Cuba is a tropical paradise for foreign holidaymakers where residents play the lottery to get an exit visa. A land made famous by revolution, rum and salsa. Our advice is to get their quick as things in this unique country are changing fast.
In city centres, from Havana to Santiago, ramshackle streets are lined with decaying colonial mansions and art deco towers, while rectangular Soviet apartment blocks dominate the suburbs. 1950s Cadillacs chug alongside horse-drawn carriages, arthritic rickshaws and sleek diplomats’ saloons, swiftly overtaken by bright yellow eggshells on motorbike chassis. Out in the countryside, from the tobacco fields to the Sierra Maestra, the highways are lined with billboards extolling the virtues of the Revolution.
Most visitors spend some time in Havana, and the capital city is always a good place to start and gain insight into the culture of the island. The old town, Habana Vieja, is being painstakingly renovated and many of the colonial palaces have been converted into desirable boutique hotels. Others are museums and art galleries containing unrivalled treasures or Revolutionary memorabilia.
The west end of the island is the major tobacco-growing area, where the rich soil produces crops for some of the best cigars in the world. The beautiful mountain landscape of the Sierra del Rosario, containing a Biosphere Reserve at Las Terrazas, tapers down to the fascinating and evocative limestone mogotes around Viñales.
Historians and fans of Che Guevara should head east to Santa Clara, a pleasant university city famous for being the site of the last and decisive battle of the Revolution in December 1958. It is also the last resting place of Che and his comrades who were killed in Bolivia. On the south coast, Trinidad is one of the best-preserved towns in the Americas and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It remains in a time warp from the Spanish colony of the 19th century, with its cobbled streets, tiled roofs, wrought-iron railings, churches, palaces and humble dwellings.
The Sierra Maestra, the eastern mountain range from where Fidel Castro and his comrades launched their attacks on the dictatorship in the 1950s, surrounds and protects the second city, Santiago de Cuba. Sheltered by the mountains, Santiago is hot and steamy, with a culture to match. More Afro-Caribbean than Havana, it also has strong French influences on music, dance and art because of past immigration from Haiti.
Explore can take you to the best bits of Cuba; both on and off the beaten track. From the atmospheric streets of old Havana to the impressive mogotes landscape of Vinales, wander through the beautiful colonial plazas of sleepy Trinidad and explore Fidel’s old revolutionary head quarters in the Sierra Maestra mountains at ‘La Plata’. Drink mojitos in Santiago, walk up Pico Turquino, Cuba’s highest peak, and cycle Cuba’s quiet back roads.