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La Arboleda: A natural retreat near Havana

There are lots of ways to take a holiday in Cuba, from enjoying the hustle and bustle of Cuba’s most famous city, Havana, or experiencing a true Caribbean island vacation by visiting Cayo Coco. Alternatively, you could also take some time to explore the country’s lush green parklands, one of which is Matanzas’ La Arboleda.

Matanzas is well known for being a place of natural beauty. Often referred to as the ‘Venice of Cuba’, Matanzas is a top choice for travellers who want to spend a day or two in a Cuban city that runs at a slightly slower pace than Havana, and has a more open, spacious, and back-to-basics feel.

What is La Arboleda?

Located in the bayside city of Matanzas, La Arboleda is a natural paradise; a sort of national park complete with river walks, local attractions, and arguably one of the best restaurants in all of Cuba. Although this isn’t a popular location for filming in Cuba, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Jurassic Park was filmed here, as La Arboleda appears to be from a forgotten time; very raw, rustic, and wild.

What to Do in La Arboleda

Although it’s a decent trek from your Havana villa, it’s easy to fill a day — or even more — at this place. You can rent a boat to take a trip down the river, visit the miniature zoo where you can hold an osprey, or even take a jeep safari, which takes you into the most rural depths of Matanzas.

Visiting Matanzas

Matanzas is located about 1.5 hours by car from most Havana accommodations, so the trip can easily be made by hire car, or even by local taxi. In addition to La Arboleda, there’s plenty to do here, including the mysterious Bellamar caves, the historic Sauto Theatre, and the utterly stunning La Vigia plaza.


Dive into Havana’s delicious street food

In the United States and United Kingdom, street food has become a culinary trend in major cities, exposing locals to food from all over the world. However, if you’ve taken Caribbean islands vacations before, you’ll notice that in this part of the world, street food is already a very well-established concept, and that both visitors and locals alike flock to these street-side carts for tasty and filling snacks.

What is Havana Street Food?

Unlike in the United States, where traditional street food means hot dogs or gyros, street food in Havana is much more diverse and varied. If you take a walk from your Havana villa to any major attraction in the city, you’ll likely come across little stalls selling everything from pizza slices and sandwiches to fresh fruit pastries and deep fried churros. Specialities in Havana include chicharritas, which are fried plantains, frituras de malanga, which is fried malanga root, and tostones, which are twice-fried plantain slices.

Tostones are also big in the Dominican Republic. However, if you’re staying in a vacation villa in the Dominican Republic, be sure to ask for the local ‘fritos verdes’ which is the correct term for this location.

Why Street Food?

Quite simply, this is a chance to eat like a local and to try foods that you may not have tried otherwise. While there are many great restaurants in Havana (and great local markets, too, if you want to whip up something at your Havana vacation rental), there really isn’t anything that beats strolling along the Malecon with a cone full of freshly fried banana chips. Caribbean islands vacations are ideal for self-proclaimed ‘foodies’, offering a wide range of mouthwatering foods that are far different from what can be found at home.


How to spend one day in Havana

The best way to see everything that Havana has to offer is to rent an apartment in Havana and spend a week — maybe even two! — exploring the local sights. However, with a number of major cruise lines now including Cuba on their itineraries, many travellers are finding that they have just a few hours to discover what Havana is all about, so what is the best way to spend just one day in the city?

Arrival

Cruise ships dock at the Sierra Maestra Terminal, which is located very close to Old Havana (Havana Vieja). Traditional taxis and the famous Cocotaxis are available at the port, but many of the city’s main attractions are within easy walking distance. Walking is also a great way to scope out accommodations in Havana so you have a good idea of where you may want to stay when you take a longer holiday in Cuba in the future!

Things to Do

The best things to do in Havana will depend upon your own personal interests. For example, you may want to take in the Old Plaza (Plaza Vieja) and the Malecón which are lovely, airy places to explore (and they’re free, too!), or you may wish to visit a local cigar factory or learn how to make the perfect mojito. You might wish to learn more about Cuba in the city’s museums, or spend the day at the zoo. There have even been some movies that were filmed in Cuba, so fans of the big screen may wish to visit some of these famous locations.

Lunch

Although you could head back onboard for a lunchtime buffet, why not stick around to sample some authentic Cuban cuisine? Meat and rice dishes are hugely popular in Havana, but there is one Cuban staple that has become famous all over the world: the Cubano. A sandwich made with meats, cheese, and pickles, this Cuban sandwich is a must-try, even if you only have a few hours to enjoy the city.

