Cuba can be divided into five geographic regions: Havana and Western Cuba, West Central Cuba, Central Cuba, East Central Cuba, and Eastern Cuba. Each region offers its own unique attractions, scenic draws, differences in climate and geography, and cultural distinctions. Here's a quick overview of each region so you can best plan your trip.
When to Go
In general, Cuba has two distinct seasons: the dry season (November through May) and the wet season (June through October). However, seasons vary by region, and temperatures at any time of year tend to increase eastward. In summer, Eastern Cuba boils—especially Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo. If you can't stand the heat, avoid Eastern Cuba in summer. The extreme west of Pinar del Río province, and the entire southeastern shore, are dry zones with patches of semi-desert, while the region around Baracoa is drenched in rains.
Wet season is also hurricane season. On average, Cuba is struck once every three years, with a majority of the storms moving north from the Gulf of Mexico and over Pinar del RÍo province. However, in recent years several hurricanes have swept in from the Atlantic as well, raking the north coast. Winter months offer the most agreeable temperatures and the least likelihood of rain.
If you visit during Cuba's peak tourism season (December to February), expect to pay much higher prices for accommodations. The week before Easter also tends to be especially busy along the Caribbean coast. For more information, check out our article on the best time to visit Cuba.
Havana and Western Cuba
This region has enough variety to keep a traveler busy for months. Spend time enjoying the architecture and vibrant, cosmopolitan culture of Havana, diving on Isla de la Juventud, and touring the tobacco farms of Pinar del Río and Vuelto Abajo.
Cuba’s most popular tourist destination, Havana, has stunning architecture spanning four centuries, a diverse cultural scene, exciting nightlife, and a tremendous range of hotels and private B&Bs. Concentrate on colonial-era Habana Vieja (Old Havana), giving two days for the highlights, plus at least one or two days to explore key sites in the 20th century Vedado district. Plan an additional day if you want to visit Museo Ernest Hemingway, Cuba's most-visited museum, and the twin fortress Parque Histórico Militar Morro-Cabaña complex.
Sierra del Rosario
About one hour west of Havana, these low mountains are home to two delightful settings for ecologically focused trips. Lovely Las Terrazas overlooks a lake in a reforestation project and is known for good hiking and birding, with several notable artists' studios. Nearby Soroa boasts an exquisite orchid garden.
Pinar del Río
Capital of the eponymous province, this city is more of a jumping-off point for sightseeing further afield than a destination in its own right. It's located at the western terminus of the Autopista (Cuba's only freeway), beyond which the Carretera Central (Cuba's main highway, going East-West) continues to the Península de Guanahacabibes. This sparsely inhabited tendril is a national park protecting a unique dry-forest ecosystem and extending to the western tip of Cuba. It has trails and birding guides, and the settlement of María de la Gorda is known for its excellent scuba diving. The Vuelto Abajo region, west of town, is where Cuba's finest tobacco is produced, and it has several private farms that are open to visitors. Cayo Levisa, a small cay off the north coast, is a great place to spend one or two days sunning on the beach, and has excellent accommodations.
Valle de Viñales
Considered to be the most physically stunning of Cuba's landscapes, this valley is actually a series of adjoining valleys separated by mogotes, great sheer-sided limestone formations. Many mogotes are laced with underground caverns. You can explore Cueva de los Indios by boat, or hike the vast Cuevas de Santo Tomás, while Viñales village has blossomed as a hub for tourist activities. You can enjoy everything from horseback rides to ATV trips, and choose from scores of private B&Bs.
Isla de la Juventud
The large yet little-visited Isle of Youth is slung beneath Havana province and is reached by ferry or plane (AeroGaviota and Cubana Aviación both have regular service). Scuba divers flock here for Cuba's best diving, off Punta Francés. It also has sensational beaches that are still undeveloped, and great birding opportunities for spotting local species, such as the Cuban crane. The main historic site is the Presidio Modelo, a semi-derelict prison where Fidel Castro and his co-revolutionaries were imprisoned from 1953 to 1955.
Central Western Cuba
Get your fill of historical point of interest with visits to the Bay of Pigs—site of the 1961 CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba—and the cobbled streets of colonial Trinidad. Explore an underground world of dripstones at Cuevas del Bellamar in Matanzas. Or, simply laze on the beach at Varadero.
Cuba's main beach resort boasts more than 60 hotels (most of them large, all-inclusive resorts) that are arrayed along an 8-mile (12 km) strip of white sand lining the thread-thin Península de Varadero. Tour companies offer excursions to Matanzas and even Havana, and activities include sport-fishing, catamaran party-cruises, and scuba diving.
