Food & Drink
Until recently Cuba was a country where rationing dictated the menu. Only in recent years did change incrementally start. Inspired and enabled by the ongoing political and economic reform, the nation’s long-suppressed chefs started innovating. Sure, creativity in part comes from facing limitations, but there's no denying that a culinary revolution is coming.
The Culinary Challenge
Señores and señoras, we are pleased to announce that Cuba is no longer the proverbial ‘leftover’ plate of the culinary world. The turnaround has been astronomical and unprecedented. The economic reforms of 2011, when the Cuban government allowed private restaurants (until then limited to 12 people) to expand and diversify, has been a massive game-changer.
Taste-deprived travelers who once wisely elected to skip the first few courses to proceed directly to rum and cigars, now have honey-glazed chicken, lovingly prepared béchamel sauces, and new takes on old Cuban favorites such as ropa vieja (spicy shredded beef). Feeding the trend, Havana and other cities are awash with creative new private restaurants experimenting with cooking methods and ingredients previously unheard of on the island. Free from the shackles of austere 1990s rationing, Cuban chefs bandy around words like ‘fusion’ and ‘medium-rare’, and inscribe their menus with dishes such as eggplant caviar.
For first-time visitors accustomed to French-style creativity or American abundance, the food might not seem very remarkable. But if you last visited Cuba in the early 2000s, in the days when all chickens were fried to smithereens and soggy cheese-and-ham sandwiches spelled lunch, you’re in for a rather pleasant surprise.
Stewing 500 Years
The pain and shortages of the 1990s didn’t do Cuban cuisine any favors, starving it of all but the most basic of ingredients and obscuring what, beneath the surface, has always been a rich and surprisingly diverse food culture.
Cuba’s cuisine is a creative stew of selective morsels, recipes and cooking techniques left behind by successive travelers since the epoch of Columbus and Velázquez. Imagine a bubbling cauldron filled with ingredients plucked from Spain, Africa, France, pre-colonial Taínos, and cultures from various other islands in the Caribbean that has been left to intermingle and marinate for 500 years.
From the original Taínos came indigenous root vegetables such as yucca and sweet potato, and native fruits such as guava; from the Spanish came pork, rice, flavor-enhancing spices and different frying techniques; African slave culture brought plantains in their various guises along with congrí (rice and beans cooked together with spices in the same pot); while, from its island neighbors, Cuba shares the unmistakable taste of the Caribbean enshrined in sofrito, a base sauce of tomatoes seasoned with onions, peppers, garlic, bay leaf and cumin.
Mix it all together for ‘Cuban’ cuisine: simple, hearty but healthy food that’s light on spice (cumin and oregano predominate), but has no shortage of flavor. Whole roast pork is the meat of choice, closely followed by chicken, fried or roasted and often flavored with citrus sauces or honey.
Never far from the sea, the Cubans love fish: lobster, crab, prawns, aguja (swordfish) and pargo (snapper) are common. The key starch is rice usually mixed with beans as either moros y cristianos (made with black beans) or congrí (made with red beans). Root vegetables are another mainstay and are complemented by plantains, cooked many ways. In season, Cuban avocados are sublime and tropical fruit is abundant.
Don't leave Cuba without trying the national dish, ropa vieja (spicy shredded beef), whole roast pork with all the trimmings, picadillo (ground beef with olives and capers), tostones (twice-fried plantains), and moros y cristianos.
Pioneers in the field of rum manufacture in the mid-19th century, the Cubans successfully transformed aguardiente, the coarse and unrefined ‘fire water’ imbibed by sailors and pirates on the Spanish Main, into the smooth, clear ‘Ron Superior’ used today in sophisticated cocktails such as mojitos and daiquiris.
The man behind the metamorphosis was a Spanish immigrant from Catalonia called Don Facundo Bacardí Massó (1814-86). Don Facundo’s Santiago de Cuba rum factory was inaugurated in a bat-infested dockside warehouse in 1862 where he experimented with the region’s high-quality sugarcane to create a new kind of aged rum that was delicate, crisp and fruity on the palate. Winning instant popularity, Bacardí’s name quickly became a byword for rum and the family emerged as powerful and influential voices in Cuban politics.
Yet the Bacardís ultimately fell out with the Castro regime in the early 1960s and fled abroad, moving their headquarters to Bermuda. Although you won’t find any Bacardí rum sold in Cuba today, the company’s old factory in Santiago still produces the domestically popular Ron Caney (the so-called ‘rum of the revolution’), stored in Don Facundo's barrels.
The other famous Cuban rum dynasty, Havana Club was founded by José Arechabala in the town of Cárdenas in 1878. The Arechabala family also fled Cuba after the revolution although they were less successful in maintaining their trademark, seized by the Cuban government in 1973. Today, Havana Club accounts for 40% of Cuba’s alcohol market.
Aside from the Ron Caney factory in Santiago and the Havana Club operation now based in Santa Cruz del Norte near Havana, Cuba supports more than 100 rum factories. Tap a local and they’ll probably wax poetically about Ron Santiago de Cuba, Ron Mulata (made in Villa Clara) or Ron Varadero.
Rum is made from molasses, a by-product of sugarcane. Its fabrication in Cuba has been overseen by generations of skillful maestros romeros (‘rum masters’), who must have a minimum of 15 years of rum-tasting experience. The drink is classified by both color (dark, golden or clear) and age (añejo). Good rums can range from anything from three years to 14 years in age. As a rule, rum cocktails (always made with clear rum) are more popular with tourists than Cubans. Cubans prefer to drink their rum dark and neat (without ice) in order to enjoy the full flavor.
Fruit Glorious Fruit
Stay in a Cuban casa particular and you’ll nearly always be offered a massive breakfast. The first thing to arrive is usually an ambrosial plate of tropical fruit. Its contents vary according to season and location, but the classic selection consists of a juicy quintet of banana, papaya, mango, pineapple and guava. Of these only guava and pineapple pre-date the arrival of the Spanish on the isles. Bananas and mangoes, both Asian in origin, were brought to Cuba during the colonial period, where they thrive in the tropical climate. The papaya is indigenous to South America.
Feature: Regional Specialties
- Caibarién This small town in Villa Clara province is Cuba’s crab capital.
- Baracoa A completely different food universe to the rest of Cuba. Specialties include cucurucho (sweet blend of honey, coconut, guava and nuts), bacán (tamale with mashed banana, crab and coconut), teti (tiny fish indigenous to Toa River), and lechita (spicy coconut sauce).
- Playa Larga & Zapata Peninsula Crocodiles are farmed and consumed in stews in hotels and casas particulares in southern Matanzas province.
- Bayamo Ostiones (oysters usually served in a tomato sauce) are a staple street-food in Granma’s main city.
- Oriente Congrí – rice and red beans seasoned with cumin, peppers and pork chunks – has its roots in the African-influenced culture of eastern Cuba. In the west, you’re more likely to get moros y cristianos (with black beans but no pork).
- Las Tunas Birthplace of La Caldosa, a soup-like stew made with root vegetables, chicken and spices.
Sidebar: Best Eating Cities
- Havana Cuba’s most creative food
- Baracoa Spiciest and sweetest cuisine
- Trinidad Private restaurants galore
- Viñales Best whole roast pork
Guarapo is pure sugarcane juice mixed with ice and lemon that is served from quaint little roadside stalls called guaraperos all over rural Cuba.
Sidebar: Cocktail Holy Trinity
The ‘holy trinity’ of cocktails consists of the mojito, the daiquiri and the Cuba Libre.
Un Bocadito, Por Favor
One part of bussing it around by Víazul (www.viazul.com) you'll get accustomed to pretty quickly is the overly lengthy stop at a government restaurant in the middle of nowhere. There's a couple of classic stopovers in Mayabeque Province (Havana–Varadero buses always stop here) and if you're hungry (or bored) in the 30 minutes you'll be waiting you'll also get acquainted intimately with the bocadito, as often as not the only available item on the menu.
A bocadito is a savory snack in many Latin American countries but in Cuba it translates onto the plate as a sandwich. Almost always, the filling is ham and cheese. A pungent cheese similar to the Alsace region's Munster is used, but the notable bit is the ham. In a tried-and-tested money-saving throwback to the Special Period, the ham will look from the front of the sandwich like it's several layers thick. Open the bread, however, and you'll see the ham folded multiple times at the front to give a mere appearance of an ample portion: at the back, it will be just the one lonesome layer of meat.
The Cuban Way of Life
Blurring past the outskirts of a provincial city on a tour bus, Cuba can seem bleak and austere. But what you see isn't always what you get on this island. Try observation, patience and a little sleuthing to glimpse beneath Cuba's hard and opaque surface. You'll see that elaborate codes keep vibrant local life ticking. Crack them to find the irrepressible energy and inventiveness, the culture's non-stop dance to carry on in spite of everything.
A Recipe for Being Cuban
Just try to understand life on this ever-contradictory island. Your first impression may be that it is solid and immutable. But the truth is that Cuba is a moving target that evades easy definition.
For starters, it's like nowhere else. For those familiar with Latin America, there's close-knit families and an ease with unpredictability. But there are differences too. Cuba's strong educational system has created erudite citizens more likely to quote the classics than pop songs. They are playful, even raucous, but also intimate with hardship and austerity, skilled but as languorous as any Caribbean outport.
The best way to get to know Cuba is to reserve comment and watch it unfold before you. While long lines and poor service infuriate tourists, Cubans remain unflappable. Rushing doesn't make things happen any faster. But there are richer ways to pass the time: shooting the breeze in rocking chairs, spending Sundays with families or inviting their cousins, friends and neighbors over when a bottle of rum comes your way.
Survivors by nature and necessity, Cubans have long displayed an almost inexhaustible ability to bend the rules and 'work things out' when it matters. The two most overused verbs in the national phrasebook are conseguir (to get, manage) and resolver (to resolve, work out). Cubans are experts at doing both. Their intuitive ability to bend the rules and make something out of nothing is borne out of economic necessity. In a small nation bucking modern sociopolitical realities, where monthly salaries top out at around the equivalent of US$25, survival can often mean getting innovative as a means of supplementing personal income.
Cruise the crumbling streets of Centro Habana and you'll see people conseguir-ing and resolver-ing wherever you go. There's the off-duty doctor using his car as a taxi, or the street cartoonist scribbling sketches of unsuspecting tourists in the hope of earning a tip. Other schemes may be ill-gotten or garnered through trickery, such as the compañero (comrade) who pockets the odd blemished cigar from the day job to sell to unsuspecting Canadians. Old Cuba hands know one of the most popular ways to make extra cash is working with (or over) tourists.
In Cuba, hard currency (ie convertible pesos) rules, primarily because it is the only way of procuring the modest luxuries that make living in this austere socialist republic more comfortable. Paradoxically, the post-1993 double economy has reinvigorated the class system the Revolution worked so hard to neutralize, and it's no longer rare to see Cubans with access to convertibles touting designer clothing while others beg tourists for bars of soap. This stark re-emergence of 'haves' and 'have-nots' is striking.
Other social traits that have emerged since the Revolution are more altruistic and less divisive. In Cuba sharing is second nature and helping out your compañero with a lift, a square meal or a few convertibles when they're in trouble is considered a national duty. See the way that strangers interact in queues and neighbors share everything from tools, to food, to babysitting time without a second thought.
Cubans are informal. The tú form of Spanish address is much more common that the formal usted, and people greet each other with a variety of friendly addresses. Don't be surprised if a complete stranger calls you mi amor (my love) or mi vida (my life), and expect casa particular owners to regularly open the front door shirtless (men), or with their hair in rollers (women). To confuse matters further, Cuban Spanish is rich in colloquialisms, irony, sarcasm and swears.
The Home Front
While Cuban homes sport the basics (fridges, cookers, microwaves), they still lack the expensive trappings of 21st-century consumerism. Car ownership is approximately 38 per 1000, compared to 800 per 1000 in the US; few households sport clothes dryers (spot the flapping clothes lines). That impressive breakfast laid out by your casa particular owner at 8am probably took three hours of searching and queuing to procure (Cuban supermarkets have nothing like the variety and abundance of goods as their counterparts in the US or Europe).
Not that this dents home pride; gathered ornaments and mementos, however old and kitschy, are displayed with love and kept ruthlessly clean. To most outsiders, the local lifestyle seems old-fashioned and austere.
What makes Cuba different from somewhere like Mexico City or Philadelphia, though, is the government's heavy subsidising of every facet of life, meaning there are few mortgages, no health-care bills, no college fees and fewer taxes. Expensive nights out cost next to nothing in Cuba, where tickets for the theater, the cinema, the ballpark or a music concert are state-subsidized and considered a right of the people.
The Winds of Change
Fueled by cautious reform, the Cuban way of life has been changing slowly and subtly since Raúl Castro took the reins from Fidel in 2008. Though the progress may seem sluggish to insiders, a returning exile who has spent the last decade in Miami or Madrid would have some illuminating epiphanies.
Barely anyone had a cell phone in Cuba in the mid-2000s; today, the devices are almost as ubiquitous as they are in the rest of the world. The recent addition of public wi-fi hotspots has turned parks into vibrant collective one-sided conversations held loudly with relatives abroad. A diaspora of families separated for decades are getting to know one another again.
Electronic goods legalized in 2008 have also found their way into Cuban households. These days, it is not unusual to see a DVD player and a modern flat-screen TV beneath a yellowing picture of José Martí. The ability of Cubans to travel abroad since January 2013 has enabled a lucky few who can afford it to shop overseas. Consequently, some of the more successful casas particulares come equipped with shiny sandwich-makers and coffee machines.
