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If you’re headed to Cuba and want to get off this well-trodden path, here are five places to explore outside the capital that are worth the time it takes to reach them.
Nothing says “Cuba” like a freshly-rolled cigar—and there’s no better place to roll a cigar than in Viñales. The most charming town in Cuba’s tobacco-growing region, Viñales offers a multitude of experiences for travelers, from touring tobacco fields by horseback, to sipping rum at watering holes in the colonial town center, to exploring the many caves you find inside the emerald mountains that dot the region.
GET HERE FROM HAVANA: Viazul runs several buses per day between Havana and Viñales, with a journey time of about four hours and a cost of 10-15 CUC (equivalent to 10-15 USD) each way.
Cienfuegos’ name means “100 fires” in Spanish, but traipsing through this charming town is a decidedly tranquil affair. It can get hot, however, which is why it’s lucky that Cienfuegos sits near one of Cuba’s best beaches, Bahía de Cochinos. This name means “Bay of Pigs” (yes, that Bay of Pigs) in Spanish, but the only “cold war” on your mind as you bathe here will be the chilliness of the crystalline water on your skin.
GET HERE FROM HAVANA: Cienfuegos is about five hours from Havana by Viazul bus; tickets cost around 20 CUC each way.
Painted a sunny yellow that seems to perfectly balance the azure skies above it, the bell tower of Trinidad is without a doubt one of the most iconic images travelers have of Cuba, but it’s only the beginning of the town’s charms. Indeed, once you’ve seen the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Trinidad’s historic center, head into the mountains of the nearby Valle de los Ingenios, or to the gorgeous beach at Playa Ancon.
GET HERE FROM HAVANA: Trinidad is only a bit farther south and east than Cienfuegos, with a total travel time from Havana of around 6-7 hours, and a one-way ticket cost of about 25 CUC.
Santiago de Cuba
If you’re not someone who associates the word “Carnival” with Brazil, your mind probably goes to New Orleans, Cologne or Venice. And even then, you’ve probably written off attending one entirely if you’re not free in February. Thankfully, the carnival in Santiago de Cuba takes place each year in July, and it’s just one reason to pay a visit to the island’s vibrant second city, the largest one in its eastern reaches.
GET HERE FROM HAVANA: Traveling to Santiago de Cuba by bus will take up almost a whole day, so it might be worth the extra expense (between 100-300 CUC, depending on when you book) to fly here from Havana on Cubana.
The destinations thus far have all been alluring in their own right, but if you want to get really far off Cuba’s beaten path, head to Baracoa. A city at the far eastern tip of the island, Baracoa is not only your gateway to some of Cuba’s wildest beaches and natural scenery, but to local culture and cuisine that is decidedly more Afro-Caribbean than the rest of the island. In some ways, it feels like another country!
GET HERE FROM HAVANA: If you don’t mind being on a Viazul bus for 22 hours, this is a fine way to reach Baracoa from Havana. Otherwise, fly Cubana to Guantanamo, Moa or Santiago, then continue by bus or taxi.
The Bottom Line
Cuba is much more than Havana or any of the destinations immediately in its orbit—I’m looking at you, Cancun-wannabe Varadero. Whether you head west to the country’s tobacco-growing region, to the colonial towns that dot its charming center, or far east toward wild parties and wilder beaches, Cuba is just waiting to be explored.
CUBA TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
FLIGHTS & VISAS
The easiest way to fly into Cuba for most nationalities is via Mexico or Panama.
While there are now flights available from several cities in the United States, flying direct may create visa complications.
A Tourist card can be applied for from a Cuban Embassy prior to travel or at certain airports of embarkation enroute to Cuba.
If you don’t want to go it alone there are several great tours operating throughout Cuba. Intrepid Travel’s 15-day Best of Cuba small group tour covers all the destinations listed above and includes accommodation in traditional-style Casas (guesthouses). Prices start from NZD $2907 – check it out here.
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