Cuba can portray itself as the archetypal image of a Caribbean island with its sandy, palm-fringed shores washed by crystal-clear waters and cooled by breezes carrying the scent of frangipani, mango and guava. But Cuba has so much more to offer those who venture away from its beaches to the towns and cities and their Spanish colonial architecture and grand plazas, where classic automobiles labour along streets and country roads, and the hip-swaying sounds of salsa music fill the night air. Together with cigar smoke and rum cocktails, baseball, and everywhere visual references of the 1959 revolution, these picture-postcard portraits of Cuba tell a more complete tale of the largest island in the Caribbean.
Christopher Columbus discovered Cuba on his way back to Spain after his second voyage to the New World in 1492 and was the first European to remark on its beauty. Today, the island state is starting to exploit its glorious attractions and offers visitors an alternative Caribbean holiday.
Cuba is so large that it allegedly confused Columbus, who thought he had discovered a continent and not an island. It sits at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico; the main island is 746 miles (1,200km) long with an irregular coastline that offers hundreds of bays and beaches. The years of political isolation have protected Cuba from mass tourism; the main towns and villages retain a crumbling colonial charm and are generally devoid of resorts that blight some of its neighbouring islands.
With its history and great choice of natural attractions Cuba has much to offer. But most visitors agree that Cuba is a country so individual and extraordinary, that to be truly understood and appreciated it has to be experienced in person.
The official currency is the Cuban Peso (CUP), divided into 100
centavos, but the 'tourist' currency is the Peso Convertible (CUC),
which replaces the US Dollar as currency in tourist related
establishments like hotels, restaurants and so called 'dollar
shops'. US Dollars are no longer accepted as payment, and a 10%
commission or more is charged to exchange them, therefore the best
currency to bring along is Euros, the British Pound or Canadian
Dollars. The CUC is almost equal in value to the US Dollar. Some
places only accept Cuban pesos and others only Pesos Convertible
(usually tourist related establishments). Money should only be
changed at official exchange bureaux or banks to avoid scams
confusing the two currencies. Visa and MasterCard are generally
accepted only in major cities and hotels as long as they haven't
been issued by a US bank; Diners Club has limited acceptance, and
American Express is not accepted anywhere on the island. Travellers
cheques are less readily accepted than credit cards, but all major
currencies are acceptable, except for US bank issued cheques. No
US-issued credit or debit cards will work in ATMs, but those
holding other cards issued in other countries should be able to get
pesos at most major tourist destinations. Euro or Sterling
travellers cheques are accepted at Cuban banks and Bureaux de
|CUC 1 =||US$ 1.00||Â£ 0.65||C$ 1.02||A$ 0.97||R 8.46||EUR 0.79||NZ$ 1.26|
Note: These currency exchange rates are not updated daily and should be used as a guideline only.
Health insurance, with provision for emergency repatriation, is compulsory for visitors to Cuba. Those travellers without adequate health insurance will be obliged to purchase Cuban health insurance on arrival. No vaccinations are officially required, however visitors are advised to take precautions against typhoid if travelling to rural areas. Most of the more serious tropical diseases are rare in Cuba, but viral meningitis and dengue fever do occasionally break out, including in urban areas like Havana. Dengue fever is on the increase and the best prevention against it is mosquito repellent and suitable clothing to avoid being bitten. Hepatitis A is common. Rabies should only be a risk for those exposed to animal bites, but if you are planning to spend a lot of time outdoors a vaccination is recommended. Food in Cuba is generally considered safe. Bottled water is available and advised for the first few weeks, although mains water is chlorinated. Cuban medical facilities are mediocre and many medicines are unavailable, so those requiring regular prescription drugs should bring them, along with a copy of the prescription and a doctor's letter to facilitate entry through customs.
In lieu of a visa, a Tourist Card ("Tarjeta del Turista"), costing US$25 or equivalent, may be issued by tour operators, travel agents or airlines for a single-entry holiday trip of up to 30 days, provided land arrangements are pre-booked and paid. A return ticket or proof of onward travel is required, as well as sufficient funds to cover the period of intended stay in Cuba (US$50 or equivalent per day). All those entering Cuba must hold travel insurance to cover medical expenses, with coverage in Cuba, for the period of stay. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Note: Passport and visa requirements are liable to change at short notice. Travellers are advised to check their entry requirements with their embassy or consulate.
