Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and is one of the most intriguing tourist destinations in the Caribbeans or the world for that matter, especially for Americans who are not supposed to travel to this embargoed country.
Despite American attempts at isolating Cuba, this communist state led by Fidel Castro continues to attract more than two million tourists each year. Where there are beautiful palm-fringed beaches, tropical weather, colonial architecture, young salsa dancers, Che Guevara murals, delicious mojitos and fine cigars, even the efforts of the world’s most powerful nation cannot stand in the way of visitors who are “only human”.
Cuba is an archipelago in the Caribbeans about 90 miles south of Florida. Cuba consists of a principal island (the island of Cuba), a secondary island called the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) which is just southwest off the main island, and 4,195 keys and islets. Cuba’s long, narrow, irregular-shaped coastline gives way to more than 200 bays and 300 natural beaches.
Cuba has the distinction of being the first place Christopher Columbus landed in the new world on his maiden voyage of discovery. At the time, the island was inhabited by Amerindian people of the Taíno and Ciboney cultures – their ancestry can be traced back to South America. Both the Taíno and Ciboney were farmers and hunter-gatherers. The Spanish set up a settlement in 1515 in Havana and Baracoa and enslaved the 100,000 indigenous natives living on the island. While the culture survives somewhat through its mestizo population, the Taíno and Ciboney became extinct within a hundred years of their enslavement – their annihilation arising from disease, genocide, and forced labor. The island was repopulated by African slaves and settlers who left Haiti when it was ceded to France.
In the early 1800s, Cuba did not seek independence from Spain like other Central American countries, mainly because of their fear of the United States and their Monroe Doctrine. However, the move for Cuban independence began picking up steam in the late 1800s, witnessed in the 1868 rebellion against the Spanish Army that ended in the Spanish promising greater autonomy to Cuba. In the 1890s, the Cuban independence movement once again rekindled culminating in a war in 1895 between the Spanish forces and Cuban guerrilla units. Ultimately, the U.S. intervened and helped Cuba defeat the Spanish; Cuba was subsequently given formal independence.
During the 1950s, Cuba was ruled by the unelected Batista, who gained power through a coup. His unpopularity led to a revolution staged by the vigilant Fidel Castro. After Castro became Prime Minister of Cuba, he nationalized many companies, confiscated private real estate, and shut down the casino operations of American mobsters. Much of his moves came at the expense of American owners and businessmen to the dismay of the U.S. government. When Castro declared Cuba a communist state and allowed Soviets to establish a missile base on the island, it led to the infamous Cuban missile crisis between John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev and a resulting U.S. trade embargo against Cuba that remains even today.
Due to Fidel Castro’s recent ailing health and speculated pending death, there has been a significant increase in tourism in recent years. As many speculate the inevitable change that Cuba will undergo after Castro is succeeded, many travelers want to see communist Cuba in its current state while they still have the chance.
Cuba’s reputation as a hedonistic escape is not surprising. Cuba is like a paradise of indulgent wonders – some of the world’s most beautiful white-powdery beaches amidst coconut palm trees, sugarcane fields, tropical fruit trees, colorful coral reefs, and a tropical weather that is never extreme and usually carries a gentle breeze…. and all of this can be enjoyed while sipping on the most delicious rums, cocktails, mojitos, and daiquiris. What a way to enjoy life!
Cuba’s biggest appeal is probably its dreamy beaches. Among the more than 300 beaches in this island paradise, the sandy shores of Varadero are perhaps its most popularly visited. This beach extends almost 15 miles, which is larger than the world’s most famous beaches. And you’ll find many secluded and hidden beaches if you just want a romantic moment with your companion. The beaches are also enclosed by colorful coral reefs, which are the habitat of more than 900 fish species and 4000 types of mollusks; this certainly makes the waters of Cuba perfect for scuba diving and snorkeling. But swimming, boating, sailing, and surfing are just as popularly embraced by tourists.
Cuba, being the longest-serving Spanish colony, has several historic buildings, churches, monuments, public squares, fortresses, and palaces that have been designated as World Heritage sites by UNESCO. Along with its characteristic old narrow streets and outdated modes of transportation, the towns of Cuba have a nostalgic colonial charm to them not found anywhere else. Of the cities with the most well-preserved historic cores, Havana and Trinidad rank at the top. But the towns of Bayamo, Camaguey, Baracoa, and Santiago de Cuba all have their own colonial charms and preserved treasures as well. The Santiago San Pedro, for example, has a famous castle, the San Pedro de la Roca del Morro, which overlooks the sea. And Baracoa is home to the first Christian church in the New World, the Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.
Cuba’s cigars, of course, are considered the best in the world and a visit to Cuba will allow you to go on a cigar tour. Tour operators offer excursions in which tourists are taken to Habano, a region between Pinar del Rio and Havana, and various fields and production centers in Habano where the world’s best cigars are made. These tours give visitors opportunities to try out a variety of Habano cigar brands as well as learn more about the rituals of smoking and the art that goes into crafting these tobacco products.
Bird-watching is a huge draw in Cuba as well. There are over 400 different kinds of birds. La Guira National Park, the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve, the Santo Tomás wild life refuge, and La Salina wild life refuge are few bird habitats where you can see various rare birds such as the Ferminia, Cabrerito de la Ciénaga, and Gallinuela de Santo Tomás as well as the customary Cuban trogons, flamingos, and parrots.
Fresh-water and saltwater fishing is very popular in Cuba as well. In Cuba, there are actually few restrictions on fishing, whether in the country’s rivers, lakes, reservoirs, or off of its Caribbean coast. There are more than 900 varieties of fishes. Most common are the bass, snook, barracuda, carp, tarpon, liseta, swordfish, bill fish, marlin, wahoo, and achigan. Great fishing spots include the Maspotón Reserve in Pinar del Rio, the Presa Zaza in Sancti Spiritus, the Lago la Redonda y Laguna de la Leche in Ciego de Avila, the Yariguá in Cienfuegos, the Presas Porvenir and Muñoz y Santa Ana in Camagüey, and the Laguna del Tesoro and Cienaga de Zapata in Matanzas.
Courtesies and Etiquette
In Cuba, people usually greet each other by handshake and tourists are advised to greet Cubans by addressing them as señor for men and señora for women. Cubans also rarely wear formal wear. And men are not supposed to wear shorts, except at the beach.