Back for More

Although one day is certainly better than nothing, it’s impossible to see everything that makes Havana great in such a short space of time. Next time, consider a Havana holiday rental and stay a little longer!


The mojito: Cuba’s ‘national cocktail’

While the Cuba Libre is, of course, one of the most famous cocktails to hail from Cuba, there is another fantastic thirst quencher for those warm Caribbean days: the mojito. Typically made from rum, sugar, lime juice, soda water, and mint, it’s the perfect refreshment for lazy days at your villa with private pool in Havana. Here’s everything you need to know about the mojito and its relevance throughout Cuba.

History of the Mojito

How—and where—the mojito was invented is a subject of great debate. Ask your bartender, your taxi driver, and your host at your casa particular in Havana, and they’ll all have a different opinion! However, most agree that the drink did originate in Cuba; Havana to be exact. Let’s take a look at four of the most popular theories as to how the mojito came to be one of Cuba’s most popular alcoholic drinks.

Some say that the mojito is an alternative form of the classic ‘El Draque’, a drink created by Sir Francis Drake who used the lime for treating scurvy and the rum to kill off all manner of disease.

Could the mojito have been created by Cuba’s African slaves? Some believe that the original mojito didn’t include lime, and was simply made from sugarcane juice from the fields.

It’s quite likely that the creation of the mojito was heavily influenced by Mojo seasoning, a popular Creole seasoning for meat, fish, and vegetables with a sharp lemon or lime base.

Finally, one of Havana’s best bars, La Bodeguita del Medio, confidently claims to be the ‘birthplace of the mojito’. It is said that Ernest Hemingway enjoyed drinking Mojitos here.

Mojitos in Havana 

When you’re on holiday in Cuba, you may find that the type of mojitos you enjoy are a little different from the variants you’ve had back home. Cuban mint or spearmint are traditionally used, which provides a slightly different flavour, and some bars may use angostura bitters to reduce sweetness. An authentic Cuban mojito is not to be missed, and is perfect for drinking at your villa in Havana.


Five Cuba venues for concerts and shows

While staying in your Cuba villa rental, you’ll most likely want to check out the many places where you can find live music, concerts, and shows throughout the island. Here are five venues worth looking into for live performances, with something for every taste!

Gran Teatro de La Habana

If you love opera, you’ll love the Gran Teatro de La Habana. This gorgeous theater is a part of Havana history, where the famous Pavlova and Alicia Alonzo once performed, and is a must-see when you’re in the Havana area. Take a tour and view the amazing architecture and art of both the exterior and the interior. The theater offers beautiful operas, ballets, and more. If you want an elegant evening on the town, you’ll want to come to this theater!

Legendarios del Guajirito

If you prefer a show with your meal, you’ll want to check out Legendarios del Guajirito, which is a fantastical dinner-theater venue! Enjoy a mojito, classic Cuban music, and even a conga line. Here you’ll get a high-energy performance coupled with delicious food and a night you’ll never forget.

Tropicana

An open-air nightclub, Tropicana is ideal if you’re seeking a show similar to something you’d see in Las Vegas. The stage is beautiful, the costumes dramatic and eye-catching, and you may even get a free cigar. Be sure you order some of their delicious rum as you enjoy one of the best shows that Havana has to offer!

Cabaret Parisien

If you like a good, old-fashioned Cabaret, you’ll love Cabaret Parisien. Located in the Hotel Nacional in Havana, this venue is like nothing you’ve ever seen! With 85 years of history, this venue is considered a symbol of history, culture, and Cuban identity. With its refined elegance and ancient splendor, you’ll want to check out the hotel itself before viewing the Cabaret.

La Zorra y el Cuervo

For the best jazz in Havana, check out La Zorra y el Cuervo. In a nightclub/bar atmosphere, you’ll hear some of the best jazz singers and bands perform live. Grab a drink at the bar, a snack, and jam the night away with amazing music! With all the performances thoroughly enjoyed, head back to your rental villa in Cuba and get a great night’s rest.


Best breakfast cafés in Cabarete, Dominican Republic

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and Cabarete has some of the best cafés in the Dominican Republic. So when you’re ready to leave your vacation rental, make sure you check out these tasty breakfast locations!

Vagamundo Coffee & Waffles

What goes better with coffee than waffles? At Vagamundo Coffee & Waffles, you get just that! This coffee shop serves cups of locally grown coffee and has specially-trained baristas. If you don’t want coffee, you can order a delicious tea or locally sourced fruit drink with a side of their gourmet waffles! For a healthier alternative, try their smoothie bowls. They also work for a worthy cause as a non-profit organization that supports underprivileged youth of the Dominican Republic and other island areas.

