Cuba, formally the Republic of Cuba, is a nation comprised of the island of Cuba, Isla de la Juventud, and a number of smaller archipelagos. Cuba is situated in the northern Caribbean, near the confluence of the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic Ocean. It is located south of both Florida and the Bahamas in the United States, west of Haiti, and north of Jamaica. Havana is the capital and biggest city; other significant cities include Santiago de Cuba and Camagüey. Cuba is the Caribbean’s biggest island, with an area of 109,884 square kilometers (42,426 square miles), and the second most populated after Hispaniola, with a population of over 11 million.
Cuba was inhabited by Amerindian tribes prior to Spanish invasion in the late 15th century. It remained a Spanish colony until 1898, when the Spanish–American War resulted in formal independence as a de facto protectorate of the United States in 1902. Cuba tried to develop its democratic system as a fledgling republic, but increasing political radicalism and socioeconomic conflict resulted in Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship in 1952. Further turmoil and instability resulted in Batista’s demise in January 1959 at the hands of the July 26 Movement, which later created a government headed by Fidel Castro. The state has been ruled by the Communist Party of Cuba since 1965. A source of disagreement between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, a nuclear war almost broke out during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Cuba is culturally regarded to be a part of Latin America. It is a multiethnic nation whose people, culture, and traditions stem from a variety of sources, including the indigenous Tano and Ciboney peoples, a lengthy history of Spanish colonization, the importation of African slaves, and a Cold War-era strong connection with the Soviet Union.
Cuba is a Marxist–Leninist one-party state, with the Constitution enshrining the vanguard Communist Party’s position. Independent human rights monitors have accused the Cuban government of a slew of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and torture. It is one of the world’s remaining planned economies, with exports of sugar, tobacco, coffee, and skilled labor dominating the economy. Cuba is classified as a nation with a high level of human development by the Human Development Index, ranking ninth in North America. Additionally, it scores favorably on many national performance indicators, including health care and education.
Changes to the US rules
On 20 July 2015, the United States and Cuba re-established diplomatic relations for the first time since 1960. Some financial and travel restrictions were eased, but normal tourism is still not allowed.
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Although the average income is only $15, Cubans are not technically “poor” because their basic needs are met by the government. They pay their monthly subsidised electricity and water bills of about $5, receive free education from primary school to university, can go to the doctor for free and receive free medicines. The social system takes care of the unemployed and provides them with housing and money for food. Life is not easy, but everyone can survive. Keep this in mind when it comes to tips or people begging on the street (rare). Some will even ask you for shampoo and soap because they have been told that tourists leave these products behind when they go home. Remember that all your actions can be projected onto tourists in general.
When to go In Cuba
The best time to travel is between December and April to avoid the storms and hurricanes before December and the sweltering heat of the Cuban summer, which can be unbearable for some. This is also the high season, so expect prices to rise during this time.
Weather & Climate in Cuba
As the entire island lies south of the Tropic of Cancer, the local climate is tropical, tempered by the northeast trade winds that blow all year round. The temperature is also determined by the Caribbean Current, which brings warm water from the equator. Cuba’s climate is therefore warmer than Hong Kong’s, which lies at about the same latitude as Cuba but has a subtropical rather than a tropical climate. Generally (with local variations) there is a drier season from November to April and a rainier season from May to October. The average temperature is 21°C in January and 27°C in July. The warm temperatures of the Caribbean Sea and Cuba’s location at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico make the country prone to frequent hurricanes. These occur most frequently in September and October.
Geography Of Cuba
Cuba is a group of islands in the northern Caribbean Sea, located at the confluence of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. It lies between latitudes 19° and 24°N and longitudes 74° and 85°W. The United States is 150 kilometres (93 miles) north and northwest of the Straits of Florida (to the nearest point of Key West, Florida), and the Bahamas is 21 kilometres (13 mi) north. Mexico is 210 kilometres (130 mi) away across the Yucatán Channel to the west (to the nearest point of Cabo Catoche, Quintana Roo state).
Haiti is 77 km (48 mi) to the east, Jamaica (140 km/87 mi) and the Cayman Islands to the south. Cuba is the main island surrounded by four smaller island groups: the Colorados Archipelago on the northwest coast, the Sabana-Camagüey Archipelago on the north-central Atlantic coast, the Jardines de la Reina on the south-central coast and the Canarreos Archipelago on the southwest coast.
The main island, called Cuba, is 1,250 km long and makes up most of the country’s surface area (104,556 km2). It is the largest island in the Caribbean and the 17th largest in the world. The main island consists mainly of flat to hilly plains, with the exception of the Sierra Maestra mountains in the southeast, the highest point of which is Pico Turquino (1,974 m).
The second largest island is Isla de la Juventud (Island of Youth) in the Canarreos Archipelago with an area of 2,200 km2 (849 sq mi). Cuba’s official area (land surface) is 109,884 km2 (42,426 sq mi). Its surface area is 110,860 km2 (42,803 sq mi), including coastal and territorial waters.
Demographic Of Cuba
According to the official 2010 census, the population of Cuba was 11,241,161, of which 5,628,996 were men and 5,612,165 were women. The birth rate (9.88 births per thousand inhabitants in 2006) is one of the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Although the country has grown by about 4 million people since 1961, the growth rate has been declining at the same time during this period, and the population began to decline in 2006 with a fertility rate of 1.43 children per woman.
In fact, this fertility decline is one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere and is largely attributed to unrestricted access to legal abortions: Cuba’s abortion rate in 1996 was 58.6 per 1,000 pregnancies, compared to an average of 35 in the Caribbean, 27 in Latin America as a whole and 48 in Europe. Contraceptive use is also widespread, estimated at 79 % of the female population (in the top third of countries in the Western Hemisphere).
Ethnic groups In Cuba
Cuba’s population is multi-ethnic, reflecting its complex colonial origins. Intermarriage between different groups is widespread, which explains the discrepancies in reports on the country’s racial composition: while the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami found that 62% of Cubans are black, the 2002 Cuban census found that a similar proportion of the population, 65.05%, was white.
In fact, Minority Rights Group International stated: “An objective assessment of the situation of Afro-Cubans remains problematic due to insufficient records and the lack of systematic studies, both before and after the revolution. Estimates of the proportion of people of African descent in the Cuban population vary widely, ranging from 34% to 62%.
A 2014 study found that autosomal genetic ancestry in Cuba was 72% European, 20% African and 8% Amerindian; 35% of maternal lineages were from Cuban Indians, compared to 39% African and 26% European, but male lineages were exclusively European (82%) and African (18%), indicating historical bias in mating between foreign men and indigenous women, rather than the other way around.
Asians make up about 1% of the population and are mostly of Chinese origin, followed by Filipinos, Japanese and Vietnamese. Many are descendants of agricultural labourers brought to the island by Spanish and American entrepreneurs in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The current number of Cubans of Chinese descent is 114,240.
The Afro-Cubans are mainly descended from the Yoruba people, as well as from several thousand North African refugees, including Sahrawis from Western Sahara.
Religion In Cuba
In 2010, the Pew Forum estimated the country’s religious affiliation at 65% Christian (60% Roman Catholic, about 6.9 million in 2016, 5% Evangelical Protestant, about 575,000 in 2016), 23% non-denominational, 17% folk religions (such as Santería), and the remaining 0.4% composed of other religions.
Cuba is officially a secular state. Religious freedom increased in the 1980s and the government amended the constitution in 1992 to no longer call the state atheist.
Roman Catholicism is the main religion dating back to Spanish colonisation. Although less than half the population identified as Catholic in 2006, it remains the dominant faith. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba in 1998 and 2011 respectively, and Pope Francis visited Cuba in September 2015. Before each papal visit, the Cuban government has pardoned prisoners in a humanitarian gesture.
The government’s easing of restrictions on house churches in the 1990s led to an “explosion of Pentecostalism”, with some groups claiming up to 100,000 members. However, the main evangelical sects organised in the Cuban Council of Churches remain much more powerful.
Cuba’s religious landscape is also strongly characterised by syncretisms of various kinds. Christianity is often practised together with Santería, a mixture of Catholicism and mainly African beliefs that includes a number of cults. The Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (Virgin of the Cobra) is the Catholic patron saint of Cuba and a symbol of Cuban culture. In Santería, she has been syncretised with the goddess Oshun.
Cuba is also home to small communities of Jews (500 in 2012), Muslims and members of the Baha’i faith.
Several well-known Cuban religious figures have worked outside the island, including the humanist and author Jorge Armando Pérez.
Language in Cuba
The official language of Cuba is Spanish, very similar to the Spanish of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, although the version here is very different from that spoken in Spain (although it is quite similar to that spoken in the Canary Islands, as many Cubans are descendants of Canarians), Mexico and South America. Cubans tend to swallow the last syllable of a word, usually the “s” sound.
Basic or correct English is spoken in some tourist locations and the language should not be a barrier to visiting the country for non-Spanish speaking tourists who can speak English, although a basic knowledge of Spanish can be useful, especially in more informal situations. Cubans love to talk to tourists, especially if you stay with them in “casas particulares”, and some knowledge of Spanish will help you understand the experiences of ordinary Cubans.
Instead of the Spanish “Que tal?” for “How are you?” Cubans say “Que vola?” (similar to “What’s up?”, usually quite informal) or “Como andas? (similar to “What’s up?”, usually quite informally) or “Como andas?” (literally means “How do you go?”). Young Cubans use the word “asere” among themselves, which means “buddy”, but is generally used between men and is not recommended for women.
Internet & Communications in Cuba
Cuba is inherently one of the most expensive and difficult places to communicate.
In Cuba, internet is provided by the state-owned telecommunications company ETESCA (under the brand name Nauta) and is only available at airports, upscale hotels and government communication centres. Finding a high-end hotel or government communication centre in big cities is actually quite easy, as you will literally see a lot of locals and tourists on the street with their mobile phones and laptops to access WiFi. Note, however, that this system is relatively new and has not yet spread throughout the island. If you visit small, non-touristy towns, don’t expect them to have an internet communication centre.
Buy a prepaid scratch card
Before you can connect to WiFi, you must purchase a prepaid scratch card. The main way to buy a card is through the government communications centre, which is branded ETESCA. The cost of a one-hour scratch card is CUC$2. There is also a 5-hour scratch card for CUC$10. If you want to buy more than one, don’t forget to bring a photo ID as the staff will need to take down your details for this. Be aware that the lines in the middle are quite long and move quite slowly.
You can also buy a Nauta internet card at an upscale hotel. The price of these cards varies from hotel to hotel and can range from cost price (CUC$2) when buying a drink at the bar to over CUC$8. There are also a number of unofficial vendors on the street or in small discreet shops selling the same Nauta internet cards. The prices for these cards are higher than those in the communication centre, but almost all accept CUC$3 after a little haggling.
Connect with WiFi
Once you have purchased the card, simply log into the hotspot, scratch your card to reveal the username and password and enter them into the Nauta login screen (which should appear automatically). If the login screen does not appear automatically (which is common on some phones and laptops), simply type 126.96.36.199 into your browser and the Nauta screen will appear.
If the time has expired, the internet will no longer work and you will have to enter the user name and password for a new card. If, on the other hand, you do not want to use the entire time card, you must log out. To do this, enter 188.8.131.52 in your browser and click on the “Log out” button.
In the evenings, between 8pm and 10pm, the internet tends to be slow as everyone tries to connect.
The country code for Cuba is 53.
The emergency number is 116. The information number is 113.
