The Complete Guide To: the Spanish Caribbean

Say 'buenos dias' to colonial Cuba, carnival pleasures in the Dominican Republic and two of the strangest island escapes on the planet. Simon Calder and Gail Simmonds report


HOW MUCH OF THE CARIBBEAN IS ACTUALLY SPANISH?

In 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he claimed all the land he found in the name of the Spanish crown. On his second voyage he was accompanied by Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, who later (in 1514) conquered Cuba and founded seven settlements. The first was the port of Baracoa - a candidate for "The Town that Time Forgot", with a strong concentration of the alluring decay that characterises the island. Stay at the Hotel El Castillo (00 53 214 2125), overlooking the town.

Over the following centuries, England, France and even Denmark took a share of the Caribbean, leaving Spain with a minority of islands but a majority of the territory: Cuba has the same area as the rest of the Caribbean put together, while Hispaniola (of which the Spanish part is the Dominican Republic) and Puerto Rico are also among the region's largest islands. In addition, the islands of San Andres and Providencia, off the coast of Nicaragua, are Colombian possessions and are regarded as part of the Spanish Caribbean.

Spain lost the last of its Caribbean colonies more than a century ago, but the influence of the "mother country" is still pervasive in everything from language to architecture.

WHERE TO START?

Cuba; besides being the biggest island in the Caribbean it is also the easiest to reach from Britain, with scheduled flights from London to Havana on Air Jamaica (020-8570 7999; www.airjamaica.com), Cubana (01293 596 677; www.cubana.cu) and Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com).

In Cuba, Spanish culture - and blood - has been blended with West Africa, spiced with other nationalities and simmered for several centuries under the tropical sun to create everything from salsa to state socialism. The people'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 nation is extraordinary, as is the welcome given to foreigners (even to US visitors, who risk fines and imprisonment for breaking Washington's strict anti-Cuban tourism laws). For visitors who are after the basics of life, there is rum, and cigars, and the best collection of clapped-out American cars in the world. And this year marks the 50th anniversary since Fidel Castro and Che Guevara landed on the island to begin the revolution.

SO WHAT ARE THE JEWELS IN FIDEL'S CROWN?

Most visitors would say 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 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 of Che on the Plaza de la Revolucion.

Trinidad is the most beautiful Spanish colonial town in Cuba. Many of the streets are still cobbled, paved with the stone used as ballast in the ships of early Spanish traders. This small and pretty settlement has some of Cuba's best museums clustered around an exquisite main square - including one devoted to the struggle against the counter-revolutionaries. Trinidad features on just about every guided trip to the island - including those operated by specialist companies such as Regent Holidays (0870 499 1311; www.regent-holidays.co.uk), South American Experience (020-7976 5511; www.southamericanexperience.co.uk) and Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk). They each run set tour itineraries (some themed) or can design a tailor-made itinerary for you.

If you are after beaches, the leading resort of Varadero is hard to beat - it is one of the finest stretches of sand in the world, with plenty of top-class hotels (at least by Cuban standards). Cultural interest is close at hand: visit the local museum, or take yourself off by bus or taxi to the nearby colonial towns of Matanzas or Cardenas.

Plenty of tour operators offer holidays to Varadero, including Cosmos (0870 443 5285; www.cosmos-holidays.co.uk), Thomson (0870 165 0079; www.thomson.co.uk) and Thomas Cook (0870 010 0437; www.thomascook.com). But Cuba faces strong competition for package-holidaymakers from its near neighbour, the Dominican Republic.

WHY IS THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC SEMI-DETACHED?

This sovereign country shares the island of Hispaniola with the French-speaking nation of Haiti. It all goes back to Christopher Columbus in 1492, when he stepped ashore the island he named Hispaniola after his adoptive Spain. To the indigenous Taino population, for whom this island was still called Haiti, Columbus' discovery of their homeland was less welcome, and sure enough, within 50 years of his landing, most of their population had all but been wiped out, victims of cruelty and European disease.

Three hundred years of wrangling between the Spanish, French and British were to pass until, in 1791, the African slave population rebelled against their French masters and founded the Republic of Haiti in the western half of the island, leaving the rest of the country to the Spanish, with Santo Domingo as its capital.

