Without visiting you cannot anticipate the allure of Cuba: it is too daring, too contradictory, and despite years of casual abandon, far too appealing. Perhaps it is the exciting history, maybe some incorrigible essence, or the unfaltering energy that echoes off walls and springs ardently from it’s people. Arrive with an open mind and get ready to slowly fall in love with Cuba.
Visiting Cuba is almost like stepping back in time, a country currently undergoing change, but for the moment still the Cuba of our imaginations. Beautiful, rich in history and culture, time worn but dignified, economically poor but friendly and, at times, frustrating, Cuba should always be appreciated as she is.
Located 90 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida, Cuba is the largest of the Caribbean island nations. Neighboured by the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and Haiti, Cuba covers some 44,200 miles. The diverse landscape features undulating farmland, rugged mountains, urban metropolises, charming colonial villages and some impressive white sand beaches. Cuba’s population is rich in variation, with 11.2 million residents. Despite its native roots, the most profound effects on Cuban culture are the result of European, African and North American influences.
The island is divided into 15 provinces and one special municipality, Isla de la Juventud. Some notable areas of Cuba include rural Piñar del Rio, where tobacco farming continually adds to economic impetus. Then there is the seaside town of Santiago de Cuba, actually the country’s second largest city next to Havana and overflowing with colourful Afro-Cuban inspiration. Not to forget very colonial Trinidad, a quiet town that is a nominated UNESCO world heritage site cushioned between imposing mountains and the sparkling sea.
Getting around Cuba is not for the faint hearted and travelling with a local guide is highly advised. The roads whilst almost empty are not always in great condition away from the main cities and there are often few sign posts along the route. Getting lost is almost inevitable but if you do happen to venture inland, lose your way and speak a little Spanish, the friendly locals will always try to help you!
The old American cars from the 50’s and 60’s are everywhere, especially in the larger towns, whilst in the countryside and poorer villages, horse and cart still seems to be the most popular mode of transport.
In Havana let loose your imagination; stroll the oceanside Malecón boulevard and feel sea water tingle on your skin as the waves crash on the walls. You may hear guitars and voices harmonizing over a hypnotic drum rhythm or notice sunlight slanting across peeling paintwork. You will encounter tourists sporting Hemingway-esque beards and often a glimpse of Che Guevara on a billboard.
Havana Town is a must and is best seen on foot over a couple of days to experience the colonial style buildings, musicians, open-air bazaars and wonderful atmosphere. Pop in to the Floridita Bar in Havana Town, an old haunt of Hemingway, for a refreshing Daiquiri and some live music. The rum museum is an interesting tour, remarking the history of rum-making in Cuba from sugar cane to distillery and of course there is an opportunity to sample and buy at the end of the tour. Cigars are one of the island’s most iconic exports and during your time in the city you can visit a factory to discover how they are produced, with of course the opportunity to buy some famous Cuban cigars.
If you’re keen on nature and want to get away from the hustle of city life, visit the Topes de Collantes nature reserve. The drive up to the park beautiful, taking you through traditional Cuban villages and up in to the Escambray Mountains. The highlight of the park is definitely the El Nicho waterfalls and the absolutely crystal clear pools; simply perfect for a refreshing dip. Do note that the climb up to the waterfall is a little steep and uneven in parts so you need to be-sure footed.
Sancti Spíritus, the colonial town of Trinidad, is definitely worth a visit. After walking the cobbled streets, with locals selling souvenirs of Cuba from front rooms converted into little shops, or visiting local attractions, you may be ready for a visit to La Canchanchara bar, where they serve the traditional drink of the same name made from rum, lime and honey.
Santa Clara, is located in Cuba’s heartland and the site of a decisive battle of the Revolution won by Che Guevara and his contemporaries in 1958. The Plaza de la Revolución hosts Che Guevara’s monument, vast mausoleum and museum. Here you can learn all about the life of this much revered Cuban revolutionary icon.
Excellent dive sites are numerous in Cuba. A tip would be to focus on the area you want to dive rather than trying to cover multiple locations. Most notable are the Jardines de Reina, María la Gorda and the Isla de la Juventud; are all fairly isolated so good pre-planning is essential. The more sheltered south coast probably has better water clarity and more dependable weather, though the north coast, offers easy access to one of the world’s largest reefs, the choice is yours.
A great visit is to Playa Giron, which is more famously known as the Bay of Pigs. There is a great diving area and it is charmingly picturesque sitting on the beach soaking up the relaxed atmosphere. To see more of this underwater world, view some footage here.
Cuba has so much to offer visitors, it has something for everyone – a place to explore, enjoy, relax and experience.