Cuba is the largest Caribbean Island but it is not a typical Caribbean destination. Whilst it does have the beaches you would expect, it also has lively historic cities and national parks. Cuba is great holiday destination if you want a mixture of beach and culture.
Cuba Beach Holidays
Cuba has a very broad range of beach resorts from areas with well-developed all-inclusive resorts to more isolated beaches hosting hotels with a Cuban look and feel. All resorts have great diving and snorkelling.
Varadero is the biggest beach resort in Cuba and has a lot of 4 and 5 star all-inclusive hotels. The resort runs the full length of a 12km peninsula, with hotels lining each side, and is only a couple of hours’ drive from Havana.
Aside from sunbathing there are plenty of activities. Varadero is a great place for diving, with more than 30 dives sites near the peninsula. Boat trips are popular: there is lots of snorkelling if you don’t fancy diving, and dolphins are frequently spotted (even from the shore). There is also lots of non-motorised watersports including windsurfing and kitesurfing, however motorised watersports such as jet skiing are banned.
If you are looking for non-water based activities then there is a golf course nearby.
The area has a large selection of bars and restaurants that provide great nightlife.
The Cayos are a string of islands on the north coast of Cuba. The islands are much less developed than Varadero and there is a greater emphasis on nature.
Cayo Santa Maria is the most popular island and has the most resorts and hotels. The island has over 10km of beach and on the south side there are lagoons where you can spot flamingos.
In the waters off the Cayos is the world’s second longest barrier reef (after Australia’s), which provides great snorkeling and diving opportunities.
Guardalavaca is towards the east of the island and is much quieter than Varadero and low key compared to Cayo Santa Maria. There are few resorts so the beaches are very quiet and the area is more authentic. The best resorts are to the west of town on the Playa Esmeralda.
As with Varadero and the Cayos the diving and snorkelling is excellent.
Jibacoa is a fishing village to the east of Havana and is closer to the capital than any of the other major beach areas. Jibacoa only has a few all-inclusive resorts but is becoming more popular with tourists who want a beach holiday within easy distance of Havana.
Cities and Cultural Sites in Cuba
Cuba has a long and interesting history, the island was first settled over 6000 years ago, in the 16th Century Spain colonised the island, and more recently Fidel Castro and Che Guevara led the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s. This history has left its mark in many ways and travelling round Cuba is a great way to understand some of the key global events of the past century.
Havana is Cuba’s capital and largest city – the Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The streets of Havana are filled with 1950s cars (due to a ban on imports after the revolution) and the Spanish colonial buildings now have tired facades. This all adds to Havana’s attraction and sense of history.
Many of the former palaces in the Old Town have been converted into museums – the most interesting of which is Museum of the Revolution. There are great views along the Malecón (the sea wall), along which are some old forts built to defend the city against pirates. On the land side of the Malecón are shops, restaurants and bars, which are a great place to watch the sunset.
Havana has lots of open air restaurants and cafes that are great to eat and drink at during the days and enjoy the atmosphere of the city. At night the bars come alive with music – mainly salsa and jazz – and the clubs open, including the famous Tropicana Cabaret.
Trinidad is the best preserved colonial town in the Caribbean. Originally founded by the Spanish in the early 1500s the original colonial houses and cobbled streets are largely still intact.
The town’s fortune was built on the slave and sugar trade and in the area around Trinidad there are the ruins of plantations and estates from the period.
To the south is one of the best beaches on Cuba’s southern coast – the Playa Ancón – and to the north are the mountains of the Sierra del Escambray – a great place for hiking.
Although quieter than Havana, there is still a good nightlife scene with many bars hosting live music.
Viñales is a small colonial town in western Cuba, however the big draw for visitors is the area around the town. The Valle de Viñales is home to tobacco plantations interspersed with limestone outcrops.
The area can be explored by hiking, driving or on horseback. In addition to the plantations there are previously inhabited caves that are worth visiting.
Baracoa was Cuba’s first capital. It was founded in the early 16th Century but is now a small city of 80 thousand people. The city was only connected to the rest of Cuba by a road in the 1960s and still remains hidden and out of the way – very few tourists make it over to this eastern extremity of Cuba.
Baracoa is enclosed on three sides by forest covered mountains, and on the fourth by the sea. The town itself has three old forts built to protect it from pirates.
Fishing and trekking are the main activities for visitors to Baracoa.
Santiago de Cuba
Santiago is a former capital and the second largest city in Cuba. The city is now famous for its music and its rum, and was pivotal in Castro’s revolution.
Music is everywhere in Santiago – even more so than elsewhere in Cuba – and the city has a Carnival every July. The city is famous for its rum (a perfect accompaniment to the music) and it is the home to Bacardi and many other brands.
The mountains around Santiago were where the revolutionaries had their original camp and Castro led an attack on the Moncada Barracks in the city at the beginning of the revolution. Santiago is great if you are interested in the history of the revolution, as well as hiking in the mountains where it began.
Cienfuegos has a different feel to most of the other cities in Cuba. The architecture is French colonial, as opposed to the Spanish colonial architecture seen in Santiago, Havana and elsewhere. This difference in architecture is most noticeable in the wide tree-lined boulevards of Cienfuegos.
The city is in a beautiful sweeping bay – a location that has earned it the nickname ‘The Pearl of the South’. Outside the city are the El Nicho waterfalls that are worth a day trip.
Remedios is a small city close to the north coast in central Cuba. It is one of the oldest cities in Cuba and still retains a lot of its colonial buildings and streets. It is not on most tourists’ itinerary but there a few boutique hotels and it is a great opportunity to see one of Cuba’s historic cities without the crowds.
Other Cities and Cultural Sites
There are many other places in Cuba that are worth visiting including the eco-tourism focused area of Las Terrazas and the inland city of Camaguey, which was built with maze likely alleys to confuse any potential attackers.
Most visitors to Cuba want to see the main cities and spend some time on the beach. We have come up with some itineraries to suit, but as always these are only ideas and are fully customisable.
Havana and Varadero
A popular itinerary includes a few nights in Havana before heading for the beach. The most popular beach destination is Varadero as it is close to Havana, but Cayo Santa Maria or Guardalavaca are also possible.
The Best of Cuba
If you want to see the main the sites before relaxing on the beach we suggest spending a 2-3 nights in Havana, before heading to Vinales to see the tobacco plantations, caves and limestone outcrops. From there you can head to the extremely well preserved Trinidad and then on to either Cayo Santa Maria, Varadero or Guardalavaca for some time on the beach.
You can add in additional destinations such as Santiago and Baracoa to extend this itinerary or to replace the time on the beach.
Where to Stay in Cuba
The main cities have a variety of hotels from boutique hotels to faded luxury hotels. An increasingly popular option are Casa Particulares, which are private homes offering a B&B style service and is seen as a good way to meet Cubans. Accommodation for beaches is primarily all-inclusive resorts.
As restrictions on private enterprise are reduced more and more small hotels are cropping up providing a greater variety of accommodation.
When to Go to Cuba
Cuba is hot all year round and there is no month where we would recommend against going. However, August to October is hurricane season so tends to be wetter and at risk of storms, but rainfall is generally short lived.
Getting Around Cuba
The best way to get around Cuba is by car – buses are slow an unreliable. Renting a car is easy but does not work out much cheaper than hiring a car with a driver.
Getting to Cuba
There are some direct flights from the UK (although not daily), otherwise you will need to change in either Spain or the USA.