havana for Hershey, the model town built for the American confectioner who pumped Cuba’s sugar into his chocolate bars and sold plenty of the sweet stuff to Coca-Cola execs. The small town, now renamed Camilo Cienfuegos, is less than an hour east of Havana. Hershey’s vintage electric train is suspended from Casablanca (a village found across the Bay of Havana) to Matanzas but hail a ride from Jaruco to Hershey. For the Hershey low down, contact architect Renán Rodríguez at AI&P on Instagram.
Looking for a quiet dip and an off-grid place to stay? MontECOrales at Arcos de Canasí, an hour east of Havana is a three-bedroomed casita set in a lush garden of coconut palms. Walk across the Bay of Canasí then along the coast exploring the coves beyond where the best activity of your day will be jumping into the turquoise marine. Fairly fit? Snorkel with MontECOmorales’ owner Natacha out of the mouth of the bay, over the rare elk horn coral, and swim east to the wild coves. Love wildlife? Natacha organizes guides to lead you in search of the Cuban tree boa that lives in the forest and caves nearby.
Just beyond Canasí is the under-explored, unpolished city of Matanzas with some gorgeous examples of Cuba’s famous half-moon stained glass windows. Authentic and untouristy, it’s often overlooked by sunseekers on their way to the glittering sands of Varadero. Book -in to downtown’s Hostal Azul and explore the city’s rich architecture and music scene. Matanzas is the birthplace of rumba and the annual rumba Timbalaye festival sparks into life in August. At other times of the year, look out for a performance by kings of rumba Los Muñequitos de Matanzas).
Drop by the revived Sala de Conciertos de José White on the main plaza for son, jazz and orchestral works and rock up for the new Festival Matanzas Jazz held in April. Check the billboards or Facebook for ballet at the beautifully restored frescoed Teatro Sauto. And while you’re in town, head over to socio-cultural project Afroatenas Callejón de las Tradiciones where a pedestrian walkway is decorated in sculptures and Yoruba motifs.
Explore the African mask collection at the Art Museum. Few people know about the Art Museum’s best kept secret: 340 masks from 80 ethnic groups across the African continent donated by a Matancero artist. And don’t miss the Slave Route National Museum in the Castillo de San Severino, a late 17th-century fort facing the Bay of Matanzas, plus the jewel in Matanzas’ crown the beautifully preserved 19th-century pharmacy, the Triolet, on the main plaza. The guided tour is a must.
Traveling from busy, musical Matanzas on the Atlantic coast to the pristine wilderness of Zapata on Cuba’s Caribbean coast is an easy move. Cuba’s Zapata Swamp is the largest and best preserved Ramsar wetland in the Caribbean. Find pink flamingos, Cuban crocodiles, endemic birds, jumping tarpon and bonefish amid its vast plains of long grass, marsh, lagoons and turquoise shallows. Divers can now head out with Avalon to explore sinkholes, coral walls and hawksbill turtles in these remote waters.
On a budget? Stay in the tiny village of Caletón right on the Bay of Pigs where a small indy beach scene has emerged. After touring the Bay of Pigs invasion museum at Playa Girón, find beachfront B&Bs, restaurants with snapper on the BBQ, and bars serving up rum cocktails on the sand at Caletón, next to Playa Larga. All the B&B owners will fix you up with guides and transfers. Stay at the cute one-bedroomed Chalet La Casita right on the sand or just around the corner at the modern Casa de Alexis y Dignora where bikes can be hired to discover hidden beaches.
Don’t miss the hummingbird garden at the Casa de Zunzuncito in Palpite, north of Caletón. You’re guaranteed a sighting here of the tiny zunzuncito, the bee hummingbird, and the smallest flight of feather in the world. Lovers of wildlife should head to the national park for guides to the sights and sounds of the natural world. Keen birders should stay with the twitcher and photographer hosts at Casa Ana away from the bustle of Caletón.
In Cienfuegos, just an hour east of the Bay of Pigs, and the only city founded by the French in the Americas, track down the brilliant choir, Cantores de Cienfuegos. Try to pitch up in the city, too, for the biennial festival (a moveable feast) dedicated to Cuba’s famous musical virtuoso Beny Moré. Curious about Cuba’s religions? Book a professor who will take you on a deep dive into the island’s Afro-Cuban religions . Stay in artsy Casa Buenavista.
At sunset, climb to the rooftop bar at the Moorish Palacio del Valle, once the private home of a sugar baron, for cocktails and a live band. Salud!