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Cuba Cruises

About Cuba

The island of Cuba sits just 90 miles south of Key West, Florida, at the convergence of the Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. It is the Caribbean’s largest island and boasts a multiethnic population with traditions dating to the indigenous Taíno and Ciboney people, Spanish colonists and African slaves. For decades, its economy has relied on sugar, tobacco and coffee exports. Yet Cuban culture has also found its way around the world as emigrants have settled elsewhere throughout the Americas, bringing with them their unique cuisine and lively music.

Populated long before the arrival of Europeans, Cuba was among the first islands visited by Christopher Columbus upon reaching the Americas. The Spanish conquest of Cuba proved disastrous for the natives, who quickly found themselves overwhelmed by soldiers and disease. Spaniards retained control of the island for centuries, until the Spanish-American War of 1898, after which Cuba gained a bit of independence as a US protectorate. It gained formal independence as a country in 1902. The rise of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista 50 years later marked the beginning of decades of harsh rule and set the stage for the leadership of Fidel Castro. Under his rule, the relationship between his country and the United States became strained, particularly as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Recently, tensions have eased and this nation rich in colonial history welcomes travelers with open arms.

Cuba Lifestyle and Culture

The historical ties to Spain are evident in modern-day Cuba. Spanish is the most prevalent language and Roman Catholicism underpins much of the religious life. Yet the nation also enjoys a rich diversity of religions. Christian traditions are often melded with those brought to these shores from West Africa. For example, Santeria, a folk religion, counts many adherents on the island.

The Cuban people have displayed a wealth of ingenuity and creativity throughout the nation’s complex history. Cuban music combines elements of Spanish and West African traditions to deliver a sound that is percussive, jubilant and distinct. Local painters have also benefitted from the island’s diverse past, with many borrowing from European and native artistic traditions to shape unique movements of their own. The influence of Cuba’s natural environment can often be seen in the bold colors on canvases.

The history of Cuba can also be witnessed in its kitchens. Spanish, African and native foods and techniques have fused together to form a delicious cuisine. Rice, beans, chicken and pork are enhanced by local additions like mojo, a flavorful sauce that is a favorite of Cubans. This is also where the Cuban sandwich was invented. Familiar to American taste buds, it was conceived during a time of frequent trade between the two countries in the 19th century.

The Communist revolution of 1959 touched nearly every aspect of Cuban life. Despite the many inroads and continuing progress that Cubans are making in the areas of business, farming, culture and education, Cuba remains a communist nation. This fact may weigh heavily on Americans’ assumptions about the island. Still, a visit to Cuba reveals much about the resilience and optimism of the human spirit.

Cuba Sights and Landmarks

Cuba is a rich patchwork of fertile valleys dotted with sprawling farms, lush rainforests spilling onto long crescent beaches and unspoiled small towns and villages. Just as Havana’s isolation has helped its authentic culture thrive without outside influence, the rest of the island, too, has maintained an identity fixed in the mid–20th century. The island’s unrivalled architectural and cultural preservation has earned some of its cities and villages designations as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Among them is the colonial-flavored Plaza Mayor, the main square of Trinidad; with the dramatic bell tower of its San Francisco Church and Convent rising up over a canopy of green, it strikes a stunning pose. And the city of Cienfuegos, on the southern coast, boasts one of the greatest concentrations of neoclassical architecture and early 19th-century Spanish Enlightenment structures in the Caribbean.

Cuba’s capital and major port city of Havana is a feast for the senses. Old-world architecture and 1950s automobiles coexist to create a city unlike any other. As Cuban jazz provides an invigorating soundtrack, local artists, musicians and chefs offer an up-close look at Cuban culture. Casco Viejo, the city’s Old Town and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to some 3,000 buildings in the neoclassical, baroque and colonial styles. There’s no better way to absorb this cross section of history than by strolling cobblestone streets past colonnaded arcades and through the heart of the Old Town, pausing to admire the splendid Havana Cathedral and exploring Morro Castle, the fortress that has kept watch over Havana Bay since 1589. The masterpieces at the National Museum of Fine Arts provide a window into the soul of Cuba through its art.