Cuba Travel Guide

At A Glance

Pack your sandals and press your linen, you’re about to go to Cuba! Cuba is the largest tropical island in the Caribbean, 90 miles south of the Florida Keys, and governed since the 1950s as a communist dictatorship led by Fidel Castro and his brother Raul. Once subject to a strict embargo that prohibited most U.S. trade and travel, since 2014, the embargo has been loosened and travel to Cuba is much easier!  Come witness living history, a warm, vibrant culture, and a different perspective in Cuba.

Population

11,239,000

Capital

Havana

Largest City

Havana

Government

Current president is Raul Castro, the younger brother of Fidel Castro.

Ethnicity

Diverse mixture of white Latinos descendant from European colonizers, mixed-race mulatto, mestizo, zambo and Afro-Cuban.

Language

Spanish is the official language of Cuba.

Places We Visit

Overview

  • Travel Requirements, visas and passports

    Americans can travel to Cuba, but they have to sign an affidavit – essentially a vow — ahead of time that their travel falls under one of 12 categories allowed by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

    Many US-based airlines, like JetBlue, make this affidavit process part of the ticket-purchasing process.

    Instead of a visa, you’ll need to get and clearly fill out a “tourist card,” which is valid for 30 days (90 if you’re Canadian), and can be extended for more time once you’re in Cuba.

    Your airline or travel provider will give you your tourist card, either at airline check in or as part of your advance travel paperwork.

     You’ll need the following documents to enter Cuba:

    • Passport valid for at least one month beyond your return date
    • Cuba “tourist card” filled out correctly
    • Proof of travel medical insurance
    • Evidence of sufficient funds for the duration of your stay
    • A return ticket

  • Money

    Cuba uses two currencies, the Peso (CUP) and the Convertible (CUC). 1 CUC = 25 CUP.

    Most Cubans receive their pay in CUP. Tourists are allowed to use either, but will mostly deal in CUC, which is pegged to the dollar at 1-to-1.

    Cuba is a cash-intensive society. Do not expect to use your credit card or ATMs very much, if at all.

    Before you enter Cuba, you’ll need to bring enough traveler’s cheques and hard currency (preferably in Euro, British Pounds, or Swiss Franc) to cover your costs, as ATMs and credit cards are rare and not often accepted.

    You can change your traveler’s cheques or foreign cash into CUC at banks or at casas de cambios, also known as Cadecas, which you’ll find in many hotels and scattered around cities.

    Tipping is important to Cuba, and since most Cubans get paid in CUP, a tip of just a few CUC will go a long way. Find more info on tipping below.

  • Food

    Cuban cuisine is a blend of native American Taino food, Spanish, African, and Caribbean cuisines, influenced by its tropical climate and island geography. Rice and beans – Moros y Cristianos – is the official dish of Cuba, and often comes with well seasoned chicken and pork. Cuban sandwiches – those famous concoctions of Cuban bread, roast pork, sliced ham, Swiss cheese, and mustard — sometimes called mixtos in Cuba, are a popular lunch item that grew out of the once-open flow of cigar workers between Cuba and Florida. Medianoches are similar to mixtos, but the bread is replaced with an egg loaf and ham is excluded. It’s a popular midnight snack in Havana nightclubs, hence the name. Plantains and root vegetables are also popular in the Cuban diet. Beers, rum & cokes (known as Cuba Libres), mojitos, malta sodas, and the local Ironbeer soft drink are also very common and popular.

    Many of the restaurants in Cuba are government-run and notoriously bland, and these can be quite expensive. You’ll find better and cheaper fare at casas particulares, paladares, and sometimes from street vendors selling freshly made foods for mere pesos. Paladares are locally owned restaurants in private homes, and are plentiful, even in smaller towns. Seating is often limited, so you may need to arrive when they open, usually around 5 or 6 PM.

    Cuban national cocktails include the Cuba Libre (rum and cola) and the mojito. If you request a rum in a small country restaurant, don’t be surprised if it only comes in a bottle. Expect to pay CUC$4 for a young white rum, or CUC$8 for an older dark rum.