To use your mobile phone in Cuba, you must have a 900 MHz GSM phone (or a quad-band world phone). If you want to use international roaming, check with your phone company as most providers do not offer roaming in Cuba. You can also buy a SIM card for C$111, plus your prepaid minutes. If you don’t have a 900 MHz phone, you can rent one from various shops in Havana, including the airport. The charges are 9 CUC per day (6 CUC for the phone and 3 CUC for the SIM card), plus about 36 cents per minute for prepaid cards.
If you plan to stay in Cuba for more than two weeks, you can bring a phone, buy a SIM card and prepaid minutes, use it and then give the phone to a Cuban friend when you leave. Mobile phones are one of the most coveted items by Cubans (bring a case for the phone too, they are very fussy about not scratching their phones). You will need to go to a mobile phone shop with your friend and sign a paper to give them the phone. Don’t give your friend an unlimited plan that charges your credit card!
Cuba Headlines, Cuba News Headlines. Cuba Daily News, Cuba news, articles and daily information.
14ymedio, the first independent digital medium, some articles are also translated into English.
Most radio stations are available live on the internet [www].
If you’re staying in a hotel or casa particular, there’s likely to be a TV, and Cuban TV is a great way to watch Cuba’s unique mix of vibrant culture, sport and controversial politics.
Cuban telenovelas are one of the state’s most important tools to fight sexual taboos and educate young people about AIDS, for example. Locally produced cartoons are the most interesting and typically Cuban. They range from the abstract and artistic to the informative and entertaining.
The most famous representative of this genre is the children’s programme Elpidio Valdés, which tells the adventures of a group of rebels in revolt against the Spanish in the 19th century. The mix of slapstick humour and images of violent revolution (dashing revolutionaries stealing weapons, blowing up Spanish forts and sticking pistols in the mouths of ridiculous Spanish generals) in a programme aimed at children is both delightful and disturbing.
There are courses under the title “Universidad Para Todos” (University for All) whose aim is to teach Cubans subjects such as mathematics and grammar through television. One of the channels is also called “Canal Educativo”, although it uses the term “educational” in the broadest sense, including foreign soap operas and pop concerts.
Economy Of Cuba
The Cuban state claims to adhere to socialist principles in the organisation of its largely state-controlled planned economy. Most means of production are owned and managed by the government and the majority of the labour force is employed by the state. In recent years, there has been a trend towards more employment in the private sector. In 2006, public sector employment was 78% and private sector employment was 22%, compared to 91.8% and 8.2% in 1981. Cuba’s public expenditure as a percentage of GDP is 78.1%. Any company wishing to hire a Cuban must pay the Cuban government, which in turn pays the employee in Cuban pesos. The average monthly wage is 466 Cuban pesos (as of July 2013), which is equivalent to about 19 US dollars.
Cuba has a dual currency system in which most wages and prices are set in Cuban pesos (CUP), while the tourism industry operates with convertible pesos (CUC) set at parity with the US dollar. Every Cuban household has a ration book (called libreta) that entitles them to a monthly supply of food and other basic goods provided at a low price.
Before Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959, Cuba was one of the most advanced and prosperous countries in Latin America. The Cuban capital, Havana, was a “glittering and dynamic city”. At the turn of the century, the country’s economy had grown rich, fuelled by the sale of sugar to the United States. Cuba ranks 5th in the hemisphere in per capita income, 3rd in life expectancy, 2nd in per capita ownership of automobiles and telephones, and 1st in per capita ownership of televisions. Cuba’s literacy rate of 76% was the fourth highest in Latin America. Cuba also ranks 11th in the world for the number of doctors per capita. Several private clinics and hospitals provide services to the poor. Income distribution in Cuba compares favourably with other Latin American societies. However, income inequality between urban and rural areas, especially between whites and blacks, has been a major problem. Cubans live in abysmal poverty in the countryside. A thriving middle class, according to PBS, was the promise of prosperity and social mobility. According to Cuban historian Louis Perez of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Havana was then what Las Vegas became.”
After the Cuban Revolution and before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba relied on Moscow for substantial aid and protected markets for its exports. The removal of these subsidies plunged the Cuban economy into a rapid depression known in Cuba as the Special Period. Cuba took limited free-market measures to alleviate severe shortages of food, consumer goods and services. These measures included allowing self-employment in certain areas of retail and light industry, legalising the use of the US dollar in business transactions and promoting tourism. Cuba developed a unique system of urban farms (organopónicos) to compensate for the end of food imports from the Soviet Union. It is widely believed that the US embargo, imposed in response to discontent over the nationalisation of property owned by US citizens and later over perceived human rights violations, is damaging the Cuban economy. In 2009, the Cuban government estimated that the U.S. embargo was costing it $685 million a year.
The Cuban leadership has called for reforms in the country’s agricultural system. In 2008, Raúl Castro began agricultural reforms to boost food production, as 80 per cent of food was imported at the time. The reforms adopted aim to expand land use and increase efficiency. Venezuela provides Cuba with about 110,000 barrels (17,000 m3) of oil per day in exchange for money and the services of about 44,000 Cubans, mostly medical personnel, in Venezuela. Venezuelan aid is estimated to be more than 20% of Cuba’s GDP in 2008-2010, similar to aid flows from the Soviet Union in 1985-1988.
In 2005, Cuba had exports of US$2.4 billion, ranking 114th out of 226 countries in the world, and imports of US$6.9 billion, ranking 87th out of 226 countries. The main export partners are Canada (17.7%), China (16.9%), Venezuela (12.5%), the Netherlands (9%) and Spain (5.9%) (2012). Cuba’s main exports are sugar, nickel, tobacco, fish, medical products, citrus fruits and coffee; imports include food, fuel, clothing and machinery. Cuba currently has an estimated debt of $13 billion, or about 38% of GDP. According to the Heritage Foundation, Cuba relies on credit accounts that rotate from country to country. Cuba’s sugar supply, which used to account for 35% of the global export market, has fallen to 10% due to a variety of factors, including a decline in the global price of sugar that has made Cuba less competitive in world markets. In 2008, it was announced that wage caps would be abandoned to improve the country’s productivity.
In 2010, Cubans were allowed to build their own houses. According to Raúl Castro, with this new permission they can improve their houses, but the government will not approve these new houses or improvements. There is virtually no homelessness in Cuba, and 85 per cent of Cubans own their homes and pay no property taxes or interest on their mortgages. Mortgage payments cannot exceed 10 % of the combined household income.
On 2 August 2011, the New York Times reported that Cuba had confirmed its intention to legalise the “buying and selling” of private property by the end of the year. According to experts, the sale of private property “could change Cuba more than any of the economic reforms announced by President Raúl Castro’s government.” It will lead to the elimination of more than one million public jobs, including those of party bureaucrats who oppose the changes. The new economic reforms have effectively created a new economic system, referred to by some as the “new Cuban economy”. In October 2013, Raúl declared his intention to merge the two currencies. As of August 2016, the dual currency system remains in place.
In August 2012, a specialist from the “Cubaenergia Company” announced the opening of the first solar power plant in Cuba. As a member of the Cubasolar Group, there was also talk of 10 more plants in 2013.
Tourism in Cuba
Tourism in Cuba is an industry that generates more than 2 million arrivals per year and is one of the island’s main sources of income. With its favourable climate, beaches, colonial architecture and distinct cultural history, Cuba has long been an attractive destination for tourists. “Cuba maintains 253 protected areas, 257 national monuments, seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, seven natural biosphere reserves and 13 wildlife sanctuaries, among other non-tourist areas.”
Since Cuba was the closest Spanish colony to the United States until 1898, it continued to benefit from large investments, the creation of industries and travel in the first half of the twentieth century. The proximity and close relations with the United States also allowed the Cuban market economy to flourish relatively quickly. When relations between Cuba and the United States deteriorated rapidly after the Cuban Revolution and the resulting expropriation and nationalisation of businesses, an embargo cut the island off from its traditional market and imposed a travel ban on American citizens visiting Cuba. The tourism industry fell to a record low in the two years after Castro came to power. Unlike the United States, Canada normalised relations with Cuba in the 1970s, and Canadians increasingly travelled to Cuba for holidays. About one-third of visitors to Cuba per year (as of 2014) are Canadians. The Cuban government has softened its nationalisation policy and has allowed private companies since 2011. It is also pursuing revitalisation programmes to boost tourism. The United States resumed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015 and the tourism industry is expected to benefit greatly from the normalisation of relations with the United States in the near future.
Until 1997, contacts between tourists and Cubans were de facto prohibited by the communist regime. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner, and the resulting economic crisis known as the “Special Period”, the Cuban government launched a massive programme to restore old hotels, preserve old pre-communist American cars and restore some of Havana’s streets to their former glory, as well as building resorts to boost the tourism industry in order to bring much-needed funds to the island. To ensure that international tourism was isolated from the state-isolated Cuban society, it was to be promoted in enclave resorts where tourists would be separated as much as possible from Cuban society, so-called “enclave tourism” and “tourist apartheid”.
By the late 1990s, tourism had overtaken Cuba’s traditional export industry, sugar, as the country’s main source of income. Visitors come mainly from Canada and Western Europe and tourist areas are heavily concentrated in Varadero, Cayo Coco, the beach areas north of Holguin and Havana. The impact on Cuba’s socialist society and economy has been significant. In recent years, however, Cuban tourism has declined due to the economic recession, escalating conflicts and fears of foreign investment, and internal economic restrictions. Since reopening to tourism in the mid-1990s, Cuba has not achieved the expected growth, but has experienced a relatively weak restoration and slow growth. The lack of foreign investment has also had a negative impact. Since then, the Dominican Republic has overtaken Cuba in terms of tourism, new developments and investment.
Tourism according to sectors
In addition to the traditional income from tourism, Cuba also attracts health tourists, who bring about $40 million in annual revenue to the Cuban economy. Cuba has been a popular destination for health tourism for over 20 years. In 2005, more than 19,600 foreign patients travelled to Cuba to undergo a variety of treatments, including eye surgery, neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, and orthopaedic treatments. Many patients come from Latin America, although medical treatment for retinitis pigmentosa, often called night blindness, has attracted many patients from Europe and North America.
Some have complained that foreign “health tourists” who pay in dollars receive better quality care than Cuban citizens. Former leading Cuban neurosurgeon and dissident Dr Hilda Molina says the central revolutionary goal of free, quality medical care for all has been eroded by Cuba’s need for foreign currency. Molina says that after the economic collapse known in Cuba as the “special period”, the Cuban government put in place mechanisms to turn the medical system into a for-profit enterprise, leading to inequality in the quality of health services between Cubans and foreigners.
Cuba is a rich mixture of different cultures of Europeans, Africans and indigenous people. This is reflected in Cuban architecture, music, dance, food and handicrafts. Cuba is implementing programmes to renovate its heritage sites, such as the colonial buildings in Havana and Matanzas.
Although Fidel Castro tried to eliminate prostitution after coming to power, the gap between typical Cuban wages (less than US$1 per day) and the purchasing power of foreign tourists lures some Cuban women, including minors, into prostitution. However, allegations of widespread sex tourism have been downplayed by Cuban Justice Minister Maria Esther Reus. According to the Miami Herald, prostitution is not illegal in Cuba, but procuring a prostitute for others is prohibited. The age of sexual consent on the island is 16. According to a Canadian government travel advisory website, “Cuba is actively working to prevent child sex tourism, and a number of tourists, including Canadians, have been convicted of offences related to the seduction of minors under 16. The prison sentences range from seven to 25 years.” In Cuba, it is illegal to import, possess or produce pornography.
