Cuban Culture Holidays

Delve into Cuba's unique cultural treasure trove and experience the music, the art, the energy and creative spirit of a people renowned for their love of a good time.

Heaven for culture lovers, Cuba is best known for its intoxicating music and hypnotic dances, coveted cigars and rum cocktails. But it also has a thriving art scene, an abundance of galleries and museums showcasing its rich culture and heritage, and a welcoming spirit that allows travellers to truly experience Cuban culture in all its colourful glory. Here we enlighten you on the top cultural attractions in Cuba, what to do and where to go to get in touch with the country's cultural world with a round-up of the main places to visit in main cities like Havana, Varadero, Trinidad, Vinales and Santiago de Cuba for a cultural encounter like no other.

From £869 per person

Cuba fizzes with creative expression and a communal spirit that makes sharing in its cultural riches easy for curious visitors. Geography - the island's closeness to Latin America and the US state of Florida - and history - from Spanish colonialism and African slave settlers to the values of the socialist revolution - have bestowed Cuba with a unique cultural identity. As an island with a history of resistance to outside domination, it resolutely dances to its own tune. The fusion of African and Iberian cultures has sparked creative magic on the island, producing original strains of music and dance - son, salsa, mambo, rumba and timba - that are irresistible to visitors. In fact, Cuba's vibrant music scene best exemplifies its colourful cultural melting pot.

Like most countries, island culture is at its most vibrant in the chief cities. The Cuban capital of Havana has become a travel icon for its melee of crumbling architectural jewels and ambient streets filled with intoxicating music, the rumble of classic cars and the waft of inimitable cigars. The city offers travellers a large dose of Cuban culture and is a highlight of any cultural tour. Similarly, Santiago de Cuba is a hot destination for culture lovers, home of energetic Afro-Cuban rhythms, the Fiesta de Fuego and the annual carnival.

To get immersed in Cuban culture, consider taking salsa lessons, go see some live music, or take a tour of local artists' studios and galleries. The warm and inviting spirit of the Cuban people means it's easy to get strong impressions of local life, whether that's strolling the streets and squares, dining at paladares run out of people's homes, or joining in the dancing at one of the many music halls. Visitors can also get close to the island's rural life with a visit to the centuries-old plantations that produce its most prized products - tobacco and sugar.

Deep musical roots

Cuban culture finds its clearest expression in the nation's love of music. The country's distinctive music originates in a fusion of African rhythms and percussion brought to Cuba by slaves working on sugar plantations and the musical structure and guitar-based melodies brought to the island by Spanish colonialists. Famous for its fluid form of salsa and the son rhythms popularised by the Cuban band Buena Vista Social Club, the island has become a hotbed of musical and dance talent.

Expert musicians and captivating dancers can be found everywhere from Havana's Tropicana club to the streets of Santiago de Cuba. You'll find special venues known as Casas de la Trova and Casas de la Musica showcase the local music scene, so it's easy to encounter it during a visit to Cuba's towns and cities.

Experiencing a heady night in Havana's music venues and dance halls, air thick with cigar smoke and the intoxicating rhythms of salsa and son, gives travellers a glimpse of the collective joy and carefree vibe engendered by Cuba's musical culture. Salsa lovers may even be lucky enough to catch a performance of the acclaimed Buena Vista Social Club, Los Van Van or Habana D' Primera during their stay in the capital. These bands regularly pop up at Casa de la Musica or Cafe Taberna, as well as other local venues.

You can experience traditional music all over the island, but the southern city of Santiago de Cuba is the number one destination for traditional Cuban music enthusiasts. The birthplace of Afro-Cuban song and dance, it is also the home of Cuba's most popular annual carnival (Santiago carnival) and the Fiesta del Fuego street party, which are? a dazzling celebration of Caribbean culture. Go in July when the city's atmospheric colonial streets and squares are filled with a riot of colour, dance and music, as parades, parties and open-air concerts turn up the heat.

A dancing spirit that moves it all

Music in Cuba is irremediably tied to the dancing effect it provokes in its people. Music moves Cuba in a spiritual and physical sense, and dancing is strongly embedded in Cuban culture. People love dancing as much as they love listening to music and they often combine the two at every opportunity. It's not rare to see a couple join in impromptu dancing on the street to the sound of a blasting from a local home. Indeed many people in Cuba play music loud enough for the whole neighbourhood to enjoy.

It's not by chance that Cuba happens to be home to so many different music genres that also gave way to different dancing styles. From the danzon to the cha cha cha, mambo, son, rumba, guaganco and bolero - they were all born in Cuba and each style of dancing was created to accompany each different music genre.

