The largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba is blessed with pristine beaches along the north coast, fascinating old cities with architectural styles ranging from baroque colonial through art deco to Soviet concrete blocks, a range of Latin music styles all with hip-swivelling rhythms, a surfeit of rum and the world’s finest hand-rolled cigars.
For much of the 20th century, Cuba occupied a leading role on the world stage wholly disproportionate to its small size and lack of economic clout. From the overthrow of the dictator Fulgencio Batista at the end of 1958 to Fidel Castro’s tenacious hold on power and declarations of socialism, this small Caribbean nation has assumed near-mythical status as a living laboratory of social experimentation, political defiance and a people’s perseverance.
For nearly half a century a combative Fidel Castro weathered the opposition of the US government and the hostility of Cuban exiles in Miami. His successor, his brother Raúl, continues his legacy with a few modifications. The Cuban people have been required to make repeated sacrifices in the face of the ongoing American trade embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union with its support and trade. Cuba is still standing, and despite the hardships has even managed to restore many of its fine colonial buildings.
As one of the last Communist hold-outs in the world, this nation is an enduring curiosity. With much of the rest of the planet racing ahead at a dizzying digital pace, Cuba crawls along in slow-motion, with only a minority having access to the internet. Behemoth vintage American cars from the 1940s and 1950s, patched and propped up, lumber down the streets of dimly lit cities. In rural areas cars give way to oxen-led carts, horse-drawn buses, Chinese bicycles and pedicabs. Houses are furnished with antiques and family heirlooms as everyday furniture, lit by energy-saving light bulbs to keep costs down.
Cuba is inseparable from the international politics of the latter half of the 20th century. Children are sworn in at the age of six to become Young Communist Pioneers. Throughout the country giant billboards function like pep talks from the government, proclaiming ‘Socialismo o Muerte’ (‘Socialism or Death’) and ‘Viva la Revolución’ (‘Long Live the Revolution’). Portraits of Che Guevara, the 1960s revolutionary martyr, are plastered on the walls of shops, offices and homes.
In dire need of hard currency, Cuba embraced tourism, which has now surpassed the sugar industry to become the country’s top revenue earner. It’s obvious why, for many Cuba is primarily an idyllic sun-and-sea bolt-hole. The white sandy beaches are dazzling, with the long shores of Varadero in the north perhaps the best known. Other stars of Cuban beach tourism include Guardalavaca, Playa Esmeralda, and the islands of Cayo Largo and Cayo Coco. Amateur sailors appreciate the countless natural harbours, anglers search for marlin off the coast, while scuba divers explore coral reefs and sunken wrecks.
Most travellers opt for package tours, but Cuba’s diversity of attractions tempts a large number of independent travellers away from the sea and sand. In the island’s eastern corner is Cuba’s highest mountain range, the Sierra Maestra (up to 1,974m/6,476ft), site of many uprisings; to the west, in Pinar del Río province, is the verdant Viñales Valley with its huge mogotes, limestone rocks up to 400m (1,300ft) high; and central Cuba has the lush Sierra del Escambray mountains and the old sugar-cane plantations of the Valle de los Ingenios.
Then there are the towns and cities. Havana combines fine Spanish colonial architecture, vibrant street life and a range of cultural opportunities; Trinidad, a gorgeous colonial-era gem, its town houses, churches and other fine buildings set on winding, cobblestone streets; and Santiago de Cuba, a colourful Cuban cocktail of Spanish, French and African cultures.
Read more about Cuba in Insight Guides: Cuba
With its varied natural beauty and troubled history, Cuba is a land of startling contrasts. From historic sites and crumbling architecture to unspoilt beaches and vibrant nightlife, Insight Guide Cuba...Read full description