Lonely Planet Cuba

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#1 best-selling guide to Cuba *

Lonely Planet Cuba is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you. Take a drive along Havana's Malecon, soak up the live music scene, make yourself at home in a casa particular all with your trusted travel companion. Get to the heart of Cuba and begin your journey now!

Inside Lonely Planet Cuba:

  • Full-color maps and images throughout
  • Highlights and itineraries help you tailor your trip to your personal needs and interests
  • Insider tips to save time and money and get around like a local, avoiding crowds and trouble spots
  • Essential info at your fingertips - hours of operation, phone numbers, websites, transit tips, prices
  • Honest reviews for all budgets - eating, sleeping, sight-seeing, going out, shopping, hidden gems that most guidebooks miss
  • Cultural insights give you a richer, more rewarding travel experience - history, architecture, cuisine, music, dance, landscape, wildlife, literature, arts, politics
  • Free, convenient pull-out Havana map (included in print version), plus over 80 color maps
  • Covers Havana, Artemisa, Mayabeque, Isla de la Juventud, Valle de Vinales, Pinar del Rio, Varadero, Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Villa Clara, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus, Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Las Tunas, Holguin, Granma, Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo and more

eBook Features: (Best viewed on tablet devices and smartphones)

  • Downloadable PDF and offline maps prevent roaming and data charges
  • Effortlessly navigate and jump between maps and reviews
  • Add notes to personalize your guidebook experience
  • Seamlessly flip between pages
  • Bookmarks and speedy search capabilities get you to key pages in a flash
  • Embedded links to recommendations' websites
  • Zoom-in maps and images
  • Inbuilt dictionary for quick referencing

The Perfect Choice: Lonely Planet Cuba , our most comprehensive guide to Cuba, is perfect for both exploring top sights and taking roads less traveled.

  • Looking for more extended coverage? Check out Lonely Planet's Discover Caribbean Islands guide.

Authors: Written and researched by Lonely Planet, Brendan Sainsbury and Luke Waterson

About Lonely Planet: Since 1973, Lonely Planet has become the world's leading travel media company with guidebooks to every destination, an award-winning website, mobile and digital travel products, and a dedicated traveler community. Lonely Planet covers must-see spots but also enables curious travelers to get off beaten paths to understand more of the culture of the places in which they find themselves.

Lonely Planet guides have won the TripAdvisor Travelers' Choice Awards in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 in the Favorite Travel Guide category.

*Best-selling guide to Cuba. Source: Nielsen BookScan. Australia, UK and USA. Mar 2014 - Feb 2015

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15 Slices

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Havana

ePub

%7 / Pop 2,130,431

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are there. Waves crashing against a mildewed sea wall; a young couple cavorting in a dark, dilapidated alley; guitars and voices harmonizing over a syncopated drum rhythm; sunlight slanting across rotten peeling paintwork; a handsome youth in a guayabera shirt leaning against a Lada; the smell of diesel fumes and cheap aftershave; tourists with Hemingway beards; Che Guevara on a billboard, a banknote, a key-ring, a t-shirt…

No one could have invented Havana. It’s too audacious, too contradictory, and – despite 50 years of withering neglect – too damned beautiful. How it does it, is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s the swashbuckling history, the survivalist spirit, or the indefatigable salsa energy that ricochets off walls and emanates most emphatically from the people. Don’t come here looking for answers. Just arrive with an open mind and prepare yourself for a long, slow seduction.

AFebruary is peak season meaning there's extra life in the city and plenty of extracurricular activities, including a cigar festival and an international book fair.

 

Artemisa & Mayabeque Provinces

ePub

%47 / Pop 885,545

Leap-frogged by almost all international visitors, Cuba’s two smallest provinces, created by dividing Havana province in half in 2010, are the reserve of more everyday concerns – like growing half of the crops that feed the nation, for example. But in amongst the patchwork of citrus and pineapple fields lie a smattering of small towns that will satisfy the curious and the brave.

The most interesting corner is Las Terrazas and Soroa, Cuba’s most successful eco-project and an increasingly important nexus for trekking and bird-watching. East of Havana, Jibacoa’s beaches are the domain of a trickle of Varadero-avoiding tourists who guard their secret tightly. Wander elsewhere and you’ll be in mainly Cuban company (or none at all,) contemplating sugar-plantation ruins, weird one-of-a-kind museums and improbably riotous festivals. For a kaleidoscope of the whole region take the ridiculously slow Hershey train through the nation’s proverbial backyard and admire the view.

