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Cuba

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Travel Guide Caribbean Cuba

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Introduction

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While it has been shrouded behind political tension for the last fifty years, Cuba is actively promoting itself as a Caribbean destination with class. Indeed, the hostilities between Cuba and its big neighbour to the north have ensured that Cuban culture remains strongly intact - unlike some of its semi-Americanized Caribbean neighbours.

Notably, Cuba is the only country in the world that enjoys sustainable development, according to the World Wildlife Fund's 2006 Report.[1] That, coupled with health and education, may explain why the Caribbean island has doubled its number of visitors to 2 million.

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Brief History

Main article: History of Cuba

The first settlers of Cuba were the Guanajatabey people who came to the island sometime between 5300 BC to 1000 BC. When the Spanish arrived, their population was around 100,000 and practiced a mixture of hunting, gathering and farming.

Although discovered by Columbus on his first voyage to the New World in 1492, the island's coastal area was not fully mapped until 1509. In 1511 Diego Velazquez de Cuellar set out with three ships from Hispaniola to found the first Spanish settlement of Baracoa. African slaves were brought in to cultivate the island's main resources of sugar and tobacco. Interestingly, the sugar trade did not explode until the 19th century after Spain reduced its trade regulations. This boom lasted until the 1880s. Also throughout the 19th century, the ideas of freedom and independence started to grow in Cuba.

With the assistance of people in the United States, Cuban freedom fighters, earlier expelled from Cuba, returned with three ships heavily loaded with soldiers and weapons. The war raged for three years until the US Battleship Maine was destroyed while docked in the Havana harbour. After this, the US government decided to back the rebels. Within a few months the US took over Cuba from the Spanish. The economy quickly grew and the first elections were held in 1900, although very few people got to vote. In 1901 the Platt Amendment was passed which defined USA-Cuban relations until 1934. This amendment placed many unfair restrictions on Cuba, keeping Cuba a de-facto colony of the USA. Presidents changed quickly in Cuba until the military coup of Batista in 1933. Encouraged by the Americans, Batista took over the government and controlled a series of puppet presidents. He was elected in 1940 and ousted in 1944. In 1952 he returned to power again with a coup. After this coup the revolutionary Fidel Castro started an uprising, which failed causing him to flee the country. In 1956 Castro returned, landing with a boat (the Granma) to start a revolutionary force in the mountains. His patience was rewarded when on January 1, 1959 his forces overturned the government of Batista.

Castro took firm leadership of the country, and founded a communist state on the island, making Cuba an instant enemy of the USA. In 1960 the communists started to nationalize many factories and private property. A year later a group of Cuban exiles, backed by the USA, tried to overthrow Castro's regime by invading the country at the Bay of Pigs. The already bad relationship between Cuba and the USA, led to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the US demanded the immediate withdrawal of Soviet missiles placed on Cuba.

Economically, Cuba was not doing well, something even Fidel Castro admitted in the early 1970's. In the mid-1970's economical reforms were carried out. Due to the cold war with the US, the Cuban economy suffered greatly during the 1990s after the fall of the USSR, leading to the slow dilapidation of some historic sites. The faltering economy forced the Cuban government to refocus on tourism, as well as changing other policies. It became possible for Cubans to own their own guesthouses. Cuba promoted foreign investment, leading to the emergence of dozens of new joint ventures between the Cuban state and foreign investors. The changing policies saw a massive turnaround in the Cuban economy.

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Geography

Cuba contains the largest island in the Antilles, as well as an intricate archipelago with the Isle of Youth and about 4,195 keys (cayos) and islets. The combined surface area of these Caribbean land masses is some 110,992 square kilometres. The country sits at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, 140 kilometres from the Bahamas, 146 kilometres from Jamaica, 180 kilometres from Florida and 210 kilometres from Cancun.

Cuba is a long and narrow island (1,200 kilometres from Cabo de San Antonio, the westernmost tip, to Punta de Maisí, the eastern tip). At its widest point it measures 210 kilometres and at its narrowest 32 kilometres. It is dominated by plains and has four major mountain ranges: the Guaniguanico mountains, in the west; Guamuhaya mountains in the central portion; the Sagua-Baracoa range; and the Sierra Maestra the east. The latter contains the country’s highest peak: Turquino, 1,974 metres high. The landscape is diverse, ranging from semi-deserts to tropical rain forests. The country has a large biodiversity and well-preserved ecosystems.

