For those who want more than a sun and fun Cuba holiday and seek a real cultural, social and natural immersion in Cuban life, we’ve compiled this list of top 10 experiences you should prioritise during your time in the island. It goes beyond staying in a casa particular, which we consider one of the best ways to truly soak up Cuban culture and social dynamics, and we delve into cultural aspects, must-try foods, must-see dancing (joining in optional) and must-do experiences.
There are plenty of websites that will tell you the top must-do or must-see things in Cuba, some of them may even feature in our list, but we’re sure that ours contain quite a few more special cultural encounters that may have you living like a Cuban for a while.
10 things to do in Cuba, after COVID-19
We may be in lockdown still due to COVID-19 but nothing stops you from planning the perfect Cuba holiday for when you are finally free to travel the world again! In around a month’s time, the Cuban government could be announcing the reopening of borders and airlines are one step ahead and have already begun selling tickets to Cuba.
Here are our 20 must-do things during a Cuba holiday:
1. Sit on Havana’s Malecon seawall facing the sea and linger
Forget about your watch, mobile phone or any kind of electronic distraction. Simply let time go by as the sea breeze cools you down and the salty air soothes your senses. This is a great place for meditation as you’re gently sprayed by the waves crashing on the rocks and the sounds, the smells and atmosphere are ideal for some deep thinking or light musings. It also doesn’t get more Cuban or “habanero” than this. The experience of sitting on the Malecon wall is all the more recommended during a particularly windy day as getting splashed by the impetuous waves can be quite fun. Being completely drenched is OK too, you’re in Cuba, it’s probably too hot anyway and you´ll welcome the refreshment!
2. Dance to the conga beats in Santiago’s Carnival
For this, you must come to Cuba in July, when the hottest part of Cuba is even hotter than usual, but come prepared (light cotton clothes, hat, sun cream, plenty of cooling beer) and it´ll all be worth it! The carnival in Santiago is Cuba’s biggest most famous and oldest of Cuban carnivals; a true explosion of colour, drum beats and hypnotic choreographies. It’s a joyful (and often drunk) revelry with ornate floats, bright, skimpy costumes, sequins and fast hip-shaking moves.
3. Climb Pico Turquino
Cuba’s tallest peak is a challenge to climb but also an experience you won’t forget. Not only will it put in direct contact with the wildest of Cuban nature and give you wonderful birdwatching opportunities, it will also reward you with the most amazing views both during the ascent, once at the top and on your way back down as you soak in magnificent coastal views. The trek typically takes 2 days and you spend the night at little huts in La Aguada, perhaps picturing yourself as one of the rebels in Fidel Castro’s army
4. Have a vintage black and white picture taken in front of El Capitolio
Yes, with an authentic daguerreotype 19th-century camera. A memento like this one you’re sure to treasure as there’s not many places in the world where you can have your picture taken by an old box camera. When you get your picture, you’ll be instantly transported back in time and feel like you got into a time machine for the experience. Is that really you in the picture or some old folk from the past?
5. Enjoy a live demonstration of “tumba francesa” in Cuba’s eastern provinces
This is one of Cuba’s most unique endemic dances and yet one of the least known. In recent years it was declared by UNESCO as an Intagible Cultural Heritage and as such it’s quite a special spectacle you watch and one you can only witness in eastern Cuba, especially in Santiago. The dance is the result of a mix of cultures imported by Haitian slaves in the 18th century. Fusing African music of Dahomey with French ballroom dances, this peculiar dance style is performed with traditional colonial costumes. You can attend one of these one-hour shows at Santiago de Cuba’s Sociedad de Tumba Francesa.
6. Count the many different shades of turquoise you can identify in Cuba’s beaches (or at least try)
It doesn’t matter if you stay in Havana or you plan a multi-centre holiday in Cuba, even if you plan to spend all of you Cuba holiday in Havana, you’ll still be able to bask in the beauty of Havana’s eastern beaches. For the most spectacular ones you’ll have to head to Varadero or the keys, but regardless, you’ll find striking shades of blue and turquoise and just for fun you can try and count the many shades, or takes pictures of different Cuban beaches and count all the shades you can spot once back at home.
7. Snorkel or dive beneath the surface
…to marvel at the Caribbean’s best protected coral system. Yes, truly, it’s not just because we’re a website about Cuba, this isn’t an empty boast or a stealth boast, you can Google how Cuba has managed to almost intactly preserved the Caribbean’s last healthy marine ecosystem and find out more about it having the world’s second largest coral system. Teams of scientists have been studying the wonder of Cuba’s underwater mysteries for a while and if you follow in their steps and dive down to Cuba’s depths, we promise you’ll be nothing short of mesmerized!Join a rumba session in Matanzas – Matanzas is one of the places in Cuba where rumba is more than a party, it’s a way of life! Watching Los Munequitos de Matanzas perform one of their rumba sessions right on the street is quite an experience and a joyous one at that. This spontaneous dance style with strong African roots and a palpable spiritual connection (it’s part of the Yoruba religion) where every move is improvised yet looks like a well-honed choreography is like witnessing “joie de vivre” in its purest state. Don’t miss it!
9. Savour a dish of “yuca con mojo”
Yes, black beans with rice are a Cuban staple that you simply must try while in the island, yet there are other side dishes that you should fully experience too. Fried plantains and “tostones” are all nice and good, but to leave with a truer taste of Cuba you must savour a good plate of “yuca con mojo”, which is no more no less than chunks of cassava boiled and cooked in lemon juices with minced garlic, a touch of vinegar and oregano…simple but truly delicious. Many in Cuba have it as a side dish, but as a standalone meal it’s tasty and satisfying too!
10. Get your camera out to photograph Cuban people
Capture Cuban life, capture it still or capture it in motion but capture it you must! Cuban people are so varied, they come in so many shapes, shades, expressions and movements that you’d be missing out if all you took pictures of where colonial buildings, gleaming classic cars and turquoise beaches. The fact that Cubans by nature are very expressive means that you can capture Cuban souls easily and then ponder on what they were feeling or thinking about. That’s the magic of photography and you can unleash it in its full glory in Cuba. You can ask your subjects to pose and most will happily oblige, or you can sneak in some good shots of people going about their lives, chatting, working, staring into space, kids playing on the street, vendors going to and fro. Do you get the picture? You should!
Last but not least is the one thing we haven’t included in this bucket list of must-do things to see and do in Cuba and that’s, of course, staying in a casa particular! There are many to choose from, they come in all formats and sizes (city flats, countryside ranches, suburbian mansions, sea-view apartments, etc.) and we have quite the selection of casas particulares in Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Santa Clara, Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba.
Yes, we all might have to wait until July for a Cuba holiday and a stay in a casa particular, but in the meantime, we’re getting busy rethinking Cuba and all it has to offer curious, adventure-thirsty travellers. Beyond this short list of 10 things to do in Cuba for an authentic cultural, social and natural immersion, we’ll soon publish Part II, with ten more things