While the growth of tourism has benefited Havana economically, it has also had some negative side effects. One of these side effects is the revival of sex tourism in the city. Sex tourism was a central part of the tourism industry before the revolution. However, after 1960, prostitution on the island was essentially eradicated due to government initiatives and a significant decline in demand as tourism was minimised. However, the practice of prostitution increased with the development of tourism in the 1990s. The demographic profile of tourists (the overwhelming majority are men between the ages of 25 and 60) is an important indicator of the existence of prostitution. In addition, websites and magazines such as Playboy have highlighted the potential for heterosexual and homosexual sex tourism. According to Trumbull, many prostitutes engage in the practice out of economic necessity, but they do not work under repressive conditions, and many prostitutes in contemporary Havana see this work as a way to earn a better living than if they were working in open jobs in the city. So today’s prostitution is different in this respect from the sex tourism of the 1950s.
Social impacts of tourism
As tourism plays an increasingly important role in the economy, a large percentage of young people migrate to resorts in search of jobs in the tourism industry. Many of them, working in menial jobs, can earn more from tips than from professional work. This creates an economic and social divide in Cuba between those who are employed in the tourism industry and those who are not.
Tourist Hotels and Cuban Hotels
Between 1992 and 2008, some hotels and resorts were open only to foreign tourists in order to obtain much-needed hard currency, leading to accusations of “tourist apartheid”. This policy was reversed by the Cuban government in 2008.
The Cuban tourism policy of the early 1990s, driven by the government’s urgent need to earn hard currency, had a major impact on the underlying egalitarianism espoused by the Cuban Revolution. Two parallel economies and societies quickly emerged, separated by their access to the newly legalised US dollar. Those who had access to dollars through their contact with the lucrative tourism industry suddenly found themselves at a distinct financial advantage over professional, industrial and agricultural workers.
In order to ensure the isolation of international tourism from Cuban society, tourism was to be promoted in enclave resorts where tourists would be separated from Cuban society as much as possible. This idea was not lost on the average Cuban citizen, and the government’s tourism policy was quickly labelled “enclave tourism” and “tourist apartheid”.
In 1992, as Cuba entered a period of severe economic austerity, Fidel Castro defended the newly introduced policies in a speech to the Cuban National Assembly. He described the measures as an economic necessity that had to be maintained as long as the country needed foreign currency. According to Castro, the government is considering “formulas” that would allow Cubans to use certain tourist facilities as a reward for outstanding work, but he believes that allowing Cubans to access facilities at the expense of paying foreign tourists would ultimately be a counterproductive measure for the economy.
Until 1997, contact between tourists and Cubans was de facto forbidden, and Cubans seen in contact with tourists were considered potential thieves by the police. Complaints from global human rights groups and the upcoming visit of the Pope have helped to reverse this situation, although such contact is still frowned upon. Police often demand identity checks on all Cubans seen in contact with tourists. Identification of tourists is usually not checked unless the tourist is dark-skinned and mistaken for a Cuban. Despite the restrictions, average Cubans make a living from the Cuban tourism industry and many simply see the policy as unavoidable.
Raúl Castro’s government ended the policy of restricting certain hotels and services to tourists in March 2008. In addition to Cubans being officially allowed to stay in any hotel, this change also opened up access to previously off-limits areas such as Cayo Coco. In practice, however, access remains very limited, as the vast majority of Cubans do not have access to the hard currency needed to stay in these hotels.
Entry Requirements For Cuba
A tourist visa (visa de tarjeta del turista) is required for travellers from most nations. This visa, which is little more than a piece of paper on which you write your personal details, costs between 15 and 25 CUC (or €15-25), depending on where it is purchased. It can be purchased on arrival at the Cuban airport, but it should be noted that many airlines require a valid tourist visa card before boarding. The visa is usually valid for 30 days and can be extended once for a further 30 days at any immigration office in Cuba (for 25 CUC) – beyond this you must fly out of Cuba during the visa extension period. Canadians are the exception: you get 90 days on arrival and can apply for a 90-day extension. Your passport must be valid for at least six months beyond the end of your planned return journey. Canadian passports must be valid for at least one month after the planned departure date.
From Canada, the tourist card is usually handed out on the flight. It can also be purchased at most Latin American airports if you are departing from there (Cancun: MXN 250, Mexico City: USD 25). Please note that if you are departing from Europe (this may also apply to other countries), you will need the visa before boarding the plane. Sometimes the airline provides these at the airport, but check beforehand if this is the case. Without a valid visa, you will be refused boarding (the airline would otherwise be fined $1,000 by the Cuban immigration authorities).
UNITED KINGDOM: Applying for a visa is a very simple process that can be done by post or in person at the Cuban Embassy in London. If you go to the Cuban Consulate by post, there is a new fee introduced in 2011 which is £25 for a non-personal transaction. If you can’t get to the Cuban consulate, consider using VisaCuba as it can be cheaper. Through them, the total cost is £20 per person. If you go to the Cuban consulate in person, you will get the visa immediately. You can also go through online agencies as mentioned above, although these are a little more expensive (usually £15 + £15 additional administration and postage costs).
Germany: You can obtain the tourist card from the Cuban embassy in your country. However, travel agencies often offer cheaper and faster services.
Regular tourists who extend their 30-day visa can leave the country (to any destination) and return immediately with an additional 60 days (30 days plus a 30-day extension). Only two consecutive stays are allowed in this way.
If you want to stay with friends or family in Cuba, you must go to a migration office with your prospective host within two days of your arrival and pay 40 CUC for a 30-day family visa.
Citizens of Antigua and Barbuda (28 days), Barbados (28 days), Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, CIS (except Ukraine and Uzbekistan), Dominica, Grenada (60 days), Liechtenstein (90 days), Macedonia Malaysia (90 days), Mongolia, Montenegro (90 days), Namibia, Singapore, Slovakia, St. Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Serbia (90 days) and Turkmenistan, which can stay 30 days without a visa. (The source of the previous sentence is unknown. Aeromexico staff at Cancun airport say that only citizens from China and Russia do not need a visa).
It should be noted that when leaving Cuba by plane, an exit tax of 25 CUC must be paid in cash; when leaving by boat, this tax is not required. This tax is not well known, but it is important to remember it. You will encounter great difficulties if you do not have enough cash to pay this tax when you leave the country. There is an ATM and exchange office at Havana airport, but these facilities are not as reliable in Cuba as in other places.
Cuban customs can be strict, but they are sometimes lenient with tourists.
Born in Cuba
To enter Cuba, Cuban citizens who are permanent residents of another country must have a valid Cuban passport and the appropriate authorisation. This authorisation is called the “habilitación” of the passport. To obtain this authorisation, the Cuban citizen must be recognised as a migrant by the Cuban government.
Most people born in Cuba who are citizens of other countries still need a valid Cuban passport to enter Cuba. The Cuban government does not recognise citizenships acquired by someone born in Cuba. This means that all Cubans are considered Cuban citizens by birth, even if they have another nationality.
An exception to this rule are Cubans who were born before 1 January 1971 and emigrated from Cuba. In this case, they can enter Cuba with a non-Cuban passport and the appropriate visa. It should be noted, however, that some consulates have been known to disregard this exception and require travellers to purchase a Cuban passport at considerable cost. The Cuban consulate in Sydney, Australia, is one such consulate that has reportedly done this.
Americans in Cuba
Although the Cuban government allows US citizens to travel there, the US itself prohibits its citizens from travelling there unless they have a licence issued by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The specific restriction is not to spend money in Cuba. However, the US authorities consider any visit of more than one day as sufficient evidence that money has been spent in Cuba. In addition, OFAC considers that US citizens may not receive goods or services free of charge from a Cuban national, so any attempt to circumvent the regulations on this premise is precluded.
With a license
All American citizens are required to have a permit in the USA, even if they are travelling through a third country.
Licenses for US persons to spend money in Cuba are granted to certain categories of persons for certain purposes.
A general authorization does not require any administrative formalities and can be applied for the following activities
Professional journalists on assignment in Cuba
Full-time professionals who conduct academic research or participate in professional conferences.
Persons in an official government function
A specific license requires paperwork and approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on a case-by-case basis. You may be approved for a specific licence if you belong to a specific group of people. Note that a specific licence may be granted to an institution (e.g. university, church) under whose auspices a person may then travel without making a separate application to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or a specific licence may be applied for and granted to an individual. Some of the categories of persons to whom a special licence may be issued are:
People visiting their immediate family in Cuba
Full-time graduate students conducting academic research that counts towards a graduate degree.
Students or graduates participating in a study abroad programme lasting at least 10 weeks
Professors/teachers employed by a US institution who travel to Cuba to teach.
Persons engaged in religious activities
People involved in humanitarian projects
Persons participating in non-commercial cultural exhibitions
You may not travel to Cuba for tourism purposes. However, US citizens whose primary interest is tourism may be granted permission to travel as part of a programme whose activities are sufficiently religious, educational, cultural or otherwise exempt to qualify for a permit. It is even possible for a person with credible experience, such as in freelance journalism or teaching, to develop a “mission statement” for their visit that would allow them to obtain a permit. Further details and forms are available from the US Department of State.
Instead, many US citizens travel without permits and travel through other countries (many of which have routine flights to and from Cuba) to avoid detection. These countries include the Bahamas, Canada and Mexico. However, many airports in the Bahamas, Canada, Costa Rica and Jamaica now have US Customs pre-clearance facilities.
About the Bahamas
From Nassau, Cubana flies to Havana every day except Saturday. Bahamasair offers flights on Thursdays and Sundays. This is the cheapest and fastest route to Havana, especially for those living in the South Florida area.
A common practice for US citizens travelling to Cuba via Canada is to fly in two legs: a reservation for a flight to (and from) Canada and then a separate reservation for the flight to (and from) Cuba. The two legs must be booked separately, as airlines such as Air Canada prohibit booking passengers from the US to Cuba. It is also possible to drive across the border by car or to be driven and dropped off in a Canadian city and continue from there. Those living near Detroit or Buffalo have an easier time, as non-stop flights to Havana leave from Montreal or Toronto.
Mexico is considered safer and is probably the most popular. However, there is still some risk: if you travel from Mexico to Cuba (where your passport is not stamped) and then return to Mexico, you will have two Mexican entry stamps; having two consecutive Mexican entry stamps could raise suspicion if your passport is checked carefully. If you decide to re-enter Mexico from Cuba, you can try to convince the Mexican immigration officer not to stamp your passport a second time.
In the past, you could try to enter Mexico a second time with a birth certificate + U.S. ID so that you only had one stamp in your passport. This was allowed under Mexican law for U.S. citizens, but since 1 March 2010, all U.S. citizens – including children – must present a valid passport or ID to travel beyond the “border zone” within Mexico.
Another safe option would be to buy an open-jaw ticket (e.g. Cancun-Havana and then Havana-Guatemala). Mexico does not stamp passports on exit, and in this case your passport would show that you flew from Cancun to Guatemala City (or whichever city is your final destination from Havana).
Cancún is one of the easiest gateways, with several airlines offering daily flights to Havana. While it can be a little disconcerting to show up there not knowing what to expect, if you arrive earlier in the day, it’s usually possible to go to one of the airline counters and buy a ticket for the same day, as flights on this route are rarely full. Try Cubana. Aeromexico offers two flights a week.
US citizens also travel through countries without US customs offices (Guatemala, Venezuela, Panama, Cayman Islands, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Haiti, etc.) to reduce the risk of being caught. Many take the risk and hope they will not be questioned. Cuban travel agents advise US citizens not to bring anything identifiable as Cuban (including tickets and receipts) before returning to the country.
How To Travel To Cuba
Get In - By air
Jose Martí International Airport, outside Havana, is the main gateway and is served by major airlines from points in Canada, Mexico and Europe. A direct flight to Beijing was introduced in 2016. There are also regional flights from other Caribbean islands. Cuba’s national airline, Cubana de Aviacion, connects the island with a handful of destinations in Mexico, South and Central America, Canada and Europe. With the easing of sanctions against Cuba, direct flights from the main US will begin in 2016.
