Cuba. Land of rum and revolution. Of socialism and sensuality. Off-limits to most U.S. citizens for the better part of six decades, this exotic, endearing and endlessly fascinating island nation a mere 40-minute flight from Miami, is suddenly hot, hot, hot!
Since 2011 every U.S. citizen can sign up for a “people-to-people” program—in reality a “tour”—offered by any of dozens of tour companies and academic or cultural institutions. Sure, tourism and travel for recreation are still barred. But specialized people-to-people (P2P) programs run the gamut from art appreciation and birding to motorcycling. Havana is suddenly chock full of American tour groups, and with individuals creatively making the most of loosened restrictions for individual travel. Plus, Raúl Castro’s economic reforms (and easing of trade restrictions by Uncle Sam) have resulted in a blossoming of private business. The time to go is now, before the real flood begins… and while Cuba remains thankfully free of malls and McDonalds.
Royal palms float over ox-drawn ploughs that till cinnamon-colored fields into furrows. In colonial cities sprinkled throughout the isle, time-worn buildings speak to the wealth once derived from sugar. The plazas resound to the sound of son and salsa. Music and dance are ingrained in Cuban DNA—a product of Cuba’s fused African and Spanish heritage and a passion for tropical joie de vivre. And revolutionary fervor runs deep—think roadside billboards of Che (“Forward unto victory always”) and Fidel (“Socialism or Death”).
The north coast boasts most of the beaches and resorts, which limn offshore keys and melt into pavonine bathtub-warm seas. They’re concentrated in four main touristic enclaves: Varadero, the main resort, with a 12-kilometer-long postcard-perfect beach; rapidly evolving Cayos de Villa Clara; the twin cays of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo; and Guardalavaca, in Holguín province.
For tobacco country, head west from Havana to Viñales—a stupendously scenic valley rimmed by soaring limestone formations called mogotes. Nearby, offshore floats the tiny resort isle of Cayo Levisa; while at the western extreme of the isle, Parque Nacional Península de Guanahacabibes invites hikers, birders, and scuba divers; and Las Terrazas is an eco-sustainable community not to miss. Isla de la Juventud, off the south coast, hosts the prison where Fidel served time.
West Central Cuba is a medley of delights. Irresistible places of interest include Playa Larga and Playa Girón (known to the world as Bay of Pigs), setting for the 1961 CIA-sponsored invasion, and for the Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata, great for fishing and birding. The city of Cienfuegos is an easy-paced delight; while Santa Clara is renowned for its monumental memorial to Che Guevara. The Sierra Escambray woos hikers. Nearby Trinidad is Cuba’s crown jewel of colonial cities.
Further east, Camagüey city has a well-preserved colonial core, while Holguín makes a good base for foryas to Guardalavaca, the old port town of Gibara, and to Fidel Castro’s birthplace—Finca Manacas, now the Museo Complejo Histórico Birán. Scuba diving is the big draw at Playa Santa Lucía.
At the far eastern end of the isle is Baracoa, founded in 1511, surrounded by a rainforest-clad mountain meniscus. Nearby Guantánamo basks in a basin that is semi-desert. Santiago de Cuba—Cuba’s first capital, dating from 1514—is infused with French and African roots and claims many revolutionary sites of interest, among them the Moncada barracks and Cementerio Santa Ifigenia. Outside town the Basilica El Cobre is Cuba’s premier religious site.
Further west, accessed via the colonial city of Bayamo, is Parque Nacional Pico Turquino, Cuba’s tallest peak, luring hikers to its summit and to Fidel’s former guerrilla headquarters: La Comandancia de la Plata.
Then there’s Havana! Once the wealthiest tropical city in the world, the capital city seems trapped in time like a 1950s movie stage set. Classic American automobiles trundle past (don’t bother counting; they’re too numerous!) on creaking springs to the rhythm of the rhumba on the radio. You’ll be astonished, too, at the wealth of architectural gems. Colonial… Neoclassical… Spanish Renaissance… Beaux Arts… Art Deco. Many buildings are cracked and crumbling. But a remarkable three-decades-long restoration has put a new shine to Habana Vieja, the colonial quarter where cathedrals and cobbled plazas now gleams like confection in stone. Not to be missed is the Museo de la Revolución, the Museo de Bellas Artes, the Capitolio, and the Parque Histórico-Militar Morro Cabaña.
Havana’s “modern” Vedado district is replete with sites of interest almost too many to check off. Must-sees include the Universidad de la Habana, the Hotel Nacional, the Plaza de la Revolución, and Cementerio Cristóbal Colón. The perfect end to any trip is a night at the Cabaret Tropicana.
Lying immediately south of Florida and forming part of the northern Caribbean meniscus, Cuba enjoys a balmy, almost idyllic, subtropical climate. Although regional distinctions exist, Cuba has two distinct seasons: dry season (November-April) and wet season (May-October). The winter months are ideal weatherwise, although this is also high season.
Cuba’s annual calendar is a kaleidoscope of festivals and major events. True, the Rolling Stones free concert in Havana in March 2016 was a once-only event (sorry you missed it!). But the equally off-the-hook fireworks’ festivals known as parrandas still rock Remedios and other otherwise sleepy towns of Villa Clara province… Havana hosts awesome arts, cinema, and music festivals… And revolutionary fervor still stirs for the annual May Day Parade and July 26 (launch of the Revolution) celebrations.
Cuba is deceptively large–about 800 miles tip to tip–and exploring the entire island would take several weeks. In general, visitors are split into two types: beach-goers on the one hand, and, on the other, those seeking an immersion in the city’s, countryside and Cuba culture.
