by Rita Kirby | Gambler magazine
Cuba offers such a wealth of sites that it’s virtually impossible to cover the entire island in one trip. Situated at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico in the Caribbean, Cuba has been aptly christened “Key to the Gulf” and is the largest island in the Antilles.
Visitors will find some of the most exciting sites in Cuba’s westernmost province. When it comes to natural beauty, no other place in the world can compare to Pinar del Río. Known as Cuba’s Garden, the province is a feast for the eyes. One of its most famous areas is Viñales Valley, where visitors can’t help but stand in awe amongst the collection of hummocks (peculiar elevations with round tops and vertical sides). This unique creation of Mother Nature features cavernous qualities and interior streams, making it a speleological wonder. Pinar del Río also boasts two world biosphere reserves (declared as such by UNESCO): Sierra del Rosario and the Guanahacabibes Peninsula.
Because this region is known for producing world-famous quality dark tobacco, the cigar factory is a popular tourist attraction in the province’s capital, Pinar del Río, where curious tourists can check out how Cuban cigars are made. While still in the city, why not also tour the factory that produces Guayabita del Pinar, the region’s exclusive liqueur still made the old-fashioned way.
Tourists would also do well to visit Varadero, considered one of Cuba’s many gems. It is located on the Península de Hicacos in the province of Matanzas. With incredible coral beaches stretching out for more than 20 kilometres (13 miles), it’s no wonder Varadero is a favourite among beach lovers. Lazing on the gorgeous white sand and a dip into inviting warm waters is usually what’s on vacationers’ agendas; however, Varadero has much more to offer. Yachting, dancing the night away in the clubs, playing a round at Cuba’s only professional golf course, and parachuting are some exciting activities that visitors enjoy at Cuba’s southernmost point.
The embedding of the name Cuba within the acronym SCUBA is more than coincidence. Divers flock to Cuba for its great sites and Varadero is no exception, with 23 diving sites and a marine park that conceals intentionally sunken boats and aircraft for divers to find.
If you prefer staying on land, you may want to visit the Ambrosio Cave, where you’ll find several well-preserved paintings from the pre-Columbian era. Also, check out the abandoned salt mine, Las Salinas. On your way to these areas, be sure to pose for a photo with El Patriarca, a famous cactus. What’s so interesting about a cactus? This particular one happens to be more than five centuries old. In fact, carbon dating has revealed this tree started growing when Christopher Columbus made his journey to the New World.
The Península de Zapata National Park, Mangon Lake, the peninsula’s main body of water, and Josone Park are other must-see attractions in Varadero.
The combination of striking architecture, great beaches, exciting cultural events, and beautiful parks makes Cuba’s capital city, La Habana (Havana), a vacationer’s paradise. And most visitors agree that Havana is second to none when it comes to nightlife, thanks to its historic theatres, nightclubs, and, of course, festivals. The Havana Carnival, the Havana International Jazz Festival, the International Festival of New Latin American Film are just some of Havana’s festivals – the list is endless.
Evidence of Havana’s past prevails, especially in Old Havana. The original walled city, which has three military fortresses, became an UNESCO world heritage site in 1982. The Plaza de la Catedral is the place to be in Old Havana, where you’ll find Castillo de la Real Fuerza, one of the oldest colonial fortresses in the Americas.
The Plaza de Armas, Central Park, the Capitol building, and the San Francisco de Asís Square should also be on every tourist’s itinerary.
Trinidad, part of the Sancti Spíritus province, was declared a world heritage site in 1988 – and deservedly so. Of all places, this city epitomizes the meaning of the word “quaint.” Cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, unique buildings with red roof tiles, and balustrades are picture perfect and the atmosphere is bewitching.
You’ll need nothing but time because you’ll be making frequent stops while strolling through the streets. You’ll find century-old buildings at the Plaza Mayor, including the Trinidad Architecture Museum, the Romance Museum, and the Guanuhaya Archaeology Museum.
Located on the outskirts of Trinidad is another world heritage site. The San Luis Valley, or Sugar Mill Valley, had more than 40 sugar mills that functioned in their time. The sugar mill ruins, slave barracks, and a 45-metre building known as the Manaca-Iznaga Tower (from where it is said African slave crews were monitored while working in the plantations) is certainly worth your while.
