Back in the 1990s, the mantra was to see this last bastion of Communism ‘before Castro dies’, yet decades later, revolutionary slogans still adorn walls and highways, and the island is still a one-party state.
However, after years of extreme hardship and state control, tourism has blossomed. Travellers are now free to explore the length and breadth of the country, eschewing the state sector if they wish, staying in family-run bed and breakfast places and eating at private restaurants. Following the death of Fidel, and the imminent selection of a new president outside of the Castro family, reforms are under way to open up the country still further.
While both visitors and Cubans have new freedoms, much of Cuba remains in a time warp. In city centres, from Havana to Santiago, ramshackle streets are lined with decaying colonial mansions and art deco towers, while brutalist Soviet apartment blocks dominate the suburbs. American Cadillacs from the 1950s chug alongside horse-drawn carriages, arthritic rickshaws, tin-can Ladas and battered Chinese bikes, swiftly overtaken by bright yellow eggshells on motorbike chassis. This is a place with no advertising hoardings, no multinational fast-food takeaways and no identikit shopping malls. In the countryside, fields are ploughed by oxen or rickety old tractors, and horses are still the vaqueros' transport of choice. Everywhere, though, you will be immersed in the richness of Cuba’s traditional music and dance, the products of a fruitful cultural mixture that has produced extraordinary creativity and exuberance in the arts and entertainment.
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and offers plenty of scope for exploration. You can cycle from one end to the other, dive around offshore cays and coral gardens, hike in mountainous forests to secluded waterfalls or simply laze on a deserted beach. There are miles of sand on the north coast and mangroves and sheltered harbours along the south, so that even though the island receives millions of visitors a year, you can still find an idyllic, isolated spot.