The Chocolate Bar

Who says you can’t have chocolate for breakfast? The Chocolate Bar offers hot chocolate, coffee, tea, frappes, ice cream, juice and smoothies. For breakfast, you might want to try a steaming cup of hot chocolate and one of their breakfast plates: fresh fruit, pancakes, eggs, croissants, or even their big breakfast platter.

The Honey Company

If honey is your thing, you’ll love what The Honey Company offers. They are an artisanal apiary whose honey is real, raw, and chemical-free. Their number one recommended food is their Greek yogurt, with their Eggs Benedict at a close second. They also serve coffee, juice, smoothies, waffles, and French toast. The Honey Company offers a relaxing atmosphere by the beach for your healthy, tasty morning.

Cabarete Coffee Company

Another great coffee option, the Cabarete Coffee Company offers delicious shade-grown coffee beans and organic cocoa. They even allow you to tour their coffee and cocoa trees during the day if you’re curious! On their menu, they serve breakfast all day long from waffles to breakfast sandwiches and croissants.

Belgium Bakery

Finally, if you’re craving baked goods, check out the Belgium Bakery. They offer pastries like the Napoleon, éclair, croissant, and chocolate mousse. Pair with one of their coffees and you have yourself the perfect European-style breakfast!

When you get hungry and are ready to leave your vacation villa in the Dominican Republic, go check them out!


Family-friendly attractions in Havana

Holidays in Cuba are often very busy, very colourful, and very lively, but the island still manages to be a great destination for families. One reason is because there are a lot of fantastic family villas in the Caribbean that are spacious and easily accessible, and plenty of family-friendly attractions that are ideal for people of all ages. Here are three excellent family-friendly attractions in Havana which are perfect for kids and adults!

Havana National Zoo

For kids who love animals, there’s nowhere better than the Havana Zoo. You’ll board a small bus which takes you through the African plains and then onto the real highlight — the lions (just remember to shut your windows!). There’s even a special treat at the end, when the kids can pet the friendly donkeys. A cafe and a playground are both on-site, so you can make this visit into a full day trip. The zoo is located a decent distance from most central Havana accommodations, but regular buses make the journey throughout the day.

Havana Aquarium

Havana National Aquarium

Another great place for animal lovers is the Havana Aquarium, which features a wide range of tropical and subtropical sea life, including sea turtles. The main attraction here, however, is definitely the large amphitheatre where you can sit down, relax, and take in a live show starring the aquarium’s resident dolphins. There’s a nice restaurant overlooking the dolphin tank, as well as a fun pool/splash pad for the kids. Located in the historic Miramar residential district of the city, the aquarium is very easy to get to.

Parque Almendares

A part of Cuba’s ‘Urban Forest’, Parque Almendares features a playground, pony rides, mini golf… and dinosaurs! There’s even a peaceful walkway down by the river which is a great way to take a bit of time away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The park is located outside the centre of Havana, but getting there is half the fun, with roadside stands selling drinks in coconut shells to passing motorists. It’s best to set off from your Havana villa early, before the park gets hot in the middle of the day.


Where to stay in the Dominican Republic

Where should you rent a house in the Dominican Republic? The answer depends on what you’re looking for from your Dominican Republic holiday. This Caribbean country offers everything from untouched beaches to busy and bustling city centres. See below for a brief look at a few of the different neighbourhoods.

Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo is the capital of the country, so the city is naturally very active and lively, and serves as a great place for shopping, nightlife, and experiencing the ‘real’ Dominican Republic. The historic Zona Colonial district is bursting with culture, featuring plenty of museums, sights, and attractions to keep you busy. Rather than staying at big resorts, the vacation rental homes in Santo Domingo are quite personal and private.

Punta Cana and Puerto Plata

Want to stay in a luxury villa with private pool in the Dominican Republic with quick and easy access to the beach? Consider staying in Punta Cana or Puerto Plata, which are two of the country’s best loved resort towns. Ideal for sunbathing, water sports, and resort-style nightlife, Punta Cana and Puerto Plata can provide a typical Caribbean island vacation, full of golden sands, cocktails, and a chilled vibe.

The Samaná Peninsula

In recent years, the Dominican Republic has solidified its place as one of the best destinations for ecotourism, and the Samaná Peninsula is a real ecotourism hotspot. With many local tour operators observing the code of conduct of the Center for the Conservation and Eco-Development of Samaná Bay and its surroundings, this is a great place to explore and do your part for the environment.

