Cuba  is the largest Caribbean island, between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. It lies 145 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 is restricted... albeit still possible, either legally or not.
After 1959, Cuban tourism was mostly for Cubans only, and the facilities were not renewed until the 1990s, when Cuba lost financial backing from the defunct Soviet Union and opened its doors to foreign tourism. Now, many Europeans, Canadians, and even U.S. visitors come to the island. In the typical tourist regions like Varadero and Holguin, a lot of modern 3-star to 5-star hotels are available, while in less popular tourist regions, visitors are still able to 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 such outages may occur. Outages have been common in Cuba, except in tourist facilities that have a generator. 2006 has been designated the Year of the Energetic Revolution in Cuba, and many small generators have been installed in an attempt to avoid blackouts. Many tourist accommodations offer 220V as well as 110V power sources.
Most of the radio stations are available live online.
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 between 15-25 CUC (or 15-25 Euro), depending on where purchased. It is usually valid for 30 days and can be extended once for another 30 days at any immigration office in Cuba - beyond this you would need a pretty good reason. Canadians are the exception, getting 90 days on arrival and can apply for a 90 day extension. Your passport needs to be valid at least six months past the end of your planned return.
It is important to note that there is also a departure tax of CUC 25, to be paid in cash when departing Cuba.
On arrival you must already have a legal housing booking (hotel or casa particular) 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 can be strict, though they sometimes go easy on tourists.
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 other Caribbean islands. Cuba's national carrier is Cubana de Aviacion, connecting the island to a handful of destinations in Mexico, South and Central America, Canada and Europe.
An official taxi to Havana center costs 15-25 CUC but you can find cheaper (illegal) ones. The cost is roughly 1 CUC per kilometer.
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 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.
There are 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. 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. Entry requires a US passport, but there are no visa requirements. Expect to hand out several $10 dollar bills to facilitate your entry.
Probably the nicest way to get around Cuba is on the Víazul buses. These are well-staffed and luxurious air-conditioned buses with toilets, big comfy seats, and lots of leg room. Refreshments 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 something warm to put on; the air conditioning is normally set on the highest level.
Alternatively there are the regular Astro buses used by most of the locals, which also serves smaller and non-touristed cities in addition to the usual suspects. Foreigners are charged higher prices, but it's still 3-4 times cheaper than Víazul. Pre-booking is mandatory and you'll likely need to employ your Spanish skills. Note that these buses are overcrowded, often miss their schedule, and tend to break down.
It is also possible to cover some distances on special tourist minibuses, vans carrying 4-5 people. 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. Between Havana and Viñales, for example, will run about CUC 90-100, although this can work out cheaper than traveling by bus or train if you split the fare between several people. If you're up for a little adventure and don't mind the smell of gasoline you can find some enterprising locals willing to (illegally) play "taxi" with their old car for a little less money.
Taxis are the most convenient way to get around within the big cities. There are several types of taxis, including the official government taxis, the private and potentially unlicensed "yank tanks", and the small three-wheeled coco-taxis. They're fairly abundant and not hard to find - they tend to group in front of large hotels, but it will usually be cheaper to find one elsewhere.
Generally traffic is medium, especially away from Havana. Outside of towns and cities traffic is usually very light, with no cars for miles. Be warned - you also share the highways with cyclists (sometimes going the wrong way, and at night usually without lights) and horse-drawn vehicles. Also note that 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 CUC 30, even if no train is coming.
Expect to encounter checkpoints when traveling in the interior of the country. $10 and an American passport will get you through in most cases. It is often useful to travel with a national of a country that has an embassy in Cuba. This will give you recourse to an embassy should unexpected difficulties arise (for instance having a GPS unit can be considered spying). If traveling with a Cuban national expect to pay additional "taxes" to get them through the checkpoint. Gasoline costs CUC 0.85/Regular, CUC 0.95/Special and 1.10/Super per litre. Tourist rental cars are not supposed to use regular.
