Everybody’s image of Cuba is different. For some, it’s an idealised tropical paradise – scenes of palm trees swaying alongside endless dazzling white beaches and a turquoise sea. Others remember its past decadence: stories of Hemingway and Greene, cheap rum, gambling, wild dances and cigars being rolled on the thighs of dusky maidens. Only the gambling is no longer available.
Then there are the revolutionaries: José Martí, Castro and Che Guevara. This is perhaps the most powerful image of them all: Cuba freeing itself from its colonial past and then daring to stand up to the most powerful country in the world.
Partly because of Cuba’s isolation, its old towns remain remarkably unspoilt and intact. Havana is a World Heritage Site and strenuous efforts are being made to restore the colonial centre to its former glory. Around the island, Trinidad is the most precious colonial town, where nothing has changed for at least a hundred years.
Cuba is blessed with a pristine reef around most of the island, with walls and wrecks hosting a kaleidoscope of underwater life. The coral is in excellent condition, and there are turtles, dolphins, grouper, whale sharks, moray eels, rays, barracuda and other large creatures to make your heart miss a beat. Deep-sea fishing has long been popular, with tournaments made famous by Ernest Hemingway.
Out of the water, Varadero is a sandy spit of land which stretches for miles along the north coast and has attracted tourists since the beginning of the 20th century. For something a bit livelier, head to the local’s favourite hangouts: Guanabo, near Havana, or the beaches east of Santiago de Cuba.
Wherever you go in Cuba you will be accompanied by music. Every town has a casa de la trova, where you can hear the different styles of Cuban music for the price of a rum or two. The salsa and the son, the mamba and the rumba are all now internationally famous and Cuban jazz has influenced music the world over.