Cities in Cuba
Change may be sweeping the island, but Havana, for now, remains in a timewarp, a noisy, beautiful chaos of a city, that ticks along to the rhythm of seductive congas and clattering dominoes.
Few cities stir the imagination as much as Havana. It could be the city’s forbidden nature: closed to US travellers for six decades, it has a clandestine thrill. It could be the very real sensation of stepping back into the 1950s: streets full of vintage cars, news received via radio, wheelbarrows of tropical fruit brought in from the provinces. It could be the undeniable, yet faded, beauty of its colonial architecture, where layers of peeling pastel paint are bathed in Caribbean sunlight. Or it could be the spirit of the habaneros themselves, who deal with the trials of daily life here with resolute cheer, who dance proudly in the plazas and spend hours queuing for Coppelia ice cream and browse the street markets for well-thumbed second hand books.
Because you’ll see, when you arrive here, that although you came for the photo ops along the Malecón and the classic convertibles and the Plaza de la Revolución, it is the people who will linger in your memory long after you leave. Havana is infectious, so be sure to leave plenty of time to discover its cultural centres, historic bars, hidden artists’ studios, and to survey the scenes from the grilled window of your casa particular like a true habanero.
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Villa de la Santísima Trinidad was founded by the Spanish in 1514 and was later used as a base for French settlers fleeing nearby Haiti. The city’s colourful history is reflected in its perfectly preserved architecture, the ruins of the surrounding sugar mills, and Afro-Cuban religions. The yellow, pink, mint and sky blue buildings were constructed between the 1700s and 1900s, and provide instant appeal for travellers as soon as they step out of their car or bus. Head to the Historical Museum in the late afternoon – the top of its tower is the best place in town to watch the Caribbean sunset.
Trinidad has all of Havana's beauty - but without the edge or grime. Its buildings are bright, its plazas tree-filled, and the cobbled streets and tiled roofs add to its colonial charm.
The Plaza Mayor comes alive with salsa rhythms at night – this is one of Cuba's best live music destinations. A couple of blocks away, La Canchanchara serves a special cocktail of the same name – a syrupy mixture of rum, lime and honey, invented in Trinidad.
Cienfuegos was founded in 1819, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. The stunning natural bay the city is built around was of strategic importance to the Spanish settlers long before the city existed, and they built an impressive limestone fortress here to defend it from pirates in 1742. The fortress of Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de Jagua still stands guard to this day.
With its mixed French and Spanish colonial history, Cienfuegos, known as the "Pearl of the South" is one of Cuba's most beautiful, best kept and best loved.
The city itself is one of the earliest examples of urban planning in Latin America – with long, wide, tree-lined boulevards linking pretty parks and plazas, and the sweeping Malecón which borders the bay. Top spots include the botanical garden – Cuba’s largest, with over 2,000 plant species; the National Naval Museum, which contains documents dating back to the 1957 revolution, and the Provincial Museum, which reveals the wealth and importance of Cienfuegos in the colonial era.
Santiago De Cuba
Santiago De Cuba
It’s easy to fall in love with Cienfuegos or Trinidad – less so with Santiago, but that is the appeal of Cuba’s second largest city – you have to dig a little beneath the grimy surface to understand its appeal. Aficionados of Cuban salsa, son, drumming and dance will be in their element here; many of Buena Vista Social Club’s beloved musicians were Santiagueros and the city’s African heritage plays out through its conga drums and guaguancó dance, far more Afro than Latin. Santería, the mysterious, Afro-Cuban religion, runs through Santiago’s veins.
Cuba's second largest city is a shock to the senses in every way. It has Cuba's steamiest climate, fiery Afro-Haitian culture, and an edginess which will make some visitors feel uneasy - and others thrive on the energy.
This hilly city sits on the island’s southeastern coast and is sandwiched between warm Caribbean waters and the mighty Sierra Maestra, giving it easy access to nature and trekking routes. But at around 870km from Havana, it receives far fewer tourists. There is no lack of things to explore, however, with the UNESCO-rated sites of San Pedro de la Roca Castle, and the Isabelica Coffee Plantation Museum. History buffs can visit the tomb of Jose Martí, the island’s national hero, in Santa Iphigenia cemetery, as well as the Moncada Barracks, now the Historical Museum of the 26th July. This was the site of Castro’s 1953 attack – and the first attempt at revolution – and the bullet holes can still be seen. The museum tells the story Cuba since the 16th century, with a focus on the revolutionary era of the 1950s.
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Santa Clara is synonymous with Che Guevara. This city was the scene of the final battle of the Revolution, and subsequently the final resting place of Guevara himself. Most visitors just pass through Santa Clara on their journey across the island, stopping off to pay their respects at the Che Guevara Memorial, the huge Che statue, the Che museum and the site of a train derailed by the guerrillas, with exhibits inside the carriages.
Camagüey may not roll off the tongue when thinking of cities in Cuba, but it is the island’s third largest, and is well worth exploring for a couple of days. The city is nicknamed "El Laberinto" - the Maze - thanks to its crazy, confusing streets, but this was no result of bad planning: Camagüey was designed this way to confuse invading pirates. These days, confused tourists can avoid getting lost by taking a tour by bicitaxi. There are numerous hidden plazas, large earthenware water pots and pretty churches are characteristic, as is the Ballet of Camagüey, the best outside Havana.
Until the 1960s, Baracoa was only accessible by boat. This, combined with its isolated location on Cuba’s eastern tip, surrounded by river-filled rainforests, towering mountains, glorious waterfalls and the flat-topped El Yunque mountain, has meant that this city has preserved its unique character. Colombus visited this spot in 1492, and the city was founded just 19 years later – making it Cuba’s oldest Spanish settlement. Interestingly, this is one of the few places on the island where you will find descendents of the Taíno people, the indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean who were virtually wiped out by the Spanish.
More about Cuba
November to April is the best time to visit Cuba to avoid the rains and occasional hurricane.
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We've explored some of the big issues facing this little island, from the end of communism to current US-Cuba relations.
Find all of our Cuba guides in one place, for different types of Cuba holidays we offer such as scuba diving or walking in Cuba.