Cuba's provinces are splayed end to end across the main island, with the oft-forgotten comma of Isla de la Juventud hanging off the bottom. All of them have coast access and are embellished with beautiful beaches, the best hugging the north coast. Equally ubiquitous are the vivid snippets of history, impressive colonial architecture and potent reminders of the 1959 revolution. The country's highest mountain range, the Sierra Maestra, rises in the east with another significant range, the Sierra del Escambray, positioned south-central. Cuba's main wilderness areas are the Zapata swamps, the marine terraces of Granma, the tropical forests of Guantánamo and the uninhabited (for now) northern keys. Urban highlights include Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey and colonial Trinidad.
The capital’s 4-sq-km historic center has history wherever you look and museums dedicated to everything from chocolate to Simón Bolívar. Kick off with the Museo de la Revolución, garner more cultural immersion in the Museo de la Ciudad and schedule at least half a day for the fine Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
Havana’s architecture is not unlike its flora and fauna: hard to categorize and sometimes a little – well – weird. Stroll the streets of Habana Vieja and Centro Havana and choose your own highlights.
Life’s a Cabaret
Every Cuban music style is represented in Havana, from street rumba to glitzy cabaret, making it the best place in the country for live concerts, spontaneous busking and racy nightlife.
Artemisa & Mayabeque Provinces
Rather surprisingly, considering it’s stuck on the main highway between Havana and Varadero, Mayabeque Province has its own unheralded and rather delightful beaches, spearheaded by Playa Jibacoa. Get there quick before the (planned) golf courses start springing up.
The stark white eco-village of Las Terrazas was practicing environmentally friendly living long before the urgency of the Special Period or the adoption of eco-practices in the world outside. Today it carries on much as it has always done: quietly, confidently and – above all – sustainably.
Las Terrazas has dozens of them, half-covered by encroaching jungle, while Artemisa has its own Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, a larger, more refined, but no-less-weathered ruin that once functioned as a coffee plantation employing 450 slaves.
Isla de la Juventud (Special Municipality)
Into the Blue
Outside the hard-to-access Jardines de la Reina archipelago, La Isla offers the best diving in Cuba and is the main reason many people come here. Ultra-clear water, abundant sea life and a protected marine park at Punta Francés are the high points.
If you missed it in the Ciénaga de Zapata, La Isla is the only other place in the world where you can view the Cuban crocodile in its natural state. It has been successfully reintroduced into the Lanier Swamps.
Not one but two of Cuba’s verbose spokesmen were once imprisoned on the archipelago’s largest outlying island that also doubled as a big jail: José Martí and Fidel Castro. Their former incarceration sites are riddled with historical significance.
Pinar del Río Province
Flora & Fauna
Isolated at the westernmost tip of the main island, María la Gorda has long lured travelers for its spectacular diving, enhanced by electrically colored coral, huge sponges and gorgonians, and a knowledgeable but laid-back dive community.
There’s nothing like a true Cuban pork roast and there’s no place better to try it than among the guajiros (country folk) of Viñales who offer up humongous portions of the national dish with trimmings of rice, beans and root vegetables.
Parks of Pinar
With more protected land than any other province, Pinar is a green paradise. Go hiking in Parque Nacional Viñales, spot a sea turtle in Parque Nacional Península de Guanahacabibes or train your binoculars on the feathered action around Cueva de los Portales.
Flora & Fauna
Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) might not have Cuba’s best diving, but it certainly has its most accessible. You can glide off from the shore here and be gawping at coral-encrusted drop-off walls within a few strokes.
In contrast to the resort frenzy on the north coast, Matanzas’ southern underbelly is one of Cuba’s last true wildernesses and an important refuge for wildlife, including Cuban crocodiles, manatees, bee hummingbirds and tree rats.
Sands of Varadero
Even if you hate resorts, there’s still one reason to go to Varadero – an unbroken 20km ribbon of golden sand that stretches the whole length of the Península de Hicacos. It’s arguably the longest and finest beach in Cuba.
Despite its position as one of Cuba’s newer cities, founded in 1819, Cienfuegos retains a remarkably homogenous urban core full of classical facades and slender columns that carry the essence of 19th-century France, where it drew its inspiration.
Benny Moré Trail
Benny Moré, Cuba’s most adaptable and diverse musician, who ruled the clubs and dance halls in the 1940s and ’50s, once called Cienfuegos the city he liked best. Come see if you agree and, on the way, visit the village where he was born.
Secrets of Guajimico
Welcome to one of Cuba’s least-discovered diving spots, run out of a comfortable campismo on the warm, calm south coast and renowned for its coral gardens, sponges and scattered wrecks.
Villa Clara Province
Cuba’s newest resorts on the keys off the coast of Villa Clara hide some stunning and still relatively uncrowded beaches, including the publicly accessible Las Gaviotas on Cayo Santa María and the more-refined Playa el Mégano and Playa Ensenachos on Cayo Ensenachos.
Love him or hate him, his legacy won’t go away, so you might as well visit Santa Clara to at least try to understand what made the great guerrillero (warrior) tick. The city hosts Che’s mausoleum, a museum cataloguing his life and the historic site where he ambushed an armored train in 1958.
The city of Santa Clara has the edgiest and most contemporary nightlife scene in Cuba, where local innovators are constantly probing for the next big thing.
