Surrounded by a clear turquoise ocean and tropical fish of every colour lies a country that is quickly becoming the holiday destination for people looking for a tropical paradise.
Travel to Cuba has quickly become a trend that is catching on in all parts of the globe. More and more people are flocking to Cuba every year as the country becomes known as a world-class destination for tourists. Canada has become the main market for Cuban travel with the United Kingdom as the largest source market in Europe. With these aspiring numbers, it is no surprise that Cuba is promising a greater commitment to visitors on behalf of the Cuban people.
Cuba is an intricate archipelago made up of the main island, the Isle of Youth and approximately 4,195 keys and islets. It is Caribbean’s biggest island and has become world-renowned for its artistic manifestations and cultural history.
This idyllic setting with its diverse landscape, varied urban centers, and a seemingly endless series of sun-kissed beaches is infused with a special exotic flavor enhanced by its multi-cultural heritage. Cuba’s strong national identity and unique lifestyle has evolved out of a combination of respect for the island’s natural environment and the many different customs that are the legacy of its original settlers.
The Cuban personality, sensibility and spirit were forged by the assimilation of influences adopted from an assortment of nationalities, especially Hispanic, African, French, and Chinese. The end result – an intoxicating cultural cocktail that is distinctly Cuban with a twist of Caribbean. Visitors are always enchanted by the generous, spontaneous, warm and friendly welcome extended by Cubans.
The city of Santa Clara is best known as the place where troops of the dictator Batista surrendered to Che Guevara in 1958. The guerilla commanded by El Che attacked the industrial centre of Santa Clara after a hard, 400-kilometre march that had begun in the Sierra Maestra mountains. The dictatorship finally surrendered to Guevara’s men after a heroic battle. Che Guevara Mausoleum is where the bodies of Che and his troops, who died in battle in Bolivia, are buried.
The province of Villa Clara is a traditional sugar producer. Excellent coffee grows on its southern mountain slopes, as does one of Cuba’s important tobacco crops. A recently built causeway linking the mainland to the offshore islets has helped open the beach areas to tourism.
Remedios, founded in 1514, is a well preserved town with large colonial houses and a church. It is famous for its parrandas, or street festivals, and known for its museum, where artifacts relating to music, dancing and fireworks are on display.
San Pascual’s Pontoon is a 130-metre, concrete ship that was built in San Diego, California in 1920 and ran aground north of Villa Clara.
Hanabanilla Lake is a large, fresh-water mountain reservoir surrounded by tropical forest. It is a popular Cuban trout-fishing spot.
On Cuba’s Caribbean side, Cienfuegos perches on the shores of Jagua Bay like a pearl sitting on an oyster shell. First settled by the French, who dubbed Cienfuegos “The Southern Pearl”, the city is the capital of Cienfuegos province.
In the early 19th century, wealthy Frenchman D’Clouet of Louisiana promoted this area to the French, who began to populate the region from Bordeaux among other places. Today, this “Franco-Cuban” province produces sugar, citrus fruits, cattle and coffee while developing its industrial side as well.
Well preserved French and indigenous architecture abounds in Cienfuegos. In the circular Martí Park, a granite compass marks the point where the first French villagers started building the city. Built in 1869, Terry Theatre is a good example of eclectic Creole architecture. Its history and legends are linked to international stars of the stage.
In the old section of the city, is a relic of 19th century funeral art. La Reina Cemetery houses remarkable monuments and low reliefs.
Jagua Castle is a well preserved castle built in 1795 to repel attacks from pirates and smugglers. The “Lady in Blue” apparently haunts the premises. Her ghost sports an elegant blue brocade dress and rattles her jewellery.
Declared a National Monument, the Botanical Garden was founded in 1901 by Harvard University. Thousands of fascinating specimens, most of them unusual trees, call this garden home.
Beny Moré, one of the most famous interpreters of Cuban music was born in Santa Isabel de las Lajas and lived there until the early 1960s. His town houses a Museum and the famous cabildo de los congos that organizes traditional festivities every year.
The world’s highest stalagmite can be seen at the Martin Infierno Cave is 67 metres high. Access to the cave is from Yaguanabo Beach through the mountains east of Cienfuegos.
Alongside Havana’s famous Old Quarter, an exciting modern section has blossomed. With roots dating back to the early 20th century the eclectic architecture of yesteryear makes a striking contrast to the more contemporary tall buildings in this area. Of all the suburban neighborhoods that make up modern Havana, Vedado is the most popular amongst both Cubans and foreigners alike. Its streets are dotted with numerous theaters, art galleries, cinemas, cultural establishments, specialty restaurants, cafés, bars, cabarets and entertainment hot spots.
23rd Street, or La Rampa as it is best known, is the main thoroughfare and you won’t want to miss out on a stroll down this avenue of colour. When renowned Cuban artists decided to make their contribution to beautify the area, they did it in style with 500 meters of traditional art embedded into the sidewalk on multi-coloured granite tiles. Indeed, Havana is the focal point of Cuban culture, home to many visual artists, musicians, poets, dancers, actors and writers. The city is also where the head office of the world renown National Ballet, the Americas House and the New Latin-American Film Foundation are located. Every year Havana plays host to many international events, such as film, ballet, theater and jazz festivals.
