The high season in Cuba runs from late November to early April, with nice temperatures, low rain and low humidity. Temperatures during the day are between 25°C and 30°C, usually falling to around 20°C at night.
Accommodation prices are higher by about 20% (around 5 CUC more for casas) during the high season. During Christmas, New Years and Eastern resorts are particularly crowded and should be booked well in advance.
The average sea temperature throughout the rear is ranged between 26-31°C, making it really a perfect beach holiday destination!
Beginning in May and up until October, it gets much hotter in Cuba. This is also the rainy season, which means it is very humid and usually there’s a heavy rainfall at the end of the day with some spectacular thunder storms.
Hurricane season runs from June and November, although statistically they are most likely to occur in September and October. Hurricanes are rarely life-threatening but can cause great damage (like Hurricane Matthew in Baracoa in Oct 2016). The country has well organized evacuation plans and shelters. In cases of necessity, tourists are evacuated and flights to Cuba are cancelled. For information on hurricane threats click here.
On the good side, the summer is not a bad time to go either. Weather can be great and many Cubans are on holidays, meaning you are likely to find local parties and festivals happening (such as the Carnival in Santiago de Cuba in July) .
There is a broad network of flight connections between Europe and Cuba. Many airlines, especially the low-cost ones, offer good last-minute deals, mostly from their main departure airport. Here are some of the airlines with flights to Cuba:
Flights via Toronto with Air Canada can also prove to be a cheap option when flying from various ports in Europe (like I did in December 2016 from Poland).
If you are planning a packaged holiday to Cuba, the following are some of the largest travel companies in Europe with good and cheap all-inclusive deals:
When booking an all-inclusive, bear in mind that many resorts in Cuba look good on the pictures, but are actually quite run down with poor services. Even if you are booking through a trusted travel company, there is just no money in Cuba to renovate the hotels. Do your research and read the reviews online.
If you are flying from other countries in the Americas, a popular and cheap gateway airport to Cuba is Cancun, Mexico. Here are your best flight options:
With the development of a new course in relations between the United States and Cuba, it is now possible to fly directly between the two countries, which are just 90 miles away from each other.
The following commercial carriers operate non-stop flights since Fall 2016:
Since May 2016, there are now cruise ships operating between the U.S. and Cuba.
Fathom, a new subsidiary of Carnival, is the first company to offer cruises to Cuba. Their 7-day cruises depart every other Sunday from Miami to three cities in Cuba.
Public transportation in Cuba is rather unreliable and painstaking. Primarily because of an outdated system and the lack of information flow between certain bus stations. This often leads to situations in which you have to wait a number of times and are never be 100% sure that you will actually get a bus ticket… At some point this may get pretty annoying and taking the more expensive shared or private taxis will be your preferred option.
These are government run buses designated for tourists. They are safe, cheap and reliable. Buses are also air-conditioned and quite comfortable. However, tickets sell out on fast making it often difficult to plan a trip. For up-to-date schedules and prices click here.
How to book a ticket?
You have to go to the Viazul bus station 1-2 days ahead of your planned journey, make a reservation (i.e. put your name on a list) and then come back on the day of departure to buy the ticket. But you don’t get a 100% assurance that you will get one. For higher chances, come about 1-1,5h prior to the scheduled bus departure, since a waiting line builds up fast and probably only the first couple of people get their tickets.
Sample bus ticket costs (per person):
Shared taxis or taxi colectivo in Spanish is the alternative way of getting around Cuba to Viazul buses. And if bus tickets are sold out, this will probably be your only option. They’re slightly more expensive than buses, but also faster. However drivers are usually very reckless (on average 140 km/h or 87 Mph) and you won’t find seat belts in the cars. Therefore, my recommendation is - take buses whenever you can.
Most shared taxis are either old Peugeot cars which can hold 4 passengers or large, American classic cars for up to 7 passengers. Prices are either per person or per car.
Sample costs (per person):
Taking domestic flights can save you a lot of time, as the country stretches over 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) from east to west. For example, a flight from havana to Santiago de Cuba will take 1,5 hours compared to over 15 hours by bus. There are some places in the country, like Cayo Largo, which can only be reached by plane.
