Cuba is a jumbled juxtaposition of colourful contradictions. Economically poor, yet culturally rich, beautiful architecture, yet crumbling streets, land so fertile Christopher Columbus thought it was the Garden of Eden, yet people jockeying in the streets. Cuba emits a type of raw, rough-around-the-edges romance amid the dilapidated structures, the white sand beaches, the vintage cars, the hand-rolled cigars. From sleepy sidewalks to energetic plazas, this country's greatest attraction is its authenticity. So light up a cigar, sip your mojito, and enjoy it.
Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the Caribbean to the south, Cuba has more than 300 beaches stretching over 3,500 miles of coastline. The beaches range from shimmering white sands at Varadero to glittering gold at Holguin’s Guardalavaca to black at Playa Duaba near Baracoa. Varadero Beach is the country’s most famous, offering miles and miles of pristine white sand rolling into tranquil, blue waters. Near Trinidad, head to Playa Ancón for clear Caribbean waters offering spectacular snorkelling. For undisturbed beauty, head for the picturesque archipelago of Jardines del Rey. Playa Flamingo is a stretch of remote, gleaming, white sand dotted with graceful flamingos.
You will see a rich amalgamation of architecture while on holiday in Cuba. See the Spanish forts and of Baracoa or head to Camagüey to see the gilt altar, frescoes, and beautiful wooden ceiling at the Iglesia Sagrado Corazón de Jesús. In Havana visit the iconic dome of El Capitolio (The Capitol), the art deco landmark of Hotel Nacional de Cuba (The National Hotel), and the neoclassical architecture of Havana’s oldest square, Plaza de Armas (Square of Arms).
Vibrant, vivacious, energetic Havana is a paradox, a city where you see ration shops next to colonial palaces. This electric and culturally unique capital is the heart of Cuba. Explore the restored, colonial-era streets of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and see the plazas, churches, and forts. Stop off at Calle Tacón Market to stock up on souvenirs, then head to Plaza Viego, an eclectic mix of architectural styles. Explore the restored Parque Almendares which runs along the banks of the Rio Almendares, its bench-lined river promenade surrounded by tropical plants. Visit the park’s small miniature golf course, the amphitheatre, and a playground.
The famous Tropicana is a cabaret and club that used to be a Mafia hangout. Set deeply (perhaps strategically) behind lush tropical gardens, the Tropicana was known for featuring sequin-and-feather showgirls, conga music, gambling, and flashy, spectacular productions. Now the venue features cabaret shows (mostly for tourists), but is so well preserved you feel like you are heading into a time warp back to 1950s Cuba.
There are four main carriers offering flights to Cuba from the UK two of which fly direct.
Direct Carriers: Direct carriers from the UK are Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick to Havana and Thomson from Manchester to Varadero, London Gatwick and Manchester to Holguin and seasonally from London Gatwick or Manchester to Santa Clara (Cayo Santa Maria)
Indirect Carriers: KLM and Air France fly to Havana from London Heathrow and Manchester going via Amsterdam and Paris and also Iberia from London Heathrow via Madrid
Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Rabies, Tetanus and Typhoid immunisation recommended.
Cuba has two seasons: the dry season (November to April) and the hurricane season (June to November). This moderately subtropical weather means it is generally warm with humidity hovering between 75 and 95 percent. Holidays in Cuba tend to be casual and low-key, so you may want to leave your heels at home. Pack for cooler weather between January and March when the temperature can drop down to 10°C. While hurricane season is from June to November, historically most storms have occurred in September and October.
Comprehensive travel insurance. You are expected to present your insurance policy upon arriving on holiday in Cuba.
Adapter (the power supply in Cuba is 110 volts at 60 hertz, although most sockets have dual voltage to 220 volts.);
Jeans or trousers and jumpers between January and March;
Sunglasses and Sunscreen;
Light or heavier jacket, depending on which season you are travelling in;
Umbrella in the rainy season;
Hiking boots or comfortable walking sandals;
Sandals in the summer;
Cool, lightweight clothing in cotton and linen to keep you cool in Cuba’s summer;
Cuba has two official currencies: the Cuban Peso and the Cuban Convertible Peso. The Cuban Peso is the currency used by locals to buy staples from the state-run shops. As a tourist, you will use the Cuban Convertible Peso. The Cuban Convertible Peso is a closed currency, which means you cannot buy or exchange it outside of Cuba.
Cash is king on holiday in Cuba. Take the right amount of UK Pounds in small notes of 20 Pounds or less to avoid hassle when exchanging. Change your UK Pounds at the Cadeca (Money Exchange Bureau) at Holguin, Varadero, or Cayo Coco airports upon your arrival on holiday in Cuba. Alternatively, exchange your Pounds at a Cuban bank. Once you leave Cuba you cannot exchange your Cuban Convertible Pesos for anything else. Do not take US Dollars, as you will be charged a 10 percent tax and an eight percent exchange rate to exchange Dollars.