When the sun goes down, another Havana comes alive as the city explodes into a festival of sounds and rhythms. Be prepared for the irresistible island beat with the power to loosen up the most rigid hips and set all inhibitions free. Why not dance the night way Caribbean-style in one of the many discos or nightclubs, and don’t forget to check out the Tropicana. This mythical cabaret under the stars, a landmark of spectacular entertainment, also features rumba-dancing beauties who light up the sky when they emerge dancing from the trees. So relax and enjoy the show as you sip on… what else but rum! Whether you like it straight up, on the rocks or mixed in fabulous cocktails, it’s always the world’s best.
Weather-wise it’s hard to go wrong in Havana, with hot temperatures almost year round. And you won’t have far to go to cool off! The blissful beaches of Santa María del Mar, only 20 minutes east of Havana, are beckoning with 18 kilometers of sparkling white sand and inviting water. Here, the sun, sea and great facilities await you with a full agenda of water-sport activities or quiet relaxation. Cubans are well aware that they have been blessed by nature’s bounty and they are always eager to share it with visitors. They want you to return home with fond memories of their country’s unsurpassed beaches and breathtaking natural beauty.
Havana offers the most exciting Caribbean holiday imaginable – a tropical paradise that offers colonial charm, modern comfort, warm island hospitality and gentle breezes from a glittering sea. One of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Caribbean, Havana is a hotbed of cultural activity and host to international events.
Yet Havana’s greatest natural treasure is its people! The hospitable and friendly Cubans are always delighted to be of assistance, to introduce visitors to dancing the Cuban beat, discuss their art, or extend an invitation to join them in a “strong” cup of coffee, that is sure to keep you awake! But don’t worry! When you’re in Havana, you won’t want to sleep. In short, the Cuban welcome is a friendly one!
Santiago de Cuba
Cuba’s second largest city, Santiago de Cuba, is the most “Caribbean” of the island’s cities, greatly influenced by immigration and trade from other Caribbean islands. Particularly known for its carnival, Santiago is proud of its revolutionary heroes, beautiful squares and vibrant musical tradition. For its heroic role, the city was awarded the title, “City of Heroes” in 1984. Founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1515, Santiago de Cuba has been lust after by pirates, the Spanish Crown and US military.
Santiago’s urban core revolves around Céspedes Park, near the historical City Hall, the Cathedral Church and the old (early 16th century) mansion owned by Diego Velázquez, Spain’s chief conquistador.
Two Cuban musical expressions usually performed by troubadours have their “house” here – son and bolero houses – on the corner of Heredia and San Félix streets. Santiago’s colourful carnivals, with their congas and festivities of true Caribbean flavour, are famous here.
The Bacardí museum houses aboriginal objects, works by Cuban and European painters and a stretch of street from the colonial city. A 3,000-year-old Egyptian and two Peruvian mummies are also on display.
The Moncada Barracks an old military enclave that, during Batista’s dictatorship, was attacked by a group of revolutionaries commanded by Fidel Castro. Transformed into a school complex, the building also houses a museum.
José Martí poet and leader of Cuba died in combat at Dos Ríos, near Santiago, in 1895. Santa Ifigenia cemetery Mausoleum comemorates the memory of this great Cuban. Major General Antonio Maceo revolution square, site of meetings and parades, was named after the heroic rebel who fought in the wars for independence against Spain.
San Pedro de la Roca castle on the bay entrance host a buccaneer museum. This fortress was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.
Final combat of the Spanish-Cuban-US war took place at the Loma de San Juan (San Juan Hill) with the participation of troops from all three nations.
The Cuban patroness’ temple – Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre National Sanctuary – is located in a small village west of Santiago. Pope John Paul II crowned the virgin during a religious ceremony held here on occasion of his visit to the city in 1998, and Hemingway left his Nobel Prize here.
Almost half a millennium of history has left its indelible stamp on Central Cuba’s two major centres, founded in 1514 by the Spanish conquistadors. Today, a flourishing economy of sugar, tobacco and cattle raising keeps Sancti Spritus a busy central trade centre. Trinidad, on the other hand, has remained frozen in time. Founded by emigrants from the Canary Islands, the city has preserved its old palaces and colonial architecture, and become a key tourist attraction.
Trinidad a stunning 500-year-old town is a museum in itself. Cobblestone streets and palatial 18th- and 19th-century houses contribute to its unique colonial ambience. Trinidad is also blessed with magnificent Caribbean beaches and the Escambray, a rugged mountain range. The colonial town and adjacent Valle de los Ingenios, (Valley of the Sugar Mills) were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
The Valle de los Ingenios, east of Trinidad are the ruins of some 70 centuries-old sugar mills. The stunning, 146-foot-high Iznaga Tower, built around 1840, looms over the valley as a reminder of days when slaves worked the cane fields and the mills.
