It is almost impossible to describe Cuba. Iconic images of rum, cigars, classic American cars, Che Guevara and Castro make it all seem very familiar, but after a visit to this enchanting island, you’ll realise there is so much more to this communist Caribbean outpost. While it may not boast an abundance of luxury hotels or fine dining restaurants, this is all part of what makes Cuba so special. And with relations thawing with its northern neighbour, Cuba looks set for big change, so we suggest heading there sooner rather than later to soak up that indescribable Cuban vibe before it is lost forever.
Start your trip in Havana, arguably one of the most beautiful and alluring cities in the Americas. The once crumbling colonial buildings of Habana Vieja (the Old Town) are being carefully restored thanks to UNESCO funding and the city’s impressive, if somewhat eclectic, architecture can be admired in the Baroque Cathedral, the Capitolio (which is an exact replica of the Capitol in Washington DC) or the Art Deco era Edificio Bacardi.
The more modern part of the city is also well worth a visit, and the perfect excuse to hop into a chauffeur driven Classic American Car. Cruise along the seafront Malecon, stop for a Mojito at the historic Hotel Nacional, check-out Cuba’s vibrant art scene with a visit the home of the Caribbean’s answer to Picasso, Jose Fuster, and catch a glimpse of a mysterious Santería ritual.
A2A knows all there is to know about the city. Whether you want a private concert by one of the city’s leading orchestras, a sneak peek at the morning rehearsal of the National Ballet Company or dinner with one of the legendary surviving members of the Buena Vista Social Club, we can make it happen.
Located a couple of hours drive from Havana is Parque Nacional Viñales, one of Cuba’s most magnificent natural settings. With its spectacular location in the Sierra de los Órganos mountain range, this valley was recognized as a national monument in 1979, and received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999 for to its dramatic steep-sided limestone outcrops (known as mogotes), coupled with the rustic architecture of its traditional farms and villages. Viñales is also Cuba’s primary tabacco-growing region, so expect to see farmers trotting down dusty tracks on horseback, others plowing their land with oxen and sowing their seeds by hand. You will soon come to understand why Cuban hand-rolled cigars are second to none. Due to its proximity to Havana, this is the perfect day trip or overnight getaway from the hustle and bustle of the capital.
Located in the geographical centre of Cuba, Santa Clara is a city of resistance and revolution. Historically it is Cuba’s most revolutionary city. In December 1958, Che Guevara liberated the city in the last battle of the Cuban Revolution, marking the end of the Batista regime. Che Guevara is buried in Santa Clara and the city boasts a number of important landmarks, including Che Guevara’s mausoleum and a revolutionary museum dedicated to him. That revolutionary spirit lives on today in its young and creative. Home to Cuba’s second largest university, this is a city of new trends and insatiable creativity, with edgy youth culture, a graphic artists’ collective that produces satirical political cartoons and the best rock festival in Cuba – Cuidad Metal.
On the southern coast of Cuba is the popular town of Trinidad. This perfectly preserved colonial masterpiece looks likes time stopped in the 1800's and has yet to restart. Huge sugar fortunes amassed in the nearby Valle de los Ingenios during the early 19th century created the illustrious colonial-style mansions bedecked with Italian frescoes, Wedgwood china and French chandeliers. In today’s Trinidad pastel-coloured houses line narrow cobblestone streets, horses and donkeys replace cars and guitar wielding muscians strike up impromptu concerts in the main square, where locals salsa the night away under the stars. Few visitors can escape the seductive charms of Trinidad.
Although it is actually the third largest city in Cuba, Camagüey feels more like a village. This is not a town built for the whims of tourists, but for the locals to live their family-focused lives with passion. Street parties, communal family meals in restaurants, and a pleasingly communal life thrives here making it one of the most authentic places in Cuba. The city is a labyrinth of blind alleys and forked streets, built this way to deliberately confuse the rampaging pirates who dogged the town from the 16th century onwards. It is proudly pristine, compared to many Cuban towns, and rustically pretty, with an impressive array of decorative facades, elaborate churches and romantic squares.
The capital of the province to which it gives its name, Holguín, ringed by mountains, is a pleasantly civilized city of gardens, plazas and parks, lacking the colonial grandeur or romance of Camaguey or Trinidad, but with its own low-key charms. The province at large is home to some of the most beautiful beaches, mountains and isolated rural communities in Cuba, including the idyllic property where Raul and Fidel Castro grew up, wealthy and privileged in this poor swathe of the east.
The sleepy town of Gibara, whitewashed houses topped with red riled roofs, is an undiscovered gem with the largest amount of artists per capita in Cuba, and is popular with independent travelers seeking something similar to remote Baracoa, but more accessible – Gibara is only 40 minutes by car from Holguín. Gibara explodes with activity during the Low Budget International Film Festival (Festival Internacional de Cine Pobre), which has been going for more than a decade: often called the Sundance of the Caribbean.
The eccentric eastern city of Baracoa is famous for being where Christopher Columbus first arrived in Cuba. He described it as “so enchantingly beautiful that it surpasses all others in charm and beauty”. This coastal corner of Cuba is flushed by 29 rivers, its hills are full of royal palms, chocolate trees and coffee bushes and the wildlife wins world records. While most visits to Cuba focus on the white-sand northern beaches and islands, or the crumbling charms of Havana and Trinidad, Baracoa serves up a more complex and alluring platter. Here, in a few days, you can climb mountains, swim in cool rivers, bathe on beaches, explore Indian remains, and gorge on chocolate and coconut.
Physically closer to Kingston, Jamaica than to Havana, Santiago de Cuba is the stronghold of Afro- Cuban culture and has a formidable musical, cultural and political heritage. The Spanish-American War and key Revolution events took place here, much of Cuba’s traditional music was birthed here, and the energy level is high despite the often, overwhelming heat. The oldest building in Cuba, El Morro Castle, is here, plus the graves of national heroes José Martí and Fidel Castro. Also, Cuba’s hottest carnival is held here each July.
The Sierra Maestra is Cuba's largest mountain range located in the Santiago de Cuba province. This area has a very strong, historic significance to the Cuban people and their innate sense of resistance and became part of contemporary Cuban lore when the Castro brothers and a handful of others escaped into the lush greenery and fog to organize the revolution. A great diversity of unusually colorful birdlife is encountered in Sierra Maestra, including pygmy owls, as well as thumbnail-sized frogs, and an assortment of life forms that exist only in Cuba, such as butterflies with invisible wings. The mountain range features the highest points of the island, with Pico Turquino standing proud at 1,973 meters. Much of the Sierra Maestra remains wild and untamed and offers some incredible hiking opportunities.
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