City Cruises

Published on Monday, July 21, 2014

Two-minute guide to Cuba

For many travellers Cuba's biggest draws are its pristine beaches, lapped by a perfectly turquoise Caribbean sea and backed by twisting mangroves. But in the first of a series of new 'two-minute' travel guides, argues that the country's real beauty lies in its culture and people. Read on to discover the authentic Cuba and to ensure your clients have a Cuban holiday which truly seeps into the soul....

Even the most rhythmically challenged tourist will not be able to resist tapping a foot to the Old Havana's beat. In fact Cuba's music, arts and dance scene is one of the most surprising legacies of socialist rule, with the government encouraging participation in the arts, and making performances, concerts and galleries all but free for Cubans.  Street salsa, poetry readings and art exhibitions abound on every street corner, and open galleries flourish on the Malecon; Cuba's art is overwhelming, and you would pay a fortune to see musicians and artists this good elsewhere. So keep an eye peeled on the ever-changing programmes at El Floridita, the Casa de la Musica and the Teatro Nacional and don't be afraid to change plans to take in a spontaneous streetside salsa show. Remember though, artists and performers are often on a meagre state salary, tourist tips are a much-needed boost in income.

While Havana has it all, for Cuba's hottest culture consider edgy, urban, Santiago de Cuba. Rough around the edges, and too far away from Havana for any of the capital's limited wealth to filter down into its crumbling streets. For some the hardship, hawkers and the country's hottest climate are too much to handle and travel opinions are divided. But this is Cuba untamed for tourists, and the fiery Afro-Cuban beats and the well-preserved Santeria religion, music, dance and culture will leave a lasting impression.

If Cuba's culture is renowned, its appeal to nature-lovers is not. With 19% of its land protected, and two of its nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites recognised for their natural importance, nature travellers should not discount the Caribbean's largest island. The dramatic scenery of the Sierra Maestra offers spectacular hiking routes, the karst-filled valleys of Vinales ethereal sunsets and its coastline superb diving, all without the crowds found in more celebrated nature destinations.

Of course, some of these natural wonders are its beaches, and while a stay in Cuba can't ignore its culture, it also shouldn't ignore its coastline. Away from the all-inclusive enclaves of the north lie a host of tropical beaches and uninhabited islands, fringed by reefs and with pristine sand and swimming coves. While these may not have five-star service and sun-beds, tourists will find local beach-front cafes serving freshly-caught fish or even just fishermen happy to catch and cook lunch. Cayos Levisa and Jutias are an easy day trip from popular Vinales, with sun-bleached mangroves and powder-white sand. These little cays have a dive centre and kayak rental between them, and for longer stays in paradise Levisa also has little bungalows for rent.

So yes, it is the Caribbean, but don't make the mistake in thinking that Cuba is just another beach break. Beyond the resorts lies some of the world's hottest culture and while the complexities of communist rule can challenge preconceptions, taking the time to discover the authentic Cuba will be a holiday experience that lasts a lifetime.

For more insider tips and underrated experiences read's 2 minute travel guide to Cuba -

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