The active girl’s guide to Cuba

You’ll never see anywhere else that’s remotely like Cuba. This magical, strange and compelling island is a heady mix of cultures and colonial throw-backs that’s now emerging onto the global scene. Don’t listen to the warnings that Cuba is a now-or-never place to visit, though – the cities still retain an old-fashioned charm and further afield the island’s relatively untouched wild world is a natural playground – crystal-clear warm water, mini mountains, miles of jungle and winding roads to explore by bike.

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Active guide to Cuba: Ten travel favourites from Cuba

1. DISCOVERING HEADY HAVANA
The bizarre, beautiful capital of Cuba is a labyrinthine delight straight out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. In the old centre crumbling yet elegant colonial buildings look down on pretty squares, horses and carts, busy cafes, vintage cars and locals playing chess and gossiping in the squares. Round a corner and you might find a salsa performance, coconuts for sale, local ladies in bright headscarves, fishermen repainting their boats. Spend your days walking around in wonder and your nights drinking mojitos in the many roof bars, Ernest Hemingway style.

2. TRYING SALSA AT CLUB 1830
You can’t leave Cuba without giving salsa a spin. There are clubs and bars across the country where sure-footed instructors will put you through your paces, and once you’ve got the basics down you can just turn up at any salsa club and the locals will dance with you – no room for shyness here! We liked Club 1830 on the Malecon, where the pros put on incredible performances under the stars and then you can boogie with a crowd of locals and travellers without any pressure.

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4. SNORKELLING IN PRISTINE WATERS
Cuba is constantly ranked as one of the best and most unspoilt places to go diving in the world. But there’s no need for a PADI diving certificate or a wad of dosh in order to explore the magical crystal clear waters below the island’s waves – the shallow coral reefs make snorkelling with a mask and fins an equally rewarding way to watch tropical fish flitting about in the deep. Lots of beaches rent equipment and offer boat trips that will take you out to the perfect snorkelling reef. We spotted parrot fish, angel fish and darting in and out of the coral – just be careful not to touch it to keep it safe.

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3. A WANDER IN GLORIOUS TRINIDAD
Gorgeous colonial Trinidad is an old-fashioned Caribbean dream of a city. The cobbled streets are lined with candy-coloured houses and inviting cafes and the whole town has a faded grandeur left over from the days when it was a booming sugar capital. It’s a rewarding place to ramble, and it’s easy to get deliberately lost – you’ll usually end up back in the central square, where brass bands play, locals hang out in the shade of palm trees and there’s a church belltower you can climb for a panoramic view across the city. Hungry? Try La Redaccion for dinner, where they serve up the unusual fusion of Irish-Cuban nosh.

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5. GETTING ON A BIKE
Outside of busy Havana, Cuba’s (admittedly pockmarked) country roads are wonderfully quiet. In the Vinales valley they wind past the famous mogotes (limestone hills) and are dotted with roadside bars selling fresh mojitos – the dream bike tour. Your casa particular owner is usually the easiest way to get a decent bike to rent. Try a morning or evening cycle to avoid the fierce sun. A quick what not to do in Cuba here – don’t go horse riding. All the horses we came across were undernourished and in a bit of a bad state, so best stick to bikes.

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6. DAWN HIKING IN VINALES
If you do nothing else active in Cuba, take this glorious sunrise hike. Head to Vinales to soak up the chilled-out vibe of these sleepy town, nestled at the foot of Cuba’s famous mogotes. If you can drag yourself up before the dawn, the friendly guides at Villa Los Reyes will take you on a torchlit hike into the valley and up the steep side of a mogote, perfectly timed to arrive in time for a glorious pink and gold sunrise. There’s a remote little cottage here and the lovely lady who owns it will bring you out a cup of coffee as you sit and watch the sunlight slowly illuminate the valley below. The hike back down is a pleasure, too, as it the air is still fresh and guides will point out local flora and brightly coloured wild birds.

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7. STAYING IN CASAS PARTICULARES
Finding somewhere to staying the night in Cuba is a doddle, as everywhere you go you’ll find casas particulares (literally, private homes, Cuba’s more traditional version of AirBnB). The casas are cheap, clean and tidy and usually run by charming Cuban mamas who will make delicious breakfasts and generally look after you. It’s far more personal than a hostel, great for practicing your Spanish and a wonderful insight into Cuban daily life – by the time you leave you’ll feel like you have a gaggle of new Cuban families. Our favourite casa in Havana was the slightly more spendy than usual but totally gorgeous La Colonia del Siglo XIX – the staff there are an absolute delight, and it’s the perfect first stop when you arrive in Havana.

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8. SWIMMING IN A WATERFALL
Cuba’s lush forests often hide steep waterfalls and swimming holes which make the perfect oasis at the end of a hot and sweaty hike. Get a local guide to take you as they’re hard to find on your own. The better-known swimming spots tend to get busy with locals in the summer, so go off season or in the morning to get them to yourself. You can even cliff jump or dive off the rocky sides of some of the falls, such as Salto del Caburni near Trinidad, but check the water depth carefully first.

9. HIKING TO CHE’S HIDEOUT
Along with Castro, Che Guevara is Cuba’s undisputed national hero. You’ll see his face everywhere, from graffiti to official postcards, and his life story is justifiably fascinating. Before you leave Havana, head across the water to Morro Castle, where there’s a fantastic (and weirdly quiet) museum in the fort that explains El Che‘s fight for revolution in English and Spanish. The collection includes his battered rucksack, camera and beautiful photos. Then you can hike into the wild Sierra Maestra mountain range to see the remains of the site where the guerillas hid and where Che founded a makeshift hospital. You’ll need to pick up a permit and an (obligatory) guide in the Parque Nacional Turquino in order to make the hike up into the hills.

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10. WATCHING THE SUN SET FROM A CLASSIC CAR
Ok, so it’s a bit of a Cuban cliche, but it truly is magical to speed along Havana’s Malecon (a long, wide road that hugs the water’s edge, and the heart of Havana’s social scene) and watch the sky turn red and gold – Cuba has incredible sunsets pretty much every night. Pick up a classic car and driver in the city centre’s main squares – you can haggle a little bit if there’s a gang of you and most tours take in a lot of the centre before catching the sunset.

Cuban travel bites
Cuban men won’t let anything without a Y chromosome walk past without making a comment. It’s extremely maddening but, as usual, you’re best off totally ignoring piropos (stray compliments) – just carry on walking.
Don’t bank on being able to buy anything in Cuba. Pack all essentials, including medicines, tampons, mosquito spray, suncream and snacks (weirdly hard to get hold of).
Leave space in your luggage for the delicious and dirt-cheap local rum.
Go with the flow. Travel plans can be disrupted in seconds in Cuba – try not to let it drive you nuts and find a glorious white sand beach to chill on instead.
At least a smattering of Spanish is still an essential here – bring a phrasebook.
Bring your camera. Cuba is astonishingly gorgeous – a country with the saturation turned way up.

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2 Comments

  1. Fiona
    February 3, 2018 / 10:43 am

    One of the most memorable things I did in Cuba was a the opportunity to chat with the Irish owner of La Radaccion. It was facinating to get even a tiny insite into running a business in Cuba. We both work in hospitality here so we had so many questions! much appreciated her taking the time to talk to us. We were back packing on a budget so had pretty much been eating avacado and bread for 2 weeks, so this was our last night treat, the food was pretty yummy.

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