Cuba's geographic heart pounds with the timeless rhythms of Afro-Cuban music, of turquoise waves crashing on white-sand beaches, and of life unfolding in splendid colonial cities. Its coral reefs are awash in color, its mangrove swamps attract flamingos by the thousands, and its lush mountain valleys are filled with birdsong of all types.
Inviting beaches border Central Cuba to the north
and south. In between are varied landscapes—from mountains to mangroves—dotted with historic cities. Unlike that of many Caribbean islands, Cuba's early history centered on life in cities, and scattered across this region are three of the nation's seven original "villas"—Trinidad, Sancti Spíritus, and Camagüey—as well as the colonial town of Remedios. In each, time-worn churches and mansions line cobbled streets and tidy parks; in the verdant countryside beyond, old farmhouses overlook sugar plantations, royal palms tower over pastures populated by the people's cattle, and children in red-and-white uniforms play outside one-room schoolhouses.
Central Cuba's history contains many a tale of conquest. Its earliest inhabitants were the Taíno, who island-hopped their way through the Caribbean from South America, arriving on Cuba about 200 years before the Spanish and overrunning the earlier Ciboney, who had settled farther west. The Taíno developed rather sophisticated agricultural techniques, introducing such mainstays as yuca (manioc or cassava), potatoes, corn, tobacco, and cotton. Archaeological evidence suggests that they were also potters, weavers, hunters, and fishermen who plied the waters in powerful canoes. By the time Columbus arrived on the island in 1492, however, the Taíno were being challenged by the Caribs, a warlike people who also originated in South America. The Caribs never actually settled in Cuba, and while they began the conquest of the Taíno, they left its eventual completion—and the island's settlement—to the Spanish.
The conquest of goods led to central Cuba's first period of prosperity. Spanish law mandated that all commerce be conducted with colonial authorities. Such a monopoly drove prices up and left many criollos (Cuban-born Spaniards) at odds with Spain. In the mid-16th century, buccaneers (loyal to European nations other than Spain) and pirates (loyal to no one but themselves) attacked ships and sold their plunder on black markets. For many central Cuban residents, smuggling became a highly lucrative profession.
Even after the liberalization of trade, many central Cuban families retained a philosophical distance from Spain. During the wars for independence that wracked the country in the second half of the 19th century, Camagüey was a hotbed of rebellion; the Spanish army even built a coast-to-coast barrier, La Trocha (consisting of fences, embankments, and watchtowers), through the middle of Ciego de Ávila to keep eastern rebels out of the west. Much later, central Cuba's topography made it key in the Revolution. The Sierra de Escambray (Escambray Mountain range) was the haunt of Castro's guerrillas, and rebel leader Che Guevara dealt a decisive blow to Fulgencio Batista's troops in Santa Clara, where Che's remains rest today.
Central Cuba's northern and southern coasts have many beautiful stretches of sand. The beach count leaps dramatically when you include the hundreds of cayos (keys) that flank the shores. More and more visitors are discovering the northern cayos, collectively called the Jardines del Rey (Gardens of the King). In the south, the less accessible archipelago known as the Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) is visited only by diving excursions.