    Like with restaurants, there are only two types of drinking establishments in Cuba: Western-style CUC bars with near-Western prices, and local neighborhood bars, with lower prices and more limited selection. Local bars accept CUPs and are dirt-cheap, but bar keepers will often ask you for CUCs instead. It’s up to you to negotiate your price, but remember, workers are only paid a pittance.

  • Climate and Weather

    Cuba has a balmy tropical climate, with hot, humid, often rainy days during the summer, and mild, dry winters. The hot climate is mitigated somewhat by the Caribbean trade winds. Because of its climate, linens are popular among locals and visitors alike.

    Cuba is an island in the Caribbean Sea about 90 miles south of the Florida Keys. At one point covered in lush tropical forests, these were razed to make room for sugarcane and tobacco cultivation. The climate is tropical, and moderated by Caribbean trade winds. The dry season lasts over the winter from November to April, and the rainy season lasts from May through October.

    The best times to go to Cuba are between November and April, to avoid the horrendous storms and hurricanes earlier in the year and to avoid the sticky tropical heat of the Cuban summer. However, expect prices to be higher during this high time.

  • Festivals and Holidays

    The most famous of all Cuban festivals is the Carnival in Santiago, held annually from July 18-27. The traditions date back hundred of years celebrating the feast day of Santiago (St. James), then became a celebration by Santiago’s slaves, who introduced the music, costumes, and dances typical in even the contemporary festival. Over the years, Santiago’s Carnival came to incorporate elements of African, Spanish, French, and Communist Cuban traditions and culture. The biggest celebrations are on the first day and last three days of the annual event. Hotels are generally booked well in advance, so it’s wise to make plans early.

    Santiago’s Fiesta del Fuego (Festival of Fire) is also another interesting event in early July.

    Havana has its own Carnival in late July or early August. Top bands and dancers perform in Habana Vieja and join in lively parades down the historic El Malecon promenade.

    Many Cuban holidays also celebrate the nation’s revolutionary past. The largest holiday is Revolution Day on July 26 (overlapping with Carnival). Many cities and towns across the country throw huge celebrations on this day. Other major holidays include Independence Day (May 20), Children’s Day on April 4, and New Year’s Day, which is the anniversary of the fall of the Batista regime in 1959. Note that many stores and government agencies are closed during these national holidays.

  • Religion

    The largest organized religion is the Catholic Church, which claims that 60% of Cubans belong, but Cuba is a diverse and multi-racial country. Afro-Cuban religions, including Santería and Yoruba, which blend native African traditions with Roman Catholicism are widely practiced. Some sources indicate that as many as 80% of Cubans consult Santería or Yoruba practitioners. Cuba has also seen a rapid growth in the number of evangelical Protestants in recent decades. After the Cuban revolution in the 1950s, the government did not restrict religious practice, but did forbid religious people from joining the Communist Party, out of a belief that religion went against Marxist teachings. However, around 2016, after consulting with Pope Francis, Raúl Castro changed this policy. Around a quarter of Cubans are atheist or non-practicing.

  • Health and Medical

    Cuba is renowned for its healthcare, with medical tourism being a major part of the country’s economy. Patients come from across the Caribbean, developing world, and even the U.S. and Canada for inexpensive, quality healthcare and special procedures at about 60 to 80 percent lower costs than in the U.S. Since 2010, Cuba has required all foreign visitors to have medical insurance. They make random checks at the airport, so make sure to bring a printed copy of your policy.

    If you end up in a hospital, call Asistur for help with insurance and medical assistance.

    Outpatient treatment at international clinics is reasonably priced, but emergency visits can get expensive. The Cuban government has established a for-profit health system for foreigners called Servimed, which is entirely separate from the free, non-profit system that cares for Cuban citizens. There are more than 40 Servimed health centers across the country, offering primary care as well as specialty and high-tech services. If you’re staying in a hotel, you can ask the manager for a physician referral. Servimed centers also accept walk-ins. While Cuban hospitals will provide some free emergency treatment for foreigners, this should only be a last resort for visitors. There are special pharmacies for foreigners also run by the Servimed system, but even these are notoriously short on supplies, including medications. Be sure to bring adequate supplies of all meds you might need, both prescription and over the counter. Also bring a fully stocked medical kid

    Almost all doctors and hospitals accept payment in cash, regardless of if you have insurance or not.

