Cays, endless beaches, coral reefs, fantastic colonial cities, natural spaces such as those of Pinar del Río, delicious Creole cuisine, daiquiris, mojitos, son and guaracha. Despite the shortcomings and needs of the country, governed by a regime that makes little progress in terms of human rights and democratization, the island attracts visitors for many reasons. Here are 10 of them.
1. Baracoa, pure Cuban essence
On the hills, isolated, at the easternmost end of the province of Guantánamo, is the city of Baracoa, the first village founded in Cuba on August 15, 1511 by Diego Velázquez, then with the name of Our Lady of the Assumption of Baracoa. A small place, but with an important past, unusual for its capricious Atlantic climate, its lively population and a desire to be different. Here you can watch the locals climb the coconut trees, listen to the bands play nengón and kiribá (local versions of Cuban son) and enjoy their gastronomy, spicy and creative.
More information in the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba and in lonelyplanet.es.
Colorfully painted houses on a street in Baracoa, in Cuba's Guantanamo province. Alamy Stock Photo
Charming, quirky and surreal, Baracoa can be addictive. On the rainy and windy slope of the Cuchillas del Toa biosphere reserve, the oldest and most isolated town on the island has a very original atmosphere. The view extends over dense vegetation, surprising behind the aridity of the southern coast of Guantánamo. Its most impressive museum consists of a series of grottoes that were once Taino burial chambers: the archaeological museum Cueva del Paraíso. More than 2,000 pieces of indigenous culture are exhibited, including petroglyphs from 3,000 years ago, skeletons, ceramics... At this remote end of the country is the Alexander of Humboldt National Park, named in honor of the German explorer, who first visited the site in 1801. An area declared a biosphere reserve and world heritage by Unesco.
2. Pico Turquino, at the top
Turquino Peak, in the Sierra Maestra mountain range, is the highest point in Cuba. Roberto Machado Noa (LightRocket via Getty Images)
With so many beaches and urban charms to discover on the island, there are not many travelers who dare to take off-road walks, but there are places that are especially worthwhile. One of them is to ascend to the top of Turquino Peak, the highest point on the island of Cuba (1,974 meters). It's arduous, so it's not suitable for everyone, but the tour has many rewards. It is necessary to be accompanied by local guides and the walk is hard, two or three days through the steep forests of Sierra Maestra. It is both a history lesson, a nature trail and a spectacular birdwatching enclave. On the route you can make a detour to what was Fidel Castro's headquarters in the Sierra Maestra jungle during the Cuban Revolution. The ascent usually begins in Las Cuevas, on the remote coastal road, 130 kilometers west of Santiago, or from the other point of the route, Santo Domingo, from where the climb is faster, more comfortable and with better communications with the rest of the island.
3. Guanahacabibes Peninsula, indigenous heart
A woman swims with snorkeling in the waters of the beach of María la Gorda. Alamy Stock Photo
There are many who think that Las Tumbas is the best beach in Cuba, above Playa Sirena (too many tourists), in Cayo Largo, and Playa Pilar, in Cayo Guillermo. It is one of the most remote in the country, as it is on the western end of the island, 60 kilometers from the nearest town, and only has a quiet 10-room hotel. It belongs to the Guanahacabibes Biosphere Reserve, a region with a rich ecological heritage that once housed the first settlers of the island. A two-hour drive from Pinar del Rio, the Guanahacabibes peninsula lacks major tourist infrastructure, which makes it seem more isolated than it actually is. If someone wants to see Cuba as Christopher Columbus must have found it in 1492, you have to go to this flat and very narrow strip of land that points towards Mexico. The entire Guanahacabibes peninsula is a paradise for divers, ecotourists, conservationists and bird watchers. Here is the international diving center Maria la Gorda, and in summer, at night, sea turtles come out of the sea to lay their eggs.
4. Trinidad, the sugar city
View of the Plaza Mayor of Trinidad, a colonial city that was the center of the sugar industry on the island. Nikada (Getty Images)
Trinidad still has an unmistakably Spanish air and, if it were not for the tourists who visit it, it would seem that time would have stopped in 1850, the height of the sugar industry, when enormous fortunes were amassed. It is seen in the illustrious mansions and in the elegance of its streets. The city is like an open-air museum, but don't forget that it's also surrounded by natural wonders; from incredible beaches, such as Ancón, to mountain ranges, such as Escambray, a green territory of adventure. Its disadvantaged rival, the more crumbling city of Sancti Spiritus, has a more intangible charm. To soak up the history and scenery, you can take a multi-day horseback riding tour through the Valle de los Ingenios, located eight kilometers east of Trinidad. There are the ruins of numerous nineteenth-century sugar complexes, including warehouses, machinery, slave barracks, stately homes and even a working steam train.
5. Cienfuegos, the most French city
If there is a Paris in Cuba, that is Cienfuegos. Located in the most spectacular natural bay of the country, it is a sea city founded in April 1819 by French emigrants, with elegant buildings that in 2005 earned it the incorporation to the list of world heritage of Unesco.