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Provinces

Cuba is divided into 14 provinces and a special municipality (Isla de la Juventud), listed below from west to east (roughly):

  • Pinar del Rio
  • Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth)
  • La Habana (the larger province of Havana)
  • Havana (Havana City)
  • Matanzas
  • Cienfuegos
  • Villa Clara
  • Sancti Spíritus
  • Ciego de Ávila
  • Camaguey
  • Las Tunas
  • Granma
  • Holguin
  • Santiago de Cuba
  • Guantanamo

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Cities

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Sights and Activities

Cuba is a bizarre and atmospheric place - the most fantastic country I've ever been to. It feels frozen in time. Go, before it changes and becomes like everywhere else.

Fiona Tomlinson, News Editor, Channel 4

Considering the many unique attractions Cuba has to offer, from the gorgeous historic colonial city Trinidad, to its 300 beaches, to spectacular diving opportunities among its reefs, it's hardly surprising that Cuban tourism has exploded over the past decade. Backpacker travel has risen accordingly, with Europeans and Canadians alike enjoying mountain treks and river kayaking in the Oriente, or climbing and scuba-diving in the Oeste and on La Isla (de Juventud).

Old Havana

A UNESCO-sponsored program has recently transformed Old Havana (Havana Vieja) (a UNESCO World Heritage site) into the capital's main attraction with more than 100 buildings rebuilt with bars, restaurants, museums and shops established on ground floors and low-rent apartments on upper floors. More than 15 boutique-type hotels have also opened in the area since 2001 under the guise of the city's Historiador.

Outside Havana

In other Cuban provinces, tourism has finally come into its own. Although one-third of visitors stay in Varadero, the majority can discover the true Cuba by touring its provincial capitals. From west to east, Pinar del Rio, Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Las Tunas, Holguin are all in the process of renovations with old local hotels and theatres being refurbished.

Trinidad

Trinidad is the colonial gem of Cuba and located in the south central part of the country. Nearby are some fantastic mountain ranges and beaches but the real attraction is just wandering around the old colonial centre with its faded facades, some good restaurants and traditional bars with a background of mountains and countryside.

Baracoa

Baracoa is Cuba's easternmost settlement and can best be reached by a very scenic drive from Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo over the mountains, ranging from dry regions with cactus vegetation and green lush high mountains, and down again to the tropical surroudings of Baracoa itself, including the fantastic Alejandro Humboldt National Park, where you can walk through rainforests and past waterfalls, butterflies and tropical birds, including beautiful humingbirds.

Cabaret shows

Every major town has nightly cabaret shows in its local Casa de la Trova or Casa de la Musica. In 2006 alone, more than 2 million spectators enjoyed 35,000 showings of some 250 theatre, concert and music events on the island. Travellers can enjoy B&B type hospitality all over the island with some 10,000 homes offering affordable guest rooms, called Casas particulares.

National parks

Cuba's network of natural parks now covers over 20% of the island with the majority only 25 years old; among these, the huge Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt (69,341 hectares) near Baracoa was declared a World Heritage site in 2001 [2]; the Cienaga de Zapata, near the infamous Bay of Pigs, harbors some 900 endemic plant species and is considered by UNESCO as "a most valuable natural reservoir that stands out nationally, regionally and worldwide" [3]. Closer to the valley of Vinales and the island's tobacco farming region, lay some World Biosphere Reserves such as Sierra del Rosario, Las Terrazas and Guanahacabibes.

Other Sights and Activities

  • Beaches - like the ones near Varadero, Holguin/Guardalavaca, Santa Lucia Beach, Covarrubias Beach, and Cayo Largo del Sur.
  • The mogotes near Vinales - characteristic mountain scenery
  • Camaguey - a less popular city but with great colonial architecture in the colonial centre
  • Santa Clara - search for Che Guevara's heritage

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Weather

Cuba’s climate is moderately subtropical and predominantly warm. The island’s average temperature is 25.5 °C and average relative humidity is 78%, but there are huge variations between seasons, as temperatures can drop below 20 °C during some days in winter (especially in and around Havana), while the temperatures in the southeast can rise up to 35 °C or more sometimes. It also sees an average of 330 days of sunshine a year. Cuba’s two clearly defined seasons are the rainy season (May to October) and the dry season (November to April). Especially August and September can be very wet and this is also the time that the island is most prone to hurricanes (season from June to November). See the average temperatures and rainfall at the Go Cuba Tourism site.