Havana, the capital city, overwhelms with its sights of interest. A full-week here is barely enough, although the main sights (colonial era Habana Vieja; plus Plaza de la Revolución and the core of Vedado) can be explored in as little as three days. That would still be short-changing yourself. There’s simply so much! From serendipitous exploration of funky southern Habana Vieja to the surreal Gaudiesque artforms of Casa-Estudio José Fuster. Architectural sights alone count in hundreds. From grandiose colonial mansions to 20th-century Art Deco, Beaux Art, and Modernist treasures. Then there are the cultural venues beyond belief… from sizzling salsa nightclubs to avant-garde venues breaking boundaries for exploratory art.
One week? Concentrate on Havana, with a two-day side-trip to Viñales (tobacco country), west of Havana; or a beach retreat, such as Varadero or Cayo Levisa.
Ten days gives you time to combine the above with the lovely city of Cienfuegos and/or Santa Clara, plus Trinidad–a preserved-in-time colonial gem deserving at least two days.
Two weeks? Now you can really spread your wings… with time to head as far east as Camagüey or even Holguín, in East Central Cuba. Or consider combining ten days, say, in Havana/Western Cuba with four days in Santiago de Cuba (heartland of the Revolution), in eastern Cuba.
Three weeks permits a fairly good immersion in Havana/Western Cuba and Oriente (Eastern Cuba). One full week in the east let’s you combine Santiago de Cuba, the fascinating city of Guantánamo, plus sleepy Baracoa (founded in 1511, and therefore the oldest city in Cuba), enjoying a mesmerizing setting in a bay surrounded by mesa-shaped, rainforest-clad mountains.
A month? Go for it all!
High season is generally November through April, with a peak December through February. The bulk of visitors are snowbirds escaping Canada and northern Europe for the beaches. However, this is also the main period of tour groups. Havana’s hotels (and many resort hotels, too) are sold out, and even finding a quality casa particular (private room rental) can be a challenge in the most popular destinations. The same applies to car rental.
Prices rise accordingly, with even higher “peak season” rates for Christmas, New Year, and Easter weeks, or even the entire months of mid-December to mid-January.
By April, with temperatures rising, demand begins to slack off a bit, especially at the beaches. Then, most hotels drop their rates for “shoulder season.”
This coincides with the rainy season, May-October, when the temperature and humidity soar. Many snowbirds stay home. Hence, hotel prices fall and it’s far easier to secure hotel space and car rentals.
The island of Cuba is influenced principally by the warm Gulf Stream current and an Atlantic high-pressure zone to the northeast. Thus, it is generally a “hot and moist” climate. Cuba has two distinct seasons, with regional variations. Winter (November-April) is dry season, with generally temperate weather. Summer (May-October) is hot and prone to heavy rains.
Temperatures vary only minimally between seasons, from an average in January of 22 degrees C to an average of 27 degrees C in July, in Havana. However, temperatures rise eastward, and the lowlands around Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo may be five degrees or more hotter.
Cuba’s uplands are notably cooler, of course. If you want to beat the heat in summer, heat into the Sierra Escambray or Sierra Maestra.
Although balmy is the rule, and you can safely wear your shorts and a T-shirt on most winter days, temperatures can vary markedly during winter (especially November-February). You’ll be glad for a windbreaker and warm jacket in any winter month if a cold front moves down from Canada. Brrrr! Remember the freezing fogs that can kill Florida’s citrus? Then, too, winter storms may dump prolonged rain for days. It’s a crap shoot, totally dependent on whatever frontal system wants to hit Cuba from the north. Blame Uncle Sam! That said, the north is crystal clear skies and delightfully warm days with relatively little rain.
Temperatures by May can already be insufferably hot, and humidity high. The thermometer continues to climb into August before easing back down by late September. Generally, the trade winds, or brisas, fan the north shore. Comparing Havana to Miami, author Ernest Hemingway wrote: “Havana is cooler than most northern cities in [July and August] because the northern trades get up about ten o’clock in the morning and blow until five o’clock the next morning.” However, when the trades don’t blow, the summer months can be unbearably hot.
Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo are best avoided in the heart of the stiflingly hot summer months.
This is also the rainiest period, with almost predictable late afternoon showers and thunderstorms (two-thirds of Cuba’s rainfall falls May-October). July-October is hurricane season. The chances of one striking during your visit are slim. However, every few years a hurricane sweeps across Cuba (2008 was a particularly bad year, with three). Most hurricanes sweep Western Cuba (with Pinar del Río most vulnerable) heading north.
Weather forecasts are published daily in the daily Granma newspaper, and on Cuban TV news channels.
Cuba’s annual calendar is chock-full of events, from low-brow local affairs to internationally acclaimed festivals. Whatever your interest, there’s something for you, from religious parades (yes, in “communist Cuba”!) to Santiago de Cuba’s sensual Carnival, each July.
For the latest updates on events and entertainment, visit labahana.com
FESTIVALS AND EVENTS NOT TO MISS
Festival International de Jazz, Havana. International and Cuban jazz greats mix it up.
Festival de los Habanos, Havana. The ultimate homage to the Cuban cigar.
Festival de Semana Santa, Trinidad. Easter events to Catholic superstition.
Festival Internacional de Cine Pobre, Gibara, Holguín province. “International Poor (low-budget) Film Festival.”
Festival Internacional de Percusión, Havana. Drumming to your heat’s content.
Festival Internacional de la Guitarra, Havana. Guitar festival.
