Cuba Travel Guide

"Cuba is one of our clients’ favourite destinations and one of ours. It’s easy to see why – the island has a perfectly calibrated mix of culture and history, interspersed with stunning beaches and spectacular countryside."

May 2020 • Jules Verne

Cuba Travel Guide

Cuba is one of our clients’ favourite destinations and one of ours. It’s easy to see why – the island has a perfectly calibrated mix of culture and history, interspersed with stunning beaches and spectacular countryside. The 42,000-square-mile island is the biggest in the Caribbean, and lies just off the coast of America. Its location gave rise to its unique history, which in turn has given rise to its vibrant and varied culture.

Cuban History

Cuba’s past is sure to inspire you whether or not you regard yourself as a history buff. One of the truly unique aspects of Cuba is that this past seems to have crystalised itself in the present; as you travel across the island you will see moments of history captured in the modern world.

Before the Spanish invasion of Cuba in the 16th century, the island was inhabited by Amerindian tribes, such as the Taíno. Despite being decimated across the Caribbean by old world diseases such as small pox, and violence from conquering Spanish forces, they still have descendants living in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

The Spanish invasion of Cuba brought colonial architecture, tobacco and sugar plantations, and the slave trade to the island, each of which has had an indelible effect. Many colonial museums can be found around the island, particularly in Trinidad and Havana, for those who want to learn more about life on the island during these oppressive times for the nascent nation.

Cuba remained a Spanish colony until the Spanish-American War of 1898, when nominal independence was granted, although the island remained a United States protectorate. During this time, mounting political radicalisation and social problems resulted in a dictatorship under Fulgencio Batista. This was famously overthrown in 1959 in the Cuban Revolution, which established a communist government under Fidel Castro. The Communist Party has been in power since 1965, making Cuba one of the few remaining socialist states in the world.

During the Cold War, Cuba became the centre of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when nuclear war almost broke out between the Soviet Union and the United States. Political relationships between the US and the Cuban government broke down, creating a microcosm of the past on the island as trading with the outside world, already restricted by the communist government, was closed down completely.

Cuban Culture

Cuba is known for many things: fascinating history, rum and cigars but also culture. It is considered to be a part of Latin America culturally, although its culture is influenced not only by Spanish colonialism, but also the aboriginal Taíno and Ciboney peoples, the introduction of African slaves, and its close relationship with the Soviet Union.

Culture is very important to Cuban society, and it is one of the very few places in the world where you will see ballet dancers and classical musicians who are as famous as football players. This is because the Cuban government has been offering free education to all since the 1959 revolution, as well as rigorous sports and arts programmes.

Music is an important facet of Cuban culture. The central form of music on the island is Son, which in turn has influenced many of the styles that have become iconic across the world, such as mambo, cha-cha-cha and salsa. Cuban classical music has also made a big global impact, with composers such as Ernesto Lecuona receiving international critical acclaim. Travelling across Cuba, you are sure to see live performances everywhere you go, both in concert halls and on street corners.

Cuba has been associated with literature since Ernest Hemingway made the island his home in 1939. However, many native authors have also had an important impact on the island’s literary scene. Many have been compelled to continue their work in exile as the Cuban authorities have tight control over the media. Those who are interested in Cuban literary culture will enjoy our Hemingway’s Cuba tour following in the footsteps of the literary giant.

Although not as well known worldwide as other Latin American cuisines, Cuban food is an important part of the island’s vibrant culture. A colourful fusion of Spanish and Caribbean cuisines, the flavourful dishes you will encounter on your travels are sure to stay with you long after you return. Flavoured with garlic, cumin, oregano and bay leaves, simple staple dishes are elevated. These include black beans and rice, sweet plantains, flaky breads and beef or pork in light sauces.

Areas of Cuba

Cuba is comprised of the large main island as well as smaller archipelagos off the coast. There are many areas to explore on the mainland, which is where the majority of our tours take place.

The capital of Cuba, Havana, is on the north-west coast of the island. It’s an example of everything that makes Cuba a great destination: the whole city feels like it has been frozen in history, and exudes the vintage charm of the 1950s. Take a taxi ride in a 60-year-old Buick or Chevrolet and glide by the Neo-Gothic churches, Art Deco theatres, Neoclassical shop fronts and Soviet Era brutalist office blocks, while the hustle and bustle of modern life continues around you.

Further west still is where Cubans are still farming the tobacco for which they are famous, in the same way that has been used for generations. The area is UNESCO-protected because of this unique lifestyle, but the landscape itself is also exceptional. Dome-like limestone outcrops, known locally as mogotes rise as high as 300m, breaking up the otherwise flat landscape like giant verdant pincushions.

In the centre of the island is Trinidad, Cuba’s second city, and arguably the best-preserved colonial city in the Caribbean. The city was made rich by the trade of sugar, tobacco and slaves, and today the colonial-style architecture, painted bright colours, shines in the sun. Wander around its cobbled streets and admire its many squares. One of the highlights of a trip to Cuba is trying the world-famous Canchánchara cocktail, made with water, honey, lemon juice and the amazing local rum.

In the east of the country are the historic cities of Santiago de Cuba and Holguín. The former is most famous for its part in the history of the country as the cradle of the revolution. The revolutionary hero Frank País was born in Santiago, and in 1953 the Cuban Revolution began with an attack on the Moncada Barracks within the city. Holguín is the 4th largest city in Cuba, and is just a stone’s throw from the birthplace of Cuba’s most famous revolutionary, Fidel Castro.

When to Travel to Cuba

At Jules Verne, we strongly believe there’s no bad time to travel to Cuba. Each month brings its own particular delights. Peak tourist season is generally thought to be between December and March, when the local tourists join the throng of foreign visitors. However, those travelling outside of these peak months will be able to take advantage of quieter tourist attractions and beaches.

The dry season runs from November to April. However, even during the wet season between May and October, you’ll only see rain a couple of days a fortnight, and you can expect around eight hours of sunshine per day on average. Hurricane season runs from June to November, with September and October being most likely to suffer. That said, Cuba tends to be less badly affected than many of its neighbours, judging by recent years.

Explore this unique country for yourself and discover all of its hidden delights with a Jules Verne escorted tour of Cuba. For more travel inspiration and guides, check out the Jules Verne blog.