Cuba  is a Caribbean island between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. It lies 150 km (90 Miles) south of Key West, Florida between the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas, to the west of Haiti, and northwest of Jamaica.
Before the 1959 Revolution, Cuba was a popular tourist destination for United States citizens. Since the Revolution, Cuba has been embargoed by the United States and travel between the two neighbors has to be via a third country, unless one is traveling under a license from the U.S. government, in which case direct flights from the U.S. to Cuba can be arranged. Even travel through a third country without a license is still illegal. After 1959, Cuban tourism was mostly for Cubans only, and the facilities weren't renewed until around the 1990s, when Cuba changed it's policy on tourism after they lost the support of the former Soviet Union. Now, many Europeans, Canadians, and U.S. visitors (albeit often illegally) come to the island, and in the typical tourist regions like Varadero and Holguin, a lot of modern 3-star to 5-star hotels are available, while in less touristy regions, visitors are still able to rent rooms in many Cuban homes (called casas particulares).
Due to economic problems and the US embargo much of the country's infrastructure is in need of repair. In major tourist destinations there will be in general few problems with either power or water, as most tourist accommodations will offer 220V as well as 110V power sources. Outages are common in Cuba, except in touristic places that have a generator. Trains (and sometimes also buses) run not always according to schedule.
Visa and legal issues
A tourist visa card (visada tarjeta del turista) is necessary for travellers from most nations. This visa, which is really little more than a piece of paper on which you list your vital statistics, costs about 25 CUC (or 25 Euro) depending on where purchased. It is important to note that there is also a departure tax of CUC 25, and you have to pay those 25 CUC in cash at the airport, when leaving Cuba. So always put 25 CUC in your passport after arriving in Cuba, you'll need it. You will need a passport valid at least six months past the end of your planned return. The tourist visa is usually valid for 30 days and can be extended for another 30 days at any immigration office in Cuba. It can usually be extended once, afterwards you need a serious reason when you want a second extension. Canadians get 90 days and can apply for a 90 day extension.
On arrival you must have a legal housing (hotel or casa particular) booking for at least three days. If you've written in the name of a good hotel on the tourist card, the officials should rarely ask for proof.
Cuban customs regulations may seem strict, but in practice, tourists are rarely checked. This doesn't mean they are not checked at all. They will go over your personal details carefully.
Warning for American travellers
For political reasons, legally travelling to Cuba from the United States of America without a special license is not permitted. Many U.S. citizens travel by way of Canada, the Bahamas or Mexico, although this is still technically illegal. U.S. citizens travelling without a license are now being urged by Cuban travel agents not to use Canada or the Bahamas, as some Americans have been caught by U.S. pre-clearance customs agents watching U.S. citizens get off planes from Cuba in these third countries. The U.S. Treasury Department has fined several U.S. citizens that were caught getting off Cuban planes in Toronto and Montreal in Canada as well as in Nassau, Bahamas. Mexico is considered a safer route, although not entirely without risk, and other Americans are going via other countries with flights to Cuba without U.S. customs stations (Guatemala, Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, Haiti, etc.) so there is less of likelihood of being caught. Americans going through Mexico must be sure to try not to get their passports stamped by the Mexican customs authorities, since two entry stamps into Mexico without a third stamp (Cubans don't stamp U.S. passports) would raise suspicions. US citizens are advised by Cuban travel agents not to try to bring back anything Cuban and to dispose of all Cuban tickets and receipts before re-entering the US.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, per se. It is illegal for U.S. citizens to spend money in Cuba, without a license issued by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. It should also be noted by that those looking to evade the U.S. regulations, that should the US Government become aware that a U.S. citizen has travelled to Cuba, OFAC will assume that the U.S. citizens will have spent money in Cuba if staying more than one day. The constitutionality of this "presumption of guilt" has not been tested in American courts thus far, although some legal experts feel that it goes against the letter and/or the spirit of the US Constitution. The issue is further complicated by OFAC's stance that U.S. citizens may not receive goods or services for free from any Cuban national. These new restrictions are outlined in an OFAC policy statement from June 2004.
Licenses are only granted to journalists, people visiting relatives, and for a few other reasons . If the U.S. government finds out about your visit as a U.S. citizen, you may be subject to fines or criminal prosecution. Currently, the National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights provide legal representation for U.S. citizens accused of violating the Travel Ban. Whether or not a traveller has a license, it is now illegal to bring back any Cuban cigars. Cigars without labels are presumed to be Cuban and will be confiscated. [citation ?]
There is no U.S. Embassy or consulate in Cuba. The United States is represented by the United States Interests Section, which is technically part of the Swiss Embassy in Havana, though physically separate.
