By The Non Fiction Author
Published by The Non Fiction Author
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So you have decided to travel to Cuba. Welcome or as they might say here, bienvenido! Sure it is a country where you can relax, kick back and enjoy sandy beaches, dig your toes into the white sand while kicking back on your lounge chair whilst sipping on a mojito. But we all know Cuba is so much more than this.
Break up the beach time and go see the sites, immerse yourself in the culture. This may be an island, but there is more than just seeing and experiencing the island life. It goes without saying that Cuba has a tumultuous past. There are landmarks and scars which have marked this country perhaps forever, but these marks and scars are what make Cuba such an amazing place.
Head off to downtown Havanna Vieja and pull up a seat at a sidewalk café. You are sure to feel as if you are in another time and in a way you are, as not much has changed here for over fifty years. We have all seen the iconic pictures of the old automobiles which still cruise the streets of many Cuban cities in style today.
Walk through the cities and feel the sensations of the culture and the richness of the past which has marinated in these streets for many decades giving it the spicy depth of flavors which you can taste and feel in the air and are on display today. The people of Cuba have been victims of war, revolution and oppression, but they do not view themselves nor take on the image of victims. No, these people are survivors and they live in the present, they enjoy it and take pride in the fact that despite the battles, both on national and personal levels, they are still alive. They celebrate life, they dance, they sing, they move and shake. They breathe in and they breathe out and what they breathe into the many cities is vibrant life, color and national pride. A cigar in hand doesn’t hurt either.
If only the rest of the world could take notice and live as a Cuban, life might not seem all that bad. From a perspective of a Cuban, all is well, all is rich, all is good. Put a smile on your face and keep living, do what you have to do, but stay alive, be alive and celebrate each day. Viva la Cuba!
Cut off from most of the modern world, Cuba has managed to keep its magic. This Caribbean paradise is anything short of flavor. From its food to music and its people, there is just something about this place you will not be able to get enough of. There is plenty to see, to do and to eat and this guide will help you find all you want to do, including some extras you might not have thought of doing or experiencing.
There are plenty of beaches to check out almost entirely all around the island. Your days can be filled with views of white sandy beaches, sitting on your lounge chair while you are hypnotized by the calm of the seas. It is quite easy to get about the island. You can get about the island by jet, but there is plenty of public transportation, taxis and even scooters for hire, but most hotels offer free shuttle services for day trips, excursions or lazy beach time. Regarding that lazy beach time, space it out a bit! You do not want to miss all the sites or the culture of Cuba’s various cities, restaurants and night life. We will give you direction to find a place to sleep too.
Before you start flipping through this guide and making a check-list of all the things you want to do and see, have a look at our list here. These are the highlights of Cuba, what you might expect to experience. It is not about seeing the sites and checking off a to-do list of must-see monuments or attractions. It is about taking it all in.
• Have a walk around Old Havana (Habana Vieja). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over 900 landmarks. There is plenty to see! But save that for later and just settle in and breathe in this neighborhood of Havana. Sit at a sidewalk café and watch as cars of the mid-1900s roll by.
• Experience the neighborhoods of Havana. Walk around on the cobblestone and take in the colors and old Spanish architecture. The evidence of the colonial past is everywhere, seen in the cathedrals, museums and mansions.
• Cuba is synonymous with cigars. Hand-crafted cigars has been a mainstay in their culture for generations. Even if you might not be a cigar fanatic, this is a one-of-a-kind tour. Reserve a tour of the Partagas Cigar Factory in Havana.
• Go to the beach! There are numerous beautiful, white sand beaches all around this island country, some of the top beaches in the world are here. There are excursions daily and if you are into scuba, there are some choice spots to check out some black coral and shipwrecks.
• Havana is not the only must-see city in Cuba. Head to Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city. Its history dates back to colonial days and this is the home to the many carnival celebrations. Here is where some of Cuba’s famous musicians got started. Just walk down the streets and you are sure to feel the Afro-Cuban beats. A few days here will be an unforgettable experience.
• Some of the island’s best beaches are in the Veradero region. After some beach time you can catch an aquatic show at the Delfinarium and even swim with them. In the same region you can set off on a jungle tour on jet ski.