Today, Dominican Republic culture is still strongly Spanish. Santo Domingo was the first Spanish city of the Americas, boasting the New World's first cathedral, hospital and university. Walking round the Zona Colonial - the heart of the old city and a Unesco World Heritage Site - you can immerse yourself in 16th-century Spain, and imagine haughty conquistadores atop their steeds clopping along the stone-paved streets.

SOUNDS LIKE HAVANA

In many ways the old city, with its painted houses, cigar-chomping old men and beat-up cars, resembles the Cuban capital - and Santo Domingo has acted as a stand-in for Havana on many occasions, most recently in the forthcoming film The Good Shepherd. And, as in Cuba, you can't escape music - though here it's not the salsa of its neighbour, but the home-grown merengue.

Santo Domingo is the best base for exploring the rest of the island. Although the capital has an international airport, with many links from the US, the only direct flights from the UK are charters; these arrive at one of the three regional airports: La Romana in the south, Punta Cana in the east and Puerto Plata in the north of the island, serving the main resort areas.

I WANT TO SEE MORE OF THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

If you feel brave enough to tackle Dominican roads and drivers, you can rent a car. Otherwise your best bet is to explore using one of the bus companies, such as Caribe Tours (001 809 221 4422; www.caribetours.com.do) that operate from Santo Domingo and Santiago to most destinations. Alternatively, the unofficial and inexpensive system of guaguas, privately-run minibuses bursting with passengers and ear-splitting music, will take you to the parts of the island that larger bus companies can't reach.

Once on the road you'll discover the most geographically varied country in the Caribbean, and the third most important island in the world for biodiversity (Madagascar comes top). The Cordillera Central, an impressive chain of Alpine-like mountains in the centre of the island, is dominated by Pico Duarte, at over 3,000m the highest peak in the Caribbean and a challenging hike.

To the south there's the salt-water Lago Enriquillo, at 46m below sea level the Caribbean's lowest point, populated by thousands of alligators and tropical birds, while in the north the Samana peninsula is home to around 10,000 humpback whales that come to breed each January to March.

But if it's just having a good time you're after, come at the end of February, when towns throng with carnival-goers, or in late July for the merengue festival in Santo Domingo, when the streets pulsate with music and the partying continues long into the night. For more information on the country contact the Dominican Republic Tourist Board in London (020-7242 7778; www.dominicanrepublic.com).

WHERE NEXT?

The next significant island along: Puerto Rico, also semi-detached - this time from the US. Politically, it is a "Commonwealth", effectively ruled by Washington but - because it does not pay federal taxes - not represented in Congress. The constant debate here is whether or not Puerto Rico should become the 51st state. (Another is whether the capital, San Juan, will ever host the Olympics; its bid for 2004 failed dismally.)

Many airlines offer connecting flights, from the UK to San Juan with the possibility of a neat connection in New York JFK with jetBlue, which flies there. Alternatively, you could hop over from Santo Domingo.

You will arrive one of the finest Spanish colonial cities in the Caribbean. Within 15 minutes you can be walking along cobbled streets, surveying the massive walls designed to protect the city - or checking into the Gran Hotel El Convento (001 787 723 9020; www.elconvento.com), the optimum place to stay in the colonial core.

For beach life, you need not go further than the eastern suburbs of San Juan; these have some of the finest city beaches in the world. But the small size of the island, relative to Cuba and the Dominican Republic, means travelling around is easy; furthermore, roads - and driving standards - are much higher.

You can drive along beautiful coastal highways, or through dramatic mountain scenery. One highlight, in the middle of the western half of the island, is the Arecibo Observatory (001 787 878 2612; www.naic.edu) - an amazing astronomical installation, as featured in the James Bond movie Goldeneye. You should also see Ponce on the south coast, another superbly preserved Spanish colonial city; for a taste of working life in the 18th century, visit the nearby Hacienda Buena Vista coffee farm (001 787 722 5882; www.fideicomiso.org, Spanish only).

I WANT A SPANISH CARIBBEAN ISLAND ESCAPE

Then choose one of the pair belonging to Colombia. San Andres and Providencia are two of the strangest islands in the Caribbean. The former was, in the early 1990s, sold as a "a tranquil paradise" by a British tour operator, Enterprise, and proved disastrous. But for independent travellers, they are fascinating destinations: 800km from the rest of Colombia, but only 250km from Nicaragua (which has a long-standing claim to them), these outcrops constitute an "alternative Caribbean". You can reach San Andres by a variety of routes, the most common of which is via Madrid and Bogota; expect to pay around £600 return.

