Explore Cuba, the largest Caribbean island, between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. It lies 145km (90 miles) south of Key West, Florida, between the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas, to the west of Haiti, east of Mexico and northwest of Jamaica.
Cuba became a U.S. protectorate in 1898 after American and Cuban forces defeated Spanish forces during the Spanish-American War. In 1902, the Platt Amendment ended the U.S. military occupation of Cuba, but the United States reserved the right to intervene in Cuban affairs in order to “defend Cuban independence and to maintain a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty”. Between 1902 and 1959, many U.S. citizens lived in Cuba or frequently traveled to Cuba. The Cuban economy relied heavily on tourism from the U.S. and Havana had a large number of shows, events, and hotels catering to tourists.
What to see. Best top attractions in Cuba
- Havana – cosmopolitan capital with a swinging nightlife
- Baracoa – a quaint beach-side town, and Cuba’s first capital.
- Pinar del Rio – centre of the cigar industry
- Santa Clara – Home of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s most successful battle during the Revolution. A mausoleum is erected on the outskirts of town and now holds his remains, recovered from Bolivia in the 1990s.
- Santiago de Cuba – coastal city rich in Caribbean influence
- Trinidad – World Heritage Site with charming, colonial-era buildings
- Varadero – popular beach area, east of Havana, filled mostly with tourists.
- Cayo Largo – a small island with nudist facilities
- Isla de la Juventud – a large island south of Havana
- Jardines del Rey – an island chain of beach resorts including Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo
- Maria la Gorda – a tiny village with some snorkelling and diving options
- Varadero Beach – 20-kilometre-long beach of fine white sand and waters
- Viñales National Park in Pinar del Rio province, with mountains and caves. It has the best-developed tourist facilities of Cuba’s national parks.
- Parque Nacional La Güira (La Güira National Park) – Another national park in Pinar del Rio province, with mountains and caves, but without many tourist facilities.
- Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra del Rosario – A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the Sierra del Rosario mountains of Pinar del Rio province. The principal sites are Soroa and Las Terazzas.
- Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata (Ciénaga de Zapata National Park) – A national park in Mantanzas province, similar to Florida’s Everglades National Park, with vast swamps and world-famous bird watching, scuba diving, and beaches; and the site of the 1961 American Bay of Pigs invasion.
- Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes (Topes de Collantes National Park) – A national park in the Sierra del Emcambray mountains, straddling Cienfuegos, Villa Clara, and Sancti Spiritus provinces.
- Parque Allejandro de Humboldt (Guantanamo province) approx 40km from baracoa, offers walking, and conservation movements
Jose Martí International Airport outside Havana is the main gateway into Cuba and is served by major airlines from points in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Europe. There are also regional flights from other Caribbean islands. Cuba’s national carrier is Cubana de Aviacion, connecting the island to a handful of destinations in Mexico, South and Central America, Canada and Europe.
While Havana is by far the most popular port of entry, there are also flights available to Antonio Maceo Airport from some of Cuba’s nearest Caribbean neighbors, Jamaica, and Haiti and also from more distant locations, such as Miami, Toronto, Madrid & Paris. Santiago de Cuba is connected with the rest of Cuba by road and rail connections.
There are also regular holiday charter flights to resorts such as Varadero and to the eastern city of Holguin (Condor fly here from Frankfurt), and these can sometimes be less expensive than those going to Havana.
The airports are all fully-air-conditioned and quite modern, compared to other destinations in the Caribbean, offer good medical care in case of problems, and are usually relatively hassle free.
Víazul is Cuba’s hard currency bus line and is by far the best choice of public transportation to tour the island. They run comfortable air-conditioned long-distance coaches with washrooms and televisions to most places of interest to tourists. The buses are getting a bit grubby, but they are reliable and punctual.
It is also possible to travel between some popular tourist destinations, such as Havana and Varadero, on special tourist minibuses carrying 4-5 people. The cost is a few dollars more but highly recommended if you are not planning to sleep the whole distance – plus you can ask the driver to stop along the way!
The main train line in the country runs between Havana and Santiago de Cuba, with major stops at Santa Clara and Camagüey. Trains also run to other cities such as Cienfuegos, Manzanillo, Morón, Sancti Spiritus, and Pinar del Rio.
Calm roads and beautiful scenery make Cuba an ideal country for biking. You will have to bring your own bike as bikes suitable for trekking are not readily available in Cuba. Do not under any circumstances rent a bike in Cuba as you will get a Junker or something that will leave your backside raw.
Roads in most places in Cuba are reasonable, but it may still be a good idea to bring a mountain bike. Mountain bikes are stronger and allow for better driving off-road. Make sure to bring all spare parts you might need along the way, since they will not be available in Cuba. As casas particulares are available even in relatively small towns it is easy to plan an itinerary. Food for on the road can often be obtained locally for cheap Cuban Pesos, but make sure if you travel through more remote areas to carry enough food (and water!). Obtaining bottled water outside the major cities can be a definite problem.
