I recently did a bunch of interviews with Cuba travel experts, for a major feature in Travel Weekly about the realities of tourism in the Caribbean's largest island. While doing the interviews, I got some great Cuba travel tips from Leigh Barnes, North America director at Intrepid Travel, a company that offers packages including cycling tours of Cuba, "people to people" tours and guided excursions to the western part of the island.
In this interview, which also runs on my Latin America travel blog, LatinFlyer.com, Barnes shared some of his favorite things to do in Cuba — broken down into three main categories: a must-do activity, must-taste Cuban food and must-buy souvenir shopping. So if you're planning a Cuba vacation, take note.
LatinFlyer: What’s the one thing that every first-time visitor to Cuba should do?
Barnes: You must spend the day (or afternoon) walking through the streets of Havana. There is so much history and life waiting to be explored, not to mention cool pockets to be discovered. There are hidden cigar bars behind hotel lobbies, amazing live music, new locally owned restaurants popping up in Old Havana. There is a very distinct energy in Cuba that must be felt out on the streets.
What’s the best Cuban food you’ve ever tasted?
Cuba has an abundance of fresh seafood. You can find shrimp (camarones) and lobster (langosta) in garlic butter on most menus, and it is delicious! There are new restaurants popping up every day. But a real gem in Old Havana is a little sushi and crepe shop opened by a Japanese woman who moved to Cuba over 10 years ago.
What’s the most memorable or unique experience that you’ve had in Cuba?
Spending time in Trinidad is certainly a highlight. On our tours in Trinidad, Intrepid Travel organizes an amazing feast down at the beach during sunset with live musicians and everything. Spectacular.
What’s the best souvenir that a traveler can bring back from the island?
There are a lot of very cool vintage markets in Cuba. It’s pretty easy to get your hands on a copy of Bohemia magazine. It’s the oldest magazine in Latin America [and] started in Cuba.