Cuba’s history is as shocking as it is lurid. After four centuries of genocide, slavery and savage exploitation, in 1898 Spain lost control of the biggest island in the Caribbean and world’s largest sugar producer to its covetous neighbour, the United States.
Prevented by its own laws from annexing Cuba (as it had the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico), the US instead institutionalized racism, economic slavery, and tourism based on drinking, gambling and prostitution. When Castro’s popular revolution stopped them, the US retaliated by wrecking Cuba’s economy, but retaining ‘rights’ it had assigned to itself like the notorious Guantanamo naval base.
For 50 years, the US blockade and trade embargos have hurt Cuba – but by delaying the island’s fundamental modernization and development, they are proving to have been an even greater blessing in disguise.
Even under Castro’s cyclical Puritanism, Cubans never forgot how to party, big-time. Havana, especially Old Havana, has been restored, not rebuilt as a high-rise mall – and it throbs to the happy syncopations of rumba, sound-splashed on bright colours.
Havana is loaded with easy-going character that belies the true vigour and energy driving Cuban culture. You find it everywhere. As the US position becomes increasingly silly, more visitors are discovering the real thrill of vibrant beach-life, fabulous nightclubs, ecstatic rhythms, dance and laughter; plus an astounding repository of natural wealth, with all mod cons, but without the paraphernalia of dedicated consumerism that has spoiled up so much of the Caribbean.
Twenty-two per cent of Cuba has recently been dedicated to protected reserves, including a 70,000 strong flamingo colony in the Rio Maximo-Caguey wetlands, winding ‘mogote’ caves, and the 3,000 rare Cuban crocodiles in the Zapata swamps. These, and the wrought-iron grills, dilapidated mansions, heavenly cigars and mojitos are the things others have built over or excised. Not Cuba. It’s got the best of the past, and the future. Go now.
Population: 11,275,000 (2005)
When to go: December to March is the prime beach season but it’s brilliant all year-round.
How to get there: By air to Havana, from everywhere except the united States. The US also prevents all passenger ships, and most cruise ships, from calling. US visitors generally come by air, via Cancun, Nassau or Toronto.
Highlights: High jinks in Old Havana – rumba/salsa/ritmo-ritmo in the winding streets of resplendent colonial buildings, an atmosphere of spiritually uplifting, world-class hedonism.
Santiago, Cuba’s second city, more Caribbean than Havana, with a Creole influence in the palaces, mansions and museums that make it Cuba’s historic heart.
The 1795 Tower of the Manaca iznaga Estate, the manor of a wealthy slaver, and one of the ‘ingenios’ (19th century sugar mills) set among the Royal palms, waving cane and rolling hills of the Valle de los Ingenios.
UNESCO World Heritage city of Trinidad – a smuggler’s backwater from 1514 to the late 18th century, when a brief sugar boom bought it the marble-floored mansions you see today.
The 235 pictographs at Cueva de Punta del Este – called ‘the Sistine Chapel of Caribbean Indian art’, created circa 800 AD, and the most important of their kind.