Built in the early 19th century, the Roman-style’s Yayabo Bridge is a symbol of the city of Sancti Spíritus and the province. The town’s 17th-century Iglesia Parroquial Mayor (Major Parish Church) is the oldest church in Cuba and a good example of Spanish-Arab influence. At San José de Lago, thousands of families were founded there by emigrants from the Canary Islands; most of them later engaged in tobacco growing, keeping their traditions alive.
Topes de Collantes a mountain some 20 kilometres from Trinidad, is one of Cuba’s main ecotourism centres. Most beaches in the area are on Casilda Bay, where the clear water also offers excellent snorkeling and diving. A nearby islet has pristine, powdered-sand beaches.
Varadero is located in the province of Matanzas and is one of the most visited tourist sites in Cuba. It is also located 2 hours and 30 minutes east of Havana in the province of Matanzas, Varadero is a long narrow strip of land that juts out into the sea.
Best known as home to 18 km (11 miles) of Cuba’s most blissful beaches, this is where you go to soak up the sensations of the sun. A full agenda of water sports awaits here in this haven of calm sea, with water that is always warm, clear and sparkling with hues of turquoise and blue.
Due to the blooming tourist industry, there have been developed numerous hotels and beach resorts welcoming every year more and more tourists eager to take delight in relaxing vacations. Due to the beautiful blue waters of Caribbean Sea and gorgeous beaches (stretching almost 13 miles or 20 kilometers along the coast), Varadero is nicknamed Playa Azul, which means “Blue Beach” in English.
Most of the all inclusive hotels in Varadero are located on the Hicacos Peninsula, between Bay of Cardenas and Strait of Florida, at 86 miles or 140 kilometers east to Havana. The peninsula is only 1 312 yards (1.2 kilometers) wide and is separated from mainland by the Kawama Channel. Tourist industry started growing in the region in the early 1930′, when Irene du Pont Nemours, an American millionaire, built a villa. The first real tourists booked vacations in Varadero in 1870 and after that the area was considered for many years a luxury travel destination. Hotels began to appear beginning from 1950. After the “Cuban Revolution” in 1959, most villas and accommodations were expropriated.
Varadero is probably the most popular spot for all inclusive vacations in Cuba attracting tourists with its natural beauty, but also with its cultural and historical treasures. The entire region has excellent amenities for scuba diving, snorkeling, deep-sea fishing, sailing, yachting and other aquatic sports. There are several all inclusive hotels and luxury resorts offering affordable vacation packages and travel deals. Since 1990 most of the peninsula has been developed mostly for tourism and many complexes are operated or owned totally or partially by foreign ownership.
It’s one of the resort towns in Cuba where tourists can enjoy the pleasures of a beach vacation. Tourism consists of mainly European and Canadian citizens. The number of American tourists visiting Cuba is extremely limited due to restrictions and flights leaving the US to Cuba are limited. However, in the recent years have been signed several agreements between these countries, so hopefully all restrictions will be lifted in short time and many US tourists will take delight in Cuban vacations.
Cuba travel advice and tips
Are you planning a trip to Cuba in the near future? If so, here is some advice and ideas that you’ll need for a successful trip. Cuba is one of the most romantic and beautiful islands in the world and you’ll want to make sure that you’re well prepared for your journey so that you can get the most out of it.
Be prepared financially
There aren’t a lot of ATMs around so make sure that you carry along enough cash to get you through the trip. Cuba is mainly a cash-driven society and you can exchange your money at the airport upon arrival or in the lobby at your resort. If you do run into a situation where you need to access your debit or credit card, there are places to do so but you just may have to travel a ways to find them.
Don’t forget to obtain health insurance
Health insurance is mandatory to enter Cuba. If you don’t have insurance coverage you may be required to purchase it from a Cuban company upon arrival.
You’ll need to pay an exit tax to leave Cuba
You’ll need to have 25 cucs (approximately $30 Canadian), in order to leave Cuba. This is payable at the airport and must be presented in notes since no coins are accepted.
Bring along your own spices and condiments
While Cuban food can be very good, it’s also noted to be very bland as well. Take along some Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, barbecue sauce or any other spices or condiments you love to jazz up the food a bit while you’re there. Make sure that these items are carried in their original containers.
Tips are always appreciated
The people working in the hotels and resorts greatly appreciate regular household necessities and personal grooming items as tips. Things like soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, Q-tips, face cloths, makeup etc. are all in high demand in this country. They are considered more valuable than money and if you do some wise shopping before you head out for your trip you’ll end up saving money in tips.
Take some tours while you’re there
When you arrive at your hotel or resort there will be excursions available at an extra cost. These are well worth the price and will take you to some of the hidden treasures that make up Cuba’s history and culture. It’s always good to get off the resort grounds to see some of the real Cuba. It’s really an eye-opener!
Spend some time interacting with the locals
If you’re close to a town plan a lunch or dinner at one of the restaurants. Cubans are some of the nicest and friendliest people you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting. They are a happy bunch and are ready to share the little they have should you ever need anything.