Havana’s dramatic hilltop landscape is dominated by two Parque Histórica Militar Morro-Cabaña fortresses, the Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro and Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, a towering statute of Christ, and a museum dedicated to Che Guevara.
Along its waterfront, locals stroll or jog the five mile malecόn of the Bay. Built by the United States in 1901, the oceanfront boardwalk reaches from Habana Vieja to Castillo de Santa Dorotea de Luna de Chorrera, a castle at the mouth of the Río Almendares.
Havana appears frozen in time, simply a place in a time warp. Its colonial history still preserved, the area of Vedado is noted for 50s-era hotels and casinos formerly linked to Mafia figures, as well as its vintage cars.
Most visitors spend their time exploring Habana Vieja. The area is a beautifully restored collection of colonial buildings complete with winding cobblestone streets merging into central plazas.
La Habana Vieja is one of the world's more interesting colonial old towns. Designated a UNESCO site, the area includes more than 900 historical buildings, its architecture varying from baroque to art deco.
Plaza San Francisco de Asis and Plaza Vieja date back to the 16th century. Other sights included the Gran Teatro de La Habana, a statute of José Martí in Parque Central, and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
Some locals, dress outrageously, pose eagerly for camera-ladened tourists. Of course, after a click, they eagerly reach their hand for a peso. A group of colorful dancers wearing stilts parade the street. Days could be spent wandering the cobblestone streets and plazas in the old city.
Heavily guarded Pavillón Granma displays the 60 foot boat, encased in glass, which transported Fidel Castro and his 81 men from Tuxpán, Mexico to Cuba in 1956. After their arrival, Castro fought with Che Guevara in the southeast Sierra Maestra Mountains for more than two years.
While a visit to Cuba may be highlighted by the city of Havana, the less visited southern coast is equally charming. The landscape is beautiful, people are friendly, and its culture is well preserved and timeless.
The southern coastal city of Cienfuegos, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is named after Camilo Cienfuegos, a revolutionary who fought with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The city lines the Caribbean Sea’s curvature around a large bay. Cienfuegos is considered Cuba’s “pearl of the south.”
Along Punta Gorda’s thin strand, restored French casa particulares (homes offering bed and breakfast) front the ocean. Club Cienfuegos, formerly a yacht club, is typical of the city’s 19th century Neo-classical architecture. Unlike Cuba’s more typical round Creole or Spanish tiles, Cienfuegos rooftops are covered with flat red French tiles.
Strolling the promenade, classic cars dating back to the 50s and Russian motorcycles with side cars, lined the curbs. Uniformed school children, some licking ice cream cones, walk in groups. Streets were being cleaned by women with brooms, while workmen were busy restoring buildings.
Cienfuegos’ boulevard is exclusively for pedestrians. A small mercado de campesinos or farmers market includes vendors butchering pig or selling yucca, tomatoes, beans, peppers, and other vegetables.
La Reina cemetery, built in 1837, has tombs of Spanish soldiers who died during wars of independence crypted in walls. Located in a high water area, numerous mausoleums are built above the ground. Best known is Bella Durmiente or Sleeping beauty, one of many marble sculpture memorials, a stunning tribute to a woman who died during childbirth.
A small ferry transports foot passengers across the narrowest part of the bay to the small fishing village of El Castillo. In 1745, Spanish soldiers built Fortaleza Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles de Jagua to protect the city from marauding pirates. Original canons remain as does a drawbridge that rises over a moat.
The colonial city of Trinidad, located approximately three hours east of Cienfuegos in Santi Spíritus province, lies at the base of Sierra del Escambray. Lacking the French legacy of Cienfuegos, the cobblestone Spanish city has maintained its antiquity without the same charm as Cienfuegos.
Overlooking the Caribbean, Trinidad and nearby Valle de los Ingenious, both UNESCO heritage sites, are historic for their ancient sugar mills and mansions owned by the wealthy.
Tower Iznaga, located six miles from the city, spires one hundred and forty feet. It was used to observe more than 11,000 slaves who toiled the surrounding sugar cane fields. A large bell, which clanged at the beginning and end of each day, lies near corroded boiling pots.
During the first half of the 19th century, wealthy landowners, facing slave rebellions, fled the geographically isolated city. Dependent on slave labor and without roads to import equipment, they fled certain financial loss.
In Trinidad, the Brunet family Mansion, built in 1740, is now known as the Romantic Museum. It houses a collection of fine furniture and china dating from the 18th century into the first half of the 19th century. Adjacent to it is Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísimo Trinidad, built in 1892. Lacking bell towers, the church is not considered a cathedral.
After the turn of the 20th century, Trinidad saw an opportunity for tourism. Its ocean views provided a great setting for casinos. Trinidad’s period as a gaming Mecca lasted until Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution.
Located on the Río Yayabo, the historic city of Santa Clara was founded in 1514 by Spanish conquistador Diego Veláquez. Centrally located in the country, the city was frequently targeted by pirates, colonizers, and revolutionaries. In 1958, Che Guevara successfully defeated the gruesome dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in the battle of Santa Clara.
Guevara and his eighteen men derailed and captured a 22-car armored train carrying 350 Batista troops. The battle is memorialized at the Monumento a la Toma Del Tren Blindado. There is a detailed statue of Che with a larger mausoleum and museum for the Cuban hero.
Hurry fast! As Cuba continues to become more open to American tourism, it will fade out of its time warp, the old cars will eventually disappear, but Cuba’s fascinating culture will not disappear.