The Complete Guide To Cuba

An exotic mix of West African and European settlers shaped the island's culture, while a US trade embargo that has been in force since the 1960s has created a nation untouched by globalisation. Simon Calder and David Orkin explore this intriguing Caribbean country


WHY CUBA? WHY TODAY?

WHY CUBA? WHY TODAY?

Cuban culture has no equal: a melting pot of Spanish and West African nationalities has been spiced with settlers from around the globe and allowed to simmer for several centuries. Today they will be celebrating the anniversary of the revolution in 1959 that brought Fidel Castro to power. In the heads-of-state longevity league, he is outlasted only by the Queen.

The island has far more depth and diversity than other Caribbean islands, and its culture has been preserved by the bizarre US economic embargo that prevents Americans from travelling to Cuba. The island's rich heritage of music, dance and religion stands in stark contrast to the poverty into which Cuba has sunk. Yet the resilience of the Cuban spirit is extraordinary, as is the welcome given to foreigners (even US visitors, who risk fines and imprisonment for breaking their government's strict anti-tourism laws). For tourists who are after the basics of life, Cuba boasts rum, cigars and the best collection of clapped-out old American cars in the world.

BIG AND BEAUTIFUL?

Cuba is by far the largest of the Caribbean islands. Similar in area to England, it is around 1,200km long, between 32 and 210km wide and shaped (if you use your imagination) like an alligator or lizard. The island lies just within the tropics, at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico. Partly because of its size, it boasts a wider range of terrain than anywhere else in the Caribbean - from bizarre limestone landscapes in the west to dramatic mountains in the east. The highest point on the island is Pico Turquino (1,980m) in the Sierra Maestra, where Castro, Che Guevara and the other revolutionaries battled it out with the Batista regime.

Between the mountains are immensely fertile plains with rich red-brown earth, and about a quarter of the island is forested (predominantly pine and mahogany). Some of the Caribbean's best beaches ring its shores.

A QUICK HISTORY LESSON

It is thought that humans first cruised from South America to Cuba around 3500BC. Christopber Columbus sighted the island (but didn't land there) on 27 October 1492, but by 1514 Diego Velazquez de Cuellar had conquered Cuba for Spain and founded seven settlements. Cattle-ranching quickly became the mainstay of the Cuban economy. Large estates were established on the island and the Spanish enslaved the native Indians. It is thought that in 50 years, all but one per cent of the native Indian population perished. To replace them, the Spanish imported African slaves.

The British invaded Cuba in June 1762 and occupied Havana for 11 months, importing more slaves and vastly expanding Cuba's trade links. Sugar, and - in the early 19th century - tobacco became the island's most important products. By 1820 Cuba was the world's largest producer of sugar. Despite several Central and South American countries gaining independence from Spain, Cuba and Puerto Rico stayed loyal to their colonial rulers for a while. Cuba's First War of Independence was launched in 1868, but failed after 10 years. In January 1898, the US warship Maine, anchored outside Havana harbour, exploded mysteriously and sparked a Spanish-American war.

Within two decades US companies owned two-thirds of Cuba's farmland. An army sergeant, Fulgencio Batista, seized power in 1933, and over the next 20 years Cuba crumbled and its assets were increasingly placed into foreign hands. On January 1, 1959, Batista's dictatorship was overthrown after a three-year guerilla campaign led by young lawyer, Fidel Castro, and assisted by an Argentinian doctor, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Batista escaped with his life and a fortune in government funds.

Castro was named prime minister and began major reforms. Relations with the US, already shaky, deteriorated when he nationalised US-owned petroleum refineries. The Americans responded with an embargo in an attempt to cripple the Cuban economy, and in 1961 they sponsored the Bay of Pigs invasion. You can visit the beaches where the Americans landed and the obligatory museum about the heroic defence of the island.

HAPPY EVER AFTER?

