Cuba is the largest Caribbean island. The country has nine World Heritage Sites, as well as beaches, colonial architecture and distinct cultural history. It has had a communist government since the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and has been under a US embargo ever since.
|Western Cuba (Pinar del Rio, Artemisa, Havana, Mayabeque, Matanzas, Isla de la Juventud)|
The capital, the rolling hills of Pinar del Rio and an off-the-beaten-path island with good scuba diving add up to an exciting region.
|Central Cuba (Camagüey, Villa Clara, Cienfuegos, Sancti Spíritus, Ciego de Ávila)|
|Eastern Cuba (Las Tunas, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, Granma, Guantánamo)|
- 1 Havana – cosmopolitan capital with a swinging nightlife
- 2 Baracoa – a quaint beach-side town, and Cuba's first capital
- 3 Camagüey – Cuba's third-largest city is a maze of narrow alleyways, Catholic churches, and jars known as tinajones
- 4 Cienfuegos – a French-founded city that rivaled (and eventually overtook) Trinidad as Cuba's main southern Port
- 5 Matanzas – with a name that translates to "massacres," this industrial port city at the end of the Hershey railway is a hidden gem of Afro-Cuban culture and history
- 6 Pinar del Rio – center of the cigar industry
- 7 Santa Clara – site of the battle that won the Revolution and now home of the mausoleum to Ernesto "Che" Guevara
- 8 Santiago de Cuba – coastal city rich in Caribbean influence and steeped in revolutionary history
- 9 Trinidad – World Heritage Site with charming, colonial-era buildings
- 1 Cayo Largo – a small island with nudist facilities
- 2 Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes – a national park in the Sierra del Emcambray mountains, straddling Cienfuegos, Villa Clara, and Sancti Spiritus provinces
- 3 Isla de la Juventud – a large island south of Havana
- 4 Jardines del Rey – an island chain of beach resorts including Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo
- 5 Maria la Gorda – a tiny village with some snorkeling and diving options
- 6 Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata – similar to Florida's Everglades National Park, with vast swamps and world-famous birdwatching, scuba diving, and beaches; and the site of the 1961 American Bay of Pigs invasion
- 7 La Güira National Park – another national park in Pinar del Rio province, with mountains and caves, but without many tourist facilities
- 8 Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra del Rosario – a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the Sierra del Rosario mountains of Pinar del Rio province; the principal sites are Soroa and Las Terrazas
- 9 Varadero Beach – 20-kilometer-long beach of fine white sand and waters
- 10 Viñales – a national park in Pinar del Rio province, with mountains and caves; it has the best-developed tourist facilities of Cuba's national parks
|Currency||Cuban peso (CUP)|
convertible peso (CUC)
|Population||11.1 million (2020)|
|Electricity||110 volt / 60 hertz (NEMA 1-15, NEMA 5-15)|
|Time zone||UTC−05:00, America/Havana|
|Emergencies||106 (police), 104 (emergency medical services), 105 (fire department)|
|edit on Wikidata|
Changes to US rules
On 20 July 2015, the US and Cuba restored diplomatic relations for the first time since 1960. Some financial and travel restrictions have been eased but ordinary tourism is still not permitted for US citizens.
Before the 1959 Revolution, Cuba was a popular tourist destination for United States citizens, mainly due to the large number of casinos catering to gamblers put up by the American mafia. Revolutionaries claim the Batista dictatorship was a government that neglected many of its own citizens' health and welfare to maintain power. Many Americans had beach homes during the summer, and rich American companies owned large factories and land with the cooperation of Fulgencio Batista, the ruling military dictator. Since the Revolution, Cuba has been subjected to a trade and economic embargo (referred to in Cuba as el bloqueo, or "the blockade") by the United States. Since 2009, U.S. citizens with relatives living in Cuba have been allowed to visit the country.
After 1959 Cuban tourism was mostly for Cubans only, and the facilities were not renovated until the 1990s, when Cuba lost financial backing from the defunct Soviet Union and opened its doors to foreign tourism. Now many European, Canadian, and even American visitors come to the island. In the typical tourist regions like Varadero and Holguín many modern 3-star to 5-star hotels are available, while in less popular tourist regions visitors can still rent rooms in many Cuban homes (called casas particulares).
Due to several long-standing factors (e.g. bureaucratic ineffectiveness, the U.S. embargo, lack of resources, and the loss of Soviet subsidies), much of the country's infrastructure is in need of repair. In major tourist destinations there will generally be few problems with either power or water, although outages may occur. Electricity outages have been common in Cuba, except in tourist facilities that have a generator. 2006 was designated the Year of the Energy Revolution in Cuba, and many small generators have been installed in an attempt to avoid blackouts. Since Venezuela began providing Cuba with cheap oil and the refinery in Cienfuegos was relaunched, the energy situation has improved. Many tourist accommodations offer 220 V and 110 V power sources. This should be enough to accommodate most things you plug in.
Before Columbus landed on Cuba in 1492, the Taíno people had been living there for thousands of years. In 1511, the first Spanish settlement was founded by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar at Baracoa, and other towns soon followed including the future capital San Cristobal de Habana (Havana) which was founded in 1515.
Cuba remained a Spanish colony from 1511 to 1898 with an economy based on plantations, agriculture, mining and exports of sugar, coffee and tobacco to North America and Europe. The work was done primarily by African slaves brought to the island, until they were liberated in the late 19th century.
In 1898, Cuba was wrested from Spain by the United States in the Spanish–American War. Conflict over Cuba and outrage at Spain's heavy handed colonial rule there was the ultimate cause of the war with the trigger being an American ship sinking in Cuban harbor under circumstances that were interpreted as foul play at the time, but the U.S. ended up gaining control of the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and other places in the short decisive war that left Spain soul-searching with the "generation of 98" becoming an important literary movement. The U.S. subsequently kept Cuba under military occupation as a protectorate for a few decades and then controlled it through a series of corrupt military dictators who were also friendly with the Mafia. While Cuba was never formally annexed, nobody could rule for long in Havana between 1898 and 1959 without at least tacit approval from Washington.
In the late 1950s, Fidel Castro led a Communist guerrilla army to victory over the regime of Fulgencio Batista. Following his victory, Cuba became a one-party Communist country aligned with the Soviet Union, and in a state of confrontation with the United States, which attempted to overthrow the Cuban government by proxy invasion, blockade, embargo, and several assassination attempts on Castro's life by the Central Intelligence Agency. The only thing all these hostile actions succeeded in doing was helping to cripple Cuba's economy. Nevertheless, literacy and health care improved greatly under Fidel's rule.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cuban economy entered an economic crisis, called the Special Period. They had previously been guaranteed Soviet oil in exchange for sugar, and a significant portion of their trade went to the eastern bloc. With their oil cut off and trade becoming more limited with the economically devastated former USSR, the Cuban economy suddenly had to make huge adjustments to stay afloat. Food and gasoline rationing, and lack of new imported goods meant that organic farming became popular on every available piece of land, and the country had to become less dependent on cars. These changes can still be seen in ripples in Cuba today. Venezuela under the presidency of Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) provided free oil to Cuba in exchange for Cuban doctors and nurses, and with relations improving with Russia in the 2000s, their economy began to return to normal.
There is a large gap between the income of visitors to Cuba and what local workers can earn. Since Fidel Castro retired, his brother, Raúl, has introduced more market-based reforms. However, the country's communist ideals remain.
Cuban music is influenced by the melding of African and Cuban cultures that is also expressed in the traditional belief in Santería, the local name for Yoruba religion and practices that originate from Nigeria. Cuban music spread to the United States in the mid-1900s, including its rich mixture of rhythms, and helped create "Latin jazz".
As in other Caribbean lands, traditional Afro-Caribbean religious and ritual practices are anathema to some, yet are believed to a greater or lesser degree by many Cubans. Most Cubans are nominally Roman Catholic, even though some of the Christians also believe to some degree in Santería. The ruling Communist Party is not aggressively atheist, and amended the Cuban Constitution in 1992 to make Cuba no longer officially atheistic.
Cuba's food is also a product of the melding of the cuisine of the Taíno natives, the Spanish conquistadores, the Africans who arrived as slaves, and immigrants from various parts of the world including China.
Cuba is 1,250 kilometres (780 mi) long with an area of 104,556 square kilometres (40,369 sq mi), making it the largest island in the Caribbean by area. The highest point is Pico Turquino at 1,974 m.
Although average income is only US$25, Cubans are not poor as their basic needs are covered by the government. They pay their monthly bills of subsidized electricity and water with around US$5, receive free education from elementary school to university, can see doctors for free and receive medicine for free. The social system cares for people out of job and provides them with a home and money for food. Life is not easy but everyone can survive. Keep this in mind when it comes to tipping or people begging in the streets (rare).