• Visit the Bellamar Caves! The caves still have yet to be explored completely, but it is open tourists to come and see the karstic crystal formations
• Maybe you do not consider yourself much of an ornithophile, but you might turn into one before you leave Cuba. Bring binoculars if you have a pastime for birdwatching. Cuba has some 350 species of birds; the tocororo, a tiny bee-size hummingbird, the endangered ivory-bill woodpecker and this island is home to the world’s largest flamingo nesting site.
• Tour Zapata swamp. Fish, bird-watch, or hike in this magnificent nature. It is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and Ramsar Convention Site and is one of the few virgin natural wonders of the entire island.
• Check out the nightlife in the youthful area of Santa Clara. You might even get lucky enough to get a homestay. A lot of people quite literally open their homes after a night of club-hopping and street dancing. Pop into Club Mejunje to see the drag show!
This guide is divided into sections to make planning for your trip easier and as convenient as possible. It is divided into chapters describing different areas of Cuba and within each chapter regarding these areas and places to visit, highlights, cultural points, historical sites and activities you can experience in each area. It is a how-to guide in traveling about Cuba to maximize your experience.
Cuba is a tourist destination for millions from all over the world and the culture and infrastructure of Cuba caters to this. It is easy to get around the island from city to city or beach to beach, via plane, taxi, bus or scooter. There are plenty of hotels and places to stay for budgets of all kinds. This guide will not speak of any specific hotels in general, however we will direct you where you can find the best information to get the tips you need to have the best experience.
The Chapter 2 will provide you with sample itineraries on where it is best to arrive in Cuba and branch out into separate itineraries with themes based on what type of Cuban vacation you have in mind. This will assist you in having a more clear-cut plan on your travels and will minimize your transportation costs as you go from region to region and even some tips on getting around that particular destination.
Chapter 3 will focus on ways you can really get the most of your experience. It is impossible to ever ‘blend in’ as a tourist, but it does help if you can immerse yourself even in just some simple aspects. Some reading and simply informing yourself about local customs, manners and even local lingo can help in getting around. Just picking up on the simple cultural customs of Cuba will make your stay that much more enjoyable, you might even fall in love with the place. . This chapter will also give you certain tips on how you can stay safe and stay healthy in your travels.
The remainder of the chapters will give you detailed information about each region and special destination of Cuba. The island is divided into five regions and each will have their own descriptions of what to look for in activities, experiences, things to do and things to see. There will also be some descriptions in how to get there. The chapters are set up to inform you about each region separately and will highlight each of their very own points of interest and activities to enjoy. From here you can decide what intrigues you and what does not, so as to better plan your own personal itinerary.
Cuba Travel Routes and Itineraries
The best thing about planning a getaway to Cuba, is that it is relatively small and it is quite easy to get around quickly and see many places. If your time is limited to say perhaps a week, more or less, you might want to choose one specific region or city to tour. One of the plusses about Cuba is that there is a lot to offer visitors in each area. All you have to do is figure out what flavor you are after for your time here. Themed itineraries will follow soon.
Cuba is an amazing country. The local people are uber friendly and they just want to share their culture with you. It is very common that many tourists are offered the home of many Cubans during their stay. It is not recommended, however, if you are a bit adventurous, they will offer their home to you and tell you to make yourself at home.
Now, about getting around, it is a safe place to travel and get around, though do look out for the potholes on the streets. There are of course many a tourist bus and local buses as well to get around the island, but they are not very comfortable. If you are on a budget, a flight might not be an option as a one-way ticket may cost you around 260Euros or one way just under 200Euros. What is the next best option? The train. There is a train network which runs the entire length of the island, connecting all the main cities and towns. Just a little tip, bring your own toilet paper and there might be a breakdown. But hey! You are in Cuba, it is just part of the experience.
A Few Days: You are on an island, and you might think it is relatively small and it is, but just to give you an idea, a trip from Havana on the northwest end of the island to the tip of the southeast end to Santiago can be about a ten hour drive! If you are here for only a few days, as mentioned before you just have to plan what you really want to see and where. Of course Havana is the first easy choice. There will be plenty to do, from city life; music, art, bars and of course, beaches!
One Week: You can get a good glance and overview of a couple of the cities of Cuba in just a few days, depending how immersed you go, so there will be other things you can check out. For example, if you find yourself in Havana and you want to get outside the city a bit, you can either head west to Pinar del Rio if you are up for some outdoor adventure and nature walks where you can visit Valle de Vinales. Here there are botanical garden tours, tours through the Santo Thomas Caves, a cigar factory tour and a dinosaur park. If you just want some lazy beach time, you can head towards Matanzas where just a few kilometers away are some of Cuba’s top beaches, Cayo Largo being one of the most popular of spectacular beaches.