The Palace of Valle de Cienfuegos, built in 1917 by the Asturian Acisclo Valle Blanco. Alamy Stock Photo
The elegant coastal city boasts its harmonious neoclassical architecture. With its wide, cobbled streets arranged in an almost perfect grid, the enlightened colonizers of the nineteenth century sought to end poor neighborhoods, promote cleanliness and make the most of public space using an urban plan that would later be adopted by Baron Haussmann in Paris. Porches, pillars and columns are the city's most striking architectural features, with a wide Parisian-style boulevard running from north to south for three kilometres.
Cienfuegos sits in the shadow of the Sierra del Escambray. Leaving the city behind, lies a surprisingly untapped coastline, emerald greens and iridescent blues, dotted with coves, grottoes and coral reefs. And the great attraction of the province of Cienfuegos is a short distance from the coast, in the park of El Nicho, possibly the most magical place in the Sierra del Escambray.
6. Jobo Rosado, an unknown corner
To the north of the province of Sancti Spiritus, is this little explored reserve that is reached from the city of Yaguajay. There are trails and guided excursions for groups among rivers, forests and an unusual karst topography, but there are few independent travelers who still dare to get here. Highlights include the Solapas de Genaro trail, a one-kilometer excursion through tropical savannah to a series of waterfalls and natural pools, and the Cueva de Valdés trail, just under a kilometer long, which crosses a forest to a grotto.
The area acts as a barrier and hinders access to the Bahía de Buenavista biosphere reserve. Also, as in Sierra Maestra, history is intertwined with ecology. This was a combat zone in the Spanish-American War of 1898, and the revolutionary army of Camilo Cienfuegos was also established there in 1958.
7. Beaches of Camagüey
Sculptures in the Plaza del Carmen in Camagüey, with the church of La Candelaria in the background. Alamy Stock Photo
In the middle of the island, Camagüey is a region of passage for Havanans and Santiago residents and its capital is a city of old pirates, labyrinthine streets, churches and colorful houses. But beyond the city, there are northern beaches, such as Santa Lucia, with 20 kilometers of golden sand, which competes with Varadero for the title of longest beach in Cuba. Travelers often scuba dive to the most accessible coral reef on the north coast, a few miles from the sand. There are 35 diving spots, with wrecks and abundant marine fauna. But the beach itself is an idyllic tropical paradise and you don't need much more.
Another of the beaches, increasingly known, is that of Los Cocos, at the mouth of the bay of Nuevitas, another beauty of golden and white sand and jade-colored waters. Flocks of pink flamingos can sometimes be seen in the El Real lagoon, behind the beach. And if we want to swim, we can do it with views of the Columbus lighthouse in Cayo Sabinal.
8. Among corals in the Queen's Gardens
One of the most amazing places in Cuba are the Jardines de la Reina, a large expanse of sand shoals, reefs and mangroves, more than 100 kilometers long, formed by more than 250 islands and cays. It is one of the best places in the entire Caribbean for scuba diving, but only a small number of visitors are allowed per year. As there is no permanent population in the area, visitors must stay at the Flotante Tortuga hotel, a two-story, seven-bedroom boat, or enter through the port of Embarcadero de Júcaro. Inside the water the main attraction is the sharks (both whale and hammerhead), which together with the corals attract divers from all over the world.
Diving with a crocodile in the mangroves of the Jardines de la Reina. Alamy Stock Photo
Getting to this archipelago is neither easy nor cheap. There are organized excursions that include equipment, accommodation, park license and dives. Another option is to sail from Cienfuegos.
9. Santiago de Cuba, African heart
Passionate and bustling, Santiago is the most Caribbean city in Cuba, and the most musical, with its many Haitian, Jamaican and African influences, with a lively Antillean style carnival and music everywhere, not in vain is the cradle of trova, bolero and son.
Arcades in a square in Santiago de Cuba, the most Caribbean city in the country. Alamy Stock Photo
One of its emblematic neighborhoods is the Tivoli, with long steep streets and houses overlooking the sea. The most famous image is that of the famous Stairs of Padre Pico: climbing to the top is not easy, but the reward is the views of a movie sunset. And it is enough to drive about 20 kilometers along the coast, in one direction or another from the capital of the province, to enter a rugged land of coves, brave waves, historic coffee plantations and emerald hills.
10. From Havana, the Malecon
An American convertible from the fifties on the promenade of the Malecon in Havana, with the water jumping over the breakwater. YAMIL LAGE (AFP via Getty Images)
But among so many natural beauties, there is no more romantic setting in Cuba than the famous Havana Malecon, full of couples at sunset. The evocative promenade of the country's capital, with its seven kilometers long, represents the quintessence of Cuba. Traditional meeting point for lovers, philosophers, poets, nomadic troubadours, fishermen and melancholics who look towards Florida (USA), the atmosphere of Havana's Malecon is especially intense at dusk, when the faint yellow light coming from the Vedado neighborhood filters like a faint torch towards the buildings of Centro Habana. The Malecón was designed in the early twentieth century as a promenade for recreation of the middle classes and expanded during the first decade of the twentieth century, combining the neoclassical style with the whimsical modernist style. And, of course, it is especially beautiful when the huge waves crash into the breakwater to jump overhead.
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