Cuba Travel Guide

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Sitting between the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean, Cuba is the largest of the Caribbean islands with its closest mainland points being Florida, U.S. and southern Mexico. Enjoying a hedonistic heyday in the early to mid decades of the 20th century, it was a playground for the glamorously rich and famous but after Castro’s revolution Cuba was the subject of a huge economic embargo and effectively closed off to everyone who wasn’t allied to the communist U.S.S.R.

Today, Cuba is again open to (almost) all and enjoying a huge revival as a holiday and travellers’ destination. However, many of the things which gave Cuba its very unique flavour and drew the tourists back in the first place are changing rapidly, so much so that every month sees more transformation than several of the preceding decades put together. Many of the changes will of course make the country even more appealing to some foreign travellers but if you are one of those of the ‘I’d like to see Cuba before it changes’ brigade you are probably already too late. However, as this last true ‘socialist paradise’ welcomes this newest wave of visitors if you get in fast enough you might still get to see some kind of half and half way of life.

havana, cuba

Cuba has been described in turns as time-warped and shabby and simultaneously grand; dilapidated but dignified and with the ability to both frustrate and delight to the highest degree. From a historical point of view this is a country bursting at the seams with things to see and do. It is a land rich with colonial grandeur in states of repair ranging from beautifully preserved to ruined. Such architectural wealth is at its finest in Havana – Cuba’s capital city – as well as Trinidad and Remedios. Incredibly preserved classic autos from the 1950s are a common sight driving around the streets which are often cobbled and everywhere are ghosts of a nation’s story which includes pirates, conquest and revolution.

There is probably still nowhere quite like Cuba but how long it will stay that way remains to be seen…

Visas

If you intend to spend two months or less in Cuba you can do it without a visa. Instead you will be issued with a tourist card valid for 30 days which can be extended after your arrival in the country. The tourist card is typically issued at the same time as your plane ticket although policies vary depending on which agency or airline the ticket is purchased through.

There are two main exceptions to this standard rule which apply to citizens of Canada and the US. Canadian citizens are awarded an automatic 90 days while US citizens have certain restrictions. Although these relaxed considerably under the Obama administration from preceding years when US citizens couldn’t travel to Cuba at all things are now in a state of flux again under the Trump government. If you are from the US and wish to holiday in Cuba you will need to check what the current rules are and what will be required to enter Cuba.

Extending your stay in Cuba is relatively straightforward. Head to an immigration office – found in most towns – to make your application which has a fee attached. Havana’s immigration office is best avoided unless you don’t mind a very long, hot wait. Extensions are granted in 30 day chunks. If you want more than this you will have to exit the country for a 24 hour period and re-enter.

You will not be able to leave Cuba (at least without a lot of fuss) unless you can present a valid tourist card.

In order to enter Cuba in the first place you must be able to show proof of onward travel, medical insurance and evidence that you have sufficient funds for the duration of your trip. Checks are made at random so you may or may not actually be asked to present these documents. Find out more about Cuba’s entry requirements here.

Weather & Seasons in Cuba

Lying north of the equator but at a southerly latitude to the Tropic of Cancer Cuba’s climate is tropical. Temperatures are moderated by north-easterly winds which are present all year. Although there are some variations the rainy season falls from May to October and the average daily temperatures are 27°C in summer and 21°C in winter.

The country’s geographical position makes it hurricane-prone – as was seen in 2017 with devastating effect – with the highest risk months being September and October.

Low season: This runs May to June and September. Prices are lower during this time and some facilities might be closed altogether.

High season: This runs from November to March and July to August. These times avoid the worst of the rains and fall outside of the highest hurricane risk months. Optimum months if you want to avoid the worst of the heat are November to March. High season sees prices typically inflated by almost one third.

Safety

Like almost everywhere, petty theft is a common hazard especially in the form of pick-pocketing in the more crowded areas, thefts from rooms and belongings left unattended on the beach (including footwear). If you’re concerned about your belongings, you can use an under clothes body wallet to keep cash and valuables out of sight, or at least store some back-up cash in case your wallet is stolen. However violent crimes are not just unlikely they are extremely rare. This is not a culture of guns, robbery with violence, gangs, drug or delinquency issues or places which are just not safe to stray into. Add into this the fact that any Cuban caught committing any crime against a foreign visitor is looking at severe punishment and you will realise that safety is less of an issue here than probably even in your own country. This follows also for women travelling solo. Cuban police are seemingly always present somewhere, typically friendly and refreshingly free of corruption. It is advised to keep ID with you at all time.

