Cuba is a country of contrasts, where architectural masterpieces stand side by side with ordinary prefab apartment blocks and highly polluted areas of Havana are only 20 minutes away from pristine beaches, just to name a couple of examples. Renovated buildings and new businesses seeking to benefit from the tourism boom are starting to change the face of the country. If all the hype about Cuba as a new hot travel destination has not convinced you to make the trip yet, maybe these pictures will.
Cuban cityscapes—particularly in Havana—haven’t changed much over the decades, and many buildings not only preserve their original location and structure but also the furniture they had 80 years ago. The lack of resources standing in the way of renovations comes with the collateral benefit of getting to see many of these places as they were 50 years ago. From colonial palaces to imposing buildings from the first half of the 20th century, Cuban architecture tells the story of past and present aspirations.
Cuban beaches, especially the ones on the north coast, can be incredibly gorgeous, with their perfect combination of fine white sand, crystal-clear waters, and awesome year-round weather. The ones in the keys, less exposed to large numbers of people, tend to be better preserved, but if you don’t have time to visit those, popular beaches, such as those to the east of Havana, are also excellent.
If you like hiking and bird-watching, Cuba is a wonderful place to get lost in trails of lovely trees. There are no deadly poisonous animals on the island, so it’s safe to explore at will. Cuba has over 350 bird species, of which 25 are endemic. Keep an eye out for the national bird, the Cuban Togron, and for the less-hard-to-spot Zunzun, a widespread species of Cuban hummingbird. As for flora, the national flower is a type of white ginger known as Mariposa (which means “butterfly” in Spanish), and forests of royal palm trees (the national tree) are impressive to see.
In addition to all the history behind the buildings of the old quarters of Cuban cities, these tourist attractions exude a special atmosphere provided by the dances, drums, chants and acrobatics of street performers. Different cities hold carnivals at various times of the year, but these small troops that move around the colonial centers will give you the chance to experience, among other things, the fascination of a Cuban conga.
From the peculiar mogotes—a mountainous formation typical of western Cuba—to the high peaks in the Sierra Maestra, located in the southeast portion of the island, Cuban natural landscapes are a delight and an excellent background for taking incredible pictures.
Old cars from the 1950s have gone from being the ugly duckling of the national fleet of cars to becoming a gold mine for owners since they are now one of the top tourist attractions in Cuba’s new tourist revolution. From vintage convertibles to regular hard-top cars (known as “maquinas”), they are so common that you’ll even have the chance to select the model and year of your preference.
Seeing with your own eyes the production process of the cigars that for so long were forbidden in the U.S. is another unique experience in Cuba. Most tobacco plantations are open for tours, where it’s possible to see the crops and the houses where the leaves are dried and processed. For those without time to visit the fields, there’s also the chance to visit cigar factories in cities, such as Havana, where dozens of the best cigars rollers in the world do their magic.
Cubans are renowned for their love of dance and music. Some of the people dancing salsa in nightclubs will make you wonder if they are professional dancers, but most of the time, they’ll simply be regular folks who take their dancing very seriously and are proud to show off their mastery.
Cuban food is not spicy—much to the disappointment of many people who think it will be similar to the food of its Central American neighbors. But the local cuisine can be truly tasty—if you choose your restaurants right. Traditional meals are a combination of rice, beans, pork, yucca, and salad, but certain restaurants will have an ample selection of traditional seafood dishes.
Visitors will find Cuban cocktails prepared with Havana Club rum in most restaurants and bars across the country. Other refreshing drinks, such as “cold coconuts,” are common in tourist centers, where they are much-appreciated “antidotes” against Cuba’s high temperatures. Cuban rums and beers are also worth a try, with brands such as Cristal and Bucanero (beer) and Havana Club and Santiago (rum) being must-tries. The young man in the picture below is probably overdoing it, but if you like his style, that could be you during your trip to Cuba.