República de Cuba, in the Caribbean comprises the main island of Cuba, the Isla de la Juventud, and several archipelagos. Havana is the capital of Cuba and its largest city, followed by Santiago de Cuba.To the north, Cuba is an endlessly fascinating place. The archetypal tableau of revolutionary rhetoric, breathtaking beaches, classic cars gliding past faded colonial buildings and a population who dance on an endless ribbon of salsa and rum does of course exist, but for those prepared to dig beneath the dazzling surface, Cuba relinquishes so much more. Art Deco architecture peeks between the crumbling mansions; unobtrusive art galleries are filled with exciting contemporary art, private restaurants hidden in backstreets throughout the country Cuba towards the upper echelons of fine dining experiences; while a programme of arts festivals sees internationally renowned ballerinas, musicians and actors delight audiences. Delve into the countryside you’ll find cloudforests and mountain ranges, birdwatching trails ripe for exploring, and panoramic plains filled with green-gold sugar cane.
Official Language: Spanish
No trip to Cuba would be complete without a visit to the potent capital, Havana. A unique and personable metropolis characterized by a small-town atmosphere, its time-warped colonial core, Habana Vieja, is crammed with architectural splendours, some laced with Moorish traces and dating as far back as the sixteenth century. Elsewhere there are handsome streets unspoiled by tawdry multinational chain stores and restaurants.Together with the capital itself, most of Cuba’s tourist attractions are concentrated in the provinces to the immediate east and west of Havana. The nature-tourism centres of Artemisa and Pinar del Rio are popular destinations with day-trippers but also offer more than enough to sustain a longer stay. The most accessible resorts here are Las Terrazas and Soroa, focused around the subtropical, smooth-topped Sierra del Rosario mountain range, but it’s the peculiarly shaped mogote hills of the prehistoric Viñales Valley that attract most attention, while tiny Viñales village is a pleasant hangout frequented by a friendly traveller community.
There are beach resorts the length and breadth of the country but none is more complete than Varadero,the country’s long-time premier holiday destination, two hours’ drive east of Havana in Matanzas province. Based on a highway of dazzling white sand that stretches almost the entire length of the 25km Península de Hicacos, Varadero offers the classic package-holiday experience. For the tried-and-tested combination of watersports, sunbathing and relaxing in all-inclusive hotels, there is nowhere better in Cuba. On the opposite side of the province, the Península de Zapata with its diversity of wildlife, organized excursions and scuba diving, offers a melange of different possibilities. The grittier Cárdenas and provincial capital Matanzas contrast with Varadero’s made-to-measure appeal, but it’s the nearby natural attractions of the Bellamar caves and the verdant splendour of the Yumurí Valley that provide the focus for most day-trips.
Travelling east of Matanzas province, either on the Autopista Nacional or the island-long Carretera Central, public transport links become weaker and picturesque but worn-out towns take over from brochure-friendly hot spots. There is, however, a concentration of activity around the historically precious Trinidad, a small colonial city brimming with symbols of Cuba’s past, which attracts tour groups and backpackers in equal numbers. If you’re intending to spend more than a few days in the island’s centre, this is by far the best base, within short taxi rides of a small but well-equipped beach resort, the Península de Ancón, and the Topes de Collantes hiking centre in the Sierra del Escambray.Slightly further afield are a few larger cities: liveliest of the lot is sociable Santa Clara, with its convivial main square and thronging crowds of students, while laidback Cienfuegos, next to the placid waters of a sweeping bay, is sprinkled with colourful architecture, including a splendid nineteenth-century theatre. Further east, the workaday cities of Sancti Spíritus and Ciiego de Ávila,both capitals of their namesake provinces, provide excellent stopoffs on a journey along the Carretera Central. Two of the most popular destinations in this part of the country, the luxurious resorts of Cayo Coco, are off the north coast of Ciego de Ávila province countryside.
Continuing eastwards into Canagüey province,the smaller, rather remote resort of Santa Lucía is a much-promoted though less well-equipped option for sun-seekers, while there’s an excellent alternative north of here in tiny Cayo Sabinal ,with long empty beaches and romantically rustic facilities. Back on the Carretera Central, the romantic and ramshackle Camagüey ,the most populous city in the central part of the island, is a sightseer’s delight, with numerous intriguing buildings and a lively nightlife, while the amiable city of Holguín is the threshold to the province of the same name, containing the biggest concentration of pre-Columbian sites in the country. On the northern coast of Holguín province,Guardalavaca (together with the neighbouring playas Esmeralda, Pesquero and luxurious Turquesa) is one of the country’s liveliest and most attractive resorts, spread along a long and shady beach with ample opportunities for watersports.
Forming the far eastern tip of the island, Guantánamo province is best known for its infamous US naval base, but the region’s most enchanting spot is the jaunty coastal town of Baracoa.Isolated from the rest of the country by a high rib of mountains, this quirky, friendly town freckled with colonial houses is an unrivalled retreat popular with long-term travellers, and offers ample opportunities for revelling in the glorious outdoors.