When to go
The best times to go are between December and April, to avoid the storms and hurricanes before December and the sticky heat of the Cuban summer which can be unbearable for some. This is also the high season so expect a price increase during this period.
|Casa Blanca, Havana|
|Climate chart (explanation)|
- January 1 – Triumph of the Revolution
- January 2 – Victory of the Armed Forces Day
- Good Friday (variable)
- May 1 – Labour Day
- July 25 – Commemoration of the Assault of the Moncada Garrison
- July 26 – Day of the National Rebellion
- October 10 – Independence Day
- December 25 – Christmas
The official language of Cuba is Spanish. The local dialect is similar to that of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, although the version here is different from dialects spoken in Spain (although quite similar to the one in Canary Islands because many Cubans are descendants of Canarians), Mexico and South America. Cubans tend to swallow the last syllables of words and generally swallow the 's' sound.
Basic-to-fair English is spoken in some tourist locations and language should not be a deterrent to visiting the country for non-Spanish speaking tourists capable of speaking English, though basic Spanish would prove useful, especially in more informal settings. Cubans enjoy talking to tourists, especially if you are staying with them in the "casas particulares", and some knowledge of Spanish will help you understand regular Cubans' experiences.
Instead of the Spanish "Qué tal?" for "How are you?", Cubans will say "Qué bolá?" (similar to "What's up?", generally quite informal) or "Cómo andas?" (literally means, "How are you walking?").
Students are instructed in basic English from primary school on, although their English level varies by individual and location. In establishments located near the main tourism centres, workers often have a moderate to high level of conversational skill in English.
A tourist visa card (visa de tarjeta del turista) is necessary for travelers from most countries. This visa, which is really little more than a piece of paper on which you list your personal information, costs US$15-25 (or €15-25) from most destinations, depending on where purchased. Costs US$50-100 from the US. It can be purchased at the airport in Cuba on arrival, but many airlines will require a valid tourist visa card before you board a flight. It is usually valid for 30 days and can be extended once for another 90 days at any immigration office in Cuba (for ~US$25) - beyond this you would need a flight out of Cuba within the extended visa period. Your passport needs to be valid at least six months past the end of your planned return. Canadian passports must be valid for at least one month beyond the date of expected departure.
From Canada, the tourist card is normally provided on the flight. It can also be purchased from most Latin American gateway airports if departing from there (Cancun: 250 Mexican pesos, Mexico City: US$25). If you are coming from Europe (this may apply to other countries), you need to have the visa before boarding the plane. Sometimes, the airline provides these at the airport, however check first that this is the case. Without a valid visa, boarding will be denied (the airline would otherwise get a US$1,000 fine from the Cuban immigration authorities).
Your visa will be stamped upon arrival in Cuba and must be retained in your possession to be stamped when you exit the country. There is a ~US$25 fee to replace a lost visa.
Regular tourists who renew their 90-day visa are eligible to depart the country (to any destination) and return immediately enjoying a further 90 days (180 including the 90 days extension).
- US – For information specific to U.S. citizens see Americans in Cuba.
- UK – From 2017, the Cuban consulate only accepts postal applications for tourist cards. For most cases, it is probably better to use an online agency such as CubaVisa.uk or VisaCuba Online or CubaVisas or VisaCuba because it will be cheaper and involve less paperwork. Thomsons / TUI recommend an agency which costs almost three times these agencies. Check with your tour operator before purchasing one from the above.
- Germany – You can obtain the tourist card through the Cuban embassy in post. Travel agencies may often offer cheaper and quicker services though. German airlines serving Cuba usually sell the card to their customers.
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), Malaysia (90 days), Mongolia, Montenegro (90 days), Namibia, North Macedonia, Singapore, Slovakia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Serbia (90 days), Turkmenistan (30 days) can stay without visa. (The source of the previous sentence is unknown. Aeromexico staff at Cancun airport claim that only citizens of China and Russia need no visa.)
To enter Cuba, Cuban citizens residing permanently in another country require a current Cuban passport with the appropriate authorization. This authorisation is known as habilitación of the passport. To obtain this authorisation the Cuban citizen must be recognised a migrant by the Cuban government.
Most Cuban-born people who are citizens of other countries still need a current authorised Cuban passport to enter Cuba. The Cuban government does not recognise the citizenships that might have been acquired by anyone born in Cuba. This means that all Cuban-born individuals are considered to be Cuban citizens even if they have a different citizenship.
An exception to this rule are Cubans who emigrated from Cuba before 1 January 1971. In this case they can enter Cuba with a non-Cuban passport and the appropriate visa. However, some consulates are known to disregard this exception, with the result that travelers must acquire a Cuban passport at a significant cost. The Cuban consulate in Sydney, Australia is one that have been reported to be doing this.
If you want to stay with friends or family in Cuba you have to go with your intended host within two days after arrival to a migration office and pay US$40 for a 30-day family visa.
For more information see the Cuban government's webpage Nación y Emigración [dead link] (in Spanish).
José Martí International Airport outside Havana is the main gateway and is served by major airlines from points in Canada, Mexico, and Europe. There is direct service from Beijing. There are also regional flights from other Caribbean islands. Cuba's national carrier is Cubana de Aviación, connecting the island to a handful of destinations in Mexico, South and Central America, Canada and Europe. With the easing of sanctions against Cuba, direct flights are available from a number of U.S. cities, including Charlotte, Newark, and Miami despite the imposition of new limits on independent travel from the US. Note that because of these sanctions most websites will not display flights with Cuban carriers.
Flights from Miami to Cuba are offered to authorized American passengers. Try calling Cuba Travel Services (CTS Charters). They offer daily non-stop flights between Los Angeles and Miami to Cuba.
From February 2021, the Cuban authorities placed restrictions on flights from several destinations, such as only four flights a week from the US.
The airports are all fully air-conditioned and quite modern compared to other destinations in the Caribbean, offer good medical care in case of problems, and are usually relatively hassle free. Your checked luggage, though, is at great risk. It is increasingly common for your luggage to be opened and anything of value removed. This used to be a problem at José Martí International (Havana) only; now it seems to have spread to all airports. Packing valuables in checked luggage is extremely risky, if not foolish.
While Havana is by far the most popular port of entry, there were also flights available to Santiago de Cuba from some of Cuba's nearest Caribbean neighbours, Jamaica and Haiti. There are also flights from more distant locations, such as Toronto, Madrid, Paris, Milan and Rome. Santiago de Cuba is connected with the rest of Cuba by road and rail connections.
There are also regular holiday charter flights to resorts such as Varadero, and these can sometimes be less expensive than those going to Havana.
The departure tax is included in the airplane ticket and does not have to be paid separately. No departure tax is required for boat departures.
Cuban customs[dead link] can be strict, though they sometimes go easy on tourists.
There are no ferry services from Cancún to Cuba as the sole operator of this line, Aqua Cruises, no longer sails this route. There are also no ferry services from Florida to Cuba, however several cruise companies have announced they intend to sail this route when the travel embargo is lifted.
Yachters are expected to anchor at the public marinas. Most ports are closed and tourists are not permitted to walk around them. Private vessels may enter at Marina Hemingway in Havana or Marina Acua in Varadero. There are no visa requirements. Expect to hand out several US$10 bills to facilitate your entry.
OpenStreetMap still has the best coverage of Cuba.
For reliable offline maps, GPS navigation, comprehensive trails and map information, consult OpenStreetMap, which is also used by this travel guide, and by many mobile Apps like OsmAnd (advanced with many add-ons), Mapy.cz, Organic Maps (fast and easy to use by the original developers who left Maps.me after new ownership degraded the app), or use OpenAndroMaps for South and Middle America with apps like Oruxmaps or Locus.
You can help improve the map by contributing places and other data to OpenStreetMap by editing the map or taking street-level photos with Mapillary and uploading when you have good connection or leave Cuba. Several years back the OpenStreetMap community used Mapillary to effectively capture imagery of La Habana useful for mapping.
The bus is the most popular way of getting around the island. There are two long-distance bus lines, Viazul, which is generally for tourists and Astro, which is generally for locals. Shorter distances are served by local provincial buses. In case, you prefer to solely use the local transport options, like buses or amarillos, it is better to do so outside of larger cities—it is much easier there. So, get there first if you are inside of a city.
Víazul[dead link] is Cuba's main bus line for tourists and is the comfortable choice of public transportation to tour the island. The buses are reliable and punctual as there is little traffic in Cuba. The buses sometimes take detours or make pauses along the route, especially at road-side restaurants or local souvenir or food shops in the mosquito-ridden nowhere. However, Víazul is not automatically better, actually only the night buses are very comfortable. Also, Víazul buses run far less often the Astro buses. Hence, it makes only sense to use them on low frequented routes.
In general, Víazul is about 6 times more expensive than Astro. Luggage is ~US$1, but that does not mean it will not get dirty in the luggage department or wet during rain.
