The central heartland of Cuba transitions between the pre-Revolutionary prosperous western plantations and the cattle pasture of the poorer east. There’s loads of history here, reflected in the racial mix and architecture of the port of Cienfuegos, Pearl of the South. Its French founders left their mark in broad neoclassical boulevards, art deco façades and blond inhabitants but there’s also a strong Afro-Caribbean presence. This is a seafaring city with salt in the air; it’s the world’s primary sugar port. The town is often visited in tandem with a stop at the Bay of Pigs, site of the ill-fated CIA-inspired invasion of 1961.
Santa Clara, founded on agriculture and mining, gained importance when a railway was built to connect the city with Havana. This track provided for one of the most momentous events in Castro’s revolutionary campaign: the hijacking of a train carrying government guns and soldiers. A few of the carriages are on display in what is this lively university city’s most important monument. Surrounded by magnificent hills, great for hiking or birdwatching, Santa Clara is within easy reach of 500 year-old Remedios, an attractive country town, and unspoilt Caibarién on the coast, a bit scruffy but certainly without pretension.