There is nowhere in the world quite like Havana. The historic centre of the city, which was founded in the 16th century, is an open-air museum, crumbling yet elegant, exotic and vibrant and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. There has been considerable restoration work in the last 30 years.
The beautiful Viñales valley is a UNESCO World Cultural Landscape in the Pinar del Rio province a couple of hours west of Havana, characterised by clay ‘mogotes’ (small rounded hillocks) which are interspersed with tobacco plantations. There are also caves to visit with an underground river system.
Trinidad is a small, attractive colonial town with UNESCO World Heritage status nestling between the mountains and the coast. Although it was founded in 1514 by Diego de Velasquez, Trinidad really only prospered in the 19th century with the sugar industry. Fantastic views from the bell tower of the San Francisco church. The beaches at Playa Ancon are a few minutes away by taxi.
Cienfuegos became the home of many French refugees after the United States purchased Louisiana from Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803 and they have left their mark in their architecture and the grid-style layout of the city’s streets and boulevards. Cienfuegos is known as the ‘pearl of the south’ and is about an hour’s journey from Trinidad.
San Isidoro de Holguín is known as the city of parks. It is a pleasantly attractive city with a vibrant cultural scene which is celebrated most particularly during the Romerias de Mayo (first week of May) and during the Iberoamericana Fiesta each October. At nearby Biran you can visit the farm where Fidel and Raul Castro grew up.
The eastern city of Santiago de Cuba is set between the foothills of the Sierra Maestra and the coast and has a unique atmosphere quite unlike that of the humid capital, more Afro-Cuban in feel with a passion for salsa music. The Santiago carnival, the largest in Cuba, takes place in the last two weeks of July.
Cayo Santa Maria offers secluded beaches and is largely development-free. The waters around the island offer a variety of activities, including snorkelling, diving and fishing. Nearly 200 species of birds are found on the island including herons, ibis, pelicans, cormorants and oystercatchers.
Cayo Coco offers miles of unspoilt white sand beaches and crystal clear waters. There are hundreds of bird species here including herons, hummingbirds and egrets as well as Cuba’s largest colony of flamingos, which are best seen at sunrise and sunset during June and July.
Cuba’s largest beach resort boasts a 20km strip of white powder sand and crystal clear water just over a couple of hours from Havana. The Punta Hicacos nature reserve at the tip of the peninsula has a number of caves (and some pre-Colombian cave paintings), secluded beaches and scuba-diving. Varadero has an 18-hole golf course and many fine all-inclusive hotels with pools, salsa bars and a range of restaurants.
When Christopher Colombus first glimpsed the northern coastline in 1492 he declared it ‘the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen.’ Modern travellers can easily explore the coastline and decide for themselves.
Of particular note are Playa Esmeralda, Playa Pesquero and Playa Yuraguanal which are all within easy reach of Holguin and Guardalavaca.
Camaguey has some beautifully restored buildings and delightful squares from the colonial era. It is said that the haphazard layout of streets was designed to deter pirates (i.e. it is easy to get lost). If you can find it, Plaza San Juan de Dios is particularly charming.
The Bay of Pigs is famous as the landing place of the ill-fated counter revolutionary invasion force in 1961 which was backed by the CIA. This area of the Zapata Peninsula is particularly good for bird-watching, a virtually uninhabited region of wetlands, mangroves and swamps.
The island of Cayo Largo, reached by a short flight from the mainland, was uninhabited until the 1980s and has been developed to cater for Cuba’s flourishing tourism industry, with a range of hotels and miles of sandy beaches. The island has an abundance of wildlife, particularly turtles and iguanas.
Santa Clara was the scene of an important battle in December 1958 when the town was attacked and captured by the Argentine revolutionary, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, which triggered the downfall of the dictatorship run by Fulgencio Batista. The Museo Historico de la Revolucion should not be missed.