Cuba is one of the most exciting places in the world to visit right now, but too many people confine themselves to Havana. They’re missing out. The countryside offers a just-right mix: By day, it’s a peaceful retreat full of waterfall hikes and colonial treasures; after dark, the music rolls on all night long.
1. White Sand, Sapphire Sea
Fly to Varadero and head straight to Varadero Beach for swimming, snorkeling, and fresh lobster. Cubans call this 12-mile stretch of white sand the most beautiful beach in the world, and they might be right. Skip the all-inclusives for the seaside B&B Hostal Villa Mar (from $30) in nearby Matanzas, a city known for its 17 bridges. In the evening, take in a traditional danzón dance performance at the historic Sauto Theater.
2. Santa Clara
If you thought the multitude of old Chevys took you back in time, wait until you arrive in Santa Clara, where locals still get around by horse and buggy. Stay at the Hostal d’ Cordero (from $35), which you can easily book on Airbnb. It’s straight out of the 1930s, with high ceilings and pink walls (and the added essential comfort of air-conditioning). Join the locals who spend their nights dancing at nearby Vidal Park. Get a little sleep, then wake up to fresh fruit and café cubano in the Cordero’s courtyard.
Don’t be afraid to get lost along the cobblestone streets of Trinidad, where vendors sell embroidered cloth and woven fedoras. The Church of San Francisco tower will orient you. In the morning, head to Topes de Collantes National Park to hike the three miles of orchids and parrots to Salto del Caburní waterfall. For a different but equally wild side of Trinidad, swing by Disco Ayala, a dance club built in a cave, and sip the signature honey-lime-rum cocktail, the canchánchara.
Mention Cienfuegos to Cubans and they’ll likely sing, “¡Es la ciudad que más me gusta a mí!” (“It’s the city that I like the best!”) The lyric, from a song written by the legendary Benny Moré, still rings true. Spend the evening listening to son at a show in the Patio de ARTex or dance the rumba at Jardines de Uneac. By day, stroll the tree-lined Paseo del Prado, which leads to the Palacio de Valle—an architectural mash-up of Gothic, baroque, and Moorish influences.
Bonus Stop: Meal Time
When you get hungry along the way, ask around for a paladar, a family-run restaurant, to taste the best local pork, garlicky yucca, and congrí, black beans and rice.