The largest island in the Caribbean is definitely one of Latin America’s hidden gems.
Cuba is known for its crystal-clear beaches, delicious cocktails like the mojito, and the unpolished beauty of Old Havana. Cuba is also famous for its music, for the revolution that turned it upside down in 1959, and for its cigars of unrivaled quality.
While not as elegant as places like, say, Milan, Cuba is a feast for the senses in the best possible way.
So let’s find out a little bit about what it has to offer? ¡Arriba!
Apart from the political and economic capital of Cuba, Havana is the core of the Cuban civilization, so to speak. Almost every historically and culturally significant event that happens on the island takes place in or near the city.
With its mix of colonial and Art Deco architecture and the evocative Malecón, the seafront promenade that encircles the central districts, Havana is simply stunning.
Not only that, there’s always something going on at the city’s plazas, boulevards, cafés, and nightclubs, especially around the old town.
And if you think the revolution has turned Havana into a serious and drab town, you couldn’t be more wrong. Callejón de Hamel boasts beautiful street art murals, and Vedado neighborhood has a park honoring John Lennon, complete with a statue of the legend — turns out Fidel Castro was a fan.
2. The Revolution
On New Year’s Eve, 1959, a bunch of ragged and bearded rebels finally defeated dictator Fulgencio Batista’s army following 5+ years of guerrilla fighting in the mountains.
Oddly, the group remained ideologically ambiguous for a short time and were even hailed as heroes in the U.S. and Europe.
The new regime would soon align itself with the USSR and receive substantial financial aid from Moscow. That’s also when the state nationalized the entire Cuban economy.
Upon the collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1991, the 90s were a challenging period for Cuba. From then on, minor changes started being adopted, such as private citizens being allowed to own small businesses. Yet Cuba stands as a one-party socialist country to this day.
3. Breathtaking nature
Cuba was once covered by forest, much of which was torn down by the timber industry or replaced with sugarcane plantations. Today, rainforests, shrublands, and mangroves make up between a quarter and a third of the island’s territory.
Biodiversity is astonishing in Cuba. Only there you’ll find (or not!) the bee hummingbird, aka the smallest bird on Earth. It’s home to thousands of animal and plant species, as well as to a particularly large crocodile population — so beware!
One of Cuba’s natural wonders that you shouldn’t miss is the Viñales Valley (seen above) and its unique rocks known as mogotes. The valley has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, thanks to the region’s centuries-old tobacco farming culture.
4. Pristine beaches
Yup, I’m talking about 3,735 km (2,321 mi) of coastline, or the world’s 31st-longest. Cuba is surrounded by sun-kissed white sand beaches and the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean.
The mostly deserted coast is dotted with lovely fishing villages and glitzy all-inclusive resorts at strategic locations.
Highlights include the busy Varadero Beach (pictured above) and more secluded beaches on Cuba’s countless keys, such as the suggestively named Playa Paraíso (or Paradise Beach).
When in Havana… Do as Ernest Hemingway did, maybe? The iconic novelist would grab his daiquiri in La Bodeguita del Medio (where it was indeed created) and his mojito in El Floridita, which has been operating since 1817.
Those two cocktails, plus rum and Coke (aka the Cuba Libre), are all made with white rum and are certainly among the top things Cuba is known for.
The mojito is the oldest of the three and, as legend has it, was invented by explorer Sir Francis Drake in the 16th century.
We may never find out what’s history and what’s myth, but what really matters is you should try the best mojito ever in a historic spot like El Floridita, just like many personalities have done in the last two centuries.
Natives smoked tobacco in the Caribbean since pre-colonial times. The Spanish soon took a fancy to it, though, and by 1542 they’d set up a factory in Cuba.
Throughout the following centuries, the island’s cigars gained an international reputation and are now widely considered the finest on the planet. Top brands include Montecristo, Partagás, and Cohiba, all of which are run by state-owned Cubatabaco.
When you visit, make sure you get your cigars in official shops called Casa del Habano, where you’ll be able to buy the emblematic hand-rolled cigars Cuba is known for. Counterfeit, machine-rolled ones are all over the streets of Havana, but they’re not worth the tempting price.
Touring a factory in the capital or a tobacco farm in Viñales are also awesome experiences for cigar aficionados and curious visitors alike. You might even learn a thing or two about the art of pairing cigars and rum while you’re at it.
7. Vintage cars
Because the U.S. banned virtually all exports to Cuba in the early 1960s, no American cars ever made it to the island after that. The Cuban government did import Soviet cars for state use, yet regular Cubans had to make do with whatever was available.
Before the Revolution, Cuba did have an affluent if small middle class that drove the bulky and outlandish American cars of the day.
Some 60,000 of the so-called yank tanks can still be spotted on Cuban streets, thanks to the ingenuity of Cubans, who are constantly exchanging parts and revamping engines to keep the cars on the road.
The reason vintage cars dominate the Cuban landscape is pretty serious, yet there’s no denying they’re an essential part of the island’s picturesque vibes.
8. Dance music
The Cuban sound is the high point of dance music from the Caribbean. Cuba was the birthplace of genres that turned into fads across the globe, such as bolero, rumba, mambo, and cha-cha-chá.
After the revolution, most nightclubs were shut down, and the musicians that didn’t go into exile turned to classical music and lyrics-driven folk songs.
It would take decades before the rebirth of the tourism industry in Cuba (which happened around 30 years ago) spurred renewed interest in traditional dance music on the island and abroad, thanks in part to musical projects like Buena Vista Social Club as well.