Manana Festival, Santiago de Cuba. Afro-Cuban folklore.
Romerías de Mayo, Holguín. Multidimensional arts festival.
Fiesta del Caribe Carnaval, Santiago de Cuba. The big enchilada of Cuban carnivals, this four-day spectacle is a sensual cacophony.
Carnaval de la Habana, Havana. A small brother to the Santiago de Cuba bash, but the Malecón is still the place to be for this sexy parade of floats and flouncy-costumed comparsas (dance troupes).
Internacional Festival de Rap, Havana. Yes, rap and reggaeton!
Festival de la Habana de Música Contemporaneo, Havana. Havana Festival of Contemporary Music.
Festival Iberoamericana de la Cultura, Holguín. Festival of Latin American Culture.
Festival Internacional de Ballet, Havana. World-class ballet festival.
Festival del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, Havana. Cuba’s homegrown film industry displays its best offerings alongside international movies and documentaries. Long lines!
Festival Internacional de Música Benny Moré, Cienfuegos. Yesterday hits by Cienfuegos’ adopted homeboy singer-composer.
Parranda de Remedios, Remedios, Villa Clara province. Astounding display of “firework” bombast, plus floats. An insane bacchanal!
Procesión de los Milagros (“Procession of the Miracles”), Rincón, Havana (December 17). Pilgrimage to the Santuario de San Lázaro.
Cuba is located in the U.S. Eastern Standard time zone.
To check the local time in Cuba, click here.
Cuba observes Daylight Savings Time (DST), which happens in the spring (typically on the second Sunday morning of March at 2 a.m.). It’s when clocks are advanced one hour so there is more daylight later into the evening. In the fall (typically on the first Sunday morning in November at 2 a.m.), clocks shift back one hour to standard time.
In summer you can safely get by with lightweight clothes, including shorts, T-shirts, and short-sleeved shirts for men; and the equivalent for women. An fold-up travel umbrella or light rain jacket is essential, as heavy afternoon rains are a norm.
Winter months can range from warm and sunny to surprisingly cold, with rain. Come prepared for both. Complement your “summer” wear with long pants and a rainproof cold-weather jacket.
Clothing should ideally be loose-fitting and drip-dry, wash-and-wear. Avoid cotton items as much as possible–they take forever to dry when wet.
Cubans do not stand on ceremony and fancy clothes are not essential, except perhaps for business venues. However, men will be out of place wearing shorts in Havana’s more upscale restaurants, and the Tropicana cabarets and other nightclubs do not permit men in shorts.
Sneakers will suffice for most walking, although more sturdy footwear is a good idea for hiking. And if you plan on wearing slacks, a pair of dress shoes is called for.
You’ll have plenty of opportunity to buy straw hats, T-shirts (those with Che Guevara images are a favorite), linen blouses and skirts, plus elegantly casual guayabera shirts.
Toiletries & Medicines
Bring all the toiletries you think you’ll need. There’s no shortage of stores selling deodorants, lotiouns, and toothpaste, but you will plain out of luck when you need to buy a razor or more esoteric item.
International Pharmacies are generally well-stocked with imported medicines, but you’ll find them only in major urban centers and beach resorts. In lesser towns, you’ll be relegated to local pharmacies, which are more meagerly stocked.
It’s wise to arrive with any items you believe you will need during your trip, from simple toiletries to batteries. While Cuban stores sell almost any item you might wish, there is a strong likelihood there’ll be no such store nearby when you need one, and there virtually guaranteed not to have want you want in stock. That’s Cuba! This is especially true of camera gear.
Bring a money-belt or other form of securing your money to guard against pickpockets.
Internet access in Cuba is notoriously slow and fickle. However, it has improved markedly in recent years as Etecsa (the state telecommunications monopoly) has set up public WiFi zones in parks and streets in major cities, as well as outfitting almost every tourist hotel with WiFi. The once-expensive service is now relatively affordable, having been reduced from a variable rate as high as CUC10 per hour to a standard CUC2 per hour nationwide.
The national system requires that you buy a scratch card with a unique user name/password, which you then enter into your handheld or laptop, or a fixed computer terminal. The clock is running as soon as you log on, so you’ll need to ensure proper log-off to stop the clock when you’re done with any session. Most cards can be used in any WiFi zone, but this isn’t always the case for 5-hour cards.
In Havana, the Hotel Habana Libre and Hotel Nacional, among other deluxe hotels, still charge far higher (up to CUC10 per hour) on their own systems.
The quality of service varies and will almost be slower than you are used. Outside Havana, options are more limited and even though most major hotels will have their own internet cafes, the speed of access is often enough to make you dream of your old dial-up connection back home
Once blocked by the Cuban government, video calls are now allowed. No hotel lobby is now without hordes of Cubans who’ve wondered in off the street to invade the tranquility with their loud-as-possible-to-impress-the-neighbors conversations. Irritating!
Skype works reasonably well from many hotel lobbies such as those of the Parque Central or the Panorama, in Havana. However, most Cubans prefer Imo, which can be downloaded as an app to any cellphone.
Etecsa now has roaming agreements with most major international carriers, including since 2016 with a few U.S. carriers such as Verizon and Sprint. So, theoretically your phone should work in Cuba, including for WiFi service.
Roaming options on your mobile phone may be a good option but you need to check your company’s rates. It is worth checking rates before you go since horror stories abound of people who have used their cell phones to access data packages as well as voice and received huge roaming bills back home! As a general rule, roaming is great for texts, extremely expensive for voice calls and variable for data access.
