Cuba Pictures Guide

A Che Guevara billboard in the countryside, cuba

Ché: ‘your example lives on, your ideas endure’. Not for much longer. Hasta la Vista mate.

Ernesto Ché Guevara, doctor, intellectual, Marxist revolutionary, guerilla and diplomat was a key figure in the Cuban Revolution that won control of the country in 1959. Ché’s photographic image by Korda has been reproduced more than any other photo in history according to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

A dog waiting for Ché to come home in Trinidad, (Cuba, not the Caribbean island!).

A dog waiting for Ché to come home in Trinidad, Cuba (not the Caribbean island!).

Vacations in Cuba

Cuba is without doubt the Caribbean’s most interesting island. It embraces great beaches, water sports and sun, just like the rest of those famously sunny islands, but also offers the discerning tourist gorgeous decaying towns and American cars, a wild live music scene, a fascinating history, friendly people, cheap living and a bizarre, collapsed Socialist system.

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.

If you plan to visit Cuba, the old, charming, dilapidated Cuba, get moving!

How long to stay?

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.

Downsides

• 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.

View over Old Havana, Cuba. Photo by Velvet.

Havana Centro, La Habana Vieja, Paseo de Marti. Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded in 1515 by a Spanish conquistador.  Photo by Velvet.

Cuban Beaches

An aerial shot of a typical Varadero beach resort hotel. Photo by Laslovarga

An aerial shot of a typical Varadero beach resort hotel. Photo by Laslovarga.

*** Varadero  beach is huge and clean, the water’s warm and the monster hotels are comfortable, efficient and good value. However, Varadero town is dull with few restaurants, clubs or bars since the resorts are keenly all-inclusive, providing most facilities and activities that tourists require.

**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), untidy but useable and plenty of history and an interesting invasion museum nearby.

*Ancon beach/peninsula on the south coast, near Trinidad, a small and reasonably pleasant beach with sad hotels and happy sand flies.

***Cayo Largo del Sur, a 25km island off the southeast coast of Cuba that hosts two incredible, broad, fine white sand beaches, Playa Paraiso and Playa Sirena.

Go to our Best Cuban Beaches page.

Best things to do and see

Kids learning to dance in old Havana, Habana Vieja, Cuba

Dancing in the Street in Habana Vieja. Cubans, give them a chance and they dance!

***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 Yangon 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 overload.

*Sancti Spiritus, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara et alia. Classic Mexican-style towns with colonnaded central plaza and scattered pleasant colonial buildings. No big deal.

Swimming off Havana's promenade, El Malecon, Cuba

Swimming off Havana’s promenade, El Malecon. Malecon is especially busy in the cool of the evening when locals follow the old Spanish custom of ‘Dar un Paseo’ – dressing up a bit and taking a stroll to meet folk and see what’s happening.

Activities

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.

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 and Varadero.

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 hefty price.

Fishing. Big game fishing was made famous by Hemingway and is excellent along the NW coast, including around Havana.

Getting around Cuba

Classic American cars for hire as taxis and tours, Old Havana, Cuba.

Classic American cars for hire as taxis and quite pricey but very pleasant tours, Old Havana. Photo by Yoeztudioz.

Taxis

Havana taxis are a bit pricey but convenient, though tourists staying in Habana Vieja will hardly need them as main sights are within easy walking distance. The little orange Coco taxis are the cheapest individual kind but whatever the vehicle make sure you negotiate the price before setting off. Yank Tank collectivos, shared taxis with a sign in the window or on the roof are also good value transport.
Taxis are inevitably expensive on long runs unless shared by several people.

Hire cars

This is a terrific way to get around the countryas roads are delightfully empty and scenery pleasant. The downsides are that signposting is rare, car maintenance shoddy and if involved in a serious accident resulting in injuries or death to Cubans you could be detained by the authorities until the legal situation becomes clear that could mean months. More on car rentals in Cuba.

Buses

Cheap, reasonably comfortable and efficient but often crowded (look out for pickpockets when it’s busy). The best long-distance line is Viazul which runs air-conditioned buses all over Cuba, but try to book a couple of days in advance. Locals usethe Astro bus network which is more extensive but also more crowded, less reliable and less comfortable. In Havana buses are regular and extremely cheap compared to taxis. They are especially good value getting to/from the airport but there may be long lines so start out early.

