Cuba: Time has stood still – but not for long
Known for its cigars and invigorating culture, is an archipelago with many small islands combining to form the republic.
Like all island nations, Cuba is a tropical delight with palm fringed sandy beaches, crystal clear shallow lagoons, and magnificent coral reefs.
But the island’s history and culture is what makes the island “Uniquely Fascinating”.
So much so that many visitors return year-after-year and continue to explore other regions of the country.
Often portrayed in movies and books, Havana, the capital city of Cuba and the largest city in Cuba, provides visitors the allure of romance and intrigue … and visitors to Cuba almost always take some time to visit the city. Havana is a city of vivid contrasts: exquisite Spanish architecture, narrow cobbled streets, the vitality of the residents, and of course a time capsule of days gone by. In 1982, Old Havana, the city’s historic centre, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Locals and visitors alike sit beneath the warm Caribbean sun enjoying the foods and Cuban coffee and Mojitos, while the sounds of world famous Cuban salsa and rumba drift through the air …
Endless words have been written to describe Havana; however this city has to be experienced. Perhaps the most common words used to describe Havana are vivacious and infectious.
The Republic of Cuba is an island country in the Caribbean. The nation of Cuba consists of the main island of Cuba, the Isla de la Juventud, and several archipelagos. Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city. To the north of Cuba lies the United States (90 miles away) and the Bahamas.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed and claimed the island now known as Cuba, for the Kingdom of Spain. Cuba remained a territory of Spain until the Spanish–American War ended in 1898, and gained formal independence from the United States in 1902. Between 1953 and 1959 the Cuban Revolution occurred. A new government led by Fidel Castro, and today his brother Raul, was established.
Today, Cuba is home to over 11 million people and is the most populous island nation in the Caribbean, as well as the largest by area.
Without dwelling on the islands history, its people, culture, and customs draw from many diverse sources, but it’s colourful and famous history make for a very popular tourism destination.
There is much more to Cuba than Havana of course. And depending on your interests, you will want to take the time to explore the island, and see and do things that – quite simply – are memorable and certainly picturesque.
Cuba remains an easy country to travel in and there are few barriers stopping you from wandering around pretty much how and as you choose. Be prepared to be flexible, flexibility, patient and maintain a good sense of humour. Speaking Spanish is not a prerequisite.
Havana is a one-of-a-kind city. Sitting pretty as the Caribbean’s largest and most vivacious city, its romantic atmosphere and infectious energy makes for a city of legend.
Habaneros (residents of Havana) love their city. Amid the warm crystalline waters of the Caribbean, over 500 years of history have conspired to create one of Latin America’s most electric and culturally unique societies.
The stomping ground for swashbuckling pirates, a heavily fortified slave port for the Spanish and a lucrative gambling capital for the North American Mafia, Havana has survived much.
A large part of Havana’s attraction lies in the visceral and the abstract. Walk the neighbourhoods of Centro Havana or Vedado and you’ll soon pick up the scent – here a mysterious Santería ritual, there a couple of drummers pounding out a rumba beat. The ins and outs are often hard to define and the contradictions endlessly confusing – perhaps this is why Havana’s real essence is so difficult to pin down. Plenty of writers have had a try, though; Cuban intellectual Alejo Carpentier nicknamed Havana the ‘city of columns,’ Federico Lorca declared that he had spent the best days of his life there and Graham Greene concluded that Havana was a city where ‘anything was possible.’
Havana’s mesmerizing powers will quickly lure you in. The opportunities to lose yourself in the melee are limitless – take a guided tour around Havana Vieja’s enchanting colonial monuments, experience the pizzazz of a late-night cabaret show, stroll along the Malecón (Av de Maceo) as the waves crash over the sidewalk, or admire the skillful reconstitution of a sleek 1956 Cadillac.
Traditional sights aside, Havana’s greatest attraction is its earthy authenticity. There are museums, of course, along with beautifully preserved palaces, excellent hotels and fine restaurants. But walk a couple of blocks north of leafy Parque Central and you’ll find yourself on the set of a real-life Elia Kazan movie; a dusty 1950s time warp where working class mothers still go shopping with their hair in rollers and young kids play baseball in the street with sticks and rolled-up balls of plastic.
However much you fall in love with this flawed yet seductive city, capturing the essence of the city in a sentence will be a difficult. ‘Havana is very much like a rose,’ said Fico Fellove in the movie The Lost City, ‘it has petals and it has thorns … But in the end it always grabs you’.
Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is the island’s second largest city and a glittering cultural capital in its own right. Anyone with even a passing interest in Cuban literature, music, architecture, politics or ethnology should spend at least a day or two exploring the myriad of attractions.
Enlivened by a cosmopolitan mix of Afro-Caribbean culture and situated closer to Haiti and the Dominican Republic than Havana, Santiago’s influences have tended to come as much from the east as they have from the west, a factor that has been crucial in shaping the city’s distinct individual identity.
Diego Velázquez made the city his second capital, Fidel Castro used it to launch his embryonic nationalist revolution, Don Facundo Bacardí based his first ever rum factory here and just about every Cuban music genre first emanated from somewhere in these dusty, rhythmic and undeniably sensuous streets.
Setting-wise Santiago could rival any of the world’s great urban centers. Caught dramatically between the indomitable Sierra Maestra and the azure Caribbean, the city’s casco histórico (historical center) retains a time-worn and slightly neglected air that’s vaguely reminiscent of Barbados, Salvador in Brazil, or New Orleans.