    Tap water in Cuba is not reliably safe to drink, and outbreaks of cholera have been recorded in recent years. Bottled water usually costs CUC$1, but it’s sometimes unavailable in small towns. Make sure you stock up in cities when going on bus or car journeys.

  • Vaccinations

    Make sure you’re up-to-date on routine vaccines like MMR, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, chickenpox, polio, and your annual flu shot. The CDC recommends most travelers to Cuba also get vaccinated for typhoid and Hepatitis A, which is possible to acquire through contaminated food or water. The CDC also recommends that some travelers get a rabies shot and a Hep B vaccine.

  • Safety

    Cuba is generally safer than most countries, with violent attacks extremely rare. Petty theft like rifled luggage in a hotel room or shoes stolen from a beach is relatively common, but preventive measures go a long way. Wear your bag in front of you on crowded buses and at markets, and only take money you need when you head out for a night. Begging is more widespread but exacerbated by tourists who hand out money and items to people on the street. If you really want to help, instead of giving stuff to street beggars, pass items to your casa host or leave it at a local church. Watch out for hustlers (jineteros) when in shops or at markets, which can be a nuisance.

    Police are everywhere in Cuba and they’re typically quite friendly. Corruption is a serious offense, so don’t even think about bribing an officer. And always carry some form of identification or your passport, as getting caught without ID can cause avoidable headaches.

  • Consular Information

    There is now a U.S. Embassy in Cuba, located on Calzada, between L & M, Vedado, in Havana. Phone number is (+53) 7839-4100.

  • LGBTQ+ Travel

    While gay travelers are generally not hassled in Cuba and are given some leeway in terms of social mores, signs of physical affection are rare and frowned upon across the country.

    Homosexuality is not illegal in Cuba, but nevertheless the country has a poor record on LGBT rights, and there remain high levels of homophobia and social rejection of gays and lesbians. There is only one openly accepted gay establishment, in Santa Clara, and a few established LGBT tour operators offer trips to the island. Santa Clara is perhaps the most openly gay friendly city in Cuba, and there’s an annual gay and transvestite carnival in May.

    There’s a documentary film called Gay Cuba that examines the treatment of gays and lesbians in modern Cuba. In recent years, President Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela has championed for gay rights, and the world has taken notice.

  • Solo Female Travel

    Solo female travel in Cuba is common. It’s uncommon for solo female travelers to be hassled by street hustlers. In Habana Vieja women may have men whistle at them and ask their name and where they’re from, but they are mostly harmless. In smaller towns, locals will frequently completely ignore female travelers. Bars and discos will typically be filled with foreign men and local girls, so solo female travelers may feel out of place in these places, and prefer to spend their time in outdoor venues.

  • Disabled Travel

    Accessible hotels do exist in Cuba, especially among European chains, and with good planning you can have a very positive travel experience. What is required is a positive attitude and an open mind about the realities. Cuba is a developing country with limited resources. However, this is compensated for by its natural beauty and by the exceptional attitude of its people. An able-bodied traveling companion is recommended for a wheelchair user who plans to visit the island. Wheelchair users can expect to be carried on and off airplanes by staff who specifically do this. Havana is not particularly accessible, but Cuban people are very friendly and helpful to people with disabilities. Due to a lifetime of living under hardship and financial restraints, the people of Cuba have a well-developed philosophy of solidarity, and this extends to people who are disabled.

  • Voltage

    110 volts and 60 Hertz, or 220 volts and 60 Hertz, with North American and European outlets. Plug type varies across the country, so bring an adapter for both.

  • WIFI Access

    Despite what you may have heard, there IS Internet access in Cuba. The three main ways to access the Internet while in Cuba are to 1) connect via a public ETECSA hotspot in one of the cities using a prepaid Internet card, 2) connect using a prepaid card at a hotel’s ETECSA hotspot, or to 3) connect via a private Internet connection in a hotel or resort.