Drug offences are dealt with severely in Cuba so although drugs are sometimes offered for sale on the streets you are better to steer well clear or risk the chances of becoming very familiar with a  Cuban prison for several years.

One of the principal nuisances most often reported by Cuban travellers is the presence of ‘jinteros’ or touts. These will descend on you the minute you step down from a bus wanting to take you to an accommodation for which they will earn commission. They can be very, very persistent

Health

For the past few years it has not been possible to enter Cuba as a visitor without having medical insurance. And even if you think you might be able to get away with it it’s not a good idea. Outside of emergencies, as a tourist you are only allowed to seek medical assistance in designated clinics and hospitals which typically have hefty price tags.

From a health perspective Cuba is not especially risky particularly if you take a little care with your food and drink. Tap water is not typically safe to drink and cholera has been present within the last few years, always drink bottled water or even better, use a water purification bottle to reduce the production of waste plastic.

Malaria has been eradicated in Cuba but other mosquito-borne diseases are present such as the Zika virus, dengue and chikungunya so you will need to take precautions to avoid bites by covering up when possible and using a DEET mosquito repellent.

As is true with many destinations the recommendations for which vaccinations to have change all the time so take a trip to a travel clinic or your doctor to get some advice. Tetanus and Hep B tend to be the two most commonly recommended shots for Cuba.

Accommodation Options in Cuba

Once upon a time your accommodation choices for any visit to Cuba were very limited but things are changing rapidly and now the range of choices for where you can rest your head each night is becoming more varied.

Casa Particulares  If you’d like an authentic taste of Cuban life as well as doing something to help out a local stay in one of the casas particulares. These are private houses equipped to take in guests which have to have a special government issued licence (which doesn’t come cheap). Found everywhere and identified by a sticker on the door, these houses are almost always cheaper than a hotel as well as serving up food of a markedly better quality.

Hostels There are lots of choices for hostels in the better known tourist areas which, as is true the world over, come in a range of guises. The cheapest option is a bunk-bed in a dorm but private rooms of varying sizes are also available.

Hotels  Previously, all hotels were 100% state owned and could be rather unsatisfactory affairs. These days there are some which have some level of private enterprise or management such as the American-run hotels and resorts which are opening up which means standards – and certainly services – are changing too. Hotels from the basic 2-star equivalent to 5-star+ are all possible.

The state-run hotels which are typically found in cities and towns are often located in wonderful colonial buildings, sometimes restored and lovely, sometimes a little (to a lot) tatty at the edges. The hotels in Old Havana fall into the well-preserved category and often evoke the 1930’s opulence, glamour and hedonism of the pre-Castro years.

Cuba’s Food & Drink

Cuba is not a nation known for its culinary delights although if you have a large appetite you can usually be sure of large helpings as standard. Bland and unvaried is the way many would describe the food of Cuba which comes as a surprise to many expecting Caribbean flavours and spices. Much of this has grown up from significant restrictions on imports and food supply embargoes but some of it is just down to a conservative attitude to food. Having said all this there are some dishes which have a Caribbean or Spanish influence and the flavours which come from using garlic, cumin, oregano and bay leaves are common.

Rice and beans in several guises are the staple here and served with almost every meal in one form or another. A common Cuban plate would consist of roast/fried pork with rice and beans and plantains. A stew made with shredded beef (occasionally lamb) is another popular dish.

However, as with accommodation choices, part-private owned places are shaking things up a bit and will start to change food choices in Cuba.

Havana, Cuba

State Restaurants & Cafes  Quite what you might get here with regard to meal quality and dining surroundings will range from indigestible and awful to tasty and comfortable. The convertible-peso places (as opposed to the national-peso places) tend to have more choice, offer higher quality meals and demonstrate higher levels of hygiene. You might even find some international choices such as Italian or Chinese here. Having said that don’t rule out the national-peso places. Their main purpose is to meet the Cuban market which makes them cheap and even occasionally edible.

Hotels If you’re not too worried about authentically Cuban cuisine and need another option for where to buy a decent meal head to one of the tourist hotels. Pizza and pasta are the staples here.