All major cities, such as Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba, Cayo Largo, Cayo Coco have domestic airports.
If you are planning on visiting the island by car, plan and book online (via e-mail) at least 3-4 weeks before your planned arrival. Cuba has a limited amount of rental cars and they sell out fast during high season (Dec-Feb and July-August).
Renting a car has its advantages as you can stop wherever you want and see the less traveled part of the country. But prices are considerably high, starting at 100 CUC (100 USD) per day including insurance for a basic car model. Deposit is 200 CUC (200 USD). Gas is not included. You will need an International Driver’s Licence to drive in Cuba.
You can rent for a one-way trip, but the drop-off charge is very high.
REX and CubaCar are the two rental car agencies you can choose from. They are both government-run, but their offers and regulations differ slightly.
While this is a common mode of transportation in Cuban cities, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the driver to peddle in 30 degree heat. Cost is 1-3 CUC (1-3 USD) depending on your bargaining skills, but remember it’s a very tough job.
Can be rented out in most touristic places, such as Varadero or Vinales. Cost is around 9 CUC (9 USD) per hour and 20-25 CUC (25 USD) per day. If you rent for more than a day, bargain the price.
Cuba is a very popular destination with cyclist, especially during the winter high season, when temperatures are significantly cooler. It is definitely a great way to get up-close with its fascinating culture and beautiful nature.
Before you head out, make sure to get a good road map and a copy of Bicycling Cuba: Fifty Days of Detailed Rides from Havana to Pinar Del Rio and the Oriente by Wally Barbara Smith, which has detailed tips and directions on cycling around the country.
You can also rent bicycles in various cities. Your casa owner can usually arrange you some bicycles for about 5 CUC (5 USD) a day.
Most locals rely on these as public transportation, since the network of public buses is undeveloped and highly unreliable. The Colectivos usually come in the form of old Russian Lada cars. You will notice them quickly, as they are filled with up to five locals. They run along the main roads of Havana and can be simply flagged down, and take you directly to your destination.
Cost is 10 pesos / 0.50 CUC per person per ride.
However, most drivers are not willing (or not allowed) to take foreigners or will act as private taxis asking a much higher price.
Getting around Havana in taxis can be pretty expensive. Cost is 3-5 CUC (3-5 USD) for up to 5km and around 10 CUC/ 5-8 km, bargain hard! Coco taxis are significantly cheaper than the old classic car taxis.
A taxi from Havana Airport to Central Havana costs 25 CUC (25 USD).
The double-decker open-on-top bus is the best way to get around Varadero. It runs between 9 am and 8 pm from town all the way to the tip of the peninsula. It makes more than 40 stops, including all hotels, parks, shopping malls, the golf course etc.
A day ticket costs 5 CUC (5 USD).
These tiny yellow 3-wheeled vehicles are convenient and fast. They can carry 2 people. Cost is about 3-5 CUC (3-5 USD) for around 10-20 blocks (calles).
A taxi from Varadero International Airport (VRA) shouldn’t cost more than 25 CUC (25 USD) for the short 20-minute ride to town. The “set” price at the airport however, if you ask any driver, is 36 CUC, but bargain a bit and you should get it down.
This is a nice way to see Varadero in slow pace. Cost are displayed on the horse cart, it is 5 CUC per person for a short ride, and 10 CUC per person for a longer tour.
Note: Zika outbreaks have been reported in Cuba. Because of the risk of birth defects in babies born to women who were infected with Zika while pregnant, women who are pregnant should not travel to Cuba.
There are no vaccinations required for entry into Cuba, expect for travelers coming from countries where yellow fever and cholera are endemic.
All travelers to Cuba are required a travel insurance by law, but it is rarely checked upon entry. US-based insurance policies are not accepted. You should have your policy printed in case you’ll be asked to show it by a custom official upon entry.
There are international clinics and hospitals for tourists. Prices are higher than in those dedicated for Cubans. In case of emergency, foreigners are always treated with special attention and police is called in for assistance.