Hitchhiking is very common in Cuba and is considered relatively safe. To flag down a ride wait on the side of the road you wish to travel and extend your arms at passing vehicles.
The official language of Cuba is Spanish, although the version here is quite different from that spoken in Spain or Mexico. Cubans tend to swallow the last syllable in a word and generally swallow the 's' sound. Many would argue that it's quite a beautiful dialect.
There are two currencies circulating in Cuba, Cuban Pesos (CUP) and Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Prior to November 2004 US dollars were in wide circulation on par with the CUC, but the government discontinued that and they are no longer used.
CUC is the currency most tourists will use in Cuba. It is how you will pay for hotels, official taxis, entry into museums, meals at restaurants, cigars, rum, etc. Conversion into CUC can be done at exchange houses (casa de cambio, or cadeca). These are located in many hotels and in other places throughout the cities. CUC are valued at 24 times the value of CUP. Tourists are permitted to import or export a maxiumum of CUP 100 or CUC 200 at any one time.
CUP are also known as local Pesos and Moneda Nacional (National money). As of May 2006, 1 CUC = 24 CUP. There is a limited range of goods that can be bought for local pesos, and these are transactions carried out in agricultural markets or from street vendors. Fruits, vegetables, fresh juices and snacks from street vendors are among the things CUP can buy. Because the products that can be purchased with CUP are limited, it is not a good idea to change more than CUC 5-10 into CUP at a time, as the CUP will last for a good while.
Exchanging currency in Cuba can be complicated.
When changing into CUP, be aware that some exchanges, like those in hotels will not change foreign currencies directly into CUP; instead, they will change your currency into CUC and then change your CUC into CUP. You will lose money on each of the exchanges. There are places on the streets of Havana that will change your foreign currency directly into CUP, but finding one may be difficult as they are not always conveniently located.
European and Canadian currency can be exchanged for CUC. Some other currencies may not be exchangable for CUC. US dollars can be exchanged, but a 10% penalty/fee is charged in addition to the regular transaction fee.
Traveler's checks drawn on American banks are not technically 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 Traveller'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 yuan currencies without any fees. If backpacking or leaving the resort areas, exchange your currency to CUCs, as foreign currency is not accepted by many locals. For U.S. dollars, they will charge a penalty of 10%, so it's better to change to Euros, Canadian dollars or Swiss francs before travelling there.
ATMs and Credit cards
ATMs are rare in Cuba, with only a handful found in Havana. Most are linked with either the Mastercard/Cirrus or Visa/Plus interbank systems. U.S.-issued cards will not be accepted. Unlike some national systems, only primary accounts (typically checking) are recognized. Even if you find and ATM and meet the above criteria it still may not have sufficient cash for a large withdrawal - if refused, try again and ask for a smaller amount.
Visa & Mastercard credit cards (of non-US origin) can be used, including cash advances, but places which accept Visa as payment are limited. Credit cards are charged in US dollars plus 11.24% (the 8% exchange difference plus a 3% fee).
Banks often close at 3pm, and earlier on the last day of the month. Cadecas (exchange bureaus) may be open longer, especially in hotels. When going to a bank allow enough time as 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 traveler's checks or make a credit card advance, although cash usually is changed without passport. Exchange rates do vary from place to place, and some hotels do give significantly worse exchange rates than the banks.
As in 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 paying the average cost of US$20 to assures you of quality and supports the artists.
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 24 cigars (generally 25 to a box) without special permits or receipts, but the export of 25 or more requires official receipts. If you buy cigars cheap on streets and you don't have official purchase invoice then your cigars may/will be confiscated. Americans are no longer allowed to bring Cuban cigars back into the U.S., regardless of their value, if they have an OFAC license, or even if they were given as a gift. It is also illegal for Americans to smoke or buy Cuban cigars anywhere in the world.
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 CUC 2-3. In reality, it is possible that no one will be interested in your paintings.
