After more than two years of pandemic travel closures, Cuba is finally ready to welcome quarantine-weary travelers longing for its world-famous white sand beaches. Cuba is the perfect Caribbean destination for kicking back and enjoying a mojito and cigar. However, savvy travelers get rewarded with a unique and unforgettable travel experience many tourists miss by digging deeper into this complex country.
But can Americans travel to Cuba? Don’t believe what you may have heard about Cuba being off-limits to travelers from the United States. American citizens in the know have easily traveled here since 2014 thanks to the Support for the Cuban People category of approved travel to Cuba. It’s as easy as booking a ticket and filling out a form at the airport, and then you’re off to explore the best things to do in Cuba.
1. Dance the Night Away at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano
Chosen by Time Magazine as one of 100 of the World’s Greatest Places in 2019, this former cooking oil factory turned mixed-use art space is worth the trip to Havana, Cuba alone.
The Fábrica de Arte Cubano (the Cuban Art Factory) is the drawcard for many internationally renowned artists, designers, DJs, and politicians, having hosted Anthony Bourdain, Michelle Obama, and Questlove within just a few months of each other.
What makes Fábrica de Arte Cubano so special? A rotating mix of fine arts installations set among bars and food vendors, a nightly repertoire of fashion shows, concerts, documentary film screenings, and more. You could visit every night you’re in Havana and have a new experience each time.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano has something for everyone, setting the tone for the future of Cuba before your very eyes.
2. Learn about Afro-Cuban Traditions in Santiago de Cuba
Located on the southeastern shore of Cuba, Santiago de Cuba was a central receiving hub of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, which left an important and distinct cultural imprint on the city. To truly understand the importance of African traditions, language, and cultures in Cuba, head to Santiago.
Visiting Santiago de Cuba is a cultural experience that transcends sightseeing. Skip the San Pedro de la Roca Castle and fortress, and use your time here to experience the culture. A visit to the Cutumba Ballet Folklórico is a great way to learn more about Afro-Cuban dance and musical traditions. You can even set up private or group lessons with professionals.
Visit Santiago in July to join the famous Carnival celebrations that express Afro-Cuban cultural and religious traditions with incredible parades and performances you won’t experience anywhere else.
3. Skip Varadero Beach and Head to Trinidad
Cuba is known for its crystal clear water and white sand beaches at Varadero, just a few hours east of Havana, but if you’re up for more of an off-the-beaten-path experience, head to the beaches outside Trinidad instead. Visit Playa Ancón for beautiful white sand and warm water, just a few miles outside of the charming colonial city of Trinidad.
Here you’ll find far fewer tourists than at Varadero, and with the proximity to Trinidad, you’ll find plenty of places to eat and stay that won’t break the bank. While most Cubans only head to the beach in the summer months, the warm Caribbean waters are perfect for visiting year-round.
4. Dive with Sharks at Jardines de la Reina
Named by Christopher Columbus in honor of Queen Isabella of Spain, the archipelago of islands south of Cuba known as Jardines de la Reina is home to some of the most untouched reefs in the world. Jardines de la Reina is home to Cuba’s best diving. You’ll find an incredible array of colorful corals, fish, reef sharks, and even whale sharks.
If diving with sharks sounds a little too much for you, there are plenty of less intense experiences to enjoy, such as fly fishing and snorkeling. Access to this pristine national park is tightly controlled, meaning guides are certified and highly knowledgeable about the area.
5. Explore Old Havana
One of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas, La Habana Vieja, or ‘Old Havana,’ is a must-see destination. A trip to Cuba is not complete without exploring the streets of this gorgeous neighborhood. Unlike the historic centers of other major cities in the Caribbean, many average Cubans live and work here, which gives the area unmatched energy you’ll pick up on instantly.
Visitors can easily take a self-guided walking tour of the neighborhood and see many highlights by tracing a path through Old Havana’s four major plazas: Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral, and Plaza Vieja.
