Over the years I've had plenty of time to enjoy the tourist spots as well as get away from the beaten track on the storied tropical island of Cuba. Here are some of my ideas on where I escape the crowds in Cuba.
Just south of Cayo Santa María are the colonial towns of Caibarién and Remedios. Remedios is a small, beautiful Spanish Colonial town, given a lick of paint for the city's 500th anniversary in 2015. Its church is famous for its vast, ornate 22-carat gold wrapped altar. Caibarién was once a handsome 19th-century port with some grand architecture; it offers a window into an authentic Cuban coastal fishing town. Both places are known for their Christmas Eve celebrations known as Las Parrandas. It's an exciting -- and scary time to visit, as I discovered, as different districts of the town compete in music, costume, fireworks, parades and dance and build vast colourful structures in the main square adorned with images, motifs and thousands of coloured light bulbs. The atmosphere was thrilling as well as a bit frightening as the all-night firework extravaganza sees sparkly rockets set off here, there and everywhere. Like everyone else we screamed and ran for cover each time a rocket was launched into Remedios' square. We danced salsa with the locals, grabbed popcorn from the food stalls, swilled beer and rum, and danced to the music of the parades.
The Isle of Youth is a topsy-turvy tear-shaped island dangling off the south coast of Cuba. It's not easy to get to but its swamps harbour crocodiles, its caves feature extraordinary rock art, and its azure seas are home to some of the best diving in Cuba. It's an isolated spot and curious for it. It's also known to be where Fidel Castro was imprisoned for a while in 1953 after his attempt to overthrow the government failed. The Moncada prison is eerie but a compelling museum for its place in the history of the Cuban Revolution, but the real draw for me was the Punta Francés peninsula in the southwest of the island -- a lick of powder white sand sheltering American crocodiles; the stunning colour of the water, the caves where pirates would hide out and the marine life -- diving with turtles and barracudas.
Matanzas is a colonial port city often overlooked by visitors heading straight to the gorgeous sands of Varadero, Cuba's largest beach resort. Matanzas is a real gem though, very untouristy, and visitors who stop by won't be disappointed. It was once known as the Athens of Cuba for its cultural traditions. My favourite places are about books and medicine. Off tiny Plaza de La Vigía is one of the Cuba's hidden delights -- a publishing house which crafts beautiful illustrated hand-painted books by using recycled paper. They are really pieces of art and are made in limited editions. Around the corner is the glorious 19th-century Pharmacy Museum, stacked high with porcelain jars and potions and preserved as it was when it was a working medicine dispensary. It might lack the bars of Havana but for more classical and Afro-Cuban traditions, I don't need to look further. The José White Concert Hall has been restored for orchestral concerts and the Sauto Theatre, bedecked in Carrara marble and adorned in beautiful frescoes, once opened following restoration will be a wonderful place for dance, classical music and theatre as it was once before. And, of course, Matanzas is the birthplace of rumba. Ask locals for performance details.
On the opposite coast to Matanzas, and not too far from the Bay of Pigs, is one of my favourite spots in Cuba. In the north of the Zapata Swampland the River Hatíguanico winds its way through virgin forest, towering with Royal Palm trees. It's a quiet spot little visited by travellers and barely marked on any tourist maps. It's a haven for birds, crocs and jutía (giant rodents) but for fishermen it's paradise. Deep in the mangrove swamps, that we reached by fast motorboat, the place was teeming with jumping tarpon breaking through the river's dark waters under the canvas of bridging mangrove branches. I was with an expert who showed me how to fish for tarpon. I wasn't able to land one of these incredible jumping creatures but I watched my guide do it with ease. It was a gripping day out.
Sancti Spíritus is a very pretty, small colonial town that suffers in the shadow of its big neighbour Trinidad. Glorious, cobblestoned Trinidad, splashed in pastel colours, receives millions of visitors but just 43 miles up the road, Sancti Spíritus is another Spanish-founded city is often overlooked. I like to escape the crowds here by visiting the extraordinary museum of colonial art and furniture, a building which once belonged to one of the richest families on the island, taking a drink on the terrace of the charming colonial Hotel Encanto del Rijo, and then admiring the enormous and very grand interior of the public library on the main square. I then like to head to the new Taberna Yayabo, grab a seat on its tiny river terrace, and enjoy Spanish wine and tapas at the end of the day.