holiday in Cuba?
Caribbean's most interesting island has great beaches, watersports
and no shortage of steaming sun - just like the rest of those tropical
islands, but Cuba tourism also encompasses gorgeously decaying colonial
towns and ancient American cars, a wild and varied music
scene enjoyed by local people too, a fascinating and turbulent history, friendly
people and it's good value.
From Matthew Parris at the London Times, 2013:
I cannot but be moved here in Havana: moved by the death of an idea. Slowly but inexorably now Castro is gone, economic liberalisation is coming; a slow-rising tide as little gullies and pools begin to fill and the water swells between stones and through myriad small channels. The signs are everywhere: little kiosks here and there; some paintings for sale, shyly pegged outside a small flat; the furtive undermining of state monopolies; restaurants with proper wine lists and real menus; an itinerant cartoonist who’ll sketch you for a few pesos. More from The Times.
If you plan to visit Cuba, the old, charming, dilapidated, communist Cuba, get moving here!
- Good, tasty food is not found on every street corner.
- You'll know where every casual conversation - and there'll be
plenty of it - is going.... Cigars! Paladares! Ladies!
- There's an edgy undercurrent of potential violence around, which
occasionally results in robbery, so care is required outside posh
hotels and beach resorts. See Travel
Safety Driving for a reality check.
- Standards are low, so beware the rental car with only 3 nuts per
wheel (e.g.Transauto), or the salmonella salad. See Health.
- Driving should be a pleasure but the almost total absence of signposts
makes things difficult, even if you speak Spanish.
Cuba has a comfortable tropical climate with
best weather from November-April. The average low temperature in this season is 18C (64F) and average high of 28C (82F) with low rainfall.
Worst: June to October (frequent thunder storms, high rainfall and humidity). Average highs of about 30C (86F) and lows of 23C (73F).
Minimum worthwhile stay, not including flights:
1 week for some city culture, some beach life.
Pleasant: 2 weeks, visiting key towns such as Trinidad and Santiago and having a beach ball on Varadero.
Things to do and see
***Havana, a large and endlessly interesting, dilapidated
old city, full of bizarre vehicles, beautiful buildings, chatty
people and a wild nightlife. Somewhere between Barcelona and Rangoon
in the style charts.
***Trinidad, a charming and well preserved
small town with a centre of cobbled streets and cute pastel houses
with tall, barred windows. Lots of live music.
***Santiago de Cuba has almost all
Havana's assets, plus a lovely valley setting, some of the country's
oldest palaces and museums, some fine, frilly architecture and
less street hassle than the capital. But it's a long way, a flight from Havana.
**Viñales (near Pinar del Rio),
this quiet region is one of the country's prettiest, with flat agricultural
land disturbed only by the sudden sprouting of hills (karsts - like
SW China, but less so). Great for hiking and horse riding, there
are a couple of ranch/hotels around the tiny town. Beware mosquito
*Sancti Spiritus, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara et alia. Classic Mexican-style towns with colonnaded central plaza
and scattered pleasant colonial buildings. No big deal.
Getting around Cuba
*** Varadero, a dull town with
few restaurants or bars since most Cuba resorts are all-inclusive, but the
beach is huge and clean, the water's warm and the monster hotels
are comfortable, efficient and good value, though mostly packaged
**Guadalavaca. Excellent beach and resort facilities
but very package tour oriented.
**Maria La Gorda. A superb beach,
especially for divers, but far from anywhere and tough to get to.
Bay of Pigs (Playa Larga, Playa Giron),
grubby and uninteresting.
*Ancon beach/peninsula on the south coast,
near Trinidad, a small and not very attractive beach with sad hotels
and happy sand flies.
***Cayo Largo del Sur is a 25km island off the southeast coast of Cuba that hosts two incredible, broad, fine white sand beaches, Playa Paraiso and Playa Sirena.
More beaches information and beach pictures
Cycling on some lovely, little used
roads, tho' smoky trucks can get up your nose. It's especially pretty
around Trinidad, Pinar del Rio, Santiago. Long distance cycling in Cuba.
Hikers can find lots of excellent routes,
but most are ill-marked and mapless. The most challenging is 3 days
over the Sierra Maestra mountain range. Attractive walks around
Trinidad, Pinar del Rio, Santiago.
Horseback riding is widely available; around the pointy-hill karsts of Viñales is Cuba's number one riding spot.
