An article published last month in Spanish newspaper El Pais’ online version explores Cuba in ways most visitors overlook and in places largely unknown to tourists so that you can have 15 real adventures well away from the typical tourist haunts.
While some of the places in the list (like the Vinales Valleys or The Valley of the Sugar Mills) are indeed included in some packaged tour’s itineraries, other adventures require a more DIY approach; such as rediscovering Cuban gastronomy in the new private restaurants or “paladares” that are taking cities by storm, especially Havana. While many tourists could easily tick two to five of the adventures recommended in this list during their holidays in Cuba, it is highly unlikely most would have covered them all in a single visit. So, without further ado here are:
15 adventures to really discover Cuba
Climbing to the top of Turquino Peak
Climbing Cuba’s highest peak, found in the historic eastern mountain range of Sierra Maestra, is, according to El Pais, a rare privilege that up until now had been reserved for intrepid nationals but which, in more recent years is being experienced by more and more foreign tourists with a taste for heights. Going off the beaten path to do this climb has many rewards, and while guides are essential (and obligatory) to take on this challenging two-to-three-day climb, the experience still feels wild and rough enough as it’s not yet become an overly trodden tourist hotspot.
The advice here is not to miss the opportunity to take a detour towards what once was Fidel Castro’s headquarters during the rebel fight he led against president Batista. And for those adventurers that, besides climbing, also enjoy diving, there’s one more unmissable attraction right on this spot: the area where former Spanish cruiser, Cristobal Colon, sank leaving behind a snorkeller’s dream found just 30 metres off the coast of La Mula. This is Cuba’s largest shipwreck, a vestige from the war between Cuba, Spain and the United States. The best bit? You only need a pair of goggles and a snorkel to discover it!
Trekking with a surprise in Baracoa
Sitting atop rolling hills there is a dreamy, sleepy, verdant place that feels quite remote and peculiar, even for Cuban: Baracoa. Because of its changing Atlantic weather, its rather eccentric inhabitants and its sheer will to be different, Baracoa is like nowhere else in the island, mostly for very good reasons indeed. Here you can spot locals climbing coconut palms, listen to the locals bands playing kiriba (a version of Cuban son unique to this region) and, above all, enjoy its rather spicy (another first for Cuba), imaginative and hearty gastronomy.
El Pais says the best way to help one of these go down is to go for a stroll in one of the city’s natural enclaves; most notably the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, the most spectacular and diverse in Cuba, named in honour of the German scientist and explorer who first visited the region in 1801. It’s been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001 but it wasn’t measured or mapped until 1966 and the first walkable path or trail giving walkable access to the area only happened 20 years ago in 1996. One of the highlights of a visit to this blessed verdant paradise is the Salto Fino waterfall, the tallest in all of the Caribbean, unknown to even the large majority of Cubans.
Feeding sharks in Camaguey
The next place recommended for a Cuban adventure is not quite east and it’s certainly not west, it stands on its own quite different to the rest. It’s a place that goes its own way, nothing like Havana and nothing like Santiago; quite simply Camagueyan to the core. Tourists who make a stop here generally do so to tour its capital, also named Camaguey, a city with a riveting story of pirates, clay “tinajones”, dainty churches and labyrinthic streets that are somewhat reminiscent of a Moroccan medina but with Catholic churches instead of mosques and hidden squares and artistic little secrets in every corner.
Beyond its aesthetically pleasing cityscapes full of colour and history there are natural enclaves that deserve a visit or two, such as its famous offshore keys (most notably the Sabana-Camaguey archipelago) and the long Santa Lucia beach which rivals Varadero in terms of size and quality of resorts. Diving enthusiasts will find here one of the best coral reefs on this side of the island’s coastline and 35 diving sites to choose from. Another thing Camaguey’s waters are famous for are its shark-feeding sessions. Shark-feeding season is between June and January, so those eager to witness those impressive jaws in action should mind those dates.
Sleeping in a "casa particular"
Nowadays ranking high on most tourists’ “to-do” lists for truly experiencing Cuba and immersing in the local way of life, staying in a "casa particular" at least for a day or two, has become the quintessential thing to do in Cuba, and for a good reason too (or rather a few good reasons). By this they mean staying in a private home, also popularly known in the Cuban slang as “casa particular”, which locals rent out to tourists and which come in all shapes and sizes – from rooms inside grand colonial homes with live-in hosts to entire standalone flats with striking city or sea views and swanky mansions with private pool in the likes of elegant residential neighbourhoods such as Havana’s Miramar.
