Cuba is a nature lover’s paradise with a huge array of flora and fauna, spectacular mountains and pristine beaches. Cuba’s vibrant and diverse culture is evidenced in the unique rhythms of the afro-cuban and latin music, colourful streets lined with Spanish colonial architecture dating back to 1500s, and hundreds of museums that tell the stories that have formed the country’s identity over centuries. For the adventurous traveller, the diving and snorkelling on Cuba’s magnificent coral reefs is also excellent.
Visitors to Cuba’s capital city Havana will be thrilled by its plethora of museums, art galleries, and concert halls. There are a number of historical sites that are must-do excursions, including Cathedral Square, Revolution Square, Morro Castle, the world-famous Tropicana Nightclub, to name but a few. If you travel six kilometres to the east of the city you can visit Cojimar, a quaint fishing village where Ernest Hemmingway gained inspiration for many of his books. Beyond Havana’s east coast, you will discover over 15 km of beautiful beaches including the famous Santa Maria del Mar.
Visitors to Santa Lucia will be blown away by the 21km stretch of dazzling white beaches, complete with coral reefs and rolling green hills. As a main tourist destination, Santa Lucia is well-equipped with hotels and resorts.
Travelling to Cuba’s second-largest city Santiago de Cuba is also a must. It is considered to be Cuba’s most Caribbean city and is famous for its carnival, exquisite squares and dynamic musical tradition.
Where is Cuba?
Cuba is a beautiful sub-tropical island located only 145km to the south of Florida. It features glorious coastline, mountainous forests, stunning Spanish colonial architecture and fascinating cities that reflect its unique and tumultuous history and offers the intrepid traveler much more than the average island getaway.
History of Cuba
Although it was once the top destination for wealthy and famous Americans, Cuba’s strained relationship with the US following the revolution in 1959 led to a travel ban on US citizens and an embargo that cut the island off from its previous tourist market. Since that time, tourism has gradually increased with the Cuban government allowing foreigners to enter Cuba in the mid-1990s and an increase in contact allowed between the Cuban people and tourists, which up until as late as 2008, was outlawed. Today travellers from around the world are re-discovering the magic of Cuba.
Cuba Visa Requirements
All travellers to Cuba are required to possess a current passport with at least 6 months’ validity, proof of ongoing or return travel, and a visa or “tourist card” which can be obtained through a travel agent or at the airport from which you are travelling to Cuba. This visa allows visitors four weeks in Cuba, and can be quite easily extended for another 4 weeks, at immigration offices in most of the major cities.
Visitors must also demonstrate proof of health insurance before being granted entry into Cuba. It is important to remember that you cannot depart Cuba without showing your tourist card.
You should also expect to pay a departure tax of US$25 at the airport.
US citizens wishing to travel to Cuba are advised to check with the US government as to the current licencing restrictions that are in place. Whilst the current administration has eased some of these restrictions, there is still a lengthy application process involved to secure legal access.
As entry requirements may change from time to time it is strongly advised that you check with the department of foreign affairs or your local consulate or embassy for the current requirements. A link to Cuba’s official Department of Foreign Affairs website is below. At the time of writing the English version of the website was incomplete so we recommend you contact the embassy in your local region.
Here is a list of phone numbers for some Cuban embassies:
Australia – Canberra: +61 2 6290 2151
New Zealand – Wellington: +64 4 472 3748
UK – London: +44 20 7240 2488
Ireland – Dublin: +353 1 475 0899
US – Washington: +1 202 797 8518
Canada – Ottawa: +1 613 563 0141
Cuba Travel Health
Travel to Cuba does not require any special vaccinations/immunisations, however travellers should ensure that all their regular vaccinations are up to date. Checking with your medical practitioner before travelling is always advisable. Outbreaks of Dengue fever have recently increased and travellers should take precautions to avoid mosquito bites by applying good quality insect repellant and wearing lightweight clothing that covers the arms and legs. Medical facilities in Cuba are reknowned for their excellence and you will find that in the larger cities and tourist hubs there are medical clinics that cater exclusively to foreigners. The cost of treatment in these clinics is relatively minor in comparison to most private hospitals in Western countries. To maintain good health, it is essential that all tap water is boiled before drinking and travellers should take care to avoid ice cubes and vegetables that are raw or undercooked. The crime-rate is low in Cuba, but, as when traveling anywhere unfamiliar, common-sense precautions should be taken particularly at night. Make sure that you have copies of your passport and other important documents, and protect your personal belongings by not leaving any valuables in your hotel room and not carrying around large amounts of cash. Visitors are also advised to not make use of either the three-wheel taxis or mopeds for travel purposes in Cuba, as there have recently been some serious accidents involving tourists. Travellers should take care if visiting Cuba from June to November as this is hurricane season, and there is the potential for flooding and landslides. The number for emergency services including police, fire and ambulance in Cuba is 106.