Sancti Spíritus Province
Revolution to Romance
Trinidad has more museums per square meter than anywhere outside Havana, and they’re not token gestures either. Themes include history, furniture, counterrevolutionary wars, ceramics, contemporary art and romance.
Trails & Topography
Topes de Collantes has the most comprehensive trail system in Cuba and showcases some of the best scenery in the archipelago, with waterfalls, natural swimming pools, precious wildlife and working coffee plantations. Further trails can be found in the less-heralded Alturas de Banao and Jobo Rosado reserves.
In Trinidad – and to a lesser extent Sancti Spíritus – music seems to emanate out of every nook and cranny, much of it spontaneous and unrehearsed. Trinidad, in particular, has the most varied and condensed music scene outside Havana.
Ciego de Ávila Province
Cayo Guillermo has all the makings of a fishing trip extraordinaire: a warm tropical setting; large, abundant fish; and the ghost of Ernest Hemingway to follow you from port to rippling sea and back. Pack a box of beer and follow the Gulf Stream.
Colorados, Prohibida, Flamingo and Pilar – the beaches of the northern keys lure you with their names as much as their reputations and, when you get there, there’s plenty of room for everyone.
Fiestas & Fireworks
No other province has such a varied and – frankly – weird stash of festivals. Ciego is home to an annual cricket tournament, rustic country dancing, strange voodoo rites and explosive fireworks.
OK, the resorts aren’t exactly refined luxury, but who cares when the diving’s this good? Playa Santa Lucía sits astride one of the largest coral reefs in the world and is famous for its shark-feeding show.
Camagüey doesn’t conform to the normal Spanish colonial building manual when it comes to urban layout, but that’s part of the attraction. Lose yourself in Cuba’s third-largest city that, since 2008, has been a Unesco World Heritage site.
The beaches on the province’s north coast are phenomenal. There’s 20km-long Playa Santa Lucía, the Robinson Crusoe–like Playa Los Pinos on Cayo Sabinel, and the shapely curve of Playa los Cocos at the mouth of the Bahía de Nuevitas.
Las Tunas Province
Hardly anyone knows about them, but they’re still there. Las Tunas’ northern eco-beaches are currently the preserve of local Cubans, seabirds and the odd in-the-know outsider. Come and enjoy them before the resort-building bulldozers wreck the tranquility.
City of Sculptures
Scout around the congenial streets of the provincial capital Las Tunas and you’ll uncover an esoteric collection of revolutionary leaders, two-headed Taíno chiefs and oversize pencils crafted in stone.
The bastion of country music in Cuba, Las Tunas hosts the annual Cucalambeana festival, where songwriters from across the country come to recite their quick-witted satirical décimas (verses).
Most tourists gravitate to the well-known beaches of Playa Pesquero and Guardalavaca that are backed by big resorts. Less touted, but equally linda (pretty), are Playa Caleta near Gibara and Las Morales near Banes.
Mountains & Keys
Strangely, for a province that hosts Cuba’s largest and dirtiest industry (the Moa nickel mines), Holguín has a profusion of green escapes tucked away in pine-clad mountain retreats or hidden on exotic keys. Discover Cayo Saetia and Pinares de Mayarí.
Holguín preserves Cuba’s best stash of archaeological finds. The region’s long-lost pre-Columbian culture is showcased at the Museo Chorro de Maita and its adjacent reconstructed Taíno village. There are more artifacts on display at the Museo Indocubano Bani in nearby Banes.
History is never as real as it is in Cuba’s most revolutionary province. Here you can hike up to Castro’s 1950s mountaintop HQ, visit the sugar mill where Céspedes first freed his slaves or ponder the poignant spot where José Martí fell in battle.
Bagging a Peak
With the Sierra Maestra overlaying two national parks, Granma has tremendous hiking potential, including the trek up to the top of the nation’s highest peak, Pico Turquino.
Granma is famous for its street parties. Towns such as Bayamo and Manzanillo have long celebrated weekly alfresco shindigs with whole roast pork, chess tournaments and music provided by old-fashioned street organs.
Santiago de Cuba Province
As magical as they are mysterious, Santiago’s folklórico (Afro-Cuban folkdance) troupes are a throwback to another era when slaves hid their traditions behind a complex veneer of singing, dancing and syncretized religion.
Cuba’s hotbed of sedition has inspired multiple rebellions and many key sites can still be visited. Start at Moncada Barracks and head south through the birth houses of local heroes Frank País and Antonio Maceo, to the eerily named Museo de la Lucha Clandestina (Clandestine War Museum).
Santiago has a wider variety of annual festivals than any other Cuban city. July is the top month, with the annual Carnaval preceded by the Festival del Caribe, celebrating the city’s rich Caribbean culture.
Flora & Fauna
Guantánamo’s historical isolation and complex soil structure has led to high levels of endemism, meaning you’re likely to see plant and animal species here that you’ll see nowhere else in the archipelago. Aspiring botanists should gravitate towards Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt.
As Baracoa grows as an ecological center, hiking possibilities are opening up. Try the long-standing treks up El Yunque or into Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, or tackle newer trails around the Río Duaba or to the beaches near Boca de Yumurí.
Coconut & Cocoa
What do you mean you didn’t come to Cuba for the food? Baracoa is waiting to blow away your culinary preconceptions with a sweet-and-spicy mélange of dishes concocted from the ubiquitous cocoa, coffee, coconuts and bananas.