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 cars, a wild music scene, a fascinating history, friendly people, cheap living and a bizarre, collapsing Socialist system.
Matthew Parris at The London Times
"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."
• 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.
Minimum worthwhile stay, not including flights:
1 week for city culture and some beach life.
If you plan to visit Cuba, the old, charming, dilapidated, communist Cuba, get moving!
Havana Centro, La Habana Vieja, Paseo de Marti. Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded in 1515 by a Spanish conquistador.
Once the gambling vacation of choice for wealthy Americans, Cuba island and its capital Havana has been on the US State Department's no travel list since the revolution in 1959, ('Tourist travel to Cuba is prohibited under U.S. law for U.S. citizens and others under U.S. jurisdiction') though determined US citizens can get there via fairly easily Canada, Mexico or Caribbean countries so long as they book flights separately.
About 40,000 of last year's 2.5 million visitors were from the USA. Cuba welcomes U.S. tourists despite the chance of fines or surrender of passports if caught when re-entering the USA.
Cuba is a popular tourist target for holidaymakers from countries other than the USA as its combination of climate, beaches, architecture, low cost holidays and a fascinating local culture make it a unique destination, not only in the Caribbean but in the world.
A cheap shared taxi, uno collectivo Yank Tank, from pre-revolution days in the '50s.
Cheap, reasonably comfortable and efficient, the best long distance line for foreigners is Viazul which runs air-conditioned buses all over the island, but preferably book 3 days in advance. Locals use the Astro bus network that is more extensive but crowded, unreliable and not comfortable.
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.
This is a terrific way to get around the country as 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.
Generally uncomfortable and disastrously unreliable with 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.
Domestic flights are efficient and normally fine. Aero Caribbean is the biggest and has a fair number of routes.
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.
If you've got all the time in the world and some Spanish then using the official Cuban 'Amarillo' system is an adventurous option.
Dancing in the Street in Habana Vieja. Cubans, give them a chance and they dance!
Best 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
El Malecon, a promenade running beside Havana's sea wall that buzzes with people strolling, chatting and drinking after sunset.
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.
Fishing. Big game fishing was made famous by Hemingway and is excellent along the NW coast, including around Havana.
- 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.
End of February, Havana Carnival, the city goes extra wild
during the weekends.
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.
Cuba Beaches >>>