It is highly recommended to bring all essential medications with you as pharmacies in Cuba often lack many medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen and Imodium.
Toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, razors, tampons and condoms are also hard to find and expensive, so stock up before you leave.
Tap water is not suitable for drinking, and even the locals boil it. Bottled water costs between 1.50-2.00 CUC for a 1.5L bottle. With temperatures often reaching 30°C/85°F, it is important to drink lots of water during the day.
Also, be cautious to wash fruits and vegetables in clean water and eat food that is cooked and served hot. Otherwise, food standards in Cuba are good and there is no need to worry too much.
Cuban convertible peso (CUC)
National peso (CUP)
24 CUP = 1 CUC
1 CUC = 1 USD
Cuba has two currencies: the national peso (moneda nacional, CUP) and the convertible peso (CUC) which is pegged to the American dollar.
Prices in all tourist places are charged in CUC, and slowly the national peso is being replaced by the convertible peso. In all places you can pay with both currencies, and you might get change in either one of them.
Do not bring US dollars to Cuba, as you’ll pay a 10% surcharge on exchanging them. Bring either Canadian dollars, Euros or British Pounds. Bank have the best exchange rates. I’d recommend exchanging some 100 CUC at the airport and then the rest in a bank.
In some cities you’ll also find Casas de Cambio (CADECA) but rates are slightly higher than at banks.
With the average monthly wage being about 20 CUC, tipping has become very common in the tourist and service industries. Some restaurants and local paladares will add 10-12% service charge to the bill. This is usually stated on the menu. When attending a toilet, locals usually leave 1 CUP, but foreigners are expected to pay more. As a rule of thumb, giving any change that you have with you will be ok.
While ATMs are now available in most major cities, fees are high. Therefore consider taking all the cash you need with you, and make ATM withdrawals in Cuba just if “in cash emergency”. Fees: No matter what the origin on your card is, your transaction will first be converted into U.S. dollars, then added a 11-12.5% surcharge on dollars and then again a 3% transaction fee.
You can usually find ATMs next to banks. U.S.-issued credit/debit cards will not work in Cuba.
Except for restaurants with prices posted in the menu, you can bargain pretty much everywhere and you should, because foreigners are constantly overcharged for everything. For example, you can haggle in tourist shops, bars (i.e. 1 CUC instead of 2 CUC for a mojito), and even in ice cream shops.
Before the discovery of the island of Cuba by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the population of Cuba consisted of various aboriginal groups—the Guanahatabey, Ciboney, and Taíno. Following the development of the Spanish colonization, the indigenous people were soon eliminated or died as a result of diseases brought by the Europeans.
In the early 1800s, large numbers of African slaves were imported to work in the sugarcane and coffee plantations. Expertise and labor force was brought by French refugees who fled nearby Saint-Domingue during the Haitian Revolution. In just a short period of time, Cuba transformed from an unimportant island to a strong agricultural economy as the world’s leading producer of sugar.
The nineteenth century was marked by the growth of Cuban nationalism and a struggle for independence, but rebellions were harshly suppressed for many years. The efforts of the poet José Marti were crucial to the success of the Cuban War of Independence agains Spain. He mobilized and united the Cuban community in exile, particularly in Florida. He was killed at the outset of the second independence war (1895–98), but has since been regarded as a symbol of national freedom. US intervention during the Spanish-American War in 1898 assisted the Cubans in overthrowing Spanish.
With the retreat of the Spanish, Cuba was first under temporary US military rule for three-and-a-half years. It formally became an independent republic in 1902.
In the first half of the 20th century, Cuba’s government was mostly dominated by military officers, corrupt politicians and cruel dictatorships. In 1953, Fidel Castro launched a revolution called the “26th of July Movement” from the Sierra Maestra mountains to overthrow the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Castro and other rebells were captured and send to prison after a failed attack, but were released two years later. Castro and his brother went into exile in Mexico, where they met the Argentine-born revolutionary "Che" Guevara. Together and with some 80 other revolutionaries they came back to Cuba aboard the yacht Granma in winter 1956. Castro finally seized power on January 1, 1959, replacing the Batista government by a revolutionary socialist state.