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Getting There

As Cuba is an island, the only feasible way of getting there is by plane or boat. A few cruise ships have started stopping at cities like Santiago de Cuba, but this is still rare. With no public transport by boat being available, flying is the only real option for most people.

By Plane

There are several international airports in Cuba, the most important ones being the ones in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Varadero. Santa Clara and Holguin have regular international flights as well. Havana's Jose Marti International Airport has a good deal of international flights from destinations throughout Canada, Europe, Central America and the Caribbean. Apart from the USA, there are regular flights with the national carrier Cubana to neighbouring countries in the Caribbean. Several other carriers in the region have flights as well, like Air Jamaica and Air Canada. Also there are flights from several countries in Europe, like with Iberia from Spain, Air France from France and Martinair from The Netherlands. Prices for a round trip flight are usually around 800 US dollars, often more in high season. There are some (charter) flights year round from Miami to Cuba, but this is an option which requires that Americans first have to be screened very strictly to get to Cuba. Flights are with Continental Airlines and American Airlines and have to be booked at a tour agent first. Usually, these flights are part of a package deal to places like Varadero.

By Boat

Unless on a cruise or by private yacht, there are no regular passenger options.

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Getting around

Touring the island has been made much easier through efficient and comfortable intercity bus travel with Viazul and Astro's new buses; car rental fleets include a whole range of Japanese subcompacts to German sports cars and even Mercedes campers.

By Plane

Cubana airlines has domestic flights to various destinations in Cuba. The most important routes are between Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Holguin, Varadero and the islands of Cayo Largo del Sur and Caya Coco. Flights are usually with smaller planes, sometimes propeller types.

Other options include Aero Caribbean and charter flights by Aero Gaviota.

By Train

Travelling by train in Cuba is a very adventurous way of getting around. Although there is no official national train website, you might check Seat61 Cuba for more information. Trains travel between Havana and Santiago de Cuba and stop at several places in between. Although cheap and relatively comfortable, some trips are delayed or cancelled and can take ages. If time is a problem, go for the buses.

By Car

Cuba is an excellent country to travel around by car and there are numerous car rental agencies, especially in Havana. Normally, you will get relatively new cars, typically of the Hyundai and Peugeot kind but more expensive Audis are available as well, but expensive.

Roads in Cuba are not really the best in the world, but you really don't need a 4wd to get around, as even the worst roads are passable after heavy rains and almost all roads are tarred, albeit potholed a lot in some places. The Autopista runs from west of Havana to about half way the island, past Santa Clara and this road is generally in a good condition and quiet as well. Be careful though and don't drive too fast, as potholes might occur everywhere.

In Cuba, road signs are very poor, if they do exist at all in some places! But it's not a bad thing, with some Spanish you can ask almost anyone and there are many people needing a lift who are glad to show you the right way.

Driving is on the right and usually you need to be at least 21 to rent a car.

By Bus

Viazul is the national bus company and there are numerous connections to all major towns in Cuba, like Havana, Santa Clara, Vinales, Trinidad, Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba.
For an overview of schedules and connections see thebussschedule.com.

By Boat

There are no regular passenger services between places in Cuba or islands off the coast. It is not necessary and there are flights to islands that have no connection by bridge.

By Taxi

At tourist spots around Cuba you will likely be approached by taxi drivers offering to drive you across the country. These drivers will generally be without permits to carry foreigners so are putting themselves at legal risk, but black market taxis are frequently cheaper than the Viazul buses (although air conditioning is far from guaranteed). For example, a dodgy taxi from Vinales to Trinidad can be procured for around the same cost as a legit taxi halfway across Havana.

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Red Tape

Tourism

Every tourist should have a valid passport issued on his or her name and a tourist card (the tourist card is available with the airline at the airport, costing around US$30). It is important for you to know that your passport should be valid for at least one week after the return date.