 

Isla de la Juventud (Special Municipality)

ePub

Pop 86,420

Historic refuge from the law for everyone from 16th-century pirates to 20th-century gangsters, La Isla is perhaps the quirkiest castaway destination you ever will see. Dumped like a crumpled apostrophe 100km off mainland Cuba, this pine-tree-clad island is the Caribbean's sixth largest. But the Cayman Islands this isn't. Other tourists? Uh-uh. And if you thought other Cuban towns were time-warped, try blowing the dust off island capital Nueva Gerona, where the main street doubles as a baseball diamond, and the food ‘scene’ is stuck in the Special Period. Yet, if you make it here, you're in for a true adventure. The main lure is diving some of the Caribbean's most pristine reefs but otherwise, get used to being becalmed – as locals have – with the coral, the odd crocodile and a colorful history that reads like an excerpt from Treasure Island.

Further east, Cayo Largo del Sur is La Isla's polar opposite, a manufactured tourist enclave renowned for its wide, white-sand beaches.

 

Valle de Viñales & Pinar del Río Province

ePub

%48 / Pop 595,000

The fragrant aroma of a fine cigar is an unmistakable scent and within Cuba, its smoky drift can be traced back to Pinar del Río province, the world's premier place to grow tobacco. The region is a rolling rustic canvas of fertile, rust-red oxen-furrowed fields, thatched tobacco-drying houses and sombrero-clad guajiros (country folk).

Jewels in the crown of this emerald land are the Valle de Viñales, a Unesco World Heritage Site studded with the alluring and distinctive mogotes (limestone monoliths) that nigh-on beseech you to get hiking, and Península de Guanahacabibes, a remote Unesco Biosphere Reserve abutting María la Gorda's swath of 50-plus dive sites.

Your obvious base is serene Viñales, a hassle-free village ringed by craggy hills and Van Gogh–like rural beauty, which beckons you to forge into some of the Caribbean's best caves, explore tobacco plantations and secluded swimming holes, lounge on idyllic sandy beaches and lose yourself in a laid-back land where every horizon harbors a host of quintessential 'come to the Cuban countryside' images. So come.

 

Varadero & Matanzas Province

ePub

%45 / Pop 692,536

With a name translating as 'massacres,' Matanzas province conceals an appropriately tumultuous past beneath its modern-day reputation for glam all-inclusive holidays. In the 17th century pillaging pirates ravaged the region's prized north coast, while three centuries later, more invaders grappled ashore in the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) under the dreamy notion that they were about to liberate the nation.

The Bahía de Cochinos attracts more divers than mercenaries these days, while sunbathers rather than pirates invade the northern beaches of Varadero, the vast Caribbean resort and lucrative economic 'cash cow' that stretches 20km along the sandy Península de Hicacos.

Providing a weird juxtaposition is the scruffy city of Matanzas, the music-rich provincial capital that has gifted the world with rumba, danzón, countless grand neoclassical buildings and Santería (the province is the veritable cradle of Afro-Cuban religion). Tourists may be scant here outside of Varadero, but soulful, only-in-Cuba experiences are surprisingly abundant.

 

Cienfuegos Province

ePub

%43 / Pop 408,825

Bienvenue (welcome) to Cienfuegos, Cuba's Gallic heart, which sits in the shadow of the crinkled Sierra del Escambray like a displaced piece of Paris on Cuba's untamed southern coastline. French rather than Spanish colonizers were the pioneers in this region, arriving in 1819 and bringing with them the ideas of the European Enlightenment which they industriously incorporated into their fledgling neoclassical city: the result today is a dazzling treasure box of 19th-century architectural glitz.

Outside of the city, the coast is surprisingly underdeveloped, a mini-rainbow of emerald greens and iridescent blues, flecked with coves, caves and coral reefs. The province's apex is just inland at El Nicho, arguably the most magical spot in the Parque Natural Topes de Collantes.

Though ostensibly Francophile and white, Cienfuegos' once-muted African 'soul' gained a mouthpiece in the 1940s in Cuba's most versatile musician, Benny Moré. He wasn't the only Afro-Cuban improviser. Nearby, Palmira is famous for its Catholic-Yoruba Santería brotherhoods, which still preserve their powerful slave-era traditions.

