Although only 90 mi/145 km separate U.S. soil from Cuba, the two nations are as distinct as a thumbprint. A communist country since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Cuba is enigmatic, eccentric and exciting—a time-warp land of socialism and sensuality that mingles sizzling salsa rhythms with revolutionary calls to sacrifice.

Perhaps what makes Cuba's atmosphere so unique is the disparity between opulence and need, and yet the character that pervades throughout the country is one of bright color, deep emotion and an appreciation for the beautiful things in life, whether luxurious or simple.

Cuba's one-of-a-kind culture draws visitors in greater numbers every year, and new Cuban hotels are going up to house this influx of tourists. Despite a tangible increase in wealth in the past decade, the greatest restriction for Cubans is that the majority simply don't have the money to share many of the venues that tourists enjoy.

That's a shame because, to us, one of the greatest draws of this island nation is its people. Whether you dance salsa with locals at a Cuban nightclub, watch a baseball game in the park or banter with a shopkeeper, it's the Cuban people—passionate, vivacious and welcoming—and their unique and fascinating culture that are the most potentially rewarding aspects of a visit to the island.

Until recently, Cuba's relationship with the U.S. has been a waiting game. Since 1961, the U.S. government restricted its citizens from spending any money in the communist country, effectively deterring the development of large-scale tourism from the U.S., though individuals have quietly been visiting Cuba (via third countries) for years.

For many, Cuba is attractive because of images associated with its past: Ernest Hemingway, deep-sea fishing and Cadillacs rumbling down the road to the rhythm of the rumba on the radio. In other words, it's a paradise for carefree travelers.

Although Cuban hotels now approximate international standards, at least in Havana and at the modern beach resorts, much of Cuba's infrastructure has visibly deteriorated during the past 50 years or so. Shortages of fuel, transportation, food, electricity and water are widespread because of the dysfunctional communist economy. While Fidel ruled the island, the Cuban government blamed the controversial U.S. economic sanctions that have remained in place since 1961. Nevertheless, Cuba trades with the rest of the world, and an exception to the embargo means that the U.S. is Cuba's largest supplier of food. Since 2008, when Fidel's brother Raul was named president, the blame game has shifted to a real focus on fixing the communist system's internal dysfunction.

Cuba is not an inexpensive country to visit. Cuban hotels, food and transportation costs are similar to, and sometimes more expensive than, those in many other destinations in the Caribbean.

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