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When in Cuba Five must-visit cities
June 22, 2017, 2:11 pm

Like its Caribbean neighbors, Cuba boasts some great strips of sand. But the real soul of this country lies within its vibrant cities. From legendary Havana, colonial Trinidad, liberal Santa Clara, music-loving Santiago de Cuba, and off-the-beaten path Baracoa, here are some other compelling reasons to explore this storied island.

In Havana: Wander the energetic side streets: The biggest city in the Caribbean, Havana is an overwhelming mix of magnificently dilapidated colonial architecture, rickety bicycle-taxis, and bright 1950s cars. This is a place where life is lived out in the open, so to experience it fully, do not just hit the main streets of Old Town and Habana Vieja. Instead, make your way down a few residential blocks. You might just see a rough-and-tumble game of street baseball, be offered a fresh sandwich for mere cents, or get pulled into an impromptu dance party. 

Discover the ultimate people-watching destination: The Malecón, a promenade along the city’s coastline, is never empty. By day, fishermen line the rocky outcrops beyond the cement ledge while hawkers and food carts cater to passerby; at night, this is the meeting place for lovers, sunset-gazers, and anyone looking for cheap entertainment.

In Trinidad: Capture the town’s classic colonial vibe: Cuba is famously a country frozen in time — something both frustrating and alluring — and nowhere is the time warp more evident than in Trinidad. The bright Spanish colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, and numerous horse-carts make a stroll through town akin to walking onto a 1850s movie set. Plaza Mayor, flanked by the golden-hued church Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad, is the place to point your camera lens back through history. 

Find the music: Trinidad and pretty much all Cuban cities have live music happening on or around every corner. Stop by the small plaza midway up the stairs next to the Iglesia Parroquial off Plaza Mayor for the nightly salsa show, or simply take a seat on any bench and wait for a guitarist to wander past.

Spend the night in a casa particular: In a town chock-full of colonial-style mansions decked out with antique rocking chairs, vintage chandeliers, and sunny courtyards, it is an especially smart plan to stay in a casa particular (private bed-and-breakfast).

In Santa Clara: Pay homage to Che Guevara: No matter how you feel about Argentinian revolutionary ‘El Che,’ Santa Clara is the city to revisit his massive mark on history. In addition to the big draws of Che Guevara Mausoleum, which houses his remains, and the Tren Blindado park exhibit, which details the battle of Santa Clara, keep an eye out for the smaller displays, too.

Check out vibrant Parque Vidal: Set right in the center of town, it is impossible to miss Vidal Park, an open-air theater. The park is surrounded by eye-catching examples of colonial, Art Deco, and neo-classical architecture. Snag a seat and watch the drama unfold in the most charming of settings.

Eat traditional food at a local paladar: Dining at paladares, small family-run restaurants, is one of the best ways to discover local Cuban cuisine. The only trick is that many bill in national pesos rather than the convertible pesos (CUCs) most tourists carry. Cuba operates with two different currency systems, which can be incredibly confusing at times, but it is well worth to carry a bit of both types of cash.

In Santiago de Cuba:

Follow your ears: The sounds of Santiago de Cuba alone will reel you in — trumpets, bongos, guitars, clapping, stomping, you name it. Live music is happening all over this vibrant city, but one of the best places to catch traditional beats is at Santiago’s Casa de la Trova. The doors are flung wide to spirited Heredia Street late afternoon till late night. Hit the small dance floor, cram yourself onto one of the narrow benches, or join the crowds grooving right outside.

Climb the Padre Pico steps: Calle Padre Pico is one of the most famous streets in Santiago, thanks to its famous stairs. Commissioned in 1899 by Emilio Bacardi Moreau, the staircase has become a city symbol. The steps stand at the gateway to Tivoli, Santiago’s picturesque old French quarter, settled by Haitian colonists in the late 18th century. Walk them as you wander through, snapping photos.

In Baracoa:

Peruse the bustling main drag: Half the fun of getting to laid-back Baracoa, a city separated from the rest of Cuba for 450 years due to a mountainous buffer zone, is the windy, vista-filled road you will take. Called La Farola (The Lighthouse Road), this paved path was a gift to the city’s loyal revolutionaries from Fidel Castro in 1964. It snakes through pine-coved mountains to sink into a lush tropical paradise. Everything is walkable in this small settlement, and the action —performance art, buskers, hawkers, shows, and much more — happens right out in the street. 

Sample a beloved local concoction: Sweet cucurucho, a tasty mix of coconut, sugar, honey, nuts, guava, papaya, and more (each blend is different), is a foodie craze just waiting to happen. Ingeniously packaged in a palm frond and secured with a hook for easy transportation, simply scoop out the delicious paste with your fingers and pop it into your mouth. Locals claim the campesinos (country people) make the best stuff, so look out for roadside sellers just outside of town.

Watch for rogue waves: Baracoa’s expansive coastal road, Los Martires Avenue, is reminiscent of Havana’s Malecón. A long wall hugs the Atlantic, with views of the open sea, waving palms, and purple mountains in the distance. Strong waves surge mightily against the rocky edge, though — sometimes right over the top.


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