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Frommer's EasyGuide to Cuba

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With widespread travel to Cuba finally permitted to Americans, a large audience will enthusiastically welcome this authoritative guide written by a leading expert in travel to the Caribbean's largest island-nation. Claire Boobbyer, a British citizen who has been spending months each year in Cuba since 1998, is a frequent speaker on Cuba to prestigious travel organizations, a featured television commentator on Cuba for the BBC, a leader of tours to Cuba for the Smithsonian and other groups, a writer on Cuba for Britain's The Telegraph and other newspapers. She has carefully designed her 288-page Easy Guide to Cuba to emphasize her choices of the best facilities and attractions for those Americans who are now able to make the trip.

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1 THE BEST OF CUBA

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The Best of Cuba

Cuba is unlike any other place on earth. What draws people to this fascinating Caribbean island is much more than beaches, sun, and rum cocktails, though there is plenty of all three for those who want them. One of the last Communist-bloc nations left, Cuba doesn’t suffer from the drab and desultory demeanor of its faded peers. Cuba’s rich culture, unique political history, and continued survival through ongoing economic hardship make it one of the most eye-opening countries that experienced travelers can still discover. Seeing the best of Cuba means dancing to its intoxicating music, admiring how Cubans improvise on a daily basis to make ends meet, and visiting a land that is trying to reconcile its socialist utopia past with its dips into capitalist waters. It’s a nation now populated by a significant swath of newly moneyed Cubans who are, wrote Carlos Manuel Alvarez in 2015 in OnCuba magazine, “specimens at the midway gallop between Cuba’s iron socialist morality and a certain post-realignment Havana consumerism.”

 

2 SUGGESTED CUBA ITINERARIES

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Suggested Cuba Itineraries

Cuba is a big island—the largest in the Caribbean—and its attractions and charms run the gamut from the hustle and bustle of Havana to the colonial grandeur of Trinidad and a host of other small and well-preserved old cities and towns to the steamy, vibrant streets of Santiago and the sparkling seas and white sand of a half-dozen or more topnotch beach destinations. So you’ll want to plot an itinerary that meshes with your interests and passions.

Use the following itineraries as rough outlines. Other options include specialized itineraries focused on a particular interest or activity. Bird-watchers could design an itinerary that visits a series of prime bird-watching sites. Dance or art enthusiasts could arrange a specialized trip devoted to Latin culture. And history buffs could build a complete trip around visits to the Moncada barracks in Santiago, the Che Guevara Memorial in Santa Clara, and the Bay of Pigs (Playa Girón). Feel free to pick and choose—combine a bit of one with a smidgen of another, or build something entirely your own.

 

3 CUBA IN CONTEXT

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Cuba in context

Cuba is an ongoing and enduring enigma. By any conventional measure, this Caribbean island should be a mere speck in the global geopolitical ocean. Yet for more than half a century, this nation of 11.3 million people has commanded the world stage in a manner wholly incommensurate with its small size and economic significance. A former colony of Spain and playground of American high rollers, Cuba struck out on its own in the late 1950s, and the nation remains a hot topic in the corridors of the world’s power brokers. Fiercely independent but rarely free, and the unlikeliest of major players, Cuba arouses passions like perhaps no other nation.

For decades, those inflamed feelings have focused on the Communist regime that one man, Fidel Castro, brazenly engineered. Hated and worshiped in almost equal measure, Fidel Castro defied critics, confounded pundits, and frustrated his own followers. His brother, Raúl Castro, who became president in February 2008, walks a similar walk with Cuba’s unique brand of homegrown communism. However, Raúl inherited a crumbling economy during a global recession that forced him—and the government—to review and “update” some of Cuba’s socialist policies. U.S. President Obama’s rapprochement with the nation—initiated after some 54 years of political stalemate—was a hopeful move for Cubans as the thaw began in 2015.

 

4 HAVANA

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Havana

It’s hard to convey the wonder, sensuality, and alluring beauty of Havana. It’s hard to imagine a city with such rhythm and verve, a city at once so tremendously vibrant and at the same time laid-back—that is, until you’ve taken a lazy stroll along the Malecón, gotten lost in the time warp of La Habana Vieja’s colonial cobblestone streets, taken a ride in a 1940 Dodge taxi through crumbling Centro Habana, danced salsa until dawn, or witnessed Afro-Cuban religious rituals on the street.

Originally established in 1514 on Cuba’s southern coast, by 1519 San Cristóbal de la Habana had been moved to its present-day location on the island’s north coast, at the mouth of a deep and spacious harbor with a narrow, protected harbor channel. Before long, Havana had become the most important port in the Spanish colonial empire, a natural final gathering place for the resupply and embarkation of the Spanish fleet before returning to the Old Country laden with bounty. By 1607, Havana had been declared the capital of colonial Cuba, and by the early 1700s, it was the third-largest city in the Spanish empire, behind Mexico City and Lima.