Cuba’s improved culinary scene is one of the most visible changes for people who remember the hunger of the 1990s. Notwithstanding, the dilemma of any new private restaurant owner is how to pitch their pricing – at foreigners or Cubans, or a mix of both? Some keep two menus with different pricing in both currencies. Top restaurants in Havana are still generally the preserve of tourists and diplomats, while private restaurants in the smaller provincial towns are patronized primarily by locals and are thus more reasonably priced.
Until 2008, Cubans were inexplicably barred from staying in tourist hotels. While high prices still keep out many, some of the more economical resorts like Playa Santa Lucía welcome plenty of Cuban guests during the long hot summer holiday.
A quick drive around the Cuban countryside will induce further surprises. While it’s hardly LA yet, there are noticeably more cars on the road than there were in the early 2000s. That said, the new law permitting Cubans to buy and sell their own vehicles is little more than a political gesture. Precious few people can afford Toyotas and Audis, meaning 'yank tanks' and Ladas remain the cars of necessity.
Agriculture has also registered significant improvements. Pre-2008, Cuba’s notoriously emaciated and unproductive cows wandered around pathetically in twos or threes. Now whole fields full of plump healthy-looking livestock populate the farms of Las Tunas and Camagüey provinces.
Markets and shops, though still far from lavish, have fewer empty shelves these days and there has been a surge in shops selling large household items such as fridges and washing machines. In urban centers, private business resonates everywhere, from street-side barbers to sophisticated tour guides with their own business cards and websites. You’ll even see professional street-signs advertising casas particulares or restaurants – something that was unheard of (and prohibited) until recently.
Inevitably these changes, while almost universally welcomed, have accentuated income divisions in a country long accustomed to socialism. People with ready access to convertibles – primarily those working in the tourist sector – have prospered; indeed, some casas particulares in Havana (who were limited to renting just two rooms until 2011) have morphed into mini-hotels in all but name. Meanwhile, the lives of people in the more isolated parts of rural Cuba have changed little. In small towns in the Oriente, the foibles that have haunted Cuba since the Special Period – shortages of bottled water, crumbling public buildings and awful roads – continue to bite.
Considered a right of the masses, professional sport was abolished by the government after the Revolution. Performance-wise it was the best thing the new administration could have done. Since 1959, Cuba's Olympic medal haul has rocketed into the stratosphere, though in recent years its flagging performance is blamed on lack of funding.
The crowning moment came in 1992 when Cuba – a country of 11 million people languishing low on the world's rich list – brought home 14 gold medals and ended fifth on the overall medals table. It's a testament to Cuba's high sporting standards that their 11th-place finish in Athens in 2004 was considered something of a national failure.
Characteristically, the sporting obsession starts at the top. Fidel Castro was once renowned for his baseball-hitting prowess, but what is lesser known was his personal commitment to the establishment of a widely accessible national sporting curriculum at all levels. In 1961 the National Institute of Sport, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER) founded a system of sport for the masses that eradicated discrimination and integrated children from a young age. By offering paid leisure-time to workers and dropping entrance fees to major sports events, the organization caused participation in popular sports to multiply tenfold by the 1970s and the knock-on effect to performance was tangible.
Cuban pelota (baseball) is legendary and the country is riveted during the October to March regular season, turning rabid for the play-offs in April. You'll see passions running high in the main square of provincial capitals, where fans debate minute details of the game with lots of finger-wagging in what is known as a peña deportiva (fan club) or esquina caliente (hot corner).
Cuba is also a giant in amateur boxing, as indicated by champions Teófilo Stevenson, who brought home Olympic gold in 1972, 1976 and 1980, and Félix Savón, another triple medal winner, most recently in 2000. Every sizable town has an arena called sala polivalente, where big boxing events take place, while training and smaller matches happen at gyms, many of which train Olympic athletes.
A convergence of three different races and numerous nationalities, Cuba is a multicultural society that, despite difficult challenges, has been relatively successful in forging racial equality.
The annihilation of the indigenous Taíno by the Spanish and the brutality of the slave system left a bloody mark in the early years of colonization, but the situation had improved significantly by the second half of the 20th century. The Revolution guaranteed racial freedom by law, though black Cubans are still far more likely to be stopped by the police for questioning, and over 90% of Cuban exiles in the US are of white descent. Black people are also under-represented in politics; of the victorious rebel army officers that took control of the government in 1959, only a handful (Juan Almeida being the most obvious example) were black or mixed race.
According to the most recent census, Cuba's racial breakdown is 27% mulato (mixed race), 64% white, 8% black and 1% Chinese. Aside from the obvious Spanish legacy, many of the so-called 'white' population are the descendants of French immigrants who arrived on the island in various waves during the early part of the 19th century. Indeed, the cities of Guantánamo, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba were all either pioneered or heavily influenced by French émigrés, and much of Cuba's coffee and sugar industries owe their development to French entrepreneurship.
The black population is also an eclectic mix. Numerous Haitians and Jamaicans came to Cuba to work in the sugar fields in the 1920s and they brought many of their customs and traditions with them. Their descendants can be found in Guantánamo and Santiago in the Oriente or places such as Venezuela in Ciego de Ávila province, where Haitian voodoo rituals are still practiced.
Religion is among the most misunderstood and complex aspects of Cuban culture. Before the Revolution, 85% of Cubans were nominal Roman Catholics, though only 10% attended church regularly. Protestants made up most of the remaining church-going public, though a smattering of Jews and Muslims have always practiced in Cuba and still do. When the Revolution triumphed, 140 Catholic priests were expelled for reactionary political activities and another 400 left voluntarily, while the majority of Protestants, who represented society's poorer sector, had less to lose and stayed.
When the government declared itself Marxist-Leninist and therefore atheist, life for creyentes (literally 'believers') took on new difficulties. Though church services were never banned and freedom of religion never revoked, Christians were sent to Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción (UMAPs; Military Production Aid Units), where it was hoped hard labor might reform their religious ways; homosexuals and vagrants were also sent to the fields to work. This was a short-lived experiment, however. More trying for believers were the hard-line Soviet days of the '70s and '80s, when they were prohibited from joining the Communist Party and few, if any, believers held political posts. Certain university careers, notably in the humanities, were off-limits as well.
Things have changed dramatically since then, particularly in 1992 when the constitution was revised, removing all references to the Cuban state as Marxist-Leninist and recapturing the laical nature of the government. This led to an aperture in civil and political spheres of society for religious adherents, and to other reforms (eg believers are now eligible for party membership).
Cuba is one of the few small nations graced with the visit of the past three popes. Since Cuban Catholicism gained the papal seal of approval with Pope John Paul II's visit in 1998, church attendance surged, rewarded further with the arrival of his successor Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. Pope Francis, the first pontiff from Latin America, was received by a thrilled public in a nine-day visit in 2015 as he urged more freedom to worship. He also is credited with brokering the diplomatic thaw in US–Cuba relations.
It's worth noting that church services have a strong youth presence. There are currently 400,000 Catholics regularly attending Mass and 300,000 Protestants from 54 denominations. Other denominations such as the Seventh Day Adventists and Pentecostals are rapidly growing in popularity.
Of all Cuba's cultural mysteries (and there are many), Santería is the most complex, cloaking an inherent 'African-ness' and leading you down an unmapped road that is at once foggy and fascinating.
A syncretistic religion that hides African roots beneath a symbolic Catholic veneer, Santería is a product of the slave era, but remains deeply embedded in contemporary Cuban culture, where it has had a major impact on the evolution of the country's music, dance and rituals. Today more than three million Cubans identify as believers, including numerous writers, artists and politicians.
Santería's misrepresentations start with its name; the word is a historical misnomer first coined by Spanish colonizers to describe the 'saint worship' practiced by 19th-century African slaves. A more accurate moniker is Regla de Ocha (way of the orishas), or Lucumí, named for the original adherents who hailed from the Yoruba ethno-linguistic group in southwestern Nigeria, a prime looting ground for brutal slave-traders.
Fully initiated adherents of Santería (called santeros) believe in one God known as Oludomare, the creator of the universe and the source of Ashe (all life forces on earth). Rather than interact with the world directly, Oludomare communicates through a pantheon of orishas, various imperfect deities similar to Catholic saints or Greek gods, who are blessed with different natural (water, weather, metals) and human (love, intellect, virility) qualities. Orishas have their own feast days, demand their own food offerings, and are given numbers and colors to represent their personalities.
Unlike Christianity or Islam, Santería has no equivalent to the Bible or Koran. Instead, religious rites are transmitted orally and, over time, have evolved to fit the realities of modern Cuba. Another departure from popular world religions is the abiding focus on 'life on earth' as opposed to the afterlife, although Santería adherents believe strongly in the powers of dead ancestors, known as egun, whose spirits are invoked during initiation ceremonies.
Santería's syncretism with Catholicism occurred surreptitiously during the colonial era when African animist traditions were banned. In order to hide their faith from the Spanish authorities, African slaves secretly twinned their orishas with Catholic saints. Thus, Changó the male orisha of thunder and lightning was hidden somewhat bizarrely behind the feminine form of Santa Bárbara, while Elegguá, the orisha of travel and roads became St Anthony de Padua. In this way an erstwhile slave praying before a statue of Santa Bárbara was clandestinely offering his/her respects to Changó, while Afro-Cubans ostensibly celebrating the feast day of Our Lady of Regla (September 7) were, in reality, honoring Yemayá. This syncretization, though no longer strictly necessary, is still followed today.
The orishas (deities) are central to the understanding of Santería. There are over 400 of them in the traditional Yoruba religion, though only about a dozen are significant in contemporary Cuba. The most important are known as the Siete Potencias (seven powers) which, between them, control all aspects of daily life.
They are: Changó, the Zeus-like king of the gods; Yemayá, mother of the gods; Elegguá, god of destiny and travelers; Oggún, god of war; Ochún, god of love and sensuality; Oyá, guardian of cemeteries; and Obalatá, the white-clad god of peace and intellect. Two additional orishas important in Cuba are Babalú Ayé, god of healing; and Orula, god of fortune and wisdom, through whom the high priests of Santería (babalawos) interpret the oracles (Ifá).
The most popular orishas in Cuba are combative Changó, represented by Santa Bárbara; loving Ochún syncretized with Cuba's patron saint, the black Virgen de la Caridad; and motherly Yemayá, the patron saint of sailors and fishermen twinned with Our Lady of Regla. The orisha Babalú Ayé or San Lázaro, is also widely venerated by the sick for his healing powers. Every December 17th thousands of pilgrims make a procession to El Rincón, a church near Havana, in the hope of achieving better health.
Santeros believe that the orishas control every aspect of daily life and can bring both good and bad fortune. To garner their favor, people build altars, offer food or animal sacrifices, and summon up their spirits during drumming and initiation ceremonies. It is believed that by successfully harnessing the power of the orishas, a person can achieve a healthy balance between the forces of nature and the conflicting tugs on their personality. The ultimate goal is to determine your personal destiny.
Every practicing santero has an orisha special to them. The choice is usually determined by one's personal attributes; a strong man is a son of Changó, a bright child the offspring of Obalatá, and a sensuous woman a daughter of Ochún.
The Cabildos of Matanzas
Santería has many hotbeds, but none are more powerful than the port city of Matanzas. Dubbed the 'Athens of Cuba' in the mid-19th century for its abundance of poets and writers, the city's erudite white intellectuals obscured an underlying 'African-ness,' a cultural force that found expression in the roots music of rumba and the mysterious cabildos that helped shape it.
Afro-Cuban cabildos trace their origins back to the start of the colonial period when African slaves of similar ethnic backgrounds formed 'brotherhoods', coming together on feast days to worship the orishas (deities) and keep their ancient traditions alive.
By the mid-19th century there were an estimated 100 different cabildos in Cuba incorporating enslaved and freed blacks from the same African 'nations.' In the 1920s, Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz identified four broad 'nations' on the island: the Lucumí, from Nigeria's Yoruba tribe; the Arará, from Dahomey in present-day Benin; the Abakuá, from southwestern Cameroon; and the Kongo, from Angola.
A number of cabildos are still active in Matanzas today. The Iyesá Cabildo of San Juan de Bautista, a branch of Lucumí dating from 1854, is known for its distinctive ritualistic drumming. The Cabildo Arará Sabalú Nonjó, founded in 1880, is a small Arará offshoot that originated with slaves transported from the Dahomean city of Savalu. The Cabildo Santa Teresa Lucumí is an arm of the influential Villamil family whose members have played in numerous musical groups, including the legendary Muñequitos de Matanzas.
Feature: Cuban Cigars
From the sombrero-clad guajiros in the tobacco fields of Pinar del Río to the high-end smoking rooms and cigar-pushing hustlers of Havana, cigars are deeply embedded in Cuban culture. Here are some local favorites:
Cohiba The cigar championed by Fidel Castro. Made with Cuba's finest Pinar del Río province tobacco; production allegedly comes from a coveted 10 fields from the princedom of the nation's plantations, the Vuelta Abajo region around San Juan y Martínez.
Vegas Robaina Hard to come by outside Cuba, the brand is named after tobacco-growing legend Alejandro Robaina, famous for the outstanding quality of the tobacco used, which heralds from the Alejandro Robaina Tobacco Plantation outside Pinar del Río.
Partagás One of the best-loved cuban cigars since before the Revolution, known now for its annual ediciones limitada (limited editions).
Puro Cubano An unbranded cigar that Cubans prefer because of its vastly cheaper price, but nevertheless rolled with some of Pinar del Río province's best leaves.
