No trip to Cuba would be complete without a visit to the potent capital, Havana. A unique and personable metropolis characterized by a small-town atmosphere, its time-warped colonial core, Habana Vieja, is crammed with architectural splendours, some laced with Moorish traces and dating as far back as the sixteenth century. Elsewhere there are handsome streets unspoiled by tawdry multinational chain stores and restaurants: urban development here has been undertaken sensitively, with the city retaining many of its colonial mansions and numerous 1950s hallmarks.
To the west of Havana, the nature-tourism centres of Artemisa and Pinar del Río are popular destinations with day-trippers but also offer more than enough to sustain a longer stay. The most accessible resorts here are Las Terrazas and Soroa, focused around the subtropical, smooth-topped Sierra del Rosario mountain range, but it’s the peculiarly shaped mogote hills of the prehistoric Viñales Valley that attract most attention, while tiny Viñales village is a pleasant hangout frequented by a friendly traveller community. Beyond, on a gnarled rod of land pointing out towards Mexico, there’s unparalleled seclusion and outstanding scuba diving at María La Gorda.
Varadero and other beach resorts
There are beach resorts the length and breadth of the country but none is more complete than Varadero, the country’s long-time premier holiday destination, two hours’ drive east of Havana in Matanzas province. Based on a highway of dazzling white sand that stretches almost the entire length of the 25km Península de Hicacos, Varadero offers the classic package-holiday experience. For the tried-and-tested combination of watersports, sunbathing and relaxing in all-inclusive hotels, there is nowhere better in Cuba. On the opposite side of the province, the Península de Zapata, with its diversity of wildlife, organized excursions and scuba diving, offers a melange of different possibilities. The grittier Cárdenas and provincial capital Matanzas contrast with Varadero’s made-to-measure appeal, but it’s the nearby natural attractions of the Bellamar caves and the verdant splendour of the Yumurí Valley that provide the focus for most day-trips.
Travelling east of Matanzas province, either on the Autopista Nacional or the island-long Carretera Central, public transport links become weaker and picturesque but worn-out towns take over from brochure-friendly hotspots. There is, however, a concentration of activity around the historically precious Trinidad, a small colonial city brimming with symbols of Cuba’s past, which attracts tour groups and backpackers in equal numbers. If you’re intending to spend more than a few days in the island’s centre, this is by far the best base, within short taxi rides of a small but well-equipped beach resort, the Península de Ancón, and the Topes de Collantes hiking centre in the Sierra del Escambray.
Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and other cities
Slightly further afield are a few larger cities: lively Santa Clara is best known for its Che Guevara connections, while laidback Cienfuegos, next to the placid waters of a sweeping bay, is sprinkled with colourful architecture, including a splendid nineteenth-century theatre. Further east, historic Sancti Spíritus and modest Ciego de Ávila, both workaday cities in their namesake provinces, will appeal to anyone looking to escape the tourist limelight without having to work hard to find a memorable and comfortable place to stay. The luxurious and expanding resorts of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, off the north coast of Ciego de Ávila province, feature wide swathes of creamy-white beaches and tranquil countryside, while the tranquil countryside nearby, with its pretty lakes and low hills, is best enjoyed from the small town of Morón, the most popular base for independent travellers in the province.
Continuing eastwards back on the Carretera Central into Camagüey province, the romantic and ramshackle Camagüey, the most populous city in the central part of the island, is a sightseer’s delight, fully meriting its UNESCO Heritage Site award, with numerous intriguing buildings and a half-decent nightlife. In the north of the province, the smaller, rather remote resort of Santa Lucía is a much-promoted though less well-equipped option for sun-seekers, while there’s an excellent alternative north of here in tiny Cayo Sabinal, with long empty beaches and romantically rustic facilities. Another 200km east along the Carretera Central, the amiable city of Holguín is the threshold to the province of the same name, containing the biggest concentration of pre-Columbian sites in the country. On the northern coast of Holguín province, Guardalavaca (together with the neighbouring playas Esmeralda, Pesquero and luxurious Turquesa) is one of the country’s liveliest and most attractive resorts, spread along a long and shady beach with ample opportunities for watersports.
Forming the far eastern tip of the island, Guantánamo province is best known for its infamous US naval base, but the region’s most enchanting spot is the jaunty coastal town of Baracoa. Isolated from the rest of the country by a high rib of mountains, this quirky, friendly town freckled with colonial houses is an unrivalled retreat popular with long-term travellers, and offers ample opportunities for revelling in the glorious outdoors.
Santiago de Cuba province
Santiago de Cuba province, on the island’s southeast coast, could make a holiday in itself, with a sparkling coastline fretted with golden-sand beaches such as Chivirico; the undulating emerald mountains of the Sierra Maestra, made for trekking; and Santiago, the home of traditional Cuban music and the country’s most vibrant and energetic city after Havana. Host to Cuba’s most exuberant carnival every July, when a deluge of loud, sweet and passionate sounds surges through the streets, the city’s musical heritage is testified to by the fact that you can hear some of the best Cuban musicians here year-round. Trekkers and Revolution enthusiasts will want to follow the Sierra Maestra as it snakes west of here along the south coast into Granma province, offering various revolutionary landmarks and nature trails.
Isla de la Juventud
Lying off the southern coast of Artemisa province, the Isla de la Juventud is an inconvenient three-hour ferry ride or a forty-minute flight away from the mainland, but its remoteness is part of its appeal and it feels even more time-warped than the rest of the country. Easily explored over a weekend, the island promises leisurely walks, some of the best diving in the country and a personable, low-key capital town in Nueva Gerona. In the same archipelago is luxurious and anodyne Cayo Largo, the southern coastline’s only sizeable beach resort.