Culturally, Cuba is a fascinating country. Although it sits in the Caribbean, it is quite different from its neighbors—former British, Dutch and French colonies—and at the same time, it is not very similar to other Spanish colonies in Latin America. This uniqueness is a result of a very peculiar history, marked by almost half a century of American influence (1898–1958), decades of links with the Socialist world after 1959, and the subsequent effects of cultural globalization. Read the books, dance the dances, and explore vibrant forms of street art.
Havana is not too far away from Varadero and Pinar del Rio, two beautiful areas perfect for long day trips, especially for those who don’t want to spend the night outside Havana. In Pinar del Rio, the famous Valley of Viñales, one of Cuba’s main tourist attractions, is full of mogotes—rounded karst hills scattered in the valley like isolated towers on a plain. Caves are also very common in the area. Cueva del Indio is the most popular among tourists because not only is it very accessible and easier to explore than other caves in the area, but visitors can also tour it by boat.
The old American cars that have become a Cuban icon are only the tip of the iceberg in a widespread repair culture brought about by years of shortages, lack of spare parts, and a pressing need to keep appliances and equipment working well beyond normal obsolescence limits because incomes are too low to afford new things. Rather than well-preserved jewels, old American cars in Cuba are Frankensteins re-assembled and resurrected again and again. Look around and discover how the people refill lighters, sew shoes, and how they repair many other things, including fans, blenders, clothes, printers, and smartphones.
A “gateway album” into Cuban music, Buena Vista Social Club is very popular in Cuba, and many of its songs are part of the repertoire of most Cuban bands playing in bars and tourist resorts. Explore the country’s rich musical production even further; from traditional genres such as salsa and rumba to more current trends such as reggaeton and electronic music, the options are all lively and energetic. Many times they come with mesmerizing dance performances by musicians or random members of the audience.
Cuban beaches are amazing; from virgin beaches in the keys to fantastic fine sand beaches along most of the north coast to natural wonders such as Bibijagua Beach, where the sand is black, there’s a long list from which to choose. The best part is that you don’t have to stay at a beach resort away from the city to experience them. Havana is 10 minutes away from the beginning of a long strip of beaches called Playas del Este, so you can easily combine your city explorations with a quick getaway to the beach, preferably in a maquina.
Cuban cigars have enjoyed the highest world recognition for many decades, due to their excellent quality and for being a forbidden item, which began in 1961, in the United States as part of a trade embargo on Cuba. Most tobacco plantations are open for tours that cover every stage of cigar production—from the crops in the fields to the aging process to production (handmade most of the time, although machine-made cigars are also common). Plantations in Pinar del Rio are the best option for those visiting Havana, and factories such as the Partagas Cigar Factory near the Capitol Building offer a similar insight for those who don’t have time to travel outside the city.
From massive stone fortresses from colonial times (built by the Spanish Crown to protect its properties in the New World) to lavish constructions from the first half of the 20th century (constructed to show off Cuba’s prosperity after its independence from Spain), Cuban architecture includes magnificent examples of some of the most important styles in the world, including Baroque and Art Deco. The list of must-see buildings includes beautiful churches, palatial homes, former government buildings, and squares.
As the main political center of the country, Havana is home to government buildings and public squares where the events that have shaped the country’s recent history have taken place. From the Anti-Imperialist Grandstand across from the U.S. Embassy where Cuba demanded the return of the little boy known as Elian Gonzalez to the Revolution Square where Fidel Castro made some of his main speeches that steered Cuba in a different direction in the 1960s, there are plenty of historic places to visit.
A longtime ally of the extinct Soviet Union, Cuba survived the collapse of the socialist bloc without sacrificing many of the social and political programs that had driven life in the country before the economic crisis of the 1990s. Statues, monuments and institutions named after Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, and Frederich Engels are still visible throughout the country; the former Embassy of the Soviet Union (now Embassy of Russia) is one of Havana’s architectural landmarks, and there are even Soviet-themed bars and restaurants, such as Nazdarovie and Tabarish.
Havana is a very safe city, where visitors can generally wander freely without running the risk of being mugged or attacked in any way. Firearms are illegal, and police and CCTV surveillance heavily guard tourist centers; however, this doesn’t mean that crime is nonexistent, so like in any other place, it’s best not to go into unfamiliar areas or partake in any other kinds of reckless behavior. In general terms, though, the level of security is an added bonus when it comes to choosing Havana as a holiday destination.