For those people who bring their smart phone but do not want to use the roaming services, then make sure that you keep your phone on airplane mode at all times since especially IPhones may start to pick up 4G signals and start racking up a bill!
Purchasing a Cuban SIM card
The big advantage of a Cuban cell phone is that making calls within Cuba is much cheaper than with a roaming international phone. Bear in mind this still does not mean that it is cheap (see below)! You are able to rent a Cubacel (the Cuban mobile phone division of Etecsa) SIM card from many of the major airports in Cuba, which have an Etecsa office. Alternatively, you should look for the nearest Etecsa office in the city. You will need to show your passport and you will need to pay CUC3 per day for this service. In order for your phone to be able to use the Cubacel SIM card, it will need to be unlocked and to operate on the 900 MHz frequency. You will need to simply top up your phone through purchasing pay-as-you-go Cuban phone cards, which generally retail at CUC10 or CUC20 per card.
Cuba appeals to travelers of all budget categories, although “deluxe” hotels are few and far between. How much your visit will cost will depend on whether you travel solo or as a group… whether you’re a U.S. citizen or from elsewhere… and your preferred style of travel.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $25 per person
$$ => Tickets $25-50 per person
$$$ => Tickets $50-100 per person
$ => Rooms less than $50 for a double
$$ => Rooms $50-150 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $150 for a double
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $15-30 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $30 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $25 per person
$$ => Tickets $25-50
$$$ => Tickets $50-100 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Note for U.S. Travelers
In early 2016, the U.S. and Cuban governments inked a deal to permit regular scheduled airlines to begin serving Cuba from U.S. gateways for the first time in decades. No date for the initiation of the 120 weekly flights (20 to Havana and the rest islandwide) has been announced.
Until such services are initiated, the only flights between the two country are on licensed charters operating from Miami, New York, Tampa, and a few others cities. Such flights must be reserved directly with the company chartering the plane, such as ABC Charters, Cuba Travel Services, and Marazul Charters.
Have Car, Will Travel
All car rental companies in Cuba are government-run entities. International companies such as Avis, Budget, and Hertz, do NOT operate in Cuba. Nor do they have partnership agreements with the state agencies, which have a monopoly and charge accordingly. Prices are high by international comparison.
Hence, it’s pointless trying to use companies like Expedia and Hotwire for comparison price shopping. They won’t display Cuba’s rental companies.
Nor do ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft have a presence in Cuba. To date, no smart phone app, serves to make life easy for securing a ride.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) Cuba goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
As of 2016, U.S. travel insurance providers are authorized to include Cuba in their coverage packages.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation: About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category. Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Medical: Cuba requires that all arriving travelers have health insurance. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance before arriving; if you are unable to show proof of insurance, you may be required to purchase an insurance package by Cuba’s own Asistur agency. U.S. citizens who fly on charter flights from the USA will normally have Asistur insurance pre-paid as part of their flight cost.
Although Cuba provides all health services free to its citizens, foreigners typically will need to show proof of insurance.
Medical Evacuation: This may prove invaluable. Despite been lauded for its excellent preventive medicine and advanced surgery facilities, Cuban health facilities are often unhygienic and medical attention often not up to Western standards. In the event of an emergency, you should consider have insurance to cover the cost of medical evacuation to your home country. Air ambulances alone could set you back $30,000 as a minimum.
Trip Interruption: For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay: Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage: Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to Cuba during hurricane season (July-October), for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework; check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip. Check to ensure that whatever company you select insures for travel to Cuba.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions: Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance: If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
Cuba has two currencies: the Peso Nacional (or moneda nacional, or MN) and the Peso Convertible (CUC). Both are designated, confusingly, with the $ symbol and may be referred to by Cubans equally as “pesos.”
Virtually every transaction you need to make will be in pesos convertibles. (About the only thing you may need moneda nacional for is shared colectivo taxis, local buses, and at Coppelia ice cream stores.)
The peso nacional trades at 24 to one peso convertible.
CUCs come in CUC1, CUC3, CUC5, CUC10, CUC20, and CUC50 bills. They are all the same size and are multi-colored. CUCs are printed with “pesos convertibles” at the base and feature an illustration of a Cuban monument (which differs by denomination). Moneda nacional bills are unicolored and feature an illustration of a Cuban historic figure, such as Che Guevara on the red three peso bill.
Both the moneda nacional and CUC are divided into 100 centavos, but the coins are distinct. CUC coins range from one centavo to CUC1 (plus the rarely encountered CUC5 coin) and closely resemble U.S. coins in size and solidity. Moneda nacional coins are far flimsier–almost like toy money.
Banks and Cadeca exchange bureaus (and some state businesses) may not accept US$50 or US $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. Banks and Cadeca bureaus also refuse to accept bills that are torn.
State businesses will only accept CUC for cash payment. Private businesses will usually accept payment in foreign currency also.
The CUC is on parity with the US dollar. The CUC floats on a changeable rate against other foreign currencies.
Some banks and Cadeca bureaus will only exchange primary currencies: the U.S. dollar, Canadian dollar, Pound Sterling, and Euros. In all cases, a 3 percent commission is charged. A 10 percent surcharge has traditionally been applied for converting U.S. dollars (thus you will receive 87 centavos for US$1), but the Cuban government announced that it would drop this charge.
Never change money on the streets with jiniteros (hustlers). Scams are rife, and it is also illegal. You wouldn’t be the first visitor to be ripped off… then arrested after reporting the scam to the police!
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any Cuba travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration.