Flights from Miami to Cuba are available for authorised US passengers. Try calling Cuba Travel Services (CTS Charters). They offer daily non-stop flights between Los Angeles and Miami to Cuba. There are also regular holiday charters to resorts like Varadero, and these flights are sometimes cheaper than those to Havana.
The airports are all fully air-conditioned and quite modern compared to other Caribbean destinations. They offer good medical care in case of problems and are usually relatively unproblematic. Your checked baggage, on the other hand, is at great risk. It is increasingly common for your luggage to be opened and valuables stolen. This used to be a problem only at Jose Marti International Airport (Havana), but it seems to have spread to all airports. It is extremely risky, if not foolish, to place valuables in checked luggage.
Please note that if you have purchased an oneworld ticket, all further flights to America during this year will be banned by American Airlines.
While Havana is by far the most popular port of entry, there are also flights to Santiago de Cuba from some of Cuba’s closest neighbours in the Caribbean, Jamaica and Haiti. There are also flights from cities further afield, such as Miami, Toronto, Madrid and Paris. Santiago de Cuba is connected to the rest of the country by road and rail.
There are also regular charter flights to resorts like Varadero, which can sometimes be cheaper than those to Havana.
Get In - With the boat
There is currently no ferry service from Cancun to Cuba as the sole operator of this route, Aqua Cruises, no longer operates this route. There is also no ferry connection between Florida and Cuba, but several cruise companies have announced that they will operate this route when the embargo is lifted.
Boaters are expected to anchor in public marinas. Most marinas are closed and tourists are not allowed to enter. Private boats can moor at Hemingway Marina in Havana or Acua Marina in Varadero. There is no visa requirement. Expect to hand over several $10 notes to facilitate your entry.
How To Travel Around Cuba
Get Around - By bus
The bus is the most popular way to get around the island. There are two long-distance bus lines, Viazul, which is usually for tourists, and Astro, which is usually for locals. Shorter routes are served by local provincial buses.
Víazul is Cuba’s main tourist bus line and the most convenient public transport to visit the island. Viazul operates modern, air-conditioned long-distance buses with toilets to most places of interest. The buses are reliable and punctual as there is little traffic in Cuba. The buses can theoretically be used by anyone, including Cubans, but in reality few Cubans can afford the convertible peso fares.
Reservations can be made in advance on their website, but this is usually only necessary for travel to or from popular destinations in high season. Reservations can also be made at a Viazul ticket office (usually at or near the bus stop). If the bus is full, you will most likely be offered a ride in a shared taxi at the same price as the bus. If there is no shared taxi to your destination, the ticket agent will probably advise you to arrive half an hour before the departure time and wait for a late cancellation. If there is a late cancellation, you can buy a “ticket” from the bus driver.
You can find Viazul’s timetables on their website. As internet access is difficult in Cuba, it is advisable to download or print the bus timetables in advance. A useful one-page Viazul bus timetable can be found on the Cuba-Individual website. Refreshments are not served on the bus, but buses stop for meal breaks at motorway service areas along the route. The buses are often equipped with air conditioning, so bring something warm to wear.
Astro is the main bus line for Cubans. Astro has recently renewed its fleet with 300 new Chinese buses that are as comfortable as Viazul’s (without the toilets). Although the new buses have proved unreliable and break down frequently, they are still better than the old buses Astro used to operate. Astro has a much larger route network than Viazul and the tickets are much cheaper. Officially, Astro bus tickets can only be sold to Cubans and foreign students who are studying in Cuba (and can prove this with a Cuban student ID). However, many foreign travellers have reported that they can buy an Astro bus ticket. Whether you can buy a ticket depends on your salesperson, your knowledge of Spanish and whether the destination is covered by Viazul. Astro buses usually depart from the same location as Viazul.
There are also local provincial buses that go to destinations in neighbouring provinces (e.g. you can take these buses from Santiago to Bayamo or Guantanamo). These buses are often overcrowded and are usually old Eastern European vehicles (pre-1960s). Each city has a “land terminal” from which these buses depart and which is usually easy to find (in La Habana, for example, it is at the Lido, while in Santiago it is on Calle 4).
Local buses are cheap, journeys never cost more than 1-2 CUC for long journeys (compared to 5-10 CUP for locals). It is important to note that queues will be long (it is best to arrive early in the morning or tip the driver to skip the queue) and you should always indicate that you are a student as it is theoretically illegal for tourists to use this mode of transport.
Get Around - By shared taxi (Collectivos)
A popular alternative to travelling by bus is to use shared taxis or collectivos. These are modern or old vehicles that carry 3 to 5 passengers (depending on the size of the vehicle). The main advantage of a collectivo is that it will take you to your hotel or casa for a similar price to a Viazul bus ticket. They are also usually faster, stop at cheaper motorway service areas and give you the opportunity to meet locals.
The easiest way to buy a ride in a shared taxi is to simply arrive at a main bus station and look for the nearest available taxi going to your destination. There will be a number of hawkers who will try to sell you a seat in their colleague’s taxi, so finding a car is fairly easy. Be aware that the taxi will not leave until the car reaches capacity. So try to find one that already has a number of confirmed passengers to reduce your waiting time. The best time to take a collectivo is in the morning, as this is when most locals are out and about and you are more likely to find a taxi to your destination. The price for a collectivo is about the same as for an equivalent Viazul bus ticket. Be sure to negotiate the price before you get in the car.
Another option is to book a shared taxi in advance at a tourist information office. These offices are usually located near a Viazul bus station and will reserve a taxi for you on the day of your departure. Note that these taxis only run when the taxi is full. So make sure there are enough confirmed passengers for the journey. If the taxi is not full and you need to go that day, be prepared to pay for the empty seats or the taxi will not go.
Finally, be aware that some shared taxis operate illegally and if the driver is stopped by the police, you may have to get out of the car and be stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Get Around - By car
In Cuba, all vehicles drive on the right side of the road.
Car rental starts at 65 CUC per day (including insurance), plus the cost of one tank of fuel. Refundable deposits start at around 200 CUC. The rental cars are mostly fairly new, imported European or Asian models. You can rent cars at any Cubacar branch. Any fines received will be noted on a sheet from the car rental company and deducted from your rental deposit. Note that if you are involved in a serious traffic accident resulting in injury or death, you will be detained in Cuba until the legal proceedings are completed. This leaves travellers stranded in Cuba for several months to a year while they await trial – even if the visitor was not at fault or was only a passenger at the time of the collision. For this reason, many countries advise their citizens against renting a car in Cuba. Beware of insurance fraud. There is only one type of insurance policy that covers everything (except radio and tyres) and the price only varies depending on the type of car (details in the “Staying safe” section). Check the contract carefully and make sure you have a receipt for every CUC you pay.
The busier roads and city streets are generally of good quality (passable) and should not be a problem if proper care is taken, but some quiet country roads are badly in need of repair.
In general, traffic is light, especially outside Havana. Outside the cities, traffic is generally very light, with no cars for miles on some rural roads. Beware, you also share the highways with local cheese and snack vendors, cyclists (sometimes on the wrong side of the road and usually without lights at night) and horse-drawn vehicles. Also note that the autopista (the main highway through the interior) is occasionally crossed by railway tracks – be sure to drive slowly before crossing to avoid damage to tyres or suspension. Many of these tracks have a stop sign (“PARE” in Spanish) that you must obey or you will be fined 30 CUC, even if there is no train.
The roads are poorly signposted (and often not signposted at all). So if you plan to drive in earnest, it would be advisable to get a detailed map and ask for directions if in doubt.
Be aware that many traffic lights, especially in cities, are placed at the FAR corner of the intersection, not where you are supposed to stop, giving the appearance that you are being asked to stop in the middle of the intersection.
Cubans tend not to speed, and chances are you will be the fastest car on the road. In addition to random locations, speed limits are enforced at semi-permanent checkpoints. These are usually located at intersections and are signposted several kilometres in advance. Most will ask you to slow down to 40km/h. Respect this limit or you will receive a 30C fine. Respect this limit or you will be fined 30CUC.
Petrol costs 1.00 CUC/regular, 1.20 CUC/special and 1.40 CUC/super per litre. Rental cars for tourists are not regular.
Get Around - Hitchhiking and the “El Amarillo”
The hitchhiking facilitation system set up by the Cuban government is by far the most economical way for foreigners to travel in Cuba, although a flexible schedule and good Spanish are essential. Known as “El Amarillo” (“the yellow one”) because of the yellow and beige uniforms of its administrators, the system consists of points along the main roads where certain vehicles must stop to pick up hitchhikers. Amarillo points (“el punto amarillo”) along major highways are often complete rest areas for hitchhikers, with water, food at peso prices and a covered 24-hour waiting room.
Hitchhiking is the only system that allows you to travel at Cuban prices without paying a tourist surcharge. Since transport is one of the biggest expenses for a tourist in Cuba, you can spend a lot more this way. Tell people you are a student (not a tourist) to avoid amused looks and inflated prices.
To use the system in cities, simply look out for a man or woman in a yellow/beige uniform standing at the side of the road near a queue of people. Tell the officer where you need to go and wait. For longer distances, you need to go to the “punto amarillo”, which is on the outskirts of the city in the direction you want to go. Ask a local to help you find the best way. Then, when driving through towns, ask which bus or taxi you need to take to get to the “punto amarillo” on the out-of-town road at the other end of town. This can be tricky and it is often worth taking a local taxi. If you can find a Cuban to accompany you on your journey, their help will be invaluable.
During the day, when the Amarillo is present, you pay a small fee (about 20 pesos from town to town) to the official when you find transport. All the money goes to the government; the drivers get nothing. Therefore, it is much easier to drive long distances at night when the amarillo has gone home and the drivers can earn some money by picking up hitchhikers.
Of course, it is always possible to hitchhike by giving passing cars a thumbs-up, but be prepared to give the driver 20-50 pesos for a long ride. This practice is common in the countryside, near small towns and along the major “autopistas”, long, mostly straight roads that resemble an interstate system. The locals call this act “hacer botella”, meaning to hitchhike. “Dar botella” means to give someone a ride and “pedir botella” means to ask for a ride. The rides usually start and end at the various exits along the road, where there are usually a few people waiting and sometimes an official waving to the passing vehicles.
Most of the driving you will do is in the back of large trucks, exposed to the weather. This is an exciting and beautiful way to explore the Cuban countryside. Although an accident would obviously be very dangerous for the passengers, school children, older adults and parents with young children use this system every day. Be sure to protect yourself from the sun and rain and, if travelling at night, from the wind and cold.
Get Around - By train
The country’s main railway line connects Havana with Santiago de Cuba, with important stops in Santa Clara and Camagüey. Trains also serve other cities such as Cienfuegos, Manzanillo, Morón, Sancti Spiritus and Pinar del Rio.
There is one reliable train in Cuba: the Tren Francés, which provides a nightly service between Havana and Santiago de Cuba every other day. It uses equipment formerly operated by the Trans-Europe Express, which France gave to Cuba a few years ago (hence the name). On this train there are first class and special first class seats (the special seats are better and more expensive), but no sleeping cars. If there is only one train in Cuba, this is it.
All other trains in Cuba are unreliable. The equipment is often in poor condition, breakdowns are common and when they occur you can be stuck most of the day (or night) waiting for a replacement locomotive. There is no service on the trains, so bring plenty of food and water. Trains are often cancelled. Some trains offer first class seats (don’t expect too much); others have second class seats, which can be very uncomfortable. Timetables are optimistic at best and should always be checked before travelling. Sleeping berths are not available on night routes.
If you are still considering taking a train other than the Tren Francès, you should know that many Cubans prefer to hitchhike rather than take the train.
