Isla de la Juventud
The second largest of all the islands that comprise the Cuban territory, Isla de la Juventud is only accessible by plane (national flights) and boat services that are very limited – which sometimes may have an isolation effect or even discourage some people from visiting. The island is renowned for having served as a reclusion center for prisoners since the first half of the 20th century – like a Cuban Alcatraz – and the old Model Prison, now a museum, is one of the main attractions. Other places of interest are the Jones’ Jungle (a botanical garden), the Punta del Este caves, and Bibijagua Beach.
Completely outside of common tourist routes, Canasi is a remote camping site just outside the capital city, in Santa Cruz del Norte. It’s not easy to reach, in fact you will need a local guide familiar with the area to help you find the place, and the only way to get there is after a long hike that includes crossing a river. Once there, there are no amenities of any kind, so make sure you carry everything you need, including a tent, if you are planning to spend the night. But the landscape and the views are well worth the effort: a beautiful cave by the coast where you can swim, small hills, and crystal clear waters.
Playa Giron is the beach that lends its name to the 1961 C.I.A.-supported invasion of Cuba known as Bay of Pigs. Located in the province of Matanzas, Playa Giron features a museum that recounts how the invaders were defeated in less than 72 hours. In addition to the beaches and natural landscapes, one of the main attractions here is to understand the Cubans’ side of the story.
Explorers and train lovers will have the time of their lives discovering Hershey, a town built to the east of Havana by the founder of the Hershey Chocolate Company, Milton Hershey. Looking to have a direct supply of sugar coming from Cuba, Hershey founded his own sugar mill, and then added an electric train to transport cargo and passengers. To this day, the train remains operational as a true working relic, departing at different times of the day from Casablanca, in Havana.
Not as popular as Santiago and Holguin, Granma is one of five provinces in eastern Cuba. Bayamo, one of the country’s first cities which recently turned 500 years old, is probably one of the most popular destinations in Granma, but the province has way more to offer, especially the landscapes of the Sierra Maestra mountain range. On the westernmost tip of the territory, there are numerous sites linked to the history of the country in the 1950s, including the place where Fidel Castro’s forces landed to resume the struggle to overthrow dictator Batista. Don’t miss the opportunity to visit the Santo Domingo Village, the Desembarco del Granma National Park, and of course, Manzanillo, the second most important city in the province.
Although this province is better known as home to the U.S. naval base, there are many other points of interest that remain less well-known, including the Stone Zoo in Yateras – a park featuring over 400 sculptures of animals – Baracoa, the first city founded in Cuba by the Spanish colonizers, and numerous aboriginal sites, and former coffee and cocoa plantations linked to the heritage of French and Haitian settlers.
Although included in tour guides of Cuba, Soroa does not get all the attention it deserves. A biosphere reserve, it is located in the province of Pinar del Rio, not too far away from Havana. In addition to a beautiful waterfall known as El Salto, Soroa features other attractions, like an orchid garden that includes over 200,000 specimens of 700 varieties of orchids from different parts of the world, an observation point at 820 feet (250m) over the sea that offers wonderful views of the Rosario mountain range, and the Castle in the Clouds, a construction resembling a medieval castle.
Not a touristy area, but certainly an interesting industrial community, Regla is another picturesque neighborhood in Havana. Located across the Havana Bay, it can be reached through a short ferry trip. A humble local church consecrated to the Virgin of Regla welcomes visitors at the entrance of the town. This is one of the country’s main patron saints (Yemaya in the Yoruba religion), which is paid tribute to with a big procession which takes place every September 8. Also famous in Regla are the Colina Lenin Monument, the Municipal Museum, and the local carnival troupe, Guaracheros de Regla.
One of the oldest settlements in Cuba, Guanabacoa is an industrial area on the outskirts of Havana that today stands out as one of the main centers of African-Cuban culture in the country. Santerian religious ceremonies, dance, traditions and customs are common in local culture centers and museums. Local attractions include the Jewish Cemetery, the Municipal Museum, and the Wemilere African Roots Festival.
Visiting Caibarien is a good idea for those staying at the keys on the northern coast of Cuba, as this fishing village is a more realistic sample of Cuba as a country, and a very different place from what can be found in the isolation of tourist resorts. Needless to say, seafood is abundant and cheap at local restaurants, and there are other attractions, like a steam engine museum at one of the local sugar mills.