Paladars – These grew into (legalised) being in the 1990s when the state opened up to the idea of private enterprise. In the last few years there has been another surge of new paladars as regulations and tight restrictions concerning how they were run have been eased or removed altogether. This has also meant quality standards have risen as well as the first wave of diversification which has seen Japanese, Swedish and Mexican suddenly on the menu. Good home-cooked Cuban food is still the norm though. Paladars tend to be located within a private house and where dining environments are concerned you can expect a decent level which might be themed along the lines of old Cuba heyday, authentically colonial, charmingly moody or something else entirely.

Street Food  Another of the off-shoots of private enterprise, the street choices might see your food served up from a porch-way, a garden, a drive, a window in a house or from a street trolley. It usually doesn’t get any cheaper than this and if you’re on the hunt for a freshly made and tasty snack such as corn fritters, bread with filling, pizza or tamales (vegetable stuffed cornmeal) they are a great choice.

Drink  Rum fans rejoice. This is the national drink of Cuba which means you will find it everywhere and it will typically be your cheapest option. Cuba is also famous for its cocktails including mojitos and of course Cuba Libre (essentially rum and cola).

Language

Cuba’s official language is Spanish and in form it has similarities to the Spanish spoken by Dominican Republicans and Puerto Ricans. You will find English spoken around tourist areas to some degree but don’t rely on it or expect it. This is one of those destinations where a little knowledge of the local lingo will take you a long way and make your whole experience very different.

Money Matters in Cuba

The whole monetary system in Cuba can be a little confusing for visitors mainly because there are two currencies – one of which is typically for Cubans and one for tourists. This is in the process of changing however but at present still exists.

Cuban peso (CUP) – also known as the national peso this is the monetary system for wages and set prices.

Convertible peso (CUC) – sometimes just referred to as convertibles and set at the same rate as the US dollar.  As a visitor you will deal almost exclusively in this currency paying for things such as hotel rooms, restaurant meals, official taxis, tourist attractions (e.g. museums) and tourist-aimed merchandise (such as cigars and rum) with it. One convertible is worth many times that of a national peso.

The vast difference in values of the national-peso and convertible-peso is why you will rarely see Cubans in the bars and restaurants aimed at tourists; with prices set in convertibles they simply can’t afford it – it would cost them 25 times as much in effect. Transversely if you happen to pay for something in convertibles which the provider would normally be used to receiving in local money they will think all their birthdays have come at once.

If you need to change Cuban currency you can do this at banks, hotels and exchange houses. Although it is technically illegal, you will also find Canadian Dollars, Euros or GB Pounds accepted in some places.

Where credit cards are concerned this isn’t really a plastic culture. You’ll probably be OK in higher quality hotels, restaurants and shops but otherwise cash is king for everything else. Additionally, credit card fraud and scams are rife so using plastic is best avoided where possible.

Likewise, ATMs are still not a widespread thing although this is changing. Even if you do find an ATM they will sometimes only accept Cuban cards.

The practice of tipping is common here and, as previously explained, with the difference in currency values a small tip in convertibles can go a long, long way

Cultural Issues in Cuba

Normally Cuba is grouped culturally with Latin America and has overall a very multi-ethnic population. Cuban people can trace their roots back to many different origins including the aboriginal Taino or Ciboney people, from the Spaniards during the years of colonisation and from African slaves.

When visiting Cuba it is important to know something of its history. This was a country effectively cut off from the West for many years and which has known unrest and instability; it has a living memory history of a U.S.-funded dictatorship under Batista followed by Castro’s revolution and many years of a close link with its communist brothers in Russia/U.S.S.R. Since the mid-60s Cuba has been governed by the Communist Party of Cuba. Tourism didn’t really exist here in any guise from 1959 until the 1990s when Cuba opened its borders again following the collapse of the Soviet Union which effectively saw the end of any aid, supplies and funding. However, until the later 90s Cubans and tourists were segregated and visitors very limited on where they could go.

Such a history makes politics and government both touchy subjects. Your typical Cuban – no matter what their educational background – will just not be comfortable on these topics and it is incredibly important to show respect and discretion to avoid getting both yourself and the Cuban you are discussing things with into trouble. If you push such issues or make any comments considered critical of Castro or the current government you may find yourself challenged and not pleasantly.

The heroes of the Cuban revolution story are still celebrated in a big way and you will see giant images of both Castro and Che Guevara everywhere.

A good starting point to get a general understanding of Cuba’s history and revolution is to visit the Museum of Revolution although the presentation is highly partisan as you might expect. If nothing else you get to see Che Guevara’s beret.

