Santiago de Cuba
You can take Santiago de Cuba in one of two ways: a hot, aggravating city full of hustlers and hassle that'll have you gagging to get on the first bus back to Havana; or a glittering cultural capital that has played an instrumental part in the evolution of Cuban literature, music, architecture, politics and ethnology.
Sancti Spíritus Province
2014 was a big year for Sancti Spíritus province. Its two main colonial towns both celebrated their 500th anniversaries amid much publicity, partying and cleaning up of important public buildings. It was proof that this small but well-endowed province guards what is arguably Cuba’s most precious historical legacy.
Cuba’s contradictions are magnified in Holguín. Perhaps something in the undeniable beauty of the province’s hill-studded hinterland breeds extremes. Fulgencio Batista, and his ideological opposite, Fidel Castro, were both reared here, as were Reinaldo Arenas and Guillermo Infante, dissident writers who didn’t have a lot in common with either leader.
Pinar del Río Province
The fragrant aroma of a fine cigar is an unmistakable scent and within Cuba, its smokey drift can be traced back to Pinar del Río province, the world's premier place to grow tobacco. The region is a rolling rustic canvas of fertile, rust-red oxen-furrowed fields, thatched tobacco-drying houses and sombrero-clad guajiros (rural farmers).
Banish those grainy news images of prisoners in orange jumpsuits from your consciousness; the Cuban version of Guantánamo (on the other side of the security fence) is a fantasy land of crinkled mountains and exuberant foliage that seems as far away from modern America as a star in another galaxy.
Ciego de Ávila Province
Diminutive Ciego de Ávila's finger-in-the-dyke moment came during the late-19th-century Cuban Wars of Independence: it became the site of an impressive fortified wall, the Trocha, built to keep out rebellious armies of the east from the prosperous west. Today, the province continues to be the cultural divide between the Oriente and Occidente.
Few parts of the world get named after yachts, which helps explain why in Granma (christened for the boat in which Fidel Castro and his bedraggled revolutionaries clambered ashore to kick-start a guerrilla war in 1956), Cuba's viva la Revolución spirit burns most fiercely.
Villa Clara Province
What is that word hanging in the air over Villa Clara, one of the nation's most diverse provinces? 'Revolution', perhaps? And not just because Che Guevara liberated its capital, Santa Clara, from Batista's corrupt gambling party to kick-start the Castro brothers' 55-year (and counting) stint in power. Oh, no.
Welcome to the maze. Camagüey's odd, labyrinthine layout is the by-product of two centuries spent fighting off musket-toting pirates like Henry Morgan: tumultuous times led the fledgling settlement to develop a peculiar street pattern designed to confuse pillaging invaders and provide cover for its long-suffering residents (or so legend has it).