With towering mountains, lush jungle and broad golden beaches, Cuba is a slice of paradise surrounded by the blue Caribbean sea. It’s about 90 miles south of Florida and is roughly the size of Pennsylvania, with over 11 million inhabitants; the vast majority are Spanish speakers, so learning Spanish before would be great when you get to know the locals. Its name, however, comes from an ancient Taíno word implying fertility, and it still produces large amounts of sugar, coffee, citrus fruits and fish – plus, of course, those famous Havana cigars. Now that relations between Cuba and America are beginning to thaw, it’s the perfect time to consider a visit to this exciting and fascinating place.
When Columbus landed on Cuba in 1492, he found it already settled by Arawak and Ciboney people, but the discovery of mineral wealth quickly attracted Spanish settlers who took over the land, brought in African slaves and used it primarily for sugar plantations, selling the sugar directly or using it to make rum. Tobacco plantations soon followed, while the local people almost completely died out because of poverty and disease. Following several attempted insurrections, the Spanish were driven out in 1898, but the island then became dominated by American influence, leading to the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. This led, in the 1950s, to guerrilla war, with Fidel Castro eventually leading his troops to victory in 1958 and declaring the country independent. America went on to impose an economic embargo, which had the interesting side effect of allowing Cuban culture to develop in a distinctive way without the brand influences that have impacted heavily on other parts of the world. One of the first ways this will come to your attention as a visitor is when you see well cared-for classic 50s cars cruising down the streets.
Food and drink
One of the most appealing things about Cuba as a destination is the local love of good food and drink. Through popular drinks such as Bacardi, Cuba has made quite an impact on the wider world, but there’s much more waiting to be discovered. Cakes, candies and high quality ice cream are a national passion. Mangos, papaya, avocados, pineapples, guavas and custard apples all grow locally and are used to make milkshakes as well as being eaten alongside meat as part of a meal, often with rice and black beans or assorted tubers. Most dishes are spicy but not always hot. Garlic, oregano and cumin are popular.
Cuba is a country where people are crazy about sport, and there are excellent baseball and soccer teams. When the sun goes down, however, it’s all about dance, with the mambo, the bolero, the danzón and the cha-cha-cha blending with modern pop. You’ll find a profusion of dancehalls with live music and semi-professional dancers putting on a dazzling show. Parties also take place on the beaches, underneath the stars.
Cuba has so much distinctive character that it makes for a truly unique travel experience. At this important moment in its history, it’s a thrilling place to be.