What is Cuba Local Currency?
There are two official currencies used in Cuba: Cuban convertible pesos(CUC) and Cuban pesos (CUP)which are often referred to as the “national peso” or moneda nacional (MN). The currency used by tourists is the convertible peso and it is most often used to pay for taxis, hotels, museums, and restaurants. The Cuban government introduced the CUC as a means to remove all foreign currencies (the US dollar in particular) from circulation. The convertible peso is divided into 100 centavos. Notes are produced in denominations of 1,3,5,10,20,50 and 100 pesos and coins are made up of 1,5 and 20 centavos as well as 1 and 3 pesos. It is useful for visitors to carry some local pesos (CUP) as they are needed to purchase snacks, fruits, vegetables and drinks from street stalls as well as tickets for cinemas, theatres and local buses. The CUP is divided into the same denominations as the CUC and the rate of exchange is approximately 1:24. The current rate of exchange is approximately 1 USD = 0.92 CUC. The best currencies for exchange in Cuba are British pounds, Euros, Swiss francs and Canadian dollars. Bear in mind that exchanging these for convertible pesos will attract an 8% fee from the Cuban government. However this is far preferable to the extra 10% penalty that exchanging US dollars will attract. The best rates of changing money are at banks or at CADECA (exchange bureau) kiosks and be warned that changing money on the street is not recommended as tourists are often fooled into accepting fake money. ATMs that actually work are rare in Cuba, although they are increasingly reliable in Havana and Santiago. Most will accept Mastercard/Cirrus or Visa for cash withdrawals, but US-issued cards are not accepted. The best place to use your card is at the state-run CADECAs as opposed to a bank. However, the best plan is to have enough travellers cheques or local currency to get by, as a credit card cash withdrawal will cost you at least 11% commission. But be warned, if you do choose to bring travellers cheques, make sure that they are not in US dollars and be prepared for potential hassles as cashing them in is often time consuming and they are not accepted at smaller hotels or in provincial areas.
What is Cuba’s Weather?
Located in the northwest Caribbean, Cuba typically enjoys a hot, sub-tropical climate. The wet season is usually between May and October and hurricane season is from June to November. The cooler, dry season is the best time to travel to Cuba and is from January to April where the average minimum temperature is between 18°C and 21°C and the highest average temperature is between 26°C and 27°C. Humidity is high year round and it usually fluctuates between 75% to 95%.
Culture of Cuba
The Cuban cultural identity has been shaped not only by it’s reputation as a melting pot of different races and cultures, but also by it’s unique political history. Emerging from the shadow of the Castro regime, the Cuban government has recently loosened it’s hold over cultural expression and tourism, allowing visitors a fascinating glimpse into a country that has changed little in architecture and infrastructure since the 1950s, when it was a thriving international tourist mecca. Following the 1959 Revolution and up until the 1990s when it opened it’s doors again to foreigners, Cuban tourism was just for the local population. Since then, Cuban infrastructure has somewhat improved and there are tourist regions with modern 3 to 5-star hotels available. Visitors will discover that most Cuban people warm, friendly, hospitable and expressive. Christianity is the main religion in Cuba, with Roman Catholics a large majority. There are a number of Protestant denominations that are also represented and a variety of syncretic religions of West African cultural origins. Tipping taxi drivers, bar and hotel staff is customary in Cuba.
What Languages Are Spoken In Cuba?
Most Cubans are of African or Spanish descent, and Spanish is the offical language. Some basic English is spoken in the tourist areas, so visitors with limited or no Spanish skills shouldn’t be deterred. However, making an attempt to speak Spanish is very much appreciated even if it is limited to simple greetings (Buenos Dias – good morning, Hola – an informal greeting) and por favour or gracias (please and thank you).
