Eric and David horseback riding in Vinales Valley National Park.

LGBTQ Travel in Cuba: Havana and Beyond

A Gay Couple’s Perspective of the Less-Traveled Caribbean Island

Puerto Vallarta, Mykonos, London, Thailand, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Tokyo and Montreal are all popular LGBTQ travel destinations, but if you’re looking to experience something a little different, you should consider a trip to the Caribbean to visit Cuba. The island nation is already a popular port of call for partner cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean and Azamara, and it continues to be an ideal travel destination for travelers who enjoy an immersive vacation to explore Cuba’s rich history and culture. 

After his 5-day trip to Cuba, we decided to chat with entrepreneur and digital marketing exec Eric Ivy-Claiborne to understand why he and his partner David enjoy visiting Cuba, and why LGBTQ couples should consider a trip to the Caribbean island. 

Before traveling to Cuba, what other international travel destinations have your visited?

I’ve been to Canada, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Bahamas, St Bart’s, Costa Rica, Colombia, England, France, Belgium, Holland, China, Philippines, Singapore, Australia, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Italy, Nicaragua and Greece.

David stands on an old cannon in Old Havana.
Old Havana - Take a casual stroll through Old Havana to see historic landmarks like this old cannon David is standing on at Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana.

What other places did you consider before deciding to visit Cuba?

We had our sights set on Cuba and we went for it!

Is this the first time you’ve been to Cuba? If not, what made you decide to return to the country?

It was our second time visiting there within 8 months of the first trip. The first time we went we noticed how it was not overrun with American tourists. It was inexpensive, and you could find great places to stay for $50 per day. 

We really enjoyed the food and weather, which was perfect for spending time on Varadero Beach – the best beach in Cuba. We stayed in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. The neighborhood has several good restaurants and beautiful homes that you could tell belonged to the rich before the revolution. The Malecon which is a major thoroughfare along the Florida Straits is a good place to sit and watch the classic cars go by.

Eric standing next to a classic car in Old Havana
Vintage car - Take a step back in time and go classic-car watching on the Malecon. Eric poses for a photo next to a vintage care in Old Havana.

You mentioned how budget-friendly Cuba is, but are there luxury or high-end experiences available to tourists, too?

I remember hearing that the National Hotel is expensive and beautiful. Originally, the hotel hosted mafia, but has also hosted famous guests, including Churchill, Frank Sinatra, and Naomi Campbell. Tourists are welcome to experience tea at the hotel, too.

Would you recommend LGBTQ couples visit Cuba? Is it safe for openly gay couples?

I would recommend Cuba for openly gay couples. We saw several gay men and trans individuals while we were there. We also witnessed the start of the Gay Pride parade. We had no idea that this was an annual event.

Eric smoking a Cuban cigar.
Cuban Cigar - Enjoy a favorite pastime on this Caribbean island, and smoke a Cuban cigar like Eric.

What cities did you visit? Describe each and what you liked about each locale.

We visited Varadero, Mantanzas, Vinales and Havana, which included Old Havana.

Havana is like most Spanish Caribbean cities, but it still has an undeniable mystique that draws you to it, because so few Americans have seen it. We loved the food, mojitos and the people. It was amazing to notice how time seemed to have either stopped in 1959 when the revolution ended. Cuba’s rich history is very intriguing.

Varadero is a nice beach town with coastlines that include a semi-secluded beach. There’s also a former DuPont mansion nearby where you can have a drink with stunning views of Cuba’s best beaches and one of the island’s nicest oceanside golf courses at Varadero Golf Club. 

Varadera Beach
varadera beach - Don't leave Cuba without visiting this beach and taking a swim in the nearby Saturno Cave.

We stopped in Mantanzas briefly to have a piña colada at a roadside cafe on the way to Varadero. And we also saw the Bacunayagua Bridge, the highest bridge in Cuba, that was built to give the mob quicker access to the beach towns. It was awesome to learn about the mob’s connection to Cuba.

