Cuba is an incredibly atmospheric mix of tropical landscapes, pulsing beats, breathtaking beaches, storied colonial towns and that quintessential, irrepressible Cuban spirit. It may not be the most punctual or predictable of places to travel, but if you can shrug that aside you will find a gem of a nation waking up from its time warp, ready to welcome you and show you what makes it tick. There is so much to see, from historic cathedrals and Spanish palaces to waterfalls and hidden coves - the only way to find out which of Cuba's many facets will be your favourite is to go there and see for yourself. So what are you waiting for? Here are five of our highlights beyond Havana's obvious charms.
A verdant valley of impressive karst scenery and tobacco farms is the essence of the Viñales region, where the landscape just begs you to explore. Take your pick of the many hiking trails and weave through green fields of tobacco and stands of palm trees to old farms where you will see tobacco leaves hanging on drying racks in the sun and housed in wooden barns. With luck the farmer may invite you to buy some of his hand crafted cigars - grown, dried and rolled on the premises.
Viñales valley is a scenic, rural region where the fertile valley floor is studded with hillocks of rock known as mogotes, steep sided outcrops which are usually topped with abundant greenery. Locals rarely use motorised vehicles, and you will see cattle and horses used for pulling carts and ploughing the fields.
Loved by visitors today predominantly for its access to excellent snorkelling and diving nearby, this is nevertheless a south coast beach with a backstory. The curved stretch of sand is part of the Bay of Pigs, scene of fierce fighting when the CIA supported troops landed here in the spring of 1961 with the intention of overthrowing Fidel Castro and his government.
Many lives were lost but the invading forces were overthrown and victory has been celebrated ever since by the Cubans, and this pride is most evident in Playa Giron village. The museum is the place to find out all about the turbulent history of the bay and the complexities of the battles. Out in the water, it's easy to see why swimmers enjoy this beach because it is protected from rough water by a sea wall. It makes a great jumping off point for plenty of nearby dive sites.
Situated on the southern coast of Cuba, Cienfuegos feels like a world apart from the rest of the island nation. It was built by the French and has a distinctly French air to its leafy boulevards and peaceful squares, and is known as the 'Pearl of the South' due to its charming and historic ambience. This is a laid back and inviting city in which to linger, with tempting shore-side strolls and plenty of interesting monuments to visit.
Head to the Punta Gorda district to admire avenues of perfectly preserved 50's homes with all the architectural details intact, and enjoy great sunset views across the bay. The old city has been listed by UNESCO for its importance to World Heritage, and this is where you can find most of the city's finest buildings. Take a look at the Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción Cathedral, complete with sumptuous stained glass, or enjoy a show at one of three ornate Cienfuegos theatres, followed by a stroll through Plaza Jose Marti which is bordered by some fine examples of early 20th century buildings.
Undiscovered it most certainly isn't, but Varadero beach is big and beautiful enough to absorb the crowds without detracting from its appeal. You don't go to Varadero for the culture, you go for the immaculate sugary sand and the dazzling turquoise of the Caribbean sea. Varadero occupies a 25 kilometre slim finger of land which boasts one of the best beaches in the whole Caribbean region extending for much of its length.
The whole peninsula is given over wholeheartedly and enthusiastically to tourism, and although there is a small town here, there is little in the way of sights. This resort is all about relaxing in one of the many luxury hotels, perhaps browsing the souvenir markets, enjoying the beach and it's distractions, and indulging in some of the liveliest nightlife in Cuba.
Enjoying a great location between the mountains and the sea, Trinidad is one of Cuba's most compelling destinations. Scattered over a hillside of lush greenery with elegant bell towers stretching skywards, it's an incredibly picturesque spot that merits extensive exploration. The city's colourful and ornate architecture points to an obviously wealthy past, mostly gained through sugar production and slavery, and today the attractive cobbled lanes and historic colonial streets are still captivating.
Start your exploration at Plaza Mayor, a masterclass in neo-Baroque styling in ice cream colours, including Trinidad's iconic belltower of what was the San Francisco Convent, and the sumptuous mansion of the Cantero sugar processing dynasty, now home to the Municipal Museum which showcases the extravagant interiors of the fine buildings of the day. Trips to nearby Ancón beach, the former sugar cane plantations of Valle de los Ingenios, or into the scenic Escambray mountains are easy and worthwhile.
Make it happen
Beaches, beats, history and nature - all present and correct in the wonderful nation that is Cuba. All that remains is to decide what to prioritise on your Cuban adventure. Our local experts can tailor make your trip according to your requirements, and use their local knowledge to ensure you get under the skin of this captivating destination. Submit an enquiry here, or to speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.