Any credit or debit card associated with the USA will not work when you travel to Cuba, including cards issued by Santander, American Express, Capital One, and MBNA. MasterCard is not accepted at cash machines, but, as long as the card is not associated with the USA, it can be used to withdraw cash from the counter at a Cadeca or bank. Debit cards with the Visa logo are accepted as long as you can (a) find a cash machine and (b) it is working. The cash machine network in Cuba is difficult to crack. To be on the safe side, take a good bit of cash along with your UK credit card.
Most Cubans earn very low salaries, from 15 to 20 Cuban Convertible Pesos a month, so tipping is extremely important. You should tip porters between 50 cents and one Cuban Convertible Peso per bag, about one Cuban Convertible Peso per day for hotel maids, and one to two Cuban Convertible Pesos for your tour guide. Most restaurants include a service charge of about 10 percent, but you should tip about five to 10 percent extra. Taxi drivers should get 15 percent of the fare unless you have negotiated the fee without the meter, in which case a tip is included, so don’t add extra. Taxi drivers rarely give small change on a fare, so round up and leave the rest as the tip.
June, September, and October
Cuban cuisine fuses the bold styles and spices of Spanish, African, and Caribbean foods, resulting in a unique flavour. Food is simple but very flavourful, often seasoned with garlic, cumin, oregano, and bay laurel leaves. Many Cuban dishes incorporate sofrito, which consists of fried onion, green pepper, garlic, oregano, and ground pepper. This base is added to most black beans, stews, meat dishes, and tomato sauces. The staples of Cuban food include roasted or fried meat and plantains, as well as rice and beans, which is served with nearly every meal besides breakfast.
Arroz con Pollo
Arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) is one of the most beloved chicken dishes in Cuba. The rice is a short-grained Valencia-style rice, picked up from Cuba’s Spanish heritage. Some people flavour the rice with saffron, but most Cubans use annatto oil (from the rust-coloured annatto seed) instead. The dish uses chicken pieces simmered with chopped green pepper, onion, garlic, saffron or annatto oil, bay leaf, cayenne pepper, oregano, cumin, salt, pepper, chopped tomatoes, peas, rice, white wine, and water.
Pollo asado is a Cuban-style roasted chicken in a mojo sauce bursting with flavour. The chicken is marinated in the sauce infused with cumin, salt, oregano, garlic, lime, and orange juice then baked until tender.
Picadillo is true Cuban comfort food. Traditionally eaten at lunch, this beef hash dish can be served on its own, with rice, or used to fill pastelitos to make little meat pies. It can be served dry (thicker) or wet (soupier) with a little extra tomato sauce and wine.
Cuban Black Beans
This popular dish is possibly the most common in Cuba. It is usually eaten with a side of white rice, soup, or topped with avocado and chopped onions. The black beans are soaked in water with a laurel leaf overnight. The next day chopped green pepper, onion, salt, and garlic cloves are added, as well as ketchup, Tabasco, black pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and sugar.
Ajiaco, a chunky meat and vegetable stew, is the national dish of Cuba. The name literally means 'something with many ingredients', so it is no surprise the dish has come to symbolise the Cuban peoples’ diverse ethnic backgrounds. The stew contains sweet potato, yucca root, plantains,
Street food in Cuba is ubiquitous, greasy, fried, yet surprisingly tasty. Sold from stands, baskets, wheelbarrows, and windows, you will find it available everywhere. Be careful to only order street food from vendors whose food is clean, fresh, and cooked right in front of you.
Cuban pizza is similar to typical pizza. It includes a thick slice of dough layered with a thin, seasoned coating of tomato sauce and sprinkled with cheese.
Cubans are fond of fritters, and they are available from just about every street vendor. Try churros, long, stick-like pieces of deep-fried dough, or chicharitas de platano, thinly-cut plantains flash fried in oil.
This popular dish is a rounded ball of mashed potatoes. The ball is filled with seasoned, fried meat, then breaded and deep fried.
This popular lunch item is made on lightly buttered Cuban bread then pressed in a panini-type grill to heat the contents. Pan con chorizo is a sandwich of pork sausage is seasoned with paprika. Pan con bistec includes pork steak fried with garlic and onions.
Unlike their Mexican counterparts which are made from cooked, dried hominy corn, Cuban tamales are made from fresh corn scraped off the cob. The little corn husks are filled with a paste of ground or grated corn seasoned with tomato, onion, garlic, cumin, green peppers, and fried pork.
As Cuba has two economies and two currencies (Peso Cubano for locals and the Convertible Peso for tourists), average prices vary. Separate currencies are charged, with locals buying items with ration cards in state-run shops. For tourists, the prices tend to be quite a bit higher, but overall prices in Cuba will be less than you are used to in the UK. As prices vary greatly between the Peso Cubano and the Convertible Peso and can be quite confusing, we will give you the average costs in UK Pounds. Dinner at a mid-range restaurant might cost around 15 to 20 UK pounds for two people. At a supermarket you might pay just over one UK pound for a litre of milk, 30 pence for a loaf of bread, and 50 pence for a 1.5 litre bottle of water. You can buy a mid-range bottle of wine for about two UK pounds in a supermarket.