    In early 2015, Cuba’s telecoms provider, ETECSA, opened up wifi hotspots around the country. They started in Havana, Santiago, and other primary cities, but have since expanded the hotspots to cover almost every city on Cuba’s backpacker trail. Many of these hotspots are located in parks, and in Havana, one of the best runs along the La Rampa street in the central city.

    To access one of these hotspots, you’ll need a prepaid ETECSA Internet card. These come in 1-hour or 5-hour denominations and cost CUC$2 per hour. They are sold at ETECSA offices across the country, and sometimes at hotels, shops, or by locals on the streets. If you’re going to be exploring, it’s wise to purchase multiple cards at once, but you can only buy 3 cards per person at a time. You’ll need your passport to buy them, too.

    To log in at a hotspot, wait for the login window to pop up, then enter the Username (Usario) and Password (Contraseña) printed on your prepaid card. Once you hit Accept, the page will refresh and a timer will appear showing you how much browsing time you have remaining. Do not forget to log off when you are done browsing, because the cards don’t always terminate the session when you disconnect from wifi, resulting in lost time. To be safe, make sure you log off from every device when finished using the web.

    ETECSA hotspots at hotels work just the same as the public ETESCA hotspots.

    While many hotels offer an ETECSA connection, some, mostly high-end resorts and European hotel chains, only allow you to log on using their private hotspot. For these, you purchase time directly from the hotel, instead of using your ETECSA prepaid cards. These private networks are often much more expensive than the public networks, costing around CUC$10-15 per hour.

    But an important thing to remember while in Cuba is that you won’t be on the Internet nearly as much as you are accustomed to in your home country.  Prepare to be offline — try to pre-process this reality before you arrive so that you minimize your Internet withdrawal, and allow yourself to more fully appreciate your offline experience in the country. Pre-planning can help your trip go smoothly: download Maps.me, an app that will allow you to access maps with routing without having to have an Internet connection. Download the full Cuba map before you go and you’ll never have to worry about being lost. Download and save Wikitravel pages for each city you’re going to visit, as well as your favorite online travel blogs and articles. An app called Pocket can help you save these for offline access. Take notes in advance of TripAdvisor restaurant recommendations, and download an app called “A La Mesa” to get insight into Cuba’s restaurant scene. And never forget, the good old-fashioned hard-copy travel guidebook!

     

  • Local SIM Cards

    Some US cell carriers, like Sprint and Verizon now offer roaming services in Cuba. Because the telecoms situation in Cuba is rapidly changing, it’s wise to check with your carrier before you depart for Cuba.

    However, an alternative that you may find more economical is to rent a mobile phone from Cubacel once you arrive. There are Cubacel offices in Terminals 2 and 3 at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. You simply pay a one-time refundable deposit of CUC$100, plus a daily fee of CUC$10, and you’ll get a phone you can use across Cuba. Expect to pay all applicable per-minute call charges, typically CUC$0.35 per minute for calls within Cuba, and CUC$1.85 per minute for calls to the United States. Outgoing text messages costs CUC$0.16 to send within Cuba, and CUC$1.00 to sent abroad. Data is not readily available in Cuba, and you should expect to use your phone primarily for calls and texts, except when using a wifi hotspot.

  • Accommodation

    Most small cities and larger towns will have at least one state-run hotel, often in a restored colonial building. Prices range from CUC$25 to CUC$100, or more for resorts and high-end hotels, especially in Havana. Most hotels in Cuba require you book your stay at least two days in advance. There aren’t any US hotel chains in Cuba yet, but there are some European chains, and you can find and book these by directly contacting them or by hiring a Canadian travel agent to book it for you. But always remember that resorts will feel fake, inauthentic, and over the top, because they are.

    If you want a more authentic, immersive experience, the best places to stay are called casas particulares, which are private houses licensed to offer lodging to foreigners. They are cheaper than hotels and the food is almost always better. Casas particulares are plentiful, even in small towns. Like with most things, prices are a little higher in Havana. Be mindful that any service provided by a casa particular in addition to accommodation, like driving you to the bus station, will be added to your bill, regardless of if this is stated up front. It’s perfectly acceptable to talk to the owner about what things will cost when you arrive so that you can avoid awkward surprises later.

