Immaculate beaches, lush green hills, dramatic rainforests and waterfalls; imposing mountain ranges, vibrant cities steeped in history and a defiant Revolutionary chic; the island of Cuba can rightfully claim to be one of the most unique getaways on earth.
The largest and most populous island in the Caribbean, Cuba has been somewhat time warped by its socialist revolution of 1959, and that, combined with the decadence and corruption of previous regimes has made it a sunshine isle of stark contrasts. Vintage American cars roar through the streets of Havana. Horses and carts carrying water and food stumble through the countryside. Graphic revolutionary insignia adorn walls just yards from a decadent colonial palace. The enthralling capital Havana is the best example of this debauched luxury mixed with the dilapidated. Here, the historic and beautiful areas of the Old Town rub shoulders with the run down (but full of character) districts inhabited by regular Cubans. This juxtaposition helps establish the unique charm of Havana and with the vibrant Cubano culture of salsa rhythms, uninhibited dancing, hearty food and sparkling cocktails, it all results in one enthralling and authentic urban experience that is truly like no other.
If Havana is a must-do experience for visitors then the second biggest city on the island, Santiago de Cuba, is not far behind. A melting pot of Afro-Caribbean cultures and a city central to Cuba’s political and artistic history, Santiago de Cuba is an incredibly lively and colourful place. It’s here that pastel covered buildings meet grand Cathedrals and eloquent cemeteries; local markets co-exist with imposing revolutionary statues; mopeds power up the steep and winding roads leading up from the ocean. At night, here and in other cities like Banes, the restaurants, clubs and open courtyards all explode into a music and rum-fuelled fiesta. Staying at a casa particular (a private home with rooms to rent) gives the traveller a glimpse at life for the average Cubano, and opens up parts of the country - and the local psyche -that were once off-limits.
The weight of history and culture is everywhere in Cuba but the cobblestone streets and beautiful houses and courtyards of Trinidad are another gem to behold, and walking around them is like taking a trip back in time. But enough about Cuba’s cities and small towns; much of the island’s allure lies in its spectacular beaches and thrilling scenery. Christopher Columbus wasn’t joking when he declared in 1492 the coast of Guardalavaca to be “the most beautiful land I have ever seen.” The beaches there are like something out of a dream, so it should come as no surprise that thousands of holidaymakers head there each year to soak up the sun on the improbably white sands, dip into the warm, turquoise waters and indulge in the five star luxury that many of the hotels and resorts there provide.
While the world famous cocktails may surpass the hearty but occasionally limited food and the travelling around might be slightly more difficult than elsewhere in the Caribbean, Cuba more than makes up for this with its stunning climate, captivating history, generous charm and swinging salsa rhythms.