The Revolution will be Blogged
Ever-literary Cuba is producing a growing number of eloquent bloggers with views across the political spectrum, despite poor internet access. Note that you probably shouldn't access these sites from Cuba.
Generación Y (Yoani Sánchez; www.desdecuba.com/generaciony) Sánchez is Cuba’s most famous blogger (and dissident) and her gritty blog 'Generación Y' has been testing the mettle of Cuba's censorship police since April 2007. An unapologetic critic of the Cuban government, she has attracted a huge international audience (US President Barack Obama once replied to one of her posts) and won numerous awards, including the Ortega & Gasset prize for digital journalism.
Havana Times (www.havanatimes.org) A website and ‘blog cooperative’ started by American writer Circles Robinson in 2008 that positions itself as anti-Castro and anti-embargo.
Café Fuerte (www.cafefuerte.com; Spanish only) Blog spot set up by four Cuban writers and journalists with international experience in 2010. It reports independently on Cuban-related news matters both inside and outside Cuba.
Sidebar: Main Cuban Crops
- Citrus fruit
Sidebar: Habana Vieja
Habana Vieja is one of the most crowded quarters in Latin America with over 98,000 people living in an area of just 4.5 sq km.
Sidebar: Eusebio Leal Spengler
Havana City Historian Eusebio Leal Spengler was born in the city in 1942. He has a degree in history and archaeological sciences, and a masters in Latin American, Caribbean and Cuban studies.
Cuba leads the world with the lowest patient to doctor ratio. It has almost three times as many doctors to patients as in the United States.
Sidebar: Javier Sotomayor
Cuba high-jumper Javier Sotomayor has held the world record (2.45m) for the event since 1993, and has recorded 17 of the 24 highest jumps ever.
Sidebar: French Culture
Elements of French culture imported via Haiti in the 1790s are still visible in Cuba today, particularly in the French-founded settlements of Guantánamo and Cienfuegos.
In June 2008 the Cuban government legalized sex-change operations and agreed to provide them free to qualifying parties.
Sidebar: Committees for the Defense of the Revolution
The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDRs, are Cuba's controversial local political committees. On the one hand, CDRs act as prime government tools in quashing dissent and maintaining a compliant population; on the other, they organize important community festivals, blood banks and vaccination campaigns.
Literature & the Arts
Leave your preconceptions about 'art in a totalitarian state' at home. The breadth of Cuban cinema, painting and literature could put many far more politically libertarian nations to shame. The Cubans seem to have a habit of taking almost any artistic genre and reinventing it for the better. You'll pick up everything here from first-class flamenco and ballet through to classical music and alternative cinema to Shakespearean theater and Lorca plays.
Cubans love conversation and extend their loquaciousness to the page. Maybe it's something in the rum, but since time immemorial, writers in this highly literate Caribbean archipelago have barely paused for breath, telling and retelling their stories with zeal. In the process they have produced some of Latin America's most groundbreaking, influential literature.
Any literary journey should begin in Havana in the 1830s. Cuban literature found its earliest voice in Cecilia valdés, a novel by Cirilo Villaverde (1812–94), published in 1882 but set 50 years earlier in a Havana divided by class, slavery and prejudice. It's widely considered to be the greatest 19th-century Cuban novel.
Preceding Villaverde, in publication if not historical setting, was romantic poet and novelist Gertrudis Gómez Avellaneda. Born to a rich Camagüeyan family of privileged Spanish gentry in 1814, Avellaneda was a rare female writer in a rigidly masculine domain. Eleven years before Uncle Tom's Cabin woke up America to the same themes, her novel Sab, published in 1841, tackled the prickly issues of race and slavery. It was banned in Cuba until 1914 due to its abolitionist rhetoric. What contemporary critics chose not to see was Avellaneda's subtle feminism, which depicted marriage as another form of slavery.
Further east, neoclassical poet and native santiagüero, José María de Heredia lived and wrote mainly from exile in Mexico. He was banished for allegedly conspiring against the Spanish authorities. His poetry, including the seminal Himno del desterrado, is tinged with a nostalgic romanticism for his homeland.
Cuban literature grew up in the early 1900s. Inspired by a mixture of Martí's modernism and new surrealistic influences wafting over from Europe, the first half of the 20th century was an age of experimentation for Cuban writers. The era's literary legacy rests on three giant pillars: Alejo Carpentier (1904–1980), a baroque wordsmith who invented the much-copied style of lo real maravilloso (magic realism); Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929–2005), a Joycean master of colloquial language who pushed the parameters of Spanish to barely comprehensible boundaries; and José Lezama Lima (1910–1976), a gay poet of Proustian ambition, whose weighty novels are rich in layers, themes and anecdotes.
None are easy to read, but all broke new ground inspiring erudite writers far beyond Cuban shores (Márquez and Rushdie among them). Swiss-born Carpentier's magnum opus was El siglo de las luces (Explosion in a Cathedral), which explores the impact of the French revolution in Cuba through a veiled love story. Many consider it to be the finest novel ever written by a Cuban author. Infante, from Gibara, rewrote the rules of language in Tres tristes tigres (Three Trapped Tigers), a study of street life in pre-Castro Havana. Lezama, meanwhile, took an anecdotal approach to novel writing in Paradiso (Paradise), a multilayered, widely interpreted evocation of Havana in the 1950s with homoerotic undertones.
Grasping at the coattails of this verbose trio was Miguel Barnet, an anthropologist from Havana, whose Biografía de un cimarrón (Biography of a Runaway Slave), published in 1963, gathered testimonies from 103-year-old former slave Esteban Montejo and crafted them into a fascinating written documentary of the brutal slave system nearly 80 years after its demise.
Born in Camagüey in 1902, mulato (mixed race) poet Nicolás Guillén was far more than just a writer: he was a passionate and lifelong champion of Afro-Cuban rights. Rocked by the assassination of his father in his youth, and inspired by the drum-influenced music of former black slaves, Guillén set about articulating the hopes and fears of dispossessed black laborers with the rhythmic Afro-Cuban verses that would ultimately become his trademark. Famous poems in a prolific career included the evocative Tengo (I Have) and the patriotic Che comandante, amigo (Commander Che, Friend).
Working in self-imposed exile during the Batista era, Guillén returned to Cuba after the revolution whereupon he was given the task of formulating a new cultural policy and setting up the Writer's Union, Uneac (Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba).
The Dirty Realists
In the 1990s and 2000s, baby boomers that had come of age in the era of censorship and Soviet domination began to respond to radically different influences in their writing. Some fled the country, others remained; all tested the boundaries of artistic expression in a system weighed down by censorship and creative asphyxiation.
Stepping out from the shadow of Lezama Lima was Reinaldo Arenas, a gay writer from Holguín province, who, like Guillermo Cabrera Infante, fell out with the revolution in the late '60s and was imprisoned for his efforts. Arenas finally escaped to the US in 1980 during the Mariel Boatlift. He went on to write his hyperbolic memoir, Antes que anochezca (Before Night Falls), about his imprisonment and homosexuality. Published in the US in 1993, it met with huge critical acclaim.
The so-called 'dirty realist' authors of the late '90s and early 2000s took a more subtle approach to challenging contemporary mores. Pedro Juan Gutiérrez earned his moniker, 'tropical Bukowski', for the Dirty Havana Trilogy, a sexy, sultry study of Centro Habana during the Special Period. The trilogy held a mirror up to the desperate economic situation but steered clear of direct political polemics.
Zoé Valdés, born the year Castro took power, has been more direct in her criticism of the regime, particularly since leaving Cuba for Paris in 1995. Her most readily available novels (translated into English) are I Gave You All I Had and The Weeping Woman.
The Fascinated Foreigners
Cuba also inspires foreign writers to pen fiction, most notably Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene. Hemingway first visited Cuba in the late 1930s on his boat El Pilar, partly as a break from his soon-to-be ex-wife. His love affair with the country continued until his death. His novels The Old Man and the Sea (1952; a portrayal of an old man's quest to bag a giant fish) and Islands in the Stream (1970; a harrowing trilogy following the fortunes of writer Thomas Hudson) were based on his experiences fishing – and, during WWII, hunting for German submarines – off Cuba's coast.
Greene visited the island several times in the 1950s and it became the setting for his book Our Man in Havana (1958), a tongue-in-cheek look at espionage that casts an interesting light on pre–Cuban Missile Crisis Havana.
Whilst none of his novels take place in Cuba, Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez developed a long-standing friendship with Fidel Castro during the 1960s, and wrote several articles on Cuba including Memories of a Journalist (1981) which recalls the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Cuban cinema has always been closer to European art-house traditions than to the formula movies of Hollywood, especially since the Revolution, when cultural life veered away from American influences. Few notable movies were made until 1959, when the new government formed the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (Icaic), headed up by longtime film sage and former Havana University student, Alfredo Guevara, who held the position on and off until 2000.
The 1960s were Icaic's Década de oro (golden decade) when, behind an artistic veneer, successive directors were able to test the boundaries of state-imposed censorship and, in some cases, gain greater creative license. Innovative movies of this era poked fun at bureaucracy, made pertinent comments on economic matters, questioned the role of intellectualism in a socialist state and, later on, tackled previously taboo gay issues. The giants behind the camera were Humberto Solás, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and Juan Carlos Tabío, who, working under Guevara's guidance, put cutting-edge Cuban cinema on the international map.
Cuba's first notable post-revolutionary movie, the joint Cuban-Soviet Soy Cuba (I am Cuba; 1964) was directed by a Russian, Mikhail Kalatozov, who dramatized the events leading up to the 1959 Revolution in four interconnecting stories. Largely forgotten by the early '70s, the movie was resurrected in the mid-1990s by American director Martin Scorsese, who was astounded by its cinematography, atmospheric camera work and technically amazing tracking shots. The film gets a rare 100% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website and has been described by one American film critic as 'a unique, insane, exhilarating spectacle.'
Serving his apprenticeship in the 1960s, Cuba's most celebrated director, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, cut his teeth directing art-house movies such as La muerte de un burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat; 1966), a satire on excessive socialist bureaucratization; and Memorias de subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment; 1968), the story of a Cuban intellectual too idealistic for Miami, yet too decadent for the austere life of Havana. Teaming up with fellow director Juan Carlos Tabío in 1993, Gutiérrez went on to make another movie classic, the Oscar-nominated Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) – the tale of Diego, a skeptical homosexual who falls in love with a heterosexual communist militant. It remains Cuba's cinematic pinnacle.
Humberto Solás, a master of low budget (cine pobre) movies, first made his mark in 1968 with the seminal Lucía. It explored the lives of three Cuban women at key moments in the country's history: 1895, 1932 and the early 1960s. Solás made his late-career masterpiece, Barrio Cuba, the tale of a family torn apart by the revolution, in 2005.
Since the death of Gutiérrez Alea in 1996 and Solás in 2008, Cuban cinema has passed the baton. Fernanado Pérez, who leapt onto the scene in 1994 with the Special Period classic Madagascar, focusing on an inter-generational struggle between a mother and daughter, and followed it up with 2003's Suite Habana, a moody documentary about a day in the life of 13 real people in the capital that uses zero dialogue. Pérez's closest 'rival' is Juan Carlos Cremata, whose 2005 road movie Viva Cuba, a study of class and ideology as seen through the eyes of two children, garnered much international praise.
The last few years have seen few classics of the same clout, but 2011's Juan of the Dead, Cuba's version of UK horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead, broke ground as Cuba's first zombie movie. In a thinly-veiled critique on the regime, an idler-turned-slayer-of-the-undead fights for survival in a Havana overrun by zombies.
Reflecting the expanded options of distribution in the digital age, director Arturo Sotto's entertaining 2014 comedy Boccaccerías Habaneras is available in its entirety on YouTube.
Havana's significant influence in the film culture of the American hemisphere is highlighted each year in the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano held every December in Havana. Described as the ultimate word in Latin American cinema, this annual get-together of critics, sages and filmmakers has been fundamental in showcasing recent Cuban classics to the world.
Painting & Sculpture
Thought-provoking and visceral, modern Cuban art combines lurid Afro-Latin American colors with the harsh reality of the revolution. For foreign art lovers visiting Cuba, it's a unique and intoxicating brew. Forced into a corner by the constrictions of the culture-redefining Cuban Revolution, modern artists have invariably found that, by co-opting (as opposed to confronting) the socialist regime, opportunities for academic training and artistic encouragement are almost unlimited. Encased in such a volatile, creative climate, abstract art in Cuba – well established in its own right before the revolution – has flourished.
The first flowering of Cuban art took place in the 1920s when painters belonging to the so-called Vanguardia movement relocated temporarily to Paris to learn the ropes from the avant-garde European school then dominated by the likes of Pablo Picasso. One of the Vanguardia's earliest exponents was Victor Manuel García (1897–1969), the genius behind one of Cuba's most famous paintings, La gitana tropical (Tropical Gypsy; 1929), a portrait of an archetypal Cuban woman with her luminous gaze staring into the middle distance. The canvas, displayed in Havana's Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, is often referred to as the Latin Mona Lisa.
Victor Manuel's contemporary, Amelia Peláez (1896–1968), also studied in Paris, where she melded avant-gardism with more primitive Cuban themes. Though Peláez worked with many different materials, her most celebrated work was in murals, including the 670-sq-meter tile mural on the side of the Hotel Habana Libre.
After the high-water mark of Wifredo Lam, Cuban pop art was a major influence during the 1950s and 1960s. Art has enjoyed strong government patronage since the revolution (albeit within the confines of strict censorship), exemplified with the opening of the Instituto Superior de Arte in the Havana neighborhood of Cubanacán in 1976.
