That Cuba has long captured the imaginations of travelers far and wide is a fact by now universally understood. Whether documented in the logs of Christopher Columbus or the diaries of Che Guevara, its mystique of pirates’ coves and communist revolutions, classic cars and ragged buildings has proven magnetic, drawing in adventurers by the droves to revel in its tobacco-stained and sun-drenched splendor. And while many a foreign visitor has fallen victim to the all-too-easy appeal of white sand and resort hotels, those who have plumbed the depths will tell you that Cuba’s greatest treasures are found far away from anything commonly referred to as luxury. In a country caught between memory and modernity, where music pours like cigar smoke from behind every doorway and adventure beckons from the depths of unexplored caves and the heights of forest-covered mountains, comfort yields to experience and the spirit of exploration takes center stage. After all, if all you’re looking for is a tan, Key West is just 180 km to the north.
First up is Havana, that city at once vibrant and ramshackle that constitutes the entry point for just about every traveler exploring the Cuban island. You could of course spend your entire visit engaging in your own Hemingway-esque love affair with this city, but doing so would mean depriving yourself of some of the country’s other fascinating and often overlooked municipalities. Take Trinidad, for example, with its telltale red roofs, pedestrian streets and UNESCO-preserved history dating back to the days of the Cuban sugar trade; or Baracoa, Cuba’s wild adventure capital that was the site of the first Spanish colony on the island and, until the latter half of the 20th century, only accessible by boat. And who could forget about Gibara? That’s a rhetorical question, of course, as this quiet coastal village with its captivating annual film festival has long been omitted from just about every traveler’s too-see list. And that’s the point, isn’t it? Cuba abounds with its own unique cultural authenticity, but you’ll have to put in some leg-work to experience it.
Speaking of leg work, you didn’t actually think we’d forget about that other abundant “natural” resource here, did you? While its reputation for communism may have preceded it, a lesser known Cuban characteristic is the country’s wealth of meticulously preserved biospheres; a fact to which anyone who’s hiked Humboldt National Park or dived Los Jardines de la Reina will readily attest. Sure its beaches and rum may get the lion’s share of the attention, but talk to a climber who’s been there about his/her days spent sending Mucho Pumpito, or a cyclist about the sensation of descending those last coastal kilometers of La Farola, and you’ll quickly realize just what kind of adventures await those who would prefer water to mojitos. For a few rugged days, at least. But enough romanticizing, you can do all that and more with the memories you’ll have once you get back. Now it’s time to dig in and see just what kind of adventurous experiences you’d like to make those memories out of. Enjoy.
Although the relationship is moving in the right direction, unrestricted travel to Cuba from the United States has yet to become a reality. That's right, most of us can't just book a hotel and a few tours in Cuba unless we do so with a company that has specific permission from the US government to provide "people to people" experiences. This means that only tour packages filled with meaningful cultural interaction and NOT days lounging at the beach will be in the cards for you unless you are traveling with an educational, religious, or cultural group that has travel approval. For the most up-to-date details on Cuba travel sanctions, please visit the Department of the Treasury website.
The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) will cost you approximately: 1 USD / .89 EUR / .66 GBP. For up to the minute exchange rates, click here.
Cuba is a single-party Communist state, with its full executive power vested in the Council of State, led by the president, and the Council of Ministers, which serves as the cabinet and advisors of government. The National Assembly of People's Power is the head legislative body, elected every 5 years by virtue of public meetings and trade organizations., while the highest judicial court is the People's Supreme Court. One fact of note is that it is specifically outlined in the constitution that any citizen's civil rights may be compromised if they are in opposition to the Socialist cause, so be quite aware of your company when sharing your political opinions during your travels.
Cuba is a Spanish-speaking country, although, as most typical Spanish speakers may realize, the dialect and its slang differs quite a bit from the Spanish spoken in Spain. That being said, you'll find a basic understanding of English in areas and industries related to tourism; i.e. taxi drivers, hotel staff, tour guides, etc. in Havana, Varadero, and other more-touristed cities. Still, if you've got no understanding of Spanish, be patient and do your best to communicate in other ways, just as you would in any country where you don't speak the language.
