Want to see some of Cuba's finest city life, nature and beaches all in the same region? Havana, Viñales and Varadero are the three places to do it. Transport between this "golden triangle of the west" is fast and efficient, and the journey itself provides treats for the eye. Each place has so much to offer. Here is the lowdown.
Cuba's capital never fails to enchant. For centuries Havana has attracted everyone from pirates to musicians to curious travellers. The American writer Ernest Hemingway loved the city so much that he bought a house and spent most of the last 20 years of his life in Havana.
On the one hand Havana is a time warp, with vintage cars driving past row after row of eccentric old colonial residences. On the other hand, it is very much in the present, alive and kicking with music and gossip pulsating on almost every street.
With 500 years of history, Havana has an eclectic mixture of grandiose buildings and imposing structures. Two giant colonial fortresses - La Cabaña and El Morro - can be viewed from afar or entered and explored. Old churches, including Havana Cathedral (Catedral de la Habana), still stand proud. And there are countless streets of old apartments and mansions, in a variety of conditions, sometimes painted in the vivacious colours that seem to match the vivacious energy of the city.
Old Havana (La Habana Vieja) has been inscribed as a UNESCO Heritage Site, and to walk its streets is almost like walking through a museum of architecture. What makes the area stand out even more is that, despite the increasing number of bars and restaurants, much of Old Havana is still a residential area, with children playing on the idiosyncratic, narrow streets.
Museums are in plentiful supply. For art lovers, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes houses the Caribbean's largest fine art collection in two different buildings - one international, one focused on Cuba. For history lovers, Museo de la Revolución is packed with objects from Cuba's fascinating past. For those curious about Ernest Hemingway, he donated his house to Cuba, and it can now be visited from outside, preserved more or less intact from how he left it. In total, Havana has over 80 museums, so there is something for everyone.
At nighttime, the city changes gear. Havana has always been renowned for its plethora of lively bars, where you can drink and dance until the early hours of the morning. Most bars will tell you that they have Havana's best mojito. This refreshing cocktail was invented in Havana, though debates still rage about the exact origin.
Live music can be found throughout the city every night of the week. If you want to do something a bit more formal, Havana has a theatre scene that is world class. Ballet performances are held in high esteem, and are often on show at two of Cuba's most distinguished theatres - Teatro National de Cuba and Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso.
A visit to Havana is not complete without a stroll along The Malecón. This 5 mile promenade sits between the sea and the city, and is a great place to breathe in the fresh sea air. The Malecón can be walked at any time of day, but it is particularly beautiful during sunrise and sunset, when the combination of the sea, the sky and the buildings produce a kaleidoscope of colours. The Malecón is used just as much by locals as by tourists, a place where families and lovers often go in the evening. Spots can be found to relax and unwind, but keep walking and you're never far from a musician and a mini fiesta.
If, after all the excitement of Havana, you crave some time with Mother Nature, Viñales is the place to go. It's only a 100 miles away from Havana, but its ambience feels a million miles away. Gone is the majestic architecture and buzzing streets of Havana, instead the town of Viñales provides one floor wooden houses and a much slower pace of life.
The big draw to Viñales is to be among some of Cuba's finest landscapes, especially the "mogotes", karst rock formations that create a captivating scenery. Viñales Valley, situated to the north of the town, is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. It was designated not only due to the uniqueness of the landscape but also due to the farming methods. To this day traditional agricultural techniques are still in use, with horses, ploughs and human hands still doing much of the work.
One crop in particular is of upmost importance to the region - tobacco. Cuban cigars for centuries have been highly prized possessions, and all around the Viñales Valley you can see where the story begins with the cultivation of the tobacco leaves. Coffee is also grown here, and is enjoyed by connoisseurs for its naturally sweet taste. With such fertile soil, fruit and vegetables are in abundance, which makes Viñales a particularly great place to dine out on the local produce.
To get around and enjoy the different views, hiking is popular. Going with local guides is the best way to encounter the optimal routes (and also travel safest). If you fancy something faster paced than hiking, the town now has various bike rentals. Alternatively, for an experience that seems to match the traditional feel of the area, horse-riding can be easily arranged. The terrain of Viñales is well suited for rock climbing, something that has grown in popularity in recent years. All of these activities can be booked through the local travel agencies or through your accommodation.
Getting there from Havana
Viazul buses leave for Viñales three times a day from Havana's central bus terminal (Estación Central de Ómnibus Nacionales). It's recommended to book several days in advance, either online or via a travel agency.
Alternatively, Havana's travel agencies (often situated in hotel lobbies) can help you book a taxi - either shared with others or all to yourself. If you don't fancy using a travel agency and want to practice your negotiating skills, taxis can be found outside Havana's main hotels. Remember to agree the price before setting off.
The bus journey takes around three hours, taxis are usually slightly faster.
Varadero boasts an uninterrupted coastline of 13 miles of sand and sea that frequently features in Top 10 lists of the world's greatest beaches. The seawater has such a vibrant blue colour that once photographed requires no instagram filters to enhance it. Small wonder, then, that Varadero's other name is Playa Azul (Blue Beach). Relaxing on it's clean, luscious white sand can often feel like one is in a dream.
What makes Varadero particularly special is not only the beauty of the beach but the wide range of activities that are available, most of which can be easily arranged through the multitude of hotels that populate the peninsular. Many of the activities at hand are connected with the sea. With diverse marine life and beautiful coral reefs, Varadero has over 30 diving spots where you can accompany expert scuba divers through its clear waters. There are even spots where you can view a sunken military ship and aircraft.
If you would rather be above the water, kayaking is readily available, with many hotels having their own fleet. In some hotels you can even hire small boats and yachts. If you'd rather stay much closer to the shore, kite and wind surfing have been becoming increasingly popular. Alternatively, if you'd like to go further out to sea, deep sea fishing trips can be arranged for those looking to hook some big game fish. Want to swim with dolphins? Varadero also has a natural mangrove lagoon where several dolphin shows take place daily at the Dolphinarium.
Varadero is also home to several caves. One of them, known as Cueva Ambrosio, has drawings on the wall that are over 2000 years old. They show concentric circles in red and black, which are thought to portray some kind of calendar, although it still remains a mystery. It is also home to lots of (harmless) bats, and funds from the entrance contribute to further research and preservation of the species.
Getting there from Havana
Viazul buses leave for Varadero four times a day from Havana's central bus terminal (Estación Central de Ómnibus Nacionales). As with tickets to Viñales, it's recommended to book several days in advance, either online (https://www.viazul.com) or via a travel agency.
There are a many shared and private taxis leaving from Havana to Varadero every day, especially in the morning. Lots of these are the iconic vintage cars. Enquire at hotels and travel agencies to book one. As with travelling to Viñales, if you want to negotiate directly with taxi drivers, virtually all of the taxis outside Havana's main hotels would be happy to drive you to Varadero, but remember to agree the price before setting off.
The bus takes around three hours, taking a taxi instead will normally shorten the journey by at least thirty minutes.