    Owners of casas frequently swarm the Víazul bus stops and it’s easy to find a cheap place to stay this way.

    Casas particulares are strictly regulated by the government, so make sure you’re staying in a legal one. A legal casa will have a sticker on the front door (often a blue sign with a white background), and upon arrival, the owner will get your passport details and how long you’re planning to stay. If you’re going to be traveling around Cuba, you can ask legal casa owners if they have friends or family in the town you’re going to visit. Networks of casas and the families who own them will often happily organize for you to be met by their friends at your next destination.

    There are a number of websites connecting you to legal casas, and AirBnB is now also active in Cuba as a casa resource.

  • Getting Around

    Taxis are the most convenient way to get around the cities. There are official government taxis, private, potentially unlicensed taxis running in the classic 1950s American cars, and small, three-wheeled coco-taxis. The typical fare is CUC$1 per kilometer, and it’s always wise to negotiate and agree on a price before you enter the cab.

    For transportation between cities, taxis can be expensive, costing upward of CUC$100 or more. Buses are more common for inter-city travel, and cost much less. Buses in Cuba are called “guaguas,” and applies to local buses (guaguas local), or bigger, fancier guaguas de tourismo. Víazul is Cuba’s hard-currency bus line designed for tourists, and runs air-conditioned long-distance coaches between most places of interest to visitors. Complete schedules and a list of stops can be found at their website, viazul.com. Though the buses do not serve refreshments, they make stops for food, but the food can be rather unpalatable, so it’s always wise to bring snacks.

    Another bus line, called Astro, has a much more extensive network than Víazul, but is used primarily by Cubans, rather than tourists. Nevertheless, it is possible to buy tickets for Astro buses.

    It is possible to rent cars in Cuba, with rates starting at CUC$65 per day, plus the cost of a full tank of gas. You’ll need to put down a refundable deposit of CUC$200 and any traffic tickets received will be deducted from your deposit. Rentals are fairly new European or Asian models. If you’re involved in a serious accident resulting in injury or death, you will be detained in Cuba until the legal process resolves, which can take many months or up to a year. Roads in the cities are fairly well maintained but rural roads can be in need of serious repair.

    By far the most economical way to get around Cuba is by hitchhiking, but it requires an adventurous spirit, flexibility, and a healthy knowledge of Spanish. The government actually has a formal system for facilitating this, known as “El Amarillo,” or “the yellow guy,” referring to the yellow-beige uniforms of the officials who run the system. El Amarillo consists of points along main routes and highways where certain vehicles are required to sop and pick up hitchhikers. These “Puntos Amarillos” are often full-service rest stops, with water, CUP-priced food, and a 24 hour indoor waiting area. Tell people that you’re a student, not a tourist, to avoid price gouging and funny looks.

    There are trains in Cuba, but the only relatively reliable one is the overnight Tren Francés, between Havana and Santiago, with major stops in Santa Clara and Camaguey. All other trains are unreliable, and many Cubans prefer hitchhiking to taking the train.

    Cycling is popular in Cuba and a great way to get off the beaten track. It’s advised that you bring your own bike instead of renting one, which will leave you quite stiff and sore. Spare parts aren’t readily available in Cuba, and obtaining bottled water outside of the cities can be a challenge, so make sure to bring your own and plenty of it. It’s possible to bring your bike on a Víazul bus, but your driver will expect a little bonus in return.

  • Tipping

    Tipping in Cuba is important. Most Cubans earn their pay in CUP$, so leaving a small tip of CUC$1 (equal to CUP$25) or more can make a big difference.

    Resorts and hotels: Tip for good service with bellboys, maids, and restaurant staff

    Musicians: Carry small notes for the musicians in restaurants.

    Tour guides: Depending on the length of the tour, tip at least CUC$1 for a few hours, to more for more extensive tours.

    Restaurants: Standard tips are 10 percent of the tab, or up to 15 percent for excellent service or if you’re generous.

    Taxis: If you’re on the meter, tip 10 percent of the fare, otherwise agree to the full price beforehand.

Map

Featured Destinations