Feature: Martí – A Category of His Own
The writing of José Julián Martí Pérez (1853–95) stands alone. A pioneering philosopher, revolutionary and modernist writer, Martí broadened the political debate in Cuba beyond slavery (which was abolished in 1886) to issues such as independence and – above all – freedom. His instantly quotable prose remains a rare unifying force among Cubans around the world, whatever their political affiliations. He is similarly revered by Spanish speakers globally for his internationalism, which has put him on a par with Simón Bolívar.
Martí's writing covered a huge range of genres: essays, novels, poetry, political commentaries, letters and even a hugely popular children's magazine called La edad de oro (Golden Age). An accomplished master of aphorisms, his powerful one-liners still crop up in everyday Cuban speech. His two most famous works, published in 1891, are the political essay Nuestra América (Our America) and his collected poems, Versos sencillos (Simple Verses), both of which laid bare his hopes and dreams for Cuba and Latin America.
Feature: Prize-Winning Paz
Senel Paz, author of El Lobo, El Bosque y El Hombre nuevo (The Wolf, the Forest and the New Man), the book that inspired famed movie Fresa y Chocolat, returned to international attention in 2008 with the publication of his novel En el cielo con diamantes (In the Sky with Diamonds) – a poignant tale of friendship in 1960s Havana. This garnered him literary prizes and status as Cuba's most widely read contemporary writer.
Feature: Casas de la Cultura
Every provincial town in Cuba, no matter how small, has a Casa de la Cultura acting as a nexus for the country's bubbling cultural life. Casas de la Cultura stage everything from traditional salsa music to innovative comedy nights, with upcoming events penned onto a cartelera outside. On top of this, countless other theaters, organizations and institutions bring highbrow art to the masses completely free – yes, free – of charge.
Feature: Raúl Martínez & the Grupo de los Once
Ciego de Ávila–born Raúl Martinez (1927–1995) spearheaded the Cuban pop art movement during the 1950s and '60s with iconic depictions of José Martí, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara, although much of his work was inspired by Soviet socialism as much as by the American pop art movement. Martinez was a member of the Grupo de los Once, a group of groundbreaking abstract painters and sculptors who exhibited together between 1953 and 1955 and left a lasting impression on Cuban art. You can see much of the work of Martínez in Ciego de Ávila's Centro de Promoción Cultural Guiarte.
Feature: Wilfredo Lam
In the international context, art in Cuba is dominated by the prolific figure of Wifredo Lam (1902–82), painter, sculptor and ceramicist of mixed Chinese, African and Spanish ancestry. Born in Sagua La Grande, Villa Clara province, in 1902, Lam studied art and law in Havana before departing for Madrid in 1923 to pursue his artistic ambitions in the fertile fields of post–WWI Europe. Displaced by the Spanish Civil War in 1937, he gravitated toward France, where he became friends with Pablo Picasso and swapped ideas with the pioneering surrealist André Breton. Having absorbed various cubist and surrealist influences, Lam returned to Cuba in 1941, where he produced his own seminal masterpiece La Jungla (Jungle), considered by critics to be one of the developing world's most representative paintings.
Sidebar: Best Cuban Books
- Cirilo Villaverde: Cecelia Valdés (1882)
- Alejo Carpentier: El siglo de las luces, or Explosion in a Cathedal (1962)
- Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Tres tristes tigres, or Three Trapped Tigers (1967)
- Reinaldo Arenas: Antes que anochezca, or Before Night Falls (1992)
Sidebar: Heberto Padilla
Heberto Padilla (1932–2000) was a Cuban poet whose dissident writings in the 1960s led to his imprisonment, inspiring the 'Padilla Affair'.
Sidebar: Our Man in Havana
Graham Greene originally set his comic take on British espionage in Soviet-occupied Tallinn, Estonia. But a chance visit to Havana changed his mind. The novel ultimately became Our Man in Havana.
Sidebar: Leonardo Padura Fuentes
Contemporary writer Leonardo Padura Fuentes is well known for his quartet of Havana-based detective novels, Los cuatro estaciones (Four Seasons), now a riveting Netflix miniseries.
Sidebar: Best Uneac Cultural Venues
- El Hurón Azul, Havana
- Santiago de Cuba
- Puerto Padre
Sidebar: Eye of the Canary
In 2010, Cuban film director Fernando Pérez brought the early life of José Martí to the screen in a film called El ojo del canario (Eye of the Canary).
Sidebar: Top Contemporary Artists
- José Villa
- Joel Jover
- Flora Fong
- José Rodríguez Fúster
- Tomás Sánchez
- Julia Valdéz
There is nothing pure about Cuban architecture. Rather like its music, the nation’s eclectic assemblage of buildings exhibits an unashamed hybrid of styles, ideas and background influences. The resulting architecture riffs on themes and variations, making imported genres into something uniquely Cuban. Going forward, Cuba is facing the loss of much of its great architectural heritage due to a lack of resources to maintain these structures. At present the widespread demolition of precarious buildings is wiping out Cuba's valuable heritage.
Styles & Trends
Emerging relatively unscathed from the turmoil of three revolutionary wars and buffered from modern globalization by its peculiar economic situation, the nation's well-preserved cities have survived into the 21st century with the bulk of their colonial architectural features intact. The preservation has been helped by the nomination of Havana Vieja, Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Camagüey as Unesco World Heritage sites, and aided further by foresighted local historians who have created a model for self-sustaining historical preservation that might well go down as one of the revolutionary government's greatest achievements.
Cuba's classic and most prevalent architectural styles are baroque and neoclassicism. Baroque designers began sharpening their quills in the 1750s; neoclassicism gained the ascendency in the 1820s and continued, amid numerous revivals, until the 1920s. Trademark buildings of the American era (1902–59) exhibited art deco and, later on, modernist styles. Art nouveau played a cameo role during this period influenced by Catalan modernisme; recognizable art nouveau curves and embellishments can be seen on pivotal east–west axis streets in Centro Habana. Ostentatious eclecticism, courtesy of the Americans, characterized Havana's rich and growing suburbs from the 1910s onwards.
Building styles weren't all pretty, though. Cuba's brief flirtation with Soviet architectonics in the 1960s and '70s threw up plenty of breeze-block apartments and ugly utilitarian hotels that sit rather jarringly alongside the beautiful relics of the colonial era. Havana's Vedado neighborhood maintains a small but significant cluster of modernist 'skyscrapers' constructed during a 10-year pre-revolutionary building boom in the 1950s.
While European kings were hiding from the hoi polloi in muscular medieval castles, their Latin American cousins were building up their colonial defenses in a series of equally colossal Renaissance forts.
The protective ring of fortifications that punctuates Cuba’s coastline stretching from Havana in the west to Baracoa in the east forms one of the finest ensembles of military architecture in the Americas. The construction of these sturdy stone behemoths by the Spanish in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries reflected the colony’s strategic importance on the Atlantic trade routes and its vulnerability to attacks by daring pirates and competing colonial powers.
As Cuban capital and the primary Spanish port in the Caribbean, Havana was the grand prize to ambitious would-be raiders. The sacking of the city by French pirate Jacques de Sores in 1555 exposed the weaknesses of the city’s meager defenses and provoked the first wave of fort building.
Havana’s authorities called in Italian Military architect Bautista Antonelli to do the job and he responded with aplomb, reinforcing the harbor mouth with two magnificent forts, El Morro and San Salvador de la Punta. The work, which started in the 1580s, was slow but meticulous; the forts weren’t actually finished until after Antonelli’s death in the 1620s. Antonelli also designed the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro in Santiago, started around the same time but, thanks to ongoing attacks, most notoriously by British buccaneer Henry Morgan in 1662, not finished until 1700.
More forts were added in the 18th century, most notably at Jagua (near present-day Cienfuegos) on the south coast and Matanzas in the north. Baracoa in the far east was encircled with a bulwark of three small fortifications, all of which survive.
With their thick walls, and polygon layout designed to fit in with the coastal topography, Cuba's forts were built to last (all still survive) and largely served their purpose at deterring successive invaders until 1762. In that year the British arrived during the Seven Years War, blasting a hole in San Severino in Matanzas and capturing Havana after a 44-day siege of El Morro. Spain’s response when it got back Havana from the British in 1763 was to build the humungous La Cabaña, the largest fort in the Americas. Not surprisingly, its heavy battlements were never breached.
In the 1980s and 90s, Havana’s and Santiago’s forts were named Unesco World Heritage sites.
Attend a dance or play in a provincial Cuban theater and you might find your eyes flicking intermittently between the artists on the stage and the equally captivating artistry of the building.
As strong patrons of music and dance, the Cubans have a tradition of building iconic provincial theaters and most cities have an historic venue where you can view the latest performances. By popular consensus, the most architecturally accomplished Cuban theaters are the Teatro Sauto in Matanzas, the Teatro la Caridad in Santa Clara, and the Teatro Tomás Terry in Cienfuegos.
All three gilded buildings were constructed in the 19th century (in 1863, 1885 and 1890 respectively) with sober French neoclassical facades overlaying more lavish Italianate interiors. A generic defining feature is the U-shaped three-tiered auditoriums which display a profusion of carved wood-paneling and wrought iron, and are crowned by striking ceiling frescos. The frescos of angelic cherubs in the Caridad and Tomás Terry were painted by the same Philippine artist, Camilo Salaya, while the Sauto’s was the work of the theater’s Italian architect, Daniele Dell’Aglio. Other features include ornate chandeliers, gold-leafed mosaics and striking marble statues: the Sauto’s statues are of Greek goddesses, while the Tomás Terry sports a marble recreation of its eponymous financier, a Venezuelan-born sugar baron.
Philanthropy played a major part in many Cuban theaters in the 19th century, none more so than Santa Clara’s Caridad (the name means ‘charity’) which was paid for by local benefactor, Marta Abreu. In an early show of altruism, Abreu, who donated to many social and artistic causes, ensured that a percentage of the theater’s ongoing profits went to charity.
Lack of funds in recent times has left many Cuban theaters in dire need of repair. Some buildings haven’t survived. The Colesio, Cuba’s earliest modern theater built in 1823 in Santiago de Cuba, was destroyed by fire in 1846. The Teatro Brunet in Trinidad built in 1840 is now a ruin used as an atmospheric social center. Havana’s oldest theater, the Tacón, survives, but was overlaid by a Spanish social center (the Centro Gallego) in the 1910s. Pinar del Río’s recently refurbished Teatro Milanés (1838) has a lovely Sevillan patio, while the neoclassical Teatro Principal (1850) in Camagüey is the home of Cuba’s most prestigious ballet company.
Baroque architecture arrived in Cuba in the mid-1700s, via Spain, a good 50 years after its European high-water mark. Fueled by the rapid growth of the island's nascent sugar industry, nouveau riche slave-owners and sugar merchants plowed their juicy profits into grandiose urban buildings. The finest examples of baroque in Cuba adorn the homes and public buildings of Habana Vieja, although the style didn't reach its zenith until the late-1700s with the construction of the Catedral de la Habana and the surrounding Plaza de la Catedral.
Due to climatic and cultural peculiarities, traditional baroque (the word is taken from the Portuguese noun barroco, which means an 'elaborately shaped pearl') was quickly 'tropicalized' in Cuba, with local architects adding their own personal flourishes to the new municipal structures that were springing up in various provincial cities. Indigenous features included: rejas, metal bars secured over windows to protect against burglaries and allow for a freer circulation of air; vitrales, multicolored glass panes fitted above doorways to pleasantly diffuse the tropical sun's rays; entresuelos, mezzanine floors built to accommodate live-in slave families; and portales, galleried exterior walkways that provided pedestrians with shelter from the sun and the rain.
Signature baroque buildings, such as the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales in Plaza de Armas in Havana, were made from hard local limestone dug from the nearby San Lázaro quarries and constructed using slave labor. As a result, the intricate exterior decoration that characterized baroque architecture in Italy and Spain was noticeably toned down in Cuba, where local workers lacked the advanced stonemasonry skills of their more accomplished European cousins.
Some of the most exquisite baroque buildings in Cuba are found in Trinidad and date from the early decades of the 19th century when designs and furnishings were heavily influenced by the haute couture fashions of Italy, France and Georgian England.
Neoclassicism first evolved in the mid-18th century in Europe as a reaction to the lavish ornamentation and gaudy ostentation of baroque. Conceived in the progressive academies of London and Paris, the movement's early adherents advocated sharp primary colors and bold symmetrical lines, coupled with a desire to return to the perceived architectural 'purity' of ancient Greece and Rome.
The style eventually reached Cuba at the beginning of the 19th century, spearheaded by groups of French émigrés who had fled west from Haiti following a violent slave rebellion in 1791. Within a couple of decades, neoclassicism had established itself as the nation's dominant architectural style.
By the mid-19th century sturdy neoclassical buildings were the norm among Cuba's bourgeoisie in cities such as Cienfuegos and Matanzas, with striking symmetry, grandiose frontages and rows of imposing columns replacing the decorative baroque flourishes of the early colonial period.
Havana's first true neoclassical building was El Templete, a diminutive Doric temple constructed in Habana Vieja in 1828 next to the spot where Father Bartolomé de las Casas is said to have conducted the city's first Mass. As the city gradually spread westward in the mid-1800s, outgrowing its 17th-century walls, the style was adopted in the construction of more ambitious buildings, such as the famous Hotel Inglaterra overlooking Parque Central. Havana grew in both size and beauty during this period, bringing into vogue new residential design features such as spacious classical courtyards and rows of imposing street-facing colonnades, leading seminal Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier to christen it the 'city of columns.'