The buses can be used theoretically by anyone, and they seem to be "filled up" by the Cubans, if there are empty seats by the time of departure (likely for much lower than tourist fare).
Reservations can be made in advance on their website, but this is typically only necessary when leaving from or going to popular destinations in high season. Reservations can also be made at a Viazul ticket office (usually located at or near the place where the buses stop). The reservations need to be exchanged for bus tickets in advance (as of 2015) at the ticket office.
If the bus is full, it’s very likely that you’ll be offered a ride in a shared taxi for the same price as the bus. If there are no shared taxis going to your destination, the ticket salesperson will likely advise you to arrive ½ hr before the time of departure and wait for a late cancellation. If there is a late cancellation, you will be allowed to purchase a ticket from the bus driver.
Schedules for Viazul can be accessed on their website. As internet is hard to come by in Cuba, it is recommended you download or print the bus schedules in advance. A useful one-page schedule of Viazul buses can be found on the Cuba-Individual website. Refreshments are not served on the bus but the buses stop for meal breaks at highway restaurants along the way. The buses are often overly air-conditioned, so bring along something warm to wear.
Astro is the main bus line for Cubans. Astro has renewed their fleet with 300 Chinese coaches that are as comfortable as Viazul (without the washroom). Although the Chinese buses have proven to be unreliable and often break down, they are still better than the old buses that Astro used to run. Astro has a much more extensive network then Viazul and tickets are considerably cheaper. Officially, Astro bus tickets can only be sold to Cubans and foreigner students who are studying in Cuba (and have a Cuban student ID card to prove it). However, many foreign travellers have reported being able to purchase an Astro bus ticket. Your ability to purchase a ticket will depend on your vendor, fluency in Spanish and whether the destination is covered by Viazul. Astro buses normally depart from the same place as where Viazul departs.
There are also local provincial buses that serve local destinations such as neighbouring provinces (for example from Santiago you can use these buses to get to Bayamo or Guantanamo). These buses are often overcrowded and are usually old (pre-1960s) Eastern European vehicles. Each town will have a "terminal terrestre" where these buses will depart from and are usually quite easy to find (e.g. La Habana it is found in the Lido whilst in Santiago it is found on Calle 4).
Local buses are cheap with rides never costing more than ~US$1-2 for long journeys. Expect CUP10 for 30-50 km, or CUP20 per 100 km, depending on the amount of traffic along the road.
Queues are lengthy (it is best to arrive in the early hours of the morning, or alternatively give the chauffeur a tip to allow you to jump the queue) and you should always say that you are a student, as tourists are forbidden from using this transport.
A popular alternative to travelling by bus is to use shared taxis or collectivos. These consist of either modern or old vehicles that carry 3 to 5 passengers (depending on the size of the car). The main advantage of a collectivo is they will take you all the way to your hotel or casa for a similar price to a Viazul bus ticket. They are also usually faster, stop at cheaper highway restaurants and give you an opportunity to meet locals.
The easiest way of purchasing a ride in a shared taxi is to simply arrive at a long distance main bus station and look for the next available taxi going to your destination. There will be a number of touts trying to sell you a seat in their colleagues taxi so finding a car is fairly easy. The taxi only leaves once the car has reached its capacity so try and find one that already has a number of people confirmed to reduce your waiting time. The best time to catch a collectivo is in the morning as this is when most of the locals travel and therefore will maximise your chances of finding a taxi going to your destination. Prices for a collectivo are about the same as for an equivalent Viazul bus ticket. Be sure to negotiate a price before hopping in the car.
Another option is to reserve a share taxi in advance at a tourist information desk. These desks are usually located near a Viazul bus station and they will reserve a seat a taxi for the day of your departure. These taxis will only run if the taxi is full so be sure to check there are enough passengers confirmed for the transit. If the taxi is not full and you must travel that day, be prepared to pay for the empty seats otherwise the taxi will not go.
Some share taxis operate illegally and if the driver is stopped by the police, you may have to get out of the car and you will be left stranded in the middle of nowhere.
You will find an unusually large number of old U.S.-made cars on the street. Popularly known as "Yank Tanks," these are pre-revolution imports from the 1950s that have been nursed along for half a century, because the Soviet-made cars available during the Cold War were too scarcely allocated for most Cubans to buy (and other cars remain too expensive today).
In Cuba, all vehicles drive on the right hand side of the road.
Car rental starts from ~US$65 per day (including insurance) plus the cost of a full tank of gasoline. The refundable deposits start around US$200. Rental cars are for the most part fairly new, imported European or Asian models. You can rent cars from any Cubacar outlet. Any traffic tickets received are noted on a rental car sheet and are deducted from your rental deposit. If you are involved in a serious traffic accident involving injury or death, you will be detained in Cuba until the legal process sorts things out. This leaves travelers stuck in Cuba from several months to a year while collisions await trial - even if the visitor is not at fault or was just a passenger at the time of collision. For this reason, many countries advise their citizens not to rent cars in Cuba. Beware of scams regarding the cost of insurance. There is only one type of insurance policy covering everything (except for radio and tires) and the price varies only depending on the car type (details in the "Stay safe" section). Attentively check the contract and be sure you have a receipt for every peso you pay.
Busier roads and city streets are generally of fair (drivable) quality and should not pose much trouble if due care is exercised, however some quiet rural roads are in need of serious repair.
Generally traffic is light, especially away from Havana. Outside of towns and cities traffic is usually very light, with no cars for miles on some rural roads. Be warned - you also share the highways with local salespeople selling cheese and snacks, cyclists (sometimes going the wrong way, and at night usually without lights) and horse-drawn vehicles. The Autopista (the main highway running down the center of the country) is crossed at occasional intervals by railway tracks - take care to slow down before going over to avoid damage to the tires or suspension. Many of these have a stop sign ("PARE" in Spanish) which you should carefully heed - or risk a fine of ~US$30, even if no train is coming.
Roads are poorly signposted (and frequently not at all), so if you plan to do serious driving, it would be well-advised to get a detailed map and ask for directions when not sure.
Many traffic lights, especially in cities, are placed on the FAR corner of the crossing, not where you are supposed to stop, thus appearing to invite you to stop in the middle of the intersection.
Cubans tend not to drive too quickly, and chances are you'll be the fastest car on the road. In additional to random locations, speed limits are enforced at semi-permanent checkpoints. These are usually positioned at junctions and are signposted a few kilometres in advance. Most will require you to slow down to 40 km/h. Respect this or get fined ~US$30.
There have been reports of scams involving purposely punctured tires: This can happen when you park your car in a touristic location and someone either punctures one of your tires or places some sharp object close to the tire so it gets punctured once you depart. Within a few hundred meters someone on the street will make you aware of the punctured tire and guide you to a place where other people will help you change the tire and may even offer to replace your tire at an elevated price.
Gasoline costs ~US$1.00/1.20/1.40 for regular/special/super per litre. Tourist rental cars are not supposed to use regular.
The Cuban government's system for facilitating hitchhiking is by far the most economical way for foreigners to travel in Cuba, though a flexible schedule and good Spanish are a must. Known as "El Amarillo" ("the yellow guy") for the yellowy-beige uniforms of its administrators, the system consists of points along main routes where certain vehicles are required to stop and pick up hitchhikers. Amarillo points (el punto amarillo) along major highways are often full service rest stops for hitchhikers, with water, peso-priced food, and a 24-hr indoor waiting area.
Hitchhiking is the only system where you can travel for Cuban prices without paying a tourist premium. Given that transportation is one of a tourist's biggest expenses in Cuba, this can make your money go much farther. Telling people you're a student rather than a tourist can avoid funny looks and price gouging.
To use the system within cities, just keep your eyes peeled for a man or woman in a yellow and beige uniform standing along the road near a line of people. Tell the official where you need to go, and wait. To travel long distances, you need to get to the punto amarillo on the edge of the city in the direction you're going. Ask a local for help on the best way to do that. Then as you pass through cities, ask what bus or taxi to take to get to the punto amarillo on the outgoing road at the opposite extreme of the city. This can be tricky, and it's often worth it to take a local taxi. If you can find a Cuban to accompany you on your journey, their help will be invaluable.
In daytime hours, when the amarillo is present, you pay a nominal amount of money (approx. CUP20 from one city to the next) to the official when you find a ride. The money all goes to the government; drivers do not get any. As a result, it's much easier to travel long distances at night, when the amarillo has gone home and drivers can make some money picking up hitchhikers.
Of course, it's always possible to hitchhike just by sticking out your thumb to passing cars, but be prepared to give the driver CUP20-50 for a long ride. This is common in the countryside, near small towns and along the major autopistas, which are long, mostly straight roads that resemble an interstate system. The locals refer to hitchhiking as hacer botella, literally "making a bottle", from the hitchhiker's thumb up resembling asking for a bottle at a bar. Dar botella refers to giving someone a ride and pedir botella refers to asking for a ride. Your rides will usually begin and end at the various exits along the roadway, where there are usually a few people waiting, and sometimes an official flagging down passing vehicles.
