Cuba: Introduction

  • © Webster,

    © Webster,


Cuba has long since joined the ranks of top Caribbean destinations. Far over two million visitors arrive every year, yet by no means have all its beautiful beaches and islands have been opened up to tourism. As the Caribbean's largest country, Cuba offers absolutely inexhaustible opportunities for sun-hungry and adventurous holidaymakers.

The fascination that Cuba exerts on the visitor goes much beyond tourist attractions, and most of all that's to do with socialismo tropical – 'tropical socialism'. A good number of the student revolt generation of 1968 see their old ideals of a more just society here. Cuban society after all is the work of Fidel Castro and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, the idols fêted at that time. Of course, contradictions between high ideals and the much less shiny reality, which are apparent on Cuba too, hit those who have a retro vision of politics harder than the apolitical holidaymaker.

For those who still remember old-style communism in the former Soviet bloc, Cuba is an encounter of the special kind. They know the 'system', the advantages and disadvantages, understand the language, as it were, even without speaking a lot of Spanish. And everybody asks themselves: what next, Cuba – after the Castro era? Whether or not you think much about politics, and regardless of whether you are well travelled, and no matter what your age group – Cuba will not leave you indifferent, though it might be love at second sight. Without any doubt, there is much that will stay in your mind: the streets and countryside are not blighted by rubbish, and the people who might not have much but are proud, with a high level of education and full of the joy of life.

Glimpses of real life

That said, socialism certainly hasn't turned Cuba into a wealthy country – the economic embargo by the USA being one of the reasons. Yet no visitor will feel like in a Third World country. Children working as shoeshine boys? Not here. Women who have no say in public life? Not in Cuba. Sick and crippled beggars? Those too are the exception here. In order to see the true Cuba though, you’ll have to take a look beyond the façade of a country forever struggling to survive economically, and meet its people. There are several ways to do this: tours around the island by bus and rental car, or participation in programmes run by specialised operators: hikes with Cuban guides or a combination of salsa and Spanish classes with Cuban teachers.

Havana – capital of the Caribbean

So… discover Cuba! Havana of course is a must. Traditionally always more showy and cosmopolitan than any other Caribbean capital, today the 'City of Columns', as Cuban author Alejo Carpentier called Havana, is the nation's pride. Habana vieja, the old quarter, in particular, is full of tourists from Europe, Japan, Latin America and the US, since Cuban exiles living there are allowed to visit their family, i.e. aunts, uncles, first and second cousins, for as long and as often as they like. However, during their stay, they are only allowed to spend a daily amount of US dollars (equivalent to the current expenses allowance of the US Foreign Office, which is around US$179). Previously, decades of the US embargo against communist Cuba meant that exiled Cubans were only allowed to travel to Cuba once a year. Exiled Cubans sending money from the US to support their families are no longer subject to an upper limit.

Waterfalls, limestone mountains, royal palms and magnificent beaches

Not far from the capital, gentle mountain ranges rise, with bubbling springs and orchids blossoming next to waterfalls. Hiking trails open up a biosphere reserve with its rich flora and fauna. A few miles on, guests staying at the panorama hotels enjoy the view of the Valle de Viñales from their terrace. In the morning, ground mist wafts around the humpy limestone mountains known as mogotes – an image of mystical beauty. The Valle de Viñales is considered one of the world's best tobacco-growing areas. That again is followed by what seems to be the end of the world: the Guanahacabibes peninsula, with the diving destination of María La Gorda. East of Havana, the beaches of the capital await, the Yumurí valley and Cuba's most important beach resort: Varadero, with its long broad beach. In the southeast of Havana, you can discover the Caribbean's largest swamp, the Ciénaga de Zapata, a virgin forest criss-crossed by canals, lagoons and rivers and inhabited by crocodiles, manatees and birds.

All this, however, is only for starters. After the 'head' of Havana and its surroundings, the Cuban mainland extends some 620 miles eastwards in the direction of Haiti. One holiday is not nearly enough to discover it all, even if you bridge the longest distances by plane. One wonderful destination is only accessible by air anyway: the coral island of Cayo Largo with its dream beach. Like a dorsal spine, the Autopista Central runs along the centre of the long body of the island, adding one provincial capital after the other to the string, as it were. The first as you head east is Santa Clara, whose capture by Che Guevara on 1 January 1959 marked the victory of the revolution. Since the tireless revolutionary found his last resting place there in the Museo Memorial del Ernesto Che Guevara, the town has become a site of pilgrimage for all Che fans. It is also the gateway to Cuba's latest holiday destination, the Cayos de la Herradura, first and foremost the Cayo Santa María. The new streams of tourists have also awoken pretty colonial Remedios from its Sleeping Beauty slumber.

The mystical east

In the south, Sancti Spíritus is the gateway to the Escambray mountain range: cool conifer forests, reservoir lakes, deep valleys, hidden waterfalls in the back country, and along the ocean the towns of Trinidad and Cienfuegos. Don't fail to walk through the cobbled alleyways of Trinidad, and enjoy the views from the municipal museum's viewpoint across the rooftops of this colonial town, which has been almost entirely preserved. Beyond Sancti Spíritus, Cuba changes into a wide plain of cattle pastures with scattered palms, under the vault of a tropical sky. At irregular intervals you'll find towns such as Ciego de Ávila, Camagüey, Las Tunas and Holguín, vibrant provincial capitals which lead their own busy lives far from Havana.

Again and again, roads down to the sea invite drivers to take detours to the northern coast: to the new tourist oasis of Cayo Santa María or the holiday enclaves of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, to bays and beaches, flamingo lagoons and mangrove forests, to small ports and the holiday centres of Playa Santa Lucía and Guardalavaca. At its eastern end, Cuba really dishes up the treats: with a wide river plain and the Sierra Maestra, rising to the country’s highest peak. In the shelter of this mountain range, the rebels once prepared their revolution. Fidel Castro was born in Oriente, and his parental estate is only a day trip away from Holguín. The east also harbours Cuba's oldest colonial towns: Baracoa and lively Santiago de Cuba. The east is the bedrock of the country, spiced with a good pinch of Afro-Cuban temperament. On top of that, nature has blessed the region with the primeval Alturas de Baracoa – better known as Humboldt National Park. In 2001, UNESCO added the park to its list of World Natural Heritage sites.

    © 2015 Marco Polo Travel Publishing | Pinewood | Chineham Business Park | Crockford Lane | Chineham | Basingstoke | RG24 8AL | Great Britain