Why everyone is obsessed with Cuba, and how there’s no other such place on Earth

Viñales Valley

The land of Che Guevara, the cha-cha-cha, a complicated political and colonial history, and flourishing flora and fauna, Cuba is the largest Caribbean island that is likely to appease travelers of all kinds. Once settled by indigenous groups, the island has since been colonized by the Spanish and the English, who brought slaves from Africa. Elements of this difficult history have syncretized and are reflected in today’s architecture, music and culture.

Cloud forests and mountain ranges

In addition to the main island of Cuba, the country comprises more than 4,000 islands and cays, divided into four main archipelagos. Most of the island is covered with plains where cattle grazes and sugarcane is grown. Sugarcane and tobacco cultivation were essential to the nation’s prosperity at a time when Havana was founded in 1514.

There are three main forested mountain ranges as well: Sierra Maestra (where you can visit the former hidden headquarters of the rebels such as Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara), Sierra Escambry (full of ecological wonders such as caves, waterfalls and canyons) and Cordillera de Guaniguanico (located in the tobacco-growing ridges of Pinar del Río, the range is home to mogotes – flat-topped mountains). The highest peak of the former mountain range, Pico Turquino, rises to almost 6,500 feet.

Trail in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba

Wildlife on the island of Cuba

With 2,200 miles of coastline full of pristine beaches and remote bays, Cuba has more than 900 species of marine life. It also boasts more than 8,000 species of plants, and 200 species of butterflies, including 13 types of swallowtails and 55 skipper varieties that will keep any Lepidoptera aficionado busy. The Zapata Peninsula is known for bird-watching: you can see many of the 350 species of birds that live in Cuba and include the bee hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world, as well as the Cuban tody and the Cuban trogon (also known as the tocororo).

The Isle of Youth and the crocodile sanctuary

Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) is Cuba’s second biggest island, located just south of the island of Cuba, directly below Havana. Named so by Fidel Castro at a ceremony in 1978 to praise the youth that grew up during a revolutionary time, the island had previously been known as Isla de Cotorras (Isle of Parrots) and Isla de Tesoros (Treasure Island). As it was the subject of incessant pirate attacks in the 17th and 18th centuries, it has appeared in Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie.

Notably, Isla de la Juventud has 235 ancient drawings by the indigenous population in a cave complex near Punta del Este beach. At Playa Sirena, you can swim alongside dolphins. Or you can visit a rather unusual place: the Crocodile Farm of Nueva Gerona – a hatchery that is crucial to the conservation of one of the most dangerous predators in the world. Crocodiles are released once they are seven years old and just over three feet (one meter) long. The hatchery cares for 500 crocodiles at a time.

The Gardens of the Queen and the coral reef

To the east of La Isla de la Juventud is the Jardines de la Reina – the Gardens of the Queen, a string of keys that resemble jewels. They are home to the largest marine reserve in the Caribbean, and a coral reef that is protected by the nation. Sharks, groupers, crabs, lobsters, scallops, sea urchins and many types of fish thrive in the reef and depend on it for survival. With all of these magical experiences Cuba has to offer (and many more), the only question should be: when are we going?

Did you know?

  • The length of the island of Cuba is about 780 miles – the distance from NYC to Chicago.

  • There are a few theories about the origin of the name "Cuba." One is that it comes from the Taíno word "cubao," which means "where fertile land is abundant."

  • Cuba is the home of many musical genres, including salsa, conga, cha-cha-cha, and mambo. Cuba is the place where maracas were invented.

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