Hardly. The following week, Castro announced the "socialist nature" of his government and established a relationship with the USSR that subsidised Cuba for the next three decades. The installation of Soviet nuclear weapons on the island resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, perhaps the closest the world has ever come to nuclear conflict. Since then, Fidel has squared up to 10 US presidents and looks as resilient as ever.

WHERE SHOULD I GO?

That depends upon how much time you have. The key is not to attempt too much; Cuba is a large island, and getting around is a struggle. But most people start in Havana, the most magnificent Spanish colonial city in the Americas - and the most exciting. Two million people live exuberant lives in the Caribbean's largest capital, and there are some extraordinary sights.

Start by getting some political education at the Museum of the Revolution (in the old presidential palace), continue with a sweep through the deliciously decrepit churches and mansions of Old Havana, and end up at the mural to Che on the Plaza de la Revolucion.

AND OUTSIDE THE CAPITAL?

The Hershey train looks like a relic from the 1950s, and it is - but it will take you cheaply east from Havana to the city of Matanzas. The alternative for the128-kilometre trip is the Mafia-funded Via Blanca. Matanzas is known unconvincingly as the "Athens of Cuba", and besides a few mock-Classical buildings it has a wonderfully atmospheric main square: be sure to see the Liceo de Matanzas music school, a breathtaking 19th-century treat whose most notable modern feature is a huge mural of a chess-playing Che. The beautiful Sauto theatre is also worth a visit.

If you happen to be staying out in Cuba's main resort of Varadero, it's an easy $10 (£5.30) Viazul bus ride or $40 (£21) cab to Matanzas. From here, head south across the sleepy interior to Cienfuegos, which sits on a fine, broad bay whose loveliness is marred only by a half-built nuclear power station. This port town was originally a French (rather than Spanish) colony: its cemeteries are worth visiting and - like Matanzas - the town has a marvellous theatre.

WHAT IS THE JEWEL IN FIDEL'S CROWN?

Trinidad, the colonial gem of Cuba. Many of the town's streets are still cobbled, paved with the stone used as ballast in the ships of early Spanish traders. This small, beautiful city has some of Cuba's best museums clustered around an exquisite main square - including one devoted to the struggle against the counter-revolutionaries.

That's probably enough for anybody on a seven-day trip, but with a week or two more you can explore some of the lovely, neglected cities of central Cuba such as Sancti Spiritus and Camaguey.

The eastern part of the island is the most rewarding of all. The Sierra Maestra, running along the south coast, is Cuba's highest mountain range with endless opportunities for trekking (though decent maps are impossible to find. The city of Santiago de Cuba is a smaller, more manageable version of Havana. Cuba's Land's End is the port of Baracoa - The Town that Time Forgot - full of the glorious decay that characterises the island.

WHEN SHOULD I GO?

Right now. Cuba has a hot subtropical climate. The dry season tends to be between late November and April. As was proved to devastating effect earlier this year, there is a risk of hurricanes between June and early November.

TAKE THIS PLANE TO CUBA - BUT WHICH ONE?

The national airline is Cubana, which unhappily has the worst safety record in the world. It flies twice a week from Gatwick to Holguin and on to Havana. You can also fly between Heathrow and Havana on Air Jamaica, and from July 2005 a link will be established between the world's longest-serving bearded entrepreneur and the world's longest-serving bearded political leader when Virgin Atlantic begins flights between Gatwick and the Cuban capital.

Many people travel from various UK airports via Paris on Air France or via Madrid on Iberia. Most British travellers, though, reach Cuba on charter flights to the island's resorts from Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow. The main destination is Varadero, east of Havana.

There are plenty of good deals to be found, with the widest choice from Gatwick. The Cuba Experience (020-7644 1770; www.theholidayplace.co.uk) offers a two-centre package combining three nights in Havana (with breakfast) and 10 nights on the coast at Guardalavaca (all-inclusive) from £649 in January. Thomson Worldwide (0800 197 1917; www.thomsonworldwide.co.uk) offers a fortnight's all-inclusive holiday at the Maritim Varadero for £1,375 in January. When Virgin Atlantic starts flying in July, its offshoot Virgin Holidays will offer an all-inclusive week at the Gran Caribe Club Kawama on the coast near Havana for £699. Be aware that at many package resorts it will be far easier to meet other tourists than locals - Cubans are banned from some resorts unless they work there.