Santiago de Cuba province,on the island’s southeast coast, could make a holiday in itself, with a sparkling coastline fretted with golden-sand beaches such as Chivirico; the undulating emerald mountains of the Sierraa Maestra, made for trekking; and Santiago,the country’s most vibrant and energetic city after Havana. Host to Cuba’s most exuberant carnival every July, when a deluge of loud, sweet and passionate sounds surges through the streets, the city’s musical heritage is testified to by the fact that you can hear some of the best Cuban musicians here year-round. Trekkers and Revolution enthusiasts will want to follow the Sierra Maestra as it snakes west of here along the south coast into Granma province.
Lying off the southern coast of Artemisa province, the Isla de la Juventud is often overlooked, despite its immense though low-key charms. Easily explored over a weekend, the island promises leisurely walks, some of the best diving in the country and a personable capital town in Nueva Gerona. In the same archipelago is luxurious and anodyne Cayo Largo, the southern coastline’s only sizeable beach resort.
THINGS NOT TO MISS
All the idiosyncrasies of Havana are on display here: the majestic and crumbling buildings,beatbox salsa,kissing couples.
(Habana vieja) is one of the most well preserved colonial centres in the Americas,with perfectly restored centuries-old buildings dotted throughout its narrow stressts and historic plazas.
Plaza de armas book market:
The colourful stalls set around this lovely old Havana square offer a feast of fabulous vintage pre and post revolution magazines, postcards,photo,posters and vinyl from Cuba and the US.
The Hershey train:
Take a trip on this antiquated electric train that slowly winds through the best of the gentle countryside from Havana province to Matanzas.
Diving off the southern coast:
Benefiting from the calm waters of the Caribbean sea and copious marine life, the diving at María La Gorda, Punta Francés and the Jardines de la Reina is world-class.
Punta gorda, Cienfuegos:
The magnificently decorative palacio del Valle is the icing on the cake during a wander around the broad avenues of this bayside district in laidback Cienfuegos.
Santiago in July:
This is the best time to visit Cuba’s second city, when its vibrant music scene boils over and the annual carnival brings fabulous costumes, excitement and song to the town.
Trinidad old town:
This much-visited sixteenth-century town is packed with colonial mansions and churches, threaded together by cobbled streets and compact plazas.
Topes de Collates: Natural Park will bring you into the Escambray Mountains. Visitors come here to look for endemic species of animals, as well as to admire the park’s canyons, waterfalls, rivers, and caves.
National league baseball:
Take a seat alongside the exuberant crowds at one of the country’s timepiece baseball stadiums.
Necrópolis de Colón:
Experience the quiet splendor of this extensive cementeryin Havana’s Vedado district and admire the grandiose mausoleums of the dead.
Jewel of coastal eastern Cuba, tiny Baracoa makes an ideal base for exploring the verdant rainforest, mountain peaks and tranquil rivers dotted about this part of Guantánamo province.
Villa Clara northern cays:
The cay’s stunning white sand beaches sit in isolated splendour at the end of a narrow causeway. Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo are the two most popular islands in Cuba. Set along the north central coast, these islands boast beautiful beaches and azure-colored waters. Most of the hotels here are all-inclusive resorts.
Caverna de Santo Tomás:
A guided walking tour through narrow underground chambers replete with colonies of bats and glinting underground pools is a thrilling Tolkien esque outing.
Given Santiago’s heritage as the birthplace of trova, it’s unsurprising that the city is the country’s top spot to listen and dance up a storm to traditional music,banged out by veteran and up and coming musicians alike.
Havana salsa clubs:
There’s no better place than Havana to see the biggest bands and join the hottest dancers on the salsa circuit.
Spend time lazing about on the longest, most impressive beach in Cuba, its golden sand backed by palm trees and fronted by unruffled blue-and-green waters.
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Pinar de Rio:
Explore Caves: If caves are your thing, Pinar del Río is full of them. Many are accessible for a wander or for spelunking. One cave I visited was Cueva del Indio. It’s perfect for those having a lazy day – you’re escorted on a paved path through the cave and the plopped onto a boat that traverses a cave river until you’re back outside. It’s a pleasantly cool experience in that it gives you a great break from the hot Cuban sun!
Visit the Mural de la Prehistoria:
Randomly enough, the bar in this place had one of the best mojitos I’ve ever had. Bonus was that the bar tender just gave me the rum bottle to add as much as I wanted! If you have your mojito first, it makes the Mural rather interesting with its large size (painted on the side of a mogote) and bright colours. The mural depicts the evolution of life on Cuba, from ammonites to homo sapiens. It was painted in 1959
Humanity is scattered all acorss the Pinar del Río province but if you’re interested in checking out towns, there are three to check out – Las Terrazas, Vinales, and Pinar del Rio City. Great for seeing colonial architecture, experiencing Cuban town life, and some great people watching
Road Trip: Either rent a car or hire a driver…and just drive! The scenery is fantastic and the area is excellent for random discoveries. It will be a highlight of a visit to Cuba, especially if you are a photographer of any skill level.