The largest of the Caribbean islands, Cuba’s unique history and natural beauty have been captivating the travelers’ interest for decades. Remnants of colonial history dotted around its cities, Baroque palaces, vintage American cars, white-sand beaches and streets echoing with salsa rhythms are just a few of the reasons why you should add Cuba to your bucket list.
Before you start planning
If you’re planning on visiting Cuba for pleasure you’ll need a tourist card (simple visa), that can be purchased from the Cuban Embassy. While nationals from other countries are free to visit for leisure purposes, there are still restrictions in place for US citizens. Their reason for visiting must fall under one of 12 special categories, such as visiting relatives or educational purposes. Tour companies get around this by including an educational activity (e.g., school visit) in the itinerary. Don’t forget to take your travel and medical insurance certificate with you, as you’ll need to show this on arrival.
Planning Your Trip
Whether you’re hopping over to Havana from Florida, or you’ve got a 10-hour flight ahead of you, plan ahead to keep stress to a minimum. Use a comparison site to discover the cheapest flights and book yours. If you’re driving yourself to the airport, pre-book long-term economy parking close to your departure terminal; you’ll save time and won’t get stuck with ‘drive-in’ rates. You can use dedicated comparison sites such as Looking4Parking.com to search for the best parking deal and to make our booking as they often offer massive discounts for booking through their site.
Don’t rely on plastic to finance your trip, as cards don’t always work. Instead you’ll need to have Cuban currency on you; tourists use the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) which is linked to the US Dollar. The locals use a different currency (CUP) which is worth a lot less than CUC.
If you want to experience Cuban life first-hand, consider staying in a private home. Casas particulares (homestays) are popular and reasonably priced, plus your hosts should give you the lowdown on great places to visit. You can now book these through Airbnb.
When to Go
December to May is Cuba’s dry season, with plenty of sunshine and typical temperatures of 70-79°F (21-26°C). You may want to avoid June to November, as that’s the wet, stormy season, with most hurricanes occurring in September and October. If you’re determined to go ‘off season’, though, many hotels brave the weather and stay open nowadays.
What to See
While there’s no denying the appeal of all-inclusive holiday resorts, such as those at Varadero, don’t miss out on experiencing the history and culture of places like Havana or Santiago de Cuba. No matter what you want from a vacation, it’s here. From white sandy beaches bordering azure waters, to the intoxicating mix of music, crumbling colonialism and 1950s American sedans that operate as taxis.
Here are some of the best spots to inhale old Cuba (and we’re not just talking cigars).
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Old Havana has a host of must-see sites.
● Plaza de Armas, with its wonderful shady trees, was originally laid out in the 1520s. Now it’s where tourists and locals gather to socialize and to cool off from the baking sun. Stop at one of the cafés and admire Baroque landmarks, such as the Palacio de los Capitanes (now the City Museum) and the 16th-century colonial fort, Castillo de la Real Fuerza.
● La Bodequita del Medio is the restaurant that allegedly invented mojitos. A host of celebrities have been through the doors since it transformed from a grocery store in 1942: Brigitte Bardot, Nat King Cole, Pablo Neruda and, of course, Ernest Hemingway, who couldn’t get enough of the now famous cocktail and their mouth-watering seafood. You can see more about the Ernest Hemingway trail here.
● La Casa del Habano is Havana’s most respected tobacco shop. Housed in the Hotel Conde de la Villanueva, a restored 18th century mansion, regular customers can rent their own humidor for Cuban cigars. Even non-smokers will be impressed watching a ‘torcedor’ – an expert in rolling cigars – making cigars real-time.
● Catedral de San Cristobal, otherwise known as the ‘Cathedral of The Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception’, will have you admiring its impressive Cuban Baroque twin bell towers and many columns. Rumor has it that this cathedral once housed the relics of Christopher Columbus, although this has never been proven.
About four hours to the southeast of Havana lies the best-preserved colonial town in Cuba. Founded in 1514, Trinidad became a thriving trade center and a favorite haunt of pirates. To get the best views of the brightly colored buildings, cobbled streets and mountains, head for the top of the tower at the Palacio Cantero Museum.
Santiago de Cuba
If you’re wanting to immerse yourself in Cuban history and culture, head for Santiago – the place where the Cuban Revolution took form. It’s the second largest city on the island and home to artists, poets and musicians. Afro-Caribbean influence is inherent everywhere; the city buzzes with rhythm and ideas, so at every turn you’re likely to bump into a band of street musicians or artists. No wonder Bacardi opened its first rum factory in this city.
Cuba is like a whirlwind on your senses. Whether you’re going for its rich culture, or to feel like you’re stepping back in time, this incredible Caribbean island won’t disappoint. Viva Cuba!