If you still decide to take the train, you will find approximate times under the descriptions of each city. Foreigners have to pay much higher fares (which are still very cheap) than locals. Tickets cost about two-thirds of what Viazul charges. Flying is a hassle, so watch your luggage!
The following services can be expected (special first class: air-conditioned, reservation required, food and beverages available; regular first class: more comfortable seats, otherwise like second class):
1/2, every third day, Habana Central – Santiago de Cuba, “Tren Frances”, train, first class
3/4, every third day, Habana Central – Guantánamo, train, second class
5/6, every third day, Habana Central – Santiago de Cuba, train, second class
7/8, every third day, Habana Central – Bayamo, train, second class, continue as 28/29
9/10, every other day, Habana Central – Sancti Spiritus, “El Espirituano”, train, second class
11/12, two per week, Santa Clara – Santiago de Cuba, train, second class
19/20, every other day, Habana La Coubre – Cienfuegos, second class
28/29, every third day, Bayamo – Manzanillo, train, second class, continue as 7/8
83/84, daily, Camagüey – Bayamo, train, second class
88/89, every other day, Guantánamo – Holguin, train, second class
90/91/92/93/800/801/802/803/804/805, daily, Matanzas – Habana Casa Blanca, Hershey rail bus
119/120, daily, Habana La Coubre – Unión de Reyes, train, second class
133/134, daily, Matanzas – Agramonte, train, second class
139/140/141/142/143/144, Habana 19 de Noviembre – San Antonio de los Baños
159/160/161/162, daily, Cárdenas – Aguada de Pasajeros, railbus, second class
163/164, daily, Colón – Aguada de Pasajeros, railbus, second class
165/166, daily, Los Palacios – Guane, train, second class
168/169, daily, Guane – Pinar del Rio, train, second class
213/214/215/216, Artemisa – Habana 19 de Noviembre
224/225, every other day, Pinar del Rio – Habana Central, “El Le Lechero”, second class
331/332, six per week, Cienfuegos – Santa Clara, train, second class
333/334, five per week, Cienfuegos – Sto Domingo Viejo, train, second class
337/338/339/340, daily, Santa Clara – Caibarién, railbus, second class
341/342/344, daily, Sagua – Santa Clara, railbus, second class
343, daily, Concha – Santa Clara, railbus, second class
345/346, daily, Sagua – Caibarién, railbus, second class
347/349/350/351/352, daily, Sagua – Concha, railbus, second class
353/354/355/356, daily, Santa Clara – Vega Alta, railbus, second class
357/358/359/360, daily, Zaza del Medio – Tunas de Zaza, train, second class
361/362/363/364, daily, Placetas Norte – Sopimpa, railbus, second class
365/366/367/368/369/370/371/372, daily, Trinidad – Meyer, railbus, second class
373/374, daily, Trinidad – Enlace Central FNTA Iznaga, “Expreso”, railbus, second class
379/380, quotidien, Aguada de Pasajeros – Cienfuegos, seconde classe
501/502/503/504, daily, Morón – Camagüey, railbus, first class
505/516, daily, Morón – Júcaro, railbus, second class
506/511/512/515, daily, Júcaro – Ciego de Avila, railbus, second class
507/508/509/510/513/514, daily, Morón – Ciego de Avila, train, second class
519/520/521/522/523/524, daily, Fallá – Morón, railbus, second class
525/526, daily, Morón – Ciego de Avila, railbus, second class
532/533/534/535, daily, Nuevitas – Camagüey, train, second class
536/537/538/539/540/541, daily, Nuevitas – Tarafa, railbus, second class
542/543/544/545, daily, Santa Cruz del Sur – Camagüey, railbus, second class
546/547/548/549/550/551/552/553/554/555, daily, Las Tunas – Balcón, railbus, second class
557/558/559/560/561/562/563/564/565/566/567/568, daily, Piedrecitas – Kilómetro 5,6, railbus, second class
608/609, daily, Santiago de Cuba – Manzanillo, train, second class
610/611, every other day, Santiago de Cuba – Holguin, train, second class
613/614, daily, Herrera – Santiago de Cuba, train, second class
615/616, daily, Holguin – Herrera, train, second class
617, daily, Bayamo – Jiguani, train, second class
618/619/620, daily, Jiguani – Manzanillo, train, second class
621, daily, Manzanillo – Bayamo, train, second class
622/623/624/625, daily, Bayamo – Guamo, train, second class
626/630, daily, Contramaestre – Jiguani, railbus, second class
627/631, daily, Jiguani – Oriente, railbus, second class
628/632, daily, Oriente – Contramaestre, railbus, second class
633/634, daily, Contramaestre – Santiago de Cuba, railbus, second class
712/713/714/715, daily, Guantánamo – Martires de la Frontera, railbus, second class
716/717/718/719/720/721, every other day, Guantánamo – San Anselmo, railbus, second class
722/723, daily, Guantánamo – Yayal, railbus, second class
726/727/730/731/732/733, daily, Guantánamo – Caimanera, railbus, second class
807/809/853/870/872, daily, Talleres Calle 7 – Canasi, Hershey rail bus
810/811/812/813/814/815/816/817/818/819/820/821/822/823/824/825/826/827/828/829/830/831, daily, Jaruco – Talleres Calle 7, Hershey Rail Bus
832/833/836/837/842/843/846/847, daily, Caraballo – San Mateo, Hershey Rail Bus
834/835, daily, Caraballo – Playas del Este, Hershey Rail Bus
838/839/844/845/848/849/850/851, daily, Caraballo – Hershey, Hershey rail bus
840/841, daily, Caraballo – Talleres Calle 7, Hershey rail bus
852/854/855/865/866, daily, Canasi – Santa Cruz del Norte, Hershey Rail Bus
856/857/868, daily, Santa Cruz del Norte – Talleres Calle 7, Hershey rail bus
858/859/860/861, daily, Santa Cruz del Norte – Jibacoa, Hershey Rail Bus
862/863, daily, Santa Cruz del Norte – Hershey, Hershey rail bus
864/867, daily, Canasi – Hershey, Hershey Rail Bus
876/881/882/883, daily in summer, Playas del Este – Habana La Coubre, rail bus Hershey
The following services can be provided (daily, second class):
Quiet roads and beautiful landscapes make Cuba an ideal country for cycling. It is already an incredibly popular destination for cyclists, both for group rides with bus escorts and for smaller, independent rides. In January and February, you can be sure to meet at least a few cycle tourists. If you are travelling on your own, you will need to bring your own bike, as bikes suitable for trekking are not readily available in Cuba. However, medium quality bikes are included in the package for cycling tour groups. Do not rent a bike (e.g. el Orbe in Havana) in Cuba under any circumstances, as you will get a Chinese jalopy or something else that will leave your butt raw.
In most places in Cuba, the roads are reasonably paved. Large potholes are common, so you should always be alert. There are also many roads that degrade to gravel in some sections, so it may be advisable to bring a mountain bike or bikes with reasonably fat wheels. Be sure to bring any spare parts you may need along the way, as these will not be available in Cuba. Since there are casas particulares even in relatively small towns, it is easy to plan an itinerary. In the more densely populated parts of the country (central and western Cuba), you can expect to find accommodation every 20 km between the larger towns. Food for the road can often be purchased locally for cheap Cuban pesos, with most small towns having at least one sandwich or pizza stand. However, be sure to pack enough food (and water!) when travelling in more remote areas. Outside the big cities, bottled water can be difficult to come by. Carry iodine tablets as a safe alternative.
Cyclists are often greeted with enthusiasm and interest; if you take a break, you will often be approached by curious locals. Be aware that many Cubans will offer to buy your bike or ask if you can leave it behind. It is possible to take your bikes on a tour bus, such as “Viazul”, to cover longer distances. Some Viazul bus lines charge an extra 3 to 5 CUC for transporting the bike. It is also possible to take bikes on trains and even hitchhike with bikes (wave a few convertible pesos at approaching drivers to get their attention).
For long tours, try to head southwest to get a good tailwind (e.g. Havana to Viñales, a popular ~250 KM tour).
Get Around - With the boat
There are two main groups of islands to explore along the southern coast of Cuba. Your sailing area from the two main bases, Cienfuegos or Trinidad, includes the Canarreos Archipelago and the Juventud Islands or Jardines de la Reina Archipelago.
Destinations in Cuba
Regions in Cuba
Western Cuba (Pinar del Rio, Havana, Matanzas, Isla de la Juventud)
The capital, the hills of Pinar del Rio and an off-the-beaten-track island where you can go diving make for an exciting region.
Central Cuba (Camagüey (province), Villa Clara, Cienfuegos, Sancti Spíritus, Ciego de Ávila)
Eastern Cuba (Las Tunas, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, Granma, Guantánamo)
Cities in Cuba
Havana – cosmopolitan capital with a lively nightlife.
Baracoa – a picturesque city by the sea and the first capital of Cuba.
Camagüey – Cuba’s third largest city is a labyrinth of narrow streets, Catholic churches and jars called tinajones.
Cienfuegos – a city founded by the French that rivalled (and eventually surpassed) Trinidad as the main port in southern Cuba.
Matanzas – whose name translates as “massacre”, this industrial port city at the end of the Hershey Railway is a hidden gem of Afro-Cuban culture and history.
Pinar del Rio – centre of the cigar industry
Santa Clara – site of the battle that won the revolution and now home to the mausoleum of Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Santiago de Cuba – a coastal city rich in Caribbean influence and steeped in revolutionary history.
Trinidad – World Heritage Site with charming colonial buildings.
Other destinations in Cuba
Cayo Largo – a small island with naturist resorts
Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes – a national park located in the mountains of the Sierra del Emcambray and spanning the provinces of Cienfuegos, Villa Clara and Sancti Spiritus.
Isla de la Juventud – a large island south of Havana
Jardines del Rey – an island chain of resorts including Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo.
Maria la Gorda – a small village with some diving and snorkelling opportunities.
Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata – similar to Everglades National Park in Florida, with extensive wetlands, beaches and world-renowned sites for bird watching and diving; site of the US invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
Parque Nacional La Güira – Another national park in the province of Pinar del Rio, with mountains and caves, but without many tourist facilities.
Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra del Rosario – UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the Sierra del Rosario mountains in the province of Pinar del Rio; the main sites are Soroa and Las Terrazas.
Varadero – 20 kilometres of beach with fine white sand and water.
Viñales – a national park in the province of Pinar del Rio, with mountains and caves; it has the most developed tourist facilities of the national parks in Cuba.
Accommodation & Hotels in Cuba
If you want to experience some of the real Cuban life, the best places to stay are casas particulares, which are private houses licensed to offer accommodation to foreigners. A casa particular is essentially a private family establishment that provides paid accommodation, usually on a short-term basis. In other countries, this type of establishment is usually referred to as a “bed and breakfast” or “holiday rental”. Typically, this term includes flats and entire houses, rooms in private houses, mini-apartments or rooms with a separate entrance (studios or efficiency rooms). The business can be run as a main occupation or as a sideline and is often run by the owner(s) of the house and family members living there.
Casas particulares are cheaper than hotels (on average 20-30 CUC/room in high season; 10-15 in low season) and the food (breakfast 4-5 CUC, dinner 8-13 CUC) is almost always better than in a hotel. Casas particulares abound, even in small towns; they are slightly more expensive in Havana than elsewhere. Note that any services offered by a casa particular besides accommodation, such as driving you to the bus station, will be added to your bill, even if mentioned in advance. Items such as bottled water supplied with your meal will also be charged. Always talk to the owner about charges when you arrive to avoid unpleasant surprises later. These houses are subject to many government restrictions, so make sure you stay in a legal “casa”. A legal house will have a sticker on the front door (often a blue sign on a white background), you will notice them as you walk past the houses. When you arrive, the owner of the house must note your passport details and the length of your stay. Some Cubans offer illegal accommodation, which is cheaper, but the quality of food and service is usually inferior. If discovered, Cubans risk a heavy fine and it is best to avoid illegal casas altogether.
