A trip to Cuba offers a holiday like no other. The largest of the Caribbean islands, Cuba beckons to visitors with promises of sun, sea, sand and salsa. Throw in a rich history, unique culture and exotic scenery, and Cuba stands apart as a “must see” vacation destination — particularly for those who immerse themselves in the laid back and distinctly Cuban spirit that characterises this extraordinary place.
Doesn’t just looking at this view make you feel more relaxed?
Stepping into the capital city of Havana offers an intriguing contrast of the old and the new. Take in sites ranging from an abundance of 1950s-era American cars to colourful Spanish Colonial architecture which has gracefully withstood the test of time. Whether window shopping along the Calle Obispo or touring the breathtaking Castillo de la Punta, be ready for some serious photo ops. And don’t forget to stop by a cigar factory to see Cuba’s most famous export being rolled, and perhaps even buy a box while you’re there.
A living, breathing seafood soup, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is the largest structure on the planet made entirely by living organisms. Expect a plethora of odd-looking, colourful and often endangered animals swimming at you from all angles. The reef is a UNESCO World Heritage site, containing some 1500 species of fish. It is without rival, the world’s largest coral reef system, even able to be seen from space. Make sure you get certified before you go though – you’re not Kate Bosworth ok.
Barrier Reef, Belize
Charles Darwin once called this reef “the most remarkable in the West Indies.” Its bubbling, warm waters are home to the world’s largest population of West Indian manatee, and manta ray and spotted eagle ray are fairly common sights. Even hammerhead sharks, Caribbean reef sharks and the oceanic white tip sharks can be spotted by luckier divers (or extremely unlucky, as the case may be). Cuddle with the friendly sea cows (not with the sharks), explore the mangrove-covered islands or swim over to the Big Blue Hole – allegedly the largest sinkhole on Earth. Jacques Cousteau named it his favourite diving spot – no surprise considering this 185-mile-long gigantic wall of unspoilt beauty packs more ecodiversity than any other on the planet.
Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
You’ll be hard-pressed to find water clearer than the Caribbean waves of Grand Cayman. The island is actually the peak of a mountain, and most of the surrounding former peaks are now underwater, offering sheer drops so you don’t have to go far from the coast to get deep. This also provides shelter from perilous conditions, providing calm and unspoilt beauty for divers. Make sure you check out Stingray City, a series of shallow sandbars, where stingrays have been tamed for years feeding on fisherman’s scraps.
Koh Tao, Thailand
Koh Tao is perfect for the low-budget traveller, as it is a relatively inexpensive place to learn to scuba dive. Thailand’s large Andaman coast offers hundreds of islands, many of which are uninhabited and fringed with spectacular coral reefs. Whale sharks inhabit the waters along with a kaleidoscope of brightly-coloured fish. However, the best bit about choosing Koh Tao is that it has as many nightclubs and bars on the island as there are fish in its sea, so if you’re not a serious diver, and you like your liquid as much in a cocktail glass as you like it enveloping your scuba suit, then this is the place for you.
Although primarily famous for those big hunks of pyramid-shaped mystery erupting from the sand, Egypt is also famous for its incredible diving spots. If you love history and you love diving, this is your spot. An affordable alternative to beaches in Europe or the Caribbean, Egyptian beaches along the Red Sea offer sun-filled holidays and unparalleled waters. The Straits of Gubal are a particularly interesting choice, having claimed dozens of ships over history; shipwrecks, pirate treasure and dead sailors are as much a part of the Sea as the water is and warm, bubbly, tropical coral reefs make the Red Sea feel like one big bathtub.
Although you may have to deal with the teenage shrieks of ‘Spring Break whoooooooo!’, Cozumel is not just a paradise for meathead jocks and bottle blonde cheerleaders. The warm, clear waters of this Atlantic superhighway make it a diver’s dream. The Gulf Stream in particular is a prime scuba spot – the experience lending itself to something on the long the lines of being Superman, only with more fish. But with nineteen distinct reefs to choose from and a host of deep dives that go down as far as 3,000 feet, Cozumel is a scuba diver’s playground. For awesome tunnels, caves and caverns, there are few better locations.
When you think about Cuba what comes to mind? It’s probably the rhythmic lilts of Caribbean music that flows throughout the island, or the sugar-white sandy beaches that are a perfect escape from the rate race. Maybe it’s the 1950s cars that are so popular on Pinterest these days or the long, lazy days taking in the colonial architecture. Well, you’ll be pleased to hear there is all that and lots and lots more. Read our top 10 things to do in Havana Cuba.
