Bespoke Luxury Holidays in Cuba
Esencia Experiences is one of the few concierge companies in Cuba offering a completely bespoke service. We offer escorted tours to all of the country’s attractions staying at the best hotels, private residences and villas.
With six years experience in the country we know the best restaurants, the happening places and have access to Cuba’s most high profile cultural events from the Cigar Festival to its prestigious ballet and film festivals. If you are a sports enthusiast we can arrange everything from yacht charters to golf and nature holidays.
Our office in Havana is staffed with an experienced multilingual team that can create the best travel experience available in Cuba today.
Nestling between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas, Cuba is the largest and most diverse Caribbean Island. The varied landscape includes beautiful golden beaches, rolling mountains and stunning coral reef, with more than 300 areas of protected natural beauty making up almost a quarter of the island.
Cuba’s indefinable identity makes it one of the most colourful and fascinating places on earth. Full of romance, magic and mystique; a fascinating history of conquistadors, buccaneers and smugglers; home to the cocktail, the cigar, carnival and salsa; breathtaking architecture from baroque to art nouveau and deco. The continuity of the past with the present, and a spectacular backdrop of lush rainforest, white beaches and coral reef, makes Cuba an indescribable and extraordinary experience.
Rich flora and fauna, forests, marshes, caves and crystal clear lagoons provide a unique, varied landscape. To experience some of the island’s grandest scenery, travel to the east to discover Cuba’s highest mountain range, the Sierra Maestra. To the extreme east is the lush port of Baracoa, ‘The Town that Time Forgot’. Tread the same ground where Columbus arrived from Europe in 1492, and revel in the tranquility of its secluded beaches and virgin rainforest.
A fantastic subtropical climate, warm waters cooled by trade winds and an average of 330 sunny days per year makes Cuba a fabulous beach, as well as cultural, destination. An island guarded by hundreds of kilometres of white sandy beaches, its conserved coral reef is second only in length to the Great Barrier Reef. Cuba is quite simply paradise.
Cuba, a huge island, one of the Caribbean’s most diverse, shaped like a long thin crocodile, its landscape ranging from mountains and valleys to rolling hills and white-sand beaches. Santiago de Cuba and Havana are Cuba’s two main cities, both large ports with protected harbours and a rich history. Havana is the capital of Cuba and the cultural, political and economic nerve centre of the country. It is also one of the liveliest cities in Latin America, with a wealth of museums, antique buildings, old forts, modern restaurants, cabarets and clubs. Just nine miles east of Havana are the white-sand beaches of the Playa del Este, the perfect antidote to Havana’s urban chaos.
Western Cuba is an exquisitely beautiful rural world of farms, forests and secluded beaches, and the premiere tobacco-growing and cigar manufacturing region. Vinales is Cuba’s primary ecotourism destination with ample opportunities for hiking, bird watching, mountain-biking and cave exploration. Maria la Gorda in the far west is one of Cuba’s top scuba diving spots, as are the remote and old-fashioned Isle of Youth (Isla de la Juventud) and Cayo Largo del Sur, with a more sophisticated tourism infrastructure and incredible beaches: a fly-and-flop destination.
Immediately east of Havana province, Matanzas is the second largest province in Cuba and home to Cuba’s best beach, Varadero. Matanzas the city is crumbling and colonial, and in the southern coast of Matanzas the Cienaga de Zapata, is a wetlands area of mangrove and swamp, renowned for wildlife tourism. From here you can visit the Bay of Pigs, the site of the failed US invasion in 1962. The Central provinces of Cuba are expansive regions of sugar cane, tobacco and cattle ranges. Trinidad is the most beautiful colonial city in Cuba, with magnificently restored buildings on winding cobblestone streets. Seaside Cienfuegos is another old-fashioned colonial gem with the longest seaside promenade in Cuba.
Going further east is the Camaguey area: a rural backwater of remote towns and villages, but with a stunning coast developed for tourism. The sister islands of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo are two of the finest beach destinations in Cuba. The Jardines del Rey, or Archipelago de Camaguey, are a string of islands that stretch east along the coast. Two colonial gems are Ciego de Avila and Camaguey. Cuba’s wild east is known as ‘El Oriente’, and is comprised of four provinces: Holguin, Granma, Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo. This region has stunning mountain ranges and fine, white-sand beaches. Guardalavaca is a laidback beach resort. Santiago de Cuba is Cuba’s second largest city, set between the Sierra Maestra Mountains and the sea. It is rich with revolutionary, artistic and cultural heritage, and a centre for Afro-Cuban history, music, dance and religion. Expect steamier weather, darker people, and less development. Cuba has a mild sub-tropical climate. November to April is drier, with rain and humidity between May and October, peaking in September. The average temperature is 24°C.
History of Cuba
More than just cigars, coffee and rum…
From the Spanish occupation to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s Revolution, no other island in the Caribbean has such a rich and romantic history.
Cuba’s mixed Spanish and African heritage is reflected in its architecture, people, its art and literature, dance and music. Europeans arrived on the island throughout the 19th century as Cuba evolved as the world’s leading sugar-cane producer, a European-dominated industry that built its riches on African slave labour. After the abolition of slavery, hundreds of thousands of Chinese were brought in as indentured workers, and many Chinese migrants settled on the island in the 1900s, creating the largest Chinatown in Latin America.