The Spanish first encountered the islands in 1527, but abandoned them because of the absence of precious metals. After a brief occupation by the Dutch, a band of British pirates took over with the connivance of the Crown. San Andres made a perfect base for raids against Spanish galleons carrying treasure from Panama.

Captain Henry Morgan - as in the brand of rum - attacked anything that moved eastwards, on the unerringly accurate basis that it was sure to contain a high-value cargo. His plunder is said still to be hidden in an underwater cave on San Andres.

Some time in the 19th century, when the attentions of European colonialists were concentrated elsewhere, Colombia made a grab for ownership. Despite catastrophic political upheavals since then, the South American nation shows no sign of relaxing its grip on these two distant treasures. The islands' beaches are fringed with the standard-issue palms, and you can do the usual Caribbean things - but at a fraction of the cost of most other destinations. The pair have duty-free status, which explains why so many mainland Colombians come to San Andres to buy "white goods" - no, not cocaine, but fridges and microwaves.

The sights of San Andres can be surveyed in a day. The north of the island is dominated by El Cliff. This is no ageing Hispanic pop star, but a great slab of rock towering over the capital. Dangling from its skirts is a collection of sad little shacks. This reminds you that San Andres is part of a troubled South American country rather than a standard tropical paradise. Halfway down the island is the Big Pond (place names in San Andres are uncomplicated), where a fearsome collection of crocodiles resides.

Completing the onshore attractions is the Blow Hole, a crevasse on the shore at the southern tip of the island. It marks the end of a labyrinth of underwater tunnels; in anything stronger than a gentle swell, water ejaculates from the ground as impressively as any genuine geyser. This being Colombia, someone has built a beer shed (to call it a bar would be to exaggerate) around it. Spectators swig Aguila while the Blow Hole obliges with periodic drenchings.

San Andres's little sister, Providencia, is a 20-minute flight north; see www.san-andres.com for details of flights, and more about the island. It is largely English-speaking - descendants of slaves brought in from elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Providencia is tear-shaped, unfurling from a 400m peak in the middle. The main (and modest) tourist enclave occupies the western coast around the hamlet of Lazy Hill. A string of villas traces the shore, cohabiting with the commercial infrastructure such as Taylor & Son's Variety Store. If you want to get even further away from it all, walk across the floating wooden bridge to the island of Santa Catalina - population 300.

WILL I BE SAFE?

The biggest risk for visitors is in local travel around the islands, given their generally terrible roads and drivers. The official advice from the Foreign Office for visitors to the Dominican Republic is typical: "Drivers weave from lane to lane and seldom signal. Many vehicles are in a poor state, often as a result of collisions.

Motorcyclists are numerous and a real danger". Flying is usually safer, but to and within Cuba, the national airline Cubana has the worst safety record of any carrier - though it has not had a fatal accident for five years. The latest advice from the Foreign Office for nations in the Spanish Caribbean is:

Cuba Crime is on the increase. Theft from luggage during baggage handling is common. Remove all valuables, lock suitcases and have them shrink-wrapped before check-in.

There are a small number of bogus tour agents/taxis operating at the airports. There have been a number of attempted robberies from vehicles on the Havana airport road; keep doors and boots locked and do not stop other than at traffic lights.

Car-related crime and mugging incidents are increasing, not only in Havana but Santiago and other areas less frequented by tourists. There have been attacks on foreigners using hire cars after staged punctures and by bogus hitch-hikers. Do not pick people up; if you get a puncture in a lonely spot, drive on, preferably to a town, before stopping.

Beware of pickpockets and bag-snatchers, especially in Old Havana, on buses/trains, at tourist sites and in nightclubs.

Dominican Republic Take particular care if you are passing through isolated tourist areas on foot or on tourist scooters, particularly at night. If attacked, do not resist. Road accidents are common. If you are involved in any accident you are liable to be detained by police until the circumstances have been investigated.

Colombia The threat from terrorism is high. Be extremely vigilant throughout Colombia, particularly when visiting or staying in public places used by foreigners. Attacks are expected to increase in the run up to the Congressional and Presidential elections due to take place in March and May respectively.

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