Immaculate beaches and verdant hills, wildlife-rich rainforests and tumbling waterfalls, imposing mountain ranges and vibrant cities, all wrapped in defiantly Revolutionary politics; the island of Cuba can rightfully claim to be one of the most singular destinations on the planet.
The largest and most populous island in the Caribbean, Cuba's 1959 socialist revolution and the subsequent US trade embargo has frozen the island in time; vintage American cars still roar through the ramshackle streets of its cities, while horses and carts clatter through the countryside.
The capital, Havana, serves up a heady mix of dilapidation and debauchery. It is a city where beautifully restored colonial buildings rub shoulders with the rundown tenements of regular Cubans. The contrasts can be stark, but Havana’s ubiquitous salsa rhythms, uninhibited dancing and potent cocktails galvanise the city and make for an enthralling urban experience unlike any other.
Cuba’s other cities are experiences in themselves. Santiago de Cuba is a veritable melting pot of Afro-Caribbean cultures, where pastel covered buildings meet grand cathedrals. And then there’s Trinidad, which offers a snapshot of a bygone era with its cobblestone streets, faded colonial façades and charming courtyards.
Delightful though these cities are, for many visitors Cuba’s greatest allure is its beaches. Christopher Columbus described the sandy coast of Guardalavaca as “the most beautiful land I have ever seen,” and you can see why he was so taken – the improbably white sands and warm turquoise waters are exquisite. Others prefer to head inland and gaze upon the verdant, limestone peaks of Viñales, where Cuba’s famous tobacco is cultivated.
As Cuba slowly opens up to the West, modern resorts have become increasingly common, but the most rewarding stays are in casa particulares. These private homestays offer a true insight into everyday Cuban life, which you won’t get in a hotel.
Though travelling around Cuba can be challenging, the country’s affable climate, captivating history, beautiful beaches, swinging salsa rhythms and ubiquitous mojitos are fair compensation indeed.