Cuba Travel Guide: Overview
The largest island of the turquoise seas (by land mass and population), Cuba is an entirely unique Caribbean island. With its vintage ’50s Cadillacs and dilapidated Spanish colonial charm, it has that irresistible intrigue that imbues a place seemingly frozen in time. Situated a mere 90 miles south of Key West, Florida, Cuba is still living the effects of the long-lasting economic embargo that began in 1962. This has helped shape a fascinating cultural landscape. From its architecture to its white-sand beaches and abandoned coffee plantations, a trip to Cuba is as rich in experience as it is in magic.
Like the US Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico today, Cuba was, at one time, a US protectorate. This title was placed on the territory after the American-supported victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898. Postwar, the United States maintained occupation of Cuba until 1902, when the Platt Amendment was ratified. Despite American troops officially leaving Cuba, the American government still played a significant hand in Cuban governmental affairs—right up until and into the Cuban Revolution of 1953.
After more than a decade of dictatorship under US-backed Fulgencio Batista, Fidel Castro and his allies launched an armed revolt against the right-wing government, marking the start of the Cuban Revolution and a lasting shift in US-Cuban relations. The revolution lasted from July 1953 to January 1959.
Still bitter over the United States’ support of Batista in the revolution, Castro retaliated by nationalizing all US property in Cuba. At the same time, the United States, fearful of communism spreading to other Latin American countries, froze all its Cuban assets on American soil, severed all diplomatic ties and tightened its embargo on Cuba.
With the United States out of the picture, Castro’s government sought support elsewhere and eventually formed ties with the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, President Dwight D. Eisenhower secretly plotted an assassination or overthrow of Fidel Castro with the CIA, ultimately resulting in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion during the Kennedy era.
After the Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuba declared itself Marxist and socialist and officially aligned itself with the Soviet Union. The American government’s response was to initiate a complete trade embargo and eventually to impose travel restrictions that severely impacted Cuban tourism.
With tourism nearly extinct and the Soviet Union dissolved by the 1990s, much of Cuba’s infrastructure fell into disrepair—hence the dilapidated buildings and seeming time warp that is Cuba today.
However, the tide did turn for US-Cuban relations in 2009 and again in 2016, due to eased travel and trade restrictions under the Obama administration. While some uncertainty has been introduced with the current American political administration, many tourists from Europe, Canada and the United States are increasingly visiting this island nation as Cuba awakes from its multi-decade slumber and isolation.
Cuban culture is a heady mix of Spanish, African, French and Asian influence, with the Cuban love for baseball coming from America. The country’s dilapidated colonial facades, vintage cars and simple cuisine are mostly a reflection of the hard economic times that fell on Cuba after the Cuban Revolution. Music is also a defining element of Cuban culture. With its Afro-European roots, Cuban music has gone on to influence salsa, jazz, tango and Spanish nuevo flamenco.
Good to Know
When traveling in Cuba, keep some of the following in mind:
There are two official currencies in Cuba: the convertible peso (CUC) and the Cuban peso (CUP). Most of your expenditures will be done in convertible pesos. Cuban pesos are mainly used at local markets, at street food stalls, on local buses and in some local restaurants and bars. Though there might be the rare exception, most US credit and debit cards are not accepted anywhere in Cuba, including at ATMs. Bring cash in Canadian dollars or Euros to exchange into CUC at the airport currency exchange desk or at your hotel. (Note, a 10 percent tax is charged on the exchange of US dollars.)
Always tip in the convertible peso. At restaurants and bars, a tip of 5 to 10 percent of the bill is typical (if the gratuity isn’t already included). At your hotel, it’s a good idea to have 1 CUC notes on hand to tip the bellhop, cleaners and hotel staff throughout your stay. When using public toilets, it’s customary to tip the attendant 50 cents (CUC). For live music and street performers, of which there are many in Cuba, a 2 CUC tip is sufficient to let them know you enjoyed their performances.
A Cuban greeting is typically a kiss on the right cheek, while handshakes are reserved for more formal situations or with people you’re meeting for the first time. Always address locals with Señor, Señora or Señorita (for young women). You’ll notice Cubans of all classes tend to dress up, especially for evenings out, and men hardly ever wear shorts—even in the relentless Caribbean heat. The rule of thumb for travelers is to try and dress presentable, but casual, come the evening hours.
Generally, the standard voltage in Cuba is 110V. Some modern hotels, however, do use dual voltage, with all sockets being 220V. The power sockets in Cuba are type A (2-prong), B (3-prong), C (European rounded two-pin) and L (rounded 3-pin), meaning some sockets will accept your American appliances, while others will require an adapter.
In Cuba, it’s not uncommon to find public restrooms without toilet paper, soap or toilet seats. Remember to bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and don’t forget to tip the attendant at least 50 cents (CUC).
Stick to drinking only bottled or boiled water in Cuba.
Cuba has a subtropical climate, meaning the days are usually hot and humid with plenty of sunshine. Cooling trade winds and warm currents from the Gulf Stream do help to moderate the climate and temperature. Though the temperature remains relatively steady year round, Cuba does have a distinct wet and dry season. The wet season occurs from May to October, and the dry season takes place from November to early May. The climate also varies by region, with the mountains being slightly cooler and the southern and eastern regions being warmer and drier.
When To Visit Cuba
For consistently dry and sunny days, December to April is the best time to visit Cuba. That being said, don’t let the threat of rain be the reason you don’t visit Cuba during the wet season. Cuba’s wettest months (June to October) are actually some of the most festive. They coincide with Cuba’s summer and holiday seasons. It’s also when various carnival celebrations take place throughout the country.