When travelling around the island, it is advisable to ask the owners of the casas if they have friends or family in the town you are visiting. There is a network of casas and the family will be happy to have their friends pick you up when you get off the bus at your next destination. As most casas particulares are small and can rarely accommodate more than 5 or 6 people, it is advisable for anyone wishing to stay in a guesthouse to book well in advance of their travel date. Many casas particulares are owned by associations, can be found on the internet and are described in various books and guidebooks. You can arrange your accommodation in advance, either by asking your host for a recommendation or by using an association of casas particulares (note, however, that the person making the recommendation almost always receives a commission, which you will end up paying as it is included in the price of the accommodation). Some allow you to book accommodation on the internet before you travel and will do their best to find you accommodation during your stay. You can make a reservation by calling ahead using the casa’s phone or a public phone. You can also use a website that specialises in holiday accommodation in Cuba, such as wildcaribe.com or BB InnVinales, which allows you to search for a house that suits your needs, check availability on the dates you want and confirm your booking. Since mid-2016, the US government has allowed Airbnb to list accommodation in Cuba.
To get the best prices, simply arrive at a place and knock on a door to see the room and ask for the price. If you don’t like one of them, go to the next door. Every town and village has far too many casas for the few tourists who come. Because of the taxes that casa owners have to pay to the government, the lowest price for a room is 15 CUC in high season and 10 CUC in low season. Some may ask you to have at least one meal in their casa to get a reduced price. If you arrive by bus, you will sometimes be greeted by casa owners at the bus station who will show you pictures of the room they are offering. They will most likely accept prices of 15 CUC for the room, or even 2 CUC for breakfast and 5 CUC for dinner. Agree on a price and stick to it, as all casas are of almost the same standard. But beware of jineteros (scammers) who try to lead you to a casa where they get a commission and you have to pay the extra. Make sure you speak to the owner of the casa.
Cubans who host foreigners for free are technically illegal and risk a hefty fine if caught. Some will bend the rules, but be careful if you decide to take up the offer (for example, don’t walk out the front door if you see a police car nearby, especially if you look obviously foreign).
In some Cuban cities and tourist resorts, such as Varadero, Playa Santa Lucia and Guardalavaca, local authorities have found that casas particulares pose a threat to the hotel industry and have passed laws imposing rules and limits on the industry and prohibiting the operation of these establishments.
Note that accommodation can indicate that they offer Wi-Fi, but an internet token must be purchased.
Most small and large towns have at least one public hotel, often in a restored colonial building. Prices range from about 25 to 100 CUC, depending on what you get. Havana’s resorts and high-end hotels can be considerably more expensive.
Things To Do in Cuba
Stroll Havana’s Malecon in the early evening and soak up Havana’s culture. Watch out for prostitutes, as mentioned above; they are plentiful in this area, especially in the sections where rich white male tourists are known to hang out.
If you have the money (usually about $60 or the equivalent in euros), go to the Tropicana, a former mafia hangout run by the state. The Tropicana is located, as it always has been, in the heart of a strategically located area with a narrow street inside the city, behind the trees, and since the entrance fee is far too high for the average Cuban to afford, the people who go there are almost all international tourists. The club has kept its old traditions: Table service, lavish costumes, dazzling lights, wardrobe, etc. Real (but rather small) cigars are also available and can be smoked in the room, even near the stage. The Tropicana is so well maintained that it feels like it did back then (apart from the modern stage technology and the lack of a dress code), and as long as you can forgive yourself that most Cubans can’t afford to do what you do, and the people who work there couldn’t be there if they weren’t employed there, your evening is sure to be very enjoyable.
See an Afro-Cuban dance show in the neighbourhood, which exists in almost every neighbourhood.
Check out the local music that exists in almost every neighbourhood.
Go to the clubs, which all play Cuban reggae and Cuban rap, but also more traditional Cuban music with modern lyrics.
Go to the beaches – but be careful not to be wooed, as in Jamaica, by prostitutes and hustlers, male and female.
Don’t stay in a resort unless you want to experience the local culture. You will probably get bored and things around you will seem fake, garish and exaggerated.
Go to the countryside and talk to the farmers. Check out the local markets. There are two types of markets: state-run markets, which offer food at very low prices and for which Cubans keep ration books (and where you probably can’t shop because you don’t have your own ration book), and for-profit markets, where farmers sell their produce directly, which are of course a bit more expensive.
Visit some small towns. Every Cuban small town pretty much follows the same pattern: a central park with its Jose Marti tribute, the local cultural centre, the one or two (or none) casa particulares and the municipal museum. The museums are usually small buildings containing artefacts that cover the entire history of the area (from the indigenous population before Columbus to Castro’s revolution and beyond).
Expect to hear a lot of Carlos Santana through the windows at odd hours of the day.
Drink plenty of fresh fruit juice, which flows like water in Cuba because of the abundance of fresh fruit.
Food & Drinks in Cuba
Food in Cuba
The restaurants are owned and operated by the government and the food ranges from bland to spicy. Generally, the spicy dishes are not as hot as the hot peppers found on some other Caribbean islands. The Cuban national dish is rice and beans (moros y cristianos), and the best food is usually found in your casa particular or in paladares (local restaurants in private homes).
Black beans are one of the most important staple foods in Cuban households. For meat, Cubans eat mainly pork and chicken. Beef and lobster are controlled by the state, so it is illegal to sell them outside hotels and public restaurants, but there are many lunch and dinner specials with lobster for tourists. You may see turtles on menus in Paladares, but be aware that they are endangered and not allowed to be eaten.
There are many paladares, even in small towns. Seating is often limited, so come as soon as they open, usually around 5 or 6 pm. If you are staying in a casa particular, ask your host to recommend paladares to you, as the quality of the food can vary greatly from one paladare to another. Only eat where there is a printed menu with prices, otherwise you may end up paying two or three times more than you should. Nevertheless, many have taken to printing two different menus, one with local prices and the other with prices for foreigners. Eating in paladares is perfectly legal, but be aware that if you are taken there by a Cuban, you may have to pay extra to cover the commission of the person who brought you. Dinner will cost around 7 to 10 CUC per person.
Food in public hotels and restaurants is much more expensive and comparable to prices in many first world countries. An average dinner of soup, dessert and a glass or two of wine can easily cost you 20-30 CUC per person. Note that in these establishments, most of the staff’s income comes from tips (their monthly salary is often less than the cost of a meal), so a generous tip for good service is a kind and welcome gesture.
In the larger towns you will also find some public restaurants that cater mainly to Cubans and accept the local currency. Prices are extremely low (e.g. 10-15 CUP for a sandwich and ready meals for 30-60 CUP), but the quality of food, service and atmosphere is usually relatively low. You may get better food if you offer to pay in CUC. However, this may be an option if you are on a budget or looking for an ‘authentic’ Cuban experience. If you decide to tip, do so in CUCs, as anything else would be an insult to the staff.
Most casas particulares serve their guests a hearty breakfast for about 2-5 CUC per person if you ask for it (you can tell them what you want for breakfast). However, make sure you get your money’s worth – often you can buy the same fruit, coffee, bread/omelette etc. on the street for much less (in national pesos), for which the owner of your casa particulares will want four times as much from you, just to present it to you more conveniently. However, if you are saving, you can easily “build” your own breakfast for national pesos. In every small village there are sandwich shops where you can get a ham, cheese or omelette sandwich for 5 to 15 pesos depending on the size. Most of them also sell Cuban coffee (sweet!) for 1 to 2 pesos or a fruit juice for 2 pesos called “refresco”.
Some casas particulares can also serve their guests large dinners for 7 to 10 CUC per person.
Sometimes, if you ask nicely, the owner of your casa particular may let you use their kitchen to prepare your own meals. In fact, they are usually very accommodating if you have special dietary requirements or small children, etc.
You can also find small street vendors selling a variety of food, usually sandwiches, fruit (1 banana 1-2 pesos), pizza (10-20 pesos), spaghetti with tomato sauce, ice cream and sweet treats like cream pie. The quality varies from vendor to vendor. Many of these shops are run from people’s living rooms, and buying from them is a good way to help a Cuban family earn extra income. While these meals are filling and inexpensive, be aware that long queues are common and vendors are rarely in a hurry for everyone to eat quickly.
There are private restaurants that welcome Cubans and may only take national pesos. You will recognise them by a board showing the daily specials and prices. A tasty portion of rice, vegetables, plantains and pork or beef will cost you about 30-50 national pesos. In some places they will even sell it to you in a cajita [“little box” in English].
Bottled water is sold throughout the country in CUC, with one litre costing around 0.80 – 1.20 CUC. You can buy a 5-litre bottle for 1.90 CUC and decant it into smaller bottles. Havana’s Chinatown
If you’re looking for Chinese restaurants, visit Havana’s little Chinatown, a few blocks west of the Capitolio. The food is neither spectacular nor authentically Chinese, but decent enough if you can’t stand another serving of rice and beans. The street food here can also be a step up, try the area around the intersection of Avenida de Italia and Avenida Zanja.
Drinks in Cuba
The Cuban national cocktails include the Cuba Libre (rum and cola) and the Mojito (rum, lime, sugar, mint leaves, club soda and ice).
If you ask for rum in a small country restaurant, don’t be surprised if it is only available in bottles. Havana Club is the national and most popular brand. Expect to pay $4 for a three-year-old white rum or $8 for a seven-year-old dark rum.
Cristal is a light beer and is sold in “dollar” shops where Cubans can buy with CUCs and visitors. Cubans prefer Bucanero Fuerte, which is a darker strong beer with 5.5 % alcohol (hence the term “Fuerte”). Both Cristal and Bucanero are brewed by a joint venture with Labatts from Canada, whose beer is the only Cuban beer sold in CUC. A stronger version, Bucanero Max, is also available – mainly in Havana.
There are also smaller brews that are not available everywhere, such as Hatuey and Corona del Mar. They are sold in cups.
Note that, as with restaurants, there are two types of establishments where you can have a drink in Cuba: Western-style bars using CUC, with prices close to Western prices, a good selection of quality drinks (and sometimes food), nice decor, reasonably motivated staff and often live music, usually found near tourist hotspots like Old Havana and tourist hotels. You will mainly meet other tourists, expats and some Cubans with access to hard currency, but don’t expect a “local” experience.
The alternative is to go to local bars where you can choose from a selection of good quality but limited drinks (mainly locally produced rum by the bottle, beer and soft drinks, very rarely you will get cocktails like mojitos), cigars of dubious quality and cigarettes of only slightly better quality, and sometimes snacks. Local bars accept UPCs and are very cheap, although bartenders will often ask you for CUCs instead – it’s up to you to negotiate an acceptable price, but remember that the local bar staff are government employees and are paid (literally) a pittance. These bars are also a good way to meet locals who might even open up a bit and tell you about their lives after a few drinks.
Local bars are not hard to find, although they are usually not signposted. Just ask or walk around and look for a bare, neon-lit room with no decoration or furnishings other than a bar and a few rickety chairs and tables, surly staff and downcast, bored or drunk-looking patrons, almost always men. Contrary to Cuba’s reputation as a music- and entertainment-loving nation, the local bars are not rowdy affairs – they are quiet, almost discreet, the music is rarely played (and when it is, it comes from a radio but is never live) and have the charm of Third World railway station waiting rooms.
