Columbus left Spain in 1492 and, after first landing in the Bahamas, continued on to visit Cuba’s shores. There he found thick vegetation and peaceful Taino Indians, who had inhabited the island for at least 3,000 years. Within the next two decades, the Spanish Empire would wipe out most of the indigenous population and, in turn, transport upwards of 30,000 slaves from Africa to work vast plantations of cash crops, most notably sugar cane.
Between the late-1700s and late-1800s, Cuba dominated the world’s sugar market; until the 1960 embargo, a third of the United States’ sugar imports came from there. Numerous slave rebellions arose during the early 19th century; in 1868, Cuban landowners joined in, launching the first war for independence. The second, in 1898, subsequently sparked the Spanish American War and US influence on the island. For the next half-century, Cuba would be America’s tropical playground; yet a series of dictators, culminating in the reign of Fugencio Batista in the 1950s, led to one more revolution—and a 50-year halt in friendly relations.
While the Castro era was fraught with tensions between the US and Cuba, by 2013 those tensions began to thaw. The US embassy reopened in Havana, and trade and travel restrictions were loosened. Today the island once again welcomes Americans to her shores, revealing a fascinating culture, landscape, and infrastructure that have stood unchanged for a generation. Upcoming commercial flights and major cruise lines promise an influx of new tourists, making it all the more imperative for expedition travelers to visit now and experience Cuba’s diverse and distinctive character, before the inevitable changes that tourism brings.