Now, you can watch dancers perform on the streets of Havana and in historic cabarets like the Tropicana Club.
9. A troubled relationship with the U.S.
Though it’s hard to discuss a book-worthy topic in a handful of paragraphs, the U.S. and Cuba have had strained relationships since Castro’s government nationalized American assets on the island. He then sought financial and military support from the Soviet Union in the early days of the revolution.
America obviously wasn’t amused by the idea of having a national security threat a hundred miles off the coast of Florida and staged an invasion of the island in 1961.
When that failed, an all-encompassing embargo banning any trade with Cuba was passed by the U.S. Congress.
Three decades after the end of the Cold War, the embargo remains in effect, chiefly due to lobbying by Cuban-Americans who want to keep crippling the island’s economy and weaken its government as a result.
The main symbol of this long-lasting feud between the two countries is the U.S. naval base and detention center at Guantánamo Bay (seen above), on the island’s southernmost tip.
While America has controlled the area from 1903, since 1959 the Cuban government has cashed only one check as payment for the lease of the territory.
The origins of rum are actually uncertain, yet what we do know is it was invented somewhere in the Caribbean. The molasses liquor went on to become closely associated with Cuban culture, a leading sugarcane producer and the birthplace of world-famous rum-based cocktails.
It was in Cuba, by the way, that rum made the transition from working-class to a more refined spirit. Spanish entrepreneur Facundo Bacardí Massó was single-handedly responsible for that when he founded Bacardi in Havana in 1862.
Following the revolution, Bacardi left the island for Bermuda. But Havana Club, a company established in the 1930s that the state later nationalized, became synonymous with the high quality of Cuban rum afterward.
11. Fascinating people
Witty, welcoming, and cultured are just a few of the words typically used to describe Cubans. Western media seem to have a knack for portraying citizens of socialist states as sheepish and disciplined, though that couldn’t be far from the truth when it comes to Cubans.
Locals can be extremely critical of their government as they point out the shortcomings of daily life in Cuba, which doesn’t mean they’d rather live in a capitalist society.
Talking to Cubans can be thought-provoking to the very least, as they’ll show you all their joie de vivre and one-of-a-kind worldview in one sitting.
12. Mouthwatering cuisine
Just like most countries on the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast of the Americas, Cuba owes its culinary culture to the fusion of indigenous, Iberian, and West African traditions.
That means rice, beans, cassava, and plantains reign supreme and are usually paired with some kind of meat. Seafood, for obvious reasons, is also a forte of Cuban cuisine and makes up dishes like the delicious seafood rice above.
13. Great public health
Providing free, universal healthcare to all its citizens has been a top priority of the Cuban government since the revolution. As a consequence, the island boasts a higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality rates than the majority of Latin American nations.
The so-called “doctor diplomacy” is another mark of Cuba’s healthcare system: each year, the state sends thousands of medical personnel overseas to help other developing countries cope with their healthcare needs.
Cuba developed its own Covid-19 vaccine and is an increasingly popular destination for medical tourism, which leads to around $40 million in yearly revenues for the national economy.
14. Amazing coffee
Cuba is not the leading coffee producer it once was until the mid-20th century, but a strong coffee culture is still very much present on the island.
Cubans enjoy their coffee black and sweet, and have developed an unusual technique to that effect: they normally mix brown sugar with coffee grounds before brewing the beverage.
Then they’ll stir it quite intensely to create a creamy (and delicious) coffee like you’ve never tasted at home.
15. Historic towns
In case you have a couple spare days when you visit, be sure to leave some room in your trip plans for a country tour. Cuba may seem small, yet driving from Havana in the northeast to Santiago in the south might take up to 12 hours!
You won’t regret leaving the capital, though. Cuba is dotted with colorful colonial towns where you’ll forget Havana’s hustle and bustle in two seconds.
A few of them, like Baracoa, Remedios, and Trinidad (pictured above), were founded in the early 16th century! Trinidad, by the way, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988.
Together with a strong dance tradition, this is another cultural item where you can spot a deep connection between Cuba and my home country (Brazil): religions born within the African diaspora.
Santería is the cult of orishas, or divine personifications of elements of nature. It’s highly ritualistic but isn’t necessarily incompatible with Catholicism and other western religions.
In fact, enslaved people would often fuse together aspects of both religious traditions in an attempt to avoid persecution.
The socialist state tried to restrict religious practices in the country, to little effect. Today, Santería practitioners may even be better off than before 1959, as Cuba has made enormous progress in fighting racism since.
17. Sports culture
Ironically, Cuba’s sports culture is far closer to that of the United States than Latin America’s. That means soccer isn’t that much of a thing. Baseball and boxing, on the other hand, are national favorites. Basketball and volleyball are quite big too.
Cuba has historically invested in its athletes and, as a result, has had phenomenal results at international competitions despite its tiny size.
Its Olympic team is the 18th most successful overall in terms of medals and, within the Americas, is second only to the United States. Impressive, huh?
Cuba is known for being a colorful and sun-drenched island where you’ll meet warm and hard-working people.
While many sites across the country lack the top-notch infrastructure you might be used to in your trips, the touristy areas have all the comforts of home.
Yet even if you’re staying in an all-inclusive resort when you visit, do venture out and lose yourself in the charming streets of old Havana. That’s how you’ll discover all the magic Cuba is famous for.