Note that tipping is not ingrained in Cuban culture and tipping to U.S. standards is not necessary. Nonetheless, Cuban wages are extremely low, so a tip goes a long way to helping the average Cuban get ahead.
The arrival of U.S. travelers in large numbers in recent years is spawning a tipping culture in tourist centers.
General guidelines include:
A 10% tip is usually sufficient, although for excellent service plan to tip 15% on the total bill. For less-than-stellar service, 10% would be customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server.
Many private restaurants now include a 10-15% service charge in your bill. There is no need to tip extra unless you’ve received exceptional service. Be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Plan to tip bell staff receive $1 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $2.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $1 per day, regardless of the hotel standard (they’re no logic to scaling your tip in proportion to your room bill).
At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets the standard $1-5, depending on service. Concierge staff do not normally expect a tip for simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info.
Taxi drivers in Cuba are now all cuentas propistas (self-employed) who lease their vehicles from the state, or who operate their own vehicle. Their profit is already determined into the quoted price. There is no need to tip unless they’re gone out of their way to be friendly or assist with additional services.
Guides and ‘Photo-Ops’
Many Cubans now make a living renting their services as tour guides to foreign travelers. Base your tip on the quality of service you receive.
Habana Vieja and Trinidad are venues where many locals dress to impress as irresistible photo-ops. You’ll usually know them when you see them. $1 is a standard tip.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $20 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
Cuba has no taxes whatsoever on retail goods and services. The airport departure tax is now already charged into the cost of the airline ticket to Cuba.
Uncle Sam imposes a spending limit for travelers to Cuba.
You are currently permitted to bring back only $400 worth of Cuban goods, including $100 of cigars and/or rum. The limit does not apply to artwork or literature and music, which are protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. If you fancy that $5,000 painting that’s caught your eye, go for it!
Getting to Cuba is increasingly easy for U.S. travelers, for whom restrictions still apply. Knowing the constantly changing regulations is important to ensure that your travel is legal.
Since 2016, even cruise ships are now permitted. Ferry companies are chomping at the bit to be allowed by the Cuban government to begin service (the Obama administration has given the go-ahead). And U.S. airlines are expected to begin scheduled service soon, to add to the existing charter service. Even private boaters can now sail to Cuba freely as long as everyone on board meets legal requirements.
The rest of the world has no such concerns.
Getting around Cuba, however, poses some unusual challenges. You’ll need to plan ahead.
U.S. Regulations for Legal Travel to Cuba
U.S. citizens and all other individuals under U.S. jurisdiction are generally barred from travel to Cuba unless they fall within the following 12 categories, permitting pre-authorized travel under a “general license”:
– family visits
– official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
– journalistic activity
– professional research and professional meetings
– educational activities
– religious activities
– public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
– support for the Cuban people
– humanitarian projects
– activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
– exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
– certain authorized export transactions
Now the good news… Since 2011, every U.S. citizen is permitted to travel to Cuba under the “educational activities” category for “people-to-people educational exchange.”
Until March 2016, individuals could only sign up for group travel with companies and institutions licensed to offer escorted programs. In March, President Obama authorized individuals to travel solo to Cuba for self-directed people-to-people (P2P) activities as defined in the OFAC regulations. You’re pre-approved to go, no questions asked. Plus, you can now take immediate family members with you.
Travel for tourism and recreation is not permissible.
From the USA: In early 2016 the U.S. and Cuban governments agreed to permit U.S. airlines to offer regular scheduled service to Cuba. No date has been given for implementation of the flights. Until that time the only flights are charters offered by licensed companies such as ABC Charters, Cuba Travel Service, and Marazul.
More than two dozen “charter service providers” are licensed to offer service to Cuba. Only a small handful do so. The flights are actually operated by American Airlines, JetBlue, United Airlines, and smaller companies such as World Airways.
The majority of charter flights depart from Miami, with several daily. Other flights depart from Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, New York, and, infrequently, a few other cities. Round-trip prices are typically $450 or more.
Since early 2016, U.S. citizens who qualify for licensed travel to Cuba may make their own travel arrangements on any carrier, including those that fly from third countries such as Canada, Mexico, or Panama.
Private pilots are now authorized to fly to Cuba as long as the pilot and all passengers meet the criteria for the 12 licensable categories of travel. You should contact the Instituto de Aeronaútica Civil de Cuba.
From Elsewhere: Cuba is served by several dozen international airlines, including AirBerlin and Condor (Germany), Air Canada (Canada), Air Europa and Iberia (Spain), Air France (France), Avianca (Colombia), Cayman Airways (Cayman Islands), Copa (Panama), Lacsa (Costa Rica), Lan Chile (Chile), and Virgin Atlantic (UK).
Cubana Aviación serves a wide range of international destinations, including Canada, Latin America, and Europe.
Private vessels are now pre-authorized for passage to Cuba since an executive order by President Obama. All passengers must meet the criteria for the 12 licensable categories of travel.
There is currently no ferry service between the USA and Cuba. Several companies have announced plans to offer such service from Fort Lauderdale, Key West, and Miami. However, the Cuban government has not indicated if and when it will permit such service, which will await construction of a ferry terminal in Havana.
The first U.S. cruise ships in almost six decades began service in early 2016 when Norwegian Caribbean Line’s Oceania Cruises began operating to Cuba. And Carnival Corporation’s newly created Fathom company is scheduled to begin service with the Adonis in summer 2016. The ships will operate week-long around-Cuba cruises under the “people-to-people educational exchange” license.
