Cuba’s must-dos by solo traveller Philippa Baines
The first and last stop for nearly all visitors of Cuba, Havana is an explosion of colour and music. From joining a local band for a sing-song-and-dance on the street, to drinking rooftop cocktails at the Flashpack’s insider bar, to meandering through old decaying colonial streets by vintage car, there were so many highlights – three particularly stand out.
The Flash Pack took our group to a local joint called Saraos. Situated in a suburban middle class district, visiting this area was a contrast to the stereotypical decaying colonial architecture in central Havana and I feel that we gained a real insight into a local Cuban night out – albeit an insight into Cuba’s growing young affluent population. Here, we saw live bands performing Mumford and Sons tribute songs, danced flamenco with local professionals and fist pumped to beloved Pitt Bull and Justin Bieber (new album only, thank god.) The diversity of entertainment, under one roof, was amazing.
Secondly, I’ll never forget staying in an incredible VIP casa on the famous seaside Malecon road. Selected by Lee and Radha the casa had amazing views over Havana’s skyline. Combined with the high ceilings and decorative 1920s furnishings, it was an incredible throwback to a bygone era of wealth and opulence.
Finally, I loved eating at La Guarrda restaurant in Havana’s old town. It was used as the filming location for Cuba’s most famous film, Strawberries and Chocolate and you can sit amongst some of the iconic props used in the film – namely the Jesus statue that gets decapitated in a fit of rage by one character. The food is delicious and the strawberries and chocolate themed pudding – to die for!
Read more: Christ, this is one EPIC selfie!
My favourite city in Cuba, Trinidad is a mellow version of Havana – smaller, quieter and a bit less intimidating.
I loved stumbling upon a local national parade, complete with kids dressing up as middle aged national heroes. The beaches around the city are also fantastic, good for swimming and Andy our Flash Pack guide, taught us how to salsa dance on the sand. Finally, there’s a brilliant trek in the countryside near Trinidad with lots of wildlife spotting opportunities and a beautiful waterfall you can swim in, the water is cold but it’s a brilliant experience.
The Sierra Maestra mountains west of Santiago de Cuba are absolutely stunning. The range is home to the highest mountain in the country and was the location in which Fidel Castro hid from Dictator Batista when campaigning for a socialist democracy. You can trek through the mountains learning about the history of the area with an expert guide.
Sierra Maestra casa is amazing too. There’s a sun deck perfect for sunbathing, people watching and sipping Cuba as the sun goes down. I also went and explored up the river just in front of the casa. You can also explore the river that runs in front of the casa, about half a mile up is a deep pool you can swim in. I jumped in fully clothed when I found it as it was so cool and crystal clear I couldn’t stop myself!
Baracoa is a less visited city in Cuba on the east coast. It has white-sand wild beaches, delicious creole food – distinctive to the rest of Cuba – and a lovely laid back atmosphere. There’s beautiful street art on the back roads and a wonderful restaurant called La Colina run by a local called Al with immaculate English and his lovely family. Entertainment is by his father on the guitar – he takes song requests – and his daughter is the cook – soon to be appearing on Cuba’s version of Master Chef. Al’s restaurant also provides cooking lessons and cocktail classes on request – I learned how to make Daiquiris here, which was my favourite Cuban drink!
I’d argue Camaguey is Cuba’s biggest hidden gem – bold statement I know but hear me out. This idiosyncratic town is not really on the tourist map but has beautiful architecture, friendly locals intrigued by foreign visitors and brilliant arts. There are art shops galore, an entire street dedicated to cinemas and filmmaking, beautiful rooftop bars and fantastic ballet and flamenco training centres to boot. On my trip, The Flash Pack, especially organised a private performance of flamenco and it was fantastic, we got to watch some of Cuba’s best dancers and talk to them afterwards about their lives.
Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is a busy city on the east coast of Cuba. It has great music at Casa de la Trova and the sunset view from the rooftop of Casa Granda Hotel is beautiful. It’s very busy, I asked to take a photo of a local and she agreed only to save my life by warning me I was about to get run over by a car. (My fault really should have been paying attention!) It’s a great place to just stopover on your way further east to Baracoa after the Sierra Maestra.
Wild Card: On the road to Baracoa from Guantanamo
Possibly my favourite experience of the whole trip, lunch and swimming at El Chino’s place on the long drive to Guantanamo is like arriving in paradise. El Chino’s is tiny restaurant with a virtually private beach serving up fresh fish, lobster and prawns. The sea is turquoise blue, the sand white and clean, with a lovely breeze to cool you down. The restaurant is not well marked and is not particularly official so hard to find but rest assured Andy & The Flash Pack guide will get you there!
Want to travel solo to Cuba with Flash Pack? Join us for a classic car tour of Havana, trekking in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, cooking class in Baracoa and lots more
Photos by Flash Pack and Philippa Baines