Most of the rides you get will be in the back of large trucks, open to the weather. This is an exciting and beautiful way to travel the Cuban countryside. Though an accident would obviously be very dangerous for passengers, school children, older adults and parents with small children use this system every day. Make sure to bring protection against sun and rain and, if travelling at night, wind and cold.
- See also: Rail travel in Cuba
The main train line in the country runs between Havana and Santiago de Cuba, with major stops at Santa Clara and Camagüey. Trains also run to other cities such as Cienfuegos, Manzanillo, Morón, Sancti Spiritus, and Pinar del Rio.
There is one reliable train in Cuba: the overnight Tren Francés between Havana and Santiago de Cuba, which runs on alternate days. If only one train in Cuba is running, this will be 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 for the better part of the day (or night) waiting for a replacement engine. There are no services on the trains, so bring food and water with you. Trains are frequently cancelled. Schedules are at best optimistic and should always be checked in advance of travel.
Many Cubans prefer to hitchhike than take the train. Foreigners must pay much higher fares (which is still very cheap) than the locals. Tickets are roughly two-thirds what Viazul charges. Theft is a problem, so watch your luggage!
The fastest and most comfortable way to cover larger distances is on either of the Cuban airlines, Cubana de Aviación or Aerogaviota. They operate on the following routes:
Cubana de Aviación
- Havana - Camaguey - Havana, Yakovlev Yak-42D
- Havana - Santiago - Havana, Yakovlev Yak-42D
Operated by Aero Caribbean
- Havana - Camaguey - Havana, ATR 42-300/320
- Havana - Guantanamo - Havana, ATR 42-300/320
Operated by Global Air (Mexico)
- Havana - Cayo Coco - Holguin - Havana, Boeing 737-200
- Havana - Holguin - Cayo Coco - Havana, Boeing 737-200
- Havana - Santiago - Havana, Boeing 737-200
- Havana - Kingston, Jamaica - Havana
- Havana - Cayo Las Brujas - Havana
- Playa Baracoa (Havana) - Baracoa - Playa Baracoa (Havana)
- Playa Baracoa (Havana) - Cayo Coco - Playa Baracoa (Havana)
- Playa Baracoa (Havana) - Cayo Largo del Sur - Playa Baracoa (Havana)
- Playa Baracoa (Havana) - Holguin - Playa Baracoa (Havana)
- Playa Baracoa (Havana) - Cayo Las Brujas - Playa Baracoa (Havana)
- Playa Baracoa (Havana) - Santiago de Cuba - Playa Baracoa (Havana)
- Holguin - Playa Baracoa (Havana) - Baracoa - Holguin - Playa Baracoa (Havana)
- Varadero - Cayo Largo del Sur - Varadero
Note that most websites will not display flights with Cuban carriers due to American sanctions, so they will likely need to be booked directly from the carrier's website.
Calm roads and beautiful scenery make Cuba an ideal country for biking. Its already an incredible popular bike touring destination, both for group rides with bus support, and smaller, independent bike touring. In January - February, you can be confident you will come across at least a few bike tourers. If touring independently, you will have to bring your own bike as bikes suitable for trekking are not readily available in Cuba. Bike touring groups though will have bikes of moderate quality included in the package. Do not under any circumstances rent a bike (i.e. el Orbe in Havana) in Cuba as you will get a Chinese junker or something that will leave your backside raw.
Roads in most places in Cuba are reasonably paved. Large pot holes are common, so always stay alert. There's also many roads that degrade to gravel in certain sections, so it may be a good idea to bring a mountain bike or bikes with reasonably thick wheels. Make sure to bring all spare parts you might need along the way, since they will not be available in Cuba. As casas particulares are available even in relatively small towns it is easy to plan an itinerary. In denser parts of the country (Central and Western Cuba), you can reasonably assume there will be accommodation every 20 km between large cities. Food for on the road can often be obtained locally for cheap Cuban Pesos, most small towns will have at least a sandwich or pizzeria stall. Make sure to carry enough food (and water!) though, if travelling through more remote areas. Obtaining bottled water outside the major cities can be a definite problem. Pack iodine tablets as a safe alternative.
Bikers are often met with enthusiasm and interest; when taking a break you will often be approached by curious locals. You'll get a lot Cubans offering to buy your bike, or asking if it'll be left behind. It is possible to take bikes on a tourbus, like Viazul, to cover larger distances. Some Viazul bus routes will charge an extra ~US$3-5 for carrying the bike. It is also possible to take bikes on trains and even to hitch with bikes (wave some pesos to approaching drivers to catch their attention).
For long tours, try and ride to the south-west to have a nice tail wind (for example, Havana to Viñales, a popular ~250 km ride).
There are two main island groups to explore along the southern shore of Cuba. Your sailing area from the two main bases, Cienfuegos or Trinidad incorporates the Canarreos Archipelago and the Juventud Islands or Jardines de la Reina Archipelago.
The highlights of a trip to Cuba should include
- 1 Old Havana.
- 2 Varadero Beach.
- 3 Bay of Pigs. The bay is historically important for the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961. The area is a site known for its diving, with an abundance of marine fauna.
- 4 Valle de Vinales. In 1999, the valley was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as a cultural landscape because of its use of traditional tobacco-growing techniques.
- 5 Alexander von Humboldt National Park.
- 6 Playa Paraiso.
- 7 Saturno Cave.
- 8 Peninsula de Zapata National Park.
- El Nicho Waterfalls.
- 9 Fabrica De Arte Cubano.
- 10 Parque Monumento Nacional Bariay.
- 11 Cayo Saetia Island.
- 12 Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca.
- Walk along Havana's Malécon during the early evening and take in some of Havana's culture. Be cautious about prostitutes, as mentioned above; they are common in this area, especially in sections where rich white male tourists are known to walk.
- If you have the money (usually about US$60 or the euro equivalent), go to the Tropicana, which is an ex-Mafia hangout owned and operated by the state. The Tropicana is located, as it has always been, deep within a strategically tree-heavy area with a narrow road within the city, back behind the trees, and since its admission price is far too expensive for any average Cuban to afford, the people who go there are almost all international tourists. The club still has old-style traditions such as table service, lavish costumes, dazzling lights, a coat check area, etc. Real (but quite small) cigars are also available and can be smoked inside the venue, including near the stage. The Tropicana is so well-kept that it is almost a time warp (with the exception of the modern stage-equipment and the lack of a dress code) and, so long as you can forgive yourself the fact that most Cubans cannot afford what you are doing, your night is sure to be extremely enjoyable.
- Visit a neighbourhood performance of Afro-Cuban dance, which exists in almost every neighbourhood.
- Experience local music, which exists in almost every neighbourhood.
- Go to the clubs, all of which heavily play things like Cuban reggae and Cuban rap, as well as more traditional-sounding Cuban music with modern lyrics.
- Go to the beaches — but be careful, as in Jamaica, of being solicited by prostitutes and con people, both male and female.
- Do not stay at a resort, unless you do not want to experience the local culture. You will probably be bored and things around you may feel fake, gaudy and overdone.
- Go to the countryside and talk with farmers. Check out the area markets. There are two types of markets -- state-run markets, which give food very cheaply and for which Cubans keep ration books (and that you probably can not shop at because you won't have a ration book of your own), and profit-oriented markets where farmers sell their produce directly, which of course, is quite a bit more expensive.
- Visit some small towns. Each Cuban small town follows roughly the same pattern, a central park with its Jose Marti tribute, the local cultural center, the one, two (or none) casas particulares, and the municipal museum. The museums are usually small buildings carrying artifacts covering the region's entire history (from the indigenous population pre-Columbus to Castro's revolution and a bit beyond).
- Expect to hear a lot of Carlos Santana blaring out of windows at odd times of the day.
- Drink lots of fresh fruit juice, which is very common in Cuba due to the abundance of fresh fruit.
- Visit the Che's mausoleum, where lies Ernesto Guevara's ashes.
- Walk through the streets and experience the result of a vast cultural mix.
Exchange rates for Cuban peso
As of January 2023:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from xe.com
On 1 Jan 2021, Cuba's "dual currency system" was eliminated. All transactions will take place with "moneda nacional", i.e. Cuban pesos (CUP). Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), which had been used for most tourism services and for imported goods, were eliminated. Coins in Cuba come in denominations of 1-, 2-, 5-, and 20 centavos, 1-, 3 and 5 pesos (moneda nacional). Banknotes in Cuba come in denominations of 1-, 3-, 5-, 10-, 20-, 50-, 100-, 200-, 500 and 1,000 pesos (moneda nacional).