Bikers are often met with enthusiasm and interest; when taking a break you will often be approached by curious locals. It is possible to take bikes on a tour bus, like “Viazul”, to cover larger distances. You have to arrange a personal agreement with the driver however, who will expect a little bonus in return. It is also possible to take bikes on trains and even to hitch with bikes (wave some convertible pesos to approaching drivers to catch their attention).
The best times to go are between December and April, to avoid the horrendous storms and hurricanes before December and the sticky heat of the Cuban summer which can be unbearable for some. This is also the high season so expect a price increase during this period.
The official language of Cuba is Spanish, quite similar to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rican Spanish, although the version here is quite different from that spoken in Spain, Mexico and South America.
Basic to fair English is spoken in some tourist locations and language should not be a deterrent to visiting the country for non-Spanish speaking tourists capable of speaking English, though basic Spanish would prove useful, especially in more informal settings. Cubans enjoy talking to tourists, especially if you are staying with them in the “Casas particulares” and some knowledge of Spanish will help you understand regular Cubans’ experiences.
What to do in Cuba
- View over the rooftops of Trinidad (Cuba), Cuba
- Walk along Havana’s Malécon during the early evening and take in some of Havana’s culture. Be cautious about prostitutes; they are heavy in this area, especially in sections where rich white male tourists are known to walk.
- Walk around in Havana Vieja, especially in the early mornings when the city wakes up. You can also take what is probably the best (and most extensive) walking tour on the island with “Havana Frans”, a Dutch jazz photographer who lives in Havana.
- If you have the money, go to the Tropicana, which is an ex-Mafia hangout owned and operated by the state. The Tropicana is located, as it has always been, deep within a strategically tree-heavy area with a narrow road within the city, back behind the trees, and since its admission price is far too expensive for any average Cuban to afford, the people who go there are almost all international tourists. The club still has old-style traditions such as table service, lavish costumes, dazzling lights, a coat check area, etc. Real (but quite small) cigars are also available and can be smoked inside the venue, including near the stage. The Tropicana is so well-kept that it is almost a time warp (with the exception of the modern stage-equipment and the lack of a dress code) and, so long as you can forgive yourself the fact that most Cubans cannot afford what you are doing, and that the people who work there could not be there if they were not employed there, your night is sure to be extremely enjoyable.
- Go see a neighborhood performance of Afro-Cuban dance, which exists in almost every neighborhood.
- Go see local music, which exists in almost every neighborhood.
- Go to the clubs, all of which heavily play things like Cuban reggae and Cuban rap, as well as more traditional-sounding Cuban music with modern lyrics.
- Go to the beaches — but be careful, as in Jamaica, of being solicited by prostitutes and con people, both male and female.
- Go out in the countryside and talk to farmers. Check out the area markets. There are two types of market — state-run markets, which sell food very cheaply and for which Cubans keep ration books (and that you probably can’t shop at because you won’t have a ration book of your own), and for-profit markets where farmers sell their produce directly, which of course, is quite a bit more expensive.
- Expect to hear a lot of Carlos Santana blaring out of windows at odd times of the day.
- Drink lots of fresh fruit juice, which basically flows like water in Cuba due to the abundance of fresh fruit.
- Colon Cemetery, very interesting cemetery with many Cuban personalities.
- UnderwaterCuba, Scuba Diving , Snorkeling in Varadero.
Banks often close at 3 p.m., and earlier on the last day of the month. Cadecas (exchange bureaus) may be open longer, especially in hotels. When going to a bank allow enough time as service is usually slow and many people may already be waiting. Foreigners may get preferred treatment in exchange for a small tip.
You must bring your passport in case you want to exchange traveler’s checks or make a credit card advance, although cash can be changed without a passport. Exchange rates do vary from place to place, and some hotels do give significantly worse exchange rates than the banks.
As in any developing country, most of the merchandise available is designed for tourists to take back home. The biggest Cuban exports for tourists are rum, cigars, and coffee, all of which are available at government-owned stores (including the duty free store at the airport) or on the streets. For genuine merchandise, you should pay the official price at the legal stores.
Cubans also do well in creating music such as salsa, son, and Afro-Cubano. You can purchase CDs or tapes anywhere.
If you are planning to take big quantities (several boxes or more) of cigars with you, be sure you have purchased them officially from an approved shop that gives you proper purchase documentation. Foreign nationals are allowed to export up to 50 cigars (generally 25 to a box) without special permits or receipts, but the export of more requires official receipts. If you buy cigars cheap on streets and you don’t have official purchase invoice then your cigars may/will be confiscated. Also, be advised that any purchase of Cuban cigars outside government-approved stores (even in resorts) has the potential to be fake, and that the “cigar factory worker who steals from the factory” does not exist in any appreciable quantities. If you find a “deal” from a street vendor, it’s incredibly likely you are getting fakes, some of which may not even be made of tobacco. Always ensure, no matter where you buy, that the Cuban government origin warranty stamp is properly affixed to the cigar box..
