Beyond Havana: the best places to visit in Cuba outside the capital

Cuba’s time-warped capital city may steal the limelight, but travel beyond the country’s poster child reveals a wealth of adventures. From the otherworldly landscapes of Viñales to the thumping salsa beats of Santiago de Cuba, here are the best places to visit in Cuba outside of Havana.
Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba. Photo: RPBaiao/Shutterstock
Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba. Photo: RPBaiao/Shutterstock

1. Viñales

One of the most striking places to visit in Cuba, the small town of Viñales, in the west of the country, is nestled in a beguiling valley: a prehistoric landscape of undulating tobacco fields and palm tree-dotted lowlands draped between vast, steep-sided limestone hills known as mogotes. While the town itself has retained a sleepy charm – cowboy-hatted locals stroll past travelers on its streets, while elderly ladies doze in rocking chairs on their front porches – it’s the surrounding countryside that’s the main draw here. 

For Cuban cigar fanatics, this is a real highlight. Viñales is located in Pinar del Río, one of Cuba’s biggest tobacco producing regions, and a number of tours run from the town to local tobacco farms. Cigars aside, hiking trails and horse riding tracks lace the countryside, taking visitors out amongst lush, mountain-backed fields speckled with little thatched houses. For the even more adventurous, there are two nearby cave systems, the closest, the Cueva del Indio, can be explored by a boat trip along an underground river, while further from town, the Santo Tomás caves, home to vast stalagmites and stalactites, make up the most extensive cave system in Cuba.

Lush Viñales Valley in western Cuba. Photo: danm12/Shutterstock

2. Trinidad

Photographers may dream of Havana but the color-splashed streets of Trinidad are undeniably photogenic. This colonial-era town in central Cuba was once the hub of the country’s sugarcane industry. This legacy is marked out by its ornate Spanish mansions, which today stand crumbling beside low-level houses cloaked in an explosion of color. At times, wandering through Trinidad’s labyrinthine streets feels like you have stumbled onto a film set: horse-drawn carts rumble over the cobblestones, old ladies in hair nets sweep in front of their houses, and cigar-puffing men cluster around street-side domino games. 

Plaza Mayor, Trinidad, Cuba. Photo: doleesi/Shutterstock

As alluring as the streets are, make sure you also view the town from above – the best vantage point is from the top of the bell tower rising above the Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Bandidos. A short drive away, the gorgeous Playa Ancón – one of Cuba’s finest beaches – makes for a relaxing day trip. Come evening, Trinidad unveils a new side: barmen serve up mojitos in rooftop bars, while gyrating locals throng the Casa de la Música, Trinidad’s top salsa spot, a picturesque outdoor dance floor that takes over historic steps just moments away from the Plaza Mayor.

3. Topes de Collantes

Cuba may be associated with lively street life and golden beaches, but the country’s hiking is also not to be missed. Set in the Sierra del Escambray, Cuba’s second-largest mountain range, the Topes de Collantes offer some of Cuba’s best exploration. Rich not just in flora and fauna, these mountains have history too – this is where Che Gueva hid in 1958 on his journey to Santa Clara. Covering 200 sq km and stretching across three provinces, the area’s richly verdant landscape is protected as a nature reserve. Its scenic trails take you past waterfalls, natural pools, and lone coffee ranches that are best discovered on organized excursions, many of which run from Trinidad.

El Nicho waterfalls in Topes de Collantes, Cuba. Photo: rphstock/Shutterstock

4. Santiago de Cuba

Beyond Havana, the country’s second city, Santiago, is its most exciting to visit and certainly one of the best places to visit in Cuba. Fringed by the soaring Sierra Maestra and with the sparkling Caribbean Sea lapping at its feet, there’s no denying that Santiago de Cuba sits in a striking location. However, it’s the spirit of the place that’s most bewitching. African-Caribbean culture is deeply rooted here – it was to Santiago that slaves first arrived from West Africa – while the city hums with a rebellious impulse set in motion when Fidel Castro used Santiago to launch his revolution in 1959. And there’s no escaping music here – multiple Cuban music genres originated in these pulsating streets. Reggaeton thumps from car stereos, horns blare out, and rhythmic salsa drifts from open windows – all forming a cacophony of sounds that reach a crescendo during the sensuous mayhem of July’s carnival. Yet it’s the live trova music that really steals the show, an experience not to be missed at the city’s famous Casa de la Trova.

Santiago de Cuba city center, Cuba. Photo: Vadim Nefedoff/Shutterstock

5. Baracoa

Cuba’s best kept secret, set in the eastern tip of the country, Baracoa is said by Cubans to be home to the country’s most beautiful scenery. A bold claim that’s hard to refute: this little town fronts onto an azure ocean and sits encased in jungle-smothered mountains, a landscape of undulating palm and cacao trees, threaded through with numerous rivers. Established in the 16th century and cut off for nearly 500 years – until in 1965 a road carved through the mountains – Baracoa, a town even older than Havana, has remained blissfully removed from the effects of tourism. 

Baracoa, Guantanamo Province, Cuba. Photo: Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock

The low-key town, a straggle of pastel-hued houses set around a bustling main square, is a pleasure to explore, from the chocolate-heavy menus of its cafés to the live music of its Casa de la Trova. However, the main reason to visit here is to explore the surrounding landscape: trek up El Yunque, the vast primordial plateau that’s become symbolic of the town; hike through the richly biodiverse Parque Nacional Alejandro Humboldt; or kick back on the wonderfully untamed sands of Playa Maguana.

Ready to take a trip to Cuba?

Insight Guides can help you to plan and book fantastic trips in Cuba. Simply contact us to let us know your ideas for the trip and when you would like to travel. Our local experts will then prepare a personalized itinerary especially, based on your preferences, which you can amend until you are completely happy with every detail before booking. You can find inspiration in our existing Cuba itineraries, and keep in mind that they can all be fully tailored to suit your specific requirements.

Updated 13 December, 2019