A second neoclassical revival swept Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century, spearheaded by the growing influence of the US on the island. Prompted by the ideas and design ethics of the American Renaissance (1876–1914), Havana underwent a full-on building explosion, sponsoring such gigantic municipal buildings as the Capitolio Nacional and the Universidad de la Habana. In the provinces, the style reached its high-water mark in a series of glittering theaters.
Art deco was an elegant, functional and modern architectural movement that originated in France at the beginning of the 20th century and reached its apex in America in the 1920s and '30s. Drawing from a vibrant mix of Cubism, futurism and primitive African art, the genre promoted lavish yet streamlined buildings with sweeping curves and exuberant sun-burst motifs such as the Chrysler building in New York and the architecture of the South Beach neighborhood in Miami.
From the United States it came to Cuba, which quickly acquired its own clutch of 'tropical' art-deco buildings with the lion's share residing in Havana. One of Latin America's finest examples of early art deco is the Edifico Bacardí in Habana Vieja, built in 1930 to provide a Havana headquarters for Santiago de Cuba's world-famous rum-making family.
Another striking creation was the 14-story Edificio López Serrano in Vedado, constructed as the city's first real rascacielo (skyscraper) in 1932, using New York's Rockefeller Center as its inspiration. Other more functional art-deco skyscrapers followed, including the Teatro América on Av de la Italia, the Teatro Fausto on Paseo de Martí and the Casa de las Américas on Calle G. A more diluted and eclectic interpretation of the genre can be seen in the famous Hotel Nacional, whose sharp symmetrical lines and decorative twin Moorish turrets dominate the view over the Malecón.
Eclecticism is the term often applied to the non-conformist and highly experimental architectural zeitgeist that grew up in the United States during the 1880s. Rejecting 19th-century ideas of 'style' and categorization, the architects behind this revolutionary new genre promoted flexibility and an open-minded 'anything goes' ethos, drawing their inspiration from a wide range of historical precedents.
Thanks to the strong US presence in the decades before 1959, Cuba quickly became a riot of modern eclecticism, with rich American and Cuban landowners constructing huge Xanadu-like mansions in burgeoning upper-class residential districts. Expansive, ostentatious and, at times, outlandishly kitschy, these fancy new homes were garnished with crenellated walls, oddly shaped lookout towers, rooftop cupolas and leering gargoyles. For a wild tour of Cuban eclecticism, head to the neighborhoods of Miramar in Havana, Vista Alegre in Santiago de Cuba and the Punta Gorda in Cienfuegos.
Trinidad's Colonial Architecture
Trinidad is one of the best-preserved colonial towns in the Americas. Most of its remarkably homogenous architecture dates from the early 19th century when Trinidad’s sugar industry reached its zenith. Typical Trinidad houses are large one-story buildings with terracotta-tiled roofs held up by wooden beams. Unlike in Havana, the huge front doors usually open directly into a main room rather than a vestibule. Other typical Trinidadian features include large glass-less windows fronted with wooden (or iron) bars, wall frescos, verandas, and balconies with wooden balustrades raised above the street. Larger Trinidad houses have Mudejar-style courtyards with trademark aljibes (storage wells).
Feature: Havana's Parisian Influence
French landscape architect, Jean-Claude Forestier added a Parisian flavor to Havana’s modern urban layout in the 1920s. Fresh from high-profile commissions in the French capital, Forestier arrived in Havana in 1925 where he was invited to draw up a master-plan to link the city’s disparate urban grid. He spent the next five years sketching broad tree-lined boulevards, Parisian-style squares and a harmonious city landscape designed to accentuate Havana’s iconic monuments and lush tropical setting.
Forestier’s plans were unhinged by the Great Depression, but his Parisian vision was ultimately realized 30 years later with the vast construction projects enacted in the 1950s. The focal point was Plaza de la Revolución with its grand Martí Memorial which sits atop a small hill, with broad avenues radiating on all sides. Best for strolling are Paseo and Avenida de los Presidentes (Calle G), both adorned with tree-lined central walkways and punctuated with heroic statues.
Sidebar: Best Examples of Architectural Styles
Sidebar: Notable Art Deco Buildings
Sidebar: Most Architecturally Attractive Hotels
Sidebar: Best Colonial Plazas
Sidebar: Cuban Gothic Architecture
Rare examples of Cuban Gothic architecture can be seen at Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús in Havana and its namesake church in the nation's most devoutly religious city, Camagüey.
Music & Dance
Rich, vibrant, layered and soulful, Cuban music has long acted as a standard-bearer for the sounds and rhythms emanating out of Latin America. This is the birthplace of salsa, where elegant European dances adopted edgy black rhythms, and where the African drum first courted the Spanish guitar. From the down-at-heel docks of Matanzas to the bucolic villages of the Sierra Maestra, the amorous musical fusion went on to fuel everything from son, rumba, mambo, chachachá, charanga, changüí, danzón and more.
Into the Mix
Aside from the obvious Spanish and African roots, Cuban music has drawn upon a number of other influences. Mixed into an already exotic melting pot are genres from France, the US, Haiti and Jamaica. Conversely, Cuban music has also played a key role in developing various melodic styles and movements in other parts of the world. In Spain they called this process ida y vuelta (return trip) and it is most clearly evident in a style of flamenco called guajira. Elsewhere the 'Cuban effect' can be traced back to forms as diverse as New Orleans jazz, New York salsa and West African Afrobeat.
Described by aficionados as 'a vertical representation of a horizontal act,' Cuban dancing is famous for its libidinous rhythms and sensuous close-ups. Inheriting a love for dancing from birth and able to replicate perfect salsa steps by the age of two or three, most Cubans are natural performers who approach dance with a complete lack of self-consciousness – a notion that can leave visitors from Europe or North America feeling as if they've got two left feet.
The invention of the danzón is usually credited to innovative Matanzas band leader, Miguel Faílde, who first showcased it with his catchy dance composition Las Alturas de Simpson in Matanzas in 1879. Elegant and purely instrumental in its early days, the danzón was slower in pace than the habanera, and its intricate dance patterns required dancers to circulate in couples rather than groups, a move that scandalized polite society at the time. From the 1880s onward, the genre exploded, expanding its peculiar syncopated rhythm, and adding such improbable extras as conga drums and vocalists.
By the early 20th century, the danzón had evolved from a stately ballroom dance played by an orchestra típica into a more jazzed-up free-for-all known alternatively as charanga, danzonete or danzón-chá. Not surprisingly, it became Cuba's national dance, though since it was primarily a bastion of moneyed white society, it was never considered a true hybrid.
While drumming in the North American colonies was ostensibly prohibited, Cuban slaves were able to preserve and pass on many of their musical traditions via influential Santería cabildos, religious brotherhoods that re-enacted ancient African percussive music on simple batá drums or chequeré rattles. Performed at annual festivals or on special Catholic saints' days, this rhythmic yet highly textured dance music was offered up as a form of religious worship to the orishas (deities).
Over time the ritualistic drumming of Santería evolved into a more complex genre known as rumba. Rumba was first concocted in the docks of Havana and Matanzas during the 1890s when ex-slaves, exposed to a revolving series of outside influences, began to knock out soulful rhythms on old packing cases in imitation of various African religious rites. As the drumming patterns grew more complex, vocals were added, dances emerged and, before long, the music had grown into a collective form of social expression for all black Cubans.
Spreading in popularity throughout the 1920s and '30s, rumba gradually spawned three different but interrelated dance formats: guaguancó, an overtly sexual dance; yambú, a slow dance; and columbia, a fast, aggressive dance often involving fire torches and machetes. The latter originated as a devil dance of the Náñigo rite, and today it's performed only by solo males.
Pitched into Cuba's cultural melting pot, these rootsy yet highly addictive musical variants slowly gained acceptance among a new audience of middle-class whites, and by the 1940s the music had fused with son in a new subgenre called son montuno, which, in turn, provided the building blocks for salsa.
Indeed, so influential was Cuban rumba by the end of WWII that it was transposed back to Africa with experimental Congolese artists, such as Sam Mangwana and Franco Luambo (of OK Jazz fame), using ebullient Cuban influences to pioneer soukous, their own variation on the rumba theme.
Raw, expressive and exciting to watch, Cuban rumba is a spontaneous and often informal affair performed by groups of up to a dozen musicians. Conga drums, claves, palitos (sticks), marugas (iron shakers) and cajones (packing cases) lay out the interlocking rhythms, while the vocals alternate between a wildly improvising lead singer and an answering coro (chorus).
Cuba's two most celebrated 19th-century sounds, rumba and danzón, came from the west – specifically the cities of Havana and Matanzas. But as the genres remained largely compartmentalized between separate black and white societies, neither can be considered true hybrids. The country's first real musical fusion came from the next great sound revolution, son.
Son emerged from the mountains of the Oriente region in the second half of the 19th century, though the earliest known testimonies go back as far as 1570. It was one of two genres to arise at around the same time (the other was changüí), both of which blended the melodies and lyricism of Spanish folk music with the drum patterns of recently freed African slaves. Son's precursor was nengón, an invention of black sugar-plantation workers who had evolved their percussive religious chants into a form of music and song.
The leap from nengón to son is unclear and poorly documented, but at some point in the 1880s or '90s the guajiros (country folk) in the mountains of present-day Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo provinces began blending nengón drums with the Cuban tres guitar while over the top a singer improvised words from a traditional 10-line Spanish poem known as a décima.
In its pure form, son was played by a sextet consisting of guitar, tres (guitar with three sets of double strings), double bass, bongo and two singers who played maracas and claves (sticks that tap out the beat). Coming down from the mountains and into the cities, the genre's earliest exponents were the legendary Trio Oriental, who stabilized the sextet format in 1912 when they were reborn as the Sexteto Habanero. Another early sonero was singer Miguel Matamoros, whose self-penned son classics such as 'Son de la Loma' and 'Lágrimas Negras' are de rigueur among Cuba's ubiquitous musical entertainers, even today.
In the early 1910s son arrived in Havana, where it adopted its distinctive rumba clave (rhythmic pattern), which later went on to form the basis of salsa. Within a decade it had become Cuba's signature music, gaining wide acceptance among white society and destroying the myth that black music was vulgar, unsophisticated and subversive.
By the 1930s the sextet had become a septet with the addition of a trumpet, and exciting new musicians such as blind tres player Arsenio Rodríguez – a songwriter who Harry Belafonte once called the 'father of salsa' – were paving the way for mambo and chachachá.
Barbarians of Rhythm
In the 1940s and '50s the son bands grew from seven pieces to eight and beyond, until they became big bands boasting full horn and percussion sections that played rumba, chachachá and mambo. The reigning mambo king was Benny Moré, who with his sumptuous voice and rocking 40-piece all-black band was known as El Bárbaro del Ritmo (The Barbarian of Rhythm).
Mambo grew out of charanga music, which itself was a derivative of danzón. Bolder, brassier and more exciting than its two earlier incarnations, the music was characterized by exuberant trumpet riffs, belting saxophones and regular enthusiastic interjections by the singer (usually in the form of the word dilo! or 'say it!').
The style's origins are mired in controversy. Some argue that it was invented by native habanero Orestes López after he penned the new rhythmically dextrous 'Mambo' in 1938. Others give the credit to Matanzas band leader Pérez Prado, the first musician to market his songs under the increasingly lucrative mambo umbrella in the early '40s. Whatever the case, mambo soon spawned the world's first universal dance craze, and from New York to Buenos Aires, people couldn't get enough of its infectious rhythms.
A variation on the mambo theme, the chachachá, was first showcased by Havana-based composer and violinist Enrique Jorrín in 1951 while playing with the Orquesta América. Originally known as 'mambo-rumba,' the music was intended to promote a more basic kind of Cuban dance that less-coordinated North Americans would be able to master, but it was quickly mambo-ized by overenthusiastic dance competitors, who kept adding complicated new steps.
Salsa & Its Off-Shoots
Salsa is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of musical genres that emerged out of the fertile Latin New York scene in the 1960s and '70s, when jazz, son and rumba blended to create a new, brassier sound. While not strictly a product of Cubans living in Cuba, salsa's roots and key influences are descended directly from son montuno and indebted to innovators such as Pérez Prado, Benny Moré and Miguel Matamoros.
The self-styled Queen of Salsa was Grammy-winning singer and performer Celia Cruz. Born in Havana in 1925, Cruz served the bulk of her musical apprenticeship in Cuba before leaving for self-imposed exile in the US in 1960. But due to her longstanding opposition to the Castro regime, Cruz' records and music have remained largely unknown on the island, despite her enduring legacy elsewhere.
Far more influential on their home turf are the legendary salsa outfit Los Van Van, a band formed by Juan Formell in 1969 and one that still performs regularly at venues across Cuba. With Formell at the helm as the group's great improviser, poet, lyricist and social commentator, Los Van Van were one of the few modern Cuban groups to create their own unique musical genre – that of songo-salsa. The band also won top honors in 2000 when it memorably took home a Grammy for its classic album, Llego Van Van. Despite the death of Formell in 2014, the band continues to play, record and tour.
Modern salsa mixed and merged further in the '80s and '90s, allying itself with new cutting-edge musical genres such as hip-hop, reggaeton and rap, before coming up with some hot new alternatives, most notably timba and songo-salsa.
Timba is, in many ways, Cuba's own experimental and fiery take on traditional salsa. Mixing New York sounds with Latin jazz, nueva trova, American funk, disco, hip-hop and even some classical influences, the music is more flexible and aggressive than standard salsa, incorporating greater elements of the island's potent Afro-Cuban culture. Many timba bands such as Bamboleo and La Charanga Habanera use funk riffs and rely on less-conventional Cuban instruments such as synthesizers and kick drums. Others – such as NG La Banda, formed in 1988 – have infused their music with a more jazzy dynamic.
