Holidaying outside Havana

By | Category: Travel destinations

Cuban youth

Welcoming Cuba

Last May, during the FIT Cuba – the annual trade tourism fair in Cuba, Manuel Marrero Cruz, the Cuban minister of tourism stressed the value of tourism. With an increasing number of visitors, he said that around 3,000,000 visitors were expected this year.
He announced a major plan to develop tourism through the whole island so that visitors could see more of Cuba. Another 45,000 new rooms were to be built by 2030. At present, the majority of hotels for visitors are concentred in Havana and Varadero. There is another group of beach resorts about five hundred kilometres from Havana, all along the Cayos, which is a long string of small islands bordering on the central north coast of Cuba. It runs from Varadero to Holguin.
Over sixty tour operators in the Uk offer holidays to Cuba and the two big ones, Thomas Cook and Thomson offer direct flights as does Virgin Atlantic. But there is no service by the Cuban national airline Cubana from London any more. It withdrew from the route in May this year. But, next month, Cubana starts a regular Friday service from Paris to Santa Clara and that provides another entry point into Cuba. The reason I mention it is that Cubana was often the cheapest way to get to Cuba. At present it is offering a €400 fare to Santa Clara. Even allowing for the cost of getting to Paris this could be a cheaper option than flying from the UK. I recommend you check carefully and do the maths.
It’s also a good opportunity for those who have already visited Havana on a previous trip and who want to discover another aspect of the authentic life of Cubans. And there is another bonus. If you holiday in Cayos and fly in on a regular flight then you have had to stay in Havana overnight and then take a long bus journey to Cayos the following morning. That loses you almost a day of your holiday on the way out and a long time on the return journey. So fly to Santa Clara and have more of your holiday left. You can start the sun tan off before other holidaymakers arrive; enjoy the food or just spend the time swimming, snorkelling or exploring. Thomas Cook flies into Santa Clara from Manchester in the summer only and both Thomson and Thomas Cook fly into other Cuban destinations.
Visiting to Santa Clara

El Louvre

Capital of the Santa Clara region, Santa Clara is a typical Cuban historical town with square angle streets, all built around the central plaza. There, anyone can feel the welcoming spirit of Cuban people and they really are welcoming, that isn’t tourist office speak. Just stop at any terrace, order a coffee or a mojito, seat down, listen to the music and look at the quiet life of the locals. Then walk around the central square, where you’ll see small groups of smiling teenagers – boys and girls – in brown and beige uniforms. Look at the brightly coloured houses, say ‘hola’ to the old ladies whose wrinkled and tanned faces will smile at you Or approach the street-sellers and buy some souvenirs. Once in a while, an old American car from the 1950’s, will slowly pass by giving you all the time in the world to admire its fabulous chrome form. The drivers are so proud of how they look after their cars that they will even slow down if they see you want to photograph it.

Santa Clara

For all Cubans, Santa Clara is famous for a major event in the war against the Batista army. There was a successful attack on the armoured train by the Che Guevara commandos and, today, the very same train is an open-air museum and well worth a look. As is anything connected to the almost mythical figure of Che Guevara. So, more recently in memory of “El Commandante,” an immense statue of the guerillero has been erected over his tomb.
Not too far from Santa Clara is Remedios another pleasant town, smaller than Santa Clara, much more charming, and today a national monument. It was founded vey early on in the sixteenth century and it sometimes seems to have stayed in a 1950’s timewarp. There is a network of cobblestone streets and you will often see horse-drawn carriages. Maybe I mean the 1850’s instead of the 1950’s. Don’t miss a stop at El Louvre bar on the central square, said to be the oldest bar in Cuba. In the town the church, San Juan Baptista de los Remedios, is the oldest in Cuba and is well worth a visit because it is the only original church from the 16th Century. It hasn’t been altered or added to. So you really are seeing what it was like 500 years ago
Remedios square


Close to Remedios, the Sugar Museum is found on an old sugarcane processing site. In addition to the heavy machinery which still remains and is impressive, there is one other great attraction. There is a huge collection of old steam locomotives and, included in the visit, is a return trip to Remedios in a carriage pulled by one of these nostalgic giants of the past. And everyone loves steam engines. Or so they say.
Cuban tourist train

back from the Sugar Museum

A stay in the Cayos
The Cayos archipelago, also known as Jardines del Rey (the King’s gardens) consists of dozens of islands. Many are uninhabited. And it is only really on two – Cayo Coco and Cayo Santa Maria- where the main tourist resorts are. These two islands are linked to the mainland by their own long causeways. Cayo Santa Maria, being the closest to Santa Clara, is a good base to explore province of Santa Clara.
In the Cayos, white sandy beaches, blue sky and little sea breezes will frame your sunbathing. Swimming, snorkeling, sailing, fishing and diving are some of the common activities of tropical beach resorts. Or you can just continue to soak up the sun, improve your tan and have another long, cool drink.
To widen the offering to visitors, new hotels like the Las Dunas and Memories Paraiso have been built in Cayo Santa Maria. The Memories Paraiso is linked to a sort of “new” traditional village -La Estrella – and which has, grouped around a plaza, various restaurants, jazz and cocktail bars, a gymnasium, spa, disco and shops. And something typically Cuban – a cigar lounge.
The new dolphinarium complex in Cayo Santa Maria is a must not only for children but also for adults. Have you ever swum with a dolphin and felt its skin? It wasn’t what I expected as the skin is soft to the touch and not hard and scaly as I imagined.
Close to Cayo Santa Maria, a small harbour has been recently built for few big catamarans which will take you on half-day or full-day cruises. They will pause as they sail enabling you to dive overboard and snorkel some of the smaller islands. Masks and fins are provided for everyone on board.

Cayo Santa Maria

Be wary of the sunshine in Cuba. The sun is extremely hot and sunscreen should be worn at all times. It would be a shame to spoil your holiday in this lovely country by suffering in your hotel.
And if you have been to the Cayos before and think to yourself that one island is like another, forget the idea. Each is different; each is appealing and each will be a great holiday.

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Images and story ©Frederic de Poligny
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