July 2nd, 2018
Adventures in Cuba: Hike, Bike, Dive, and Horseback Ride Your Way Through the Island
When you think of outdoor adventure destinations, Cuba might not be at the top of your list. But it should be! Cuba is now open for adventurous Americans (provided you check the right boxes) and there's no better time to visit this island nation. The bustling capital, Havana, is just a short flight from Miami, and while it’s better known for frosty daiquiris classic cars, there’s more adventure on this island nation than you might expect.
See the City on Two Wheels
Havana is a colorful, bustling city that is worth spending a day or two exploring. Taking a classic car tour around the city is a great way to hit some of the high points and rack up enough photos to keep your Instagram feed fed for a while—there’s nothing quite like cruising next to the Malecón in a 1955 Chevy convertible. But after you’ve done that, sign up for a bike tour of the town.
Havana is a surprisingly bike-friendly town: Not only do people obey traffic laws, but most drivers are aware of cyclists and share the road. Plus, no one’s in a huge hurry, which makes urban cycling here that much more enjoyable. On a bike, you’ll be able to see the lesser-known sights of Havana, like the statue of John Lennon or the hub of Havana’s street art scene, Callejón de Hamel, a two-block alleyway/destination created by Cuban artist, Salvador Gonzalez, in the 90s. Finish with a daiquiri at the Floridita (Hemingway’s favorite bar) and you’ve experienced an extensive taste of the city.
Diving and Snorkeling Near the Bay of Pigs
Just a few hours outside of Havana is the famous Bay of Pigs, which has a fairly good museum if you want to learn more about the history of the area (the locals use the name Playa Giròn, which is the name of the beach where the Cuban forces landed). However, I was a bit more interested in seeing what was under the water. You’re in the Caribbean, so the water is crystal clear and visibility is really good for SCUBA diving. There was a dive shop at Cuevas des los Pesces (Cave of the Fish) that offered two types of exploring: snorkel or enjoy a shore dive in the sea or walk back to the cenote and snorkel there. It was fun to explore the reef off the shore before wandering back to the cenote to swim in the fresh water.
Hike to Waterfalls, Cool Down in Crystal Pools
Don’t put away your swimsuit just yet. There are several national parks in Cuba with great hiking trails and places to take a dip. "El Nicho" is a popular national park near the town of Cienfuegos; we took a short hike to the first set of pools before continuing up to an incredible vista—it felt like you could see most of the island from there. With a bit more hiking and the help of a local guide, we clambered through a set of caves before emerging in the sunlight to listen to Cuba’s national bird, the tocororo, try and woo a girlfriend. Back down the path, we sampled several swimming holes complete with waterfalls, which was a great way to cool down. Though there were crowds when we first passed the pools, by the time we came back down, they were almost empty—it was like being an extra in The Blue Lagoon.
Ride Into the Sunset
One thing that you’ll notice as you leave the confines of Havana is the proliferation of horses—it’s not uncommon to see farmers, families and other folk riding in a horse-drawn cart on both village streets and on the side of highways. So what better way to explore the countryside than on horseback?
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Trinidad, Cuba, includes both the colonial old town as well as the neighboring Valle de Los Ingenios. After you spend a morning wandering the cobblestone streets of Trinidad, the best way to explore the lush, green surrounding farmland is on horseback. Our vaquero guide, Jose, not only kept the horses moving at a brisk pace by clicking his tongue and cajoling my particularly recalcitrant mount, but he also treated us to snatches of opera with a cigar perched precariously in the corner of his mouth. It was amazing.
We traveled through fields and along tobacco farms, stopping for lunch at Jose’s place. A septuagenarian campesino, Jose offered up freshly crushed sugar cane juice from his farm mixed with rum before serenading us with his guitar. It was magical; I might have promised to return to Cuba to be his third wife—but perhaps that was just the rum talking.
As we rode into the sunset, another wonderful day full of surprises complete, I decided that Cuba had enough adventures to keep me occupied for several weeks. I would definitely need to return.
Know Before You Go:
Though traveling to Cuba is much easier than it has been in the recent past, there are still some tips that can help you have a smoother journey.
- Cuba is a hot, Caribbean island. Pack for Cuba with light, breathable clothing (and don’t forget a swimsuit!). A sturdy travel backpack is best so that you don’t have to roll a bag over cobblestones; a small travel backpack is best for the short day trips and horseback riding; weatherproof travel cubes will help you keep dirty/wet/sweaty clothes separate from your clean clothes.
- Don’t count on Wi-Fi. Yes, there is Wi-Fi in Cuba. No, it’s not easy to access: It’s fairly expensive and coverage is spotty. Making travel arrangements in advance takes longer than you think because response time from lodging and tours can be slower than we’re used to. If you’re creating your own itinerary, take this into consideration or…
- Consider a tour. Having someone on the ground to arrange transportation, lodging, etc. can make your trip that much easier. I went with a small group, and it was nice to have someone make the travel arrangements.
- Check the right box: There are several categories under which you can travel to Cuba, and the “support for the Cuban people” option is perhaps the most popular. By checking this box when you book your air ticket, you’re committing to interact with and buy from the Cuban people while you’re there. As everyone is super friendly, this is easy to do.
- Cash is king. Though traveling with a lot of cash is something that we don’t have to do much anymore (ATMs are so much easier), Cuba is different. Be sure to carry plenty of currency (use a money belt to keep your cash safe) that you can change into Cuban pesos when you get to Cuba.
Have you been to Cuba? What were your favorite outdoor adventures? Share with us in the comments below!
National Geographic Guide Series Pack-It™ Storage Compression Cube
Related Links (from Eagle Creek blog):
Minimalist Travel: How to Pack Your Bag for Cuba
Katie Coakley is a Denver-based freelance writer who writes about travel, craft beer, and outdoor adventures. She’s just as happy sleeping on a ledge as in a five-star hotel. You can follow her journeys on Instagram.