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Cuba’s first known inhabitants were the Ciboney and the Guanahatabey, hunter-gatherer groups who occupied the south and extreme west of the island, respectively, as far back as 4,000 BC. The Taíno (a subgroup of the Arawak) then came from South America and spread throughout the Caribbean, arriving in Cuba around 500 CE. The Taíno, who at one point were the most populous indigenous group in the Caribbean, established villages throughout Cuba, engaging in agriculture, gathering wild plants, fishing, hunting small animals and making pottery goods. By the time of Spanish colonisation in the early 16th century, the Taíno comprised around 90% of Cuba’s population.
On August 3, 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus departed mainland Spain on his first voyage to the New World, financed by the King and Queen of Spain. After first reaching the Bahamas, Columbus continued on to Cuba, coming ashore on 28 October, 1492. After returning to Spain the following year with maps and stories, Cuba’s first European colony was established at Baracoa in 1512, with 300 Spanish settlers and their African slaves. The population of the colony grew slowly as potential settlers were discouraged by Cuba’s limited gold deposits, North American exploration drew away existing settlers and indigenous populations were lost to mistreatment and introduced diseases. Intermarriage between Spanish, African and indigenous groups was common due to a scarcity of Spanish women, and by the late 16th century the bulk of the population was a mix of these ethnicities.
By the 18th century, Cuba’s economy was heavily reliant on sugarcane, with its massive plantations demanding the labour of a large slave population. In the century between 1763 and 1860, Cuba’s population exploded ten-fold, of which a third were slaves imported to service the sugarcane plantation industry. By 1850, sugar accounted for four-fifths of Cuba’s export industry, providing almost a third of the world’s supply. During the 19th century, Cuba’s sugar trade became the world’s most industrialised, using narrow-gauge railways and steam-powered sugar mills. The expansion of the sugar industry promoted Cuba’s wealthy plantation owners to political prominence. Although Britain and Spain agreed that 1820 would see the end of slave trading the in the Spanish colonies, slavery persisted in Cuba until 1886, long after the African slave trade ended in 1865.
Increasing political tensions between Spain and Cuba’s regional council leaders led to a push for Cuban independence, beginning with the Ten Years’ War (1868–78) and culminating in a US intervention that broke Spanish colonial control of the Americas. With the Spanish government failing to carry out many of its proposed reforms and the population facing more trade restrictions and taxes, Cuba’s political and economic crisis worsened. War broke out again and Cuban revolutionaries José Martí and Máximo Gómez led an invasion that ignited the Second Independence War. The decade that followed was a mess of military battles, heavy civilian losses and US occupations, with the economy taking a battering from the sharp rise and fall of global sugar prices. In 1902, Cuba became a nominal republic, independent from the US, and elected its first president. Unprepared for Western democracy, the chaos would continue into the mid-20th century.
1933 saw a ‘Sergeant’s Revolt’ in which a group of officers unexpectedly arrested their superiors and took command of Cuba’s armed forces, toppling dictator Gerardo Machado and installing sergeant Fulgencio Batista as army chief of staff, and then electing him president. Inefficient governance and corruption plagued Cuba for the next two decades. Although sugar and tourism had boosted Cuba’s economy to one of the strongest in Latin America, Batista’s government corruption meant that the majority of the population was living in poverty with an appalling lack of public services, with Batista exercising absolute control over Cuba’s political system. A new generation of charismatic young patriots had been gathering a swell of support from Cubans who were deeply dissatisfied with the Batista regime. Deeply influenced by the socialist/communist ideologies of Marx, Engels and Lenin, one activist in particular began to gather support for an overthrow of the regime: a young lawyer by the name of Fidel Castro.
