Although purely touristic activities in Cuba are still prohibited for U.S. travelers, the recent easing of restrictions has led to a skyrocketing number of visitors to the island -- particularly those traveling on authorized people-to-people programs. Most Americans land in Havana and spend a few days in Cuba’s lively, historic capital city before heading out to popular destinations such as Trinidad and Cienfuegos on the south coast, or the lush Viñales Valley in western Cuba. Yet many other appealing locations remain relatively off-the-beaten-path. Here are several destinations to visit once U.S. travel restrictions permit more independent travel.
Santiago de Cuba
Cuba’s second city and the largest urban center in the east, Santiago has a rich legacy and a distinct character, reflected in its many historic buildings, strong Afro-Cuban culture, thriving music scene, and Caribbean influences. It was here that Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders charged up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War, and here that Fidel Castro launched his revolution with an unsuccessful attack on the Moncada barracks in July 1953. The enormous Santa Ifigenia Cemetery is the resting place of Cuba’s national hero, José Martí, as well as rum baron Emilio Bacardí.
This peninsula at Cuba’s far western tip is a remote and sparsely populated corner of the island. Much of it belongs to the minimally developed Guanahacabibes National Park, which offers excellent birdwatching opportunities, along with a variety of landscapes and habitats to explore. The peninsula’s white-sand beaches are among the most important nesting areas for green turtles in Cuba, while divers and snorkelers appreciate the clear waters and pristine coral reefs just offshore. The region also has around 140 archaeological sites relating to the pre-Columbian indigenous culture.
Just 65 miles east of Havana, Matanzas is known as a hotbed of Cuban music, including danzón -- which was invented here -- and rumba. The local ensemble Los Muñequitos de Matanzas has been one of Cuba’s most popular rumba groups for over six decades. Although Matanzas is hardly Cuba’s most attractive city, it has a rich cultural life and several noteworthy buildings, including the elegant Sauto Theater and the Museo Farmacéutico, a 19th-century pharmacy preserved as a surprisingly interesting museum. Just down the street is Ediciones Vigía, an independent publishing house where you can watch artisans make beautiful, handcrafted books.
Further east along the main cross-country highway lies Camagüey, Cuba’s third-largest city and also one of its oldest, founded in 1515 and moved to its present inland location 13 years later. The historic core is an intriguing labyrinth of narrow streets designed to thwart the pirates who made repeated attacks on the city during its early history. Pretty cobblestone plazas, ornate churches, and lovely colonial buildings abound.
A university city in the central part of Cuba, Santa Clara is best known as the final resting place of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine doctor who became a leader of the Cuban revolution. Che’s image appears all over Cuba, but his earthly remains -- along with those of 17 other revolutionaries killed alongside him in Bolivia in 1967 -- lie in a mausoleum on the outskirts of town. The mausoleum is part of an impressive memorial complex that also includes a museum tracing Che’s life and legacy.
Cuba’s oldest city, Baracoa is also one of its most captivating. Located at the far eastern tip of the island, it was founded by Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez in 1512, against a backdrop of lushly forested mountains. Its charm comes from its beguiling feeling of isolation, quirky local culture, and wildly beautiful surroundings, which offer abundant opportunities for hiking, birdwatching, and other nature-related activities.
Cuba has some of the most beautiful beaches and pristine coral reefs in the Caribbean, and the best places to experience them are the chains of cays off the main coasts. In the north, Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo -- part of a string of coral islands known as Jardines del Rey (Gardens of the King) -- boast dazzling beaches and outstanding diving. In the south, the equally unspoiled Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) are less developed and only open to a limited number of divers per year, but Cayo Largo in the Canarreos Archipelago further west is a popular getaway with gorgeous white sands and abundant diving and snorkeling opportunities. There’s also fantastic diving off the large island called Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth), at the opposite end of the archipelago, though tourist facilities here are much more basic.
Ciénaga de Zapata
The Caribbean’s largest wetlands, this rich ecosystem southeast of Havana -- protected as a national park and biosphere reserve -- is home to more than 900 species of plants, about half of Cuba’s 346 bird species, and dozens of species of mammals and reptiles. Alongside birdwatching and visits to the crocodile breeding center, popular activities include snorkeling the reefs close to shore, kayaking along the mangrove-lined channels, and boat excursions on the large lake called Laguna del Tesoro. The small town of Playa Larga at the north end of the Bay of Pigs is the best jumping-off point for exploration.