The international access code for Cuba is 53 and to make an international call from Cuba you must first dial 119, followed by the relevant country code. For the best rates on international calls, phone cards are recommended and are widely available in kioks and shops. Roaming agreements are provided by most international mobile service providers. Internet access is readily available at hotels and special internet cafes, but be warned in that you may find some web pages are censored.
The postal service in Cuba is notoriously slow with delivery to Western Europe taking up to several weeks. Post offices are open Monday to Saturday 8.00am to 6.00pm. Many of the larger hotels provide a postal service.
Cuba Transport Options
Visitors to Cuba can fly with a large number of international airlines into the Jose Marti International Airport which is located about 25km from the capital city of Havana. The national carrier “Cubana de Aviacion” offers domestic and international flights to a range of destinations including Europe, Canada and Mexico. Travel to and from the airport is usually by taxi at a cost of around 25 CUC. There is a bus service that only departs from the domestic terminal (terminal 1). So a cheaper option (if you arrive well before 8pm)is to have the taxi take you to the terminal 1 bus stop. The bus trip into La Habana Centro will only cost a few cents. Travellers should take care to not pack any valuables in their checked luggage in Cuba, as theft has become increasingly common. The busline “Viazul” has a good reputation for being the best mode of long-distance transport in Cuba. The coaches are comfortably air-conditioned, complete with televisions and restrooms. Most importantly, they are reliable and run on time. Despite what the website advertises, refreshments are not served on board, so travellers should bring their own food. The alternative bus service, “Astro” is the cheaper option and the one that most Cubans use. However, the buses often break down and purchasing tickets is not as easy. For just a few extra dollars, another alternative is the minibus services that carry 4-5 people between popular tourist towns. The fact that many Cubans would choose to hitchhike rather than travel by train is indicative of the lack of organisation and state of disrepair of the Cuban rail. The one reliable service that runs overnight from Havana to Santiago de Cuba is the only exception. The official taxi service is a more expensive option for longer distances. However, by splitting the fare with other travellers, it can sometimes prove as economical as a bus or a train. In big cities, taxis are definitely the most convenient mode of transport. Cars drive on the right side of the road in Cuba. Car rental in Cuba can cost between 50-70 CUC at a minimum per day depending on the season. Many travellers learn the hard way, that renting a car in Cuba is fraught with difficulties. For instance, many cars are in disrepair, there are few available and reservations are not always an option. It is advisable to thoroughly check the vehicle over before use, as you will be liable for any missing parts or damage. This includes checking that the seatbelts, lights and doors are all in working order. It is also highly recommended that you pay the extra 10 CUC per day for insurance. However, a huge deterrent to car hire in Cuba, and one of the reasons many countries warn citizens against it, is that if you have a traffic accident involving serious injury or death, you may be detained by the Cuban government (potentially for a few months) until the legal process is resolved.
Cuba Travel Tips
Cuba Local Food
Cuban cuisine is a unique fusion of Afro-Caribbean and Spanish influences, with rice, beans, chicken, beef, pork, root vegetables, tomatos, avocados and bananas as it’s main staples. Only a few basic spices are used such as cumin, garlic, oregano and bay leaves and the food is either slow-cooked or sauteed but rarely deep-fried. A typical breakfast might consist of toasted bread (Tostada) and expresso coffee with milk (cafe con leche). Lunch might include empanandas (chicken or meat) or sandwiches with ham, cheese, pickles and mustard. Dinner usually combines meat, fish or chicken with rice, beans and fried plaintains, sometimes accompanied by a salad with tomatoes, avocados and onions. A popular dessert in Cuba is a caramel custard flan. A signature dish in Cuba that is reserved for special occasions is a marinated, roasted pig accompanied by white rice, beans, potatoes in a garlic dressing and banana (maduros). Cubans love their coffee and usually serve it very strong. Other national drinks include their famous rum cocktails (Mojito and Daiquiri) and Cuban beer which has a good flavour and low alcohol content. The legal drinking age in Cuba is 18 years.
Cuba Local Timezones
Cuba is in the GMT-5 zone. Daylight savings means that in the summer, the time difference is decreased to GMT-4.
Electricity in Cuba is 110/230 volts AC, 60Hz. An american-style flat two-prong adaptor is used, but in some of the larger hotels, a european-style round two-pin plug is used.