Trains

Generally uncomfortable and disastrously unreliablewith the exception of the Tren Francés travelling between Havana and Santiago de Cuba, which is at the far eastern end of the island. Tren Francés runs every two days if it’s still in service. Most travelers prefer to use Viazul bus, or fly if budget is not a problem.

Flights

Domestic flightsare efficient and normally fine. Aero Caribbean is the biggest and has a fair number of routes.

Cycling

Bicycling around Cuba is an interesting option though distances can be substantial. Don’t think about renting a bike unless it’s just for a couple of days in Havana, they’re cheapo Chinese makes which are neither easy to ride nor reliable over lengthy periods. If you bring your own bike with you bring all spares too. It is possible to put bikes on some buses (Viazul, for a tip! ), trains and even private trucks.

Hitching

If you’ve got all the time in the world and some Spanish then using the official Cuban ‘Amarillo’ system is an adventurous option.
Basically at key intersections all over the island (puntos amarillos) men in yellow/beige outfits organise lines of commuters and get them aboard any empty government vehicles passing by, frequently open-top trucks. Photo.
Finding the puntos is not easy, the wait may be long and you’ll have to pay a tiny amount to El Amarillo but you’ll certainly meet a lot of regular Cubans!

Paladar Dining

A Paladar private restaurant in Havana, Cuba

A Paladar in Havana.

A Paladar is a small, cheap restaurant run as a family operation, often in the family house or apartment. They range from semi-professional operations to mama cooking for one in her kitchen, but serve better and cheaper food than in most state-owned places. However, quality varies so get recommendations beforehand if possible.
The paladar above had expanded from a low-profile operation to become the best in Havana, though still only with less than 10 tables.

Local cuisine has come a long way recently and good food and ice-cream is frequently available – mostly from ‘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 superb lobster.
Black beans ‘n’ rice can get tiresome, and even expensive hotel breakfast buffets are a disaster.

Tipping
Officially not done 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 previous snappers.

A Casa Particular (private home) in Cienfuegos, Cuba

A Casa Particular (private home) in Cienfuegos.

What is a Casa Particular?

Cuba has a growing number of tourist hotels for every budget except perhaps the super-cheap. That’s dealt with by casas particulares. A Casa Particular is a private Cuban home offering Bed and Breakfast accommodation, and dinner too possibly. These casas are omnipresent due to the number of travelers requiring budget hotels that just do not exist, filling the gap between sleeping in a doorway and a 5* hotel in some places, vital for visitors on a low budget.
Casas particulares have no quality control so though cheap and interesting they frequently have flaws such as lumpy beds, rowdy air-conditioning units or lack of hot water. Still, budget travellers can engage with real Cubans which is is generally a positive experience.
The private restaurant equivalent is the Paladar.

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.

Money

A Trinidad cowboy in the street, Cuba

A Trinidad cowboy.

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 in change.
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 and at the moment don’t accept any US credit or debit cards. 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 or well-concealed cash.

Some hotels and tourist-oriented companies accept non-US$ credit cards for payment but it’s not common and the charges are high.

A few dont’s…

– 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.

Visas

Most visitors to Cuba will require a visa, including citizens of US, Canada, Australia, UK and EU.

Officially Cuba travel for touristic purposes is still prohibited for US citizens but a) they are welcome in Cuba by Cubans b) if Americans wish to visit for one of 12 specified reasons – such as visiting relatives, research (compare and contrast Cuba Libres in Cuba vs the US version?), education (reading a travel guide to Cuba? Now that’s educational!), support for the Cuban people (buy them a Cuba Libre! Stay in their Casa Particular) – then a visa will be granted. Going through a professional visa provider will ease the way.

A Cuban tourist visa is known as a tourist card and allows the visitor to stay in Cuba for 30 days. The applicant  must provide proof of confirmed return flight and booked accommodation.

Festivals

End of February, Havana Carnival, the city goes extra wild during the weekends.
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.

Hurricane Irene seen from Playa St Lucia, Cuba.

Hurricane Irene seen from Playa St Lucia.

Cuba Weather

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).