10 Books to Read before Your Trip to Cuba

This post is sponsored by Rosetta Stone.

The world is huge, and chances are you’ve barely scratched the surface—if only because some areas are still difficult to get to. Which makes the thawing relations between Cuba and the United States so exciting. Now that getting to Cuba is easier than ever, a lot of travelers are plotting their first trip there. If you’re one of them, it’ll pay off to know something of Cuba’s history, culture, and literary sensibility. Cuba is at a turning point in its history, and for a short time will be that rarity: a country long untouched by real tourism. The 10 books listed here barely scratch the surface, but will give you a solid foundation for your visit to this beautiful island nation.

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
You shouldn’t need much prompting to read a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize and was instrumental in earning its author the Nobel Prize in Literature, but if you’re headed to Cuba then Papa’s classic account of an elderly Cuban fisherman who spends months attempting to catch a giant marlin off the coast of Florida is essential. Hemingway lived in Cuba off and on for two decades and was an avid fisherman, so for all its lyricism and symbolism the book is written from an expert’s point of view, and many feel it captures the spirit of the country.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by Oscar Hijuelos
The 1990 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Hijuelos was born in Cuba and was the first Hispanic American to win that coveted honor. The novel tells the story of Cuban brothers who move to America and pursue lost love and musical fame, reaching their pinnacle when they briefly appear on the TV show I Love Lucy. The brilliance of the writing brings much of early- and mid-20th century Cuban culture to life, and will inspire anyone hoping to explore that culture more deeply.

Explosion in a Cathedral, by Alejo Carpentier
Carpentier is one of the most influential and celebrated Cuban authors, and his 1962 novel exploring the effects of the 18th-century revolutionary period—especially the French revolution—on Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean digs into the tension between Cuba and Europe that is still present in the modern day. A sweeping historical novel indulging in plenty of magical realism, it’s focused and grounded by its concentration on three brothers who meet the famous French adventurer Victor Hugues and become embroiled in political upheavals that for a time seem destined to remake every corner of the world. If you’re unaware that Cuba has had a thriving literary and arts scene for decades, this will be your wake-up call.

Trading with the Enemy, by Tom Miller
Published just eight years ago, this journalistic account of modern Cuba is essential for anyone planning a trip there. Miller was given incredible levels of access, allowed to travel unaccompanied and unmonitored around the country. He got to hear politically dangerous jokes, he got to have honest, enlightening conversations, and he got to see the hidden beauties of the island and the people. If you don’t know anything about what life has been like in Cuba over recent years, this is the book to start with.

Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba, by Tom Gjelten
The Bacardi Family and the famous rum that launched its liquor empire both got their start in Cuba after Facundo Bacardí Massó moved to Cuba in the early 19th century. Rum, made from sugarcane and still one of the least regulated and most varied spirits in the world, was at the time considered a lowbrow drink. The rise of the Bacardi company and its relationship with Cuba (it’s headquartered in Bermuda today) is the story of the economics of the country in a nutshell, and this history of both will give you the necessary insight into why Cuba went down the road it did.

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson
You simply can’t go to Cuba without understanding the 1959 revolution and the people who organized and fought for it—Che Guevara chief among them. Guevara was a fascinating personality, born into affluence in Argentina but becoming dedicated to championing the oppressed and the impoverished through revolution, eventually becoming the second most powerful man in the new Cuba, only to die pursuing revolutions in other countries like Bolivia, where he was executed in 1965. The government Guevara helped establish is still in power in Cuba, and his influence is still everywhere in that country, making this book an essential read.

The Dirty Havana Trilogy, by Pedro Juan Gutierrez
Gutierrez is one of the must-read Cuban novelists, and his works offer a gritty, often dark and violent view of modern life in the communist country. His most famous works, the Dirty Havana trilogy, are contemporary accounts of everyday life that show the underbelly of Cuban culture and daily life while maintaining an obvious affection for the culture. Be warned: these books aren’t for the faint of heart or the easily shocked, but they will offer a glimpse of Cuban life you won’t see in any guidebook.

Waiting for Snow in Havana, by Carlos Eire
At age 11, Havana resident Carlos Eire was airlifted out of the country to Florida as part of the controversial Operation Peter Pan, leaving behind the only world he’d ever known. This autobiography details his memories of Havana before and after the 1959 revolution, his sense of loss as his country and city transformed into something new and unfamiliar, and his struggle to adopt a new country and leave his old life behind. It’s a remarkable insight into the Cuba that was and how the people who lived there were affected by history.

The Other Side of Paradise, by Julia Cooke
No culture gets frozen in time, and Cuba is no different; during its decades of political and economic isolation the people of this beautiful country have adapted. Living there over the course of five years, Cooke took a sharp journalist’s perspective on the people and the culture, and reports on both in this surprising book that offers an alternate perspective on what you might find when you travel to Cuba. From crazy hurricane parties to gritty street stories, this book will give you a wider perspective on the adventures awaiting you.

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Cuba, by DK Publishing
Finally, every trip abroad should include at least one reference guide, and the Eyewitness Travel Guide for Cuba is packed with the basic information you’ll need to find your way, and to make your decisions on dinner, locations, and cultural norms. Recently updated, this fantastic resource will help you get the most out of your trip and avoid some of the common pitfalls—because every country is different, and countries isolated from the world for as long as Cuba have plenty of surprises in store.

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