At the end of the day, however, it really doesn’t matter where your vacation rental in the Dominican Republic is located. The whole country has something wonderful to offer, from great scenery, history, and culture, to beaches, water sports, or shopping. Why not take a trip and see for yourself!


The mansions of Miramar

Just a few years ago, if you had asked anyone for the best place for a visitor to stay in Havana, they would have said the Old Town (Havana Vieja) or Habana Centro districts. Today, while these districts are still excellent choices, there are a few other options to consider, which are becoming increasingly popular with tourists. Miramar is one such neighbourhood in Havana, and it is the perfect destination to explore during your holiday in Cuba.

Casa Melodia in Havana Miramar

Luxurious Miramar 

Miramar is one of Havana’s most opulent districts. Previously a wealthy suburb, Miramar eventually became absorbed by the city, leading to some degradation. However, the mansions of the wealthy families–which were some of the finest homes in the Caribbean–remained, and they still stand today upon what has become known locally as ‘Mansion Row’, with sprawling lawns and stunning architecture.

A Diverse District

The fates of Miramar’s mansions have been diverse and varied, with some being converted into luxury accommodations in Havana, others being transformed into embassies, and some now in a state of disrepair. Some say that this is the Cuba they remember from the 1950s and 1960s, and that there is a definite sort of romance in the area, highlighting the nation’s heyday and keeping it alive.

Great for Families 

If you’re looking for a family villa in Havana, be sure to consider accommodations in Miramar. With wide, spacious, tree-lined avenues and fewer crowds compared to central Havana, Miramar may be a much easier place to visit with young children, especially if you’ve got a buggy to navigate around the streets. The kids will love looking at the mansions, too, which appear like fairy-tale castles! Upscale living with a truly international vibe? There’s no better way to spend your family holiday in Cuba!


Shopping in Havana

You may have heard from others who have taken a holiday in Cuba that Havana isn’t a particularly good shopping city, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! In fact, as more and more exciting shopping malls are popping up on every corner, Havana has become a more-than-satisfactory destination for shopaholics!

Here are some of the best places to find great bargains and amazing souvenirs to take back home.

The Boulevard, Calle San Rafael

Although the pedestrianised ‘El Bulevar’ really can’t compare to shopping streets in the United States or Europe, if you’ve booked Cuba accommodation in the Centro Habana district then you’ll get a front-row seat to this local shopping street. The 1950s vibe rings through the stalls of this street, and thanks to the low prices and cheap snacks, this shopping street has become a firm favourite of local Cubans, providing you with a very authentic and unique experience that you won’t find in the more westernised malls.

La Puntilla, Street A and 1st Avenue, Miramar

This may be one of the oldest shopping centres in Havana, but it’s also one of the biggest and one of the most comprehensive. By Cuban standards, this is one of the more upmarket places to shop, and there’s a pretty good supermarket here which is great for restocking the kitchen at your Havana villa. It’s an easy walk from the Vedado district, and you can’t miss it with its loud, bright blue exterior. Although the nightclub on the top floor is no more, there are still a lot of shops to explore at La Puntilla.

Galerías de Paseo, Calle Paseo

Located in the city’s Vedado district, this shopping centre is yet another that boasts a bright blue appearance, making it easy to spot from a distance. The mall is relatively small compared to La Puntilla, but it still has quite a lot of diversity inside, with shops covering three floors. There’s a supermarket, some sports shops, a few clothing stores, and even a car showroom! The best thing about this shopping centre is the cafe on the third floor (look closely and you might be able to see your Havana villa!).

Plaza Carlos III, Avenida Salvador Allende

If you’re looking for more of an American mall experience, then there’s no better place than Plaza Carlos III in Havana, which is one of 39 outlets across Cuba. Considered to be quite ‘flashy’, this is the place to pick up well-known brands like Adidas and Head, as well as sample some of the country’s most famous fast food items. What makes Plaza Carlos III really stand out, however, is that it has become one of just a handful of Cuban businesses that operates an e-commerce website, allowing Cubans to buy online.

Palacio de la Artesanía, Casa de Don Mateo Pedroso

Want to shop in one of the finest former homes in the Caribbean? The Spanish colonial-style Casa de Don Mateo Pedroso was originally built for the Pedrosos, one of Cuba’s most affluent families. Since then, the building has been used as a court, a jail, and even a police headquarters before becoming a market-style shopping centre. Today, this is one of the best places to pick up gifts and souvenirs, such as Cuban coffees and rums, t-shirts, local artwork, jewellery, and a range of antique books.