Traditional jazz, considered the music of the enemy in the Revolution's most dogmatic days, has always seeped into Cuban sounds. Jesús 'Chucho' Valdés' band Irakere, formed in 1973, broke the Cuban music scene wide open with its heavy Afro-Cuban drumming laced with jazz and son, and the Cuban capital boasts a number of decent jazz clubs. Other musicians associated with Cuban jazz include pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Isaac Delgado and Adalberto Álvarez y Su Son.
Nueva Trova – the Soundtrack of a Revolution
The 1960s were heady days for radical new forms of musical expression. In the US Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited, in Britain the Beatles concocted Sgt Pepper while, in the Spanish-speaking world, musical activists such as Chilean Víctor Jara and Catalan Joan Manuel Serrat were turning their politically charged poems into passionate protest songs.
Determined to develop their own revolutionary music apart from the capitalist West, the innovative Cubans – under the stewardship of Haydee Santamaría, director at the influential Casa de las Américas – came up with nueva trova.
A caustic mix of probing philosophical lyrics and folksy melodic tunes, nueva trova was a direct descendent of pure trova, a bohemian form of guitar music that had originated in the Oriente in the late 19th century. Post-1959, trova became increasingly politicized and was taken up by more sophisticated artists such as Manzanillo-born Carlos Puebla, who provided an important bridge between old and new styles with his politically tinged ode to Che Guevara, 'Hasta Siempre Comandante' (1965).
Nueva trova came of age in February 1968 at the Primer Encuentro de la Canción Protesta, a concert organized at the Casa de las Américas in Havana and headlined by such rising stars as Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés. In a cultural context, it was Cuba's mini-Woodstock, an event that resounded forcefully among leftists worldwide as a revolutionary alternative to American rock 'n' roll.
In December 1972, the nascent nueva trova movement gained official sanction from the Cuban government during a music festival held in Manzanillo city commemorating the 16th anniversary of the Granma landing. Highly influential throughout the Spanish-speaking world during the '60s and '70s, nueva trova has often acted as an inspirational source of protest music for the impoverished and downtrodden populations of Latin America, many of whom looked to Cuba for spiritual leadership in an era of corrupt dictatorships and US cultural hegemony. This solidarity was reciprocated by the likes of Rodríguez, who penned numerous internationally lauded classics such as 'Canción Urgente para Nicaragua' (in support of the Sandinistas), 'La Maza' and 'Canción para mi Soldado' (about the Angolan War).
Rap, Reggaetón & Beyond
The contemporary Cuban music scene is an interesting mix of enduring traditions, modern sounds, old hands and new blood. With low production costs, solid urban themes and lots of US-inspired crossover styles, hip-hop and rap are taking the younger generation by storm.
Born in the ugly concrete housing projects of Alamar, Havana, Cuban hip-hop, rather like its US counterpart, has gritty and impoverished roots. First beamed across the nation in the early 1980s when American rap was picked up on homemade rooftop antennae from Miami-based radio stations, the new music quickly gained ground among a young urban black population who were culturally redefining themselves during the inquietude of the Special Period. By the '90s groups such as Public Enemy and NWA were de rigueur on the streets of Alamar and by 1995 there was enough hip-hop to throw a festival.
Tempered by Latin influences and censored by the parameters of strict revolutionary thought, Cuban hip-hop has shied away from US stereotypes, instead taking on a progressive flavor all its own. Instrumentally the music uses batá drums, congas and electric bass, while lyrically the songs tackle important national issues such as sex tourism and the difficulties of the stagnant Cuban economy.
Despite being viewed early on as subversive and anti-revolutionary, Cuban hip-hop has gained unlikely support from inside the Cuban government, whose art-conscious legislators consider the music to have played a constructive social role in shaping the future of Cuban youth. Fidel Castro went one step further, describing hip-hop as 'the vanguard of the Revolution' and – allegedly – trying his hand at rapping at a Havana baseball game.
The same cannot be said for reggaeton, a melding of hip hop, Spanish reggae and Jamaican dance hall that emerged out of Panama in the 1990s and gained mainstream popularity in Puerto Rico in the mid-2000s. The Cuban government banned explicit reggaeton songs from TV and radio in 2012, and many hip hop artists have expressed their discomfort with the genre’s overtly sexist and narcissistic lyrics that glorify sex, violence and drug culture.
Nonetheless, reggaeton is the soundtrack of Cuban youth, who idolize homegrown artists such as Osmani Garcia, Jacob Forever and Gente de la Zona.
Feature: Dance Fusion
Cuban dance is as hybridized as the country’s music; indeed many dance genres evolved from popular strands of Cuban music.
Early dance forms mimicked the European-style ballroom dances practiced by the colonizers, but added African elements. This unorthodox amalgamation of styles can be seen in esoteric genres such as the French-Haitian tumba francesa, a marriage between 18th-century French court dances and imported African rhythms: dancers wearing elegant dresses wave fans and handkerchiefs while shimmying to the drum patterns of Nigeria and Benin.
Other dances reflected the working lives of Cuban slaves. The pilón in Granma province copies the motion of pounding sugarcane. Nengón and kiribá in Baracoa mimic the crushing of cocoa and coffee beans beneath the feet.
The first truly popular dance hybrid was the danzón, a sequence dance involving couples whose origins lay in the French and English contradanza, but whose rhythm contained a distinctive African syncopation.
The mambo and chachachá evolved the danzón further, creating dances that were more improvised and complicated. Mambo’s creator, Pérez Prado, specifically pioneered mambo dancing to fit his new music in the 1940s, while the cha-cha-chá was codified as a ballroom dance in the early 1950s by a Frenchman named Monsieur Pierre.
Feature: Contemporary Sounds
Orishas From 2006, '537 Cuba' remixed Buena Vista Social Club's hit Chan Chan into a most addictive reggaeton beat. And there's more.
Jacob Forever A hot young reggaeton artist originally from Camagüey; his hit 'Hasta Que Se Seque El Malecón' (Until the boardwalk dries up) made waves in 2016.
Gente de Zona Collaborating with Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias, this reggaeton-salsaton group hit the roof winning Latin Grammys and other awards with recent energy-infused hits.
Interactivo An artist’s collective that has showcased countless individual talent since its formation in 2001, including hip hop artist Kumar, jazzy poet and instrumentalist Yusa and founder, the jazz pianist Roberto Carcassés. Cuban fusion personified.
Buena Fe Creative rock duo from Guantánamo whose penetrating lyrics appeal to Cuba’s awakening youth movement.
Haydée Milanés Jazzy singer and daughter of trova great, Pablo Milanés.
X-Alfonso The man behind Havana’s exciting new Fábrica de Arte Cubano is a king of many genres from Hendrix-style rock to Latin hip hop. Listen out also for his sister M-Alfonso, another great fusion singer.
Diana Fuentes Singer with an R&B and funk bent who has worked with everyone who’s anyone in the Cuban music scene, including X-Alfonso.
Yissy Probably Cuba’s most talented drummer, Yissy García lays down her beat with a strong nod to Yoruba tradition.
Doble Filo Pioneering Cuban hip hop artists with outspoken lyrics. They once rapped with Fidel Castro.
Feature: Cuba's Beatlemania
Pop trivia question: who is the only member of The Beatles to have visited Cuba? Answer: Paul McCartney, who briefly helicoptered into Santiago de Cuba for less than 24 hours in 2000. Despite the brevity of Sir Paul’s visit, many claim to have met the ex-Beatle that day as he breezed by the Casa de la Trova. Then there’s the appearance of his oddly clean dinner plate mounted on the wall of Restaurante El Morro, where he apparently enjoyed a vegetarian omelet.
The band once banned for being too Western and decadent, but later endorsed by Fidel Castro, have become icons in Cuba in recent years. At last count there were at least half-a-dozen Beatles-inspired bars and clubs across the country, from Havana’s Submarino Amarillo to Trinidad’s Bar Yesterday.
So what’s with the delayed Beatlemania?
In Cuba, the excitement of hearing ‘The White Album’ will be forever associated with the thrill of indulging in what was once a subversive act. The band maintains an edgier appeal. Listening to The Beatles was a clandestine affair in the ‘60s when the music could only be picked up on fuzzy American radio stations by Cubans lying under their bedcovers in Havana.
The Fab Four got people into trouble in other ways too. In 1968 film director Nicolás Guillén Landrián played the song The Fool on the Hill over footage of Fidel Castro in an edgy documentary called Coffea Arábiga. El Comandante was not amused and Guillén was later imprisoned for his 'cheek.'
Castro was more generous in 2000 when, unveiling a statue of John Lennon in Havana, he hailed The Beatles as ‘revolutionaries’ in one of his more outrageous u-turns.
Today, Beatles-themed clubs are a haven for Cuba’s once underground roquero community (most of whom are surprisingly young), and showcase tribute bands who play storming versions of Beatles hits along with songs from the canon of Pink Floyd, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC.
Sidebar: Best Places for Música Cubana
Sidebar: Best Casas de la Trova
Sidebar: Types of Cuban Dance
The danzón was originally an instrumental piece. Words were added in the late 1920s and the new form became known as the danzonete.
Filin' is a term derived from the English word 'feeling.' It was a style of music showcased by jazz crooners in the 1940s and '50s. In Cuba filin' grew out of bolero and trova.
Charangas were Cuban musical ensembles that showcased popular danzón-influenced pieces.
Sidebar: Guajira Guantanamera
'Guajira Guantanamera' means 'country girl from Guantánamo.' Written by trovador Joseito Fernández, most of the original lyrics have been replaced with words from José Martí's Versos sencillos.
Cuba's first hybrid musical genre was the habanera, a traditional European-style dance with a syncopated drumbeat, that rose to the fore in the mid-19th century and lasted until the 1870s.
Landscape & Wildlife
Some 1250km long and between 31km and 193km wide, Cuba is the Caribbean's largest island with a total land area of 110,860 sq km. Shaped like one of its signature crocodiles and situated just south of the Tropic of Cancer, the country is actually an archipelago made up of 4195 smaller islets and coral reefs. Its unique ecosystems have been fascinating and perplexing scientists and naturalists ever since Alexander von Humboldt frst mapped them in the early 1800s.
The Cuban Landscape
Formed by a volatile mixture of volcanic activity, plate tectonics and erosion, Cuba's landscape is a lush, varied concoction of mountains, caves, plains and mogotes (flat-topped hills). The highest point, Pico Turquino (1972m), is situated in the east among the Sierra Maestra's lofty triangular peaks. Further west, in the Sierra del Escambray, ruffled hilltops and gushing waterfalls straddle the borders of Cienfuegos, Villa Clara and Sancti Spíritus provinces. Rising like purple shadows in the far west, the 175km-long Cordillera de Guanguanico is a more diminutive range that includes the protected Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve and the distinctive pincushion hills of the Valle de Viñales.
Lapped by the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea in the south, and the chop of the Atlantic Ocean in the north, Cuba's 5746km of coastline shelters more than 300 natural beaches and features one of the world's largest tracts of coral reef. Home to approximately 900 reported species of fish and more than 410 varieties of sponge and coral, the country's unspoiled coastline is a marine wonderland and a major reason why Cuba has become renowned as a diving destination.
The 7200m-deep Cayman Trench between Cuba and Jamaica forms the boundary of the North American and Caribbean plates. Tectonic movements have tilted the island over time, creating uplifted limestone cliffs along parts of the north coast and low mangrove swamps on the south. Over millions of years Cuba's limestone bedrock has been eroded by underground rivers, creating interesting geological features including the 'haystack' hills of Viñales and more than 20,000 caves countrywide.
As a sprawling archipelago, Cuba contains thousands of islands and keys (most uninhabited) in four major offshore groups: the Archipiélago de los Colorados, off northern Pinar del Río; the Archipiélago de Sabana-Camagüey (or Jardines del Rey), off northern Villa Clara and Ciego de Ávila; the Archipiélago de los Jardines de la Reina, off southern Ciego de Ávila; and the Archipiélago de los Canarreos, around Isla de la Juventud. Most visitors will experience one or more of these island idylls, as the majority of resorts, scuba diving and beaches are found in these regions.
As a narrow island, Cuba is never wider than 200km north to south. The longest river, the 343km-long Río Cauto, flows from the Sierra Maestra in a rough loop north of Bayamo, only navigable by small boats for 110km. To compensate, 632 embalses (reservoirs) or presas (dams), covering an area of more than 500 sq km altogether, have been created for irrigation and water supply; these supplement the almost unlimited groundwater held in Cuba's limestone bedrock.
Lying in the Caribbean's main hurricane region, Cuba has been hit by some blinders in recent years, notably 2012's Sandy, which wrought more than US$ 2billion in damage and Hurricane Matthew, which touched down in Baracoa in 2016.
Cuba protects its land in multiple ways: at a local level it has set up fauna reserves, bio-parks and areas of managed resources; at a national level it sponsors national and natural parks; and international protection is provided in Unesco Biosphere Reserves, Unesco World Heritage sites and Ramsar Convention sites. The most ecologically important and vulnerable zones are protected at more than one level. For example, Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt is a national park, a Unesco World Heritage site and part of the Cuchillas del Toa Unesco Biosphere Reserve. Smaller parks suffer from less watertight restrictions.