Up to Two Weeks: There are a lot of things you can see and do if you are in Cuba for two weeks. Pick a couple city destinations from here, Havana and Santiago along with maybe one beach destination. These are the top two most culturally iconic cities of Cuba. On your way to Santiago you can stop off in Holguin to check out the rich colonial city of this city dating as far back as Christopher Columbus who described its coastline as one of the most beautiful the human eyes could set eyes on. Esmeralda, Pesquero and Guardalavaca beaches are here and so are the mountains if some hiking and trekking is on your list. For the urbanites, there is plenty of city life to discover here too and historical points of interest. You can even take a tour of the farm where Raul and Fidel Castro grew up. Cienfuegos and the Bay of Cienfuegos is another highlight you can squeeze into two weeks. There are a few of noteworthy UNESCO World Heritage buildings here and the Cultural Center. If you have come to scuba, here is where the best dives are of black coral. The waters are almost always calm and ideal for other water sports like boating, kayaking and sailing.
Up to Three Weeks: This is more than plenty of time to spend in Cuba and see most of the island, its numerous cultural cities, beaches, mountains and even have a number of days doing the same activity, whether it is hiking in the mountains, water sports, sightseeing, or just spending a few days lounging on the beaches. If you stay any longer, you might never want to leave.
Detailed Example Itineraries
When to Go: High and Low Seasons
When planning your trip to go to Cuba and deciding the time of year to go, it is advised to consider not just when to go, but what you want to see when you go. Some seasons include cultural aspects such as carnivals and other holiday activities one might want to experience in their visit. There are two high-seasons to visit Cuba; mid-November to mid-March and July and August. A flight to Cuba might be a little pricier during high-season, but the cities are vibrant and pulsating with culture and music during these times. During low-seasons, it is quieter and low-key and will not be the same if heading to the cities for what they have to offer is what you have in mind.
If you want to see what Cuba has to offer during the annual festivals in Santiago and Havana, then come during Carnival which goes on in July and August. The procession of the cross starts on the 20th of March each year in Trinidad and the main event is Revolution Day on July 26. This commemorates the assault on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago in 1953 by the men of Fidel Castro. May 20th is Cuba’s Independence Day.
There is really no ‘bad’ time of year to visit, as the climate is agreeable all year round. In the winter the temperatures range from the mid-70s Fahrenheit (mid-20s Celsius) and in the summer from the high 80s Fahrenheit (low 30s Celsius).
The traveler planning on a trip to Cuba should be cautious on planning a trip from June to November, as this is hurricane season. The peak of hurricane season is during the months of September and October. However, to put your mind at ease, Cuba is one of the Caribbean islands whose tourism is less affected by hurricanes.
Wet season on the island is from May to December. Most of the rain when it does fall is very brief and is followed up by the warm drying sun.
If you are heading to Cuba and planning more outdoor activities and are heading to the mountains, it is advised to go during the winter months. Pack some cold-weather clothes along with your beach attire. The mountains can be very cool during January and February.
The best form of money to bring with you to Cuba is US dollars. In the past, dollars were accepted regularly everywhere, but the government has changed the rules. The only money accepted are CUCs, called convertible pesos. Cuban pesos are referred to as Moneda Nacional (MN). The rate of 1 CUC is equivalent to $US1. 1 CUC is equivalent to 25 Cuban pesos (MN).
It is only necessary to change your dollars to CUCs as most of your expenses throughout your travel will be in CUCs, including; food in restaurants, accommodation, bus tickets, taxis, nightclub entrances and so forth. If you are on a budget during your travels and have accommodation where you will be cooking some of your meals, you might want a few MN to purchase vegetables at the agricultural market, for street food and local buses.
You can change your money at a CADECA (exchange bureau) or at a Cuban BFI Bank. All the exchange rates will be the same, so there is no need to shop around. If you exchange money at your hotel desk, you are most likely to receive a lower rate.
