When many people think of Cuba, it is the faded glamour of its capital city Havana which may come to mind. Drenched in unique history and brimming with spirit, the city’s striking fusion of the vintage and the modern make it a somewhat puzzling, yet widely popular tourist destination.
However, unbeknownst to many, Cuba’s enigmatic charm extends further than its vivacious capital. For a true sample of Cuban culture, venture into its 14 other provinces, each of which offers its own unique flavour, while encapsulating the heat, music and culture of the island. From spectacular countryside to colourful historic towns, Cuba offers a wealth of diverse landscapes waiting to be discovered.
During my six months studying in Havana in 2019, my friends and I took advantage of our free weekends to travel around the island, spending a few nights in each destination. While a single trip to Cuba does not permit a full exploration of its treasures, I’ve compiled a list of four extraordinary places which you won’t want to miss.
Also Read: Four places to dance like a local in Havana
Four Of My Favourite Places To Visit Outside Of Havana
1. The Mystical Valley Of Viñales
If it is stunning scenery you’re looking for, UNESCO-listed Viñales will not disappoint. Located less than a three-hour drive from Havana in the Pinar del Rio province, this idyllic expanse of Cuban countryside was the first place we visited outside of Havana, that offered a tranquil break from the bustle of the city. Home to mystical views, exuberant wildlife and refreshing natural pools, the valley flaunts a landscape like no other. For an extra special experience, take in the scenery on horseback, as you ride through the palm tree-scattered hills with a Cuban local. If you want to explore on your own terms, take a hike to one of the many caves concealed within the greenery, such as the mystical Cueva de los Indios or Cueva de la Vaca. Don’t worry if you get lost—when it happened to us, we soon found a local farmer eager to point us in the right direction (and give us a tour of their farm along the way).
Viñales is also famous for its agricultural production, and a trip would not be complete without a visit to one of the honey, tobacco, or coffee farms. We particularly enjoyed the Alejandro Robaina Tobacco Plantation, where an expert took us through the tobacco production process from start to finish.
Don’t miss: A trip to the Mirador by the Hotel Horizontes Los Jazmines for the best view of the valley and a glass of the most refreshing Piña Colada I’ve ever tasted.
2. The White Sands Of Varadero
Situated only 150 kms from Havana, Cuba’s top beach destination, Varadero, offered us a luxurious antidote to Cuba’s scorching heat. Boasting 13 miles of feathery white sand and crystalline turquoise waters, we could easily see why the peninsula has been voted the second most beautiful beach in the world. If, like us, you just want to relax, grab a bottle of rum to accompany the enchanting view of a coral sunset from the coast. Or, if you’re seeking an adrenaline rush, sample the many water sports the beach has to offer. However, if it is a more authentic experience you’re looking for, head elsewhere: you’re unlikely to see many locals in this popular tourist destination.
Don’t miss: A visit to the artisan stalls of the Varadero street market.
3. The Colourful Cobbles Of Trinidad
A trip to Cuba would not be complete without a visit to the island’s best-preserved colonial town, Trinidad. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Trinidad has been called a ‘living museum’, and is home to an array of majestic mansions and churches. Take a stroll around the town’s picturesque centre, Plaza Mayor, and get lost in its vibrant yellows, blues and greens. Nature seekers can escape 12 kms south to Playa Ancón, where we spent a heavenly day feasting on fresh fruit from the beach’s mango trees. Or, head to El Nicho, where you can bathe in one of Trinidad’s many nearby waterfalls. If that isn’t enough to convince you, a path leading directly from behind the town’s cathedral will lead you to Disco Ayala, a bizarre late-night club housed inside a natural cave. Yes, you read that correctly. A club. In a cave.
Don’t miss: A stroll up the tower of the Museo Histórico Municipal for an expansive view of the colonial town.
4. The Untouched Coastal Town Of Baracoa
Baracoa, located in the far eastern corner of the island, is perhaps Cuba’s most impressive hidden treasure. Located a 22-hour coach ride away from Havana, or a two-hour plane trip, the journey to Baracoa was by no means easy. However, after a few hours spent among its quirky tropical charms, the journey was a distant memory as we drank in the surreal character of the sleepy coastal town. Largely unfrequented by tourists, Baracoa is unlike anywhere else on the island.
With a strong Caribbean feel, the tiny town flaunts an assortment of untouched landscapes, full of royal palms, chocolate trees and unmatchable wildlife. Take a stroll past the banana and coconut trees which line its secluded black-sand beaches or view the colourful coastline from the top of the majestic El Yunque mountain. A highlight of our trip was a visit to Las Mujeres Farm, one of the town’s cocoa farms. Here, the village’s ‘cocoa queen’ offered an overview of Cuban cocoa culture and a taste of the most delicious organic chocolate on the island.
Don’t miss: A visit to an authentic coastal restaurant to sample the town’s speciality: its coconut milk sauce.
Travelling Around Cuba
Like many practicalities in Cuba, travelling around the island can be confusing. There are many different means of travel, from antique Cuban taxis to tourist buses, to plane journeys across the island. To play your part as a responsible traveller, opt for taxi collectivos, (shared taxis). As well as reducing air pollution, they are an effective way to save money and meet fellow travellers along the way!
However you end up reaching your destination, Cuba’s assortment of natural pools, beaches and wildlife mean that, for the adventurous, nature-loving traveller, the journey will certainly not be in vain.