They are nevertheless a fascinating experience (especially if you make the effort to talk to the locals – the offer to pay for a drink will get a conversation going, not surprisingly), and they give a good insight into what life must be like for ordinary Cubans without access to hard currency. As a foreign visitor, you will usually be welcomed. Discussing politics over drinks is a delicate matter that usually does not end well: if you speak negatively about the Cuban political system, you risk putting your Cuban drinking buddies in a very difficult position, as they could very well be accused of consorting with subversive foreigners.
Money & Shopping in Cuba
Currency in Cuba
Dual currency system
Two currencies circulate in Cuba, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP). The wide circulation of US dollars in Cuba ended in November 2004.
Cuban convertible pesos are called kooks by the locals and are the currency most tourists will use in Cuba. The CUC is mainly used to buy tourist and luxury goods such as hotels, official taxis, museum admissions, meals in tourist restaurants, export quality cigars, bottled water and rum. The CUC is fixed at 1:1 to the US dollar and conversion to CUC can be done at the Casa de Cambio or Cadeca (exchange offices), which are located in many hotels and other places in the city. Tourists are allowed to import and export a maximum of 100 CUP or 200 CUC at a time.
The Cuban peso is called Moneda Nacional (national currency) by the locals and is mainly used by locals. As of October 2015, 1 CUC buys 24 CUP and 25 CUP buys 1 CUC. The CUP is mainly used to buy everyday goods sold at farmers’ markets, street stalls and local restaurants. This means that you can buy things like coffee, bread, fruit, vegetables, fresh juices and snacks at street stalls with UPCs. In addition, UPCs can also be used in some (non-tourist) restaurants and to buy local cigars, the “tabacos” or “nacionales”. If you are on a budget and intend to eat mainly local food to save money, it is advisable to buy CUPs. Although places that pay in pesos accept CUCs, it is more convenient to use local currency and some public shops do not accept CUC payments because they cannot give change. Exchanging currency for CUPs can be done in exchange offices. CUPs cannot be converted into foreign currency.
Note: Raul Castro, who has long criticised the dual currency system for generally paying hoteliers and taxi drivers better than doctors, announced in October 2013 that the dual currency system would be abolished in about 18 months – but two years later this change has not happened.
Change the currency
Travellers can exchange a variety of foreign currencies at casa de cambio or cadeca (exchange offices), which are located in airports, hotels and major cities. Bancos (banks) also exchange foreign currencies and can be found in most major cities. Exchange offices and banks accept a range of foreign currencies, the most popular being Canadian and US dollars, pounds sterling and euros. Mexican pesos, Swiss francs and Japanese yen are also accepted by some banks in Cuba. If you hold US dollars, it is important to note that a 10% exchange fee will be charged in addition to normal commissions. If you wish to exchange US dollars, it may be more economical to convert them into another currency before departure (provided you do not lose more than 10% on this conversion).
For a full list of currencies accepted by banks and indicative exchange rates, visit the Banco Central de Cuba (Central Bank of Cuba) website. It is important to note that if you have a currency that cannot be exchanged in Cuba, you may need to first exchange your local currency for an accepted currency and then exchange it back into Cuban currency. Taking the first step at home is probably the easiest and cheapest option.
Many exchange offices and banks have credit and debit card terminals that can debit your account and convert it into cash. Note, however, that cards issued in the United States will not work at these terminals. In addition, many locations do not accept MasterCard cards (US or non-US). Also be aware that terminals at money changers and banks often break or shut down, so you may not be able to use a card (at least until the next day when the machine is working again). Be aware that some places will not accept cards that do not have your name on them (e.g. travel cards), even if they have your signature on the back.
When exchanging money, remember to bring your passport for identification (as well as the address of where you are staying, as this is sometimes requested). If you use a credit or debit card, the name on the card must match the name on your passport or the card will not be accepted. Be prepared for long queues at exchange offices and banks and unusual opening and closing times. Be aware that bureaux de change in resorts and hotels often offer lower rates than banks and bureaux de change in town. Finally, do not exchange money on the street, as travellers have been scammed with counterfeit or local currency.
It is possible to exchange CUCs for foreign currencies, but since July 2016, the money changers at Havana airport only change euros and US dollars. The money changers also do not carry notes smaller than 5 euros and 5 US dollars, so expect to have a few CUCs that cannot be exchanged. The money changers also do not convert UPCs.
Travellers’ cheques drawn on US banks are technically not valid in Cuba, although many have successfully cashed US travellers’ cheques at major tourist hotels. American Express cheques are difficult to cash as they are likely to have been purchased in US dollars. For example, Swiss travellers’ cheques, if denominated in Swiss francs, are accepted even if the cheques are “licensed” by an American bank, as long as the actual maker is not American. Visa travellers’ cheques are accepted, but the same caveats apply as for cheques made out to a US bank. It is best to bring cash to Cuba; resorts accept euros, Canadian dollars, British pounds, Swiss francs and Hong Kong dollars without charge.
ATMs are relatively rare in Cuba, but are available in most major cities. It is important to note, however, that US issued cards and MasterCard (whether US issued or not) do not work at ATMs in Cuba. ATMs accept Visa (not US issued, of course) and sometimes UnionPay. However, it is important to note that even if your card is accepted, ATMs in Cuba often break or do not have enough money for a large withdrawal (if you are rejected, try a smaller amount). Finally, note that only main accounts are recognised. Make sure that your balance is not in a secondary account linked to the card.
Credit and debit card purchases
In many tourist hotels, shops and restaurants it is generally possible to pay by card. As mentioned above, cards issued in the USA do not work. Visa and MasterCard (not issued in the USA) generally work, but can only be charged in US dollars and there is a 3% fee. If you use a debit card, cards with the PLUS or CIRRUS logo may work. As mentioned above, be prepared for the card terminal not to work or not to be connected, do not rely on using your card. Finally, private shops such as casas particulares and paladares will never accept cards, but require the use of cash.
Do not rely on your bank cards as you would in other countries. Be prepared for your bank card not to work from time to time, if at all! Have enough cash or travellers’ cheques ready when you enter the country and during your trip.
Shopping in Cuba
As in any developing country, most of the goods available are for tourists to take away. The main Cuban exports for tourists are rum, cigars and coffee, which can be bought in public shops (including the duty-free shop at the airport) or on the street. For real goods, you have to pay the official price in legal shops.
Cubans are also good at creating music like Salsa, Son and Afro-Cubano. You can buy CDs or cassettes everywhere, but if you pay the average price of 20 CUC, you can be sure you are getting quality.
If you plan to take large quantities (several boxes or more) of cigars, make sure you have officially purchased the cigars from a licensed shop that will give you the appropriate purchase documents. Foreign nationals may export up to 50 cigars (usually 25 per box) without a special permit or receipt, but official receipts are required to export more. If you buy cheap cigars on the street and do not have an official receipt, your cigars can/will be confiscated. Also be aware that any purchase of Cuban cigars outside of government-approved shops (even in resorts) may be counterfeit, and that the “cigar factory worker stealing from the factory” does not exist in any significant quantity. If you find a “shop” from a street vendor, it is likely that you will get fakes, some of which may not even be tobacco. Always make sure, no matter where you buy, that the Cuban government’s stamp of origin is properly affixed to the box of cigars. Since 2014, US visitors licensed to travel to Cuba were allowed to import US$400 worth of goods from Cuba, of which no more than US$100 could consist of tobacco products and alcohol combined. These restrictions were further relaxed in 2016, but bringing cigars or rum for resale remains prohibited. The situation is changing, so it is best to check the current limits in advance.
Officially, you need a permit to export paintings larger than 70 cm per side. If you buy a work of art in an authorised shop, you will also receive the required document there, which consists of a paper and a stamp that is stuck on the back of your painting. The serial numbers on the stamp and the paper must match. The cost of the document is about 2 to 3 CUC. In reality, it is possible that no one will be interested in your paintings.
Traditions & Customs in Cuba
Cubans are generally friendly and helpful people. Remember that they earn about US$15 a month; if they can help you, they probably will, but they expect you to return the favour. If you are invited to a Cuban’s house for dinner, accept the invitation. You will really be treated like an honoured guest. It’s a great way to get to know the culture. Of course, normal Cubans are not allowed to host this kind of event, but it comes naturally.
One way to help local Cubans is to stay in casas particulares, eat in paladares or private restaurants and shop from street vendors. While free enterprise is generally prohibited, a few years ago the government started selling expensive licences to people who wanted to open rooms in their houses for rent or set up a few tables on their porch and cook in their kitchen. Not only are the licences very expensive, but the fees have to be paid every month, regardless of income, so the less well-off have no money. Not only is it more attractive to stay and eat in a local’s house, but there is a direct benefit in one of the few options.
Traditionally, Cuba is Catholic, but the government has often suppressed expressions of faith. Recently, however, it has become less frowned upon since the visit of Pope John Paul II, and there are more important issues to deal with. Other religions in Cuba are hybrid religions that mix elements of Catholicism with others from traditional African religions. The most widespread is called “Santeria” and its priests can be recognised by the full white robe with beaded necklaces they wear. Women going through the process of becoming priests are not allowed to touch other people (among other things), so if the owner of your casa is aloof and dressed all in white, don’t be too surprised. There are many museums in Cuba (especially in southern cities like Santiago de Cuba) that describe the history and traditions of the Santeria.
Culture Of Cuba
Cuban culture is characterised by a melting pot of different cultures, mainly from Spain and Africa. After the 1959 revolution, the government launched a national literacy campaign, offered free education for all and established rigorous sports, ballet and music programmes.
Cuban music is very rich and is the best known expression of Cuban culture. The central form of this music is the Son, which was the basis for many other musical styles such as the “Danzón de nuevo ritmo”, the Mambo, the Cha-Cha-Cha and the Salsa. Rumba music (“de cajón o de solar”) has its origins in early Afro-Cuban culture, mixed with elements of the Hispanic style. The tres was invented in Cuba based on models of Spanish cordophone instruments (the instrument is actually a fusion of elements of the Spanish guitar and lute). Other traditional Cuban instruments are of African or Taino origin or both, such as the maracas, the güiro, the marímbula and various wooden drums, including the mayohuacán.
Cuban popular music, in all styles, is appreciated and praised throughout the world. Cuban classical music, which includes music with strong African and European influences and includes both symphonic works and music for soloists, has received international recognition thanks to composers like Ernesto Lecuona. Havana was the heart of the Cuban rap scene in its early days, in the 1990s.
At this time, reggaetón was becoming increasingly popular. In 2011, the Cuban state denounced reggaetón as degenerate, ordered the reduction of the genre’s “low-key” broadcast (although it did not ban it outright) and banned Osmani García’s megahit Chupi Chupi, characterising its depiction of sex as “the kind a prostitute would achieve”. In December 2012, the Cuban government officially banned sexually explicit reggaeton songs and music videos on radio and television. Besides pop, classical and rock music are also very popular in Cuba.
Cuban cuisine is a fusion of Spanish and Caribbean cuisine. Cuban recipes share spices and techniques with Spanish cuisine, with some Caribbean influences in spices and flavours. Food rationing, which has been the norm in Cuba for the last four decades, limits the general availability of these dishes. The traditional Cuban meal is not served in several courses; all dishes are served at the same time.
A typical meal may consist of plantains, black beans and rice, ropa vieja (shredded beef), Cuban bread, pork with onions and tropical fruits. Black beans and rice, called moros y cristianos (or moros for short), and plantains are staples of the Cuban diet. Most meat dishes are slow-cooked with light sauces. Garlic, cumin, oregano and bay leaves are the dominant spices.