Most Cubans' clothing is influenced by the west, for example jeans and T-shirts. But the guayabera, also called the Havana shirt, is Cuba's national pride and joy. This button-down, pleated shirt is lightweight, made of cotton or linen, and has four large pockets. The casual shirt is worn outside of the trousers (not tucked in), and is enhanced with elaborate embroidery. Cuban women tend to wear brightly coloured, tight-fitting, low-cut tops with short skirts, but visiting women should wear more conservative attire.
Due to its cultural blend of nationalities from around the world, Cuban customs and traditions are a colourful mix of contrasting factors. Cubans are friendly, open, and expressive people. However, be aware that Cubans who start a conversation with you may be hoping to gain something financially. Jineterismo (jockeying) is a way of life in Cuba.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
• This is a country where tipping is expected. Bring plenty of small coins and spread the love;
• Openly criticising Fidel or Raúl Castro is a major taboo.
• Cubans typically dress in a very laid-back manner, but most resorts and hotels don’t allow shorts.
• Birthdays are large celebrations centred around the family and friends of the child, including dancing, singing, and the breaking of piñatas.
• While local women dress in bright, flashy clothes, with low-cut tops and short skirts, visiting women should dress more conservatively in order to avoid unwanted attention.
• Cubans greet each other initially by shaking hands.
• Cubans tend to be very direct and also louder than others in North America. Don’t be offended, but do be sure to keep eye contact, as this indicates you are interested in what the speaker is saying.
• Littering is against the law.
• It is considered very rude to spit or blow your nose in public.
• Cubans address each other as compañero, but you should use señor or señora. Many Cubans have two surnames. The first surname is the correct one to use.
• Avoid taking photos of people without their permission.
• Limit your alcohol intake. Cubans consider it extremely rude to be very drunk in public.
• It is illegal for Cubans to eat lobster, although there are many state-owned hotels and restaurants that serve lobster for tourists. Turtle is served on some menus, but they are endangered and eating them is illegal.
The 750-mile-long island of Cuba has the most diverse wildlife in the West Indies. The island is home to the smallest frog and the tiniest bird in the world, a nearly-extinct shrew-like mammal, and a rodent called the Cuban hutía. The lush, tropical terrain hosts animals such as the Cuban crocodile, the tarantula, numerous species of lizards, the small Indian mongoose, the Cuban boa, the Cuban ground iguana, and an assortment of tropical birds. In the waters surrounding Cuba there are numerous tropical fish, including the puffer fish, the pig fish, the bat fish, and the trigger fish. Different species of dolphin can also be seen swimming in groups around the island.
Cuba’s sub-tropical weather makes it an ideal place for bird watching. The world-famous wetlands of Parque Nacional Ciénega de Zapata have mangroves, marshes, and woodlands with some of the best bird watching in the world. You will see the Cuban trogon, Cuba’s national bird and a perfect colour match for the Cuban flag, the bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird only found in Ciénega de Zapata, the Cuban pygmy owl, the palm warbler, and many more.
Located at Boca de Guama, Criadero de Crocodrilos is Cuba’s largest crocodile breeding farm. The farm is home to more than 100,000 crocodiles kept in various pools and features 16 species of endangered reptiles. See the breeding and rearing process and even have a chance to eat crocodile steak for lunch.
Bay of Pigs Land Crabs
Most famous as the site of the failed invasion attempt by the USA in 1961, the Bay of Pigs is also the location of a different type of invasion. Every spring approximately 100 million small red land crabs emerge from the damp swamps and forests surrounding the bay to breed and drop their eggs in the sea. The invasion of crabs can last for weeks, wreaking havoc on the roads and shredding car tyres with razor-sharp crushed crab claws, but it is truly a sight to see.
Granja de las Tortugas
Cuba’s only turtle farm is located near Cayo Largo’s marina. The farm works to conserve and protect the green, hawksbill, and loggerhead turtles of Cayo Largo, collecting hundreds of turtle eggs from the beaches and incubating them in a safe environment. After the eggs have hatched the babies are released back into the sea. The organisation gives free night-time tours to see the females nesting.
Spectacular Scuba Diving
Offering over 1,000 logged dive sites characterised by steep walls cut by tunnels and caverns, shallow reefs with colourful fish, beautiful corals and sponges, and even a few wrecks, Cuba has some amazing scuba diving to experience. The small island of Cayo Largo, Guardalavaca, on Cuba’s southeast coast, Jardines de la Reina, the protected archipelago of approximately 250 coral islands and islets, and the Isle of Youth, off the coast from Havana, offer some of Cuba’s best diving sites.