Unesco & Ramsar Sites
The highest level of environmental protection in Cuba is provided by Unesco, which has created six biosphere reserves over the last 25 years. Biosphere reserves are areas of high biodiversity that rigorously promote conservation and sustainable practices. After a decade and a half of successful reforestation, the Sierra del Rosario became Cuba's first Unesco Biosphere Reserve in 1985. It was followed by Cuchillas del Toa (1987), Península de Guanahacabibes (1987), Baconao (1987), Ciénaga de Zapata (2000) and the Bahía de Buenavista (2000). Additionally, two of Cuba's nine Unesco World Heritage sites are considered 'natural' sites, ie nominated primarily for their ecological attributes. They are Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma (1999), hailed for its uplifted marine terraces, and Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt (2001), well known for its extraordinary endemism. Complementing the Unesco sites are half a dozen Ramsar Convention sites earmarked in 2001–02 to conserve Cuba's vulnerable wetlands. These lend added protection to the Ciénaga de Zapata and Bahía de Buenavista, and throw a lifeline to previously unprotected regions such as Isla de la Juventud's Lanier Swamp (prime crocodile territory), the expansive Río Cauto delta in Granma/Las Tunas, and the vital flamingo nesting sites on the north coasts of Camagüey and Ciego de Ávila provinces.
The definition of a national park is fluid in Cuba (some are referred to as natural parks or flora reserves) and there's no umbrella organization as in Canada or the USA. A handful of the 14 listed parks – most notably Ciénaga de Zapata – now lie within Unesco biosphere reserves or Ramsar Convention sites, meaning their conservation policies are better monitored. The country's first national park was Sierra del Cristal, established in 1930 (home to Cuba's largest pine forest), though it was 50 years before the authorities created another, Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra (also known as Turquino), which safeguards Cuba's highest mountain. Other important parks include Viñales, with its mogotes, caves and tobacco plantations and Gran Piedra, near Santiago de Cuba, which is overlaid by the Baconao Unesco Biosphere Reserve. Two important offshore national parks off the south coast are the Jardines de la Reina, an archipelago diving haven off Ciego de Ávila province's coast; and the rarely visited Cayos de San Felipe off the coast of Pinar del Río province.
Agricultural land accounts for some 30% of the Cuban landmass and one in every five Cubans is engaged in some form of agricultural work.
Tobacco, grown primarily in prosperous Pinar del Río province, is Cuba's third-most important industry for the embattled Cuban economy. Like most farming in Cuba, it's still carried out in a way that's changed little in centuries, with fields plowed by yoked oxen, and is as photogenic to watch as it is gut-busting to do.
Sugar was an economic powerhouse before the US embargo and, despite the many closed sugar mills across the island, is becoming more important again, with China the major importer. The other big crop grown is rice, whilst coffee is cultivated on the Cordillera de la Gran Piedra near Santiago de Cuba.
Cuba has an unusual share of indigenous fauna to draw serious animal-watchers. Birds are the biggest draw and Cuba has over 350 different varieties, two dozen endemic. Head to the mangroves of Ciénaga de Zapata in Matanzas province or to the Península de Guanahacabibes in Pinar del Río for the best sightings of zunzuncito (bee hummingbird), the world's smallest bird. At 6.5cm, it's not much longer than a toothpick. These areas are also home to the tocororo (Cuban trogon), Cuba's national bird. Other popular bird species include cartacubas (indigenous to Cuba), herons, spoonbills, parakeets and rarely seen Cuban pygmy owls.
Flamingos are abundant in Cuba's northern keys, though the largest nesting ground in the western hemisphere, located in Camagüey Province's Río Máximo delta, has been compromised by contamination.
Land mammals have been hunted almost to extinction with the largest indigenous survivor the friendly jutía (tree rat), a 4kg edible rodent that scavenges on isolated keys living in relative harmony with armies of inquisitive iguanas. The vast majority of Cuba's other 38 species of mammal are from the bat family.
Cuba harbors a species of frog so small and elusive that it wasn't discovered until 1996 in what is now Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt near Baracoa. Still lacking a common name, the endemic amphibian is known as Eleutherodactylus iberia; it measures less than 1cm in length, and has a range of only 100 sq km.
Other odd species include the mariposa de cristal (Cuban clear-winged butterfly), one of only two clear-winged butterflies in the world; the rare manjuarí (Cuban alligator gar), an ancient fish considered a living fossil; the polimita, a unique land snail distinguished by its festive yellow, red and brown bands and, discovered only in 2011, the endemic Lucifuga, a blind troglodyte fish.
Reptiles are well represented in Cuba. Aside from iguanas and lizards, there are 15 species of snake, none poisonous. Cuba's largest snake is the majá, a constrictor related to the anaconda that grows up to 4m in length; it's nocturnal and doesn't usually mess with humans. The endemic Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer) is relatively small but agile on land and in water. Its 68 sharp teeth are specially adapted for crushing turtle shells. Crocs have suffered from major habitat loss in the last century though greater protection since the 1990s has seen numbers increase. Cuba has established a number of successful crocodile breeding farms (criaderos), the largest of which is at Guamá near the Bay of Pigs. Living in tandem with the Cuban croc is the larger American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) found in the Zapata Swamps and in various marshy territories on Cuba's southern coast.
Cuba's marine life compensates for what the island lacks in land fauna. The manatee, the world's only herbivorous aquatic mammal, is found in the Bahía de Taco and the Península de Zapata, and whale sharks frequent the María la Gorda area at Cuba's eastern tip from November to February. Four turtle species (leatherback, loggerhead, green and hawksbill) are found in Cuban waters and they nest annually in isolated keys or on protected beaches in Península de Guanahacabibes.
Due to habitat loss and persistent human hunting, many of Cuba's animals and birds are listed as endangered species. These include the critically endangered Cuban crocodile, which has the smallest habitat range of any crocodile, existing only in 300 sq km of the Ciénaga de Zapata (Zapata Swamp) and in the Lanier Swamp on Isla de la Juventud. Protected since 1996, wild numbers now hover at around 6000.
Other vulnerable species include the jutía, which was hunted mercilessly during the Special Period, when hungry Cubans tracked them for their meat (they still do – in fact, it is considered a delicacy); the tree boa, a native snake that lives in rapidly diminishing woodland areas; and the elusive carpintero real (ivory-billed woodpecker) spotted after a 40-year gap in the Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt near Baracoa in the late 1980s, but not seen since.
The seriously endangered West Indian manatee, while protected from illegal hunting, continues to suffer from a variety of human threats, most notably from contact with boat propellers, suffocation caused by fishing nets and poisoning from residues pumped into rivers from sugar factories.
Cuba has an ambiguous attitude toward turtle hunting. Hawksbill turtles are protected under the law, though a clause allows for up to 500 of them to be captured per year in certain areas (Camagüey and Isla de la Juventud). Travelers will occasionally encounter tortuga (turtle), caught illegally, on the menu in places such as Baracoa.
Cuba is synonymous with the palm tree; through songs, symbols, landscapes and legends the two are inextricably linked. The national tree is the palma real (royal palm), and it's central to the country's coat of arms and the Cristal beer logo. It's believed there are 20 million royal palms in Cuba and locals will tell you that wherever you stand on the island, you'll always be within sight of one of them. These majestic trees reach up to 40m in height and are easily identified by their lithe trunk and green stalk at the top. There are also cocotero (coconut palm); palma barrigona (big-belly palm) with its characteristic bulge; and the extremely rare palma corcho (cork palm). The latter is a link with the Cretaceous period (between 65 and 135 million years ago) and is cherished as a living fossil. You can see examples of it on the grounds of the Museo de Ciencias Naturales Sandalio de Noda in Pinar del Río. Cienfuegos' Jardín Botánico also boasts some 280 different palm varieties. Cuba itself has 90 palm-tree types.
Other important trees include mangroves which protect the Cuban shoreline from erosion and provide an important habitat for small fish and birds. Mangroves account for 26% of forests and cover almost 5% of the coast; Cuba ranks ninth in the world in terms of mangrove density, with the most extensive swamps situated in the Ciénaga de Zapata.
The largest native pine forests grow on Isla de la Juventud (the former Isle of Pines), in western Pinar del Río, in eastern Holguín's Sierra Cristal and in central Guantánamo. These forests are especially susceptible to fire damage, and pine reforestation has been a particular headache for Cuba's environmentalists.
Rainforests exist at higher altitudes – between approximately 500m and 1500m – in the Sierra del Escambray, Sierra Maestra and Macizo de Sagua-Baracoa mountains. Original rainforest species include ebony and mahogany, but today most reforestation is in eucalyptus, which is graceful and fragrant, but invasive.
Dotted liberally across the island, ferns, cacti and orchids contribute hundreds of species, many endemic, to Cuba's cornucopia of plant life. For the best concentrations check out the botanical gardens in Santiago de Cuba for ferns and cacti and Pinar del Río for orchids. Most orchids bloom from November to January, and one of the best places to see them is in the Reserva Sierra del Rosario. The national flower is the graceful mariposa (butterfly jasmine); you'll know it by its white floppy petals and strong perfume.
Medicinal plants are widespread in Cuba due largely to shortages of prescription medicines. Pharmacies are well stocked with effective tinctures such as aloe (for cough and congestion) and a bee by-product propólio, used for everything from stomach amoebas to respiratory infections. On the home front, every Cuban patio has a pot of orégano de la tierra (Cuban oregano), a cold remedy whipped up into a wonder elixir with lime juice, honey and hot water.
In the forested mountains of rural Cuba, few birds are as striking or emblematic as the tocororo.
Endemic to the island, the tocororo – or Cuban trogon – is a medium-sized black-and-white bird with a bright red belly and a bluish-green patch between the wings. Other distinctive features include a sharp serrated bill and a sweeping concave tail.
Easy to spot if you know where to look, the bird is widely distributed throughout Cuba in heavily forested areas, especially near rivers and streams. The unusual name is derived from its distinctive call which sounds out: to-co-ro-ro.
Long venerated for its striking plumage, the tocororo was chosen as Cuba's national bird due to its coloring (which replicates the red, white and blue of the Cuban flag) and its apparent resistance to captivity. Cubans will tell you that tocororos are instinctively libertarian, and if you cage one, it will quickly die.
Most of Cuba's environmental threats are of human origin and relate either to pollution or habitat loss, often through deforestation. Efforts to conserve the archipelago's diverse ecology really began in 1978, when Cuba established the National Committee for the Protection and Conservation of Natural Resources and the Environment (Comarna).
To reverse 400 years of deforestation and habitat destruction, the body created green belts and initiated ambitious reforestation campaigns. Comarna oversees national and international environmental legislation, including adherence to international treaties that govern Cuba's Unesco Biosphere Reserves and Unesco World Heritage sites.
Cuba's greatest environmental problems are aggravated by an economy struggling to survive. As the country pins its hopes on tourism, a contradictory environmental policy has evolved. There is added strain on the environment with increased tourism as US relations open. With ally Venezuela ailing, Cuba's oil supply has destabilized. The government has plans to start drilling for oil off the northwest coast, though a spill would be devastating. Therein lies the dilemma: how can a developing nation provide for its people and maintain ecological standards?
At the time of Columbus' arrival in 1492, 95% of Cuba was covered in virgin forest. By 1959, thanks to wholesale land-clearing for sugarcane and citrus plantations, this area had been reduced to 16%. Large-scale tree-planting and the organization of protected parks has seen this figure creep back up to 24%, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Las Terrazas in Pinar del Río province provided a blueprint for reforestation in the late 1960s, restoring hectares of denuded woodland to prevent ecological disaster. More recent efforts have focused on safeguarding the Caribbean's last virgin rainforest in Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt and adding protective forest fringes to wetlands in the Río Cauto delta.
An early blip in Cuba's economy-versus-ecology struggle was the 2km-long stone pedraplén (causeway) constructed to link offshore Cayo Sabinal with mainland Camagüey in the late 1980s. This massive project, which involved piling boulders in the sea and laying a road on top (without any bridges), interrupted water currents and caused irreparable damage to bird and marine habitats.
And to what end? No resorts, as yet, inhabit deserted Cayo Sabinel. Other longer causeways were later built connecting Jardines del Rey to Ciego de Ávila (27km long) and Cayo Santa María to Villa Clara (a 48km-long monster). This time more ecofriendly bridges have enabled a healthier water flow, though the full extent of the ecological damage won't be known for another decade at least.
Wildlife & Habitat Loss
Maintaining healthy animal habitats is crucial in Cuba, a country with high levels of endemism and hence a higher threat of species extinction. The problem is exacerbated by the narrow range of endemic animals, such as the Cuban crocodile that lives almost exclusively in the Ciénaga de Zapata, or the equally rare Eleutherodactylus iberia (the world's smallest frog). The latter has a range of just 100 sq km and exists only in the Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, whose formation in 2001 undoubtedly saved it from extinction. Other areas under threat include the giant flamingo nesting sites on the Archipiélago de Sabana-Camagüey, and Moa, where contaminated water runoff has played havoc with the coastal mangrove ecosystems favored by manatees.
Building new roads and airports, and the frenzied construction of giant resorts on virgin beaches, exacerbate the clash between human activity and environmental protection. The grossly shrunken extent of the Reserva Ecológica Varahicacos in Varadero due to encroaching resorts is one example. Cayo Coco – part of an important Ramsar-listed wetland that sits adjacent to a fast-developing hotel strip – is another.
Overfishing (including turtles and lobster for tourist consumption), agricultural runoff, industrial pollution and inadequate sewage treatment have contributed to the decay of coral reefs. Diseases such as yellow band, black band and nuisance algae have begun to appear. The rounding up of wild dolphins as entertainers in tourist-oriented delfinarios has also rankled many activists.