Meanwhile, Canada’s Celestyal Cruises offers week-long cruises around Cuba that begin and end in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
For U.S. citizens, organized “people to people” programs–tours by any other name–are a great way to go.
These programs immerse you in Cuban culture and usually provide context for what you’re experiencing. They also take out the guesswork of dealing with Cuba’s often complicated bureaucracy and hassles.
Choose well by doing your research. Some entities rely on the local Cuban guide (compulsory). The last thing you want is a “rah-rah-rah the revolution” spiel.
Top of the line trips, such as offered by National Geographic Expeditions, enhance your experience immeasurably by staffing with a Cuba expert.
And organized tours are the only way many U.S. participants can choose, for example, many specialist activities such as motorcycling in Cuba.
Remember, travel for tourism and recreation is still illegal under U.S. law.
Advance planning is essential for exploring Cuba beyond Havana or your other gateway, as transport options can pose a challenge.
Cuba has eleven international airports, including in most provincial capital cities.
Cuba’s state-run airlines have a monopoly:
– AeroCaribbean is the small fry and serves a handful of destinations
– AeroGaviota is operated by the military
– Cuban Aviación is the largest carrier, and serves most airports
Their safety record in past decades was cause for concern. No longer. The aging and far-from-comfortable fleets have gradually been replaced with modern Russian Antonovs and Brasilian Embraers. Gosh.. you’d almost think you were flying on an Airbus.
Space is limited and seats often sell out well in advance. Book as early as possible.
The countrywide interurban bus network Omnibuses Nacionales is off-limits to foreigners except residents and foreign students registered in a program of study.
Víazul operates service between Havana and all major cities plus tourist resorts using modern and usually overly air-conditioned buses. Bring a sweater!
You can book via the Víazul website or at any of the Víazul ticket agencies. The company charges for excess baggage above 20 kilos per passenger.
Local city buses (guaguas–pronounced wah-wah) are usually crowded, but foreign visitors may use them. You’ll need moneda nacional for the fare. Watch for pickpockets.
Truck-buses called camiones (guaranteed to a pre-revolutionary relic with home-made seats) are the staple of interurban transport, herding Cubans around packed in like cattle. Often it’s standing room only. Foreigners are not supposed to use them. Only masochists and ultra-budget travelers do.
Masochists will delight at traveling by train around Cuba. Check off the ways…
The Ferrocarriles de Cuba state railway agency is the very definition of dysfunctional. Just figuring out where to buy your ticket can prove a kafkaesque experience. Forget a computerized system: Published timetables are usually hand-written on chalk boards, with no two offices publishing the same times. Timetables change with dizzying regularity. Your most reliable timetable source is The Man in Seat 61.
Cancellations are frequent. And don’t expect your train to operate like, er… a Swiss train.
Then there are the carriages themselves. Purchased from retired Chinese or European stock, they haven’t been cleaned in years. Guaranteed, the air-conditioning (if working) will be cranked up to Eskimo-pleasing levels.
An especial (fast service) departs Havana for Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo two or three times weekly, stopping at major cities en route. Slower regulares also operate the line, with additional service to Pinar del Río.
Suburban ferro-ómnibus trains link some provincial towns to their suburbs.
BY RENTAL CAR
Exploring Cuba by self-drive is a great way to go, giving you absolute freedom of movement.
The nation has an excellent highway system, although many roads are badly potholed. Traffic signeage is relatively good (and getting better). Most Cubans drive sanely… it’s the foreign tourists and diplomatic staff who drive crazy! And the tránsitos (traffic cops) are ubiquitous and do a proficient job–only very rarely can you expect to be hit up for a bribe.
A six-lane freeway (in Cuba!) links Havana to Pinar del Río westward, and to Sancti Spíritus eastward. Beyond Sancti Spíritus all traffic filters down the one-lane-in-each-direction Carretera Central all the way to Santiago de Cuba (and beyond).
You can buy the excellent Guía de Carreteras road atlas at Infotur booths in Cuba.
Warning: If you get into an accident and are found guilty of causing injury or death, you’re staring at a mandatory jail term.
Drive with utmost caution. The roads have many obstacles, including lumbering ox-carts and bicyclists. Obey all speeding and other traffic regulations. And never, ever, drive after drinking alcohol.
Forget Avis, Budget, or Europcar. Ain’t no such in Cuba, where the state operates all the car rental agencies–Cubacar, Havanautos, and Rex–under the umbrella of Transtur; plus Vía, operated by the military-run tourist entity Gaviota. They utilize modern (but poorly maintained) imported vehicles, from Chinese Geelys and Peugeots to Audis.
Now take a deep breathe…
In high season, finding an available car can be a needle-in-the-haystack challenge. Reserve ahead!
Then there’s the contract, with its Mafia-like got-you-by-the-balls clauses: You’ll pay cash up front for a “full” tank of gas, but are required to return the car empty. And you, dear customer, are responsible for maintenance (you may be required to take the vehicle to a designated service station when the car attains a designated mileage), on pain of a surcharge (let’s call it what it is, a CUC50 fine).
Insurance is compulsory. Your own insurance? Forget it. You’ll need purchase insurance from the car rental agency: CUC12-20 daily, depending on vehicle.
All airports and major cities are served by ‘tourist taxis’ operated by cuentas propistas (self-employed) who lease state vehicles and charge what they think the market will bear. Try bargaining. Virtually no taxi driver uses a meter, even if fitted.
Most vehicles are usually yellow. They can usually be radio-dispatched, or hailed at airports and outside major hotels.
