Capturing Cuba’s heart: Salsa, Che, sand and cigars
From salsa lessons and tobacco plantations to UNESCO towns and tropical beaches, a tour of central Cuba’s highlights can capture the essence of the Caribbean nation in one unforgettable week.
The siren song of salsa is almost irresistible for most travellers to Cuba. Vibrant, passionate, and above-all fun, the slinky and rhythmic Cuban steamy dance embodies the island’s warm spirit and learning to salsa is the perfect route into the heart of the nation. At its best when accompanied by a live band, home-grown salsa is everywhere in Cuba – cafes and “casas de la musica” and at the frequent street parties and carnivalesque parades held across the country.
Snake-hipped Cubans are said to have salsa in the blood, and their enthusiasm for the dance is infectious. My first impromptu salsa lesson was outside a café in old Havana, but there have been many more since. It’s impossible to visit a street party or carnival in Cuba without being spun into a dance.
All the best trips to Cuba start and finish with its vibrant and fascinating capital Havana. One of the oldest and most beguiling cities in the Americas, the grand dame of the Caribbean has become something of a travel icon. The one-of-a-kind city fizzes with energy, colour and history, stitching together emblems from different eras to create a bewitching urban patchwork with curiosities at every turn.
There’s such a range of quintessential Cuban experiences to enjoy in Havana depending on your tastes. But learning the legendary local salsa, dancing with the “Habaneros” and feeling the pulse of the city is perhaps the ideal way to capture the Cuban spirit.
Early evening salsa lessons in Havana and night-time visits to the city’s music hotspots to try out your moves leaves daytimes free to explore the streets. Within a few days you can chart the city with a walking tour of its heritage quarter and boutique museums, cruise along the “Malecon” seafront in a classic hot-pink Chevrolet and hit the Revolutionary Trail to the city’s immense Revolution Square. A visit to Havana’s old-fashioned tobacco factory, Partagas, to see where the much-coveted Cuban cigars are rolled, or a stop for flaming rum coffee at Havana Club rum museum also gives a great insight into the island’s most famous products.
From Havana, it’s a couple of hours via a smooth sealed road into Cuba’s wild western playground of Pinar del Rio, home to a UNESCO-listed landscape of mogote hills and tobacco plantations. Like wandering into the pages of a storybook with illustrations of impossible landscapes and houses made of straw, visiting Viñales can feel like living in a rural fairy-tale.
Reaching the verdant valleys and hillsides of Viñales, one-by-one the domed ochre hills known as “mogotes” come into view, seeming to magically materialise from a flat valley floor criss-crossed with russet-coloured tobacco fields. With steep almost-vertical sides and rounded tops with florets of foliage, they resemble giant fossilized diplodocus’ covered in moss. Perhaps this is to do with both age and geology – the mogotes are beyond ancient and the rock must be relatively dissolvable, pitted as it is with caves and stalactites and stalagmites, canyons of curved boulders and escarpments that look like melted wax.
Viñales sits on the edge of the National Park and this usually sleepy town in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province is the epicentre of the country’s world-famous cigar industry. Cigar aficionados are in seventh heaven among the thatched barns and fragrant fields. Here, Cuban cigars are still a sort of cottage industry, produced manually on small-scale family-run farms, where oxen drag ploughs across rusty-red tobacco fields.
Visiting a thatched barn at Finca Raul Reyes, coils of pungent smoke hang in the humid air, and expert rollers demonstrate pulling the muddled strands of fragrant tobacco into a cigar with great dexterity. Brown leaves hang from the rafters like fruit bats and the finished cigars are dipped in honey for a final flourish.
Looping around this beautiful province, there are plenty of comfortable Cuban casas particulares to stay in, but Las Terrazas eco-resort in Las Terrazas Biosphere Reserve is a wonderfully relaxing retreat. In the forested foothills of the Artemisa province, it’s well set up for travellers, with smart accommodation, a visitor centre and marked nature trails. You can even channel your inner Tarzan, swinging through the trees on a series of zip-lines, with magnificent views of the surrounding jungle canopy.
After the simmering culture of Havana and the bucolic bliss of Viñales, heading south-east for some beach time offers the perfect balance. En route to the charming UNESCO-listed town of Trinidad, stopping at the soft floury sands of beach hideaway Playa Larga is a reminder that this is very much a tropical Caribbean island blessed with all the natural assets of its neighbours, and more.
Cuba’s “Pearl of the South” Cienfuegos isn’t far away. A sultry city skimming a Caribbean bay, its French founders gifted it with the grace of Paris, building Cuba’s only triumphal arch, plus pretty parks, plazas and colonial mansions that still stand to this day.
Due to its unique history, there are places in Cuba that seem virtually frozen in time, and there’s no better place to experience this than in the cute colonial town of Trinidad. Terracotta- tiled roofs slope down cobble lanes echoing with the sound of horse hooves and carts, and pastel-coloured Spanish colonial mansions overlook the pedestrianized centre in this atmospheric town.
The local Casa de la Musica comes alive after dark, and the town is awash with skilled instructors that can show you how to shake your stuff salsarina-style. In a local casa you can learn the correct posture, steps and rhythm to dance to the distinctive upbeat music that reverberates through the streets.
But it’s not just Cuban heritage and culture that Trinidad encapsulates, the island’s natural beauty is showcased in this region too. One of the island’s most feted beaches – Playa Ancon – skirts a peninsula close by, and hiking routes such as the Cubano Trail lead into the rainforest-draped foothills of the Escambray mountains where green grottoes harbour hidden waterfalls and bat-haunted caves.
Before heading back to Havana, there’s one more must-see in Central Cuba that completes the picture. The hotbed of the Cuban revolution, Santa Clara sits right at the heart of the island both historically and geographically making it a vital stop for travellers interested in understanding and exploring Cuba.
This is the place where just over 60 years ago the world’s most famous guerrilla fighter Ernesto “Che” Guevara fought the last battle of the war to seize power for Fidel Castro and the rebels. His legacy has been carefully preserved and the cult of personality still lives on. Che’s epic memorial crowns a peaceful hillside in central Santa Clara square, a glittering structure of pale grey concrete slabs and angular plinths rising in tiers and carpeted in greenery. Below, a serene mausoleum houses the rebels’ remains and a museum exhibits fascinating artefacts connected to Che and his band of loyal rebels.
Last night in Havana
Cuba’s main highway and the fastest route back to Havana runs close to Santa Clara, but as Cuba is almost as long as Italy, the drive takes at least a few hours. There’s no better way to stretch your legs and be welcomed back to Havana than scheduling an early evening salsa class. But before you hit the floor to sharpen your moves, take my advice and stop in at El del Frente, in O’Reilly street in the boundary between Old Havana and Havana Centro, for a classic “mojito” to loosen you up. It’s easily the best way to cap off a trip that distils the Cuban spirit.