Prior to researching Cuba for my upcoming trip, my feelings about the destination ranged on opposite ends of the spectrum. I loathe all-inclusive resort vacations where your experience is as culturally authentic as chicken balls from Golden Wok. However, I loved the colourful, crumbling buildings and sultry salsa clubs depicted in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (don’t judge me…too much) which is my only other point of reference for Cuba….even though it was filmed in Puerto Rico. Naturally.
After some digging beyond my preconceptions on the country, I realized that it has so much more to offer than one-size-fits-all vacation packages and overly chlorinated pools. Here are a couple of tips for how you can ensure that you have an authentic Cuban experience:
Literally translating to “private home,” a casa particular is similar to a bed and breakfast and came about in 1997 when the government allowed Cuban families to turn their home into a privately owned business, renting out rooms to foreigners. Famed for their friendliness, there’s no one better to get advice for the best things to see and do than a local and in a casa particular, you have direct access.
+ Now that AirBnB is allowed in Cuba, it’s probably one of the easiest ways to find a good homestay. Villa Lou is a gorgeous (and pricey) little spot in the Vedado neighbourhood and Casa “La Gloria” has a stellar reputation for being home to the most hospitable Cuban family.
+If you’re looking to be in the thick of the action in Habana Vieja then you can contact a casa like Chez Nous. If they’re full, they’ll help you out by finding another place for you to stay nearby.
Legalized in the 1990s, paladares is Cuban slang for “privately owned restaurants” and is the only way to eat in the country, unless you’re a fan of bland plates of rice and beans found in government establishments. These independent, family-run restaurants that managed to exist despite the state restrictions maintain a speakeasy-feel with inventive menus being served in locales ranging from intimate family homes to palatial converted mansions.
+ One of the most popular paladars in Havana is La Guarida. It has reached legendary status as the crumbling staircase was one of the backdrops for a Rihanna photoshoot as well as patronized by Queen Bey and Jay-Z during their anniversary trip.
+ The crazy plant lady in me in looking forward to dining at La Cocina de Lilliam. The decor of the dining area is all wood and surrounded by greenery where you can enjoy delicious seafood dishes.
Vintage cars painted in sorbet hues fill the equally colourful streets of Havana because Fidel Castro banned car imports when he came to power in 1959. Since buying a new car was not an option, Cubans had to become very skilled at preserving their vehicles to keep them functional. While hiring a driver in a classic car may be too baller to maintain for an entire trip, cruising down the broad esplanade of the Malecón at sunset is the perfect way to transport yourself to 1950s Cuba.
+ You can ask your hosts to help organize an hour tour for about 30 CUC or you can just walk around the city to where a bunch are lined up and haggle them down in price.
In a country that is ruled by a repressive government, art can be seen as an act of revolution so it’s not surprising that the passionate Cuban art scene thrived. Sometimes you can learn more about a country’s history through the art than through books…
+ Take a tour around Fusterlandia to marvel at José Fuster’s neighbourhood that he’s covered in a vibrant display of sculptures and mosaics by Cuban artist, José Fuster – the “Picasso of the Caribbean.”
+ Another option is to visit a studio like El Taller Experimental De Gráfica to witness the creative process in action.
+ If you’re more of a night owl, book it over to Fábrica de Arte Cubano at 8pm on a Friday. Converted from an oil factory, this cultural centre is an art museum that turns into a nightclub so grab a drink (or five) and peruse some boundary-pushing pieces.
Salsa is an evolution of a combination of dance forms such as Cha-cha-cha and Mambo but also has elements of Afro-Cuban dances so Cuba is the perfect place to practice your shimmying and twirls! The country even has it’s own derivative of salsa known as Casino or Salsa Cubana and every night of the week is a chance to mix with locals on the dance floor and show your moves.
+ If you have two left feet but still love the dance, you can visit the legendary Tropicana for wild costumes and an energetic show!
HELLO. Rum. The national drink of Cuba is pretty much anything with rum in it – daiquiris, mojitos, cuba libres, etc…So put away your brick-like Lonely Planet books and immerse yourself in the culture by drinking your liver into submission.
+ Bodeguita del medio is the bar suspected to be where the mojito was invented and a favourite of Ernest Hemingway.
+ El Floridita, while super touristy, was also a frequent haunt of Hemingway’s so plan a quick visit to try out their daiquiris.
No trip to Cuba would be a truly authentic experience without the WHITE SANDY BEACHES the country is famed for. No matter where you are in Havana, paradise is just a hop, skip, and cheap bus ride away!
+ Santa Maria beach and Playa del Este are a quick 30 minute ride away. Buses are frequent and cheap.
+ Consider making a day of it and touring Cayo Jutias where you can find enormous orange starfish beyond miles of virginal sands.
The Caribbean climate of Cuba is ideal for the cultivation of high quality cigars which is why Cuban cigars are famed to be some of the best in the world. They are so coveted that when Cuban products were banned from America, citizens would risk breaking the law to smuggle them into the country.
+ Take a day trip out to Vinales and take a horseback riding tour of tobacco fields to learn about the farming practices, topping off the afternoon with a freshly rolled cigar.
+ When you return to Havana, visit Fábrica de Tabaco Partagas. Learn more about the history, watch one being rolled and leave with a box for the ultimate Cuban souvenir.