You can still see traces of Havana’s wild past as a Mafia-run destination for rum, music, and boisterous night clubs. In the cities you’ll see grand colonial buildings and billboards proclaiming socialism, now fading under the bright Caribbean sun. Looking out at the blue Caribbean Sea, you will understand why so many ex-pats (including Ernest Hemingway) opt to live out their days on the island.
77 percent of Cuba’s population lives in cities. Spanish colonial architecture and classic cars characterize urban Cuba. Visitors come to these destinations to experience world-famous dance halls and nightclubs.
Cuba captivates the popular imagination with its beaches. White sand and clear, turquoise water make Cuban beaches some of the top destinations for visitors who want to spend their vacation at a resort. You can find beaches near shipwrecks and natural coral reefs. Gentle surf makes it easy to swim or snorkel.
To see more of Cuban wilderness, visit the mountains and valleys of Sierra Maestra on the easternmost tip of Cuba. This is home to Pico Turquino National Park, which is named for Pico Turquino Mountain. At 6,476 feet (1,974 m), Pico Turquino is the tallest mountain in Cuba. Guanahacabibes Peninsula National Park is on the west coast, and boasts the beaches of María La Gorda and underwater caves that attract scuba divers. Also in the west you can visit Viñales National Park, which is famous for its magotes – these twisted limestone formations make the landscape as surreal as it is breathtaking.
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, with an area of 42,401 square miles (109,820 sq km) – just slightly smaller than the state of Pennsylvania. It is comprised of a mainland as well as many thousands of islands clustered around the coast, the largest of which is Isla de la Juventud.
22 percent of Cuba’s territory is covered by national parks and wildlife preserves. You can also visit preserves on Cuba’s extensive coastline, which serve to protect the intact coral reefs near the shore.
The dry season lasts from December to April, and is the high season for visitors. Cuba’s rainy season lasts from May to October, but plenty of visitors still come during the summer months of July and August. Rain usually comes in bursts and doesn’t typically last all day. The eastern coast is prone to hurricanes from August to November. No matter the season, the temperature is almost always comfortable in Cuba, and is usually between 77 °F (25.2°C) and 81°F (27.2°C).
Under Raúl Castro’s presidency the authoritarianism of Cuba’s government has lessened. But Cubans still live their lives under the scrutiny of the Communist authorities. Anyone found to subverting the government’s agenda can be imprisoned for a lengthy sentence.
There are signs of Castro’s revolution everywhere. You’ll see old posters and billboards promoting the Castro government, with slogans encouraging hard work and allegiance to Che Guevara and Fidel. You can visit places like the Moncada Barracks and El Presidio Modelo, both sites that played pivotal roles in Castro’s rise to power.
Cuba has a population of a little over 11 million. The national socialist wage of around 17 USD per month makes it difficult for many Cubans to afford basic necessities. Many Cubans rely on the black market to supply the things they need and make extra cash.
Many of the social hierarchies imposed on Cuba by the Spanish still exist today. There is a large population of people of any descent called criollos, the result of the Spanish colonizers taking indigenous Cuban brides in the 16th and 17th century. The slave trade brought Africans from Nigeria and Benin, which created a strong Afro-Cuban culture that has shaped modern Cuba. Santería, son music, and modern art have all drawn from the cultures brought to Cuba from Africa. Today you can see thriving Afro-Cuban culture in the city of Santiago de Cuba.
The economy in Cuba relies heavily on tourism. For decades Cuba dedicated all of its agricultural resources to growing sugar, and served as the main supplier of sugar to countries in the Soviet Bloc. When Soviet Union crumbled in the 1990s, Cuba scrambled to make ends of meet. Tourism has helped the country recover somewhat, but Cubans still deal with shortages of supplies and rations on a regular basis.
With the influx of more visitors from the U.S., there is hope that the economy will continue to improve. Anyone who has ever wished for a white sand beach and clear blue water should find a reason to visit Cuba. Here you’ll encounter untrammeled beaches, and a culture that has developed in relative isolation.
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