This port city, about a 90-minute drive east of Havana, is for most travelers a place to pass through en route to and from Varadero. However, it has a thriving Afro-Cuban musical culture and is a center for the Santería religion, a syncretic, Afro-Carribean belief system derived from Yoruba traditions and mixed with Roman Catholicism. It has a lovely, recently restored 19th-century theater, plus one of Cuba's most impressive underground caverns: Cuevas del Bellamar.
Península de Zapata
The largest of Cuba's national parks protects the vast wetlands of the Zapata Peninsula. It's a great venue for birding, fishing for bonefish and tarpon, and scuba diving. The Bahía de los Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) was the setting for the infamous CIA-sponsored invasion by Cuban-American exiles in April 1961; it also has a superb museum.
A clean, peaceful city founded only in 1819 on the east side of a huge bay, this is a great place to spend a few days chilling with locals. Sites include lovely Parque Martí, the main plaza and, outside town, the Jardin Botánico Soledad, which is called a botanical garden, although it's really an arboretum. Cienfuegos is also the gateway to El Nicho waterfall, located at the northern base of the Sierra Escambray.
A large industrial and university city, Santa Clara was the setting for the final battle to oust brutal dictator Fulgencio Batista. The town has a pleasant historic center, but the revolutionary sites are the main draw. Don't miss the Conjunto Monumental Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara, with its huge monument and mausoleum of Che, who led the battle in late December 1958, and Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, a train derailed by Che's troops. Santa Clara is the starting-point for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Remedios,a charming colonial city, and the gorgeous beaches of the Cayos de Villa Clara, which have more than a dozen all-inclusive resorts.
This huge mountain chain is one of Cuba's premier coffee-growing regions, and is well-developed for nature tourism centered on Topes de Collantes, a nature reserve in the Escrambray mountains. It's most easily accessed from the city of Trinidad. Che Guevara used it as a base for his attack on Santa Clara.
This magnificently preserved colonial city is understandably a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Take at least two days to soak in the atmosphere as you wander the cobblestone streets and plazas of this mostly 18th-century gem. It's chock-full of artists' studios and galleries, has great paladares (private restaurants), and Cuba's largest selection of casas particulares, or room rentals. The beach of Playa Ancón, with scuba diving, and the Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills), with historic plantation mills, are situated nearby.
For travelers eager to experience Cuba's unique flora and fauna, head to the island's center. Marvel at the flamingo flocks in the lagoons of the Jardines del Rey, scuba dive with sharks in the Jardines de la Reina, or hike the dry forest ecosystem of the Sierra del Chorrillo.
Ciego de Ávila
Most tourists pass through this charming provincial capital without taking time to explore its lovely plaza. Astride the Carretera Central highway, it's surrounded by fields of sugarcane and pineapple, which make up much of the province. To the north, the town of Morón is home to a crocodile farm and the splendid Museo de Agroindustria Azúcar, which has an active steam train, and is also gateway to Cayo Coco, the main island of the Jardines del Rey.
Jardines del Rey
This long chain of offshore cays extends along more than 200 miles (320 km) of Atlantic shorelines. It has stunning beaches with turquoise waters. Cayo Coco and neighboring Cayo Guillermo are well-developed, with many all-inclusive resorts. Flamingos inhabit the lagoon separating the isles from the mainland.
Jardines de la Reina
Hailed as one of the world's most pristine marine environments, the "Garden of the Queens" off the south coast of Central Cuba is protected within a national park. Thousands of coral cays dot the shallow waters. The only way to visit is on a guided scuba diving or fishing package—there's a floating hotel and several boats for live-aboard packages, too.
At the heart of Cuba's largest province, and the country's third largest city, Camagüey also boasts a fascinating colonial-era core. Tangled streets and cobbled plazas, several intriguing historical museums, plus abundant boutique hotels, are the main draws. To the north of town is Playa Santa Lucia, a beach resort best visited for scuba diving. To the south, and good for birding, hiking, and horseback rides, is Finca Belén, in the Sierra del Chorrillo.
East Central Cuba
Get off the tourist trail, while still checking plenty of outdoor (and educational) activities off your list. Visit Fidel and Raúl Castro's birthplace at Museo Conjunto Histórico Birán, hike to waterfalls in the cool mountains of Pinares de Mayarí, and trek to the summit of Pico Turquino, Cuba's highest mountain.
