Guide to Cuba
Cuba is a Caribbean island nation known for it’s rich history and timeless charm. The streets are adorned with colorful colonial-era architecture and classic cars. Cuba has had this mystique, especially for Americans who haven’t been allowed to visit for 6 decades, and it’s the mysteriousness that lures travelers to visit. Once there, Cuba’s warm hospitality and lively street music captures the hearts of visitors and they are rewarded with a unique travel experience.
Read everything you need to know to visit this beautiful country in our Guide to Cuba. If you prefer to skip ahead to read specific articles about Cuba you can scroll to the bottom of this page.
Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, is a country with a capitivating blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. From the iconic streets of Havana where vintage cars roll past pastel-colored buildings to the peaceful landscapes of the Vinales Valley, Cuba is a country that captivates visitors. It has had a turbulent history but it’s people who are known for their warmth and resilience. Cuba’s lively music scene and vibrant street life offers travelers an immersive experience.
Guide to Cuba: Cuba’s History
Before 1961, Cuba and the United States had an ongoing relationship and were considered allies. The United States had helped Cuba in it’s revolt against Spain, who ruled Cuba for four centuries, and also gain their independence. However, the United States still maintained a presence in Cuba and some control over it’s government for economic reasons.
In 1959 the Cuban Revolution happened and Fidel Castro came into power. The United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba and an embargo began which is still in place today more than 60 years later. With the embargo in place, Cuba has became famous for being sort of stuck in a time warp where classic cars from the 1950’s dominate the streets. Ironically, it’s one of the big draws to Cuba.
Cuba sits just 93 miles south of Key West Florida. In 2011 limited travel to Cuba was restored by President Obama and Americans are now allowed to visit under certain rules.
Best time to visit Cuba
Cuba has a tropical climate with two main seasons: dry and wet. The dry season has sunny days, low humidity, and less rainfall making it the ideal time to visit. The dry season runs from November to April.
Cuba’s wet season runs from May to October and during this time there are fewer crowds and accomodations in Cuba are more affordable. Keep in mind that Cuba is prone to hurricanes from June to November so if you plan to visit during this time you’ll want to make sure you have travel insurance.
Cuba’s peak tourist season is from December to February and you can expect more crowds and slightly higher prices but the weather will be amazing. This is the best time to visit Cuba but if you are on a budget and don’t mind rain and humidity then you might want to travel at the end of the dry season (April & May) or at the end of the wet season (September & October). Traveling at the end of the seasons will give you a better chance of less rain and crowds and accomodations will be more affordable.
areas of Interest in Cuba
Cuba has several amazing places that are worth visiting.
- Havana: Located on the northwest coast of Cuba, Havana exudes a charm with a vibrant history, culture, and resilience. It’s steeped in a rich tapestry of Spanish colonial architecture, colorful vintage cars, and Afro-Cuban beats. Old Havana (Habana Vieja), with it’s cobblestone plazas and historic fortresses, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Varadero Beach: One of Cuba’s most famous and picturesque beaches is located on the northern coast of the island about 1.5 hours from Havana. Varadero Beach is renowned for its stunning white sand and clear turquoise waters.
- Vinales: This charming town is another UNESCO World Heritage Site known for it’s unique karst formations and lush tobacco fields. Cuba is known for having the best cigars in the world and those cigars come from Vinales. Visitors to Vinales can take part in tobacco farm tours to learn more about the growing and harvesting of tobacco leaves.
- Trinidad: Trinidad is a historic city located on the southern coast of Cuba that was founded in 1514 by a Spanish conquistador and is one of the earliest Spanish settlements in Cuba. Trinidad was once a thriving center for sugar production fueled by the labor of enslaved Africans. Today Trinidad is a well-preserved historic center with nearby attractions such as the Valley of the Sugar Mills and beaches.
Visa Requirements for Cuba
Most everyone who visits Cuba will need a visa, or what they call a tourist card. Only a few countries have a visa-waiver agreement such as Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, and about a dozen others. Those needing a visa can stay in Cuba for up to 30 days. Americans have special rules for visiting Cuba and need to choose a reason for their visit. This tourist card can be purchased at the departing gate right before you leave for Cuba.
Getting to Cuba
The majority of people traveling to Cuba will fly into the Jose Marti Intenational Airport in Havana. Flights to Cuba can be taken from all over the world and with Cuba being just 90 miles from Florida, there are over 300 flights a month from Miami to Havana alone. There are places in Europe, Mexico, and South America with direct flights too.
