How’s your geography knowledge? It’s something that might be considered when you start to plan a holiday. Aside from the major city of a certain country, you might be hard pressed to know about any of the other, lesser-known cities of your destination. If you’re going to France, of course you’ll see Paris, as well as… um… that place by the ocean with the big film festival, maybe? When flying to New Zealand, you will want to experience all that the cities have to offer. Cities such as… um… You’ll get it in a minute. Possibly with the assistance of Google. You might not be all that familiar with the cities of Cuba, beyond the brilliance that is Havana, naturally. But Cuba has a true advantage in having a relatively small landmass. The size of the country is perfectly manageable, and you can experience the distinctive flavour of many of the towns and cities of the island nation, without feeling like you’re rushing. So without any further ado, let’s have a look at the cities of Cuba that are more than worthy of your time.
Will you fall in love with Havana on your trip to Cuba? Well, frankly… Hava-duh. This is the Cuba you’ve been expecting, and Havana is not going to disappoint. There are some aspects of the city that you might think were only emphasised in travel brochures and websites, so it can be refreshing to see that it’s all real. Yes, there are vibrantly-coloured vintage cars, proudly trawling up and down the narrow streets. Sure, there will be salsa music emanating from bars and clubs, seemingly at all hours of the day. The city sometimes presents a stereotypical view of Cuba, but this doesn’t make it any less authentic. You might well end up spending most of your time in Havana’s Old Town (La Habana Vieja) as this is the most picturesque part of the city, but be sure to explore the other faces of Havana as well.
Nowhere is Cuba’s colonial past laid more bare than in Trinidad. Once a city of opulent wealth, Trinidad’s fortunes were made in the nearby sugar plantations, all courtesy of slave labour from a dark time in Cuba’s history (although this was of course the normal way to do things in much of the world at the time). The industry collapsed when slavery was outlawed, and the town fell into disrepair – the epicentre of an industry that was now treading water. The glorious buildings of Trinidad (and the area around the town’s main square are where to best experience them) were mercifully spared the ravages of time, indifference, and an inability to afford their upkeep. The town’s centre was granted UNESCO World Heritage status, and have now been transformed to their former bright selves, even though this is reminiscent of a dark period in Cuba’s history
It’s maybe pushing it to consider Viñales to be a city, and to be honest, it’s more of a village. But this laidback town can still radiate with life, giving you an authentic glimpse at Cuban rural life. This is where much of Cuba’s tobacco crops are cultivated, and the natural beauty in the hills that surround the town are something that must be experienced for yourself.
There is a method to the madness of Camagüey. If you think that the streets feel like a maze, you are entirely correct. The heart of the city was once situated next to the coast. The annoyance of pirates led to the entire city being relocated slightly inland. And since this was not enough protection, the streets were laid out in a nonsensical, maze-like configuration, so that any groups of marauders could be separated and captured, where they would be given suitable punishment… which in those days, was more than a stern talking to.
Santiago de Cuba
Much is made of the fact that Cuba’s second largest city is closer to Haiti and the Dominican Republic than it is to Havana, and this certainly gives the place a truly distinctive cultural identity. Some people might in fact prefer it to Havana, and it’s arguably the point of origin of many styles of music that are now seen as generically Cuban. A trawl around the numerous music venues of the city are a treat for your ears, and the whole place feels more manageable than Havana, still a part of Cuba, but very much its own unique place.
Any tailor made tour of Cuba is going to devote a fair amount of time to the beach, and Varadero is one of the more interesting beaches in the country. You might encounter beaches that you consider to be more beautiful, but Varadero offers a fascinating insight into the contradictory nature of modern Cuba. The town itself is charming and rustic, but further along the beach are the luxury resorts that the town is known for. Separated from the town by fences and gates, some visitors never leave these borders to experience the real Cuba. In fact, the only Cubans they might encounter are the ones who actually work at the resort.