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Complete Guide to Travelling in Cuba

Health and Safety

Safety in Cuba and Laws to be Aware of
As far as countries go, Cuba is generally a rather safe one. While petty theft like pickpocketing is reasonably common and should be watched out for, fears such as corrupt and unhelpful police or violent crime are comparatively rare for the region. Exercise regular caution and things should be fine.

Try to be aware of Cuban customs laws such as the usual prohibition on bringing in foreign fruits or meats or the more unusual need for import permits on professional quality cameras. Drones may also be subject to confiscation upon arrival but are typically returned upon leaving the country. For the average photographer, this will likely not be an issue.

 

Vaccinations when travelling to Cuba
Cuba, like many tropical countries, is host to a large variety of potential diseases that can quite easily be avoided with proper vaccines. One should also use discretion regarding possible diseases that cannot be vaccinated against. Cuba is considered at risk of Zika virus at present along with Dengue fever. Checkout Passport Health USA for more. 

 

Cuba for LGBTQ+ Travellers/Gay friendly hotels in Cuba
Despite a rocky history, modern Cuba is considered by many to be a shining example of LGBTQ+ tolerance in Latin America, now possessing a robust set of expanded rights and laws for such citizens. In the capital of Havana, it is especially unlikely to face any active discrimination for your orientation. When outside the capital, a certain degree of caution may be advised. Rural parts of the country still adhere more closely to staunchly Catholic traditions and while still overall quite safe, harassment is by no means unheard of.

For hotel advice, practically all hotels in Havana could likely be considered safe for LGBT travelers, though caution may be advised if choosing the more exotic tactic of staying with a local Cuban. 

 

Travelling in Cuba as a solo female
Cuba has machismo culture and it’s ‘unfortunate’, let’s just say. A common occurrence for female travelers is what’s called piropos, otherwise known as catcalling or wolf-whistling. It’s annoying, it can be seen as threatening, but just ignoring it or responding with “No me moleste” (Don’t bother me) will hopefully get them to leave you alone. As said before, violent crime in Cuba is comparatively rare, but travelers should always exercise the same caution they would in any country.

Applicable to both men and women is to be wary of jineteros or  jineteras, who are the common tourist-pests of any country who will sidle up to you speaking English and offer to show you around or take you somewhere nice, all in hopes of getting you to part with your cash. Don’t trust them.

Overall, trust your instincts! In the case of Cuba, also trust the police. Corruption in the police is comparatively low and if anything were to happen, don’t hesitate to contact an available officer.

 

Travelling in Cuba as a solo male

Travel advice for Cuba as a solo male is a little more simple, with some overlap. In a culture of heavy machismo, prepare for visits to the bar to be met by similar harassment to those who’d go after women too, though probably more just to test your mettle with Cuban rum. Be polite, use your discretion, though probably a good idea not to get good and steaming drunk around a bunch of complete strangers, no matter how much the macho culture may demand it.

I’ll say it again exactly the same as it’s no less true. Applicable to both men and women is to be wary of jineteros or  jineteras, who are the common tourist-pests of any country who will sidle up to you speaking English and offer to show you around or take you somewhere nice, all in hopes of getting you to part with your cash. Don’t trust them.

Once again, trust your instincts in all cases! If a place seems dodgy, get out of it. If you feel you need to contact the police, contact the police. It is always better to err on the side of caution rather than pay the price for it later.

 

Travel insurance for Cuba

Travel insurance in Cuba is absolutely mandatory and you will be asked for proof of it when arriving at the airport. Package tours will typically cover this, but even if you’re not on a package trip, just getting it separately should be easy, with many affordable options to choose from.

 

Health emergency in Cuba, attending the Doctor

Travel insurance that covers healthcare in Cuba is strongly advised, with facilities outside of the capital likely not measuring up to a first-world standard. Cuba is a marvel in the medical field in many cases, but specialist treatment may very well require an expensive medical airlift. Without health insurance, travelers are unfortunately not subject to the universal healthcare policy granted to citizens and may need to spend a significant amount for their stay in a local hospital.

The Cuban emergency number for an ambulance is 104 and many tourist areas will have access to international clinics that are better suited to their needs. For further information, consult the for-profit tourist healthcare system Servimed. (http://www.healthservicecuba.com/)

 

Where to get medication in Cuba 

Medicine in Cuba is unfortunately difficult to come by, particularly as a result of the severe economic blockades imposed by the USA. While pharmacies are readily available across the country, with the aforementioned Servimed group operating their own pharmacies specifically for foreigners, these may not always have what you need. If you have a chronic condition or illnesses that you may be predisposed to, it would be advised to bring medicine from home just in case.

It is also worth noting that pharmacies marked turno permanente are open 24 hours, should there be a need to get access to medicine late in the night when other pharmacies have closed.


 

Travel & Accommodation in Cuba

 

Why package holidays to Cuba are awful

Do you know how many tropical island nations there are in the world? There’s a hell of a lot of them, but there’s only one Cuba. If you go on the bulk of package holidays, you wouldn’t notice that at all. Sure, Cuba’s beaches are gorgeous and there’s an undeniable pleasure in baking in the hot sun with a Cuba Libre in one hand and a cigar in the other, but is that really experiencing the real Cuba? I wouldn’t say so.

The joy in Cuba is in how unlike any other tropical island nation it is! The unique revolutionary history and culture that remains to this day, the street life, the architecture, the interactions with average, everyday Cuban citizens. To spend all that time in a carbon-copy of the same beachside resort you get at any nation with a similar climate just seems like a waste, so please, do yourself a favour and throw these to the side.

