Cuba lies at the western end of the Greater Antilles group of Caribbean islands, which began to heave from the sea about 150 million years ago. Curling east and south like a shepherd’s crook are the much younger and smaller mostly volcanic Lesser Antilles, which bear little resemblance to their larger neighbor.
Cuba is by far the largest of the Caribbean islands at 110,860 square kilometers. It is only slightly smaller than the state of Louisiana—and half the size of the United Kingdom. It sits just south of the Tropic of Cancer at the eastern perimeter of the Gulf of Mexico, 150 kilometers south of Key West, Florida, 140 kilometers north of Jamaica, and 210 kilometers east of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. It is separated from Hispaniola to the east by the narrow, 77-kilometer-wide Windward Passage.
Cuba is actually an archipelago with some 4,000-plus islands and cays dominated by the main island (104,945 square km), which is 1,250 kilometers long—from Cabo de San Antonio in the west to Punta Maisí in the east—and between 31 and 193 kilometers wide. Plains cover almost two-thirds of the island. Indeed, Cuba is the least mountainous of the Greater Antilles, with a median elevation of less than 100 meters above sea level.
Slung beneath the mainland’s underbelly is Isla de la Juventud (2,200 square kilometers), the westernmost of a chain of smaller islands—the Archipiélago de los Canarreos—which extends eastward for 110 kilometers across the Golfo de Batabanó. Farther east, beneath east-central Cuba, is a shoal group of tiny coral cays—the Archipiélago de los Jardines de la Reina—poking up a mere four or five meters from the sapphire sea.
The central north coast is rimmed by a necklace of coral jewels limned by sand like crushed sugar shelving into bright turquoise shallows, with surf pounding on the reef edge.