Cuba - is only a small island yet its international appeal is enormous: a rambunctious history; a problematic, time-warped present; an exuberant capital; lovingly preserved colonial cities; hundreds of km of unspoiled beaches; great music, cocktails and aromatic cigars; antique, shark-finned American cars; a rich literary tradition; and the mystic Santeria religion.
Environment - Suspended like a sword 145 km off the US mainland, Cuba lies at the entrance of the Gulf of Mexico and is the largest island in the Antilles archipelago. Its closest neighbours are the USA, Mexico, Jamaica, Haiti and the Bahamas. Three distinct mountainous regions - the Oriental, Central and Occidental ranges - cover 25% of the country. Pico Turquino (1972 metres), in the Sierra Maestra mountains (Oriental range), is Cuba's highest point. The lowlands and basin areas occupy the remaining 75% of land, supporting sugar cane, rice, coffee plantations and livestock. The Río Cauto is the largest river, stretching 257 km across the eastern part of the island. The northern coastline is rugged, the southern coast tends to be more swampy.
Culture - Cuba's contribution to the musicial world has been profound, and runs from the infiltration of `mambo' and `cha-cha-cha' into the popular lexicon to the US-nurtured salsa boom of the 1970s and 1990s. Cuban art has an element of modishness (especially the works of the surrealist Wilfredo Lam), its political cinema is inspired (remember Strawberry and Chocolate?) and its poets and novelists are legion - José Martí, Alejo Carpentier, Severo Sarduy and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, to name just a few. Its architectural gems are predominantly Spanish colonial; it's architectural blemishes predominantly Soviet-inspired concrete monstrosities.
Roman Catholicism has traditionally been the dominant religion and is still the largest denomination with 47% (but with few practicing communicants). An estimated 4% of the population are Protestant while almost 2% are Afro-American Spiritist - followers of Santería, a syncretism of Catholicism and African religions. There is also a small Jewish colony in Havana.
Cuba's creole cuisine is based on indigenous foods, and a marriage of Spanish and African influences. The most prevalent local dishes are Moros y Cristianos or Moors and Christians (rice with black beans), arroz con pollo (chicken and rice); picadillo (minced beef and rice); ajiaco (a peasant stew made of just about every available root vegetable and various meats); and plaintain, chick-pea and bean soups. The island is also renowned for its ice cream, which takes full advantage of local fruits (be prepared to wait in line for a scoop). Cubans drink vast quantities of strong, ultrasweet, viscous espresso-style coffee which is drunk black, except at breakfast, when it is topped with a foam of milk. The local beer (cerveza) is tasty and the cocktails - from the mojito to the daiquiri - are famous throughout the world.
Events - The irresistible Varadero (January/February), Santiago de Cuba (July) and Havana (July also) carnivals are major drawcards for Cubans and travellers alike. Other festivals include: the sparkling New Latin American Film Festival (Havana, December); the Jazz Festival (Havana, February); the Varadero International Music Festival (Varadero, November); the Ballet Festival (Havana, November); and New Year, which sees a slew of revellers strutting, skipping and dancing in the streets. Cuba's official national holidays are the Anniversary of the Revolution (January 1); International Labour Day (1 May); Anniversary of the Moncada Barracks Attack (July 26); and the Anniversary of the Beginning of the Wars of Independence (10 October).
Varadero - with its crystalline waters and endless white beaches, is the jewel of Cuba's tourist industry. Massive development and an influx of foreign currency have given rise to outcrops of new buildings which tower, mushroom and ooze in every shape that concrete can be poured. (`Joint venture!' is, after `Who's got the tanning butter?', the most heard phrase in Varadero.) Interspersed among the concrete and glass are dilapidated weatherboard houses lending Varadero a faintly seedy, seaside aura. By day, the resort's laidback atmosphere is interrupted only by the shrill of two-stroke engines, the blast of tour bus horns and the cries of `Mira! Mira!' (`Look! Look!') by the bored jiniteras (prostitutes). But at night, everybody puts on their best clothes and goes trolling for action.
Santiago de Cuba - is regarded as the country's most Caribbean city, and has been dubbed the `cradle of the Revolution' in honour of its rebellious past. Viewed from the luminous bay, the city appears to rise on natural terraces with houses that project lacy ironwork balconies, Moorish pointy windows, and narrow outside staircases. The people are warm and hospitable, and it's not unusual for gnat packs of little kids to follow you down the street chanting "Hello! Where you from! You give me soap!" Historical sights are many and include the Moncada Barracks, the place where Castro and over 100 terrified, ill-equipped rebels faced off against a thousand of Batista's well-armed troops (though, from some accounts they sounded like Dad's Army) and the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, where a number of famous dead independence fighters, including José Martí, are stuffed and exhibited for veneration.
Trinidad - In the foothills of the Escambray Mountains dozes the Spanish colonial city of Trinidad. Largely untouched for over a century, Trinidad's trove of treasures have been damned to endless appearances in tourist brochures. The architecture is a mix of neoclassicism and baroque with a Moorish twist, and expresses itself with gusto in baronial manors and mansions, and squat houses with facades of pastel pink, blue and yellow.
Activities - Cuba has excellent scuba diving among coral and wrecks. The best sites are found in the southern islands of Isla de la Juventud, Cayo Largo, the Jardines de la Reina archipelago or off Santa Lucia on the northern coast. Swimming, snorkelling and a host of other water sports are also popular at Playa del Este, Varadero and Guardalavaca. Other activities include fishing at Lake Hanabanilla and Laguna del Tesoro ("Treasure Lake"), and trekking at Topes de Collantes and in the Sierra Maestra mountains.
Getting There & Away - The Jose Marti International Airport is the main gateway for travellers entering Cuba. Cubana, the national airline, flies regularly to destinations in Europe, Canada, the Americas and the Caribbean. Aerocaribbean, a chartered airline, has flights throughout the Caribbean, plus cargo charters to Canada, Mexico and Central and South America. There are also regular charter flights from Miami, but their frequency varies from year to year depending on political conditions. For some travellers, especially those in Australia and New Zealand, flying to Cuba involves setting down in either Canada or Mexico before boarding a connecting flight to Cuba: make sure you meet transit visa requirements for these countries before departing. Although some visitors arrive by boat, it's not really a practical option yet, though vessels can enter Cuba via marinas at Havana, Varadero or Cayo Largo.
Getting Around - Cubana and Aerocaribbean have incredibly cheap domestic flights. Train travel is inexpensive and reasonably comfortable but the pace is hardly electrifying: expect long waits at stations and en route. Luxurious air-con buses run from Havana to major destinations. Cheaper, smaller and amazingly cramped buses also run between Havana and the larger cities, but getting a ticket is about as easy as sprinting through quicksand. Even though it's expensive, renting a car is far and away the best way of seeing Cuba.
Local transport includes "official" metered taxis, "unofficial" private cars used as taxis, buses called guaguas (pronounced `wa-was' and euphemistically known as "rolling units"), and ciclo buses (hollowed-out buses used to transport the country's cyclists). Cuba is predominantly a two-wheel country so it's easy to rent a bicycle. Hitching has become a way of life for many Cubans (chronic petrol shortages and a lack of spare parts has meant the number of working planes, trains, buses and cars has diminished) and it's common to see hordes of people hitching between cities. If you rent a car, make sure you pick someone up; you may have a party on your hands.