Music and movement: Whether it’s salsa or jazz, rumba or reggaeton, you won’t go too far in the bustling capital of Cuba without hearing some amazing street music. Music is a religion in this city and a holiday here will quickly turn you into a convert. Grab a drink and relax to the stunning sounds of the tres guitar or head for some of the noisy jazz clubs to experience a night out like a local.
Havana Street food: It’s well worth grabbing some pesos to get your hands on some delicious street food. Tuck into some deliciously fresh egg tortillas, or paper cones filled with fried banana chips or pork skin. Ok, it’s not good for your cholesterol but is so tasty, one or two can’t hurt, right?
Old Havana: A hectic and crazy experience for some, Old Havana is where to go for a true Cuban experience. A tour in an old time Cadillac is a great way to round off a day. Usually available for an hour or too, it can be pricey by Cuban standards.
Che shaped history: It’s well worth taking a step back in time and visiting the Mausoleo Che Guevara. The Santa Clara memorial houses a dedicated museum to the legendary revolutionary’s life and work and an eternal flame that was lit by Fidel Castro in Guevara’s memory.
Writing tour: Havana’s been a Mecca for writers since… well, since they realised what a cool place it is. Check out Ambos Mundos, Ernest Hemingway’s old stomping ground. He lived at the hotel for seven years in the 30s, and wrote part of For Whom the Bell Tolls in one of the rooms which is preserved in pristine condition.
The Tropicana: Really, you can’t head for Cuba without sticking your head in the gloriously tacky, world renowned, cabaret club. Set in six acres, the Tropicana’s history of mob involvement and showgirls (or flesh goddesses as they are known) is a jingle of colours, a riot of music and one helluva night out.
Perfect beaches: While Varadero is the top beach jaunt, with lots of all inclusive options, don’t knock the beaches close to Havana until you’ve tried them. Playa Jibacoa is a little village about an hour from Havana. Renting a car is probably the best way to get to this idyllic, sundrenched paradise beach. Otherwise the gorgeous Santa Maria beach is a typical picture perfect tropical wonderland.
Dance the night away: Cuba is certainly famous for its dancing. Think of those strong rhythms working your feet into a frenzy. There’s pretty much no bar or venue where dancing is frowned on, so bring your comfy flats and a bit of rhythm and get into the swing of it with the locals.
Nights on the Malecón: You’re on holidays but you want to hang with the locals? Head for the Malecón, the seafront promenade that’s perfect for people watching. Just watch out for the ladies of the night, or their friends who like to befriend foreigners.
Mojitos on the Malecón: Ok, you’ve found the famous locals hangout point, how about a mojito nearby. A trip to Cuba wouldn’t be right without sampling at least on. In fact, you’ll probably never settle for one at home after an expertly made version, with precisely the right amount of ice and rum. A trip to the historic Havana Club Rum Museum is top of our list, it is great post or pre your cocktails.
Upon arriving at Cuba, Christopher Columbus remarked that it was “the most beautiful country human eyes have ever seen.” Yet for tourists, the country is a land of continuous confusion; its economy is struggling at best, yet its cultural history is rich and diverse; its landscape is filled with relic and dust, but its architecture is indisputably magnificent; it is considered dangerous and even saddening, yet at the same time, utterly compelling, like the moment when you pass by a car crash and cannot help but slow down to take a closer look. You may even say that these mysteries and parallels are what make Cuba an attractive destination choice. They map out its troubled history like wrinkles on an aged face – a product of years of genocide, slavery, invasion, counter-invasion and revolution – adding both a character and a melancholic beauty.
The words ‘Cuba’ and ‘politics’ have gone hand in hand for more than half a century now, headed by Fidel Castro and his communist regime. However, unlike the grey, barren dystopia of archetypal communist countries, Cuba is an exuberant, romantic milieu, where art, music, literature and creativity are the dish of the day. The Cubans themselves are a nation of artists; from doers to dreamers, sceptics to sages, poets to philosophers. To put things into perspective, here is a review from one of our customers:
“We visited (Cuba) some 18 years ago, and the most attractive and memorable aspect was the pride our guides had in their country and the things they were showing us. A simple doctor’s surgery was described as cutting edge, a somewhat decrepit university as the equivalent of Oxford, and so on. That aspect was enchanting, as they obviously had so little yet treasured what they had.”
The Cubans have shaped their country into the captivating, impenetrable, paradoxical nation it is. However with tourism on the rise, and therefore a huge injection of capitalism pumping through Cuba’s socialist veins, now is the time to travel to this unique country, before its beauty fades into an increasingly globalized world. And if you need some inspiration? We’ve created this Cuba travel guide to ensure your holiday is the best it can be:
Food Cuba is inhabited mainly by people of African and Spanish origin, which is reflected in the cuisine. Food in Cuba is therefore unlike the rest of the Caribbean, relying heavily on onions and garlic for its flavourings, rather than spices. To find delicious food, head to the casas, rather than the restaurants, which can be somewhat hit and miss and where service is generally quite poor. The real adventure however, is eating at peso places (the national money), which serve the cheapest and most interesting food around. A meal for three people with beers will only cost around $4. Just look for a line of Cubans and jump in it – there’s sure to be something delicious at the end.