Credit cards, ATM cards and traveler's checks drawn on American banks are not technically valid in Cuba, though many have had success cashing U.S. traveller's checks at major tourist hotels. American Express is not accepted in case it was either in U.S. Dollars or made by an American bank, though again, some have had success in cashing American Express checks. For example, Swiss Traveller 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. Better bring cash to Cuba, they accept Canadian Dollars, English Pounds, Euros, Swiss Francs and HK Yuan currencies without any fees. For US Dollar, they will charge a penalty of 10%, so better change to either Canadian Dollar or Swiss Franc first, before travelling there.
Jose Marti International Airport outside Havana is the main gateway and is served by major airlines from points in Canada, Mexico and Europe. There are also regional flights from others caribbean islands. An official taxi to Havana center costs 15-25 CUC but you can find cheaper ones (not legal). (The cost is roughly 1 CUC per kilometer).
There are also regular holiday charter flights to the resorts like Varadero, and these can sometimes be less expensive than those going to Havana.
The airports are all full-climatised and quite modern, compared to other destinations in middle america, and offer good medical treatments in case of problems. Also, there are no pickpockets at all, so you can feel safe and have your money with you without too much worry.
There is no regular ferries or boats to Cuba from foreign ports, although some cruise liners do visit. Yachters are expected to anchor at the public marinas. Also, most ports are closed and you are not allowed to walk around there.
Probably the best way for a foreigner to get around on Cuba is on the Víazul buses . These are well-staffed and luxurious air-conditioned buses with toilets. Big comfy seats, and lots of legroom. Refreshments and bathroom breaks are provided. Víazul buses are mostly used by foreigners and rich locals. You'll need to book your ticket a day before departure to secure your seat, you may not get a ticket if you just show up right before departure. Bring a longsleeve (pullover) up in the Bus - the airconditions normally run on highest level.
Alternatively there is the regular Astro bus system for local people and it also services smaller and non-touristic cities. Foreigners are charged higher prices, but it is still 3-4 times cheaper then Viazul. Pre-booking is mandatory and this requires Spanish skills. However, these buses often miss their schedule, break down and are overcrowded.
It is also possible to cover some distances on special tourist minibuses, vans carring 4-5 tourists. The cost is a few dollars more but highly recommended if you are not planning to sleep the whole distance, plus, you can ask the driver to stop along the way.
Official taxis are pretty expensive for long distances. For example, the Havana-Vinales route runs about CUC 90-100. However, there are some locals who are willing to illegally ride "taxi" with their old car for somewhat less money, if you are open to adventures (and don't mind the smell of gasoline).
Car rental starts from CUC 65/day + a full tank of gasoline. Rental cars are for the most part fairly new, imported European models (contrast with the 1950s American vehicles that the Cubans are forced to rely upon since the U.S. embargo).
Generally traffic is medium, especially away from Havana, but be warned - you share the highways with cyclists (sometimes going the wrong way, and at night usually without lights) and horse drawn vehicles. Also note that the main highway is crossed at occasional intervals by railway tracks - take care to slow down before going over to avoid damage to tyres / suspension. Many of these have a stop sign - "Pare" - drivers can be fined for not obeying that, even if no train is coming.
Gasoline costs CUC ??/Regular, CUC 0.95/Special and 1.10/Super per litre. Tourist rental cars are not supposed to use regular.
Cuba also runs a train between Havana and Santiago, a trip lasting around 12 hours. The trains, imported from France, are modern, comfortable, often too heavily air conditioned, and also feature snack service.
Cuba's national carrier is Cubana de Aviación. If you want to reach a distant part of the island (like Santiago de Cuba from Havana), you can make this trip fast and comfortable with one of the domestic flights.
The official language of Cuba is Spanish. The Spanish spoken in Cuba is quite different from that spoken in Spain. They like to swallow the last sound in a word and generally swallow the 's' sound. See also: Spanish phrasebook
Until the end of 2004 there were 3 currencies circulating in Cuba: local Pesos (CUP), Convertible Pesos (CUC) and US Dollar (USD). USD and CUC were equal in value, and tourists could pay by USD to local people who changed it back to their local Pesos.
In November 2004 the government made a change: USD were no longer accepted by Cuban (state-owned) business, so it doesn't circulate in the country as before. Now the official currency which a tourist can own is CUC, and the USD is penalized with a 10% exchange penalty. A further change occurred in April 2005, when the CUC was revalued to USD 1.08 (and against all other currencies similarly).
If coming from Europe, Canada, or the UK, bring your own currency and exchange directly for CUC. If your currency is not one of the main currencies (or is USD), you will need to look at the currencies available to you.
It is a common wrong thinking that tourists can't change local pesos (CUP) at banks. Yes they can, however, goods you can buy for local pesos are limited. But to buy some fruits, vegetables, fresh juices and snacks from street vendors it is a good idea to have some local pesos. But don't change more than CUC 10-15 at time, because as said, their use is limited and with an exchange rate of 1 CUC = 24 CUP (December 2005) you'll have plenty for about two weeks.
As any third world 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.