Golf offers only two courses, at Havana
Watersports. Scuba is everywhere with
many superb dives; south coasts are calmer in winter, north in summer.
Rental equipment may be in poor state. Snorkelling is often good too, tho'
Varadero has nothing to offer in this area.
Surfing is OK from November-April on the
NE coast, but bring your own board.
Windsurf boards are available for rent at all big beaches, at a
Fishing. Big game fishing was made
famous by Hemingway and is excellent along the NW coast, including
End February, Havana Carnival, normally lively, the city goes extra wild
during February weekends.
February every 2 years, Havana International Jazz Festival.
April, Varadero Electro-acoustic Music Festival.
End of June, Trinidad, Fiestas Sanjuaneras.
End of July/beginning August, Santiago Carnival.
October, Havana Festival of Contemporary Music.
some precise dates, more suggestions and information see: Exotic
Cuba has a growing number of tourist hotels for every budget except perhaps the super-cheap. That's dealt with by casas particulares. Like restaurants/paladares, hotels have their private equivalent
- the Casa particular (private house). These fill the gap between
sleeping in a doorway and a 5* hotel in some places, so are vital
for those on a low budget. For $20 or thereabouts you'll get a private room with dripping aircon
and en-suite shower, possibly warm. Prices vary as does quality. Breakfast is usually included but other meals are extra..
Positive: relatively good value; give you a look at (well-off)
real home life and a good chance to get to know the people better.
Negative: no rooms with a view; a hassle to find; maybe noisy/uncomfortable
bed/ mosquitoes/ erratic power supply.
US dollars are accepted in Cuba but incur a 10% penalty on exchange, so bring another currency such as Canadian dollars, euros, Sterling pounds, Swiss francs or HK dollars, preferably in cash. These currencies in cash can be exchanged without fees for CUC (Convertible Pesos). The best rates will be from banks or official change kiosks (CADECA) and NOT from resort hotels.
Cuba also uses the
Cuban Peso which is much less valuable and tourists may receive some
Take care not to be ripped off when changing money; avoid doing business in the street!
Put most of the cash in a sealed/taped envelope or small locked
bag and leave it in the hotel safe if your room does not have a safe.
ATMs are a rare sight, don't accept many cards and don't hold much cash anyway. US cards are not acceptable. Non-US Visa and Mastercards may work, but may not, in spite of protestations of the issuing bank, so ensure you bring back up in the form of non-US$ Travellers Checks.
Some hotels and tourist-oriented companies accept non-US$ credit cards for payment but it's not common and the charges are high.
Local cuisine has come a long way recently and good food and ice-cream
is frequently available - mostly from private restaurants called
'Paladares'. They are sometimes a hassle to find (use a pedal taxi)
- and won't exist in beach resorts - but serve great homecooking
at half the price of the generally poor State establishments.
Officially Paladares are not allowed to serve seafood (to protect
the State places), but often discreetly provide
Warning: black beans 'n' rice can get tiresome, and even expensive
hotel breakfast buffets are a disaster.
The best souvenirs are Ché T-shirts that come in a hundred
styles. But why no Fidel shirts?
Cigars will be offered to you on every street corner and may be genuine, while original
art works can be sensational and good value, tho' you might require
an export permit. Check with the artist before you lose it at the
Items made from shells, coral and animals are both immoral and illegal,
so avoid them.
Otherwise shop goods are poor quality and souvenirs no better.
- Beware short-changing/cheating in bars, shops, restaurants and taxis, it's endemic. Try to get an idea of how much you should pay before the time comes.
- Do not let your credit card out of your sight
unless you'd like it to be used to pay someone a hefty bonus. If in doubt, do not sign anything
- Do not use a friendly person to help you change your money at a very good rate.
- Do not go with locals to a bar unless you're happy
to buy everyone over-priced drinks.
- Don't drink the water.
Officially not on, but most people working in the service sector
expect something from foreigners these days...and their wages are
pathetic - $15 pm if they're lucky. So don't be mean.
However, DON'T give money (or goods) away for nothing unless you
wish to create or perpetuate a begging culture. (e.g. $ 'for milk
for my children' is a commonly aimed plea at female tourists).
Cubans usually expect a tip in return for a photo now - due to overgenerous
Hint. Learn a little Spanish! No es difficile, hombre.
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