Vinales is like a quaint beach town with tobacco, black bean and corn farms. It also has a strip of local restaurants. It’s a good place to go horseback riding through Vinales Valley National Park and residential areas that reminded us of small towns in Tennessee or West Virginia, where there are small houses, red clay dirt roads and everyone knows each other.

What were some of the highlights from your first trip?

We both love to eat, so we’d recommend El Cononazo Paladar in Havana for great lunch experience. Many of the restaurants are in former homes, on the front porch or in the backyard which was the case with this restaurant. We were able to enjoy the weather, have excellent mojitos and good food and watch other diners eat under thatched roofs. Other highlights include classic-car watching on the Malecon, Santa Maria Beach, Varadero Beach and taking a swim in Saturno Cave.   

Old Square in Havana, Cuba
Plaza Vieja - Visit Old Square to admire its amazing architecture -- all located in one of seven wards in Old Havana.

Let’s play a game called “5 senses, 1 country.” Name an experience you shouldn’t miss doing in Cuba. Describe the best things you experienced Cuba using your five senses. Try to be as specific and descriptive as possible.

Taste:  Arroz con camarones with the savory flavor of butter and garlic sauce at King Bar in Vedado, Havana. And venture to El Cocinero for Pina Coladas that taste more like rich milk shakes. There’s also an art gallery right next door that’s worth checking out.

Sight:  See the 360-degree view from the top of the tower at the Jose Marti Memorial at the Plaza de la Revolución; checking out the iron image of Che Guevara on the facade of the Interior Ministry of Interior Building; and visiting Fusterlandia to see local artist Jose Fuster’s house built with colorful mosaic tiles and his extensive public-art installations.

Fusterland artwork
fusterlandia - Explore local artist Jose Fuster's colorful mosaic artwork and extensive public-art installations at Fusterlandia.

Touch: The soft sand at Varadero Beach, located 2 hours outside of Havana in Varadero.

Smell: The smell of Cuban Cigars.

Sound: Hear the sounds of authentic Cuban Jazz at the historic Buena Vista Social Club in Old Havana.

What were your favorite places to eat while visiting Cuba? Where were they? What was some of the dishes and or drinks you tried that you enjoyed?

 Most of the restaurants where we ate were in the neighborhood of Vedado. On both of my trips, I ate a lot of arroz con camarones, which is shrimp and rice with garlic, butter and Parmesan cheese. One of our favorite restaurants was King Bar, a restaurant that had laid-back lounge atmosphere and it was very gay-friendly. Also located in Havana, El Cocinero Restaurant is favorite, too! I enjoyed drinking mojitos because it’s a traditional Cuban cocktail, and David enjoyed eating lobster there because it was so inexpensive. 

Ropa Vieja
ROPa Vieja - In addition to arroz con camarones, foodies should try ropa vieja, Cuba's national dish made with tender shredded beef with stewed vegetables.

What’s one not-to-be-missed experience you’d recommend to someone visiting Cuba for the first time?

I know that I’ve mentioned this several times, but you can’t leave Cuba without visiting Varadero Beach. Horseback riding in Vinales should be added to your to-do list because it’s a great way to experience how the people live outside of Havana.

Would you recommend Cuba as a trip to family and friends? If so, why?

I would recommend traveling to Cuba because it’s a place not heavily frequented by tourists. It’s also interesting to see how time has stood still since the Revolution in the 1950s. That’s a unique travel experience you won’t find anywhere else. I recommend exploring the architecture in Old Havana and visiting Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The food, people and close proximity to the U.S. are all reasons why I’d recommend family and friends to visit.

Inspired by this article and want to speak with an expert travel agent about how you can plan an unforgettable vacation in Cuba? Let one of Vacation’s on-call travel experts match you with a travel agent, who can customize the dream trip itinerary you deserve.

vinales valley National Park - Eric and David go horseback riding to explore the national park and off-the-beaten-path residential areas while visiting Vinales.
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