Visitors can exchange a range of foreign currencies at casas de cambio or cadecas (exchange houses) which are located in airports, hotels and in major towns and cities. Bancos (banks) also exchange foreign currencies and are located in most major towns and cities. Both exchange houses and banks accept a number of foreign currencies with the most popular being Canadian and US dollars, pounds sterling and euros. Mexican pesos, Swiss francs and Japanese yen may also be accepted by some banks in Cuba. A standard 3% fee is charged on all currency exchange. (The 10% tax on US dollar transactions was eliminated in July 2020.)
Currencies that are accepted by banks and indicative exchange rates are listed on the Banco Central de Cuba (Central Bank of Cuba) website. If you hold a currency that cannot be exchanged in Cuba, you may have to first exchange your home currency to one that is accepted and then exchange again to the Cuban currency. Doing the first step at home will probably be the easiest and cheapest option.
Many exchange houses and banks have credit and debit card facilities where they can debit your account and exchange it for cash. U.S.-issued cards will not work at these terminals. In addition to this, many places do not accept MasterCard cards (U.S. issued or otherwise). The terminals at exchange houses and banks often break down or go offline so you may not be able to use any card (until at least the next day when the machine is working again). Some places will not accept cards without your name on it (travel cards for example) even if it has your signature on the back.
When changing currency, bring your passport for identification (and the address of where you are staying as this is sometimes asked). If you are using a credit or debit card, the name on the card will need to match the name on the passport otherwise they will not accept the card. Be prepared for long queues at exchange houses and banks as well as odd opening and closing hours. Exchange facilities in resorts and hotels will often offer worse rates than banks and exchange houses in town. Finally, do not change currency on the street as visitors have been defrauded, with fake or local currency.
As of Jan 2021, private entrepreneurs, small shops, or private restaurants, or private taxis receive U.S. dollars in cash at an unofficial rate of 40 CUP per dollar. Trading on the black market carries risks of being scammed, robbed, or arrested.
Traveler's checks drawn on American banks are not valid in Cuba, though many have had success cashing U.S. traveler's checks at major tourist hotels. American Express checks are difficult to cash due to the likelihood that they were purchased with U.S. dollars. For example, Swiss traveler's checks will be accepted, as long as they are in Swiss francs, even if the checks are made "in licence" of an American bank, as long as the real producer of them is non-American. Visa traveler's cheques are accepted, though the same caveats about being drawn on an American bank apply. It's better to bring cash to Cuba; resorts accept euros, Canadian dollars, British pounds, Swiss francs and Hong Kong dollars without any fees.
ATMs are relatively rare in Cuba but they can be found in most larger towns and cities. U.S.-issued cards and MasterCard cards (U.S.-issued or otherwise) do not work at any ATM in Cuba. ATMs do accept Visa (not issued in the U.S., of course) and sometimes UnionPay. But although your card may be accepted, ATMs in Cuba often break down or do not have sufficient cash for a large withdrawal (if refused, try a smaller amount). Also, only primary accounts are recognised, so ensure your funds are not in a secondary account linked to the card.
Purchasing on credit and debit cards
Top tip for money
Do not rely on your bank cards as you would in other countries. Be prepared for your bank card to not work from time to time or at all! Have enough currency or travellers cheques when you enter the country and get around.
There are generally facilities for making payments with plastic in many hotels and touristy shops and restaurants. As mentioned above, U.S.-issued cards will not work. Visa and MasterCard (non US-issued) cards do generally work however they can only charge in US dollars and will incur a 3% fee. If using a debit card, cards that have a Plus or Cirrus logo may work. As mentioned above, be prepared for the card terminal to not work or be disconnected so do not rely on using your card. Finally, private businesses such as casas particulares and paladares will never accept card, necessitating the use of cash.
As in any developing country, most of the merchandise available is designed for tourists to take back home. The biggest Cuban exports for tourists are rum, cigars, and coffee, all of which are available at government-owned stores (including the duty-free store at the airport) or on the streets. For genuine merchandise, you should pay the official price at the legal stores.
Cubans also do well in creating music such as salsa, son, and Afro-Cubano. You can purchase CDs or tapes anywhere, but paying the equivalent of US$20 assures you of quality.
If you're tasting rum (ron in Spanish), there's more than just Havana Club, even though it is ubiquitous and probably one of the most easily accessible products. Other tasteworthy rums include Legendario, Ron Varadero, Ron Cubay, Ron Santiago de Cuba and Ron Santaria. For the allegedly authentic Cuban experience buy rum in a 200-ml tetrapak carton, available at small grocery stores aimed at local Cubans, but do not expect to be blown away by the taste.
If you are planning to take big quantities (several boxes or more) of cigars with you, be sure you have purchased them officially from an approved shop that gives you proper purchase documentation. Foreign nationals are allowed to export up to 50 cigars (generally 25 to a box) without special permits or receipts, but the export of more requires official receipts. If you buy cigars cheap on streets and you do not have official purchase invoice then your cigars may be confiscated. Also, any purchase of Cuban cigars outside government-approved stores (even in resorts) has the potential to be fake, and that the "cigar factory worker who steals from the factory" does not exist in any appreciable quantities. If you find a "deal" from a street vendor, it's highly likely you are getting fakes, some of which may not even be made of tobacco. Always ensure, no matter where you buy, that the Cuban government origin warranty stamp is properly affixed to the cigar box. Since 2014, licensed U.S. visitors to Cuba were being authorized 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 back cigars or rum for resale remains prohibited. As the situation is changing, it's best to verify current limits in advance.
Officially you'll need permission to export paintings that are larger than 70cm/side. When you buy artwork from approved shop then they'll give you also the required document, that consists of one paper and one stamp that will be glued on back of your painting. Serial numbers on the stamp and paper must match. Cost of the document is about US$2-3. In reality, it is possible that no one will be interested in your paintings.
As explained before, the monthly local salary is below €50/month. So, they tend to try hard to offer a good service in hotels, bars, cafes and restaurants. Many rely on tips to supplement their low incomes, so even a US$1 tip is often enough to make a difference. It is not always expected, but if you received good service.... Also, everyone will try to make an additional pesos on the side, especially when it comes to tourists. It is fine though to pay for a specific purpose, but if you expect anything to be for free, ask ahead, or you will be disappointed.
Traveling on a shoestring
Travel in Cuba is a contradiction; touristy things (like music bars with professional dancers, tourist transport, and beach hotels) are nice, nice things are expensive, but expensive is not authentic. Authentic Cuba are mostly non-touristy and cheap things, like dark local bars with local people, packed local buses, hitch-hiking with the amarillo, or casa particulares.
Hence, it is particularly possible to see the authentic side on a tight budget. On the other hand you will be quite as happy spending a lot of money and experiencing the Cuba you know from high gloss catalogues.
Cuba has long been a popular medical tourism destination for patients worldwide that seek high quality medical care at low costs. According to the Association of Caribbean States, nearly 20,000 international patients visited Cuba in 2006 for medical care. Cuba is especially attractive to many Latin American and North American patients given its easy proximity and relaxing environment.
A wide range of medical treatments are provided including joint replacement, cancer treatment, eye surgery, cosmetic surgery and addictions rehabilitation. Costs are about 60-80% less than in the US.
Cuban cuisine has a partly deserved reputation for being bland, particularly compared with some neighbors like Jamaica. The national dish in Cuba is rice and beans (moros y cristianos), and the local spice repertoire rarely extends beyond salt and garlic. While the state-run restaurants many tourists ended up eating at had little incentive to improve flavor, the dining scene has improved considerably and the best food will generally be found in your casa particular or in privately owned and operated restaurants called paladares.
Black beans are a main staple in Cuban households. Cubans eat mainly pork and chicken for meat. Beef and lobster are controlled by the state, and therefore illegal to sell outside of state owned hotels and restaurants, however special lobster lunch/supper offers are plentiful for tourists. You may see turtle on menus in paladares, but they are endangered and eating them is illegal. That an item is listed on a menu does not, however, mean it is available.
Small street vendors typically sell
- fruits (1 banana CUP1-2)
- small pizzas (CUP10-20) handed in whatever clean paper is around (usually approximately a 15-20 cm round piece with some tomato sauce and few flakes of cheese. They are OK.)
- refrescos (usually various juices)
- spaghetti in tomato sauce
- ice cream
- cream cakes
The quality varies from vendor to vendor.
The tourist areas of Havana and other large cities have many dining options.
Paladares, locally owned restaurants in private homes, are plentiful, even in the smaller towns. Seating is often limited, so you may need to arrive when they open, usually around 17:00-18:00. If you are staying in a casa particular ask your host for recommendations, as the quality of the food can vary substantially between paladares. Only eat in ones that have a printed menu with prices, otherwise you are very likely to pay two to three times as much as you should. Several have taken to printing two different menus, one with local prices and one with foreigner prices. Eating in paladares is legal, but if you are taken there by a Cuban, you may be charged extra in order to cover commission of the person who brought you. A supper will cost around ~US$7-10 per person.
