Like many Canadians, I was eager to get down to Cuba before the flood gates open for the Americans. It’s been a popular destination in my years of selling travel and I felt as if I had already been there just from selling upwards of 100 vacations to the island. As a lover of cities, I am not overly intrigued by the “flop and drop” all-inclusive style vacation. My girlfriend and I opted to book ourselves a country tour with Geckos Adventures, which included home stays, transportation and optional excursions in each destination. Below are my favourite activities and restaurants (yes you can get great food in Cuba!) across this culturally charged country.
Must Do: Mojito Pub Crawl
With only one night in Havana, we decided to seek out the best mojito the city had to offer. We followed in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway to the tiny, music-filled La Bodeguita Del Medio then the classy Floridita corner bar to mix in a daiquiri beside a statue of the famous writer. After trekking across Old Havana, we stumbled upon the beautiful rooftop patio of La Guardita and its stunning panoramic views. We finished up at the iconic terrace of Hotel Nacional to watch the sunset among roaming peacocks.
Must Eat: Sociedad Asturiana Castropol
While strolling the Malecon shortly after sunset, we were invited into a restaurant by a friendly hostess. The waiter then escorted us to our table on the second floor patio overlooking the port. We opted to split a local dish of sautéed shrimp in a spicy sauce with fried plantains and mixed veggies and their in-house specialty – stone oven thin-crust pizza. Not knowing about Cuba’s knack for great Italian pie, we were pleasantly surprised by how tasty it was. Sangria was a refreshing choice after a long day exploring in the sun.
Must Do: Che Guevara Mausoleum
After a 3-hour bus ride, we pulled up to the awe inspiring 40-foot tall statue of the famous Che Guevara. We explored the grounds and were given an English translation of his beautifully written farewell letter to Fidel Castro, which is inscribed on the stone to Che’s left in Spanish. Because of the heavy rain, the underground mausoleum was closed for the afternoon. Luckily we were able to return the following morning to take a well-documented walk through Che’s life and examine many of his writings and possessions.
Must Eat: El Alba
Located just one block east of the city’s central square, Parque Vidal, sits this unassuming local favourite. Known for their authentic Cuban cuisine, generous portions and exceptionally low prices, the restaurant did not disappoint in any way. Since there was no conversion into the tourist currency (CUC – Cuban Convertible Peso) on the menu, the waitress simply divided the price of the most expensive dish by 25 on my phone calculator, bringing our entrees to under 4 CAD per person. We enjoyed an appetizer, cervezas and mains for only 10 CUC.
Must Do: Disco Ayala
Tucked into the hillside of Trinidad’s northeast limits is this unique nightclub set in an underground cave. I had experienced something similar in Punta Cana, with smaller separate sections of cave, but the high ceiling dance and bar area in this cave club made it far superior. It’s about a 10-minute uphill walk from the main square, which can make getting home down the old cobblestone streets tricky. If you don’t mind a little bit of smoke, it makes for a fantastic big night out with a group of friends.
Must Eat: Cubita Restaurant
This spot came highly recommended from our tour guide as an upscale dining experience. Only 5-minutes walk from the tourist traps surrounding the central square and famous steps was a row of simple looking restaurants that you would easily miss if you weren’t looking for them. The décor was vintage Cuban, complete with a flautist and acoustic guitarist playing softly in the backround. We shared fried plantains stuffed with shredded beef and cheese, along with a large portion of sautéed lamb, rice and beans and a mixed salad.
Must Do: Cayo Levisa
With temperatures in the mid 40s, we decided to head for the coast. A full-day excursion to a beautiful island was an hour bus ride and a 30-minute ferry away. As we approached the 5km long island, we noticed an untouched beach on the eastern coast. After lounging in front of the hotel and having a traditional ham & cheese sandwich, we ventured east on a sandy trail through the mangrove forest, careful not to step on hermit crabs. Perhaps too far of a walk for most, we had the beachy tip of the island to ourselves all afternoon.
Must Eat: Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso
Touted by some as the best family-style meal in Cuba, this organic farm is a can’t miss for foodies. Set on a hilltop overlooking the Vinales valley, it’s a perfect spot for a sunset dining experience with a big group. The vegetable soup was soon followed by fresh fish, polenta, barbequed chicken, sweet potatoes, cucumber and tomato salad and shredded lamb, just to name a few dishes. Their in-house special drink was dubbed ‘an anti-stress concoction’ that was very similar to a delicious pina colada.
The last 2 days of the trip were spent at a resort in Varadero, and although the beach was beautiful, we missed the people and freedom to explore the country we fell in love with. If you’re planning a trip to Cuba, I challenge you to get outside of the comfortable confines of an all-inclusive resort and spend a few days exploring what this amazing country has to offer before it loses its vintage charm.