There’s no equivalent to Uber, but scores of private taxis are licensed to supplement turistaxis. You’ll ride in anything from a clapped out Lada to a long-in-the-tooth Edsel.
Then there are the unlicensed drivers who cruise around looking for business, or will stop if waved down. Bargaining to an agreed fare is the norm… but do so before setting off.
Collective taxis, or almendrones or maquinas, are licensed to run along fixed routes like buses. They pick up as many people as possible anywhere along the route. Just wave one down. Most are pre-revolutionary hulks.
The Cuban equivalent of a rickshaw is the bicitaxi, introduced in the 1990s to help resolve the urban transport problem. These crude-looking tricycles have two seats (one only in Las Tunas, for some reason) and a shade canopy.
Use them for short distance hauls within cities. In Havana you’ll find them only in Habana Vieja and Centro Habana.
Cocotaxis and Mototaxis
Shaped like a hollowed out egg, these three-wheeled banana-yellow taxis are found in most cities and beach resorts. Foreign embassies warn against using them as they are prone to tip over if the driver takes a corner too fast. But they sure are fun as you zip along with the wind (and maybe the rain) in your face.
Uniquely in Cuba, Santiago de Cuba resembles Hanoi or Bangkok for its thousands of small Suzuki and similar motorcycles–the standard taxi in town. Expect a hair-raising ride!
“Fascinating” is an understatement for this sensual and sometimes surreal socialist Caribbean island nation.
Its time-warp setting. Its cultural, historical, and political complexity, The vivacity, chutzpah, and creativity of its people. All combine to make this one of the emotionally engaging and rewarding of destinations to visit.
Not just in the Caribbean. But in the world.
The Spanish Period
Wars of Independence
The Armed Struggle
The Revolution: Soviet Era
The Revolution: After the Soviet Fall
Spanish is the language of Cuba.
Most staff who work in tourism and interact with visitors speak English. Less so further afield. Learning the basics, or at least a few key terms, will enhance your visit immeasurably.
English is now compulsory in schools, although the country is only just making headway (for decades under Fidel, English was considered the language of the “enemy,” so Cubans learned Russian and French).
Cuban Spanish is spoken with a distinct, lazy, yet rapid-fire dialect, which varies islandwise. The letter “s,” for example, is often swallowed, along with final consonants of words: “If they dropped any more syllables, they would be speechless,” mused author Tom Miller. And Cubans speak rapidly. When excited the words run indecipherably together. They sound like they’re speaking while chewing porridge!
Cubanisms to Know
Aplatonado – Cubanized
¡Barbaro! – Great, or wicked. As in a fantastic singer or the best in her class
Candela – Literally “aflame,it means hot, as in alarming, sexually attractive, or in hot water.
¿Como anda? – How’s it going?
Compañero – “Companion.” Since the Revolution, this term replaced señor (or compañera for señora) as the address of choice. It is usually associated with revolutionary loyalists, and señor is now back in vogue.
¡Coño! – female genitalia. Used freely by all ages, it is used as an expletive and is the equivalent of “fuck!”
¡Ojala! – I wish! Some hope!
Pinga – Literally “prick,” this ultimate swear word finds it’s way into all manner of colloquial use. Yes, Cubans swear a great deal.
¿Que bola? – What’s up?
* top ten must reads
Art and Culture
On Becoming Cuban – Louis Pérez, Jr. (2001). A highly readable profile on the evolution of Cuban culture and identity.
Castro’s Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, the CIA, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy – Brian Latell (2013). Eyebrow-raising revelations by the CIA’s former top Cuba analyst.
Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life * – Jon Lee Anderson (2010). The definitive biography about this revolutionary icon.
Fidel Castro Reader – Fidel Castro & David Deutschmann (2007). Fidel’s own words in speech.
Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost – Paul Hendrickson (2012). The author’s boat, Pilar, serves as an anchor for this authoritative profile on Ernest Hemingway.
One Day in September: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution – Nancy Stout (2013). Superb profile on the revolutionary who set up the secret supply route to Fidel’s Rebel Army and later was a pivotal compass for Castro.
The Closest of Enemies * – Wayne Smith (1987). This beautifully written autobiography personal account as a long-time U.S. State Department official and Cuba expert who served in Cuba during the heady years of the Revolution and ‘Mariel Boatlift.’
The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years as Personal Bodyguard to El Lider Máximo * – Juan Reinaldo Sánchez (2015). Nothing short of astonishing revelations!
The Real Fidel Castro * – Leycester Coltman (2005). An evenhanded and illuminating depiction of the Cuban leader by Britain’s former ambassador to Cuba.
Waiting for Snow in Havana – Carlos Eire (2004). A moving, beautifully told personal story about the author’s joyful years as a child in Havana and the wrenching period post-Revolution as a Peter Pan airlift child who never saw his father again.
Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles * – Christopher P. Baker (2004). A lavishly illustrated homage to Cuba’s wealth of pre-revolutionary classics and to the resourceful Cubans who keep them running.
Embracing Cuba – Byron Motley (2015). Beautiful words and images combine in this loving portrait of Cuba.
The Splendor of Cuba: 450 Years of Architecture and Interiors – Michael Connors (2011). Astonishing photographs of Cuba’s equally astonishing architectural legacy spanning five centuries.
Unseen Cuba * – Marius Jovaisa (2015). Amazing aerial imagery shot from a paraglider. Gorgeous!
Moon Cuba – Christopher P. Baker (2015). The most authoritative and comprehensive guidebook on the market.
Moon Spotlight Havana – Christopher P. Baker (2015). Complete and authoritative treatment of Cuba’s capital city.