El Pais classes meeting and staying with Cubans as yet another adventure as thrilling and fascinating as any other. Of course this only applies if you stay in a casa particular with live-in hosts where you can share a bottle of rum with the owner (and possibly his or her family), with lively music in the background while you enjoy a jolly good chat amongst friends (many hosts speak some level of English, especially in Havana). This is Cuba at it most spontaneous. According to El Pais, the hosts also tend to be excellent tourist guides that can give great first-hand tips and recommendations.
There’s over a thousand casas particulares in Havana to choose from (you’ll recognise them by the blue sign hanging on the door and reading “Arrendador Divisa) and over 500 in Trinidad. Elsewhere in Cuba you’ll find them too although much lower in variety, number (and sometimes quality). Indeed some casas in Havana could easily qualify as five-star B&Bs, at least by Cuban standards. But that’s not the idea here; as they suggest you book one for the cultural immersion not for luxury, so star-rating should be the last thing on your mind, while quirkiness and location should be at the very top.
Rediscovering Cuban gastronomy
Cuba is at a point in its culinary history where a true revolution is happening. Cubans don’t want to lag behind other Latin American countries in the taste race and are rediscovering food as a stamp of identity. Prior to the last few years Cuban food had been labelled as bland, unimaginative, repetitive and often featuring low quality ingredients (such as canned meats and vegetables). But this was mostly reflective of government-owned hotels and restaurants.
The new surge in privately owned restaurants (also known as "paladares") has raised the stakes in both the quality and variety of dishes and ingredients. Fierce competition in big cities like Havana have helped shape up the culinary sector since the 2011 reforms came into place; allowing for more freedom in private enterprises. This saw the number of private restaurants soar almost overnight and as a consequence Cuban food has been reinventing itself over and over to leave its mark; a good one this time.
El Pais recommends Viñales for the best and most authentic Creole recipes while Trinidad offers an increasingly good variety of venues with over 90 private restaurants (a big number for such a small town) and remote Baracoa stands out for its unique regional specialties and for serving Cuba’s spiciest and sweetest fare.
In Havana you might be overwhelmed by the choice as this is where some restaurants really compete in international standards. El Pais highlights gourmet choices such as Le Chanssonier (although it has been closed until further notice) and Cafe Laurent for a refined French touch or Rancho Blanco and La Moneda Cubana for typical Cuban cuisine, while the most legendary (and oldest of them all), La Guarida is an unmissable classic that plays host to virtually every international star and celebrity that visits the island. Plus, it’s also set on the actual set of Oscar-nominated Cuban film, Fresa y Chocolate.
Experiencing the keys Robinson Crusoe-style
Like most other Caribbean nations, Cuba is an archipelago - and a big one at that, so it will come as no surprise to hear it boasts over 4,000 offshore keys and small isles, the vast majority of which are uninhabited. El Pais points to the biggest of them all: La Isla de la Juventud, or Isle of Youth.
Once the refuge of pirates, gangsters and those escaping justice, the island’s famous pine forests were the hideout spot for many of these outlaws. Unsurprisingly, this was the reason it used to be named Isla de Pinos (Isle of Pines) before 1978. Its name change happened as a result of it playing host to a large number of international students in its famous schools. Nowadays however it attracts a completely different crowd - tourists, and they come here because of the area’s coastal wonders and colourful underwater world. Still, they don’t come in vast numbers as there is only one hotel here and its guests are almost exclusively, divers.
So it feels nice and remote and with up to isolated 22 diving sites to explore you’ll feel like a true adventurer. You can even arrange a sailing trip over a few days navigating through the different adjacent keys. To do so, El Pais suggest head to Hotel Colony in Pinar del Rio or book it at the Marina Internacional de Cayo Largo.
Beach-basking and low-budget cinema in Gibara
Before the invasion of beach loungers and refreshment stalls, Columbus described this bit of land in Cuba’s northern coast as “the most beautiful place his eyes had ever seen”. Nowadays visitors tend to agree. The beaches in Gibara continue to be a beloved tourist destination because they don’t lack reasons: fine white sands, exuberant verdant hills and coral reefs teeming with abundant marine life. A coastal paradise outlined by idyllic beaches (and tourist resorts) larger than Varadero in total extension size but less isolated than Cayo Coco.
