Books to Read before You Travel to Cuba


The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway 

The Old Man and the Sea is one of Hemingway’s most enduring works. Told in language of great simplicity and power, it is the story of an old Cuban fisherman, down on his luck, and his supreme ordeal—a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Here Hemingway recasts, in strikingly contemporary style, the classic theme of courage in the face of defeat, of personal triumph won from loss. Written in 1952, this hugely successful novella confirmed his power and presence in the literary world and played a large part in his winning the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba – Tom Gjelten 

In this widely-hailed book, NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten fuses the story of the Bacardi family and their famous rum business with Cuba's tumultuous experience over the last 150 years to produce a deeply entertaining historical narrative. The company Facundo Bacardi launched in Cuba in 1862 brought worldwide fame to the island, and in the decades that followed his Bacardi descendants participated in every aspect of Cuban life. With his intimate account of their struggles and adventures across five generations, Gjelten brings to life the larger story of Cuba's fight for freedom, its tortured relationship with America, the rise of Fidel Castro, and the violent division of the Cuban nation.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love – Oscar Hijuelos 

It's 1949 and two young Cuban musicians make their way from Havana to the grand stage of New York City. It is the era of mambo, and the Castillo brothers, workers by day, become stars of the dance halls by night, where their orchestra plays the lush, sensuous, pulsing music that earns them the title of the Mambo Kings. This is their moment of youth, exuberance, love, and freedom—a golden time that decades later is remembered with nostalgia and deep affection.

Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene 

MI6’s man in Havana is Wormold, a former vacuum-cleaner salesman turned reluctant secret agent out of economic necessity. To keep his job, he files bogus reports based on Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and dreams up military installations from vacuum-cleaner designs. Then his stories start coming disturbingly true…
First published in 1959 against the backdrop of the Cold War, Our Man in Havana remains one of Graham Greene’s most widely read novels. It is an espionage thriller, a penetrating character study, and a political satire of government intelligence that still resonates today. 

Trading with the Enemy – Tom Miller 

“Havana knew me by my shoes,” begins Tom Miller's lively and entertaining account of his sojourn for more than eight months traveling through Cuba, mixing with its literati and black marketers, its cane cutters and cigar rollers. Granted unprecedented access to travel throughout the country, the author presents us with a rare insight into one of the world's only Communist countries. Its best-known personalities and ordinary citizens talk to him about the U.S. embargo and tell their favorite Fidel jokes as they stand in line for bread at the Socialism or Death Bakery. Miller provides a running commentary on Cuba's food shortages, exotic sensuality, and baseball addiction as he follows the scents of Graham Greene, José Marti, Ernest Hemingway, and the Mambo Kings. The result of this informed and adventurous journey is a vibrant, rhythmic portrait of a land and people too long shielded from American eyes.

Explosion in a Cathedral – Alojo Carpenter 

A swashbuckling tale set in the Caribbean world at the time of the French revolution, Explosion in a Cathedral focuses on Victor Hugues, a historical figure who led the naval assault to take back the island of Guadeloupe from the English at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In Carpentier's telling, this piratical figure walks into the lives of the wealthy orphans Esteban and Sofia and casts them abruptly into the midst of the immense changes sweeping the world outside their Havana mansion.

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life - Jon Lee Anderson

Acclaimed around the world and a national best-seller, this is the definitive work on Che Guevara, the dashing rebel whose epic dream was to end poverty and injustice in Latin America and the developing world through armed revolution. Jon Lee Anderson’s biography traces Che’s extraordinary life, from his comfortable Argentine upbringing to the battlefields of the Cuban revolution, from the halls of power in Castro’s government to his failed campaign in the Congo and assassination in the Bolivian jungle.

Before Night Falls – Reinaldo Arenas 

The shocking memoir by visionary Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas "is a book above all about being free," said The New York Review of Books--sexually, politically, artistically. Arenas recounts a stunning odyssey from his poverty-stricken childhood in rural Cuba and his adolescence as a rebel fighting for Castro, through his suppression as a writer, imprisonment as a homosexual, his flight from Cuba via the Mariel boat lift, and his subsequent life and the events leading to his death in New York. In what The Miami Herald calls his "deathbed ode to eroticism," Arenas breaks through the code of secrecy and silence that protects the privileged in a state where homosexuality is a political crime. Recorded in simple, straightforward prose, this is the true story of the Kafkaesque life and world re-created in the author's acclaimed novels.

Conversations with Cuba – C. Peter Ripley 

Here is a fresh story behind this passionate, struggling, frequently discouraged, but always proud country, told by ordinary Cuban citizens—the people who still struggle with a revolution that is far from over. Sparked during his high school and college years by his admiration of the Cuban revolution—the first successful bourgeois revolution of the twentieth century—C. Peter Ripley subsequently developed a fascination with Cuban culture that took him on five illegal trips to the struggling country between 1991 and 1997. During his travels, Ripley visited and revisited the Cuban landscape and its people, closely following the lives of citizens who were deeply influenced by the revolution and its effects. Through his experiences and observations, Ripley taps into the reality behind his long-romanticized perceptions of the Cuban Revolution.
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