Ministerio de Turismo, Havana: +53 (0)7 334 323 or www.cubatravel.cu
Foreign Embassies in Cuba
Situated on the north coast of the island, and built around a natural harbour, Havana (La Habana) is one of the most lively and colourful cities in the Caribbean. Much of the city's charm can be found among the narrow, derelict streets packed with crumbling buildings and fascinating people. Every open door and overhanging balcony allows glimpses of rocking chairs and colourful washing, accompanied by strains of music. On the streets Chinese-made bicycles, yellow, egg-shaped coco-taxis and two-humped camello (camel) buses weave among the melee of 1950s Chevy's and Russian Ladas.
The historic old town, Habana Vieja or Colonial Havana, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and fast becoming a major tourist destination. The Spanish left behind some superb colonial architecture, and many of the great buildings and grand plazas are being restored to their former glory. Central Havana (Centro Habana) boasts some of the most important museums and architectural highlights, including the Revolution Museum, and the National Capitol, resembling the US Capitol Building in Washington DC. The trendy suburb of Vedado boasts high-rise buildings and modern hotels, and draws locals and visitors alike with its theatres, art galleries, restaurants, cafes, and cabaret shows; however most of the city's sights are in Habana Vieja and Centro Habana. The five-mile (8km) seawall, or malecÃ³n, stretches from Vedado to Habana Vieja, and is lined with architectural gems in various states of dilapidation or restoration.
Havana's nightlife will exhaust even the most seasoned partygoer. After dark, nightclubs and bars come alive and the famous rum cocktails flow freely. The city has plenty of cultural entertainment too, and its fair share of monuments, museums and statues. For those travellers needing rest from all this activity, the stunning beaches are only twenty minutes east of the city.
Santiago, the original capital of the island of Cuba, was founded in 1514, and is today the centre of the province of Santiago de Cuba in the southeast of the island, 485 miles (780km) from the present capital, Havana.
One of the most picturesque cities in Cuba, it is a hilly city with sloping streets, nestled between the coast and the Sierra Maestra mountain range. Santiago boasts a number of monuments and museums associated with Cuba's long struggle for national independence. The city also claims to have the oldest home in the Americas, the Case de Diego Velazquez, the residence of the Spanish governor of old, which is a highlight of the city's historic quarter. Santiago is a diverse city, with many population groups in its neighbourhoods, including the French-Haitian district of Tivoli.
The city is also known for its annual carnival, renowned to be even bigger and more riotous than Havana's version (it did come first, after all). It is also blessed with closely situated natural areas, including the 80,000-hectare (197,684 acre) Baconao Park, which begins in the city and ends in the lagoon of the same name. It is climatically the hottest part of Cuba, with average temperatures of 90Â°F (32Â°C).
A recent addition to the UNESCO World Heritage list, the town of Vinales, and the valley in which it is set in Cuba's 'green' Pinar del Rio province, is characterised by its impressive round-topped hills, or mogotes. These date back to the Jurassic period and are covered with rich and varied vegetation; they are remnants of the plateau that was eroded by a network of underground rivers millions of years ago.
The Vinales Valley is located about 112 miles (180km) west of Havana. The natural beauty and tranquility of the valley is interspersed with green fields of tobacco, coffee and other crops that grow out of the rich red earth, where traditional agricultural techniques have remained unchanged for centuries. Scattered palm trees and pine forests shelter a variety of melodious birds, and the area is also a magnet for speleologists and cave enthusiasts, being riddled with limestone caves and caverns.
The hilly landscape, quaint villages, oxen-ploughed fields, rustic barns and underground rivers, stalagmites and stalactites, provide a striking contrast to the colonial grandeur and white sandy beaches found on the rest of the island. The main valley village, Vinales, is a charming, very laid-back place that makes a good base to explore the beautiful surrounds.
One of the most visited towns in Cuba, Trinidad maintains a charming colonial atmosphere with its uneven cobbled streets, quiet plazas, churches, red-tiled roofs, wooden shutters and wrought-iron grilles. Bicycles and horse-drawn carts bump along streets lined with untidy pastel-coloured houses, where open doors afford brief views of folk on rocking chairs and wooden birdcages, and the strains of salsa music drift out from cool courtyards where the intricate steps of the dance are practiced.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, Trinidad has escaped the modern tourist infrastructure and large hotels usually accorded a popular destination, and retains its welcoming and tranquil atmosphere. Surrounded by sugarcane plantations, and situated between the Topes de Collantes mountains and the Caribbean Sea, Trinidad's location also provides easy access to the beach, the mountains, and the beautiful surrounding countryside, where vestiges from the 18th and 19th centuries in the Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) testify to a time of prosperity during the sugarcane boom. The Valley and its old sugar mills are interesting historically, as well as scenically, because the slave trade was a huge contributing factor in the sugarcane industry's success. It was after the abolishment of slavery that the boom ended and the area drifted into picturesque tranquility.
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