 

5 VIÑALES & WESTERN CUBA

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Viñales & Western Cuba

When folks talk about western Cuba, they mean Pinar del Río, the country’s prime ecotourism destination, and the new province of Artemisa. A pastoral and underdeveloped region, western Cuba has been inhabited continuously for over 4,000 years, beginning with the Guanahatabey, Ciboney, and Taíno indigenous tribes. In addition to the province of Pinar del Río, the general geographic area of western Cuba also includes the Archipiélago de los Canarreos (the Canary Archipelago) and the two largest islands of the chain, Isla de la Juventud and Cayo Largo, with lovely, uncrowded beaches. The small hamlet of Viñales is widely considered one of the country’s most beautiful places.

Rock climbing, spelunking, mountain biking, hiking, and bird-watching are all excellent in the Pinar del Río province. La Güira National Park, the Guanacahabibes Peninsula, and the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve make this one of Cuba’s richest and wildest areas. Viñales is rapidly becoming the region’s center for nature and adventure tourism. At the far western tip of the island, María la Gorda is one of Cuba’s signature scuba-diving destinations. And the diving at Cayo Levisa, Isla de la Juventud, and Cayo Largo isn’t too shabby either. To top it all off, Cayo Largo has some of the most beautiful and least-crowded beaches in Cuba.

 

6 VARADERO & MATANZAS PROVINCE

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Varadero & Matanzas Province

Matanzas is Cuba’s second-largest province and the site of its principal beach destination: Varadero. An easy drive from Havana, the province is also home to the colonial-era cities of Matanzas and Cárdenas, as well as the Ciénaga de Zapata, a vast wetlands area of mangrove and swamp. The southern section of Matanzas province holds great historical and sentimental value to modern Cubans; it was here, in the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), that the nascent Cuban revolutionary state defeated an invasion force trained, supplied, and abetted by the United States. Today the area draws divers for the stunning clear waters and colorful coral.

Matanzas

98km (61 miles) E of Havana; 40km (25 miles) SW of Varadero

Matanzas is a city of many names: City of Bridges, City of Rivers, and the Venice of Cuba. All refer to the fact that the city is divided by two major rivers, and connected back by a series of pedestrian, auto, and rail bridges. Thanks to its slow pace and laidback nature, Matanzas is also sometimes called Cuba’s Sleeping Beauty. But the moniker the city is probably most proud of is the Athens of Cuba, a name reflecting Matanzas’s important cultural tradition and history. The first danzón, a languid and lyrical original dance and musical form, was originally composed and played in Matanzas in 1879 by native son Miguel Faílde, and Matanzas has a rich legacy of prominent poets, writers, painters, and musicians. Today, Matanzas competes with Varadero for visitors, but this off-the-beaten-track city is well worth a stop.

 

7 TRINIDAD & CENTRAL CUBA

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Trinidad & Central Cuba

An area rich in both historical and natural attractions, Central Cuba is home to several wonderful colonial-era cities, as well as isolated and pristine beaches. The provincial capital, Santa Clara, a lively university town, is often called Che Guevara’s City and features an impressive monument and plaza dedicated to the fallen revolutionary. To the north of Santa Clara lie the small, well-preserved colonial-era city of Remedios and the stunningly beautiful beach resort destination of la Cayerías del Norte (Cayo Santa María).

Heading east from Matanzas into Cuba’s central heartland, you first hit the province of Villa Clara, which is devoted largely to sugarcane, citrus, tobacco farming, and cattle ranching. Abutting Villa Clara to the south is Cienfuegos province. The city of Cienfuegos is affectionately known as La Perla del Sur (The Southern Pearl). This busy port city has a pretty colonial-era center and the country’s second-longest seaside promenade, or Malecón. Connected to Trinidad by a fetching coastal highway, Cienfuegos is definitely worth a visit on a loop trip around the region.

 

8 CAMAGÜEY & THE NORTHEASTERN COAST

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Camagüey & the Northeastern Coast

The extraordinary, powdery, dazzling white beaches of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, the cays that lie off the Cuban mainland and jut into the deep aquamarine blue of the Atlantic Ocean, are the primary attractions of the Ciego de Avila province. It is a remote area, but one with the infrastructure and natural gifts that make it perfect for idyllic sun, sand, and sea holidays.

The namesake provincial capital Ciego de Avila and other towns and cities in this province hold few attractions for visitors. A little farther east, the predominantly flat, low-lying Camagüey province, southeast of Ciego de Avila, is the largest in the country, though it is also the least densely populated. It occupies the widest swath on the island, 120km (75 miles) from the Atlantic coast to the Caribbean coast. Camagüey, the provincial capital, is Cuba’s third-largest city, after Havana and Santiago de Cuba, and is a fine colonial city that is worth exploring. Its architectural wealth was recognized by UNESCO in 2008, when its historic core was named a World Heritage Site.