To add to its allure, the rural world lies just minutes away from its most famous beaches: Playa Pesquero, Playa Esmeralda and Guardalavaca, all ideal for snorkelling in shallow, crystal-clear waters. The most inquisitive and curious of travellers can venture further inland towards Gibara, a place only comparable to Baracoa, where geography, meteorology and culture have jointly conspired to create something unique and quite magical.
Every April a rather unique celebration takes place there as one of the world’s most original festivals takes place: the Festival Internacional de Cine Pobre (International Festival of Poor / Low-Budget Cinema), which draws the attention of film-makers all over the world who come in troves to attend and check out the local film scene. All it lacks in glamour it makes up for with new emerging talent. It’s quite a colourful event if you happen to make it to Gibara during those dates.
Uncovering the secrets of an Abakua
This experience is all about exploring the influence of African religions and immersing in that important slice of Cuban culture. The word “Abakua” stands for a secret men’s society or fraternity that initiates men into the secrets of African religion where they are taught the mystical practices from the Igbo, Efik, Efut and Ibibo spirits of the forest. It has been described as “an Afro-Cuban version of Freemasonry” and the best place to witness all this folklore is the city of Matanzas as it’s here where one of the few authentic African cults still survives.
El Pais explains Matanzas real identity is the Abakua society which brings together a complex mix of religious initiation, dances, songs and drum beats with ceremonies that are a living testimony of the survival of African culture in Cuba dating back to the time slaves were brought over by the Spanish colonisers. El Pais adds that, if you can’t make it to Matanzas you still have the chance to explore Abakua religion in two of Havana’s municipalities: Regla and Guanabacoa.
While the former’s popular church attracts as many catholic worshippers as those who follow African religions’ traditions (and indeed those who do both, as Cubans say “just in case”) the latter has earned a reputation as “the haunted town” thanks to its strong African “santeria” beliefs and vast number of practicing followers. Here they recommend you go for a hearty meal at the Centro Cultural Recreativo Los Orishas, where weekend rumba performances take place and where abundant food is served in a garden surrounded by santeriea dieties.
Alternatively, if you can’t make it to either Cuban city, El Pais says that the eastern province of Santiago brings the opportunity to uncover the secrets of Palo Monte, a different cult of African origin that distinguishes itself from santeria in that instead of worshipping deities they worship ancestors and hone the belief in natural terrestrial powers found in elements like water, the mountains, and above all “palos” (wood sticks).
Parrandas and colonial luxury
For some, Remedios is destined to become Cuba’s second main destination in a few years. The relatively unknown picturesque town of San Juan de los Remedios is currently developing at lightning speed. This enchanting colonial city close to Cuba’s northern keys used to be way off the tourist radar but its charms can’t be kept a secret for too long as more and more have been drawn to its unique attractions and colourful appeal.
El Pais makes emphasis on visiting this town now if you don’t want to be in the company of crowds of tourists. Famous for the Che Guevara legacy and celebrating New Year’s Eve in the most outrageous way, Remedios never fails to leave a mark. But it’s ultimately Remedios’ legendary Parrandas that make a big bang and distinguish this little town from everywhere else in the world. These parrandas are no more than the special carnival-like festivities to celebrate the coming of the New Year in the most flamboyant of ways: the town splits in two halves (two neighbourhoods) where each has the task of building the most ambitious, beautiful float (locally called “trabajo de plaza”). The competition is fierce and the winner is the decided by the cheering public on New Year’s but amidst it all there’s plenty of street merriment in the way of never-ending parties lit up by fireworks.
Remedios also has the peculiarity of being Cuba’s second oldest settlement, dating all the way back to 1613 and its charm is more than evident despite it not featuring in most tourist guides. A forgotten colonial jewel that is home to some of the island’s best boutique hotels. El Pais recommends staying at La Estancia, housed in an 1849 building featuring original ceiling beams and exquisitely furnished with vintage colonial items (and the only swimming pool in town) or at the Hotel Mascotte; where you can appreciate the grandeur and elegance of Cuba’s days gone by from a great location right next to the main square.