After the 1952 general elections were cancelled by Batista when it looked like he would lose, Castro gathered a group of rebels and launched a failed attack on Santiago’s Moncada military base on 26 July, 1953. Henceforth, Castro’s revolutionary movement was known as the 26th July Movement. Along with his brother Raúl, Castro was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his involvement in the Moncada attack, but both were released two years later in a political prisoner amnesty. Upon release, the brothers headed to Mexico with some fellow exiles to plan and prepare their overthrow of the US-backed Batista government. In December 1956, Castro, Raúl and a band of 80 rebels squeezed onto a small yacht called the Granma, and sailed from Mexico to southeast Cuba. After being nearly annihilated by armed forces, the dozen survivors—including Castro, Raúl and Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara—retreated to the mountains and began a guerrilla campaign that would last two years. The young patriots attracted hundreds of Cuban supporters and volunteers with Castro’s powerful nationalistic rhetoric and socialist propaganda and several battles won against Batista. Batista’s regime was decaying from within, and was being repeatedly weakened by a US arms embargo through which they were unable to resupply and service their forces’ weapons. In Cuba’s cities, communist groups and radical student organisations gathered to stage attacks and protests against Batista’s dictatorship. By the final days of 1958, the regime was disintegrating and Batista fled the country in the early morning of 1 January, 1959. Cuba joyously celebrated the collapse of the regime, Castro’s supporters moved swiftly to establish power with a temporary government, and Castro and his triumphant band of rebels rode into Havana on 7 January.
Judge Manuel Urratia was installed as president, however true power and leadership remained with Fidel Castro. The Castro government initiated sweeping social reforms during its first decade in power, improving public services, increasing rights for women and Afro-Cubans and nationalising land ownership. The triumph of the Cuban Revolution was a watershed moment in Cuban society as well as in US-Cuban relations. The US administration, which was already suspicious of Castro’s rumoured communist inclinations prior to the revolution, was now on high alert. Desperate to destabilise the Castro regime, the US crippled the Cuban economy by cancelling the bulk of their sugar order, and pressured American oil companies based in Cuba into refusing to refine Soviet petroleum. At this point the Soviet Union stepped in to bail out Cuba, sparking a foreign relations war between the US and the USSR that would persist for three decades. With Castro finally declaring himself a communist, the Soviet Union began sending nuclear arms to the island in 1962, installing ballistic missiles within a few minutes’ striking distance of the US, sparking a serious confrontation known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although the parties were brought perilously close to war, the Soviet Union and US President John F Kennedy managed to come to a peaceful compromise, infuriating the powerless Fidel Castro. The Cuban missiles were sent back, the US committed to not invading Cuba, and global nuclear war was avoided.
The Castro regime continued to reform Cuba’s economic and social policies in line with the Soviet model, with utilities, private land and small businesses being nationalised. Soviet aid—in the form of loans, advice, the supply of Soviet goods and the purchase of Cuban goods—was crucial to Cuba’s economic, industrial and social functioning, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had disastrous effects on Cuba’s economy. The economic crisis that followed was known as the ‘Special Period’, an extended period of hardship that lasted from 1989 until 2010. During the Special Period, Cuba lost the bulk of its imports and exports, with Gross Domestic Product dropping by 34% and the country receiving little or no imports of petroleum and gasoline, machinery, medicine, food, raw materials and other essential goods. It was a long period of unemployment, poverty, famine and malnutrition for the Cuban population, with government-issued rations failing to provide enough basic foodstuffs and goods, and the regime refusing American aid up until 1993.
With failing health and advancing age, Fidel Castro officially ceded leadership of Cuba to his brother Raúl Castro in 2008. Raúl has initiated various economic and social reforms since taking over as president, including legalising the ownership and transfer of private property, allowing and encouraging private businesses, allowing Cubans to travel overseas, to stay in ‘tourist’ hotels and to purchase mobile phones and personal computers for the first time. Although diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US improved somewhat after the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the strict US-imposed trade embargo that came into effect in 1960 remained in place until its first signs of dismantling in late 2014, when Raúl Castro and US president Barack Obama made the shock announcement that their countries would be resuming relations.
Despite the recent hardships and tumultuous political past, Cuba is a fascinating destination with a lot to offer. Beautiful beaches and photogenic architecture; rich history and vibrant culture; the friendly and resilient Cuban people—all of which hums along to the infectious rhythms of Cuba’s lively music and dance culture.