After Castro came to power, Cuba entered a one-party communist system. All properties including American-owned oil refineries were nationalized without compensation, leading to a quick downfall in relations between the two countries. The United States imposed an embargo on Cuba in October 1960, and broke diplomatic ties a few months later. In April 1961, the CIA launched a failed secret mission executed by Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro’s government (known as the Bay of Pigs invasion).
Tensions between the two countries peaked again in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the U.S. discovered the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The United States responded by imposing a naval blockade to stop Soviet ships from bringing in more missiles. In the end, the ships were called back and the missiles in Cuba dismantled.
Castro’s Cuba allied and was economically dependent on the Soviet Union. But when it broke up in 1991, Cuba lost its major economic partner, experiencing a dramatic 80% downfall in trade. The country entered the so called Special Period to deal with the economic crisis. Cubans struggled with poverty and shortages of food and consumer goods. Ordinary people had to resort to eating anything they could find. “…domestic cats disappeared from streets to dinner tables.” Food rationing and power cuts were introduced.
In the late 1990s, the government introduced a few market-oriented reforms including opening to tourism, allowing foreign investment and authorizing some 150 types of private businesses.
Fidel Castro withdrew from politics in 2006 and his brother Raúl Castro was elected as the new president of Cuba in 2008. Fidel Castro died on November 26, 2016.
Cuba is the largest island country in the Caribbean, about the size of England and slightly smaller than Pennsylvania. It is located 93 miles (150 kilometers) south from Key West (Florida, USA), east of Mexico, west of Haiti and north of Jamaica.
The total land area of Cuba is 109,884 km2 (42,426 sq. mi), making it 104th in the world by size. It’s main island is ranked 17th in the world by land area.
Cuba is a long and narrow archipelago stretching 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) from east to west, but is only some 100 kilometers (60 miles) wide in most places. It is dominated by the Island of Cuba, the largest one, followed by Isla de la Juventud.
There are 4,195 islands and keys in total, of which the following are popular tourist destinations:
A quarter of the nation’s territory is made up of mountains and hills. There are three mountain ranges in Cuba:
Located in the Zapata Peninsula less than 150 kilometres (93 miles) southeast of Havana in Mantanzas Province, this is the largest wetland area in Cuba and the Caribbean. It was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000. Composed of forests, mangroves, rivers, lakes, flooded caves and plains, it is one of the remotest regions of Cuba. It is known for its rare wildlife, off-shore reef diving as well as cave diving. The ecosystem is home to water birds, mammals, amphibians, invertebrates and reptiles (among them the Cuban crocodile) as well as manatees (sea cows), pink flamingos and the manjuarí (Cuban gar).
Río Cauto in the southeast is Cuba’s longest river at 370 kilometers (230 miles). There are in total some 600 rivers on the island, but are generally short, most of them less than 100 km long, with meagre flow.
Spanish is the official language in Cuba.
Cuban Spanish varies slightly from the language spoken in Spain. There is a local slang and words which are not used in other countries. But generally the difference is not big.
English is not widely spoken by locals, except at some hotels and restaurants. If you don’t speak Spanish, it is absolutely essential that you learn a few basic phrases before going to Cuba. Bring a dictionary with you as well.
|How are you?||¿Cómo está?|
|Fine, thank you.||Bien, gracias.|
|How much?||¿Cuánto cuesta?|
|very expensive||muy caro|
|this||esto (m.)/esta (f.)|
|Where is…?||Dónde está..?|
|Go straight.||Siga recto|
|Turn left||Gira a la izquierda|
|Turn right||Gira a la derecha|
|bill / check||la cuenta|
|beef||carne de vaca|
|pork||carne de cerdo|
|rice with beans||arroz con frijoles|
Cuban food is rather simple, without much variety in taste, the use of spices and components. It’s not a country you can expect many culinary highlights. Due to historical and geographical factors, the Cuban cuisine is a blend of Native American Taíno, African, Spanish and Caribbean cuisines.