History and Politics
Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba – Tom Gjelten (2008). A sweeping and riveting account of the Bacardi family and corporation, pre- and post-Revolution.
Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana – Peter Kornbluth (2014). A thorough investigative account of efforts by both sides during six decades to end, or prolong, the impasse between Cuba and the USA.
Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana * – Ann Louise Bardach (2002). An insightful exposé of the machinations and hypocrisies of Washington, Miami’s Cuba-American clique, and Fidel, The Elián González saga is the pivot.
Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana – Marc Frank (2013). A U.S. journalist and long-time Cuba resident’s account of Cuba under Raúl.
Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and then Lost It to the Revolution – T.J. English (2008). Fascinating account of the Mob’s long and sordid connections to Cuba before the Revolution kicked ’em out.
The Last Soldiers of the Cold War * – Fernando Morais (2015). An astounding and sympathetic tale of Cuba’s intelligence agents working within the USA to prevent Cuban-American terrorist acts against Cuba; the injustice served upon them; and the fight to get them released.
Without Fidel * – Ann Louise Bardach (2009). The foremost investigative journalist specializing in Cuba, Bardach reveals the inner secrets of Fidel’s illness, and profiles Raúl in detail.
Dirty Havana Trilogy – Pedro Juan Gutiérrez (2001). A sobering and sexually explicit novel about the dour Special Period (post-Soviet collapse), in which sex and hustling are the means of survival for the underclass.
Dreaming in Cuban – Cristina García (1992). A sensual ‘magic realistic’ novel about a family split asunder by the Revolution.
Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene (1971). This classic tragi-comedy tells the tale of a vacuum salesman recruited as a MI5 agent in the final days of the Batista regime.
Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana * – Isadora Tattlin (2002). Beautiful and riveting, the U.S. author captures the essence of the ‘Special Period’ in this autobiographical account of four years as a privileged foreign resident.
Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro’s Cuba * – Christopher P. Baker (2001). Winner of the ‘Lowell Thomas Award Travel Book of the Year,’ this sensual and timeless tale regales the author’s shifting perspectives on Cuba during a 7,000-mile journey by motorcycle while researching a guidebook.
The Other Side of Paradise – Julia Cooke (2014). A lovely memoir of the author’s time as a student in Havana post-millenium, in which most of her Cuban friends and acquaintances abandon Cuba.
Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba (1996) – Tom Miller. For almost a year, the essayist explored Cuba; the result is an insightful and delightful narrative delight.
Cuba boasts a surprisingly avant-garde film industry and produces a large output of visually stunning and clever documentaries and movies.
Cubans themselves are passionate film-goers. Many even time their vacation for Havana’s annual International Latin American Film Festival, each November so as to take in as many as half a dozen movies per day.
Here are ten Cuban movies not to miss…
Adorables Mentiras / Adorable Lies (1992). A wonderful comedy about a fantasy sexual exchange between couples and the emotional melodramas it invokes.
La Muerte de un Burocrata / Death of a Bureaucrat (1966). A taunting portrayal of the suffocating bureaucracy that evolved in the decade following Fidel’s imposition of Communist bureaucracy.
Fresa y Chocolate / Strawberry & Chocolate (1994). Cuba’s first Oscar-nominated movie about the evolving relationship between a homophobic Communist and a gay intellectual, set in the ‘Dark Gray Year’s’ of persecution in the 1970s.
Guantanamera (1995). A comic satire about a family’s efforts to transport the body of a deceased member from Guantánamo to Havana.
Habanastation (2011). This moving drama, filmed in a down-at-heels part of Havana, profiles the sympathetic relationship that evolves between two boys, one from an impoverished family and the other from Cuba’s well-to-do governmental elite.
Lista de Espera / The Waiting List (2000). A classic tale of frustration as Cubans who tire of waiting for a bus that never shows and decide to turn the bus station into a home.
Los Dioses Rotes / Broken Gods (2008). This drama was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film for its portrayal of the underworld of pimps and prostitutes in Havana.
Miel Para Oshún / Honey for Oshún (2003). A Cuban-American journeys back to the isle from which he was smuggled out as a baby, and comes good on his desire to track down his mother.
Suite Habana (2003). A tremendous, emotional profile of real life Cuba, this silent documentary follows a dozen or so Cubans during an entire day from the moment they wake to the moment they go to bed.
Vestido de Novia / Wedding Gown (2014). A true tale of a Cuban couple who live happily married until the husband discovers his wife was once a man.
And here are some foreign movies about Cuba not to miss…
Before Night Falls (2000). The true life travails of gay poet Reinaldo Arenas, from his idyllic rural upbringing and early embrace of the Revolution to the harsh injustice served as the Revolution turns harshly Communist.
Buena Vista Social Club (1999). Musician Ry Cooder’s endearing portrayal of yesteryear Cuban crooners brought out of retirement and obscurity for 11th-hour international acclaim.
Che: A Revolutionary Life (2008). Steven Sonderbergh’s controversial two-part biopic of the even more controversial revolutionary icon, with heart-throb actor Benecio del Torre as Che.
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba (2015). A fictional tale of a young journalist who visits Hemingway in Cuba during the final days of Batista.
Soy Cuba / I Am Cuba (1964). A moving and visually stunning Soviet propagandist portrayal of pre-revolutionary Cuba’s economic, political, and social ills, and the early Revolutionary euphoria.
Thirteen Days (2000). Kevin Costner stars in this sobering and riveting 2.5-hour long portrayal of the Cuban Missile Crisis.