Being that all restaurants are owned by the government and run by underpaid employees, the food in Cuba is notoriously bland. If you are expecting the fiery pepperpot spiciness found on some of the other Carribean islands, consider that the national dish in Cuba is rice and beans (moros y christianos). A popular saying goes that the best Cuban food can be found in the U.S. Within Cuba, the best food will generally be found in your casa particular or in paladares (locally owned restaurants in private homes).
Black beans are a main staple in Cuban households. Cubans eat mainly pork and chicken. Beef and lobster are illegal to sell outside of state owned hotels and restaurants, however special lobster lunch/supper offers are plentiful for the tourists. You may see turtle on menus in Paladares, but be aware that they are endangered and eating them is illegal. The jail sentence for a Cuban killing even a cow is very strict.
Paladares are plentiful, even in the smaller towns. Seating is often limited, so you may need to arrive when they open, usually around 5 or 6pm. 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. That said, several have taken to printing two different menus, one with local prices and one with foreigner prices. Eating in paladares is perfectly legal, but be aware that 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 7 or 8 CUC per person.
It is difficult to find any restaurants serving breakfast in Cuba outside of resorts; most casas particulares will serve their guests a large breakfast for around 4 CUC per person if requested.
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. You can also find small street vendors selling pork or cheese pizza for a few CUCs.
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 $4 for three year old white rum or $8 for seven year old dark rum.
Cristal is a light beer and is available in "dollar" stores where Cubans with CUCs and visitors may shop. Cubans prefer the Bucanero Fuerte, which at 5.5% alcohol is a strong (hence the "fuerte") darker beer. Both Cristal and Bucanero are brewed by a joint venture with Labatts of Canada, whose beer is the only Cuban beer sold in CUC. There are also smaller brews, not available everywhere, such as Hatuey and Corona del Mar. These are sold in CUP.
If you want to experience something of the real life of Cubans, the best places to stay are 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 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.
If travelling by bus, you will be accosted by jineteros (hustlers) trying to lead you to a casa, where they will get a commission and you will be charged the extra. For the best rates, arrange your accomodation in advance, either by asking your host to recommend someone or by using a casa particular association. Some will let you book accomodation over the internet before your trip, and will go out of their way to arrange accomodation for you while you are there.
The University of Havana offers both long and short-term Spanish courses.
Cuban museums are plentiful, frequently open, and usually charge only one or two CUC 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.
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 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 common-sense and 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 are therefore advised not to involve themselves in the following three areas: politics, drugs, or pornography/prostitution.
A few small-scale scams exist:
Although Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses groups have had conflicts with the Cuban government, this is unlikely to affect travellers.
Cuba is considered very healthy except for the water; even many Cubans boil their water. That said, some travellers 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 30+°C/85+°F temperatures. Bottled water (agua embotellada) is easily found and costs between .65 and 2 CUC for a 1.5L bottle, depending on the shop.
Cuban milk and eggs are usually unpasteurised, and can make visitors sick. Additionally, tourists should be wary of vegetables washed in tap water. Despite the warnings, most Cuban food is safe to eat and you do not need to be paranoid.
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. Hepatitis B and Tetanus shots are recommended by most travel clinics.
HIV/AIDS infection is less than 0.1%, however as always, you should excercise care and make sure you or your partner wears a condom should you become sexually active while in Cuba.
Finding medication is often very difficult. It is highly recommended to stock up on off-the-shelf medication before heading to Cuba, as pharmacies lack many medications that westerners might expect to find. Do not attempt to import psychoactive drugs into Cuba. Havana also features a clinic (and emergency room) for foreigners, which offers extremely prompt service.
Cubans are generally friendly and helpful people. Keep in mind that 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 may be asked to chip in for the food, but 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.
One way to help local Cubans is by staying in casas particulares and eating in paladares. 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 actually losing money. Not only is it more interesting to stay with locals and eat in their homes, you're actually directly benefiting them in one of the only ways possible.
Avoid discussing political issues, as this could have serious repercussions on you and the person you are talking to.