Using Credit Cards in Cuba
Credit and/or debit cards are the best way to get cash in Cuba. Both Visa and Mastercard are accepted in all the Banco Metropolitano and BFI Banks, ATM machines and in some CADECAS. There is a 3% processing fee for any cash advance from the Cuban bank to add to the costs your personal bank will charge you. This is the best way to obtain cash if you cannot nor want to carry all the cash with you that you will need in your stay. Do beware:
• If you are from the US, your cards are not advised to be used or will not work.
• If you are from Europe, do check and see that your bank does not have a US holding parent company, as your card will not work in Cuba.
• If you are traveling outside of the major cities, plan ahead as many of the communication lines will not be reliable and will not process your money.
• ATM machines in general have a reputation for not being consistent. They will not swallow your card, but it might be hard to get cash out.
• Make sure you ask for a printed receipt when you exchange your money.
Travel Costs and Organizing Your Money
The most expensive part of Cuba is mainly just getting there. Where you stay will also have a large impact on your wallet, but for the most part, most of Cuba is relatively inexpensive to get around, eat and do tours.
Example Budgets for a Trip to Cuba
The following points are just some rough ideas for certain levels of budgets and what you might spend per day according to food, getting around, tours and accommodation.
• Budget traveler ($US65 – 80 a day) – You are staying at one of the cheapest establishments, i.e. a ‘Casa Particular’ (homes of locals that are offered to tourists at low cost). . You cook the majority of your meals and only choose a couple starred attractions and limit your spending on alcohol. This is a very possible budget and you might find that you have a little more to spare than you thought. A little side note, there are no hostels in Cuba. This budget is easy to do and can be as low as $US50 if you have a travel partner and are splitting costs. Food portions are big and Cuba and it is very easy to split a meal among two people.
• Conscientious traveler ($US90 – 120) – You stay in a Casa Particular or Bed & Breakfast. There are budget hotels too. Maybe you just make your own breakfast and pack lunches and eat more dinners out. There is a little more to spend on activities and enough if you are a little tighter to do a day trip.
• Standard traveler ($US120- 170) – If you can spend an average of $150 per day, you can afford more than comfortable accommodations compared to the budget traveler, eat out for most meals with even a little more for one or two fancy dinners. You can rent the lounge chairs and umbrellas down at the beach from your hotel and if you minimize your spending for traveling costs for day trips and afternoons around the cities, you can enjoy a bit more of the highlights.
• Upmarket Traveler ($US170-200) – You can stay in a boutique or top hotel for most nights and you are not going to the grocery stores for any of your meals. You can travel in a fair amount of comfort (Remember, you are in Cuba. Comfort is relative.). And instead of day-trips, two nights at another destination outside of where you are based is easily budgeted in.
• Luxury Traveler ($US200 +) – On this budget you can stay at some of the best resorts. All costs are included while you are on the beaches of the resort and sometimes even the transportation to and from. You can eat out for all your meals and enjoy a nice dinner every evening. Two-three day trips to other cities will fit in too. Enjoy only the best of what Cuba has to offer.
Example Costs in Cuba
The following will help you get a better idea of which things cost what of your essentials during your trip.
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So you have decided to travel to Cuba. Welcome or as they might say here, bienvenido! Sure it is a country where you can relax, kick back and enjoy sandy beaches, dig your toes into the white sand while kicking back on your lounge chair whilst sipping on a mojito. But we all know Cuba is so much more than this. Break up the beach time and go see the sites, immerse yourself in the culture. This may be an island, but there is more than just seeing and experiencing the island life. It goes without saying that Cuba has a tumultuous past. There are landmarks and scars which have marked this country perhaps forever, but these marks and scars are what make Cuba such an amazing place. Head off to downtown Havanna Vieja and pull up a seat at a sidewalk café. You are sure to feel as if you are in another time and in a way you are, as not much has changed here for over fifty years. We have all seen the iconic pictures of the old automobiles which still cruise the streets of many Cuban cities in style today. Walk through the cities and feel the sensations of the culture and the richness of the past which has marinated in these streets for many decades giving it the spicy depth of flavors which you can taste and feel in the air and are on display today. The people of Cuba have been victims of war, revolution and oppression, but they do not view themselves nor take on the image of victims. No, these people are survivors and they live in the present, they enjoy it and take pride in the fact that despite the battles, both on national and personal levels, they are still alive. They celebrate life, they dance, they sing, they move and shake. They breathe in and they breathe out and what they breathe into the many cities is vibrant life, color and national pride. A cigar in hand doesn’t hurt either.