The movement for Cuban independence from Spain had always been divided between those who wanted full independence for Cuba, and those who preferred to be subsumed into the American sphere of influence. Finally, after a series of liberation wars, the Spanish colonial rulers were expelled in 1898, after an American-led struggle. Although Cubans participated in these wars, the peace deal was brokered and signed in Paris between the Americans and the Spanish, and the Cubans were allowed no part. While Cubans was recognised as independent, an American occupation without end was proscribed. Thus the period of American domination of the island was born.
By the time of the 1959 Revolution, Cuba was under the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, a Cuban leader closely affiliated with the American government, US corporations operating in Cuba and the mafia. Cuba was a society sharply divided between rich and poor, largely along colour lines. The economy and the middle classes were growing but the country was racked by social and economic injustice, which sparked a backlash in a new generation of political activists such as Fidel Castro and his peers.
Batista forged links with American mobsters such as Meyer Lanksy and Lucky Luciano, and Havana had a reputation as the ‘Latin Las Vegas’. Corruption and organised crime was rife in the large numbers of mob-controlled casinos under operation, servicing large numbers of American tourists, as did legions of prostitutes.
After a failed coup in 1953, Fidel Castro and the Argentinean anti-imperialist freedom fighter Che Guevara, along with a rebel army, successfully defeated Batista in 1959. With the slogan of ‘Revolution first, elections later’, they formed a Socialist government. Castro declared that he was against Communism and against ‘all kinds of dictators’. One of his first acts was agrarian reform, limiting private ownership of land to 4km2 per owner, and forbidding foreign ownership. After the Cubans signed a 1960 oil deal with the USSR, and US-owned refineries in Cuba refused to process the oil bought from the Russians, Castro expropriated them and soon afterwards the Americans broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba. After that, Cuba inched inevitably towards the Soviet fold, signing ever more pacts to receive Soviet economic and military aid. Cuba embraced Communism by default.
In June 1960, Eisenhower reduced Cuba’s sugar import quota, and in response, Cuba nationalised about $850m in US property and business. Healthcare and education were then nationalised. Industry came next, with property redistributed and agriculture collectivised. The Revolution was immensely popular with the poor and downtrodden of Cuba, but sparked a mass exodus from the island among the middle and upper classes – this continued in surges over the decades and remains ongoing. These émigré Cubans settled in Florida in their millions over the decades, creating a aggressive anti-Castro lobby in Miami, 90 miles across the water from Cuba, actively supported by successive generations of American government: the trade embargo established in 1962 still stands. However an American-led coup attempt in 1961 at the Bay of Pigs failed, and the US has not supported a second invasion. The Americans attempted to assassinate Castro in many ways over many years, but never succeeded.
While the Americans continued plotting Castro’s downfall, Castro in crackdown mode, purged the party apparatus and the civil service of dissidents and moderates, and implemented neighbourhood spying to counter ‘anti-revolutionary’ activities. The American-Cuban tension reached its peak in 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Khrushchev used Cuba as a pawn in the Cold War, placing missiles in Cuba as a deterrent to US invasion, and nearly sparking a nuclear war between the two superpowers. In the end, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles in return for a US commitment not to invade Cuba.
In 1968, Castro paid his dues to the USSR by publicly denouncing the Czech rebellion. A long and fruitful relationship between Cuba and the USSR continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when Cuba was left bankrupt and isolated on the world stage. Cubans lost 85% of their markets, and were left with severe food, power and energy shortages. By 1994, Cuba had entered into what it euphemistically called a “Special Period”, implementing emergency measures, legalising the US dollar, opening its doors to tourism, and encouraging remittances from the Cuban diaspora. Cuba has progressively forged relationships with other Socialist markets, such as China and Venezuela, sending doctors to Venezuela in return for cheap oil.
Fidel Castro’s heath has deteriorated since 1998, and in 2006, after having already withdrawn from the public eye, he handed power over to his younger brother, Raul. In August 2010, Castro emerged again into the public eye, giving his first speech to the Cuban National Assembly in four years, in which he urged the United States not to go to war with Iran or North Korea.
In many ways, the revolution in Cuba was a profound success. Due to a new equity in society and within the party, the black and the poor could advance like never before, and the degree of education among Cubans is better than in most Western countries. Likewise, the quality of healthcare and number of doctors is outstanding, even while the embargo and severe cash flow shortage means that there is a dearth of drugs and frontline medical equipment. However, with food rationing still in place, and state salaries too low to cover the basic goods and services of life, most ordinary Cubans have found life extremely difficult.
As politics and debate in Cuba and Miami is polarised between the Communists and the right-wing Miami lobby, the question of what will happen when one or both of the Castro brothers die, and whether the future will be American led or Cuban owned, remains unanswered. Most Cubans, even as they perhaps long for a market economy and more freedoms, wish to dictate their own future. The island, once a US colony to all intents and purposes, is most definitely a proud sovereign nation.
Meanwhile tourists surge into the island, in the hopes of glimpsing an anachronistic world free of advertising and modern technologies that might soon vanish. The truth is, 50 years after the Revolution, nobody knows.