Photo: Balint Földesi
As many Americans and others realize, now is the time to visit the island country of Cuba. “The country has changed more in the last five years than in all its history,” Cubans say, as foreigners enjoy home stays, five-star hotels spring up in Havana, tour buses queue in formerly off-the-grid towns, airports expand, and culinary traditions widen. And it’s about to change even more, not only because of the growth in tourism since US/Cuba relations were liberalized, but because that liberalization could be threatened under a Trump administration.
For those chomping at the bit to get to Cuba as my husband and I were, here’s a ten-day itinerary based on a trip we took in November 2016.
Havana is the obvious place to begin and it’s a real charmer of a city. There are, of course, the 1950s cars, the 8-km. Malecón, and the stunning architecture, some of it still crumbling, much of it restored or in the process. There’s the Hemingway connection, the National Theatre, the art museums, the Museum of the Revolution, and the joy of rambling around Havana Vieja, with its historic sites, four splendid plazas, eateries and street theater. Another of Havana’s many charms is the friendliness of the people in the streets, in the Plaza Central, in the shops and elsewhere. It’s a warmth you can experience anywhere in Cuba, but in Havana it has a special energy. We advise spending four full days there so that you can experience things like the famous Coppelia ice cream venue, the little museum that lovingly features Cuba’s beloved ballerina Alicia Alonso, a stroll on the Paseo del Prado, and of course, the Partagas cigar factory, for which you will need tickets, available from the travel agency in the annex of the Hotel Central. (Beware misinformation: the Partagas factory is the only one that allows visitors.)
We also recommend the splendid casa particular in the Vedado neighborhood where we stayed. Casas are home stays and are usually rather modest, but this one was housed in an apartment building and beautifully furnished while the owner, Marta, and her staff were so special we felt like we were with family in their well-appointed home (which offers breakfast on the 11th floor with views of the Malecón). There are also two fine restaurants each a block away from the casa, Idilio and Mediterránea.
After leaving Havana, we recommend stays of one or two nights, depending upon time of arrival and departure. The next stop after Havana offers a choice. If you want to experience one of Cuba’s beautiful nature spots, great for hiking and horseback trekking, head for Viñales and its National Park, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Viñales, a two-hour drive from Havana, is a slow, relaxed agricultural town, making it a good rest stop after the rigors of experiencing Havana. (While there are good buses, they take substantially longer so we recommend having a driver if possible to avoid delays.) One of the best casas in Viñales is Villa Los Reyes, a modern house with three guest rooms, good food, and a lovely patio on which to eat it. Villa Pitin & Juana is another one. If you choose to visit Viñales, be aware that from there to Trinidad, or Santa Clara, is a long drive so you may want to overnight back in Havana.
VinalesViñales, CubaFor those travelers who are eager to venture off the beaten path (on horseback!), don’t miss this unique escape to a sea of tobacco fields and friendly locals, only 90 minutes outside of La Habana,
For those more interested in Cuban history, head to Santa Clara, a three-hour drive from Havana (also reachable by bus but slower). It was here that Che Guevara and a group of rebels, against all odds, blew up an armored train carrying more than 400 of dictator Batista’s soldiers in 1958. The Monumento a la toma del tren blindado showcases the bulldozer that tore up the tracks to stop the train, several rail cars, and an impressive statute comprised of monolithic concrete pieces shooting upward as if the blast had just occurred. Santa Clara is also home to the impressive monument to Che at the Plaza de la Revolución – where you’ll see the words Hasta la victoria siempre (Ever onward to victory) on the base of Che’s statue, and everywhere else you go. There is a museum adjacent to the statue wall commemorating the events that took place here.
A great way to go from one of these attractions to the other is by horse-drawn carriage, which is some distance on a route that meanders through the city. And a nice place to stay in Santa Clara is the Hostal Florida Center. This casa is comprised of two large formerly private homes across the street from each other. The one for checking in and dining is like something out of an Isabelle Allende novel, full of assorted “antiques” and collectables ranging from 1950s TVs to dark paintings, ornate chandeliers and tufted furniture, but try to stay in the other (green) house, which has been nicely redecorated and has a rooftop bar. Dinner is served al fresco in the main house in a large garden setting, accompanied by live music. After dinner, take a short walk to the lively Plaza de Centro. Be sure, too, to visit Ay Mama Café down the street from the casa which features aspects of the black Cuban music tradition.
