Culture and history ... in Cuba

| July 18, 2014

How much do you know about Cuba’s cultural history? Let us introduce you to the key formative aspects of its past.

Trinidad is one of Cuba's most fascinating destinations

Mere moments spent in the bustling streets of Havana, watching big American cars glide past crumbling colonial buildings, will be enough to tell you that Cuba's history is a tangle of fascinating stories. Visiting the country and unpicking the various threads of its colourful past is a wonderful way to experience the best of Cuba – and, moreover, to really understand it.

We are going to introduce you to some of the key chapters in Cuba's cultural history, which had an important part in shaping the country into what it is today.

Spanish colonialism

With Spanish as its main language and countless colonial buildings peppering its streets, Cuba's Spanish colonial heritage is by no means hard to discern. It was at the end of the 15th century that the island, which is the largest in the Caribbean, was claimed for Spain – a position it retained until the closing years of the 19th century.

Having spent some 400 years under Spanish rule, Cuba of course assimilated many Spanish characteristics, which are still a big part of Cuban culture today – something you can see not only in the language and buildings, but also in elements such as cuisine, which is something of a fusion of Spanish and Caribbean styles.

One of the best places to learn more about Cuba's Spanish colonial heritage is Havana, the country's capital. This was actually founded by the Spanish in 1519, and its historic centre boasts Unesco World Heritage Site status.

This part of town displays an interesting mix of Baroque and Neoclassical architecture, and its urban plazas surrounded by stunning buildings make it a real delight to explore. You'll find Old Havana tucked inside the former city walls, where life was laid out around five key plazas – taking a walk around these and discovering the distinctive character of each is a must.

The slave trade

The evolution of the slave trade is without doubt one of the darkest smears of the pages of history, but in Cuba, as in many places, it also left unplanned marks on the local culture.

When slaves were taken to Cuba in the 19th century, they brought more than their labour with them. While they may have been stripped of their freedom, they retained their beliefs and traditions and, over the years, these percolated within the local culture until they became a permanent part of it. The result: the Afro-Cuban culture that has since become such an integral part of the island's heritage.

There is perhaps no place better to explore this further than Trinidad, which is one of Cuba's oldest cities and a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is here, and the nearby Valley de los Ingenios, where slaves were transported to work in the sugar industry, which generated huge wealth in the city during this period.

Today, stepping into Trinidad is like taking a walk in the colonial Cuba of the 19th century, as time seems almost to have stood still here since 1850. Take this opportunity to discover the spectacular colonial buildings constructed off the back of this wealth, such as the Palacio Brunet.

Independence and revolution

Spanish rule in Cuba ended with the close of the 19th century and, ever so briefly, the country was governed by the United States. However, by 1902 it achieved independence – the start of a new chapter in the nation's history.

And a famous chapter it is. Within decades, dictator Fulgencio Batista had acquired power, plunging the island into crisis. Interestingly, he had started his political career as a legitimately elected president, before later seizing control and splitting from the communist party, which he had previously claimed to sympathise with.

It was against this backdrop that world-famous figures Fidel Castro and Che Guevara fought against fascism, eventually emerging victorious – and today, Cuba is still governed by its communist party.

Among the best places to learn more about the Cuban Revolution is Santa Clara – a town that was famously liberated by Che Guevara, and a place where the spirit of revolution still seems to hang in the air.

While you're here, take the time to visit the Monumento Ernesto Che Guevara, which was erected to mark the 20th anniversary of the activist's murder. There is a museum here too, which displays an excellent selection of photographs of this famous figure.

See Cox & Kings' holidays to Cuba >>

Photo credit: Thinkstock/ iStock

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