Cuba 101


Havana is a city of many contrasts.  From its glorious Spanish colonial past and its dazzling array of cathedrals, forts and museums to the Cuba of today, where the love of music and dance are seen in impromptu street displays of salsa and rumba, Havana is the past and present heartbeat of Cuba.  Havana isn’t just one city, it essentially three cities in one.  At the center is Old Havana (Habana Vieja) with its narrow cobblestone streets, hanging balconies and vintage American cars. Habana Vieja is truly the heart and soul of the city.  Named a Unesco World Heritage site in 1984, Old Havana showcases some of the finest examples of baroque and neoclassic architecture of the time.  To the northwest, is the newer section known as Vedado, which now rivals Old Havana for commercial and nightlife activities.  The third area of significance Havana is the more affluent residential district that lies to the west.  The section known as Miramar boosts the newest section of the city dating from the 1920’s including many foreign embassies that reside in Miramar to this day.  Above all, Havana is a city that inspires and cherishes its most revered writers, poets and philosophers.  It’s no wonder that the likes Ernest Hemmingway made Havana his home.  



Trinidad is a step back in time.  Founded in 1514, Trinidad is one of the best preserved colonial settlements in the Caribbean.  Built on sugar trade, Trinidad’s history is one of a powerful family lineage whose descendants fought for Cuba’s independence and annexation from the US from 1820 to 1900.  Today, Trinidad’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site means that its rich culture and history are on full display in such places as the Plaza Mayor which is both a plaza and open-air museum of Spanish Colonial architecture.  While only a few blocks in size, this historic plaza has charming houses painted in pastels with wrought-iron grilles and cobblestone streets.  For the music lovers, Trinidad boasts several casas de musica, including discotheques.  Most notable is the discotheque in the ruins of a church, while another is in a large cave previously used as a war time hospital.  As inspiring, however; is the region surrounding Trinidad.  A must visit is the Valley of the Sugar Mills – Valle de los Ingenios, also Unesco World Heritage site.  


Las Terrazas

It was Fidel Castro’s vision to create a green revolution by reforesting the mountains that had been logged by the Spanish conquistadors.   This was a land destroyed by coffee plantations and the continued onslaught of hurricanes.  In 1968 the grand experiment began under the direction of architect Osmany Cienfuegos.  When it was done, 845 miles of terraces were created and six million mahogany, cedar, mandarin, hibiscus, papaya and avocado trees were planted.  Las Terrazas is only a 90-minute drive from Havana, but truly a world apart with its breathtaking landscape of color and texture.  Las Terrazas was such a success that UNESCO gave it a biosphere status in 1984.  Today, travelers can enjoy the beauty of this place while visiting the small charming communities that call this home.  


The Venice of Cuba, Matanzas is a city traversed by water.  Seventeen bridges crisscross three rivers in this city known for its poets, culture and Afro-Cuban folklore.  As a previous sugar plantation region of the Spanish colonial era, Matanzas was the site of African slave importation.  At one time in its history, slaves made up more than 60% of its total population.  Because of this high number of slaves and free Afro-Cubans, Matanzas has retained many African traditions. Today, Matanzas is considered the Athens of Cuba in reference to its literary and musical heritage.  It is after all, the birthplace of the national Cuban dance.  Numerous   artists, composers and intellectuals call Matanzas their home. There is a thriving cultural life amongst the beautiful cityscape of neoclassical architecture and is home to Cuba’s finest provincial theaters, the Sauto and Sala de Conciertos Jose’ White.  


Vinales in the Pinar del Rio Province

Dominated by the low mountain ranges and the dramatic geological formations known as mogotes, Vinales Valley is said to have been Fidel Castro’s favorite place in Cuba.   This unusual landscape is a geological wonder.  Much of the area’s limestone was eroded away leaving mountains with steep sides and rounded tops.  These mountains are called mogotes, which means Haystacks.  The Vinales Valley has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999 for its breathtaking landscape, traditional agricultural and vernacular architecture.  This unique microclimate with red farmland and sturdy wooden houses produce the best tobacco and cigars in the world.  



Santa Clara

Santa Clara is considered Cuba’s most popular revolutionary city and is affectionately nicknamed La Ciudad del Che (the city of Che) in honor of Cuba’s national icon.  Scattered about the city are monuments and historic buildings associated with the revolution.  The city’s architecture is eclectic with colonial, neoclassical and postmodernist buildings dominating the city’s old downtown and the main square, Parque Vidal.  For most Cubans, the plaza or square is a place to socialize, and Parque Vidal is no exception.  In the not so distant past, young single Cubans liked to visit this main square and walk its perimeter with women staying to the inside and the men staying to the outside.



Cienfuegos literally translates to One hundred fires.  Cien meaning one and fuego meaning fires. Dubbed the Pearl of the South, Cienfuegos sits on Cuba’s most spectacular bay.  Water sports enthusiasts rave about the ideal sailing boating and kayaking.  But its Cienfuegos unique culture that can be traced to its ancestry as a French enclave that make it a must see travel experience.  The French  influence is notable in many of the Cienfuguerian customs, particularly the architecture of arcs and stain glass windows and bars.  The street designs which are wide and straight give Cienfuego an enchanting European feeling.   In 2005 UNESCO placed the Urban Historic Centre of Cienfuegos on the World Heritage list as the best example of early Spanish Enlightenment implementation in urban planning.