Ageing Infrastructure & Pollution
As soon as you arrive in Havana or Santiago de Cuba, the air pollution hits you like a sharp slap on the face. Airborne particles, old trucks belching black smoke and by-products from burning garbage are just some of the culprits. Havana's century-old sewer system – built for a population that has since quadrupled – is on the point of complete breakdown. Sewage blockages affect over half of city residents and drinking water leaks sabotage conservation efforts. Cement factories, sugar refineries and other heavy industries have also made their (dirty) mark.
The nickel mines engulfing Moa serve as stark examples of industrial concerns taking precedence: some of Cuba's wildest landscape has turned into a barren wasteland of lunar proportions. Unfortunately there are no easy solutions; nickel is one of Cuba's largest exports, a raw material the economy couldn't do without.
While old American cars paint a romantic picture to tourists, they're hardly fuel efficient. Add to that the use of substandard fuels due to economic constraints. Then there's the public transport – even Fidel went on the record to lament the adverse health effects of Cuba's filthy buses.
On the bright side of the environmental equation is the Cuban government's enthusiasm for reforestation and protecting natural areas – especially since the mid-1980s – along with its willingness to confront mistakes from the past. It's most stunning achievement is reef conservation in Marine Protected Areas. Cuba has also taken on climate change and rising sea levels with preparatory measures.
Havana Harbor, once Latin America's most polluted, has been undergoing a massive cleanup, as has the Río Almendares, which cuts through the heart of the city. Sulfur emissions from oil wells near Varadero have been reduced, and environmental regulations for developments are now enforced by the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment. Fishing regulations have become increasingly strict. Striking the balance between Cuba's immediate needs and the future of its environment is a pressing challenge.
Las Terrazas is the nation's most obvious eco-success, though there have been others, including the implementation of windfarm sites and the first solar farm, opened in Cienfuegos province in 2014. In terms of fauna, the nation can point to major crocodile reintroduction programs and successful sea turtle conservation. Strides are also being made in urban organic gardening.
Feature: The World's Most Sustainable Country?
With its antiquated infrastructure and fume-belching city traffic, Cuba might not seem like a font of innovative environmentalism. But in 2006, in an environmental report entitled The Living Planet, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) named Castro's struggling island nation as the only country in the world with sustainable development.
The WWF based its study on two key criteria: a human welfare index (life expectancy, literacy and GDP) and the ecological footprint (the amount of land needed to fulfill a person's food and energy needs). Most countries failed to meet their sustainability requirements either because their ecological footprint was too high (the mega-consuming West), or their human welfare index was too low (the poverty-stricken countries of Africa and Asia). Cuba, with its excellent health and education indices and low rates of consumption, proved to be the only exception.
It would be naive to suggest that Cuba achieved its sustainability record through foresight alone. On the contrary, Cubans are largely ecologists by necessity. The country's sustainability credentials were first laid out in the Special Period when, shorn of Soviet subsidies and marginalized from the world economy by a US trade embargo, rationing and recycling measures were necessary to survive.
Still, a car-ownership ratio of under 50 per 1000 (the US is closer to 800 per 1000) and an almost total absence of chemical fertilizers here, even if they came about for reasons wholly unrelated to ecology, are major boosts for the environment.
Feature: Cuba's Protected Areas
Unesco Biosphere Reserves
Sierra del Rosario
Cuchillos Toa Biospehere Reserve
Península de Guanahacabibes
turtle nesting site
Ciénaga de Zapata
largest wetlands in Caribbean
Ramsar Convention Sites
Ciénaga de Zapata
largest wetlands in Caribbean
Ciénaga de Lanier
unusual mosaic of ecosystems
Humedal del Norte de Ciego de Ávila
unique coastal lakes
Humedal Delta del Cauto
large population of aquatic birds
Humedal Río Máximo-Cagüey
significant flamingo nesting site
'Natural' Unesco World Heritage Sites
Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma
pristine marine terraces
Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt
Feature: Natural Spas
Cuban spas look more like utilitarian hospitals than candlelit retreats – not that this detracts from their restorative powers. The nation’s most popular spas are fed by thermal, mineral-rich water sources and are connected to economical Islazul hotels. They offer a mixture of baths, gymnasiums and assorted therapies.
- Balneario San Diego In Pinar del Río Province. The nation's oldest spa, opened in 1951 and finally getting a long-overdue makeover. Water temperatures of 32°C to 38°C and numerous mud-therapy treatments. Good for treating rheumatism.
- Hotel & Spa Elguea Villa Clara Province. Cuba's hottest thermal waters (45°C to 50°C).
- Villa San José del Lago In Sancti Spíritus Province; a more physically attractive spa, with a hotel and assorted outdoor pools rich in bicarbonate/calcium. Good for treating psoriasis.
Cuba offers a bird-watching bonanza year-round and no serious ornithologist should enter the country without their binoculars. Your experience will be enhanced by the level of expertise shown by many of Cuba’s naturalists and guides in the key bird-watching zones.
Areas with specialist bird-watching trails or trips include the Cueva las Perlas trail in Parque Nacional Península de Guanahacabibes, the Maravillas de Viñales trail in Parque Nacional Viñales, the Sendero la Serafina in the Reserva Sierra del Rosario, the Observación de Aves tour in Gran Parque Natural Montemar and the Sendero de las Aves in Hacienda la Belén in Camagüey province.
Must-sees include the tocororo (Cuban trogon), the zunzuncito (bee hummingbird), the Cuban parakeet, the Antillean palm swift, the cartacuba (Cuban tody; an indigenous Cuban bird) and, of course, the flamingo – preferably in a flock. Good spots for some DIY bird-watching are on Cayo Romano and adjacent Cayo Sabinal, although you’ll need a car to get there. Specialists and ivory-billed-woodpecker seekers will enjoy Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt.
Sidebar: Cuba's Longest River
- Name Río Cauto
- Length 343km
- Navigable length 110km
- Basin area 8928 sq km
- Source Sierra Maestra Mountains
- Mouth Caribbean Sea
Sidebar: Cuba's Highest Mountains
- Pico Turquino 1972m, Santiago de Cuba province
- Pico Cuba 1872m, Santiago de Cuba province
- Pico Bayamesa 1730m, Granma province
Sidebar: Cuba's Top Eco-Resorts
Sidebar: Cayos with a Hotel Infrastructure
- Largo del Sur
- Santa María
- Las Brujas
Sidebar: Endemic Fauna
- Cuban crocodile
- Bee hummingbird
- Tocororo (bird)
- Jutía (tree rat)
- Cuban gar (fish)
- Eleutherodactylus Iberia (frog)
- Cuban boa (snake)
- Cuban red bat
Sidebar: Isla Grande
Cuba's Isla Grande (main island) is the 17th-largest island in the world by area; slightly smaller than Newfoundland, but marginally bigger than Iceland.
Sidebar: Other Reserves
On top of its national parks and Unesco sites, Cuba protects land in flora and fauna reserves, eco-reserves and areas of managed resources, including the Sierra del Chorrillo in Camagüey and the Reserva Ecológica Varahicacos in Varadero.
Sidebar: Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt
Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt is named for the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) who visited the island between 1801 and 1804.
Sidebar: Coffee Production
Approximately 2% of Cuba's arable land is given over to coffee production and the industry supports a workforce of 265,000.
The Caribbean manatee can grow 4.5m long and weigh up to 600kg. It can consume up to 50kg of plant life a day.
Sidebar: Endemic Plants
It is estimated that Cuba harbors between 6500 and 7000 different species of plant, almost half of which are endemic.
Sidebar: Best Agricultural Immersion Experiences
The US & Cuba
What next? Cuba-watchers continue observing and speculating about the future of Cuba and US relations after the death of Fidel Castro followed the first tentative moves on behalf of the US to reinstate relations.
Despite its location 90 miles off the shores of Florida, Cuba remains, in the eyes of most Americans, one of the last great travel mysteries. Since 1963, when the US government instituted a de facto Cuban travel ban, visits by US nationals have been problematic. While the Obama administration opened the doors considerably, all bets are off whether relations will continue to thaw as the Trump administration seeks a stricter policy.
In January 2011, the difficulty in obtaining a visitor license eased with the re-introduction of government-sanctioned people-to-people trips (cultural trips with licensed providers). People-to-people trips satisfy the requirements of the educational activities category which allows any American to legally travel to Cuba provided they engage in a full-time schedule of activities. On these trips, authorized agents handle the license paperwork. Note that Americans can now book a flight to Cuba from the US directly, without an authorized provider.
Putting Pressure on the Embargo
While the US reduced restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba under the Obama administration, the US Congress has yet to approve lifting the embargo, termed el bloqueo in Spanish. Surveys in the US suggest that a majority of Americans are opposed to the US embargo. The UN General Assembly passes annual resolutions against the US embargo. The most recent passed by a margin of 188 votes, with the US and Israel voting against a lift in 2016.
Sidebar: Rum & Cigars
Rum and cigars for all: in 2016, the US loosened restrictions on these coveted contraband objects, allowing their entry for personal consumption.
Sidebar: Abraham Lincoln
There is only one statue of an American president in Cuba – that of Abraham Lincoln which furnishes the Parque de la Fraternidad in Centro Havana.
A New Chapter?
In December 2014, President Obama announced the biggest thaw in US–Cuban relations in 54 years. New measures since then include:
- The US government has started to issue more ‘general licenses,’ making it easier for US citizens who fall into certain authorized categories to travel to Cuba. New categories include people traveling for humanitarian reasons, public performances, athletic competitions, and those engaged in ‘support for the Cuban people.’
- Americans can send larger remittances to individuals in Cuba (up to $2000 a quarter).
- American travelers are permitted to bring up to $400-worth of Cuban goods back to the US and unlimited rum and cigars for personal consumption.
- Financial restrictions have been relaxed meaning US or US-linked credit cards and debit cards will eventually be accepted in Cuba.
- The US and Cuba restored diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961; the US has opened an embassy in Havana.
- There are direct commercial flights and cruises between Cuba and the US.
In 1958, eight out of 10 tourists who visited Havana came from the US. Tourism dropped off a cliff following US travel restrictions in 1961 and didn't recover their 1950s levels until 1989 (minus the Americans, of course). Since 1994 and the initiation of a massive government-sanctioned tourist industry in Cuba, visitor numbers have exploded, reaching 3.1 million in 2015. American visits ticked up 77% in the same year.
Studies conducted by the Cuba Policy Foundation have predicted that Cuban tourism would top four million within five years of a full end to the US trade embargo. While government-led plans address the influx, many worry that partial efforts won't ease the strain in infrastructure that the island is already experiencing.
More resorts have been earmarked for the northern keys, while local historians continue reviving the colonial cityscapes of Havana, Trinidad, Camagüey and Cienfuegos to generate tourist revenue. But, challenged by other Caribbean nations, today's tourist market is a little different to the hedonistic '50s.
In Havana's mafia heyday, Cuba had no real competition. Today, there's strong tourist infrastructure in neighboring Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic. Cuba's challenge will be damping down its legendary reputation for bureaucracy to encourage foreign investors, most of whom are wary of operating in a country where normal business practices have been on hold since 1959.
New Economic Realities
The 2008–9 recession played havoc with Cuba's already weak economy and provided the impulse for change. It finally arrived in late 2010 when Raúl Castro made the surprisingly nonsocialistic move of laying off over half a million 'unproductive' government workers and loosening the laws that governed private enterprise. The plan initially left many ordinary Cubans flummoxed.
For well over a generation, people in this tightly controlled socialist economy had been sheltered by a paternalistic state apparatus that infiltrated every aspect of their daily lives. The standard of living wasn't high, but citizens didn't have to worry about mortgages, start-up costs, or hefty tax returns.
The new laws removed many of these comforting assurances, and, while most have welcomed the opportunity to open up long-dreamt-about businesses ventures, things aren't so easy when you can't advertise, arrange credit, or get access online. Today, independent businesses are finding their way, despite the uncertainty, and many of them are booming.
Cuba after Fidel
When Fidel Castro passed away in 2016, his brother Raul had already been in charge of Cuba for a decade. Yet no one would deny that Cuba has largely been shaped by Fidel's vision. The question persists. What next?
Some envisage Cuba becoming a larger, more independently minded version of Puerto Rico; others have pointed to Spain whose peaceful transition to democracy after the death of Franco astounded many. But Cuba is not like anywhere else.
Over half a century of isolation, coupled with the presence of a hostile and powerful US to the north, has had an indelible effect on the country's psyche. The influence isn't necessarily all bad. Outsiders routinely underestimate Cuba's innate patriotism. As writer Pico Iyer once observed, 'everyone here seems to spend half his time complaining about Castro, and half his time glorying in the country's autonomy.'
Yet, the issue remains. Is this country of groundbreaking healthcare and pathological contrarianism ready to sell its soul wholesale to corporate capitalism? Or can the world (and the future) learn at least something from the Cuban experience; about fortitude, survival, and life without shopping malls? People in developing countries would like to think so. The perception of Cuba in poorer parts of the world, where the country has often been a beacon of hope for people denied healthcare, education and housing, is very different to that garnered by visitors from the West.
The (Cuban) American Dream
With economic migrants currently outnumbering older politicized exiles in the US, a small majority of Cuban-Americans is now less vociferously anti-Castro and more in favor of ending the embargo that inadvertently helped keep Castro in power. After 50 years of squabbling, the Cubans and their exiled counterparts remain a divided populace. What part could the exile community play in a new Cuban government? How much are they in the pockets of the Americans? And would Cuba compensate them for property and goods confiscated in 1960?
Emigrating to the US has become tougher than ever. As one of his last acts in office, President Obama ended the 'wet foot, dry foot' policy that guaranteed all Cuban migrants the possibility of US residency.