Virtually all visitors require a Cuban visa or Tourist Card, available from travel agencies, tour operators or a Cuban consulate, for a stay of one month. These days cards are often given out on flights before landing. Check with your travel agency/flight operator before departure. Your stay can be extended for a further 30 days at an immigration office situated in any major provincial Cuban town (cost CUC$25). After 60 days you must leave the country - although you can return immediately.

Tourists from the USA

The USA officially prohibits its citizens from travelling to Cuba unless they obtain a special license and very heavy fines are imposed on visitors not fulfilling this requirement.

The US government will allow the following to travel to Cuba (decided on a case by case basis): official government travelers, journalists, persons visiting close relatives once in 3 years, full-time professionals conducting research, full-time professionals attending certain international conferences, and persons who have received a specific license.

The Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Treasury Department administers the Travel Restrictions. If you are subject to U.S. jurisdiction or you do not consider yourself to be but reside in the United States or are planning to leave from and/or reenter the United States, regardless of citizenship, residency, or immigration status, or point of departure from Cuba, you must travel under one of the categories of people permitted to travel to Cuba. [4]

Work or Study

If you are planning to work, do business or study in Cuba you need a visa; please contact Consulate General of Cuba.

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Money

See also Money Matters

There are two currencies in use in Cuba - the CUC (Convertible Peso) and the CUP (Cuban Peso). Tourists use the CUC. Cubans call the tourist dollar a "chavito" and the Cuban peso "moneda nacional" or MN. Very few travellers will see the Cuban Peso during their trips. The CUC has a pegged currency exchange rate of $1.08. The CUC is officially only exchangeable within the country. There is an additional 10% penalty assessed on US dollar conversions, so travellers are suggested to bring Canadian, Mexician or European currencies.

Coins in circulation are one-, five-, ten-, 25-, and 50-centavo coins and one- and five-peso coins - the one-centavo piece was introduced in 2000, and the five-peso coin is very rare. Banknotes in circulation are one-, three-, five-, ten-, 20-, 50-and 100-convertible peso bills.

To exchange money, currency exchange desks are set up in airports near the luggage carousel. In Havana's Jose Marti Airport, there is also an exchange counter in the public reception area and a bank on the 2nd floor. Throughout Cuba, any bank and most CADECA exchange counters will convert these four currencies. When departing Cuba, you can exchange most of your CUCs prior to arriving at the airport as occasionally, your currency of choice may not be available.

Visa and Mastercard issued by non-US or non US-affiliated banks are widely accepted in Cuba. In installations which accept credit cards for purchases, the rate at which your card will be processed (CUC prices are converted to US$ for processing) is 1.1124 (the current 1.08 exchange rate to US$ with an extra 3% "service charge").

ATMs are available, but do not work with most North American or European bank cards, and should not be relied upon. There are services where you can pre-load an ATM like card and use it in Cuba. See Amigo Travel Card for details.

Be aware that in the past US Dollars used to be widely accepted and used, however this was banned in November of 2004. You may find older information referring to the use of US dollars, but this information is out of date.

In major tourist areas, Euros (€) may be accepted, especially in Varadero, the Jardines del Rey Archipelago, Holguin, Santa Lucia Beach, in Camaguey, Covarrubias Beach, in Las Tunas, and Cayo Largo del Sur.

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Language

Related article: Spanish: Grammar, pronunciation and useful phrases

The country’s official language is Spanish, although most Cubans working in the tourism industry can communicate in English.

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Eat

Cuban cuisine is world famous and quite good. Sadly food shortages are common in Cuba and sometimes when it gets really bad travellers might want to bring some food with them. Try not to waste any food or over order due to the shortages.

Cuban food is a mixture of Spanish, African and Caribbean cuisine. The staple food in Cuba is based around meat; chicken, pork, beef and fish, usually served with rice, beans and/or potatoes (a carbohydrate rich diet). Vegetarianism is not a part of Cuban culture as vegetables are fairly scarce.

Cuba also offers a wide selection of tropical delights, with an abundance of different fruits to enjoy. Pineapples, coconuts, avocados and mangos are just a few of the tropical fruits that frequent a typical Cuban dish or dessert.