Despite the fact that the Cuban government does not release any official crime statistics and Communist stereotypes tend to lead people to believe that a country is unsafe, Cuba actually fairs better than most countries in the Caribbean and Central America in terms of violence and corruption. Violent crime is basically non-existent toward foreigners, prostitution and pornography are illegal, and, since the tourism industry has been underdeveloped for so long, there actually is a lesser chance of encountering petty crime geared toward tourists than in the majority of countries you'll travel to. Which doesn't mean that you should walk around with Benjamins sprouting from you pockets or flash your comparative wealth in a country where poverty is quite real and abundant. Common sense and a bit of research into the areas you'll be traveling to will go a long way.
Cuba has a near-modern transportation framework. There are a handful of major airports, the largest being José Martí International Airport in Havana, as well as a major rail network that runs the length of the country. Don't expect a contemporary metro system, even in Havana, for the bulk of public transportation is reliant on overhauled and decommissioned vehicles that include the humpbacked camellos that can carry as many as 200 passengers. Don't expect high transportation reliability outside of Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Be prepared to wait for buses and even taxis. Speaking of, if you'd like a taxi ride in one of the classic vehicles that you've heard roam the city streets, you may be lucky enough to find a fixed route taxi known as an almendron; they're hardly the 50's-style gems of your automotive dreams, but there an intriguing symbol of Cuba that will get you from place to place at a cheaper rate than taxis.
There are also a handful of highways, mostly around Havana, that can get you to other parts of the country pretty quickly despite the fact that there is still a substantial amount of public roadway that remains unpaved even today. Also, if you've got your heart set on a rental car, don't expect new, US-model vehicles. Despite recent relaxation of tensions between the United States and Cuba, you'll still more often get a serviceable old, Russian-brand car with a manual transmission than something fresh out of Detroit.
The largest country in the Caribbean, Cuba is a tropical island known for a year-round warmth due to moderating trade winds. Temperature lows will average near 74 degrees Fahrenheit in January, with average highs around 81 in July. The rainy season spans from May to October, while dry season is typically from November to April. If you're planning your visit in September or October, be aware that this is the peak of hurricane/tropical storm season. Keep your eye on weather reports as your trip approaches to be sure that it is a safe time to be traveling.
Cuban tipping etiquette does not very greatly from what you'd find in the United States. Most state-run services (restaurants, taxis, etc.) will usually expect tips for service, especially if services charges aren't already included in the bill, while family-owned establishments called paladares don't normally expect tips from their patrons. We suggest frequenting these paladares, which will provide authentic Cuban meals in what is often the home of Cuban citizen making less than CUC a day, so be generous with your tips and your service will be impeccable. It also helps immensely to speak Spanish whenever you can, even if it's a transactional "por favor" or "gracias."
There is no minimum age to consume alcohol in Cuba, although you need to be 16 years old to sell it. If you're staying at a hotel or resort, be sure to look into their policies, for many have strict age limitations. Cuba's most famous alcoholic drink is the mojito, a cocktail that stands out due to its inclusion of rum, lime juice, and mint. There are a number of other popular drinks, like Saocas and Havana Coolers that also use rum as a base.
Alcohol consumption within Cuban culture is actually quite low compared to the averages of other countries, although you'll find consumption much higher in tourist and resort areas. If you're a beer drinker, Cristal is everywhere.
There are interesting things that everyone associates with Cuba (the 1950's American cars, the world's best cigars), but it is a lesser known fact that Cuba has one of the world's most reliable health care systems. It doesn't hurt that they're known for a doctor to patient ratio that is unmatched anywhere.
Peak season:December to March; July to August
Currency:CUC (Cuban peso)
Carnival de Santiago, July 20-27
If you're looking for incredible music (the kind that gave birth to contemporary salsa), parades, dancing, and an overall raucous good time, make plans to visit Santiago de Cuba in mid-late July. Every year, Cuban citizens and world travelers alike descend on the former Cuban capital to participate in this annual festival that began as a celebration of St. James and has since shifted focus, highlighting all the unique cultural elements that have blended together over the centuries in this complex and beautiful island. Book well in advance if you want to find a place to stay, then enjoy the revelry.