Cuba lies in the northwest of the Caribbean Sea, 90 miles south of Florida, at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico.
Almost the size of England, it is by far the largest island in the Caribbean – in fact, at 744 miles long by an average 60 miles wide, it’s as big as all the rest put together. To Columbus it was also the best: he called it “the most beautiful land yet seen by human eye”.
Cuba means different things to different people. For some, the name stands for revolution and communism, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. For others, it conjures up retro images of 1950s American cars and glamorous cocktail bars.
The island’s history as a haven for gangsters and gamblers has given it a reputation as a macho country – think Ernest Hemingway, deep sea fishing and dusky maidens rolling cigars on their thighs. And then there’s its colonial heritage: all those crumbling Spanish buildings and sugar plantations.
In the 1990s Cuba suddenly found itself musical flavour of the month, thanks to the success of the Buena Vista Social Club film and CD. Now it has really taken off as a sunny beach destination, with brochures raving about its idyllic silver sands, swaying palms and turquoise seas, as glorious as any in the Caribbean.
The truth is that you can find a bit of all those things – and more besides. One of the most fascinating things about Cuba is its people. A blend of races and cultures, African, Asian, and European, they’re friendly, easy-going and welcoming, despite the fact that rationing and restrictions are a constant part of their lives.
The Cubans’ love of music is legendary, and many towns have a regular weekly party night, when everyone gathers in the streets to eat, dance and make merry.
The towns themselves have kept most of their beautiful old buildings (mainly, it has to be said, because there weren’t enough funds to knock them down and build new ones), and many of them are now being renovated from their former crumbling, dilapidated state. The faces and facades alone make for a photographer’s dream.
Outside the cities the attractions are just as appealing. Hikers can trek through beautiful mountain ranges covered in tropical forest. Ornithologists will be drawn to the marshes and mangroves of the Zapata peninsula, home to more than 160 species of bird.
Snorkellers and scuba divers are lured by the coral reefs that surround most of the island, attracting a wide variety of fish, in perfect viewing conditions.