There are private restaurants that cater for Cubans and are only allowed to take CUP. You will recognise them by a board that states the daily offers and prices. A tasty serving of rice, vegetables, plantains, and pork or beef will cost around CUP30-50. Some places even sell it to you in a cajita ["little box" in English].
Restaurants are owned by the government and run by employees, and the food ranges from bland to spicy. Eating in state owned hotels and restaurants is significantly more expensive and compares with prices in many first world countries. An average supper with soup, dessert and a glass or two of wine could easily cost ~US$20-30 per person. In these establishments, the vast majority of the employees' income comes from tips (their monthly salary often being less than the cost of one meal), making it a friendly and welcome gesture to tip liberally for good service.
In bigger towns you will also find some state-run restaurants which cater mainly to Cubans and accept local currency. Prices are extremely low (e.g. CUP10-15 for a sandwich and cooked meals for CUP30-60), but the quality of food, service and ambience is typically relatively low. Still, this may be an option if you are on a low budget or seeking an 'authentic' Cuban experience. If you choose to tip, do so in pesos as anything else would be an insult to staff.
It is customary to tip 10-20% in restaurants and bars. A 10% service charge is often added to the bill.
Most casas particulares serve their guests a large breakfast for around ~US$2-5 per person if requested (you can tell them what you want for breakfast). However, make sure you get value for money - often you can buy for much less money (in CUP) the same fruit, coffee bread/omelette, etc., out in the street that your casa particular owner will want to charge you 4 times more for just to present it to you in a more comfortable fashion. However, for money-savers, 'building' your own breakfast for CUP is quite easy. Every little village has sandwich shops where you can get a sandwich of ham, cheese or with omelette for CUP5-15 depending on the size. Most of them also sell Cuban coffee (sweet!) for CUP1-2 or a juice for CUP2 called 'refresco'. Some casas particulares may also serve guests large dinners for ~US$7-10 per person.
Sometimes if you ask nicely, your casa particular owner may let you use their kitchen to prepare your own food - in fact, they are usually quite accommodating if for instance you have special dietary requirements, or young children etc.
You can also find small street vendors selling a variety of foods. Many of these stores are run from people's living rooms, and buying from them is a good way to help provide some extra income to a Cuban family. While these meals are satisfying and cheap, long lines are common and the vendors are rarely in any rush to see everyone fed quickly.
Bottled water is sold throughout the country where one litre will cost you around ~US$0.80-1.20. You can by a 5-L bottle for ~US$1.90 and transfer it to smaller ones.
Cuban national cocktails include the Cuba Libre (rum and cola) and the Mojito (rum, lime, sugar, mint leaves, club soda and ice).
If you request a rum in a small country restaurant do not be surprised if it is only available by the bottle. Havana Club is the national brand and the most popular. Expect to pay US$4 for three year old white rum or US$8 for seven year old dark rum.
Cristal is a light beer and is available in "dollar" stores. Cubans prefer the Bucanero Fuerte, which at 5.5% alcohol is a strong (hence the "fuerte") darker beer. Cristal and Bucanero are brewed by a joint venture with Labatts of Canada, whose beer is the only Cuban beer. A stronger version, Bucanero Max is also available - primarily available in Havana.
There are also smaller brews, not available everywhere, such as Hatuey and Corona del Mar. These are sold in CUP.
Similar to restaurants - there are two types of establishments you can go to drink in Cuba: Western-style bars with near-Western prices, a good selection of quality drinks (and sometimes food), nice decorations, semi-motivated staff and often live music, typically found around tourist hot-spots such as Old Havana and tourist hotels. Here you will mostly meet other tourists, expats and a few Cubans with access to hard currency, but do not expect a 'local' experience.
The alternative is to seek out local neighborhood bars where you can choose from a quality, but limited, selection of drinks (mainly locally produced rum by the bottle, beer and soft drinks, very rarely will you be able to get cocktails such as mojitos), cigars of dubious and cigarettes of only slightly better quality, and sometimes snacks. Local bars are dirt-cheap. Local bar staff are state employees and paid a pittance. These bars are also a good way to meet locals who may even open up a bit and talk about their lives after a couple of drinks.
Local bars are not that hard to find despite typically having no prominent signs displayed outside. Decoration is usually scant, and music often subdued. They make for a fascinating experience, especially if you make the effort to speak to some locals, and they provide a good insight into life of ordinary Cubans without access to hard currency. As a foreign visitor, you will be generally welcomed. Discussing politics over a drink is a tricky, and typically lose-lose proposition: speak negatively about the Cuban political system and you may put your Cuban drinking companions into a very difficult position as they may very well be informed on for hanging out with subversive foreigners.
If you want to experience something of the real life of Cubans, the best places to stay are casas particulares, which are private houses licensed to offer lodging services to foreigners. A casa particular is basically a private family establishment that provides paid lodging, usually on a short-term basis. This type of establishment would more usually be called a bed and breakfast or vacation rental in other countries. In general, under this term, you can find full apartments and houses, rooms inside people's homes, mini-apartments or rooms with separate entrance (studio or efficiency-type rooms). The business may be operated either as a primary occupation or as a secondary source of income, and the staff often consists of the house's owners and members of their family who live there. Most casas have air conditioning and private baths. Many have minibars stocked with water, beer and soft drinks; and televisions. The cost of minibar items is similar to that charged in a restaurant (~US$1-2 for water, ~US$2-3 for a beer). Some casas also have WiFi.
Casas particulares are cheaper than hotels (average ~US$20-30/room high season; ~US$10-15 low season) and the food (breakfast ~US$4-5, dinner ~US$8-13) is almost always better than you would get in a hotel. Casas particulares are plentiful even in small towns; they are somewhat more expensive in Havana than elsewhere. Any service offered by a casa particular other than accommodation, such as driving you to the bus station, will be added to your bill, regardless of whether this is stated up front. Items such as bottled water supplied with your meal will also have a charge. Always make sure that you talk to the owner about what things will cost when you arrive to avoid unpleasant surprises later. These houses are under a lot of restrictions by the government, so make sure that you are staying at 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 these as you walk past houses. Upon arrival, the houseowner will need to take down your passport details and how long you will be staying for. Some Cubans do offer illegal accommodations and although they are cheaper, the quality of the food and service is generally lower. If found, the Cubans will risk a large fine and it is best to avoid illegal casas completely.
If travelling around the island, it is recommended to ask the casa owners if they have friends or family in the city you are going to. There is a network of casas and the family will gladly organise for you to be met by their friends off the bus at your next destination. Because most casas particulares are small, rarely with room for more than about 5-6 guests, it is advisable for anyone wanting to stay at a bed and breakfast to make reservations well in advance of their travel date. Many casas particulares belong to associations, have a web presence, and are described in various books and travel guides. You can arrange your accommodation in advance, either by asking your host to recommend someone and by using a casa particular association (the party making the introduction will almost always receive a commission, which you end up paying as it will be included in the accommodation price). Some will let you book accommodation over the internet before your trip, and will go out of their way to arrange accommodation for you while you are there. You can make a reservation by calling ahead using either the casas phone or a public one. Alternatively, you can use a site specialised in vacation accommodation in Cuba like Casas de Cuba wildcaribe.com[dead link] or BB Inn Vinales that let you search a house that suits your needs, check the availability of rooms on the dates that interest you and confirm your booking. Since mid-2016, the US government has permitted Airbnb to list accommodations in Cuba.
For the best rates just arrive in a place and knock on a door to see the room and ask for the price. If you do not like either of them go for the next door. Every city and every village has way too many casas for the few tourists that come. Due to the taxes the casa owners have to pay to the government the lowest price for a room is ~US$15 in high season; ~US$10 in low season. Some might ask you to have at least one meal at their casa to give you a cheap room price. If traveling by bus you will be sometimes welcomed by casa owners at the bus station that will present you with pictures of the room they offer. Those will most likely accept room rates of ~US$15, even breakfast for ~US$2 and dinner for ~US$5. Agree on a price and then go with them as all casas have almost the same standard. But beware of jineteros (hustlers) trying to lead you to a casa, where they will get a commission and you will be charged the extra. Make sure you talk to the casa owner.
Cubans hosting foreigners for free is illegal, and they risk a large fine if caught. Some will bend the rules, but be cautious if you choose to take up the offer (e.g. do not 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, like Varadero, Playa Santa Lucia and Guardalavaca, local authorities determined that casas particulares would represent a threat to the hotel industry, and passed some legislation placing regulations and limits on the industry forbidding the operation of these establishments.
Accommodations may state that they provide wifi, but an internet token must be purchased. See "Connect" section.
