Patronizing Paladares and Casas Particulares
The best way to appreciate Cubans, as well as to have the opportunity to exchange ideas about Cuba and the outside world, is by stepping inside a paladar restaurant or a casa particular, the Cuban version of a simple bed-and-breakfast. These private initiatives, heavily taxed by the state, are one of the only ways Cubans can earn badly needed hard currency, and they allow travelers a rewarding chance to see the country beyond the state-run hotels and restaurants.
Exploring la Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
No trip to Cuba is complete without at least a day (or more) spent in Habana Vieja. The streets and alleys of this colonial-era city center have been immaculately restored. You'll feel sucked back in time as you visit the plazas, churches, and forts here. Be sure to take a break from sightseeing and museum-hopping to stock up on souvenirs at the Calle Tacón market, your best one-stop shop in the country for this sort of stuff.
Spending an Afternoon at the Callejón de Hammel
This short alley is lined with Salvador González's colorful murals and punctuated with scrap sculptures and shrines to Afro-Cuban deities. If you can make it on a Sunday afternoon in Havana, you'll be treated to a popular Afro-Cuban dance and music celebration.
Walking along Havana's Malecón
Your best bet is to start in Habana Vieja and work your way toward the Hotel Nacional in Vedado. Take your time to stop and sit on the sea wall for a spell, and be sure to talk to some of the locals on your way. If you time it right, you will reach the Hotel Nacional in the late afternoon -- a good time to grab a cool drink and enjoy the setting sun from the "Compass Card" outdoor terrace.
Celebrating Las Parrandas
As the end of the year rolls around, the little colonial town of Remedios gears up to host Las Parrandas, one of Cuba's grandest street parties and religious carnivals. Everything culminates on Christmas Eve in an orgy of drums, floats, and fireworks.
Hopping a Steam Train to the Valley of the Sugar Mills
The colonial mansions in Trinidad were built with the riches of a booming Cuban sugar trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. The best way to see the Valle de los Ingenios, an extraordinarily lush valley once home to 60 sugar mills, is aboard a vintage 1907 American steam train to one of the sugar estates, Manaca-Iznaga, where you can survey the valley's many shades of green from a fantastic tower.
Following in Fidel's Footsteps
Waging a guerrilla war against the Batista dictatorship, Fidel Castro and his young comrades hid out in the Sierra Maestra mountains in the late 1950s. Their small-scale rebel base camp was never discovered, but visitors today can hike a trail through remote cloud forest up to Comandancia de la Plata, the command post where Fidel turned a country on its head. It's a fascinating glimpse of history from up close.
Joining a Carnival Conga Line
In the intense heat of summer, Santiago de Cuba explodes with the island's best carnival, an evocative celebration of the city's Afro-Caribbean roots. Ripe with rumba music, conga processions, booming percussion, fanciful floats, and wild costumes, it's a participatory party that has nothing to do with those cheesy conga lines people do on cruise ships.
Lying on one of Cuba's white-sand beaches sipping a mojito (Cuban rum cocktail) before dipping into the sparkling waters of the warm Caribbean sea is one of the best things you can do.
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