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Cuba: A uniquely preserved, vibrant Caribbean culture

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May 3rd, 2016
Playa Ancón, just outside of Trinidad.

Playa Ancón, just outside of Trinidad.

Beneath the thinning veil of restrictions limiting American travel to Cuba, the allure of this vibrant Caribbean country cannot be contained. Visitors to Cuba are transported back in time to a place where roads are shared by well-maintained 1950s American cars, bicycle taxis, and horse-drawn carriages; where neighbors and friends congregate in the street and along the Malecón (seawall) to socialize and music spills from each open door; where roadside billboards and museums trumpet government propaganda, but the vast majority of locals embrace American visitors. 

A weeklong trip to Havana, south to Playa Girón in the Bay of Pigs, and southeast to Trinidad, offers a bite-sized but lasting taste of Cuban culture.    

Artistic Havana

Five-star hospitality is seemingly in the blood here. In Havana, upscale hotels like Hotel Parque Central offer the luxury amenities of home, but throughout Cuba, casas particulares, or homestays in apartments rented by locals, offer a more culturally rich and affordable experience. Rent an apartment in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), within close walking distance to the main Paseo de Marti (Prado), along which you will find many of the capital city’s top sights.  

Start by exploring the grand Italian baroque architecture and interior frescoes of Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana. Exit to the cobblestoned plaza and stop for a lunch of white fish, rice, and beans at the nearby Café Lam Patio Amarillo, where you’re likely to hear live musicians in the open-air interior. Head westward to the Museo de la Revolución (revolution museum) for a fascinating journey through Cuba’s history, as told by its government. Prepare for large-scale caricatures of foreign leaders and recent American presidents in the “Rincon de los Cretinos” (the corner of cretins), followed by posters and artifacts depicting the various battles and their heroes.   

In contrast to the revolution museum, the newer Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Arte Cubano) is a modern, air-conditioned display of Cuban portraits and modern works, including those of Ever Fonseca and Rafael Blanco.

Of utmost necessity during a trip to Havana is a walk or drive along the picturesque Malecón at sunset when the seawall is alive with activity, from tourists to local youth and fishermen. Stop for dinner, a rum-filled mojito, and a Cuban cigar at nearby Casa Abel.    

Should you be in Havana on a weekend, visit Fabrica de Arte Cubano to immerse yourself in the hip new evening spot, a three-floor artistic center promoting cinema, live music, dance, theater, and sometimes provocative photography and paintings. Grab a snack at one of the cafes and meander through the various rooms and throngs of visitors. 

The next day, head south past the Parque Central and the capitol building, Capitolio Nacional. Walk or taxi back toward Havana Vieja for a stop at Bar Monserrate for live music and a Cuba libre (rum and cola). 

Tranquil Playa Girón

For a tranquil respite from the action of the city, head south to Playa Girón, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Havana and the famous site of the U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion. En route, you’ll pass billboards featuring government slogans and triumphant images of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. You’ll also pass the Cienaga de Zapata, the largest swamp in the Caribbean. Reptile lovers can stop at a Cuban crocodile farm for a look at crocodiles of all ages and the option to take a boat ride through the swamp. 

In Playa Girón, horses graze along windswept roads. Enjoy five-star service and impeccably kept rooms at Hostal Luis. Expect quiet and clean beaches at Playa Girón, and accessible day trips for snorkeling and beaches in nearby Caleta Buena, Punta Perdiz, or Playa Larga. For more history, visit the Museo de Playa Girón. 

Colonial Trinidad 

Two and a half hours southeast of Playa Girón, past tobacco, banana, and rice crops, is Trinidad, the well-preserved Spanish colonial city and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, brightly colored colonial architecture and hilly cobblestone streets abound. Tour the Spanish-style Plaza Mayor and Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad church. A wide set of stairs separates the church from outdoor space Casa de la Musica (house of music), where salsa music and dance reign in the evenings.  

On your first day, meander through the streets around Plaza Mayor, stopping at Taberna la Canchanchara to try the bar’s namesake drink of rum, honey, lemon, and water. For dinner, Bar-Restaurante Esquerra in front of the Casa de la Musica offers more live music in its enclosed and open-air dining areas, alongside plentiful seafood cuisine. 

Spend another day for a trip to Playa Ancón, about seven miles from Trinidad. Sparkling azure Caribbean water and white sand provide a lovely foreground for a relaxing beach day. Umbrellas are available for shade as well as food and drink.

A week in Cuba isn’t sufficient to explore the country’s many corners, but it is plenty of time for this once unfamiliar place to seep into your soul, willing your return. 

 

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