Another thing Cubans do well is music such as salsa, son and Afro-Cubano. You can purchase CDs or tapes anywhere but it is recommended paying the average cost of US$20 to guarantee quality and to support the artists.
Tourists are permitted to import or export a maxiumum of 100 Cuban pesos or 200 convertible pesos at any one time.
Most debit cards cannot be used. (Some British Visa debit cards can be used.) Visa & Mastercard (of non-US origin) can be used, including cash advances. Places which accept Visa as payment are limited. There is an 11% "surcharge" on Visa use.
For reference:(Dec.2005) the in-country exchange 100 Canadian dollars was 72 CUC or 1.39 CDN = 1 CUC but the exchange rate at the time for American dollars vs Canadian was 1 American= 1.20 Canadian....so 100 cuc plus 11% is 111 *1.20 = 1.332 using a visa card. So it was better to use the visa by a little bit.
In Varadero the Euro exchange rate is 0.95. So you can get about 1.05 pesos. But its usually just used interchangeably.
Banks are generally open until 5pm. When going to a bank take enough time, because service is usually slow and many people may already be waiting. Foreigners may get preferred treatment in exchange for a small tip.
You must bring your passport in case you want to exchange traveller checks or make a credit card cash withdrawal, cash is changed without passport usually. Exchange rates do vary from place to place, and some hotels do give significantly worse exchange rates than the banks.
The food in Cuba is notorious for being bland, however, this really depends on the hotel. One hotel which seems to have pretty good food reviews is Iberostar Tainos or Sol Sirenas in Varadero. Black beans is a main staple in Cuban households. Cubans eat mainly pork and chicken. Beef, fish, lobster, turtle, and just about everything else is illegal to sell outside of state owned hotels and restaurants. If you eat in a 'paladares' which are privately owned restaurants and you have turtle, you are not only eating endangered animals, you're eating illegal food. Even the jail sentence for a Cuban killing a cow is very strict.
A tasty serving of rice, vegetables, plantains, and pork or beef (called a "cajita" ["little box" in English]) is an attractive and affordable option, and are generally sold for around US$1 out of people's homes.
When eating at private restaurants (paladres) 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. Eating in paladares is perfectly legal, but be careful not to be led there by a hustler who receives a commission for bringing you there.
Cuban national cocktails include the Cuba Libre (rum and coke) and the Mojito (rum, lime, sugar, mint leaves and ice). Cubans make one mean Mojito.
Cristal is a light beer and is available in "dollar" stores where Cubans with CUCs & visitors may shop. Cubans prefer the Buccanero Fuerte, which at 5.5% alcohol is a strong (hence the 'fuerte') darker beer. Both Cristal and Buccanero are brewed by a joint venture with Labbatts of Canada. There are also smaller brews, not available everywhere, such as Hatuey and Corona del Mar.
If you want to experience something of the real life of Cubans the best places to stay are in Casas Particulares (private houses licensed to offer lodging services to foreigners). They are cheaper than hotels (average CUC 20/room) and the food (breakfast CUC 3-4, dinner CUC 7-10) is invariably better than you would get in a hotel.
The University of Havana offers both long and short Spanish courses.
The average official salary for Cubans is US$15 per month. Non-Cubans can obtain a work visa if they find a position with a legal establishment, such as the government. The work visa is renewable every six months.
Cuba is generally a very safe country; strict and prominent policing, combined with neighborhood watch style-programs keep the streets safe from violent crime. Nonetheless, a certain degree of caution is advisable, especially in major cities. Visitors are advised to avoid coming to the attention of the Cuban police and security services. Drug laws can be draconian and their implementation unpredictable. The same may be said about the laws concerning prostitution. The importation, procession or production of pornography is strictly prohibited. Tourists, then, are advised not to involve themselves in the following three areas: politics, drugs, or pornography/prostitution.
There is little street crime but in recent years tourists have been targeted increasingly targeted by a large number of relatively small scams, some of these include:
These are never normally very harmful or costly and a lot of tourists knowingly let them pass without complaint to avoid the ensuing confrontation over a comparatively small amount of lost money.
Cuba is considered very healthy except for the water; even the Cubans boil their water. The best solution is bottled water and lots of it (especially for visitors who are not used to the 30 degrees Celsius and plus temperatures).
The island is subtropical and so the 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.
Visitors who get sick in Cuba can easily see a doctor. Cuba's health care system is in good shape and the number of doctors per capita is higher than in Canada. Finding medication is often very difficult. It is highly recommended to stock up on off-the-shelf medication before heading to Cuba. Do not attempt to import psychoactive drugs into Cuba.
Havana also features a clinic (and emergency room) for foreigners, which offers extremely prompt service.
You must pay a departure tax of 25 CUC at the airport. Keep a little extra foreign cash or a credit card for cash advance in case you have to pay a little for excess baggage weight. The exchange office at the airport will be open.
Export of goods