 

Villa Clara Province

ePub

%42 / Pop 803,690

What is that word hanging in the air over Villa Clara, one of the nation's most diverse provinces? 'Revolution', perhaps? And not just because Che Guevara liberated its capital, Santa Clara, from Batista's corrupt gambling party to kick-start the Castro brothers' 55-year (and counting) stint in power. Oh, no. Ultra-cultural Santa Clara is guardian of the Cuban avant-garde (having the nation's only drag show and its main rock festival). Meanwhile, the picturesque colonial town of Remedios and the beach-rimmed Cayerias del Norte beyond are experiencing Cuba's most drastic contemporary tourist development, a gargantuan undertaking which will over the next two years earn it position numero dos in the lengthy list of top Cuban holiday hot spots.

This region is indelibly stamped with Che's legacy and associated sights. Yet it should also win your heart for hosting the nation's most frenzied street party (Remedios), for its highs amongst the glimmering Escambray peaks and their adventure possibilities (around Embalse de Hanabanilla) and for its lows along the lolling white-sand strands off its northern coast (Cayo Santa María).

 

Trinidad & Sancti Spíritus Province

ePub

%41 / Pop 466,106

2014 was a big year for Sancti Spíritus province. Its two main colonial towns both celebrated their 500th anniversaries amid much publicity, partying and cleaning up of important public buildings. It was proof that this small but well-endowed province guards what is arguably Cuba’s most precious historical legacy. Trinidad, thanks to careful preservation efforts, is considered one of the most intact colonial towns in the Americas, while Sancti Spíritus (the city) has a more intangible, crumbling allure.

Complementing its historical depth, Sancti Spíritus province boasts beaches – Playa Ancón is a stunner, easily the best on Cuba’s underwhelming south coast – and mountains. Within mirror-glinting distance of Trinidad lies the haunting Escambray, which, with a network of decent trails, is Cuba’s best hiking area. The rest of the province hides a surprisingly varied cache of oft-overlooked curiosities, including lightly trodden ecoparks, a seminal museum to guerrilla icon Camilo Cienfuegos, and the Unesco-protected Bahía de Buenavista.

 

Ciego de Ávila Province

ePub

%33 / Pop 424,400

Diminutive Ciego de Ávila's finger-in-the-dyke moment came during the late-19th-century Cuban Wars of Independence: it became the site of an impressive fortified wall, the Trocha, built to keep out rebellious armies of the east from the prosperous west. Today, the province continues to be the cultural divide between the Oriente and Occidente. The main reason to stop off is the ambitious post–Special Period resort development of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo. The brilliant tropical pearls that once seduced Ernest Hemingway have had their glorious beaches spruced up and daubed with over a dozen exclusive tourist resorts.

Ciego de Ávila has in reality been harboring intriguing secrets for over a century. Various non-Spanish immigrants first arrived here in the 19th century from Haiti, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Barbados, bringing with them myriad cultural quirks, exemplified by cricket in Baraguá, voodoo in Venezuela, country dancing in Majagua and explosive fireworks in Chambas.

 

Camagüey Province

ePub

%32 / Pop 780,600

Neither Occidente nor Oriente, Camagüey is Cuba's provincial contrarian, a region that likes to go its own way in political and cultural matters – and usually does – much to the chagrin of folks in Havana and Santiago.

Seeds were sown in the colonial era, when Camagüey's preference for cattle ranching over sugarcane meant less reliance on slave labor and more enthusiasm to get rid of a system that bred misery.

Today Cuba's largest province is a mostly pancake-flat pastoral mix of grazing cattle, lazy old sugar-mill towns and, in the south, a few low-but-lovely hill ranges. It's flanked by Cuba's two largest archipelagos: the Sabana-Camagüey in the north and the Jardines de la Reina in the south, both underdeveloped and almost virgin in places.

Staunchly Catholic capital Camagüey, with its alluring architecture and cosmopolitan charm surpassed only by Havana, is the province's pin-up – a fiercely independent city that nurtured revolutionary poet Nicolás Guillén, groundbreaking scientist Carlos J Finlay and an internationally famous ballet company.

 

Las Tunas Province

ePub

%31 / Pop 538,000

Most travelers say hello and goodbye to Las Tunas province in the time that it takes to drive across it on the Carretera Central (one hour on a good day). But, hang on a sec! This so-laid-back-it’s-nearly-falling-over collection of leather-skinned cowboys and poetry-spouting country singers is known for its daredevil rodeos and Saturday night street parties where barnstorming entertainment is served up at the drop of a sombrero.