 

9 EL ORIENTE

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El Oriente

The region known as El Oriente is less known and visited than the western half of Cuba but is every bit as rewarding for travelers—perhaps more so. The farther east you go, the more emphatically Caribbean it feels. This region’s remarkable landscapes include the north coast’s exuberant banana and coconut groves, the aquamarine seas off Guardalavaca, the densely wooded peaks of the Sierra Maestra, and the east coast’s tropical rainforest.

Prior to the 1959 Revolution, the eastern half of Cuba was a single province, straightforwardly called El Oriente, or the East. Most Cubans still refer to everything east of Camagüey—a region much more scenically and historically interesting than most of central Cuba—as El Oriente, even though it is now composed of the distinct provinces of Holguín, Granma, Santiago de Cuba, and Guantánamo.

The wars of independence began in El Oriente in the 1860s, and nearly a century later, Castro concentrated his power base in the inaccessible Sierra Maestra. Quiet but dignified Bayamo, which played a pivotal role in Cuba’s revolutionary struggles, is the capital of Granma province. The gorgeous beaches and warm seas of Guardalavaca, part of Holguín province, make it a favorite resort area in Cuba, while tiny, remote Baracoa, where Columbus first dropped anchor at the extreme northeastern edge of Guantánamo, is one of the most beautiful, rugged spots on the island. The former capital city of the Spanish colony, Santiago de Cuba, is not only known as a vibrant musical center, but also as the cradle of the Revolution; see chapter 10 for full coverage of Cuba’s “Second City.”

 

10 SANTIAGO DE CUBA

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Santiago de Cuba

The country’s second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba swings to the sound of son and salsa. Vibrant, tropical, and often sweltering, Santiago is the country’s liveliest cultural showpiece, outside of Havana. With a population just under a half-million people, Santiago is a world apart, with a unique history and rhythms all its own. The city has produced some of Cuba’s greatest contemporary musicians as well as several of its most stalwart revolutionaries, and has served as the stage for some of the most storied events in Cuba’s modern history. As the capital of the old Oriente province, it has the largest Afro-Cuban population in Cuba and a resolutely Afro-Caribbean feel that distinguishes it from the rest of Cuba.

Founded in 1515, Santiago was one of the first of seven towns in Cuba and the Spanish colony’s capital until 1553. Diego Velázquez, the founder of the original seven villas, built his mansion here, and the house still stands in the heart of the historic quarter. The Spanish character of the city would soon be supplemented by other influences. After the 1791 revolution in Haiti, a large number of French coffee plantation owners fled with their African slaves and made their way to Santiago. Black Haitian workers followed, as did large contingencies of West African slaves, sold to work on the plantations.

 

11 PLANNING YOUR TRIP TO CUBA

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Planning Your Trip to Cuba

Planning a trip to Cuba is both an exciting challenge and a bit of a headache. There are complexities and nonsensical issues that will drive you nuts, and obstacles you cannot surmount. If you go with an open mind, a flexible plan, and a good sense of humor, however, you will find that the best travel experiences in Cuba don’t come as you planned them, and most likely will be the moments you cherish the most. As Cuban author Pedro Juan Gutiérrez wrote in Our GG in Havana: “In Cuba, nothing is exact. That is the appeal of the place.”

Strategies For Seeing Cuba

This chapter gives you the nitty-gritty on plotting your trip to Cuba. (For more resources in Cuba, please turn to “Fast Facts,” on p. 289.) First, some key issues to keep in mind when planning your trip:

Despite the nascent thawing of U.S./Cuba relations, American citizens are not allowed to travel directly to Cuba without traveling in accordance with one of 12 categories permitted under a U.S. Treasury Department general license. Travel is sometimes arranged through a third country instead (see “ Entry Requirements, ” below). Once in Cuba, U.S. citizens will encounter no restrictions.

 

12 CUBAN SPANISH TERMS & PHRASES

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Cuban Spanish Terms & Phrases

Cubans speak fast and furiously. There’s a very nasal and almost garbled quality to Cuban Spanish. Cubans tend to drop their final consonants, particularly the s, and they don’t roll their rr’s particularly strongly, converting the rr into an almost l sound in words like carro or perro. Cubans seldom use the formal usted form, instead preferring to address almost everyone (except those much older or of particular social or political stature) as tú. Likewise, you’ll almost never hear the terms señor or señora as forms of address—Cubans prefer compañero/a, socio, or amigo. Cubans are also direct. They will almost always answer the phone with a curt “Diga,” which translates roughly as a mix of “Tell me” and “Speak.”

Basic Words & Phrases

English

Spanish

Pronunciation

Good day

Buenos días

Bweh-nohss dee-ahss

How are you?

¿Cómo está?

Koh-moh ehss-tah?

Very well

 

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