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Health

See als Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Cuba. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Cuba. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and vaccination against hepatitis B, rabies and typhoid are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccination, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also Travel Safety

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Keep Connected

Internet

In many cities the only way for tourists to access the internet is through the government's communications centers. Look for buildings bearing the name "ETECSA", which stands for Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. ETECSA also has internet stations in some of the larger government hotels and resorts. The connection speed is comparable to analog dial-up speed in Havana or slower in smaller locations, at a cost of 6 CUC/hour. This is payable by purchasing a prepaid scratch card with a PIN code granting you access for one hour. The same card can be used throughout the country at any ETECSA terminal, allowing you to disconnect after your session and use the remaining time on the card further at the next hotel/city you go to.

WI-FI in hotels and restaurants is certainly uncommon if not non-existent and tourists should not rely on this being available when planning their means of communication.

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

The country calling code to Cuba is 53. To make an international call from Cuba, the code is 119. The emergency number is 116 and information number 113.

GSM cell phones will work in Cuba (900 MHz). Cuba is one of the most expensive countries in which to communicate. When bringing your own cellphone, incoming phonecalls to Cuba cost about $1/minute. Outgoing calls from Cuba are similarly expensive, and can be as high as $5 per minute for making international when roaming with your cellphone from overseas.

A better way is to rent cellphones, which is possible at several stores in Havana, including one in the airport. The rates are 9 CUC per day (6 CUC for the phone and 3 CUC for the SIM card), plus about 36 cents a minute for prepaid cards. If you bring an unlocked GSM phone operating at 900 MHz (or quad-band world phone) you can buy a SIM card for 111 CUC, plus your prepaid minutes. If you're staying two weeks or more it makes sense to bring a cheap phone, buy a SIM card and prepaid minutes, then give the phone to a Cuban friend when you leave. Cellphones are among the most desired items for Cubans (bring a case for the phone too, Cubans are very fussy about keeping their phones scratch-free). You will have to go to a cellphone store with your friend and sign a paper to give the phone to your friend.

Post

Correos de Cuba operates the Cuban postal service. They are generally quite slow, and delivery is never guaranteed. Mail is read by Cuba’s censors; avoid politically sensitive comments. Also, never send cash! Post offices (correos) usually are open weekdays 8:00am to 6:00pm and on Saturday 8:00am to 3:00pm, but hours can vary widely. Most tourist hotels accept mail for delivery as well, which might be a better option. International airmail (correo aereo) averages from at least 2 weeks to over one month, and even domestic posts might take 1-2 weeks. When mailing from Cuba, write at least the country destination in Spanish (as well). International postcards, cost CUC 0.50 to all destinations; letters cost CUC 0.80. Within Cuba, letters cost from 15 centavos (20 grams or less) to 2.05 pesos (up to 500 grams); postcards cost 10 centavos. Stamps are available in US dollars as well (if buying at hotels, this is actually your only option) and can be bought at hotels and blue and white kiosks labelled Correos de Cuba. Parcels from Cuba must be unwrapped for inspection. It is far better to send packages through an express courier service, like DHL or the Cuban local one (called EMS), although the same regulation applies.

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Quick Facts

Cuba flag

Map of Cuba

[edit]

Capital
Havana
Population
11,180,000
Government
Communist state
Religions
Christianity (Catholic, Protestant)
Languages
Spanish
Calling Code
+53
Nationality
Cuban
Local name
La Habana

Contributors

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Cuba Travel Helpers

  • Utrecht

    Travelled by car through this magnificent country of caribbean communism. Ask for information as much as you want. Visited Havana, Vinales region, Trinidad, Camaguey, Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa.

    Ask Utrecht a question about Cuba
  • Jorgeguide

    Born, raised, educated and living in the island all my life and worked during 10 years in the tourist industry for a foreign travel agency officially registered in Cuba. Due to my previous job I used to travel..

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  • Cesar Omar

    giving addresses and useful phone numbers along the island

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  • CanadaKid

    Varadero, Havana, Tarara, Vinales Valley, Santa Maria del Mar.

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  • sergiocuba

    I was born and raised in Cuba. Fortunatelly I had the change to travel a lot inside my country. I go to Cuba every two years to visit my family and friends.

    Ask sergiocuba a question about Cuba

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This is version 66. Last edited at 7:24 on May 23, 14 by Utrecht. 57 articles link to this page.

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