Although historically associated with the Oriente, Las Tunas province shares many attributes with Camagüey in the west. The flat grassy fields of the interior are punctuated with sugar mills and cattle ranches, while the eco beaches on the north coast remain wild and lightly touristed, at least by Varadero standards.

In this low-key land of the understated and underrated, accidental visitors can enjoy the small-town charms of the provincial capital, or head north to the old mill town Puerto Padre where serenity rules.

 

Holguín Province

ePub

%24 / Pop 1,037,600

Cuba’s contradictions are magnified in Holguín. Perhaps something in the undeniable beauty of the province’s hill-studded hinterland breeds extremes. Fulgencio Batista, and his ideological opposite, Fidel Castro, were both reared here, as were Reinaldo Arenas and Guillermo Infante, dissident writers who didn’t have a lot in common with either leader. Then there are the dichotomies in the landscape. The environmental degradation around Moa's nickel mines jars rather awkwardly with the pine-scented mountains of the Sierra Cristal, while the inherent Cuban-ness of Gibara contrasts sharply with the tourist swank of resort-complex Guardalavaca.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to spy Holguín's beauty. By most accounts, he docked near Gibara in October 1492 where he was met by a group of curious Taíno. The Taínos didn’t survive the ensuing Spanish colonization though fragments of their legacy can be reconstructed in Holguín province, which contains more pre-Columbian archaeological sites than anywhere else in Cuba.

 

Granma Province

ePub

%23 / Pop 836,400

Few parts of the world get named after yachts, which helps explain why in Granma (christened for the boat in which Fidel Castro and his bedraggled revolutionaries clambered ashore to kick-start a guerrilla war in 1956), Cuba's viva la Revolución spirit burns most fiercely. This is the land where José Martí died and where Granma native Carlos Manuel de Céspedes freed his slaves and formally declared Cuban independence for the first time in 1868.

The alluringly isolated countryside helped the revolutionary cause. Road-scarce Granma is one of Cuba's remotest regions, with lofty tropical mountains dense enough to have harbored a fugitive Fidel Castro for over two years in the 1950s.

Its isolation has bred a special brand of Cuban identity. Granma's settlements are esoteric places enlivened with weekly street parties (with outdoor barbecues and archaic hand-operated street organs), and provincial capital Bayamo is among the most tranquil and clean places in the archipelago.

 

Santiago de Cuba Province

ePub

%22 / Pop 1,048,000

Stuck out in Cuba's mountainous 'Oriente' region and long a hotbed of rebellion and sedition, Santiago's cultural influences have often come from the east, imported via Haiti, Jamaica, Barbados and Africa. For this reason the province is often cited as being Cuba's most 'Caribbean' enclave, with a raucous West Indian–style carnival and a cache of folklórico dance groups that owe as much to French-Haitian culture as they do to Spanish.

As the focus of Spain's new colony in the 16th and early 17th centuries, Santiago de Cuba enjoyed a brief spell as Cuba's capital until it was usurped by Havana in 1607. The subsequent slower pace of development has some distinct advantages. Drive 20km or so along the coast in either direction from the provincial capital and you're on a different planet, a land full of rugged coves, crashing surf, historical coffee plantations and hills replete with riotous endemism.

AJuly is the key month in Santiago de Cuba’s cultural calendar, when the city is caliente (hot) in more ways than one. The month begins with the vibrant Festival del Caribe and ends with the justifiably famous Carnaval.

 

Guantánamo Province

ePub

%21 / Pop 511,100

Banish those grainy news images of prisoners in orange jumpsuits from your consciousness; the Cuban version of Guantánamo (on the other side of the security fence) is a fantasyland of crinkled mountains and exuberant foliage that seems as far away from modern America as a star in another galaxy. In the region’s isolated valleys and wild coastal microclimates (arid in the south, lush in the north), you’ll encounter Cuba at its most mysterious and esoteric. Herein lie primitive musical sub-genres, little-known Afro-Cuban religious rites, and echoes of an indigenous Taíno culture supposedly wiped out by the Spanish centuries ago – or so you thought. The town of Baracoa and its rural surroundings is the regional highlight, closely followed by the vibrant endemism of the semi-virgin Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt. Further west, the city of Guantánamo, perennially bypassed by most travelers, hides another saucerful of secrets.

ABaracoa’s biggest festival, the Semana de la Cultura Baracoesa, is in late March/early April.

 

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