Cuba and romance go hand-in-hand. The isolated island’s whitewashed beaches and balmy climate make for a romantic escape in the traditional sense of the word – sun, sea, cervezas and all the rest of it – but there are more layers to Cuba’s romantic offering.
Revolutionary sights dotted across the island remind of the romantic ideals of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and their rebel army; crumbling colonial buildings hark back to an era of aristocratic opulence; and the sight of an old man in a fishing boat might conjure images of Ernest Hemingway’s decades spent on the island.
From scenic horse rides to an enormous conga line, here are some of Cuba’s most romantic spots.
The romance of Villa Clara’s northern cays starts with the drive: a 48km cruise along a causeway flanked by turquoise waters. The beaches here are of the white-sand #nofilter kind; in fact the late Fidel Castro himself is rumoured to have described them as being superior to Varadero‘s. Head to Cayo Las Brujas for a less expensive, non-package experience, or splash out at one of the glitzy hotels at Cayo Santa María.
Trinidad is one of Cuba’s most complete colonial towns, with its pastel-coloured buildings and cobbled pedestrianized centre. But, unsurprisingly, Cuba’s most photogenic streets lure in a healthy tourist crowd, and after a day or two you may want some respite. There are a few options for scenic horseriding trips out of Trinidad, including clip-clops into the foothills of the Sierra del Escambray or guided excursions to the hamlet of La Pastora.
This is the place to get romantic like the locals. Havana’s sociable seafront promenade follows the sea wall for four kilometres, and attracts as many smooching teenagers as it does guitar-strumming musicians and fast food vendors. In the evenings this is the place to crack open a can of Bucanero beer with a loved one, although be prepared for your romantic moment to be interrupted by a friendly local innocently looking to strike up a conversation.
4. Casa de la Trova, Santiago
Santiago de Cuba has loads of brilliant live trova music venues, but if you’re only going to visit one the Casa de la Trova is a solid bet. Musicians play soulful and melodic trova songs here day and night; originally the genre developed from solo travelling musicians who would disperse news through their songs, but these days you’re more likely to hear two voices in perfect harmony. If you want a slightly less touristy experience, just follow your ears as you wander Santiago’s insomniac streets.
5. Museo Ernest Hemingway, Havana
Literary associations aside, the Museo Ernest Hemingway is a romantic spot for an afternoon excursion from Havana, with its lovely views over the city, well-kept gardens and the villa’s attractive late nineteenth-century architectural detail. Hemingway lived here between 1940 and 1960, and the house has been preserved with exquisite attention to detail.
6. The back seat of a classic car
Don’t even think about leaving Cuba without taking at least one ride in a classic American car. There are around sixty thousand of these vintage motors in Cuba, many of them still on the road. Spare parts became hard-to-come-by following the US trade embargo of 1962, so pretty much all of these cars have been kept running by that Cuban ingenuity you’ll encounter everywhere. The engine splutters and exhaust coughs are all part of the charm.
The undulating, lost-world landscape of the Viñales Valley makes it one of the most romantic spots on the island. Less romantic are the dark, dripping cave systems that are dotted around the area, but they’re still well worth checking out. The labyrinthine Cuevo del Indio is the most accessible if you’re staying in Viñales village.
8. The Sierra Maestra mountains
It doesn’t get much more romantic than the Sierra Maestra mountains, where Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and their rebel army set up base during the Revolution in the late 1950s. The extensive mountain range spans the length of both Santiago and Granma provinces, with the peak of Pico Turquino rising above the rest. You can walk to the top of Cuba’s highest mountain in a day, but at 1974m (starting, literally, at sea level) don’t expect to use your legs much in the days that follow.
9. Carnival, Santiago
Raucous, ruleless, the Santiago de Cuba carnival is the place to grind and twerk with your loved one until the early hours. Don’t miss the enormous conga parade that happens on the first day of carnival celebrations; whichever neighbourhood you’re in, there’ll be the chance to grab onto a stranger’s hips and kick your legs out in unison.
10. Hotel Nacional, Havana
Cuba’s elegant, colonnaded hotel has got to be up there among the most romantic spots for a mojito in the country. With sea views and tame guinea fowl scuttling about, you can pretend to be as glamorous as John Wayne, Naomi Campbell or Ava Gardner – all have visited here in the past.
An eden of banana groves and fruit trees, Campismo Boquerón is a wonderfully tranquil spot to spend an afternoon. Only locals are allowed to spend the night here, but foreign visitors can wander about during the day, in the pursuit of a glimpse of one of the many resident hummingbirds.
Fishing boats bob lazily in this circular lake near Morón, with the highest density of trout across the entire island. If casting a line while pretending to be The Old Man in Hemingway’s classic novel isn’t your thing, you can take a boat tour into the foliage-cloaked mangrove canals that surround the lake. Ask nicely and they’ll let you take the wheel.
This city was laid out in a deliberately maze-like way, in a bid to confuse unwelcome pirates. The result is a labyrinthine network of cobbled streets, with drying clothes draped over Rococo balconies and decrepit churches hiding behind every other corner. Come in the summer time for the outdoors cinema festival in Plaza de los Trabajadores.
14. Palacio de Valle, Cienfuegos
Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and Italianate architectural styles collide at this most opulent palace. The attention to detail in the lavish interior is a sight to behold. If you want to draw out your experience of this most eclectic building, the downstairs restaurant specializes in seafood, while the rooftop bar is one of the best spots in the city for a sundowner or a cigar.
15. Museo Romántico, Trinidad
No romantic trip to Cuba would be complete without a visit to Trinidad’s brilliant Museo Romántico. The collection brims with period relics, giving a glimpse into the tastes and fashions of colonial Cuba through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.