A typical breakfast at casa particulars consists of toast bread, eggs (fried, boiled or scrambled), a plate of fruit, fresh guava juice and coffee. Cost is 5 CUC during high season.
Cubans tend to eat their main meal in the evenings, but most restaurants are open all day long. Menus are the same for lunch and dinner. Main meals usually include rice mixed with black beans (or served on the side), or french fries. Restaurants serve mainly chicken, shrimp, fish and langusta, the last one being most expensive at a price of 20-25 CUC per portion. Other mains usually go for the price of 8-15 CUC.
Snack food is very popular in Cuba, whether sold from windows, street trolleys or little cafe-bars. You can expect to find sandwiches, hamburgers, small pizzas and biscuits, but food quality and taste varies a lot.
Paladars (paladares in Spanish) are privately-owned restaurants which have been legalized in the 1990s. They are one of over 150 types of private businesses currently allowed by the Cuban government. These small restaurants are a good place to taste local food.
Cafeterias are government-run cafes where you can always expect locals to hang out and drink beer. It's a great place to blend into the local community. Prices are cheap, pizzas cost 2-3 CUC, beer 1-1,50 CUC.
Beer (cerveza) is what most locals drink. Cristal, a light lager, and the darker Bucanero are the two main national brands. Both have sugar added to them. Imported beers include Hollandia, Windmill and Presidente. Local soft drinks (refrescos) are also much sweeter than for example Pepsi.
Rum (ron) is Cubas national pride. Try Mojito and Cuba Libre, which are both Cuban inventions. Prices for drinks in bars are 2-4 CUC, while bottles of rum in shops go for 3-5 CUC depending on capacity.
Cigars are widely produced in Cuba and famous around the world for their quality. Montecristo, Cohiba, Partagas, Romeo y Juliet are some of the good local brands. Prices vary greatly depending on brand, size and quality, generally 2-7 CUC per cigar.
When greeting or saying goodbye to someone, Cubans usually shake hands. With family and friends it is common for both men and women to exchange hugs (abrazos) and 1-3 kisses on the cheek. This can also happen when you’re saying farewell to your casa owners, as Cubans are very friendly with their guests.
With their Latin-American spirit, you’ll often hear Cubans address strangers and tourists with phrases such as 'mi corazón' (my heart), 'mi vida' (my life), or 'cariño' (dear).
When speaking to the elderly, be sure to show respect and speak more formally.
Cuba is an very diverse and multi-ethnic country, composed of African, First Nation, European, and Asian heritage. The majority (64%) of Cubans are of Spanish descend, followed by Mulatto/Mestizo (mixed races, 26%), Black (9%). About 1% of the population is of East Asian origins, such as Chinese and Filipino.
Despite various ethnic and national backgrounds, the culture and traditions held in common by most Cubans is are referred to as Cuban culture. Racism is not a problem in Cuba, but in practice, black Cubans are underrepresented in higher positions.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its major financial supporter and some 80% of its trade. The Special Period was introduced by the government in the early nineties to deal with massive food shortages. Food rations and power cuts were introduces. Transport, industrial and agricultural sectors were close to paralyzed. Thousands of Cubans are believed to have left the country through the Straits of Florida.
Tourism has played a major role in Cuba’s economy since the mid-1990s. The government of Raul Castro introduced a few market-oriented reforms such as the authorization of over 150 types of private businesses (taxi drivers, shop keepers, barbers, restaurant and casa owners etc.). Since then, life in Cuba is slowly changing for the better.
However, you may still encounter people asking for clothes, money of food. Shops are low on food and other items, with shelves usually filled with only a few items. Many Cubans still have to wait in long lines in stores to get what they want before it sells out. Items such as toiletries are expensive and scarce.
Fidel Castro erected a statue of John Lennon from The Beatles in 2000. Castro admired Lennon and believed he was a true music revolutionary.
It is mandatory for government vehicles to pick up hitchhikers.
Only 5% of Cubans actually have access to Internet.
Cuba is one of two countries were the sale of Coca-Cola is prohibited. Pepsi is available though.
Fidel Castro survived more than 600 assassination attempts, mostly orchestrated by the CIA.