Once all of this has been understand and digested it is good to know that Cubans are known as being a friendly and helpful bunch and you will probably more than once find yourself invited into someone’s home.

Music and dance are themes of Cuban culture which run down its core like lettering in a stick of rock. You will encounter this everywhere – from beaches to the middle of the street – in both set and spontaneous forms. Salsa of course dominates.

Internet Issues in Cuba

Things are changing so rapidly in Cuba with regard to Internet that what is written here might already be out of date before it ever gets to print. However, at the time of writing Internet access is controlled and limited and emails can be monitored. There are more than 100 Internet cafes at present but buying access cards might prove frustrating You will find wifi hotspots in random places – look for Cubans clustered together armed with computers and phones.

Transport Options in Cuba

Vintage classic american car in Havana, Cuba

Long distance buses –  A company called Viazul offer a relatively reliable multi-destination long distance bus service for tourists with the comforts of air-con, bathrooms and TV. Tickets are sold in convertibles. A second company – Conectando – offer a similar service but with fewer buses plying the routes.

Astro are another inter-city service which is used mainly by Cubans which means the tickets are sold in CUP/national pesos. Astro have the most extensive network and after a recent renewing of their fleet the buses are on a comfort par with Viazul but don’t have an onboard toilet.

Hop on, hop off services – Run by Transtur, these have relatively recently sprung into being to offer tourists an option for visiting all the main sights in an area.

Local buses – Shorter distance bus travel tends to be uncomfortable, overcrowded and in very old buses which frequently break down but it is very cheap. Representing the main transport used by Cubans to get around town or make their way to some other fairly local destination, these buses usually depart from a local bus station with several stops along the way and are paid for in national-peso. Tourists are sometimes barred from entering these buses.

Mini-buses – Serving the tourist industry, some principal routes – such as Havana and Varadero – are linked by mini-bus services.

Colectivos – Often in the form of classic US cars, colectivos are generally a kind of taxi which serve pre-scheduled longer distance routes but only depart once they are full.

Taxis – Often found congregating at bus stations, state-owned metered taxis collect their fares officially in convertibles. However in reality, you might find yourself offered a rate without the meter turned on which although typically ends up as the same price goes into the driver’s pocket instead of the state’s.

Horse & carriage – Serving short and fixed local routes, this national-peso payable option can often be found at train and bus stations.

Ferry – Several cities and towns have ferry services – these include Havana, Cienfuegos, Gibara and Santiago de Cuba. Prices are charged in national-peso.

Bike taxis – These are tricycles with a double seat for passengers found in some of the bigger destinations.

Truck (caminoes) – Always cheap, generally fast and usually anything from slightly to extremely uncomfortable, truck transport links provinces although as a foreigner you might sometimes find yourself prohibited from travelling this way.

Trains – Cuba has an extensive rail network which links a huge variety of places. However, due to the lengthy delays, hold-ups en route which could last many hours and a notoriously fickle schedule, train travel is really only reserved for those who have both tons of patience and heaps of time along with real staying power.

Carriages are usually comfortable but worn and old although the toilets are as bad as it gets anywhere in the world. There are different classes of train travel which include the faster ‘especial’ with AC but limited departures, the more frequent ‘regular’ and the ‘lecheros’ which stop seemingly every two minutes so consequently have the longest journey times.

There is also the ‘Tren Frances’ – so called as its carriages are old stock from France. This runs between Havana and Santiago de Cuba (although not every day) and is the country’s most reliable train with the shortest journey times. Unlike all the other trains the Tren Frances has snack facilities.

Car rental – Some visitors go down this route and if you don’t mind terrible roads and a complete absence of sign posts or road markings once you get out of the city it is an option. Also on the downside is the overall cost once you factor in fuel, insurance and hire fees and limited kilometres on short-term hires. The good news is outside of Havana the traffic is generally light to almost non-existent and the renting process relatively straightforward. As an alternative, some tourists rent a car and driver together – something available through several companies.

Air travel – Havana airport offers flights to several other Cuban destinations but there are no connections between other airports at all. Aircraft tends to be aging, delays are commonplace and weight restrictions strict.

Bike – As Cuba offers bike lanes even on highways, plentiful cycle workshops, special designated parking lots and a surprisingly considerate attitude to cyclists many choose to bike their way around. Although rentals are possible most bring their own cycles (and helmets – you won’t get these here at all) with them or buy a bike when here. Some longer distance buses will accommodate bikes too.

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