Varadero is a sprawling resort complex; a 20 kilometre swathe of unbroken white sand perched on the wafer-thin Hicacos Peninsula that could rival anything else in the Caribbean. United States chemical millionaire Iréné Dupont must have thought as much when he built his dream home here in 1930, a lavish art-deco mansion he duly christened Xanadu for its tempestuous ocean views and golden carpet of adjacent beach. He was promptly joined by Al Capone, President Batista and anyone else in Cuba who had money.
Counting more than 50 hotels, the resort area has grown larger by the year.
Mystical, alluring, alive: Baracoa is a small windswept coastal town perched improbably on Cuba’s eastern tip, and is one of the island’s most rewarding destinations.
For the first-time visitor, getting there is half the fun. From its summit high up in the Sierra del Puril, the winding form of La Farola (the lighthouse road) snakes its way precipitously downward through a rugged landscape of gray granite cliffs and pine-scented cloud forest until it falls, with eerie suddenness, upon the lush tropical paradise of the Atlantic coastline.
Columbus first came here in 1492. Che Guevara dropped by five centuries later and opened up the area’s first major industrial complex, a still-functioning chocolate factory.
Baracoa’s rich historical heritage is a legacy that has seen it elevated, in turns, into Cuba’s first colonial settlement (founded in 1511), to its first capital (1511 to 1515), to its first font of revolutionary activism (courtesy of a local Indian chief called Hatuey who rose up against the marauding Spanish in 1512).
Today the premier attractions in Baracoa include trekking up mysterious El Yunque – the town’s flat-topped mountain – or indulging in the ultimate down-to-earth dining experience in the Paladar Colonial, a laid-back family-run restaurant that boasts, arguably, some of the best dining in Cuba.
Declared a World Heritage site in 1988 along with the Valle de los Ingenios, Cuba’s oldest and most enchanting ‘outdoor museum’ is one of the few sites on the island where locals and foreigners can mix in a way that is both relaxed and unguarded. And with more than 300 casas particulares and only three decent city-center hotels, cross-cultural interaction is positively encouraged, creating a kind of Varadero in reverse.
Bumping and stumbling over the cobblestone streets as you enter town you’ll quickly see what all the fuss is about. Trinidad’s beautifully restored houses and cool, tiled, colonial courtyards combine perfectly with an exceptional natural setting to create a scene of unrivalled ambience.
Jardines del Rey
The archipelago Jardines del Rey (King gardens), extends along the northern coast of central Cuba . Some of its keys are larger than some countries and its almost intact nature has positioned it as one of the most highly sought destinations in the Cuban Caribbean.
A magnificent 250-mile-long coral reef borders its northern coast. It constitutes the second longest coral reef in the world, only surpassed by the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
American writer and Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner Ernest Hemingway, wrote his book “Islands in the Stream” inspired by the paradisiacal islets.
Among the insular formations in this archipelago you will find: Cayo Coco, a key joined to the major island by a 10-mile causeway and, in turn, joined to the neighbouring isles of Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Paredón Grande.
This rugged mountainous region was pronounced “the most beautiful land eyes have ever seen” by Christopher Columbus when he first sighted it in 1492. But Holguin’s beauty extends beyond the hills and exquisite beaches. Under water are amazing dive sites, and below ground are the world’s second-largest deposits of nickel and cobalt.
When Columbus discovered the northern shores of Holguin, most of it was part of the Great Maniabón Indian territory. He also identified the area’s mineral beds, which are now the world’s second-largest deposits of nickel and cobalt. Today, the mountains and tropical forests remain virtually untouched, offering unparalleled ecotourism opportunities. And the beaches, lagoons and bays are irresistible …
Cuba is an island that conducive to having fun, that’s why you can’t overlook visiting its night clubs, famous cabarets, clubs, or concert halls; and your trip may coincide with some of the islands famous festivals and carnivals.
If you love golf, Cuba is hardly ‘par for the course’. For those that prefer a difficult par and an easy bogey, Cuba’s golf courses possess excellent natural conditions. The courses are spacious, on level ground and covered by fine grass and interior lakes, sometimes situated between gentle rolling hills.
But if your preference is to be below water, you should know that the World Organization of Tourism identified Cuba among the 27 most important destinations in the world for diving. Cuba features more than 500 diving sites, spread across exotic underwater landscapes. Caves, vertical walls, tunnels and channels offer infinite options for diving.
Cuba can provide a variety of activities for ecotourists. The islands’ bounty of natural attractions, paired with its meticulous conservation practices, makes it one of the best ecotourism destinations in the Caribbean. Cuba can boast of some 263 protected areas, covering approximately 22 percent of the total land of the island. This includes six UNESCO biospheres that range from the coastal scrublands of Península de Guanahacabibes in Pinar del Río to the untouched rainforests of Cuchillas del Toa in Guantánamo. There are some 350 species of birds, as well as endangered species such as the Cuban crocodile, the jutía and the ivory-billed woodpecker. The province of Pinar del Río is particularly well-endowed when it comes to natural attractions: there are two UNESCO biospheres and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the sprawling Valley of Vinales. Pinar del Río’s Las Terrazas is an ideal base for ecotours: it was Cuba’s first sustainable resort community.
All-in-all, a trip to Cuba is unforgettable, and when considering a vacation in the Caribbean, or satisfying your desire to visit somewhere combing sun and sand and a distinctive culture, consider a trip to Cuba. Your memory will appreciate your decision!
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