The Holguín region should also be included in your travels. Taíno Indians already knew what Columbus declared when he landed here in 1492 – that it was the “most beautiful land human eyes have seen.” The statement still holds true today. The proof is in the more than 40 kilometres (26 miles) of extraordinary coastline and century-old forests, not to mention one of the most amazing waterfalls on the island, the 70-metre Guayabo Falls.
Visitors to Holguín can choose from a number of nature-themed activities, including hiking in Las Guanas, lazing on the beach, and diving. They can also enjoy the thrill of swimming with the dolphins at Bahía de Naranjo Nature Park.
Surrounded by colonial buildings, Calixto Garcia Park is a major attraction, particularly for history buffs. The Municipal Museum of History is housed in a 139-year-old building used by Spanish soldiers as their barracks during the Ten Years’ War. The museum is known as La Periquera (The Parakeet Cage) because of the green uniforms worn by the soldiers. The Natural History Museum, home to a collection of Cuban shells, is another must-see building at this park.
As the country’s second largest city, Santiago de Cuba offers visitors several points of interest. Among other significant buildings, The Diego Velázquez Museum, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the Casa Granda Hotel can be found in the city centre, Cespedes Park. This area continues to be a large part of the city’s social life.
Another world heritage site, San Pedro de la Roca del Morro Castle, can be found on the outskirts of this historical city. Baconao Park and Biosphere Reserve incorporates beaches, lakes, mountains, La Isabelíca (the French coffee plantation), and Prehistoric Valley.
Santiago de Cuba is famous for its celebrations, including the Caribbean Festival, the Fire Festival, and the popular Santiago Carnival, which takes place every July. With the many festivals it holds, the city is called the cultural capital of the Caribbean.
All of Cuba is steeped in culture and history, but each of Cuba’s provinces and cities has their own unique characteristics. One characteristic, however, is common to every area – the warm and friendly people of Cuba.
Of Cuba’s 17 airports, nine are international. Domestic charter and aerotaxi companies fly within national territory.
Cuba has an extensive network of roads–about 50,000 kilometres (31,000 miles), 14,000 of which are thruways and asphalt highways. It is recommended that visitors use transportation services, such as motorcycle rentals, taxis, buses, or even horse and buggy. Tourist buses in Havana and Varadero follow a route that covers major sites of interest.
What to Wear
The climate is moderate subtropical, with an average air temperature of 25.5° C (70° F). Cotton or similar fabrics are recommended, but remember to bring a lightweight raincoat during the rainy season (May to October).
Formal attire is the norm for fine restaurants or while attending the theatre.
Customs and Regulations
Visitors must have a valid passport in his or her name, along with the corresponding tourist card, except if they are from countries with which Cuba has visa exception agreements. (Due to travel restrictions to Cuba by the U.S. Treasury Department, U.S. citizens must receive special permission to travel to the island.)
There is a $20 (U.S.) airport departure tax.
Tourists may bring into the country, duty free, the following: personal objects, personal jewelry, cameras, sporting goods, fishing gear, two bottles of liquor, one carton of cigarettes, and up to 10 kilograms (22 lbs.) of medicines. Tourists may bring in an unlimited amount of money; however, it is recommended to declare amounts over $5,000 (U.S.).
Anyone that enters Cuba may not bring narcotics or firearms, except for duly authorized hunting weapons.
Commerce and Communications
The national currency is the Cuban peso, but the U.S. dollar is the accepted currency for hotels and international tourism services. Cabal, Transcard, Visa, and MasterCard International credit cards are accepted, as long as U.S. banks or their affiliates didn’t issue them.
Direct communication with any part of the world and within national territory is possible through Cuba’s telephone network.
The electrical supply is 110 volts-60 Hertz, plugs with flat pins. In the hotels, 220v. is also used.
Cuba holds more than 500 events every year. Among the more notable:
February/March – Havana Carnival
April – Semana de la Cultura
May – Romería de Mayo
June – Fiestas Sanjuaneras
July/August – Santiago Carnival
October – Havana Festival of Contemporary Music
November – Semana de la Cultura Trinitaria
December – International Festival of Latin American Film