Cuba Travel Guide
The largest island in the Caribbean offers a host of activities and sights that seem specifically designed to delight and entertain people from all walks of life. Cuba is rightly famous for its white sand beaches, colonial architecture, vintage cars and hand-rolled cigars amongst other things, but dig a little beneath the surface and you will find a rich and varied travel destination that's sure to have you coming back for more.
Cuban culture is a melting pot of influences. Europeans, Africans and North Americans have all left their mark on the island and this is evident in everything from the dynamic art and inspiring music to the delicious food. Spanish is the official language and the majority of Cuban people speak it. The second most spoken language is Haitian Creole, which is spoken by a large number of Afro-Cubans which also make up the second largest demographic group, after those of European descent.
Such a multiethnic society yields a rich cultural landscape and in cities such as Havana and Santiago de Cuba visitors are bombarded with myriad sights and sounds, from grand Spanish architecture to stark Soviet-era concrete blocks and Neo-Gothic Catholic churches. Habana Vieja, or Old Havana is the perfect place to delve into the history of Cuba with its colonial mansions, old fortresses and architectural pearls all co-existing with modern development and growth. Walk through cobblestoned streets, past the Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Cathedral and Plaza Vieja and make sure to take a stroll along the Malecón, Havana's esplanade where you can experience modern and ancient Cuba, hand-in-hand.
Marvel at the collections within the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes or learn more about revolutionary Cuba at the Museo de la Revolución, housed in what was once the presidential palace. Aside from the collection inside, the building itself is quite a sight, featuring Neo-Classical elements and – as a reminder of North American influence – decorations by Tiffany & Co of New York.
Santiago de Cuba is a history lover’s paradise; the city is home to a number of interesting museums including the Museo de la Lucha Clandestina where you can learn about the underground struggle against Fulgencio Batista, who was overthrown by the revolution. The Casa de Diego Velázquez is the stunning home of the island's first governor, dating back to 1522 where you can see a beautiful collection of furnishings and decoration from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Finally, be sure not to miss the San Pedro Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its grand views over the west coast of Cuba. It was built in the 17th century to keep the city safe from pirates and the museum that the fort now houses is dedicated to naval pursuits in the area.
For many people, especially the latin cultures of Central and South America, Cuba is considered the musicals capital of the world and everywhere you go on the island you will be accompanied by a soundtrack of tantalizing tunes. It seems every Cuban knows how to play an instrument and everyone also knows how to dance like a ballroom professional.
The music is rich and rhythmic, having evolved from a blend of European melody and African beats. Each musical syyke comes with its own dance steps, and the more famous ones including Son, Mambo, Cha Cha Cha, Bolero, Latin Jazz, Timba, and of course Salsa. It's almost impossible to listen to Cuban music without at least tapping your feet and It is well worth visiting some of the many small live music venues in every town, as well as taking in one of the spectacular nightly cabaret shows in Havana or Santiago de Cuba.
Before, during or after a musical performance, you can indulge in some fine local cuisine, feasting on popular dishes like Tamal en Cazuela, a polenta casserole seasoned with a sauce of garlic, onion, pepper, tomato paste in olive oil, or the island's famous Ropa Vieja, stewed shredded beef in tomato sauce.
You can top off a meal in style with one of Cuba's famous hand-rolled cigars and rum cocktail made with Havana Club. Then, if want to learn more about the highly priced smokes you can even visit one of the island's many tobacco plantations where you will see for yourself why Cuban cigars are some of the most sought-after in the world.
Out and About
If rummaging around old buildings with even older collections of art is not your idea of a fun holiday, Cuba fortunately offers plenty of natural alternatives. Varadero Beach is the country's longest stretch of sand and offers that postcard ocean setting that most people associate with the Caribbean. The Sierra Maestra mountain range is Cuba's highest and most extensive, stretching along the southern coast of the island. Several tour companies offer treks in the area and from the highest point, the Pico Turquino, you will be rewarded with stunning views of azure-blue ocean, deep green mountains and rural sugar plantations.
The Caribbean, of course, is also known for its stunning underwater environment and Cuba's waters are no exception. A number of dive schools scattered across the island and whether you're a beginner wanting to take your diving certificate or a more seasoned open-water diver, you will be inspired by the colourful reefs and huge variety of marine life.