The Neighborhoods of Cuba
AN ARTICLE from OUR PARTNERS AT LET'S GO TRAVEL
By Zeb Goodman
Looking for a Caribbean getaway that offers more than just beach and sun? Enter Cuba. This island, only about 100 miles away from Miami, is a center of culture and history as well as sunshine and stretches of beach that will deliver. Here are the different cities and neighborhoods of Cuba, waiting to be explored:
El Vedado is the cleaner, newer, and more affluent section of Havana to the west of the city center. Various embassies are interspersed among charming Spanish colonials, various elementary schools, and the ever-present smattering of buildings in various states of disrepair. El Vedado is definitely the quieter section of Havana — there are limited to no jineteros looking for your cold hard cash and you won’t get accosted by a taxi driver every two minutes. Furthermore, its relative wealth makes it a safer bet for housing especially when compared to the city center. The Hotel Nacional and the Melia Cohiba bookend the region on the east and west respectively while dozens if not hundreds of little casas particulares provide cheaper and more charming options between the two hotel giants. While El Vedado succeeds in offering travelers safe and affordable housing, its a bit sleepy and lacks much of the intrigue of the old city. On the flipside, while it may lack in daytime attractions, El Vedado hosts some of the best paladares as well as the most trendy nightlife venues. Ultimately, this region of Havana is a quieter, less touristy sector of Havana with great food, great accommodations, and, if you know where to look, great nightlife. And while this isn’t a hard and fast rule, it might serve you best as a place to spend the night rather than a place to spend the day.
Viñales is a tiny little town in a southern province of the Pinar del Rio area to the West of Havana that has a population of about 10,000 people and about 100,000 chickens. The area itself looks like its from the set of Jurassic Park, with soaring limestone cliffs, palm tree forests, and vast expanses of farmland. In fact, this region of Cuba more closely resembles what a real Jurassic Park would have looked like, since the landscape and geography remains relatively unchanged since the prehistoric period. The town center is one measly little road with a few restaurants and bars but the town itself is not why you’ll want to go to Viñales. Aside from just staring at the landscape for a day or two (which wouldn’t be the worst idea since its so damn cool looking), the region of Viñales offers quite a lot of activities. Tour a tobacco farm (Viñales is known for growing some of the best tobacco in Cuba), ride a horse through the valley, spelunk one of the many caves systems, or hitchhike to the beach. All this and more can be found in this sleepy little town just two hours west of Havana. In fact, just about the only thing you can’t do in Viñales is find reliable internet access. So, no, you can’t stream Netflix from your casa particular. Consider yourself warned.
Centro Habana is the grittier, more authentic third of the city compared to Habana Vieja or Vedado. It’s also, not coincidentally, the neighborhood where a large majority of the Cuban people live within Havana’s borders. For tourists, most of the neighborhood’s attractions lie right on the border between Centro Habana and Habana Vieja, along Paseo de Martí. While this area is certainly worth checking out, the more authentic version of Centro Habana lies within the crowded, noisy streets to the west. While the center of the city may seem a bit seedy at first, it’s worth noting that there’s relatively little crime within Cuba, and given the severity of the punishments for crimes against tourists, the people here are probably more afraid of you than you are of them. Don’t give into the temptation to write off Centro Habana as a place to walk quickly through while tightly clutching your wallet, as the scenes depicted in these streets are some of the most uniquely Cuban. Spend some time wandering through Havana’s Chinatown; Enjoy some delicious Swedish meatballs at Casa Miglis, Cuba’s (and probably Latin America’s) only Swedish restaurant; Enjoy a perfectly concocted daiquiri on the roof of La Guarida; Dance to the pounding rumba along Callejon de Hamel; or visit the Museo de la Revolucion. While its certainly not the most obvious area of Havana to visit, time spent in Centro Habana can often have the biggest payoff.
Varadero is a small narrow peninsula that sticks out of the top of Cuba’s head like Alfalfa’s cowlick in Little Rascals. It’s surrounded by water on three sides (as most peninsulas are) and boasts 25 kilometers of uninterrupted, perfect, white sand beach on its northern coast. Imagine that: 25 kilometers of perfect Caribbean coastline. This isn’t one of those beaches where you have fight through crowds to get to the ocean. You can basically walk in any direction for hours and not run out of beach. That’s the magic of Varadero. The flip side of Varadero is that, apart from the beach, there’s pretty much nothing to do. The town is less a town than it is a few tired restaurants and casas hiding in the shadow of a bunch of all-inclusive resorts (which aren’t themselves all that great). Nonetheless, if you’re a beach bum, Varadero can’t possibly disappoint. If you’re bored with the beach after a few hours of tanning and a dip in the ocean, maybe save Varadero for a day trip.
Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is the oldest neighborhood in Havana as well as arguably the most unique. Founded originally by the Spanish in 1519, this location was an obvious choice for the beginnings of a city thanks to its proximity to Havana Harbor. The area grew throughout the years, eventually becoming Havana’s second most densely populated district, and in 1982 this section of the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After being awarded this honor, an ambitious restoration process was undertaken with the help of the City Historian’s Office to repair the buildings and recreate the unique beauty of Havana’s oldest neighborhood. Today, Habana Vieja is the most touristy section of the city, and not without reason. Historical buildings, museums, art galleries, and restaurants line every street, and thanks to the recent restoration funded in part by UNESCO, this neighborhood has become the cleanest, and most well-kept section of the city. In addition to some of the best restaurants and bars in the city, this district is sprinkled with public plazas, quiet parks, and numerous sights unique to Havana, making it a top destination within Cuba for just about any kind of traveler.
By now you’ve heard tons of people (including us) generically say that “Cuba is like a time machine that transports you back 50 years.” This certainly isn’t wrong, but it also doesn’t say much about what it actually feels like to be in Cuba. Furthermore, it doesn’t even begin to describe Trinidad, which feels more like it transports you back 200 years than it does 50. This small colorful town is one of Cuba’s cleanest, most charming, and most unique areas in the whole country. So much so, in fact, that it’s been a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site since the late 80s. The winding cobblestone streets are frequented by horse drawn carriages and cowboys offering guided mountain tours. Bright yellow bell towers and white-trimmed churches loom up over the emerald green Plaza Mayor. And busloads of twenty-year-old tourists drink themselves unconscious two stories underground in a disco cave. The location of Trinidad also offers something for just about everyone. Playa Ancón, just ten minutes south of the town center, is a beautiful white sandy beach with offshore snorkeling and diving. To the northwest, the Sierra del Escambray mountains keep watch over the town, with curling hiking trails, underwater caves, and waterfalls you can jump off of. Finally, Trinidad is just an 90 minutes away from both Cienfuegos and Santa Clara, making it well within day trip distance. Overall, Trinidad is easily one of the best towns to visit in Cuba, and to miss out on its unique beauty would be ill-advised.
Cienfuegos aka The Peal of the South aka Dat Fuego aka Keepin’ it One Hunned is Cuba’s French city in Southern Central Cuba that’s most known for it’s unique architecture, French tourists, and to be totally honest, not much else. It’s definitely one of Cuba’s sleepier cities that, despite having a population of about 150,000, doesn’t really have too much in the way of tourist attractions. In many ways, the city is somewhat like a normcore version of Cuba, in that everything you find here is a mediocre version of slightly better things you can find elsewhere in Cuba. It has a beach that can’t compare to those of Varadero or Trinidad, a Malecon that seems like an amputee’s nub compared to it’s counterpart in Havana, and a city plaza that’s, well, actually the city plaza is pretty nice. Cienfuegos, in our humble opinion, is not one of the top destinations in Cuba. But that shouldn’t stop you from visiting if you’re already heading to Trinidad or Santa Clara. It’s only an hour and a half drive away from either and is an easy stop on the way to or from Havana. If you have any interest in French Architecture, or are just looking to find a quieter, more relaxed city to escape the jineteros that you’ll find elsewhere, Cienfuegos is a great place to spend a quick day or two. Spend an hour or two relaxing at Parque José Martí, climb to the top of Casa de la Cultura Benjamin Duarte, check out one of Cuba’s most ornate theaters at Teatro Tomas Terry, or hitch a ride on a catamaran out to a coral reef at Playa Rancho Luna. There’s undoubtedly something for everyone in Cienfuegos, it’s just not Cuba’s best version of each something.
Santa Clara is many things. It’s Cuba’s only true student city, Che Guevara’s honorary Cuban hometown, the birthplace of many Cuban counterculture movements, and the home of the country’s only official drag show. This tiny town in the Villa Clara province has a lot going on while at the same time feeling oddly sleepy. The students are all but absent in the summer, making hard to justify visiting if your primary plan is to meet Cubans your own age. The three major Che sights are spread out along the outskirts of town, and there’s only so much time you can spend at Club Mejunje on a given night. If you’re looking for Cuba’s most electric and energetic city, this certainly isn’t it (at least during July and August). However, if you’re a history buff looking to pick up some more info on the revolution and check off some sight-seeing boxes, this is one of the essential Cuban towns.