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Sightseeing in Cuba

Ay, que bolá? Havana with its associations of cigars, Castro and the strains of soulful Afro Cuban music haunts the imagination; bits of old Spain and new Cuba commingle as does the America of a time that’s now only on view in Hollywood classics. The capital of Cuba is the biggest city in the Caribbean and here’s a city in transition.

The Special Period (10 years of hardship after the USSR collapsed) had imposed a whole lot of restrictions on the growth of Cuba as the country collectively went into an austerity drive. Today you’ll still see the vestiges in buildings parched for a coat of fresh paint, in the back alleys, in many colonies. But there’re also huge shopping malls, and spanking new hotels along a sparkling beach and imported techno-soda-water-pop in discos.

The tourist can happily skip all that though, and stick with the cha-cha-cha and the bolero, with rum and the rumba, enjoy the newly restored colonial buildings and partake of that which makes Cuba a dream destination for many.

Havana is teeming with parks, plazas, and museums, surrounded by beaches, and swaying every night to the rhythms of salsa. Simon Bolivar House, Palace of Fine Arts, National Museum of Music, National Museum of the Revolution, Museum of the City, Museum of Guanabacoa, Jose Marti Memorial and natal house, The House of Africa, the Hemingway Museum, Guyasamin House Foundation, Carmen Montilla House, The Blue Ferret (home of Cuban painter Carlos Henriquez), Historical and Military Park "El Morro la Cabaña (headquarters of Ernesto Che Guevara), The Arab House to name a few.

Havana Vieja or Old Havana is a city within itself with fading Spanish forts and stylish cabarets that make it ideal for a walking tour. Que bolá? Havana-speak for what’s shaking? Havana is!

Nowhere does Cuba’s history live on more eloquently than in Santiago de Cuba . Cuba’s second largest city, and an equal rival of Havana in the arts, atmosphere and affairs of politics, Santiago de Cuba is noticeably Caribbean in its culture. The influence here is French rather than Spanish and people mostly of Haitian origin. You’ll find museums and architectural heritage galore: sights of note are the Casa de Diego Velazquez, Cementerio Santa Ifegenia where rest such revolutionaries as Jose Marti, and the Museo Municipal Bacardi. There’s also music and dancing, partying and romance of the inimitable Cuban cut. Trinidad , a town that goes back to the 1700s has seen its share of prosperity and disaster. It was boomtown Cuba in the 19th century and discarded as the wealth-engendering sugarcane plantations were destroyed during the wars of independence. Today Trinidad’s chief attractions are the remaining buildings of a bygone prosperity, the Museo Historico Municipal (one of many museums), the Taller Alfarero ceramics workshop, and the fine beaches that stretch out beyond it.

Western Cuba is the place for hikers, nature lovers and visitors who’re looking for more than surf and salsa. Two UNESCO biosphere reserves in the region protect a large variety of indigenous flora and fauna.

In the province of Pinar de la Rio, take up the trail through the Cordillera de Guaniguanico, go cave diving around the fissure-ridden hills of Vinales and spa in style at the Spanish resort of San Diego de los Banos. There’s also Maria la Gorda where the ocean comes alive in colourful sea life, which is ideal for scuba diving.

Eastern Cuba is best captured in the historical town of Baracoa , which lies between two bays, surrounded by sparkling blue ocean, typically Caribbean in its leisurely pace and stunning palm landscape. In this town, established by Diego Velazquez, there are stunning forts that stand testimony to its days as Cuba’s earliest European settlement, but these are a bonus. Mostly, however, it’s where you head for a good sprinkling of salt-water spray midst much beauty.

Cuba has six UNESCO biosphere reserves and 14 national parks. The biosphere reserves are Cuchillas del Toa, Guanahacabibes in the west, the Sierra del Rosario, 1 ½ hours from Havana, Baconao in the east, the mangroves of Cienaga de Zapata and Buena vista.

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