An ice cream parlour in every town, pirates, castles and a treasure-filled past, music and dance on every street corner and warm Caribbean sand lapped by a sparkling sea: Cuba plus kids is a long-haul in heaven.
Kids in Cuba grow up knowing how to have fun. Offspring are loud, proud and encouraged to party alongside the rest of the family until the early hours. Honouring children is practically on the statute books: the state even provides each child with a birthday cake until they are fourteen. And what cakes they are! Lavish confections of sponge and icing – often served, boldly if not bizarrely, with cold macaroni salad. One of my favourite Cuban sights is a procession of cakes leaving the bakers en route to a party.
That said, specific Cuban attractions aimed at younger visitors are often hard to seek out. Below is a list of my top five things to do in Havana for children, most of which are tried and tested on a family trip with my (then) three-year old son. You’ll notice there are no Havana museums in this list: let’s be real, they rarely like museums as much as we want them to. Those museums that you could conceivably drag their dug-in little heels to, include Museo de los Orishas (Afro Cuban gods), Museo de Ciencias Naturales Felipe Poey (stuffed animals) and Museo Castillo de la Real Fuerza (forts and cannons), all of which you can read about in the excellent Rough Guide to Cuba (disclaimer alert: I’m co-author).
El Guiñol puppet theatre
The costumes and sets is this unassuming puppet theatre, tucked in the basement depths of Vedado neighbourhood’s monolithic FOCSA building, are filled with colour and invention, enough so, that even if you and your kids don’t speak Spanish the story comes over loud and clear. Many of the productions draw on Cuba’s rich folkloric Afro Cuban traditions and puppeteers are often the children themselves. At around $5CUC a ticket ($3CUC for kids) for non-nationals, the price is a winner too. Regular performances take place on Sat and Sun 11am and 3pm.
Calle M e/17 y 19, Vedado t 00 (53) 7 832 6262
Habana Vieja playground
What the playground overlooking Habana Vieja’s Malecón lacks in shiny scrubbed surfaces, it makes up for faded appeal with carousel rides, climbing frame, slides, swings and a bouncy castle on offer. The entrance fee is $2CUP but foreign visitors may be charged $2CUC. Plan your trip for the cooler part of the day – there’s sparse coverage from the sun.
Avenida del Puerto, Habana Vieja (no phone)
It’s worth the cab ride west past Havana’s Miramar district to swim and splash at the Club Habana. With three pools, tennis and squash courts, various eateries and a swathe of artificial beach, it’s far and away the most kid-friendly place to swim in Havana itself. It’s open between 9am-7pm and a day pass is $10-15CUC. Prior to the revolution, it was the exclusive Havana Biltmore Yacht and Country Club and its past, as one of Havana’s most exclusive leisure spaces, has dovetailed with its present status. Given the price of the day pass is out of reach of many, in not most Cubans, a day out here, while fun, does feel pretty cut off from local life.
Flores, Havana t 00 (53) 7275 0100
While Havana doesn’t have a green space in its centre, head south beyond Miramar to the Kohly suburb and you’ll find the wide expanse of Parque Almendares lining the banks of the river from which it takes its name. Little visited by tourists, though popular with Habaneros, kid-friendly attractions include pony rides, rowing boats, and crazy golf. The main draw for older kids may be exploring the incredible landscaped woodland fringing the Bosque de la Habana forest where towering weeping figs curtained in vines are like a fairy tale wildwood sprung to life. Given how magical it looks, it’s perhaps natural that it’s a draw for Santería rituals and ceremonies – the somewhat grisly evidence of which you may see as you wander through.
Isla de Coco
There’s a pleasure beach charm to the Isla de Coco amusement park in Miramar, that’s fittingly also known as Coney Island. It takes its Coco Island name from a Cuban cartoon, and large fibre glass cartoon characters are dotted throughout the site, include the most famous one of all, Elpidio Valdés, an independence fighter created in 1970 by Cuban filmmaker Juan Padrón. The modern and safe climbing frame is probably the best equipped in Havana while a selection of gentler attractions like the floating bumper boats and sand pit make it ideal for little ones. The fairground rides, including a dapper troupe of flying elephants, are all fairly tame, with a couple of stomach-dropping exceptions. Star attraction though is the pillow fight cage – padded and filled with cushion, they can whack each other endlessly. The general admission is $1CUP with rides once inside each costing a few pesos more. It’s open Friday-Sunday 12noon-8pm.
Ava 5ta y Calle 112, Havana