Cuba is a land of fascination. A turbulent recent history, with an unpopular dictator toppled by a ragtag band of revolutionaries, that gave the world two of its most iconic and deeply-dividing figureheads in Fidel Castro and Che Guevara; an uneasy and frequently eventful relationship with its big neighbour to the north; and healthcare and education systems that put many well-developed nations to shame, maintained despite years of harsh sanctions.
All of this set against a rich backdrop of stunning lush landscapes, the faded glamour of Havana, now a UNECSO World Heritage Site, and the enchanting rhythms of salsa and mambo.
During Batista’s time Cuba was a popular tourist destination for its casinos, beaches and nightclubs. But when Castro seized power in 1959, for a time tourism receipts dropped almost entirely. In recent years however there has been a resurgence of interest in Cuba, as American hostility wanes along with Castro’s health. If you’re planning a visit, here are some uniquely Cuban experiences you won’t want to miss:
The Revolutionary Trail
Follow in the footsteps of Castro’s 26th July Movement, from their catastrophic landing on Playa Las Coloradas, to their eventual hard-fought victory in Havana. Trek through the Escambray Mountains which saw months of guerrilla fighting, and through the Sierra Maestra to Castro’s jungle hideaway. You can also visit the Bay of Pigs, site of the infamous failed US invasion. Along the way you’ll see many historic battlefields, memorials and museums dedicated to the fighters, who included Castro, his brother Raul, who now leads Cuba, and of course the legendary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Amateur boxing is a national sport in Cuba, and a hugely popular form of entertainment. In fact around twenty percent of Cuban athletes are boxers. They dominate the international stage, with a rich catalogue of medals at the Olympics and other tournaments. Although professional boxing was banned by the Revolution, it is quite common to see rings set up around the country, sometimes in the open-air, and matches draw big crowds.
Although rum was already widespread throughout the Caribbean by the nineteenth century (especially popular with English sailors), it was a Spaniard, Don Facundo Bacardi y Maso, who refined and purified the drink, creating his signature brand. Since then rum has become one of Cuba’s largest exports, with aficionados including the court of Spain, and Ernest Hemingway, who enjoyed putting rum in his cocktails.
Baseball is Cuba’s national past-time, and plays a role not just socially but also politically, since it was seized upon by the Revolution as an example of Cuban excellence. Accordingly, matches are often played in other countries to raise charitable funds for disaster relief, or to thank valuable trading partners. Because there are so many amateur players of great skill, and the wages are kept artificially low in keeping with socialist ideals, unfortunately many players leave for the North American leagues where they can earn big bucks.
The Vieja district of Havana is known for its mix of beautiful art deco, neoclassical and baroque architecture, and the vibrant scenes on the city streets. Step into the shade for a while to escape the heat, and enjoy a cooling mojito cocktail while the salsa music takes you away…
Probably one of Cuba’s main draws is its famous cigars, and the rollers are known as among the best in the world, regularly touring the globe to give demonstrations. It’s alleged that before Kennedy imposed an embargo against Americans buying Cuban cigars (one that is still in place today), he made sure he had 1200 of them delivered to the White House first! You can enjoy a pleasant tour of a tobacco plantation through a company such as Grand American Adventures, to learn the history and traditions behind one of the country’s most well-known exports.
Travel Article by:
Rob is a huge lover of Cuba and everything associated with this fascinating island of revolution.