Upon the communist revolution of 1959, Fidel Castro declared Cuba an atheist state, and many clergy and believers were harassed or exiled from Cuba. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, religion has been practiced more freely and publicly.
Cubans are predominantly Roman Catholic—around two-thirds of the population are Catholic, Protestant or other Christian.
Many people follow Santería, a religion that is a syncretic blend of Catholic, Yoruba (West African) and Native American beliefs and mythology.
Cubans are generally friendly, respectful, helpful and easy-going. The usual greeting is a handshake for a man or a kiss on the cheek for a woman, and people use touch to show affection and familiarity without being misconstrued as sexual.
Cubans are fairly conservative in dress and behavior. Showing good manners, maintaining a clean and neat appearance, wearing conservative attire, not speaking ill of the government and attempting to converse in Spanish will put you in good standing with locals.
As always, permission before taking photographs of people.
Avoid pushing Cubans into discussions of politics and definitely do not speak ill of the Castro regime in public unless you are very sure of the views of your audience.
Be mindful of the fact that the majority of Cubans scrape by on a meagre monthly income, lacking many goods and conveniences people can take for granted in the West.
Cuba has a unique formula for queuing in line, whereby upon entering a business, one will call out “el último?” (who is last?) and then take a seat somewhere, knowing that they will take their turn after the person who called back in response.
Cuba has a tipping culture, similar to the US. It is customary to tip waiters/waitresses, bar staff, cleaners/maids and state-run taxi drivers for their service.
Triumph of the Revolution (1 Jan) is celebrated with much joy, marking the triumph of the 1959 Cuban Revolution led by the young Fidel Castro, when military dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the country.
International Worker’s Day (aka Labour Day, 1 May) is a big day in socialist Cuba, with workers marching in Havana’s Revolution Square, waving Cuban flags and pictures of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Marxist theorists such as Lenin and Engels.
Each July, Santiago de Cuba hosts the Carnaval de Santiago de Cuba (Santiago Carnival), one of the biggest and most exciting Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean.
The small town of Remedios erupts into a huge festival each year on Christmas Eve (24 Dec)—Las Parrandas de Remedios. This is one of Cuba’s oldest and most exciting celebrations—expect fireworks and sensational street parades of rumba schools, percussion ensembles and colourful float displays.
Las Charangas de Bejucal (runs Christmas–New Year) is another thrilling highlight—the provincial Havana town of Bejucal is divided into two groups, who playfully compete against each other for the most fabulous float displays, dance troupes and percussion ensembles.
Historic Trinidad is the home of Cuba’s traditional Catholic festivals, including the Way of the Cross at Easter, and Fiestas Navideñas at Christmas.
Havana hosts the International Jazz Festival in December each year, drawing top musicians and fans from Cuba and around the world.
New Year’s Eve (31 December) is marked with big celebrations and fireworks just about everywhere.
Other important holidays include the birthday of Cuban political/literary hero José Martí (28 Jan), the Day of the National Rebellion (26 Jul) and Independence Day (10 Oct).
Total population is 11,047,251 (2014 estimate), making it the 78th most populous country in the world, owning at an annual (decline) rate of -0.14%.
The median age is 40.8 years, with 16.3% aged 0-14 and 12.6% aged 65+.
Sex ratio is 0.99 males to 1 female.
77% of the total population lives in urban areas, with an average annual rate of urbanization at 0.07% (2014 estimate).
Cuba’s ethnic profile is very diverse. Around 64% of Cubans self-identify as white (mostly Spanish ancestry); 27% identify as Mulatto/Mestizo (mixed European/Afro-Cuban ancestry); 9.3% identify as Afro-Cuban; and smaller percentages from Asia, the Middle East and other regions (2012 Census).
Cuba lies within the tropics and its climate is generally hot and moist. Cuba’s climate is moderated by trade winds, which give the country two distinct seasons: a dry season from December to April, and a wet season from May to November. Rains tend to fall during the wet season, although are not confined to these months.
