The big buzz in the travel industry at the moment seems to be Cuba. Everywhere I look people are talking about the island as one of the top 10 destinations to visit in 2015. With a recent thaw in diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba, it seems Americans are slowly flocking to the island, aided by a number of airline new routes from the USA. I yet have to make up my mind whether I like this or not. Ultimately, the island will prosper economically and socially, but I can’t help but wonder whether the Cuba I know and love will be no more. A number of people have asked me about Cuba in the last few months so I figured I would post something on my website.
Where to go
History/culture – Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs), Santa Clara. If you want to step off the standard tourist trail, cross the island and head to Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa. There are night buses and flights from Havana to Santiago de Cuba/nearby Holguin and Baracoa.
Havana Vieja the central district of Havana which translates as (Old Havana) is where I personally think you are at the heart of Cuban culture. There are some amazing museums including the revolution museum and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (a beautiful art museum). It’s the kind of place where you could easily spend a day just wondering the streets, immersing yourself in to the culture and people-watching.
Outdoor Cuba – Viñales, Las Terrazas (eco village), Trinidad, Baracoa. There are a number of walks and horse riding excursions available in all the above places. Trinidad is amazing as its a colonial town set right next to the valley of the sugar mill, so you can combine culture and nature seamlessly. Playa Giron and Maria La Gorda are also worth a visit if you scuba dive. Though exceptionally beautiful for its sea life, Maria La Gorda is the most remote tourist spot in Cuba and personally I think you can get just as good an experience in Playa Giron, easily accessible by transport also.
Cuba’s beaches – Varadero (most famous tourist resort), Trinidad, Cayo Coco/Cayo Santa Maria and Cayo Largo. For Cayo Largo you need to take a flight, but what awaits you is probably one of the best beaches in the Caribbean. There’s also a nudist beach at Cayo Largo if anyone is interested. Cayo Santa Maria has an excellent new resort – Royalton Cayo Santa Maria – which is in the top 10 Caribbean resorts as voted by TripAdvisor.
Other than your standard hotels there are also casa particulares. With hotels if it says 5 star expect a European standard 3.5 to 4 star (though there are some exceptions where 5 star truly is 5 star). A casa particular is a homestay where local Cubans may rent out a bedroom or an apartment of theirs. In my experience, casa paticulares are a much better experience. It’s a much more authentic experience, and though simple, often they are better maintained than some hotels. With casas the advantage is that many are really in the centre of town, whilst your larger hotels are often further afield. That being said, there are some great hotels for facilities which are very well maintained, in the centre of towns/cities. Another advantage to casa’s is that your hosts can share with you great local knowledge and will often cook a meal for you if you ask them to (at a cost, but still cheaper than eating at a restaurant). Casa particulares are typically your cheaper option in accommodation with prices ranging in the region of around €12-€30 a night.
The Varadero peninsula is home to Cuba’s most famous beach resorts (personally I think if you spend a week in Varadero you haven’t even seen 5% of the real Cuba). I always end my trips with a few days in Varadero though as it’s nice to chill on the beach for a few days at the end of your trip. From the number of 4/5 star hotels I have stayed in in Varadero I wouldn’t say much differs between them all.
Cuba isn’t particularly known for its cuisine, standard meals for many is rice, beans and pork, though this is beginning to rapidly change. There are some great restaurants serving some pretty good international cuisine, and if you like lobster, you can get lobster pretty cheap most places on the island. Outside of Havana and Trinidad, casas are often the best places to eat as in some smaller towns good quality restaurants simply don’t exist.
Drinking wise – check our El Chanchullero in Havana! It’s so great and so cheap!
There are generally three ways to get around:
Hire a car – main roads are relatively well maintained though very often poorly signposted.
Taxis – Whilst the idea of getting around in a car from the 1950s is great, the reality is its not so comfortable due to a lack of suspension in the cars. There are also a number of western style taxis which are great to get round by but on the expensive side by Cuban standards.
Viazul bus – The tourist buses are called the Viazul and really only for tourists though the drivers sometimes let their friends go on the bus too. It is a similar standard to European buses, just maybe not as clean and pristine. They are air conditioned though which is a big plus, and are good value for money. They are very reliable and relatively easy to make reservations on when in Cuba, though slightly more difficult during the peak summer months. As an example the Viazul bus is cheaper for the 5 hour bus to Trinidad from Havana than it is for the 30 minute taxi ride from Havana Airport to the Centre of Havana.
When to go
The best time to go is a difficult one. Generally, after the Christmas peak or early-mid September is the best time to go. You are outside of the peak periods on both and outside of hurricane season (in September just about). Also, you can avoid the mosquito’s in their full which from experience is not so pleasant particularly if you are hiking in the forest for a significant part of the day.
Personally, I try to avoid June, July and August as I know from experience things get busy and places often put their prices up. Also, parts of Cuba (particularly Varadero in the summer) are seen as the “Canadian Ibiza”. So if it’s not really your scene I would avoid certain parts of Varadero (I stress not all places) during these months.
Good to know
Currency – Cuba operates a dual currency system with the “tourist currency” worth 40 times more than the local currency. The currency tourists use is called the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). Its a closed currency so you can only get it in Cuba. Its pegged with the USD. You can use ATM machines but because of the embargo, American Express cards are not used. It is also worth noting outside of the main towns many places don’t have ATM machines and those that do are often not connected up. Trinidad which I consider as the second tourist town after Havana only got its first ATM machine a few years ago. I generally take cash with me and exchange as and when on the road.
Flights – Virgin and Thomas Cook fly to Cuba directly from the UK. Virgin flies in to Havana and Thomas Cook in to Holguin on the other side of the Island and Varadero. European connections are pretty good with Air France, KLM, and Air Europa (via Madrid), Iberia, Swiss/Edelweiss Air, Air Berlin and Eurowings also flying from Europe to Cuba. Taca/Avianca provide good connections from Latin America as does Aero Mexico. Cubana (Cuba’s national airline) also has a number of flights from major hubs. Air Canada also fly to Cuba. The advantage with Air Canada is you can fly in to Havana and out of Varadero or one of the Cayo islands on the same ticket as opposed to paying a heafty supplement for two single flights. This saves you having to make the journey back to Havana. There is a departure tax of 25 CUC which every passenger has to pay*.
Visa – Those from certain countries require a visa to enter Cuba. These are available from your local Cuban embassy.
Despite a thaw in relations with the US, Cuba is still technically subject to a trade embargo with the USA. Many of the things you come across are home grown and you don’t see many western companies with business there at all. Cuba doesn’t officially have Coke, but instead they have their version called Tu Cola. You can buy some western goods but they have a heavy mark up. There are also some places where you can get Coke and other Western drinks. With Cuba changing to fast the above may change rather quickly. As the regime is “anti-capitalist” you shouldn’t really discuss politics with anyone randomly on the street.
Communication in Cuba is difficult and expensive. The standard internet rate is 6 CUC a hour. Speeds are often pre-dial up slow. To call and text from Cuba is also expensive and if you go check your mobile carrier supports you in Cuba. Cuba is actually one of the most expensive countries from which to send texts and make calls. Tourists cannot readily buy Cuban sim cards anywhere.
As mentioned above, Cuba is at a pivotal moment in its social and political trajectory. This means the above is subject to change at any time. If you have any additions or believe any of the above has changed since the time of being published, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Correct at the time of writing