Most small cities and larger towns have at least one state-run hotel, which is often in a restored colonial building. The prices are US$25-100, depending on what you are getting. Resorts and high-end Havana hotels can be significantly more expensive.
Education is taken very seriously in Cuba, and many international organisations, including UNESCO and the World Bank, have praised the country for having one of the best educational systems in the world. It is mandatory for every Cuban citizen to attain an education, no matter what their circumstances are. The government spends on average 10-15% of Cuba's GDP on education, one of the highest rates in the world.
Schools and universities are closely integrated in Cuban society. Absenteeism and dropping out of school are virtually underheard of and are frowned upon. Schoolteachers have the right to call the police on students who deliberately skip classes.
The University of Havana offers long- and short-term Spanish courses. If you do choose to study at the university, try to see if you can obtain a student "carne" which will enable you to benefit from the same advantages as Cuban students (museums at a 25th of the price, entrance to nightclubs full of mostly Cubans). If you want to take private classes or study Spanish in smaller groups, you can study in Havana, Trinidad or Santiago de Cuba.
Cuban museums are plentiful, frequently open, and usually charge only ~US$1-2 for admission. You may get a guided tour from one of the staff members; even if you do not speak Spanish, this can be useful. They will generally make you check your bags, and charge a small fee for the privilege of taking pictures inside.
Living conditions in Cuba are more or less alright; education, healthcare, housing, and food are subsidised by the government. This privilege is not extended to non-Cubans.
Generally speaking, it is extremely difficult for non-Cubans to find employment in Cuba. The Cuban job market is heavily regulated, Cuba is known for its extremely low intake of immigrants, and a number of jobs are legally off-limits to non-Cubans.
The average official salary for Cubans is about US$15 per month. Non-Cubans can only obtain a business/work visa or a work permit through a Cuban business or a foreign business registered in Cuba. Business visas are generally for up to three months. Work permits are renewable annually.
Cuba is a very safe country, mainly because the Cuban government severely punishes crime.
Strict and prominent policing, combined with neighborhood-watch-style programs (known as the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDR) generally keep the streets safe from violent crime.
Drug laws are incredibly harsh in Cuba, as are the laws against prostitution and the importation, distribution and production of pornography.
Political demonstrations against the government are rare.
Criticism of the Cuban government, the Communist party, and figures of the revolution is not recommended; you never know who might be listening and your criticism might land you in hot water with the zero-tolerance Cuban justice system.
Do not take photographs of policemen, soldiers, and other authority figures without their consent. The authorities may consider it as espionage.
Women receive a lot of attention from men, especially away from the more touristy centre of Havana. Avoiding cleavage and short skirts will lessen the attention but by no means stop it. Do not get annoyed by the whistles or hissing sounds, as Cuban women often acknowledge and welcome the attention. Acknowledging it too enthusiastically, however, will probably encourage the men.
Common scams include:
- Renting a car in Cuba calls for your attention on every single peso you pay. One of the reported scams is referring to the cost of insurance, and it is quite expensive as you may be charged at twice the real cost. The price of insurance depends only on the car model, but the clerk might start to explain the difference between two or three types of policies, at different costs (for the same car class). The more expensive one has full coverage (except for the radio and tires theft). If you choose the more expensive option, you are told that it is not possible to pay the full amount with a credit card. Nevertheless, it is possible to pay a part of it with credit card (exactly the cost of the less expensive one) and pay cash for the difference. You will not get any receipt, nor does this sum appear on the rental contract. This is the exact amount the scammer gets from you.
- Real-looking discount cigars of dubious authenticity being offered by street touts. Quite often these are genuine articles which have been stolen or collected over a long period of time by cigar workers and are sold at substantial discount on legal and taxed cigars. If you are unable to distinguish genuine cigars then you should only buy from the official cigar dealers. Hotel doormen often offer untaxed (illegal) cigars, around ten times cheaper than taxed cigars a rule of thumb. There is a risk that customs will confiscate these on exit, although this will be unlikely for less than fifty cigars.
- "Friendly" locals inviting tourists to bars for a drink or to a restaurant; the tourist will be charged two to three times the normal price, and the spoils split between the establishment and the "friend". In Central Havana, a running trick is a young local man or couple, on the pretext of practising English, invite tourists to attend a performance by "Buena Vista Social Club" (no, most of the members of BVSC have passed away and the group has not performed in Havana for many years) while suggesting to go to a nearby bar for a drink while waiting for the show to start. Some locals even demand a few pesos for their company.
- Make the price absolutely clear before doing any business, especially if you are not a Spanish speaker. It is not uncommon to reach a destination with a taxi and be asked for much more money than agreed, on a pretext of misunderstanding such as CUP25 instead of CUP5. The advice is to write the price on a piece of paper and show it to the person. In Havana it is important to always be careful when using money. When taking a taxi, ask someone familiar with the system what the approximate fare should be, as many drivers will try to set an artificially high fare before departing. If in doubt, insist that they use the meter. You can almost be sure that any predetermined fare from the airport is higher than it should be, so insist on the meter.
- Water is often sold around tourist areas. Sometimes these bottles have been filled with local tap water (which can be poisonous) and re-sealed. You can usually see this tampering on the bottle, but not always. In any case, tap water will taste markedly different to bottled water and should be avoided in all cases. In fact, real bottled water (same goes for canned soft drinks) is a luxury even to locals and costs about the same either in CUP (around CUP10) in stores, local or tourist ones alike. If you get one too cheaply, it's probably too good to be true.
- Locals offer to swap money at a "local bank" where the natives can get the best rates and ask you to remain outside whilst they do the deal as your presence would drive the rate up. If you give them your money, you will never see them again.
- Credit card scams are common, so money should only be withdrawn in reputable hotels or banks. Ideally, carry cash with you; US dollars, euros and British pounds are almost universally accepted (in order of popularity).
- Some shop assistants have been known to take advantage of some foreigners when it comes to providing change:
- Some have been known not to give change and go on serving the next customer, assuming the tourist will not be able to speak enough Spanish to question this.
- Do not let your credit card out of your hands, and watch as the salesperson passes the card in the machine. If anything seems strange, do not sign. Merchants in small shops may take your card to an adjacent bank counter and use it to take out a cash advance. Look closely at your receipts, if the receipt indicates Venta and a dollar or CUC amount, this means that it has been passed as a cash advance (which will be kept by the dishonest employees). However, credit card facilities are generally so limited to non-existent in shops that it is customary and more practical to pay with cash.
- Jineteros/jineteras (hustlers) are a problem in larger cities, and will try to sell tourists anything, including restaurants, cigars, sex and drugs. 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 police attention. If you do find yourself in a situation with a more relentless jinetero, tell them that you have been in the country for several weeks, that you are a student at the university, and they will probably leave you alone. Many rely on tourists who are unfamiliar with the system and comparatively rich, so ideally you should try not to fit that part. Even if a tout gets only a few pesos from unsuspecting tourists a day, he or she will probably make as much as a doctor's monthly salary in just a week or two.
Cuba is considered very healthy except for the water; even many Cubans boil their water. That said, some travelers drink untreated water without ill effect. The best solution is bottled water and lots of it, especially for visitors who are not used to the temperatures over 30°C/85°F. Bottled water (agua de botella) is easily found and costs between ~US$0.65-2 for a 1.5-L bottle, depending on the shop. The mineral count (total dissolved solids) of bottled water is quite high compared to elsewhere in the world, so if you are planning to visit Cuba for an extended period of time (e.g. as a student or on work permit), it might be a useful idea to bring a small jug/sports bottle water filter with a few cartridges along to further purify the water.
Cuban milk is usually unpasteurized, and can make visitors sick. Additionally, tourists should be wary of vegetables washed in tap water. Meat sold on the streets (esp. "jamon") often even looks barely edible, but meat served in the casas is usually OK. Despite the warnings, most Cuban food is safe to eat and you do not need to be paranoid.
The island is tropical and thus host to a number of diseases. Some recommend an aggressive program of inoculations when planning a trip to Cuba, but most travellers come with little or none. Hepatitis B and tetanus shots are recommended by most travel clinics. Hepatitis B is generally spread by direct blood or sexual contact, the inoculation course requires three injections over several weeks, followed by a blood test to determine if it actually worked; shorter courses are available. (Interestingly, the hepatitis B vaccine is produced in Cuba for worldwide use). Generally tetanus immunization is more important, since tetanus is a risk with any wound or cut, especially in a dirty, contaminated wound.
HIV/AIDS infection is less than 0.1%, however, as always, you should exercise care and make sure you or your partner wears a condom should you become sexually active while in Cuba.
Cuba has one of the highest number of doctors available per capita in the world (around one doctor for every 170 people), making doctors readily accessible throughout most of the island. Your hotel reception should be able to point you to the closest doctor. (So plentiful are doctors in Cuba, that it is not uncommon to see doctors selling paintings, books or other artwork to tourists at the flea market to make money to supplement their meager salaries.)
