Places in Cuba

There are dozens of "must see" places in Cuba. Most visitors spend some time in Havana, and the capital city is always a good place to start and gain insight into the culture of the island. The old town, Habana Vieja, is being painstakingly renovated and many of the colonial palaces have been converted into desirable boutique hotels. Others are museums and art galleries containing unrivalled treasures or Revolutionary memorabilia. Theatres, churches, fortresses, a cigar factory, bars, restaurants and a magnificent seafront drive provide plenty to see and do. Further west is the university and the new city, Vedado, where much of the nightlife and cultural activities take place. The enormous Plaza de la Revolución is famed for May Day gatherings and Fidel Castro's interminable speeches as well as for the iconic image of Che Guevara attached to the front of the Ministry of the Interior.

The west end of the island is the major tobacco-growing area, where the rich soil produces crops for some of the best cigars in the world. The beautiful mountain landscape of the Sierra del Rosario, containing a Biosphere Reserve at Las Terrazas, tapers down to the fascinating and evocative limestone
around Viñales. When the mists swirl around their sheer cliffs the view is reminiscent of a Chinese painting. There are some good beaches along the north coast and western tip of Pinar del Río province and some excellent diving at María la Gorda and Cayo Levisa.

East of Havana is Varadero, a mega-resort on a thin peninsula, with huge hotels dotted all along the white-sand beach stretching 20 km along the north shore. Like other resort areas along the north coast, such as Cayo Coco or Cayo Santa María, it is a remote enclave, devoted entirely to beach tourism.

Historians and fans of Che Guevara should head east to Santa Clara, a pleasant university city famous for being the site of the last and decisive battle of the Revolution in December 1958. It is also the last resting place of Che and his comrades who were killed in Bolivia. On the south coast, Trinidad is one of the best-preserved towns in the Americas and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the best place in Cuba to experience colonial architecture and possibly in the world. It remains in a time warp from the Spanish colony of the 19th century, with its cobbled streets, tiled roofs, wrought- iron railings, churches, palaces and humble dwelling. 

A journey east through the cattle lands and sugar plantations of central Cuba offers several places of historical interest which are convenient for stopovers and detours to north coast beaches. Sancti Spíritus, Ciego de Avila, Camagüey, Las Tunas, Holguín and Bayamo are all benefitting from renovation and beautification projects. Camagüey is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a maze of streets to confuse potential invaders in colonial times. These cities lie along the route to the Sierra Maestra, the eastern mountain range from where Fidel Castro and his comrades launched their attacks on the dictatorship in the 1950s and which surrounds and protects the second city, Santiago de Cuba.

Sheltered by the mountains, Santiago is hot and steamy, with a culture to match. More Afro-Caribbean than Havana, it also has strong French influences on music, dance and art because of past immigra- tion from Haiti. Carnival in July is a particular highlight, a noisy, colourful, energetic event.

Baracoa, almost as far east as you can get, is an attractive, restful seaside town where travellers come to get away from it all. Backed by mountains and tropical forests intersected by rivers, you can go hiking, river bathing, explore pre-Columbian archaeological sites or just kick off your shoes and relax on a beautiful, unspoiled beach.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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