Camaguey has a very interesting history.  Originally founded as Santa Maria del Puerto del Principe in 1515, it was moved inland and renamed in 1528.  The layout of the new city included forked streets that led to squares of different sizes. There are plenty of narrow, winding streets and blind alleys.  This exceptional, yet confusing layout has many explanations including that this was done by design to make the city easier to defend against pirates.  But the locals insist that the city’s winding streets were because everyone wanted to stay close to their local church – the city has 15 of them.  Today, the historic center of Camaguey is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is recognized as an example of a traditional urban settlement relatively isolated from Cuba’s main trade routes.  



Located on the far eastern tip of the island, Baracoa is Cuba’s oldest and most isolated city.   Due to its isolation, Baracoa is considered off the beaten path but there are still many sites and attractions to see in this unspoiled colonial town. With its cobblestone streets and colorful one story buildings, Baracoa is surrounded by breathtaking beaches and gorgeous virgin rainforests.  Because of the abundance of cocoa trees, Baracoa is famous for its white chocolate.  Further inland is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve known as Cuchillas de Toa.  As one of the world’s last untouched rainforests, this biosphere contains large numbers of endangered plants and animal species.  




Sancti Spirtus

While not boasting of the old world architecture of nearby Trinidad, there’s something to be said about the path less traveled of Sancti Spirtus.  In Sancti Spirtus, the traveler will find a more relaxed pace and there’s plenty to see.  It was founded in 1514 and its colonial origins can be found in many of its buildings and plazas.  Of interest is the church of Iglesia Parroquial Mayor del Espiritu, which was originally built in 1522, only to be rebuilt in the 17th century with the same materials because of destruction by pirates.  In its more recent history, Sancti Spirtus aided Che Guevara’s rebel army with hundreds of volunteer fighters.  



Varadero. While this peninsula is only 1.2km wide at its widest, it is more than 20 kilometers long and at its tip is a beautiful nature preserve with virgin forests and beaches.  Varadero is really about tourism.  With its mega hotels, numerous shops and breathtaking turquoise beaches,  Varadero provides a different kind of Cuban experience.  


Cayo Coco. Used as a hideout by pirates and buccaneers in its early colonial history, Cayo Coco is now known for its all-inclusive luxury resorts.  With its pristine white sand beaches that stretch for miles, Cayo Coco provides a relaxing get away from it all experience.


Cayo Santa Maria is a small island off Cuba’s north coast in the Jardines del Rey archipelago.  It is linked by road and bridge to the town of Cabarien on the main island. This archipelago is part of the UNESCO-recognized Buenavista Biosphere Reserve.  Today, Cayo Santa Maria is one of Cuba’s most recently developed tourist destinations with many all-inclusive luxury resorts.


The city of Holguin is known for its beautiful parks, straight but narrow streets and many public squares.  There are several interesting places to visit including the Museum of History and the Museum of Natural Sciences.  In Holguin, is the house of Calixto Garcia, an important general in Cuba’s Wars of Independence.  Not far from Holguin is the town of Gibara where it is said that Christopher Columbus landed on October 27th, 1492.  For the best views of the city, it is worth the 460 steps to the top of Loma de la Cruz where there’s a large crucifix.  



Sierra del Escambray

Northwest of the city of Trinidad are the steep, pine coated mountains popularly known as the Sierra del Escambray.  This is a place of spectacular beauty with pristine streams, intricate cave systems and varied species of flora and fauna.  Its highest peak, Pico San Juan rises a mere 3150 feet but these mountains had strategic military value as they were the planned refuge during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, although never used as such.  Today, the Topes de Collantes, located in the southeastern section is a nature park showcasing breathtaking canyons, caves and waterfalls.  At the foot of the mountains lies the Valley del los Ingenios, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  

Bahia de Cochinos – Bay of Pigs

The Bay of Pigs is an inlet on the Gulf of Cazones on the southern coast of Cuba.  On the western side of the bay, coral reefs border the main Zapata swamp, now part of the larger Zapata Biosphere Reserve.  Playa Giron and Playa Larga were the landing sites for the failed American CIA sponsored attempt to overthrow the new Cuban government in April, 1961.  Launched from Guatemala, the CIA sponsored paramilitary “Brigade 2506” was defeated within three days by the Cuban armed forces under the direct command of the Prime Minister of Cuba, Fidel Castro.  Castro’s dictatorship was strengthened with this failed invasion which eventually led to another confrontation with Cuba in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The Bay of Pigs invasion was a major embarrassment for US foreign policy.  

Cayo Largo

Cayo Largo is situated on the Bahia de Cochinos and north of Playa Giron.  It is ideal as a base for eco-tours around the Zapata Peninsula.  Cayo Largo, which means long beach, offers excellent opportunites for diving with its underwater walls and caves as well as its beautiful coral reefs.  

Cienaga de Zapata

The Zapata swamp, which is part of the larger Zapata Biosphere Reserve is located less than 93 miles from Havana but truly a world apart.  The swamp is not only known for its size but for being the best preserved wetlands of all of the Antilles.  This extensive ecosystem is valued for its biodiversity with The Parque Nacional Cienaga de Zapata considered the best bird watching area in the world.

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

Ernest Hemingway 

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