But beyond popular dancing forms and styles like salsa, mambo and cha cha cha (and more recently reggaeton), Cuba excels in other classical expressions of movement like ballet. The Cuban National Ballet (Ballet Nacional de Cuba) stages world-class performances from its legendary base in Gran Teatro de La Habana. Founded and still under the command of Cuban Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Alicia Alonso, this 67-year-old school is highly acclaimed all over the world and officially recognised as one of the world's leading ballet companies. To watch a performance by the Cuban National Ballet School is an opportunity you shouldn't miss out on.

To this ample and varied repertoire of dancing styles adds the Yoruba folklore emerging from the country's strong African roots. A perfect example of the syncretism of cultures and religions in Cuba, Afro-Cuban dances like rumba and guaganco are very popular cultural expressions in the island, following years of tradition and preservation of the island's African heritage. These are dances that have evolved over time and which originate in the religious rituals and tribal dances that African slaves brought to Cuba. Today they're as much a theatrical display of old traditions and representations of the Yoruba faith and its gods and goddesses as it is about enlightening the spirit through music and simply letting go. In guaganco the dance between a man and a woman is an exemplification of courtship. To sample Afro-Cuban dances, stop by El Gran Palenque on a Saturday. Located in Vedado you'll get to see the scintillating Sabado de Rumba performed on the shady patio. And if you happen to see a "toque de santo" (a Lucumi public ritual performance) taking place, by all means go in and check it out.

To immerse into dancing folklore with a little bit more razzle and dazzle, then a visit to the legendary Club Tropicana offers a glittering display of sultry choreographed dancing and musical mastery to match the best in the world.

Santiago hosts an enormous Salsa festival in August, but you can sample sultry hip-swaying nightlife in Santiago de Cuba at any time of year. To enhance the experience, consider taking salsa lessons with a local teacher. One of Cuba's best folkloric dance companies, Ballet Folklorico Cutumba, is based in the city and regularly performs colourful Afro-Cuban dances at the National Theatre. Some of its members offer short Cuban dance courses, as do dancers from Conjunto Folklorico de Oriente. Don't miss a trip to Santiago's shrine to traditional music, Casa de la Trova, and visit Casa de las Tradiciones for live music in an authentic atmosphere.

If you know you'd like to witness a particular event or performance in Cuba then keeping an eye on the cultural calendar is a good idea. But just to give you a round up, the International Ballet Festival is usually held between November and December each year and it includes up to ten days of stellar performances every day of the week.

On the other hand, to witness some of Cuba's most contemporary and eclectic styles of dancing there's an event you shouldn't miss, as it dramatically takes over the streets of Old Havana transforming the old town into a unique stage. "Habana Vieja, Ciudad en Movimiento" or Old Havana: A City in Motion is an annual street dancing festival that takes place every April.

Last but not least there is one folkloric dance exclusive to Cuba called "tumba francesa". Originating in eastern Cuba and influenced by the Haitian slaves who sought refuge in the island during the 1790s, this secular Afro-Cuban song, drumming and dance flourished during the late 19th century with the establishment of tumba francesa societies, of which only three survive to this day.

Artistic legacy

Cuban creative verve and joie de vivre makes for a rich and colourful cultural output that extends beyond music and dance into the visual arts. The stunning and extensive collection at Havana's Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes' is testament to Cuba's rich art culture. Divided into two galleries, and located next to Museo de la Revolucion, the Palacio de Bellas Artes exhibits an exquisite collection of Cuban art. It gives a bright panoramic of Cuba paintings and sculptures from colonial times to the present time. A visit of around three hours suffices to fully take in all of its beauties.If you are an art lover, you also shouldn't miss the collection at the Centro Asturiano building. It showcases impressive works from around the world and the building itself is an amazing piece of architecture.

You can find lots of cool contemporary galleries around Havana too. New art space, Fabrica de Arte Cubano in the downtown municipality of Vedado, is a great place to start if you want to take in the city's creative pulse, with cinema screenings, concert venues, photography and art exhibitions plus a great bar housed in the atmospheric confines of a converted peanut oil factory.

Among Cuba's art galleries, showcasing emerging Cuban artists and modern artwork from the seventies onwards including paintings, ceramics, sculpture and video installations; there is Galeria Habana, Galeria Servando Cabrera la Acacia and Villa Manuela Gallery in Vedado. In Centro Habana, you'll find Acacia Gallery -one of the most important art centre in Cuba-, Galeria Galiano, and Centro Hispano-Americano de Cultura. In Old Havana, you have Centro de Arte Contemporaneo "Wifredo Lam" and Taller Experimental de Grafica, both in La Catedral square. Other significant spots becoming increasingly important are Studio 61, Avistamientos Gallery and the Estudio Figueroa-Vives managed by Cristina Vives, one of the most important art curators in the country. Casa Gaia is a cultural centre in Old Havana that mostly stages plays but also offers music and dance performances as well as hosting exhibitions by young artists.