This provincial capital has relatively few sites of interest and is normally a place to stay overnight in passing. It's a gateway to the off-the-beaten-track beaches of Playa La Herradura and Playa La Boca, which are popular with Cuban families. To the southwest of town on the Caribbean shore, the Refugio de Fauna Silvestre Monte Caganiguán-Ojo de Agua is a great place to spot Cuban crocodiles and flamingos.
Take two days to explore this large and historically significant city, with several colonial-era plazas and a tremendous cultural life, most visible in January during the annual Semana de Cultura Holguinera. Be sure to climb the 450-plus steps up to the Loma de la Cruz for the superb views. North of town is the sleepy historic port of Gibara. A good day trip is to Museo Conjunto Histórico Birán, the family estate of the Castro family and birthplace of Fidel and Raúl.
The most important beach resort area in Eastern Cuba, Guardalavaca is a good place to combine sunning with water-based activities, from kiteboarding to scuba diving. Nearby, the Museo Aborigen Chorro de MaÍta is Cuba's main archeological site, and is open to the public.
Pinares de Mayarí
This cool upland area offers a break from the heat of the lowlands. It's a great place to hike amid mist-shrouded pine forests, and has both an orchid garden and waterfalls. Lodging is in a rustic state-run lodge.
The main reason to visit this city is its charming historic center, which played a crucial part in the Cuban War of Independence. Several sites commemorate key events. The city is also gateway to the Sierra Maestra, and further west to the little-visited and remote southwest extreme of Cuba via the town of Manzanillo. The latter was the base for supplying Fidel's Rebel Army in the Sierra Maestre, from 1956 to 1968. The main attractions include the dry-forest ecosystems of the Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma, which is great for hiking, and the lonesome beach resort of Marea del Portillo, popular with Canadians, in a semi-desert zone hemmed in between the mountains and the Caribbean Sea.
Cuba's highest mountain chain stretches for more than 100 miles (160 km), running from East to West. It was here that Fidel Castro's Rebel Army held out against dictator-president Fulgencio Batista's troops, based in the guerrilla headquarters of La Comandancia de la Plata. It's a fantastic guided hike from the end-of-the-road community of Santo Domingo. Combine it with a trek to the summit of Pico Turquino, the island's highest mountain.
This region has a little bit of everything, allowing travelers to take a deep dive into Cuban culture, history, and nature. Learn to dance salsa in Santiago de Cuba, watch the firing of a live cannon at sunset from El Morro castle in Santiago de Cuba, and search the rainforests for the ivory-billed woodpecker around Baracoa.
Santiago de Cuba
The second-largest city in Cuba, and its original capital, this large, hilly bayside city is infused with a strong Afro-Cuban flavor. The architecture is distinct, the revolutionary fervor is strong, and the city has sensational music and dance, best experienced at the Casa de la Trova, a state-run folk music venue. Fidel launched the Revolution here with an attack on the Cuartel Moncada--a must-visit set of military barracks. History buffs should also head to Loma San Juan, site of the seminal battle in the Spanish-American War, Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, where José Martí and Fidel Castro are buried, and El Morro castle, an early 17th-century fortress later converted into a prison. You'll want a minimum two days here to fully explore.
Outside town, party with Cubans on the beach at Siboney, explore Parque Baconao and clamber to the summit of the Gran Piedra, and visit the Basilica El Cobre, Cuba's foremost pilgrimage site.
Famous for the U.S. Naval Base nearby, this city—a 90-minute drive east of Santiago de Cuba—is bypassed by most travelers. Nonetheless, it has a lovely colonial center and is an important center for distinct regional music and dance forms, such as changüí, an early 19th-century style of Cuban music that first emerged among slave workers in sugar cane factories. Head into the mountains outside town to marvel at the life-size stone animals at Zoológico de Piedra, created by a self-taught Cuban sculptor in the 1970s.
The easternmost city in Cuba is also its oldest. Founded in 1511 on the Atlantic shoreline, Baracoa has a sensational backdrop and is surrounded by tall, leafy mountains. This is the rainiest spot in Cuba, and the lush rainforest has some tremendous hiking spots in Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt and adjoining reserves. Ecotourism is well-developed here: Take time to hike to the anvil-shaped summit of El Yunque. You can also visit a cacao farm, which is grown locally, with Baracoa a center for chocolate production. Other highlights include a boat ride on the Río Yumurí and a journey through coffee-producing uplands to Punta Maisí, the easternmost tip of Cuba.