Art buffs can marvel at masterpieces in the Museo de Bellas Artes or at the galleries of independent Cuban artists that line Calle Obispo just a few blocks away.
Make sure to end a day in Havana by enjoying sunset overlooking the Capitolio building and opulent Gran Teatro de La Habana theater from the rooftop bar and restaurant at the Hotel Manzana Kempinski.
6. Climb Pico Turquino
When you think of a destination for mountain climbing, the Caribbean might not be the first place that comes to mind, but climbing Pico Turquino in eastern Cuba should be at the top of your Cuba bucket list. The highest peak in the Caribbean, Pico Turquino, is a beautiful hike through lush forest and a moderate push to the summit.
On the way up, you can stop at Comandancia de la Plata, the guerrilla camp used by Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara to launch the attacks that led to the Cuban Revolution. Make sure to head down the trail on the mountain’s south side after reaching the summit to enjoy some incredible ocean views.
7. Visit the Mausoleum of Che Guevara
The Cuban Revolution is evident everywhere in Cuba, but nowhere more so than at the mausoleum of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Santa Clara.
If you’re a history buff, there is no better place to take a deep dive into the history of this polemic leader. Here, you’ll find in-depth exhibits about his personal and political history, copies of individual letters, political theses, and much more.
Even the casual observer will be impressed with the patriotic display and come away with a much deeper understanding of one of history’s most recognizable figures.
Located in the heart of Santa Clara, this is an easy stop-off on a trip from Havana to Trinidad or the beaches on the southern side of the island.
8. Visit a Tobacco Plantation in Valle de Viñales
Even if you have a distaste for Cuban cigars, visiting the tobacco plantations at the Valle de Viñales is an unmissable experience for any traveler. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre destination for its mountainous landscape marked by distinctive limestone “karsts,” the dramatic landscape alone is worth visiting.
From the small town of Viñales, visitors can travel on horseback through the national park to see the small tobacco plantations that grow some of the world’s most prized tobacco.
Stay overnight in Viñales in a casa particular, or “private house” of a Cuban with a room for rent. One of the best things to do in Cuba is to support the Cuban people and help out small-time entrepreneurs. You’ll also have an unmatched opportunity for cultural exchange and likely enjoy a delicious, home-cooked meal.
9. Shop Cuba’s First Independent Fashion Brand
Developed by enterprising designers who repurposed used clothing to make new designs, Clandestina has grown against the odds to sell its unique designs internationally. Visit their independent shop in the heart of Old Havana, where you’ll find unique design prints, clothes, accessories, and home goods that make for perfect souvenirs from Cuba.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see designers hard at work making custom screen printed t-shirts and accessories in the back room while chatting with customers. Clandestina’s pop-up store inside Fábrica de Arte Cubano is worth visiting between art shows and DJ sets.
10. Hike Through Coffee Plantations to a Jungle Waterfall
Just outside of Trinidad’s charming and historic city, the Escambray Mountain Range is one of the best places to explore Cuba’s natural beauty. Home to an abundance of unique flora and fauna, a hike through the area, will lead you among dozens of species of coffee plants, orchids, jasmine, ginger, and more.
One of the area’s most picturesque hikes through the coffee plantations and the shade of the jungle canopy will bring you to the Salto del Caburní, a waterfall and swimming hole perfect for cooling down after a day spent under the hot Cuban sun.
If you’re looking for a unique travel experience with something for every kind of traveler, head to Cuba. Cuba is well known for its delicious rum, world-class tobacco, and classic American cars. Still, you’ll find that some of the best things to do in Cuba are a bit further off the beaten path.
This article originally appeared on Wealth of Geeks.
Carley Rojas Avila
Carley Rojas Avila is an avid traveler, writer, and creator behind Home to Havana. Having traveled to twenty-five countries and spent years living abroad, she shares destination guides, travel tips, and hacks to help travelers and digital nomads feel at home when traveling off the beaten path, whether their travels take them to Havana or beyond.