Guide to Cuba: Budget
Traveling in Cuba is very affordable and accomodations and food are budget friendly. The biggest expense in Cuba will be transportation to and from other cities outside of Havana but even that is not too expensive. Credit cards are not widely accepted in Cuba so you will need to bring cash with you. Americans cannot use credit or debit cards at all so you will need to plan ahead and figure out how much money you need to bring with you before you arrive.
Accomodations in Cuba
Most people book their accomodation before they leave from home. You can use a credit card to do this so you won’t need to bring cash for that. If you’re American you are NOT allowed to stay in the larger hotels on the island. These are run by the Cuban Government and Americans are not allowed to contribute to the things that support the Cuban Government.
Most people stay in what is called casas particulares. These are rooms or sometimes entire homes that are for rent to travelers. You can find these on Airbnb online but if you don’t have a set schedule then you can arrive and knock on doors with the sign below to ask if they have a room available. That’s a pretty common thing to do in Cuba.
Food & Drink in Cuba
Most food & drinks are inexpensive in Cuba although at some of the nicer places it will cost more. We had large lobster tails with sides for just $10 in Havana. Most meals will cost between $3-10 a person including drinks. It really depends on where you are. You’ll find restaurants in Havana cost a little bit more than cities outside of Havana. Beer costs around $1-2, again depending on the location, and cocktails will cost $3-5 each.
Activities in Cuba
The most expensive thing you’ll do in Cuba is take a tour/ride in a classic car. This will run around $100 for 2 people for 2-2.5 hours. The drivers usually have a set tour route but they will be open to taking you somewhere if you have a place in mind.
Guide to Cuba: Getting Around
You won’t need to rent a car when you visit Cuba and in fact, I would strongly recommend against it. Cuba has a difficult time getting parts for cars and a lot of times when things need to be fixed they will scavenge parts off of other kinds of cars. This means that you have no idea how long it will hold up. Cuba also has gas shortages and people sit in long lines in their cars waiting for gas to show up. Renting a car in Cuba could be a nightmare.
Havana is a very walkable city and the majority of sites to visit are all in Old Havana. There are plenty of taxis and tuk-tuks that can take you to wherever you want to go for very little money. The only time we even needed a taxi was when we had our luggage with us and needed to get to the bus station.
Taxis and Buses
If you are traveling outside of Havana to places like Trinidad or Vinales, you’ll want to hire a driver to take you there. You can also take a bus if you want to save a little money. A bus for example will might cost around $20 to travel from Havana to Trinidad but it will take around 7 hours to get there.
The other option is to take a taxi. Taxis that travel between cities are known as colectivos, meaning you will be sharing a ride and the cost with others. They don’t leave until all the seats are full or at least paid for. A ride to Trinidad from Havana will cost around $35 but you will get there in about 4-4.5 hours instead of 7 hours.
Both the taxis and buses are at the main bus station in Havana. If you want to take the bus you need to book at least a few days ahead of time or more depending on the day you are leaving and time of year. They can book up fast on weekends and during the busy season.
Staying Connected in Cuba
Accessing the internet in Cuba is difficult but not completely impossible. Cuba’s government has restrictions and the infrastructure is limited. Keep your phone on airplane mode when you arrive. You can find some Wi-Fi Hotspots in public places such as parks, hotels, and some restaurants. If the restaurant has wi-fi then you can connect to it just like you would anywhere.
The other option is to head to a public park and purchase an access card called Nauta from ETECSA, the state-owned telecommunications company. You’ll know you’re near a Wi-Fi hotspot when you see the park full of people on their phones or laptops. You can purchase a card for around $5 and that will give you about 5 hours of internet time. Just remember to disconnect when you are done so you don’t run the time down.
Safety in Cuba
Cuba is a very safe country and travelers shouldn’t worry. Crime is so minimal in Cuba because of their tough penalties that you will be just as safe walking around at 3am as you would during the day. The biggest safety concerns are scams and the water.
The same scams you would find anywhere in the world you’ll also find them in Cuba. From overcharging you at a restaurant to offering to take you to the “best restaurant in Cuba” and then wanting a tip, just be aware of anyone offering to do something for you. Nothing is free and they will want something for their generousity.
The biggest safety concern is the drinking water. You do NOT want to drink water straight from the tap. Either bring a filter with you or buy bottled water or you may end up sick your entire trip. You can read my post on tips for traveling to Cuba for more on what to expect there.
CUBA Travel Guides