Author Leila Segal knows Cuba like the back of her hand. Here she shares the hidden highlights you should seek out on your trip...
1. The Fayad Jamís bookshop
A wood-panelled bookshop at the quiet end of a busy Havana street, named for the Cuban poet and painter Fayad Jamís. I love coming here to buy new work by contemporary Cuban writers – the latest literature is available for modest prices in beautifully designed editions.
I bought a whole collection of Cuban flash fiction on my last trip there, which tells me more about the real state of modern Cuba than any number of guidebooks ever could. Friendly staff will offer you in-depth advice on the books. Look out for regular events, including readings and launches of Cuba’s literary magazines. Find it: Fayad Jamís bookshop, Calle Obispo, La Habana Vieja
Street art in Havana (Shutterstock)
2. Café Literario
This corner café hosts regular literary nights, with an open mic where everyone is welcome to read to the crowd – including tourists. A good place, perhaps, to try out your travel writing (writers will love the intense light, heat and sounds of the island and its near-constant musical beat, as well as the rhythmic sounds of Cuban Spanish).
Café Literario is a welcoming place where you can forge real relationships with Cubans, rather than falling prey to the jineteros who hover round the tourist sites. Find it: Café Literario, Calle 23 & G, Vedado, La Habana Santa Clara countryside (Shutterstock)
3. El Mejunje, Santa Clara
Santa Clara is a sleepy town that many tourists pass over. This is a shame because, apart from anything else, it’s home to one of Cuba’s most rocking gay clubs: El Mejunje – ‘The Mixture’.
The club is held in a community centre that also hosts cultural activities all week long – but you should go there for fantastic disco and drag nights. The town’s main square, Parque Vidal, is lovely too. It's thronging with people and has a literary café on one corner – catch a book reading before you leave. Find it: El Mejunje, 107 Marta Abreu, Santa Clara
Fruit stall in Vinales (Shutterstock)
4. Tropical fruit from the trees
Food in Cuba can be disappointing – even hotel restaurants are unlikely to meet the expectations of a Western palate. But the fruit won't disappoint. Buy fruit from the local vendors, or pick it from the trees.
Much of it will be organic – by design or default – knobbly, misshapen and full of flavour, tastier than any you’ll get at home. Try mangoes sold in piles on street corners, the fleshy pink mamey, custard apples and almonds. Pinar del Río (Shutterstock)
5. The road from Pinar del Río to La Bajada
Dive deep into el campo – Cuba’s countryside. It’s best if you can rent a car, because transport tails off the further you are from the cities; use it to explore hamlets and little towns. My favourite route is the road from the town of Pinar del Río to the far Western tip of the island, speckled with pretty villages, lush vegetation and farmsteads.
If you stop anywhere, people will be keen to chat and show you round – you may even be invited in for a drink or something to eat. Put down your camera and guidebook, and take time to talk to the curious and friendly Cubans you will meet off the tourist trail. María la Gorda beach (Shutterstock)
6. Take a beach walk at María la Gorda
This diving resort at the end of the Peninsula Guanahacabibes has beautiful fish and coral, plus regular boat trips. But there’s more to it than underwater pursuits: take a long walk along its paradise beach and lose yourself in the tropical sun, sea and white sands.
This is a marvellous spot for a picnic. The beach paths are strewn with red flowers, and the sand with shells. You’ll not see a soul for miles. Sunset at Malecon avenue (Shutterstock)
7. See Havana from The Malecón
To appreciate the splendour of Havana and sense the presence of its powerful neighbour only 90 miles across the ocean, take a walk from one end of its sea wall – the Malecón – to the other, preferably in the early morning or on a cloudy day to avoid the piercing sun. You’ll meet fishermen and lovers, musicians and clowns – all manner of Cubans doing what they’re so good at: being here.
Look over the waves and wonder about the many who have risked their lives to cross to the USA on improvised vessels, or speedboats in the dead of night. Havana’s Malecón is where I first understood the immensity, ruin and beauty of this overwhelming and mysterious city. Leila Segal’s short story collection Breathe – Stories from Cuba (Flipped Eye) is available at Amazon, Waterstones and Book Depository. Main image: Classic cars on streets of Havana (Dreamstime)