Central Cuba stretches from Santa Clara and Trinidad to Las Tunas. It hosts the magnificently colonial towns of Trinidad and Cienfuegos, the more cosy and intimate Camagüey and is split in two by the Carretera Central that links Havana with Santiago and the major cities along its length.
The region is also divided between the beautiful mountain range, Sierra del Escambray, to the south with its tropical vegetation and colonial sugar plantations and the flatter agricultural plains to the north, famous for its agriculture, dairy farming, pineapple plantations and fruit orchards, where, away from the Carretera Central, you will meet the people and also gain an insight into Cuba away from the tourist track.
There are also stunning cayos to the north and excellent sandy beaches to the south near Trinidad.
Trinidad is the loveliest example of a colonial town in Cuba. Originally founded by Diego Velasquez as a base for gold mining in the Sierra del Escambray, the town's fortunes flickered briefly, and it was not until the early half of the 19th century that Trinidad flourished and became one of Cuba's most important centres for sugar and slaves.
With the demise of the slave trade Trinidad's sugar plantations went into steep decline and the town became almost forgotten. Its colonial mansions, public buildings and cobbled streets fell quiet. Preserved by neglect, with the arrival of a measure of tourism the town's undoubted charms have made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The central squares and streets have been restored, the fine homes have been brightly painted, mansions converted into museums, shops sell hats, colourful handicrafts and hand-rolled cigars-all made hereabout-and the town has come very much alive.
Music has flourished particularly strongly, and almost every street corner seems to be sway with lilting rhythms from musicians who take up position almost anywhere when they are not playing a local bar, or Trinidad's famous Casa de la Trova, generally acknowledged as one of the best in Cuba.
Trinidad is close to excellent beaches.
Cienfuegos was founded by French immigrants from Bordeaux and like Trinidad grew in importance with the sugar trade. Its squares and boulevards have a French elegance about them, in contrast the Spanish styles of its neighbour.
The Parque José Martí is the town's focus, a wide square with a bandstand and triumphal arch, shaded by palm trees. A late 19th century theatre looks onto the square. The Palacio Ferrer is a fine early 20th century edifice, now the Casa de la Cultura, and well worth the effort to climb its turret.
Another extraordinary architectural folly is the Palacio Valle a fantasy moorish palace, now a restaurant, looking to the bay.
The very pleasant university town of Santa Clara was founded in 1689 by citizens of Remedios escaping pirates. Life today revolves around the central square, the Parque Vidal, where Santa Clarans like to stroll in the evenings beneath its royal palms, flanked by the town hall, library and an elegant theatre. From here you can stroll along Independencia-a lively shopping street.
The last battle of the revolution took place at Santa Clara, when Ché Guevara's band of bearded fighters used a bulldozer to derail an armoured train bringing reinforcements to Batista's forces holed up in the city. Santa Clara fell to the revolutionaries soon after and Batista fled into exile. The bulldozer and the train are preserved where they stood. In town the 1950s Hotel Santa Clara Libre still bears the bullet holes it took in the action.
A mile from the centre a huge bronze statue of Ché in combat fatigues, trailing a machine gun, stands heroically above the Museum of the Revolution, given over to Ché's life with memorabilia and photos showing his progression from medical student to revolutionary icon. Next door is a quiet mausoleum holding his remains, recovered from Bolivia in 1997, with those of 16 of his men.
The exquisitely sleepy colonial town of Remedios on the road from Santa Clara to Cayo las Brujas is a welcome tonic after enervating, exciting Havana! Take a moment to walk round its lovely square with its pretty, neoclassical bandstand.
Founded in the 16th century, much of the town was destroyed by fire and most of the buildings date from the early 19th century. However, in spite of its size the town hosts two churches, one of which, El Mayor de San Juan Bautista, dates from the 16th century and is said to be the oldest church in Cuba. The church was restored following an earthquake in the 1940s thanks to a donation of $1m from a Cuban milliner, Eutimio Falla Bonet. Its baroque altarpiece is encrusted with gold leaf.
The simple but charming Hotel Mascotte was the 1899 meeting place for General Maximo Gomez and President McKinley to discuss the discharge of Cuban troops who had fought in the Spanish-American War.
Out of reach of most visitors, in the agricultural central heartland of the country, Camagüey is an excellent place to stop if you are driving between Havana and Santiago.
The town serves productive farmlands stretching for miles, has its own university, and generally buzzes with life. Its rich historic past is reflected in its colonial buildings, churches and cobbled squares, and single storey mansions around elegant courtyards.
Camagüey is also lively and good fun. There is excellent salsa most evenings at Hotel Gran.