In Havana, for instance, local artists have made street interventions. One of these cases is Salvador Gonzalez. He transformed the passages around the quaint alley of Callejon de Hamel into a homage to Afro-Cuban culture and religion with bright murals covering the walls. Visitors may even have the chance to chat to the artist himself, who often hangs out there. Travellers who want to learn more about the origins of Afro-Cuban culture and religion can get a fascinating overview at Havana's Santeria Museum and Casa de Africa.

Emblematic products

Cuba's centuries-old industries of tobacco and sugar farming have come to supply the national indulgences of large cigars and potent rum. The country's famous Habanos cigars are still produced in the traditional way and hand-rolled to perfection, while the island's quality rum made from sugar molasses is a firm favourite with the locals. A visit to the atmospheric Museo del Ron, housed in an ochre-coloured colonial mansion in Havana, takes you through the story of traditional rum production in Cuba and includes an on-site distillery with tastings of the resulting Havana Club rum at the end of the tour.

The rum industry is still going strong. Havana Club produces top-quality white rum that is popular the world over and the company sponsors Havana Cultura, a project to support the creative arts in Havana. To sample some great Cuban rum cocktails in a historic setting, consider a visit to one of renowned American novelist Ernest Hemingway's old Havana haunts. The author famously said, "My mojito in La Bodeguita and my daiquiri in the Floridita", now inscribed on the wall in La Bodeguita, which is also known for its local seafood dishes. At El Floridita you can soak in the Cuban vibe with rum cocktails and local cigars served at the bar and live music every night.

Cuba's western Pinar del Rio province, which produces 70% of Cuba's tobacco crop, is the perfect place to get to the root of Cuba's hugely popular cigars that have become emblematic of the country. The beautiful Vinales Valley is cut across with fragrant rust-brown fields still farmed in the age-old way, where you can visit the world's best tobacco plantations. In the factories the traditional cigar-making method has been meticulously preserved, and you can take a tour of the Fabrica de Tabacos Francisco Donatien in Pinar del Rio to see the process of producing these world famous cigars for yourself. Alternatively, in Havana you can visit one of Cuba's oldest cigar factories - the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas - dating back to 1845, which produces Montecristos among other Habanos brands.

Customs, superstitions and traditions

The warm, open and communal spirit of Cuban society plus a habit of socialising outdoors means that simply strolling through the streets of Cuba's towns and cities offers a great glimpse of local cultural life.

One popular street sport you can't fail but witness at some point or another as you stroll around residential streets in Havana is domino. These often loud and extremely competitive game matches are played by elders and youngsters alike and they all mean serious business. Sometimes things get so heated up you can see domino pieces flying in the air out of the sheer frustration of one of the players. The domino games don't really provoke fights but heated arguments amongst players are commonplace. You'll never see passion in domino like you'll see it in Cuba's domino players.

Local folklore also comes in the way of understanding some of the local traditions, customs and superstitions. You'll have fun learning how some Cubans refuse to go under, they repeatedly knock on wood to avoid certain negative aspects of a conversation coming true, how they avoid knocking salt over the table, opening umbrellas indoors and breaking mirrors to escape seven years of bad luck. Some of these superstitions you're probably familiar with as they are common in many cultures, but others like leaving a glass of water overnight to cleanse the air of bad spirits, or tying a cloth to the leg of a table to protect the household from bad news or placing an elephant ornament with its back to the house's main door to call on good fortune and pinning an azabache (a black stone) to a newborn or child's clothing to protect it from people giving it "mal de ojo" (the evil eye). Like these there are many other countless and sometimes amusing superstitions and although not all Cubans believe in them, many humour those that do.

Other traditions include getting your hair cut on 2nd September, the day of a patron saint (La Candelaria) that can make your hair grow faster, longer and more beautiful. It's also customary for Cubans to throw a bucket of (usually dirty) water on New Year's Eve to welcome the New Year by discarding all the bad things that the previous one brought. It's also customary for Cubans upon opening a bottle of any alcoholic drink (but especially rum) to pour the first few drops on the floor for the saints to drink up before serving it to people. Many Cubans say they do this so that "the African gods don't get angry" for not sharing it with them.

Cuba - an inspirational hotpot of soulful creativity

Cubans are by nature creative, spontaneous and lively, highly-spirited beings that take everything in their stride, the adversities, the shortages, the celebrations - no other society knows the art of "make-do" elevated to such artful, carefree perfection as Cubans do. And this inventive, innovative and relentless spirit that allows them to always emerge uncrushed from their day-to-day challenges is reflected in their music, in their dancing and their passionate devotion to the arts as the maximum expression of their wilfulness to simply be happy and enjoy life in full colour.

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