Visiting an “eco-town”
Las Terrazas is the only purposely created eco-town in all of Cuba that’s also home to the country’s most eco-friendly resort. It's a place you shouldn’t overlook if you want to get back to basics and enjoy the purest of nature while admiring the work of the local green enthusiasts.
A small community of around 1,200 inhabitants, Las Terrazas is a completely self-sufficient and sustainable eco-project initiated after saving acres of forest in the event of an ecological disaster. It was then that the local people decided to start working on building their own town with every ecological measure possible.
El Pais highlights the Hotel Moka as being respectful to the environment and the most eco-friendly in the country. In its vicinity you will find artisan workshops, a vegetarian restaurant and a small cultivation field. Las Terrazas’ eco-credentials were so successful that in 1985 the nearby Sierra del Rosario mountain range became the first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Cuba.
Close to both Havana and Varadero, Las Terrazas also has dozens of hidden plantations throughout the jungle and in the nearby province of Artemisa. El Pais recommend checking out the Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, an old coffee plantation that has now been declared a National Monument. This is the place to discover Cuba at its most rural and authentic. In its heyday this coffee plantation was worked by 500 slaves and became one of the island’s top coffee producers. It’s featured in novels by James A. Michener and Alejo Carpentier. Very quiet, remote, isolated and picturesque, nowadays it resembles an old roman ruin in the midst of nature.
Hiking and caving in Vinales
As El Pais is quick to point out the UNESCO-listed Valley of Vinales is the ideal place for doing a bit of potholing if that’s something that strikes your fancy. Selected as one of the Top 30 Places to Travel to in 2016 by Lonely Planet, this rich valley stands out in Cuba due to its vast landscapes dotted by uniquely shaped “mogotes” ideal for intrepid climbers and home to amazing caves. This protected national park extends for 150 square kilometres in which you’ll not only come across amazing endemic flora and fauna but also small communities cultivating coffee, tobacco, sugarcane, oranges, avocados and bananas.
f you want to embark on amazing speleology expeditions there are great places to do so here, such as the Cueva de San Miguel or Cueva del Indio, both really popular with tourists. Even when there’s still much to be done to make this area a solid destination for cave enthusiasts, the potential and possibilities are endless. Proof of this is the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas on the valley’s western side – the biggest cave system in Cuba (and the second in the Americas) split across eight levels and offering over 46 kilometres of galleries of which only one is open to visitors.
El Pais points out that while the park itself offers many official excursions it’s not always easy to get a guide – an essential requirement to do certain activities. On the other hand, El Pais describes Vinales as a paradise for climbers, unknown to many for years but where many climbing enthusiasts from the world over have been venturing to over the last decade. Even when climbing it’s not an authorised sports practice in Cuba and there’s no maps available nor official information with regards to climbing, those eager to do a bit of climbing in this region can log on to the Cuba Climbing website and buy the local climbing guide online. However, El Pais is quick to remind enthusiasts that this is a national park lacking rules in respect of this practice so they must take every precaution so as to not damage the local flora and threatened ecosystems while embarking on any climbing expedition.
There’s also nowhere to buy or rent climbing material and security equipment here nor is there a rescue service in place in the case of accidents, so every climber is on their own and at their own risk. Locals are the best help and guide. Having said that the newspaper article concludes by adding that the park already offers excellent short climbing routes such as the Wasp Factory, or longer ones requiring more equipment and skill such as the pioneering Mr. Mogote (at 200 metres high and 4 metres in length).
Swimming in virgin waters
The finest example of all that remains virginal in Cuba yet can be explored (on guided expeditions though, never on your own as this is extremely well-protected territory) is found in Jardines de la Reina, an amazingly immaculately preserved underwater park found right at the heart of Cuba’s northern coastline. Untouched virtually since Columbus first discovered it.
Located 80 kilometres to the south of the province of Ciego de Avila, we’re talking about an archipelago comprising 120 kilometres of mangrove swamps and a small island surrounded by an untouched coral reef system. No one lives here, there are no inhabitants and visitors only gain access to this pristine region aboard the floating hotel La Tortuga, a liveaboard ship split in two levels and sleeping up to 21 divers.
Once in these waters the main attraction are undoubtedly the whale sharks and hammerheads, attracting diving enthusiast from the world over. Getting here is neither easy nor cheap. There are organised excursions that include diving equipment, stay and entry to this natural reserve as well as permission to dive here. Another option is making your way sailing from Cienfuegos.
