This group tour trip begins in Havana, Cuba's inimitable capital, with its faded grandeur enlivened by the sound of salsa and rumba. From here travel on to Santa Clara, home to Che Guevara's mausoleum, and on to the cobbled streets of colonial Trinidad. You then head west to Viñales, a fertile valley punctuated with lumpy limestone mountains in the island's tobacco-growing region.
Few would deny that Cuba is a unique holiday destination in a Caribbean Sea rich with gorgeous tropical islands. The turmoil and upheavals of its political and social history are overwhelmed by the sunny friendliness of the people and their love of music and dance. Go now, before the inevitable change happens, and witness the mixed results of a very Latin socialist experiment.
The nature of the infrastructure means there may be last minute changes of plan. A flexible attitude is essential if you want to make the most of this holiday.
Day 1 Overnight in the capital.
If you are arriving on an international flight, you will be met at the airport by your local tour leader or a representative who will escort you to the group hotel.
Day 2 Guided tour of historic Havana and trip in a 1950s vintage car.
A guided tour of Old Havana will introduce you to this fascinating city. The streets of La Habana Vieja were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, and the subsequent restoration of this part of town has transformed it into arguably Latin America's finest colonial quarter, in marked contrast to the rambling, potholed streets and crumbling façades around it.
After a local cocktail jump in a vintage American car to be driven past some of the highlights of Havana including Revolution Square, the National Hotel, Capitol building and the former Presidential Palace. Between these grand buildings, pass pastel-hued mansions, observe the bustling street life and hear the music seeping out of every doorway. You'll have trouble keeping your hands off your camera as iconic images flash before you around each and every corner.
Day 3 By road to Trinidad, via Santa Clara: visit Che Guevara’s mausoleum and the Valley of the Sugar Mills.
Drive south out of Havana to Santa Clara (2 hours). The capture of the railway here by Che Guevara half a century ago, assisted by just 18 guerrillas, was instrumental in the triumph of the Revolution. Today, this vibrant university town is home to an excellent museum dedicated to the events of the late 1950s and to Che Guevara himself. There is time to visit the museum, Che's mausoleum and a monument and plaza dedicated to the man and the Revolution.
In the afternoon you continue to Trinidad (3 hours), stopping en route at an old sugar mill at Valle de los Ingenios. The bell tower here (from which the slaves on the plantation were once monitored) has panoramic views.
Days 4/5 Explore Trinidad and the surrounding area.
Trinidad is a picturesque town which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. Its popularity has not affected its colonial charm and unhurried atmosphere. Low-rise, brightly painted houses with vast shutters open out onto cobbled streets, palm trees dot the main plaza and life in the evenings goes on into the early hours with dancing and music outside the Casa de la Música.
There is a walking tour of the town, and a number of optional excursions are available. Drive up into the shady environs of the Escambray Mountains where you may spot the national bird, the tocororo, along one of the walking trails, en route to a waterfall for a refreshing dip. Alternatively, relax beneath the shade of a palm tree at Playa Ancón (11km from the town), a wide stretch of white sand on the Caribbean, where local people picnic and children play in the warm waters.
Day 6 By road to Cienfuegos. Walking tour of the city.
Today you head west to the elegant city of Cienfuegos, a port founded by French settlers from Louisiana in 1819. This history gives it an air and architectural style that is distinct from that of the rest of the island, and you will have a walking tour of the city led by your tour leader to experience the easy-going ambience of the city, which has well earned its sobriquet ‘Pearl of the South’.En route there is also a stop to visit the Jardín Botánico. Located 15kms outside town, the botanical gardens are home to over 2,000 different species of plants. It is one of the most complete collections of tropical plants in the country, and feels more like a natural forest than a man-made garden.
Day 7 Trip to Girón Museum on the Bay of Pigs. Drive to Las Terrazas.
In the morning head out for a tour of the Zapata Peninsula. This region is full of unspoilt nature and luxuriant tropical vegetation, fringed by beautiful beaches. You will also visit the Girón Museum, a collection dedicated to the failed CIA-inspired invasion of Cuba in 1961 which became known as the Bay of Pigs. In the afternoon a drive (5 hours) via Havana, takes you along the country's only motorway, the Carretera Central, which is usually empty of cars, and lined with hopeful hitch-hikers.
In the late afternoon you arrive at Las Terrazas, a peaceful biosphere reserve containing acres of natural forest, in the Sierra del Rosario mountains. The reserve was established in the 1970s as a community restoration project and is now one of the most important eco-tourism sites in the country.
Day 8 Optional hikes; continue by road to Viñales.
There is time to explore this beautiful hilly region on foot in the morning. Hike along one of the many trails and spot abundant birdlife in the semi-tropical and evergreen forest. Or wander a few kilometres to a series of water pools, shaded by low foliage, and join local people leaping off rocks and swimming.
You then continue by road to Viñales, a small, bucolic town tucked away in the Sierra de los Órganos. The tree-shaded high street is lined with wooden colonnades and one-storey, red-roofed houses. Horse and carts clatter along the main road and local children play baseball with sticks and stones outside the dilapidated whitewashed church in the main square. There is a splendid old chemist's shop and a few other bare-shelved stores, as well as a couple of salsa bars which attract a lively crowd in the evening.
Days 9/10 Walks in the Viñales region.
You have 2 days at leisure to explore the area. The valley has a distinctive landscape, with domed limestone mountains, known as mogotes, jutting into the sky from a fertile plain. Using oxen and carts, local farmers cultivate the red soil of the valley floor for fruit, vegetables and tobacco, and the countryside is peppered with thatched curing barns for drying the tobacco leaves.
You have a guided walk through this beautiful valley. The trail passes alongside fields tilled by straw-hatted farmers and their oxen. You have the opportunity to visit a campesino family in their home and talk to them about life on the land, as well as visiting a tobacco farm to learn about the growing processes of one of Cuba's most important crops.
Optional excursions include exploring a number of the caves within the limestone mountains and you can even swim in one, or enjoy the scenery on horseback at a relaxed pace (no experience necessary).
Day 11 Return to Havana; at leisure
Return to Havana (2 hours) for a final mojito cocktail and a chance to sample some of the capital's lively nightlife.
Day 12 Depart on international flight or extension.