Although it would make great sense geographically, because of the US embargo Cuba can't readily be combined with Florida for a two-centre holiday. But the island is easily bracketed with Mexico, Jamaica or the Bahamas. Side trips to all these places are on sale in Havana and the leading beach resorts.

Guided trips to the island are operated by specialist companies such as Regent Holidays (020-7313 6666; www.regent-holidays.co.uk), South American Experience (020-7976 5511; www.southamericanexperience.co.uk) or Journey Latin America, (020-8747 3108; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk), all of which run set tour itineraries (some themed) or can design a tailor-made itinerary for you.

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

The national airline, Cubana, has a fleet comprised mostly of ageing Soviet aircraft. The railway network makes Britain's look a model of order and efficiency; if you arrive in roughly the right town on approximately the right date you can count yourself lucky. Trains are dilapidated and natural disasters (such as the summer's hurricane) don't help. The buses are mostly clapped-out Hungarian monsters that do the best they can dodging pot-holes, and share the roads with a motley selection of collective taxis several decades beyond their scrap-by dates. Many of the people still hitch-hike, with official marshals assigned to allot passengers to trucks. The amount of human cargo on many of the trucks has to be seen to be believed.

To enhance your speed, and chances of survival, note that Aerocaribbean (00 53 7 879 7524; www.aero-caribbean.com) offers "dollar flights" between most of the big tourist destinations using a fleet of Western-built planes. And there are now some "hard-currency" buses running between the main places of interest, for which you don't need to book months in advance (but you should try and reserve a place a few days before you travel). The biggest and best company is Viazul (00 53 7 881 1413; www.viazul.cu).

WHERE WILL I STAY?

One of the great joys of Cuba for the independent traveller these days is its huge variety of accommodation. Less than 15 years ago most of the available hotels were Soviet-era highrises based on an original (and bad) idea from Bulgaria. But now plenty of colonial buildings have been refurbished and opened to Westerners. And if you're travelling on the cheap, or want to meet some "real" Cubans, then there are plenty of options for staying with families - just look for signs saying casa particular (private house) and expect to pay the equivalent of US$15-25 (£7.80-13.20) per person per night.

DOLLARS?

Yes. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the Nineties forced the Cuban government to embrace foreign currency and make legal the acceptance of US dollars: in fact, in recent times many thought that the US currency was what kept the country going. Until last month most tourists hardly ever had need or use for pesos. However, in a move said to be a response to the tightening of its embargo by the US government, as of last month US dollars were no longer to be freely accepted in Cuba.

Cuba does have another currency, the Convertible Peso (CUC), effectively on par with the pre-deadline dollar, and there is still much confusion. Converting US dollars to CUCs attracts a 10 per cent surcharge: converting Sterling or euros doesn't, but you will get a poor rate. Some places still happily accept cash dollars. In this guide we continue to use dollar amounts for comparison purposes. Credit cards (as long as they're not issued by American banks) are now more widely accepted.

IS THE FOOD AS BAD AS IT'S CRACKED UP TO BE?

No - these days you can probably survive without taking sandwiches and vitamin supplements. In the all-inclusive resorts there's plenty of choice at meal times, much of it palatable. For independent travellers, the godsend is the paladar (small, private restaurant) where you can get fresh, delicious meals for around $10. Look out for signs or ask other travellers for recommendations - if you ask a local, their "finder's fee" will be added to your eventual bill.

IS THERE MUCH RED TAPE?

Not much: once you're in, you don't need to say where you intend to stay each night and you can travel freely all over the island. You need a tourist card (£15), which is issued as a matter of course by package holiday companies or specialist agents. This won't suffice if you are travelling on business. And if you are travelling independently and have no accommodation reservations, the immigration official may insist that you book a couple of nights at an expensive hotel before you're allowed through.

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