Finding some medications is, however, often difficult. It is highly recommended to stock up on over-the-counter medications before heading to Cuba, as pharmacies lack many medications that westerners might expect to find, such as aspirin, ibuprofen and imodium. Do not attempt to import psychoactive drugs into Cuba. Havana also features a clinic (and emergency room) for foreigners, which offers extremely prompt service. Similar clinics are available in other large cities, such as Cienfuegos.
Toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, razors, tampons and condoms are also hard to come across and expensive, so stock up before you visit.
Bigger cities, especially Havana, have very polluted air because of old cars and factories. This will cause respiratory conditions to some visitors.
Police, fire and medical contact numbers
Emergency numbers in Cuba are:
- 106: National Revolutionary Police (Police department)
- 104: SIUM (Ambulances services)
- 105: Fire Department services.
Compared to other countries in Latin America, Cubans tend to be straightforward and have a preference for getting to the point. This said, Cubans generally take measures to be polite and courteous in conversations.
Cubans are generally friendly and helpful people. They make about US$15 a month: if they can help you, they probably will, but they may expect you to return the favor. If you are invited into a Cuban's home for supper, take the invitation. You will really be treated like a guest of honor. It is a great way to get a feel for the culture. Of course, ordinary Cubans are not permitted to host this type of event, but it goes on as a matter of course.
Avoid having political discussions or inquiring more about local politics; although political discourse has been a lot more open than before, political discussions can make Cubans uncomfortable and suspicious about your intentions. Cubans abroad might be more open to having political discussions.
Tourists are considered being "walking wallets" by many locals working in tourism (esp. taxi drivers and merchandise sellers); if you aren't proficient in Spanish, be prepared to constantly say "no quiero", "no hablo español", or variations thereof.
All of your actions may be projected onto tourists in general - consider this, when you are asked for shampoo and soap by the locals (because they were told that tourists leave those products behind when going back home).
One way to help local Cubans is by staying in casas particulares and eating in paladares or private restaurants and buying from street vendors. While free enterprise is usually banned, several years ago the government began selling expensive licenses to individuals wishing to open up rooms for rent in their houses, or set up a few tables on their porch and cook out of their kitchens. Not only are the licenses very expensive but the fees must be paid monthly regardless of income, leaving those less fortunate the possibility of losing money. Not only is it more interesting to stay with locals and eat in their homes, you're directly benefiting them in one of the few ways possible.
Traditionally Cuba is Catholic, but the government has often cracked down on demonstrations of faith. However, it has been less frowned-upon since Pope John Paul II's visit, and there are more important issues to deal with. Other religions in Cuba are hybrid religions, mixing elements of Catholicism with others of traditional African religions. The most common one is called "Santeria" and their priests can be recognised by the full white regalia with bead necklaces that they wear. Women going through the process to become priests are not allowed (among other things) to touch other people, so if your casa owner is distant and dressed all in white, do not be too surprised. There are many museums in Cuba (especially in the Southern cities like Santiago de Cuba) which depict the history and traditions of Santeria.
Cuba is, by design, one of the most expensive and difficult places in which to communicate.
Top Tip for Internet in Cuba
As internet is not readily available in Cuba, it is best to prepare for a life offline. This includes downloading bus schedules, addresses of any hotels booked and downloading Wikivoyage for offline. The latter can be achieved by downloading the PDFs to the left for each article, or getting OsmAnd, which has Wikivoyage included as download option in their app.
The Internet is characterised by a low number of connections, limited bandwidth, censorship, and high cost. Ordinary Cubans had access to Internet from home by 2017 and by 3G wireless by 2018, but the cost remains prohibitive for many (US$7-30/month for 600MB-4GB of mobile data, when most Cubans earn US$30-50/month).
Internet connectivity is provided by the state telecommunication company ETESCA (under the brand name Nauta) and is available in many public squares and parks (even in many small towns all across the country), airports, upmarket hotels and government communication centres. Finding an upmarket hotel or a government communications centre in major towns is fairly easy as you will see lots of locals and tourists on their phones and laptops on the street accessing the WiFi. As the free WiFi is a fairly new system, it has not spread across the whole island. If visiting small, non-tourist towns, do not expect there to be an internet communication centre.
In the evening between 20:00 and 22:00 the internet tends to be rather slow as everyone is trying to connect.
Pre-paid scratch card
Before you can connect to some WiFis, you will need to purchase a pre-paid scratch card. The primary way of purchasing a card is at the government communication centre which bares the brand name ETESCA. The cost of a 1-hr scratch card is ~US$2, there also exists a 5-hr scratch card for ~US$10. If you wish to purchase more than one, bring photo identification as the staff member will need to take down your details in order for them to do so. Queues at the centre tend to be quite lengthy and move fairly slowly.
You can also purchase a Nauta internet card at an upmarket hotel. The price of these cards vary from hotel to hotel and can be anything from cost price (~US$2) with the purchase of a drink at the bar to upwards of ~US$8. Alternatively, there are also unofficial vendors either on the street or in small discreet shops selling the same Nauta internet cards. Prices for these cards are at a premium compared to the communication centre however almost all will accept ~US$3 after a little bargaining.
Once you have purchased the card, it is simply a matter of connecting to the hotspot, scratching your card to reveal the username and password and entering these into the Nauta login screen (which should automatically appear). If the log-in screen does not appear automatically (common on some phones and laptops), enter 22.214.171.124 into your browser and the Nauta screen will appear.
Once the hour is complete, the internet will stop working and you will need to enter the username and password of a fresh card. If you do not want to use the full hour of the card, be sure to end your session. This can be done by entering 126.96.36.199 into your browser and clicking the end session button.
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 will need to have a GSM phone operating at 900 MHz (or quad-band world phone). If you plan on using international roaming, be sure to check with your phone company as most providers do not offer roaming in Cuba. Alternatively, you can buy a SIM card for ~US$111, plus your prepaid minutes. If you do not have a phone that operates at 900 MHz, you can rent a phone at several stores in Havana, including one in the airport. The rates are ~US$9/day (~US$6 for the phone and ~US$3 for the SIM card), plus about ~US$0.36 a minute for prepaid cards.
If you're planning on being in Cuba for more than two weeks, you can bring a phone, buy a SIM card and prepaid minutes, use it, then give the phone to a Cuban friend when you leave. Mobile phones are among the most desired items for Cubans (bring a case for the phone too, they are very fussy about keeping their phones scratch-free). You will have to go to a mobile phone store with your friend and sign a paper to give the phone to your friend. Do not give your friend an unlimited plan that charges to your credit card!
If you do use international roaming, try to avoid sending SMSs to local Cubans. They are likely to feel obliged to reply, which will be very expensive for them.
- Granma – The official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba. An international version, containing different content to the version published for Cubans, is available in English as well as some other languages. It has a daily edition and an English-language version.
- Juventud Rebelde[dead link] (Rebel Youth) – The official periodical of Cuba's Union of Young Communists is also available in English.
- The Havana Reporter' – An exclusively English-language newspaper published by Prensa Latina is available from the Varadero post office. It costs ~US$1.
- Cubavision – The national television station.
- Radio Reloj – Broadcasts news 24 hours and states the time every minute on the minute — dos cuarenta y dos minutos...
- Radio Havana Cuba – A multi-language shortwave radio station
- Radio Rebelde [formerly dead link] – Another news radio station.
- Cuba Holiday News [dead link] – Online news channel, with selected news for people interested in travelling to Cuba.
- Havana Times – Photos, News Briefs and Features from Havana, Cuba.
- Cuba Headlines – Cuba News Headlines. Cuban Daily News | Cuba News, Articles and Daily Information.
- 14ymedio – The first independent digital media outlet, some articles are also translated into English.
If you're staying at a hotel or casa particular, it's likely there will be a television, and watching Cuban television is a good place to observe Cuba's unique mix of vibrant culture, sports and controversial politics.
The Cuban telenovelas are one of the state's key instruments for addressing sexual taboos and educating young people about AIDS, for example.
The locally produced cartoons are most interesting and uniquely Cuban. They range from abstract and artsy to informative to entertaining. The most famous of the genre is the children's program Elpidio Valdés, which chronicles the adventures of a band of rebels in the 19th-century revolt against the Spanish. The mix of cartoon slapstick humor and images of violent revolution (dashing revolutionaries stealing rifles, blowing up Spanish forts, and sticking pistols into the mouths of goofy Spanish generals) in a program geared towards children is simultaneously delightful and disturbing.
There are classes under the heading Universidad Para Todos (University for Everybody) with the purpose to teach Cubans subjects like mathematics and grammar through the television. Also one of the channels is called the "Educational Channel" (Canal Educativo).