Cuba is probably the most intensely diverse island destination in the Caribbean, with everything from standard fun-in-the-sun beach resort getaways to colonial city circuits, myriad land and sea adventure opportunities, tobacco and classic-car theme tours, and a wide array of cultural and artistic offerings. There's a lot to see and do in Cuba, and most travelers will have to carefully pick and choose. This section will provide you with descriptions of the country's regions, along with itineraries that will help you get the most from your visit.
Cuba is the westernmost and largest of the entire chain of Caribbean islands, located at the convergence of the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean just 145km (90 miles) south of Florida. They say that Cuba -- if you use your imagination -- looks something like a crocodile: The head is in the east, a line of small islands form the ridges along its back, the Sierra Maestra national park forms the front legs, the Zapata Peninsula forms the rear legs, and Pinar del RÃo province is the tail. Cuba is in fact a closely linked string of archipelagos, made up of more than 4,000 separate little islands and cays.
Cuba's two major cities, Havana and Santiago de Cuba, are port cities with large protected harbors. Most of the island's other principal cities lie along its centerline, either right on or just off the Autopista Nacional (National Hwy.), the country's principal trade and transportation route.
Havana is probably the most splendid example of Spanish colonial architecture in Latin America. Much of the historic centre has been carefully restored. The absence of the outward manifestations of international commerce - advertising billboards, burger chains, neon lights - helps create a subtle and haunting atmosphere missing in the other capitals of the Spanish colonial domain. Museums, forts and lively squares add to the attraction.
ViÃ±ales & Western Cuba
Comprising the new province of Artemisa and the most western province of Pinar del RÃo, western Cuba is a wonderfully rustic region of farms and forests, flanked by some beautiful and relatively underpopulated beaches. The only real city in the province, Pinar del RÃo, is of limited interest on its own, but it serves as a gateway to ViÃ±ales and the Vuelta Abajo, Cuba's premiere tobacco-growing and cigar-manufacturing region. Just north of Pinar del RÃo, ViÃ±ales is a pretty little hamlet in an even prettier valley, surrounded by stunning karst hill formations. ViÃ±ales is Cuba's prime ecotourist destination, with great opportunities for hiking, bird-watching, mountain biking, and cave exploration. On the far western tip of the island sits the tiny resort of MarÃa la Gorda, home to some of the best scuba diving in Cuba. Lying off the southern coast of this region in the Caribbean Sea are the island destinations of Isla de la Juventud, one of Cuba's top premiere scuba-diving destinations, and Cayo Largo del Sur, another long stretch of dazzling and isolated white sand.
Varadero & Matanzas Province
Matanzas is Cuba's second-largest province and home to its most important beach destination, Varadero. Boasting some 21km (13 miles) of nearly uninterrupted white-sand beach, Varadero is Cuba's quintessential sun-and-fun destination, with a host of luxurious all-inclusive resorts strung along the length of this narrow peninsula. In addition to Varadero, Matanzas province is home to the colonial-era cities of Matanzas and CÃ¡rdenas.
In the southern section of the province is the CiÃ©naga de Zapata, a vast wetlands area of mangrove and swamp, renowned for its wildlife-viewing, bird-watching, and fishing opportunities. This is also where you'll find the BahÃa de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), where the nascent Cuban revolutionary state defeated an invasion force trained, supplied, and abetted by the United States. The beaches of Playa GirÃ³n and Playa Larga serve as a base for access to some of Cuba's best scuba diving. Playa GirÃ³n also possesses, arguably, the most stunning colorful waters in Cuba.
Trinidad & Central Cuba
Beginning with the provinces of Villa Clara and Cienfuegos, and including the neighboring province of Sancti SpÃritus, central Cuba is the start of the country's rural heartland. Vast regions of sugar cane, tobacco, and cattle ranges spread out on either side of the Autopista Nacional, which more or less bisects this region as it heads east.
Trinidad is perhaps Cuba's quintessential colonial-era city, with beautifully maintained and restored buildings set on winding cobblestone streets. The cities of Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, and Sancti SpÃritus are considered lesser lights on the tourism circuit, but all have ample charms of their own. Santa Clara is a lively university town, and is considered the "City of Che Guevara," with its massive memorial to the fallen revolutionary leader. To the north of Santa Clara lie the tiny and utterly charming colonial city of Remedios and the beautiful beach resorts of la CayerÃa del Norte. Cienfuegos is a charming port town with the country's second-longest seaside promenade. Sancti SpÃritus is one of the original seven villas of Cuba, with some wonderful old historic churches and buildings, and a more natural feel than you'll find in other more touristy towns.
CamagÃ¼ey & Northeastern Cuba
This section of mainland Cuba is little more than a string of rural towns and small cities, anchored by two colonial-era cities. This is Cuba at its quietest, stuck in time and in no rush to break free. However, off the northern coast here lie a series of modern beach resorts built on long stretches of soft and silvery white sand, connected to the mainland by a long narrow causeway that seems to barely skirt the surface of the sea. The sister resort islands of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo are two of the finest and most popular resort destinations in Cuba. Several less-developed beach resorts stretch east along the coast on the string of islands making up the ArchipiÃ©lago de CamagÃ¼ey, better known as the Jardines del Rey (King's Gardens). The cities of Ciego de Avila and CamagÃ¼ey are seldom explored colonial-era cities. The latter, in particular, has loads of charms and attractions, and is being restored to highlight much of its former glory. North of CamagÃ¼ey is the tiny but growing beach resort of Santa LucÃa. It's best known for its excellent scuba diving, offering a chance to dive with bull sharks.
For most of the country's history, the whole eastern end of Cuba was known as El Oriente. Today, it is comprised of four separate provinces: HolguÃn, Granma, Santiago de Cuba, and GuantÃ¡namo. This is a large region with a host of gorgeous natural attractions, highlighted by the mountains of the Sierra Maestra -- a mecca for naturalists and adventure travelers as well as those looking to follow in the revolutionary footsteps of Fidel and Che -- and the very beautiful beaches of Guardalavaca, yet another of Cuba's premier beach resort destinations, with unimaginably fine white sand and calm turquoise waters. Of the cities here, only Santiago de Cuba is a tourist draw in its own right, although visitors to HolguÃn, Bayamo, or Baracoa will experience Cuba at its most authentic.
Santiago de Cuba
This is Cuba's second largest city. Set between the Sierra Maestra mountains and the sea, Santiago is a vibrant city with a rich artistic and cultural heritage. Santiago is considered the heart of Cuba's Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean heritage, which is expressed in the music, dance, and religion you'll find here. Santiago's Carnival celebrations are by far the best in Cuba, and some of the best in the entire Caribbean.
The city itself has a charming colonial-era center and a host of interesting museums and attractions, including JosÃ© MartÃ's tomb and mausoleum, the original BacardÃ rum factory, and the impressive Castillo del Morro protecting the city's harbor. Nearby sites worth visiting include the El Cobre shrine to the island's patron saint, La Virgin de Caridad, and the Gran Piedra, a massive rock outcropping allowing for great hiking and views.