Officially you’ll need permission to export paintings that are larger than 70cm/side. When you buy artwork from approved shop then they’ll give you also the required document, that consists of one paper and one stamp that will be glued on back of your painting. Serial numbers on the stamp and paper must match. Cost of the document is about CUC 2-3. In reality, it is possible that no one will be interested in your paintings.
As all restaurants are owned by the government and run by employees, the food in Cuba is notoriously bland. If you are expecting the fiery pepperpot spiciness found on some of the other Caribbean islands, consider that the national dish in Cuba is rice and beans (moros y cristianos). A popular saying goes that the best Cuban food can be found in the United States. Within Cuba, the best food will generally be found in your casa particular or in paladares (locally owned restaurants in private homes).
Black beans are a main staple in Cuban households. Cubans eat mainly pork and chicken for meat. Beef and lobster are controlled by the state, and therefore illegal to sell outside of state owned hotels and restaurants, however special lobster lunch/supper offers are plentiful for tourists. You may see turtle on menus in Paladares, but be aware that they are endangered and eating them is illegal.
The purchasing age of alcoholic beverages is 18.
Cuban national cocktails include the Cuba Libre (rum and cola) and the Mojito (rum, lime, sugar, mint leaves, club soda and ice).
If you request a rum in a small country restaurant do not be surprised if it is only available by the bottle. Havana Club is the national brand and the most popular
Cristal is a light beer and is available in “dollar” stores where Cubans with CUCs and visitors may shop. Cubans prefer the Bucanero Fuerte, which at 5.5% alcohol is a strong (hence the “fuerte”) darker beer. Both Cristal and Bucanero are brewed by a joint venture with Labatts of Canada, whose beer is the only Cuban beer sold in CUC. A stronger version, Bucanero Max is also available – primarily available in Havana.
There are also smaller brews, not available everywhere, such as Hatuey and Corona del Mar.
If you want to experience something of the real life of Cubans, the best places to stay are casas particulares (private houses licensed to offer lodging services to foreigners). They are cheaper than hotels and the food is almost always better than you would get in a hotel. Casas particulares are plentiful even in small towns; they are somewhat more expensive in Havana than elsewhere. Note that any service offered by a casa particular other than accommodation, such as driving you to the bus station, will be added to your bill, regardless of whether this is stated up front. Items such as bottled water supplied with your meal will also have a charge. Always make sure that you talk to the owner about what things will cost when you arrive to avoid unpleasant surprises later.
Cuban museums are plentiful, frequently open, and usually charge for admission. You may get a guided tour from one of the staff members; even if you do not speak Spanish, this can be useful. They will generally make you check your bags, and charge a small fee for the privilege of taking pictures inside.
Cuba is generally a very safe country; strict and prominent policing, combined with neighborhood-watch-style programs (known as the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, or C.D.R.) are officially there to keep the streets safe from violent crime. There is almost no gun crime, violent robbery, organized gang culture, teenage delinquency, drugs or dangerous no-go zones. Local criminals try to avoid targeting foreigners at all costs because they would pay a very steep price if caught but keep in mind that all cats are black in the dark and you may become a victim even if by accident. However, a certain degree of common-sense and caution is advisable, especially in major cities.
The legal system in Cuba is very different from most other countries and it is best to avoid getting caught violating any law. Bars, restaurants, and hotels will not hesitate to call the police if there is any trouble and it is best to diffuse the situation.
Drug laws can be harsh and severe. The same may be said about the laws concerning prostitution. The importation, possession or production of pornography is strictly prohibited. It is not uncommon to see a dog jogging on the luggage carousel sniffing arriving luggage, especially when arriving from countries prone to drug-trafficking, so be sure to lock and/or wrap your luggage to avoid any problems in this regard. Additionally, it is against the law to take pictures of airports, government buildings, politicians, the military, and police officers.
Don’t drink tap water. Water in Cuba is generally safe; however, it is highly chlorinated to kill all tropical germs. People not accustomed to such chlorine concentration may experience vomiting, diarrhea or stomach spasms.
Note that many locals are simply friendly and their only motive is a conversation. However, a few well established scams exist.
Cigars are the most popular merchandise for the tourists to Cuba, however most of the cigars that tourists bought in Cuba during Havana one-day tour or even in Varadero airport tax-free store are fake. Make sure you buy cigars in official shops, do not trust the tobacco factory where the tourism guide takes you to.
Water is often sold around tourist areas. Sometimes these bottles have been filled with local tap water and re-sealed (which can be poisonous). You can usually see this tampering on the bottle, but not always; in any case tap water will taste markedly different to bottled water and should be avoided in all cases. Locals offer to swap money at a ‘local bank’ where the natives can get the best rates and ask you to remain outside whilst they do the deal as your presence would drive the rate up. If you give them your money you will never see them again.
Toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, razors, tampons and condoms are also hard to come across and expensive, so stock up before you leave.
Toilet paper is absent in most public toilets, in Havana and other places you may be visiting.
When you want to explore Cuba, if you’re staying at a hotel or casa particular, it’s likely there will be a television, and watching Cuban television is a good place to observe Cuba’s unique mix of vibrant culture, sports and controversial politics.