Cuban literature began to make its voice heard in the early 19th century. The dominant themes of independence and freedom were exemplified by José Martí, who led the modernist movement in Cuban literature. Writers such as Nicolás Guillén and José Z. Tallet focused on literature as social protest. The poems and novels of Dulce María Loynaz and José Lezama Lima had a major influence. The novelist Miguel Barnet, who wrote “Everyone Dreamed of Cuba”, reflects a rather melancholic Cuba.
Writers such as Reinaldo Arenas, Guillermo Cabrera Infante and, more recently, Daína Chaviano, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, Zoé Valdés, Guillermo Rosales and Leonardo Padurah have achieved international recognition in the post-revolutionary era, although many of them have been forced to continue their work in exile because of the ideological control of the media by the Cuban authorities.
Dance occupies a privileged place in Cuban culture. Folk dance is considered an essential part of life, and concert dance is supported by the government and includes internationally renowned companies such as the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
Because of their historical ties to the United States, many Cubans play sports that are popular in North America rather than those traditionally promoted in other Latin American countries. Baseball is by far the most popular sport; other sports and pastimes include football, basketball, volleyball, cricket and track and field. Cuba is a dominant force in amateur boxing, regularly winning numerous medals in major international competitions. Cuba also fields a national team that participates in the Olympic Games.
Stay Safe & Healthy in Cuba
Stay Safe in Cuba
Cuba is generally a very safe country; strict and extensive policing, coupled with neighbourhood watch groups (known as the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, or C.D.R.) generally keeps the streets free of violent crime.
Drug laws can be harsh and their enforcement unpredictable. The same applies to laws on prostitution. The importation, possession or production of pornographic material is strictly prohibited. It is not uncommon to see a dog jogging on the baggage carousel to sniff out incoming luggage, especially if it comes from countries prone to drug trafficking. Please ensure that you lock and/or pack your luggage to avoid any problems in this regard.
Tourists are generally advised not to get involved in the following three areas: Politics, drugs and pornography/prostitution. There is relatively little tolerance for public comments against the revolution, Fidel, Che, etc. It is advisable to refrain from such comments.
Women get a lot of attention from men, especially outside the more touristy centre of Havana. Avoid cleavage and short skirts to reduce attention, but not to prevent it. Don’t be irritated by whistles or hisses, as Cuban women often recognise and appreciate this attention. However, if they do it too enthusiastically, they are likely to encourage the men.
Scams in Cuba
Cuba is a country of scams so widespread that they surprise even experienced travellers:
Renting a car in Cuba requires your attention to every CUC you pay. One of the reported scams is the cost of insurance, which is quite expensive as you may end up paying double the actual cost. The price of insurance depends only on the car model, but the employee can start by explaining the difference between two or three types of policies at different costs (for the same category of vehicle). Of course, the most expensive one has full coverage (except for radio and tyre theft). This is the scam! If you choose the most expensive option, you will be told that it is not possible to pay the full amount by credit card. However, it is possible to pay part of it by credit card (exactly the cost of the cheapest option) and pay the difference in cash. You will not receive a receipt and this amount will not appear on the rental contract. This is the exact amount the scammer takes from you. Remember: there is only one type of insurance that covers everything (except radio and tyres) and the price only varies depending on the type of car.
Discount cigars of genuine appearance and dubious authenticity are offered by street traders. These are often genuine pieces that have been stolen or collected over a long period of time by cigar workers and sold at a much lower price than legal, taxed cigars. If you are unable to distinguish authentic cigars, you should only buy from official cigar sellers. The best people to buy untaxed (illegal but genuine) cigars are usually hotel porters who will not be offended if you ask them “if they know where to find cheap cigars” and who can direct you to a room in the hotel that is used for this purpose. If you buy untaxed cigars, you should not pay more than 50 CUC for a box of 25 Esplendidos (usually about ten times cheaper than taxed cigars). Make sure that the box you buy is opened to prove that it actually contains cigars. There are often stickers attached that you can use to seal the box as if it had been taxed. Customs may confiscate them on departure, but this is highly unlikely if you are carrying less than 50 cigars. If you are transporting more, you will have to divide them among the members of your group. As the sale of stolen or factory-collected untaxed cigars is illegal, and locals are often short of cash outside the peak tourist season, it is possible to haggle prices very low, but as the salary of a typical hotel employee can be the equivalent of USD 20 per month, this may seem unfair.
Friendly” locals invite tourists to bars for a drink (usually a mojito) or to a restaurant; the tourist has to pay two or three times the normal price and the loot is shared between the establishment and the “friend”. In central Havana, a young man or a couple of locals, under the pretext of practising English, invite tourists to attend a show by the “Buena Vista Social Club” (no, most of the members of the BVSC are deceased and the group has not performed in Havana for many years), while suggesting that they go to a nearby bar and have a drink while waiting for the show to start. Some locals even shamelessly ask for a few CUC for their company.
ALWAYS negotiate the price in advance, especially for taxis. Clarify the price 101% before making a deal, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. It is not uncommon to arrive at your destination in a taxi and be charged much more than agreed under the pretext of a misunderstanding. For example, 25 CUC instead of 5 CUC. The advice is to write the price on a piece of paper and show it to the person.
Change money in bars or taxis or give change in national pesos (CUP) for convertible pesos (CUC). Or offer to exchange 3 or more CUCs for a “special edition” 3-peso coin with a picture of Che Guevara (the exchange is from one CUC to one CUP, which is worth about 20 times less). Unfortunately, unlike banknotes, convertible coins are not marked as such. Familiarise yourself with the coins as soon as you get them from the bank or CADECA – the ones with a big star or Che Guevara on one side are all national pesos.
Water is often sold in tourist areas. Sometimes these bottles have been filled with local tap water and resealed (which can be toxic). You can usually see this change on the bottle, but not always. In any case, tap water tastes very different from bottled water and should be avoided at all costs. If in doubt, throw the water away. In fact, real bottled water (the same goes for canned soft drinks) is a luxury, even for locals, and costs in national pesos (about 10 CUP) or convertibles (about 0.45 CUC) in shops, both local and tourist – if you find one too cheap, it’s probably too good to be true.
The locals offer to exchange money at a “local bank” where the locals can get the best rates and ask you to stay outside while they make the exchange, as your presence will drive up the rate. If you give them your money, you will never see them again.
Credit card fraud is widespread, so withdrawals should only be made at reputable hotels or banks. Ideally, carry cash with you. US dollars, euros and pounds sterling are accepted almost everywhere (in order of popularity), although it is illegal to spend them.
In Havana, it is important to always be careful when handling money. If you take a taxi, ask someone familiar with the system what the approximate fare is, as many drivers try to set an artificially high price before they leave. If in doubt, insist that they use the meter. You can be pretty sure that any given fare from the airport will be at least 5-10 CUC higher than it should be – insist on the meter.
Salespeople have been known to take advantage of strangers when it comes to giving change (if in doubt, watch what other customers are doing before you make your purchase) :
Some are known not to give change and continue serving the next customer, assuming that the tourist will not speak enough Spanish to ask questions.
Some take advantage of the ambiguity as to whether published prices are in CUC or CUP, and many sellers take CUC when CUP is due and pocket the difference without pointing out your mistake.
Some also give change in the wrong currency and therefore give too little change (e.g. they give change for 3 UPCs instead of 3 CUCs).
Some also try to return large sums in CUP instead of CUC, which can leave a foreigner stuck with a currency they cannot exchange back into a foreign currency. This may seem like an inconvenience at first glance, but in reality it is often a scam. Cubans often give change at the rate of 20 CUP to 1 CUC, but the ratio is actually closer to 25 CUP to 1 CUC. So if you pay 5 CUC for an item costing 20 CUC and receive 20 CUP in change for 1 CUC (i.e. 80 CUP), the person giving the change will collect an additional 25 CUP, which is the equivalent of 1 CUC; in fact, this scam can cost you more than double that.
Credit card fraud is widespread. Don’t let your credit card slip out of your hands and watch the clerk swipe the card through the machine. If something seems strange, DO NOT sign! Merchants in small shops may take your card to a neighbouring bank counter and use it for a cash advance. Look carefully at your receipts. If the receipt says “Venta” and an amount in dollars or CUC, it means it is a cash advance (retained by dishonest staff). However, credit card payment options in shops are usually so limited or non-existent that it is common and more convenient to pay cash.
Employees often exchange genuine products, such as rum and cigars, for counterfeit products found under the counter or in a storage room.
Jineteros/Jineteras are a problem in the bigger cities and will try to sell tourists anything, including restaurants, cigars, sex and drugs. Note that this type of solicitation is illegal in Cuba and most will leave you alone if you ignore them or politely say no for fear of the police. If you find yourself in a situation with a more intransigent jinetero, tell them you’ve been in the country for a few weeks, that you’re a student or from a third world country (of which you can pass as a citizen if you’re white; Brazil usually works as it’s a non-Spanish speaking country, Russia is another good example; Vietnam or Thailand works well if you’re East Asian) and they’ll probably leave you alone. Many rely on tourists who are unfamiliar with the system and comparatively wealthy, so ideally you should try to make an impression elsewhere. Bear in mind that even if a tout only steals a few CUCs a day from unsuspecting tourists, he is likely to earn as much as a doctor’s monthly salary in a week or two.
Stay Healthy in Cuba
Cuba is considered very healthy, except for the water; even many Cubans boil their water. Nevertheless, some travellers drink untreated water without suffering. It is best to drink bottled water, and plenty of it, especially for visitors not used to temperatures above 30°C/85°F. Bottled water (agua de botella) is readily available and costs between 0.65 and 2 CUC for a 1.5-litre bottle, depending on the shop. It should be noted that the mineral content (total dissolved solids) of bottled water is quite high compared to other countries. So if you are planning a longer stay in Cuba (e.g. as a student or with a work permit), it may be worthwhile to bring a small jug or sports bottle with a water filter and some cartridges to further purify the water.
Cuban milk is usually not pasteurised and can make visitors sick. Also, tourists should be careful with vegetables that have been washed in tap water. Despite these warnings, most Cuban food is safe to eat and there is no reason to be paranoid.
The island is tropical and therefore hosts a number of diseases. Some recommend an aggressive vaccination schedule when planning a trip to Cuba, but most travellers arrive with little or no vaccination protection. Hepatitis B and tetanus vaccinations are recommended by most travel clinics. Hepatitis B is usually transmitted through direct blood contact or sexual contact. The vaccination course requires three injections over several weeks, followed by a blood test to determine if the treatment has been effective; shorter courses are available. (Interestingly, the hepatitis B vaccine is actually produced in Cuba for worldwide use). In general, immunisation against tetanus is more important because tetanus is a risk with any wound or cut, especially a dirty, contaminated wound.
The HIV/AIDS infection rate is less than 0.1 per cent. However, as always, you should exercise caution and ensure that you or your partner wear a condom if you engage in sexual activity while in Cuba.
Cuba has one of the highest per capita numbers of doctors in the world (about one doctor per 170 inhabitants), making doctors readily available in much of the island. Your hotel reception should be able to direct you to the nearest doctor (in fact, doctors are so numerous in Cuba that it is not uncommon to see doctors selling paintings, books or other works of art to tourists at the flea market to earn money to supplement their meagre salaries).
However, certain medicines are often difficult to find. It is highly recommended to stock up on over-the-counter medicines before travelling to Cuba, as pharmacies do not stock many medicines you would expect as a Westerner, such as aspirin, ibuprofen and Immodium. Do not try to import psychoactive drugs into Cuba. There is also a clinic (and emergency room) for foreigners in Havana that offers an extremely fast service.
Toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, razors, tampons and condoms are also hard to find and expensive, so stock up before you travel.
The big cities – especially Havana – have very polluted air because of the old cars and factories. This can cause breathing problems for some visitors.
Telephone numbers of police, fire brigade and doctors
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