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- Baseball is Cuba’s most popular sport. It was first introduced in the 1860s by a contingent of American sailors stationed in Cuba and Cuban students who brought it back after studying in the United States.
- Cuba is often called El Caiman or El Cocodrilo (Spanish for “alligator”) because, from an aerial perspective, the country’s shape resembles an alligator.
- The only automobiles Cuban citizens can legally own are cars created and bought before 1959. The state seized and owns all vehicles built after this date.
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Regions and Cities
Stretching west to east, the island nation of Cuba is divided into three parts: Western Cuba, Central Cuba and Eastern Cuba.
Havana: From vibrant Habana Vieja to its innovative entrepreneurial community, Cuba’s capital city is an incredible blend of past and present.
Matanzas: Nicknamed the “Athens of Cuba,” Matanzas is a scenic display of architectural treasures and quaint villages alongside rolling farmland.
Varadero: With spectacular Caribbean coastline and white-sand beaches, Varadero is a popular and tourist-filled beach town east of Havana.
Pinar del Rio: Pinar del Rio is noted as the center of the Cuban cigar industry.
Trinidad: The epitome of Cuba’s Spanish colonial charm, the town contains cobblestoned streets, rustic colonial buildings and lush courtyards.
Santa Clara: Santa Clara is best known as the site of one of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s most successful battles during the Cuban Revolution.
Santiago de Cuba: Enjoy this melting pot of Afro-Caribbean culture with pastel buildings and grand cathedrals.
Baracoa: The original capital of Cuba, Baracoa is best known today for being a charming beach town.
Worth a Visit
Viñales National Park
This stunning park is home to mountains, caves and dramatic domed hills, or mogotes.
A sustainable eco-village in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, this is located in the idyllic Sierra del Rosario mountain range.
Palmar de Junco Baseball Stadium
A historic must-see, this is where the first official baseball match in Cuba was played in 1874.
Santa Catalina Caves
Don’t miss these natural wonders known for their impressive ancient limestone formations.
Things to See and to Do
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How to Get to Cuba
For a US citizen, a Cuban tourist visa (or Cuban Tourist Card) is required for travel to Cuba. You may purchase a tourist visa from some airlines at the airport, online from some airlines or through a third-party provider, such as Cuba Travel Services. Technically tourist travel for US citizens to Cuba is prohibited, but it’s possible to obtain a general license if the purpose of your trip falls within one of the 12 categories of authorized travel. The permitted reasons can be found at the Department of Treasury webpage. Most likely, your reason will fall under “educational activities and people-to-people travel.” This simply means you’ll need to travel with a tour company licensed in the United States. The actual license is not a printed license but a declaration you might need to make when you book your flight and lodging and when you return to the United States. All visitors must also have non–US-issued health insurance. This insurance is automatically included in all US flights to Cuba.
A US citizen must have a passport valid for six months beyond the entry date into Cuba, and the passport must have at least two blank pages.
The Jose Martí International Airport outside of Havana is the main port of entry for most international flights to Cuba. The other option is the Antonio Maceo Airport in Santiago de Cuba, where flights from Jamaica and Haiti often land.
Buses are the main form of public transport in Cuba, and they generally operate under a two-tier system for interprovincial journeys, meaning foreign passport holders use one service, and locals use another. The local buses are so confusing that most travelers stick to taxis when moving about Cuba’s cities. Most state taxis are metered and paid for in the convertible peso. With private taxis, you must establish a price before you get in the car.
If you plan to do a lot of traveling, it might make sense for you to rent a car, but prices tend to be high. All Cuban car rental firms are state run, and Havanautos and Cubacar have the most rental locations on the island. Make sure to secure your reservation at least one week in advance at transturcarrental.com.
Cuban Spanish and Haitian Creole are the most common languages spoken in Cuba, with Spanish being the official language. Here are a few basic Spanish phrases to take with you to Cuba:
- Yes: Sí
- No: No
- Thank you: Gracias
- Please: Por favor
- Hello: Hola
- Good-bye: Chau or adiós
- Nice to meet you: Mucho gusto
Food and Drink
Like the culture, Cuba’s cuisine is heavily influenced by its African, Spanish and Caribbean roots. A typical Cuban dish is composed of rice, beans, plantains and meat, which is usually chicken, beef or pork.
Cubano: ham and Swiss cheese sandwich served on crusty Cuban bread, sometimes served with pork, pickles and mustard
Ropa Vieja: a stewed and shredded beef dish slow cooked in fresh tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic and wine; usually served with a side of white rice, black beans and sweet plantains
Mojo Criollo: a popular sauce used with anything from chicken to pork; typically made with garlic, oil and sour orange juice
Arroz con Pollo: chicken and rice
Tostones Rellenos: fried plantains stuffed with anything from garlic shrimp to spicy beef
Pescados, Gambas y Camarones: fish, shrimp and jumbo shrimp (Cuba’s seafood staples)
Café con Leche: coffee with milk; a very common beverage in Cuba
Rum: this deep-seated Cuban tradition is served in mojitos, daiquiris and rum punches.
Food in Cuba: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
Cuba is largely considered one of the safest destinations in the Americas. As any travel guide would advise, however, it’s always a good idea to exercise usual precautions and to use your common sense. Compared to other cities, Havana is probably where you’ll need to be most aware of your surroundings and belongings. Avoid the neighborhoods of Centro Habana, Marianao and Guanabacoa unless you’re with a trusted local. It’s also best to avoid walking alone at night as many of Cuba’s streets are not well lit. Police officers are typically on every corner, though.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Cuba adventure!