Places to go Havana Cuba’s sultry capital is one of the finest examples of a Spanish Colonial city in the Americas. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, Havana was once one of world’s most beautiful areas, but as the city deteriorates and tourism influxes, the city is in a state of change; now, behind the crumbling colonial façades, are hidden boutique hotels, cocktail bars and fine dining eateries. Head for Old Havana to explore the original churches and reconstructed mansions, or to Malecon road for a lively meeting place. or try one of these fantastic new restaurants for a slice of modern Havanan culture:
Atelier: ForCaribbean and European dishes; Good for groups and well-priced. Café Laurent: Spanish cuisine with other European influences; the speciality is seafood. Doña Eutimia: Traditional Cuban food; one of the specialities is the classic ropa vieja (pulled beef in a tomato sauce). About £15 for two. San Cristóbal: Cuban and international cuisine; pork in mustard sauce is a speciality.
Guardelavaca Thepeaceful region of Guardalavaca is home to some of Cuba’s most idyllic, powdery beaches. Crystal clear waters, filled with an abundance of marine life, make it a popular destination for snorkelers and divers, while swimming with dolphins is a not-to-be-missed opportunity. Traditionally famous for its sugar production, if you venture away from the beach, you can drive through roads lined with fields of sugar cane plantations. Although its main industry is now tourism, Guardelavaca has retained an authentic Cuban feel and you never feel too overcrowded.
Varadero Varadero is Cuba’s largest beach resort, set on a 12-mile long peninsula of stunning white sandy beaches and clear Caribbean water. Despite being a beach resort, the area is still not as commercialised as many other Caribbean locations. After it was first visited in 1870, Varadero rapidly grew into an exclusive resort for the Havana elite, visited by many celebrities, including Al Capone.
This tourism boom, which has never wavered since, has meant that Varadero is a long way from being the ‘real Cuba’, but for a great beach holiday, this is surely one of the best in the entire Caribbean.
Cayo Coco Cuba is occupied by one of the world’s largest coral reefs – second only to the Great Barrier. Like Varadero, Cayo Coyo is a magnificent beach resort, boasting fifteen miles of virgin beaches and azure seas, perfect for indulging in a spot of Cuban deep sea fishing. If you prefer to stay on dry land, the dramatic mountainous backdrop offers some fantastic hiking or horse riding opportunities, rewarded by spectacular views. If you travel by car through the linking causeway, you can make a stop off at Parador la Silla, about half way across, which is home to hundreds of bright pink flamingos. Hotel-wise, we recommend Playa Coco, a modern, spacious hotel set right on the beach or Tryp Cayo Coco, designed like a traditional Caribbean village. For something even more luxurious, Melia Cayo Coco hotel has everything you could ever want – perfect for honeymoons or romantic couples break.
Trinidad Founded in 1514, Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to an extensive colonial history. Expect to see locals riding on horseback down cobbled streets, past rows of houses painted in pastel pinks, yellows and blues. The renovated elegant mansions of the past are now enchanting museums, whilst original church windows are like works of art.
Santa Clara is the home of the monument, museum and mausoleum of revolutionary, Ché Guevara, whose body was only returned from Bolivia in 1997, some 30 years after his capture and execution.
Things to do
Jardin Botanico Nacianol, Havana
A well-kept collection of tropical plants that includes poinsettias the size of Christmas trees, hibiscus, bromeliads, coleus and bougainvillea. Open daily.
Museo De La Revolucion, Havana
Refugio 1, between Avenida de las Misiones and Zulueta, Habana Vieja, Havana. To learn a bit about the country’s history, visit the housed in a huge, ornate, dome-topped building which was once the presidential palace. The spirit of the greatest revolutionary of them all, Che Guevara, lives on in posters, statues and murals such as the one on Plaza de la Revolucion.
Partaga Cigar Factory, Havana
Industria 520, Habana Vieja, Havana. A national treasure that hides behind the Capitolio in Havana’s main square, Partagas – formerly the second largest cigar factory in Cuba – is worth a visit.
Muse Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana Opened in its current location in 1954, the National Museum of Fine Arts 50,000 strong collection of artworks has been divided into two separate buildings: the Cuban art collection (Arte Cubano), and the international collection (Arte Universal). The international collection is a passable survey of world art but the main draw is the building itself.
Call Purple Travel on 0207 993 9228 to find out more about holidays in Cuba.