The Palacio de Valle is a fabulous Moorish-Gothic-Baroque confection at the southern end of the Punto Gorda peninsula, Cienfuegos, Cuba.
Take in the intricate ceilings, stained glass and chandeliers, as you head up the sweeping marble stairs to the top floor. Then climb the rickety spiral staircase to the rooftop bar, which has to be one of the best places in the world to watch the sunset. Order a mojito and gaze out across the water at the stunning view.
Reparto Punta Gorda, Cienfuegos, Cuba
+53 43 451003
Google map: bit.ly/YmSRqe
The town divides in two with huge, tackily adorned floats which wait by each church that slowly come to light throughout the evening. The fireworks start before it even gets dark with each side taking turns of roughly an hour each, launching them over the crowd gathered in the square. Spend the night there and you will be lucky not to get hit but that's part of the fun. Stay with a local and you will be fed like a king and have somewhere to hide if the home-made fireworks get too much. Let the family celebrate Christmas in peace and spend the following day relaxing and recuperating on one of the nearby beaches.
Google map: bit.ly/RBdnG9
I wasn't really left with much choice as I was pushed into taking part by my casa's cousin/farmer/cowboy/salsa instructor. He insured me it was a must while in Vinales however I was still quite reluctant to give it a try. I was led in near silence by my semi-automatic horse through the backs of farmer’s fields, besides prying wild life and had the chance to pick exotic wild fruits which were the most delicious I had yet had in Cuba. The Avatar style mountains closed in on us as we wandered through the valley's rising floor. We dismounted and explored the dips and creeks, into the caves and cooled by the plunge pool with the plumpest (wild) pigs I had ever seen. I was also promised a trip to a cigar factory which was delightful! We smoked handmade cigars for about an hour washed down with an ‘authentic’ rum, lemon and coconut water concoction. It may seem touristy but it was a worthwhile experience, being able to speak to the locals and explore a tourist excursion that the Cuban government isn’t controlling.
It's best to just ask someone at your casa for details.
This wonderful house is located in the center of Havana with a wonderful view to the sea because is beside the Malecón (the esplande) in Havana. Clarita is the best and help me in all that I asked.
Marina # 61, Havana 10300, Cuba
Not the one at the Che memorial but the one outside the communist party HQ just down the road from the train monument. Not only is it brilliant, but you can also have your photo taken next to a life-size Che without any bother as there's no guard.
Stationed outside the Capitol building in Havana you'll find some brilliantly restored convertible Cadillacs. These are available for one-hour tours for about 30 CUC. Not cheap by Cuban standards but, once you've seen them, you may just not be able to resist.
Barcelona, Havana, Cuba
+53 7 8637861
Google map: bit.ly/x1b8HR
Once you've booked your first casa particular you enter an unofficial chain where the owners of your present casa will offer to book your next one and arrange for you to be picked up at your point of arrival. We were gently bounced from one casa to the other up and down Cuba. Of course they're taking a cut but it does make things easier for you.
There's plenty of lovely beaches in Cuba, but this is special. While other beaches are all palm trees/blue water club med cliches (not that there's anything wrong with that) this is the only place where you'll feel like Captain Jack Sparrow might just be lurking behind the next mangrove tree. You'll wish you brought a treasure map to this (almost) desert island.
Google map: bit.ly/ya7GCt
Mid-December this was the only happening place in town, everywhere else was sadly deserted. It is very nice, open air on some steps up from the main square, great bands, wild dancing. Worst daiquiris in town though, stick with the beer.
Calle 20 esquina 35, Miramar
+53 7 204 0447
Do get yourself some pesos and buy food from the stalls/windows. It's delicious (freshly made egg tortillas, oyster cocktails, flan pudding hot from the tin), ridiculously cheap and completely safe - food hygiene is fanatically enforced. Also, it's a lovely change from the endlessly repeated chicken/pork/prawns/lobster plus rice plus symbolic amount of salad combo you get in the restaurants. Hard to believe as it is, you can get very tired of lobster.
Not just for Napoleophiles (who will definetely think they've died and gone to heaven), this is set in a huge hilltop mansion with glorious views over Havana. Also boasts Havana's most charming tour guides and the field glass Napoleon used at Waterloo.
Calle San Miguel No. 1159 esq. a Ronda. Ciudad de La Habana
+53 7 8791412
Google map: bit.ly/w3FUwz
Actually named Cayo Macho but renamed for the tourist trade, this is a iguana reserve on a desert island - basically Galapagos on a budget. The iguanas are completely unafraid of people and just hang around waiting for your meal leftovers like a bunch of scaly pigeons. There's also some extremely cute giant tree rats (they are cute, honestly) and the biggest hermit crabs I've ever seen. Well worth the two hour boat trip from Trinidad.
A very friendly gay/lesbian hostal just few steps from the city center, with a beautiful terrace and pool. It has also a garage. The operators know the gay scene very well and can give you many tips.
Calle Maximo Gomez, 270, e/Frexes y Aguilera. Holguín
+53 52 469 402,
The image of Vinales is one of verdant fields of tobacco and deep red soil, but a journey of just one hour takes you to one of Cuba’s finest beaches. Cayo Jutias is easily reached on a day trip from Vinales, and is well worth it. A white sandy beach, clear blue water, mangroves, and very few other visitors make for a relaxing time. The Cubanacan package includes transport and lunch at the only restaurant on the beach.
A hike through Vinales Valley is much more than just a nature ramble, it is a cultural experience. The valley is stunningly beautiful, with limestone karst “mogotes” rising straight up from the fields, lush green fields and rust-coloured soil that produce tobacco and coffee. But it is also home to caves, thatched tobacco houses with leaves drying from the rafters, farmers who roll cigars on their knees, and the 120-metre Mural de la Prehistoria on the side of a mountain. There are several guides that can be arranged to lead a tour that takes in all of the above, plus a stop for coffee in a local farmhouse, but Omar comes recommended.
Arrangements: Cubanacan office on the main street, or ask at your Casa Particular.
In a town replete with casas particulares it is hard to stand out in Vinales, but Casa Brunilda manages it handily. Aside from the nice room and outdoor sitting area, the main reason is the woman herself: Brunilda has a great sense of humour, loves to chat, and is the best cook in Cuba. Seriously. Each meal was a banquet, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was all whipped up on stoves in the back garden. Insist on trying the bean soup...
A lively, buzzing local restaurant in Vedado that does good pizzas and has – of course – great live music. Just a block from the Hotel Nacional, during the afternoons Sofia attracts a nice combination of locals sharing a bottle of Havana Club and visitors drawn in by the infectious sounds. The service is not the fastest, so best just to order a drink and relax.
Calle 23, El Vedado (one block from Hotel Nacional).
Google map: bit.ly/ezySIa
Hackneyed though it may be, the hop on/hop off tourist bus in Havana makes a lot of sense. First off, in a city where transport is pricey for tourists, these CUC$5 are well spent if only as a means of getting around. Secondly, while you won’t be using the bus to explore the crumbling splendour of Havana Vieja’s side streets, you will hit other more distant spots like the Plaza de la Revolucion, with its somewhat scary murals of Che and Camilo Cienfuegos, and the artisan market. But nicest of all, in a city where much of the life (and best photos) happen one floor up on the bustling, colourful balconies, the open-top bus gives you some of the best views in town.
From the Hotel Inglaterra in the Parque Central, and various other points around the city.
Google map: bit.ly/e5glFN
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