The average annual temperature is around 25-26°C (77-79°F), with little variation between the coolest month (January) and warmest month (August). Temperatures often rise to 32°C (89.6°F) in summer, and higher in the eastern part of the country. Midwinter temperatures can dip to around 10°C (50°F), but rarely go below this.
In Havana, average daily temperatures vary from a minimum of 18.6°C (65.5°F) to a maximum of 25.8°C (78.4°F) in January; to a minimum of 24.1°C (75.4°F) to a maximum of 31.6°C (88.9°F) in August.
Island nation with no land borders. Surrounded by the United States (Florida) to the north; The Bahamas to the northeast; Haiti to the southeast; Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Caribbean Sea to the south; Mexico to the west and the Gulf of Mexico to the northwest.
110,860 sq km, making it the 106th largest country in the world.
Cuba is ranked #64 out of 178 countries (with an improving trend) on the Environmental Performance Index (2014), which quantifies and benchmarks performance of government environmental policies and outcomes.
Environmental issues include deforestation, loss of biodiversity and air/water pollution.
Natural hazards include droughts, and destructive hurricanes along the east coast.
Cuba is a signatory to various international environmental and conservation agreements.
Cuba’s rich soils and warm climate support thousands of flowering tropical plants, many of which are endemic to the island. The government cleared huge tracts of original forest to make way for commercial sugarcane, coffee and rice crops, but replanting since the 1960s has seen almost a quarter of Cuba’s landmass once again covered in forest.
Important plant species include the royal palm, ceiba (kapok) tree, the rare cork palm and the mariposa or “butterfly” flower (Hedychium coronarium Koenig). Stands of mahogany, cedar, ebony and other hardwoods grow on the slopes of the Sierra Maestra, and mangrove forests grow in coastal wetlands. Palm-studded grasslands occupy most of the non-mountainous regions of the main island.
Cuban wildlife is of the diminutive variety: birds, bats, small mammals, rodents, turtles, frogs, reptiles, fish, molluscs and insects. Cuba is home to some of the world’s smallest species including the smallest frog, smallest bird and smallest crocodile.
The island of Cuba is part of the Greater Antilles, which is part of the larger West Indies groups of islands. Cuba itself is an archipelago of around 1,600 individual islands, islets and cays. Mainland Cuba runs in a northwest-southeast direction, spanning a length of 1,250 km (777 mi).
Around a quarter of Cuba’s landmass is covered in hills and mountains, with the southeast’s Sierra Maestra being Cuba’s highest and most rugged mountain range. It is here in the Sierra Maestra—where Fidel Castro and his band of rebels famously made camp and prepared to overthrow the Batista regime—that Cuba’s highest peak is found, Turquino Peak (1,974 m / 6,476 ft).
Around two-thirds of the main island is composed of plains used for livestock grazing and crop cultivation (mostly sugarcane and tobacco), punctuated with highlands, lesser mountains ranges, hills and hillocks.
Coastal basins, plains and lowlands stretch from east to west, and Cuba’s 5,745 km (3,570 mi) of coastline is spectacularly irregular, a picturesque combination of sandy beaches and protected bays, rugged cliffs and coral reefs, mangrove swamps and coastal wetlands.
Cuba’s longest river, the Cauto, rises in the Sierra Maestra and flows 370 km (230 mi) westward to empty into the gulf of Guacanayabo.
Old Havana and its Fortification System (1982)
Trinidad and the Valley de los Ingenios (1988)
San Pedro de la Roca Castle, Santiago de Cuba (1997)
Viñales Valley (1999)
Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations in the South-East of Cuba (2000)
Urban Historic Centre of Cienfuegos (2005)
Historic Centre of Camagüey (2008)
Desembarco del Granma National Park (1999)
Alejandro de Humboldt National Park (2001)
World Youth Adventures can tailor make a school expedition to Cuba to your school’s budget and curriculum requirements.
Talk to us about your next school expedition, or if you need some ideas check out the trips below.