Immersing in the passion for baseball
Even after the revolution ousted most things American-owned or America-related, the US influence in terms of the passion for baseball stayed firmly on, much like the old 50s Chevrolets and Chryslers. Baseball is the king sport in Cuba even when over the last decade it has lost part of the newer generation of Cuban fans in favour of football. Still, Cubans are keen and talented baseballers and the place to verify this claim is the Parque Central in Havana, where a microcosm of Cuban life can be easily observed.
From here the “Esquina Caliente” (Hot Corner), where (mostly) men gather to discuss baseball tactics and the latest goings-on in the national league, can be quickly spotted. The best time of year to experience this baseball furore is during baseball season from October to March, reaching its climax in April with the final series. El Pais says this is the time where baseball passion is at its most overflowing, from fans debating and dissecting every minimal detail of the matches to small sport clubs or “hot corners”.
Going fishing with Hemingway
As El Pais outlines, the American writer wasn’t wrong when picking Cuba as his writing muse for a number of his novels; including one of his most famous: The Old Man and the Sea, telling the story of a Cuban fisherman’s struggle to catch a large marlin. Unsurprisingly, Cuba was Hemingway’s fishing paradise and that of many other fishing aficionados who flock here to benefit from the island’s all-year-long fishing season, thanks to the quick currents from the Gulf entering the island’s northern coast and creating the perfect fishing conditions whatever the time of year.
According to El Pais you are guaranteed to catch sailfish, tuna, mackerel, swordfish, blue marlin, barracuda and shark. Fishing in Cuba’s deep waters is a great way to relax, share a few beers, enjoy spectacular sunsets, mingle with experienced local fishermen and make new friends; all whilst leaving behind every care in the world. El Pais suggests bringing a copy of The Old Man and the Sea along to add to the experience.
In terms of where to go fishing in Cuba, El Pais recommends Cayo Guillermo as the best fishing spot of all, while another safe bet is either of Havana’s two ports: Tarara and the aptly named Marina Hemingway. And for those who want to follow in Hemingway’s footsteps, Cojimar is the seaside town to visit; home to the author’s former home in Finca Vigia – a museum today that preserves every single item just as the author left it. Here you can view Hemingway’s fishing yacht, El Pilar, and the pool where Ava Gardner reportedly swam in once - naked.
The Valley of the Sugar Mills
El Pais introduces this hidden beauty by presenting the closest town to it: Trinidad. A tourist destination in its own right and a rather magical place where all clocks seem to have stopped at the end of the 19th century, Trinidad doesn’t leave anyone indifferent. If it wasn’t for the tourists now present it would still look stuck in 1850, the time when Cuba’s prosperous sugar cane industry came to its most fruitful point, allowing sugar plantation owners to amass enormous wealth.
The money-making machine for Trinidad’s rich landowners and aristocrats was El Valle de los Ingenios, or Valley of the Sugar Mills, located some 8 kilometres to the east of the city. You can easily make your way there from Trinidad on the back of a horse, a mode of transport that alllows you to further immerse in the history and beauty of the local vegetation, taking in the most amazing landscapes.
Once you arrive to the former plantation you’ll be able to admire the ruins of a large number of 19th century sugar industry paraphernalia; including, machinery, slave quarters, stately homes and even a steam train that remains in full working order. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the region’s tall palm trees, verdant meadows and colonial ruins all come together to create the most unique and captivating of landscapes.
Obligatory stops include the lookout point at Mirador de la Loma del Puerto, which offers the best panoramic view of all the valley, and, if you’re in luck, you might catch the steam train that runs through it. Horseback routes are arranged by a variety of groups, among them El Pais highlights the Centro Ecuestre Diana de Trinidad.
But, how to do it all?
After reading this long list you may well wonder whether anyone would be able to pack all these fifteen Cuban adventures in a single visit. The short answers is yes, of course, but you would need to plan carefully in advance and it´s far easier to do with the help of expert tour operators specialising in the country, like ourselves, as Cuba has its tricky aspects when it comes to arranging transport and even getting room availability at some of the most coveted hotels and casas particulares.
The second answer would be that if you don´t have the time or the budget to tour the entire country in a single holiday, you certainly don´t need to do it all in a single go. In fact it can be far more special to save a new adventure for every time you come to Cuba and that way you´ll always have a reason for coming back; again and again.