From either Viñales or Santa Clara, head to Trinidad, with a possible short stop in Cienfuegos, “Pearl of the South,” which is situated around a beautiful bay and has a lovely central square known as Parque Marti.
Trinidad is a charming town known for the sound of clip-clopping horses on cobblestone streets. It was once a Spanish colonial settlement and is little changed from its booming 19th century days. Its small Plaza Mayor, another UNESCO site, is one of the nicest in Cuba. It hosts the Museo Histórico Municipal and other museums, and the famous tower adjacent to the history museum where tourists climb to the top on winding wooden stairs for a splendid view of the town and its environs. The plaza also offers lovely restaurants and a few nice shops, and nearby there is a Santería house where you can see a black Madonna and learn more about the Cuban religion based on both Christianity and African Voo Doo. On the main street, there is a lovely café called Dulcinea for afternoon tea, and a juice bar called Cecelia’s where you can pick up fresh-squeezed juice to add to the bottle of rum you’ve probably stashed at your casa. The main street also offers lots of casas and good restaurants but we recommend Casa Muñoz – Julio & Rosa, which offers three rooms or an apartment and good food but requires early booking because it is “insanely popular” as the Lonely Planet guidebook says.
Another treat associated with Trinidad is Playa Ancón, said to be the most beautiful beach in southern Cuba. Six miles from town, we spent an entire day under shade trees on the long, wide crescent beach where drinks and lunch were brought around by waiters and the water was clear, warm and decidedly inviting.
The final stop we recommend on this ten-day itinerary is the lovely town of Sancti Spiritus, located not far from Trinidad or Santa Clara. (It was here that we witnessed the funeral cortege of Fidel Castro, who died while we were in Havana.) Some people say this charming town is Trinidad without any tourist hassles. It was founded in the early 16th century by Diego Velázquez and is home to the guayabera shirt, guava, and a lovely little bridge called Puente Yayabo “that wouldn’t look out of place in Yorkshire, England,” as Lonely Planet puts it. It also has one of the prettiest plazas in Cuba, the Parque Serafín Sánchez.
The countryside around Trinidad and Sancti Spiritus is pleasant to see. Men plow their fields walking behind oxen, sugar cane fields abound, often with mountain backdrops, farm animals graze, caballeros ride past on horseback, horse or donkey-drawn carts make their way lazily along the roadside, simple houses dot the landscape.
Ready for some hotel amenities (like a guaranteed hot shower and sheets that actually fit the bed properly, not to mention CNN and Internet) we stayed in the Hotel Plaza there. Unlike other hotels in rural Cuba, all of which are government-owned and often drab, this one was like a boutique hotel. It had an inviting lobby that was modern but traditional Cuban at the same time, fronted by a pleasant outdoor café overhung with room balconies. The dining room was inviting in its simple suggestion of elegance, and our room couldn’t have been better. A big bonus was the wonderful staff, who brought broth to the room because I wasn’t feeling well.
For those with a few days more to spend in Cuba, there are other places of note to visit, among them Camagüey and Santiago. (The distance between Havana and Santiago is 600 miles.) But following this itinerary will afford an excellent glimpse of Cuban life both urban and rural, and includes insight into the island country’s history, economy, politics, culture and joie de’vivre.
So ¡buen viaje! And please have a Cuba Libre or a mojito for me!
Ave. de los Presidentes y Calle 13
Vedado, La Habana
Villa Los Reyes
Salvador Cisneros No 206C
Villa Pitin & Juana
Carretera a Pinar del Rio No. 2, Km 25
Hostal Florida Center
56 Entre Colon/Maceo
PH from Havana: 42 208 161
Casa Munoz-Julio & Rosa
Jose Marti No 401, cnr Escobar
Independencia Norte No 1,
PH within Cuba: 41 32 71 02