 

How to find cheap flights to Havana

Traveling to Cuba, especially from Europe, is always going to be expensive. However! For those of you with more flexible schedules or at least a willingness to wait for the right moment, I’d have to recommend Hack The Flight (https://hacktheflight.net/) as my go-to. Not just for Cuba, but for everywhere! The sheer joy of finding a location you’d never even thought of visiting, but at a price that’s an absolute steal is something truly special. Everyone should check it out!

 

How to get a visa for Cuba

Cuban visas are commonly known as ‘tourist cards’ and can be acquired from a convenient Cuban embassy or from a third party company that can organise them for you, relative to whatever country you’re in.

There is no such thing as ‘visa on arrival’ in Cuba, however some countries are exempt from needing one for a set period. The list of these countries is subject to revision pending changing international situations, so consulting relevant and up-to-date sources for this information is strongly recommended.

 

Shared Car Transport in Cuba

Along with the usual fare of private rented cars, public buses and the ever-risky hitchhiking, Cuba has a unique system of shared car transport called Colectivos. These are a peculiar form of shared taxi found mostly in major cities like Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Typically, they’ll be those fancy older 50s cars with a Taxi sign in the window. Unlike usual taxis, they follow a pre-set route like a bus and allow people on and off at regular intervals, usually charged for tourists at 10 Cuban pesos. Keep in mind that this is local pesos, not the more common tourist peso equivalent that we’ll get to later. 

 

 

Best time of year to Visit Cuba


Almost unquestionably, the best time to visit Cuba is near to its major holidays. January 1st and 2nd are Liberation Day and Victory Day respectively while May 1st is May Day, or International Workers Day. For fairly obvious reasons, this is a highly respected holiday in Cuba.

It’s worth noting as well that spending ‘winter’ in Cuba isn’t the counterproductive waste of tropical weather it may sound like. From December through to February, temperatures around the mid-high 20s celsius are still standard, if anything it may be a welcome break from the stifling heat of the late summer temperature.

More important to recognise is the distinct ‘rainy season’ and ‘dry season’ periods. The former lasts from May to October and is characterised by regular freak rainstorms and hot, humid weather certainly worthy of the tropics, while the ‘dry season’ lasts from November to April, consisting of quite the inverse. Little rainfall and more temperate climate that nonetheless is great for sunbathing. 

 

Top 5 most unique things to see in Cuba

We’ve already made an article on something quite like this! Though for the sake of not repeating ourselves too much, here’s five more things to see and do in Cuba!

 

  1. Old Havana, it’s an absolute must-see. The old colonial buildings decked out in vibrant shades of pastel colours is a nice contrast with the pastel tower blocks in Pyongyang, showing off the vibrant visual style of old style heritage mixed with command economy urban planning. Gentrification in Cuba is as real as anywhere else, but old Havana has escaped far more unscathed than most places.

  2. May 1st Parade. Nearly every country celebrates May Day at least to some degree. Sometimes there’s parades, sometimes there’s just a day off, other times it’s celebrated a bit more unofficially. Cuba and the DPRK are perhaps the only countries left that can do the holiday justice as it was throughout the socialist world in the 20th century. Perhaps being the only ones left to celebrate it just made them even more committed to doing so, but really, you’ll never see anything quite like it! If you’re a socialist yourself or even just into the aesthetics, you’ll adore it.

  3. Che Guevara Mausoleum in Santa Clara. It’s almost impossible not to recommend this. Love him or loathe him, Che Guevara stands tall as one of the most significant icons of the 20th century and perhaps the most significant revolutionary icon of all time. How much is down to his actual ideals and actions or that one photo that got super popular is not for me to say, but you can certainly feel the weight and presence of his legacy when you visit the mausoleum. It’s worth checking the revolutionary museum nearby, along with the Batista era train that Che personally assisted in derailing during the revolution.

  4. Bay of Pigs. If you want to go to the Bay of Pigs for its historical legacy, there’s not a great deal to see. It’s mostly just another of Cuba’s super impressive beaches. What it is really unique for is the crab migrations! Thousands or even millions of bright red crabs migrate their way to the Bay of Pigs every year after the first spring rains to lay their eggs. It truly is a magnificent sight to behold, with the historical merits of the location adding as a handy bonus!

  5. The people. Okay, okay, fair. This may seem like a cop-out, but I stand by it. If you want to count the article linked at this tart, you still got nine suggestions rather than the five you were promised! Anyway, there is no denying that unless you are a Cuban, you cannot truly understand Cuba. Perhaps if you grew up in a formerly socialist country or somehow traveled in from the DPRK you’ll get it somewhat, but otherwise, talking to the locals is the best way to understand it. The incredible history, the unique social system, the planned economy, everything else! All we can get is a brief glimpse and an easy pass with our generous money conversions, the people of Cuba? They’re the ones who can tell you how it really is to live in one of the last bastions of socialism. How could I not put this on the list?

 

Best swimming spots in Cuba

  1. Playa Paraiso would have to get the top spot, even if it’s a little obvious for those ‘in the know’. Ranked as the third most beautiful beach in the world by Traveler’s Choice in 2016, the beach is well known for its nearly untouched shores, comparatively gentle waters and surprising distance from the main hotels. Make no mistake, it’ll still quite likely be full of tourists and locals basking in its splendour, but it’s impossible not to rate it highly.

  2. Cayo Guillermo gets second spot mainly for its distance from the rest of society, which is a much-welcome addition for many. Being on an island certainly helps, allowing people the opportunity to go swimming, diving or even fishing in peace. Nearby hotels are few and a solid four kilometers of mostly untouched beach is certainly nothing to be scoffed at.

  3. Cayo Largo is another one picked primarily for its distance from society, but with a few other tweaks. It’s located on another fairly remote island but is particularly known as an LGBT friendly beach and has a portion dedicated to those of the more ‘naturistic’ persuasion. If you feel a little too restricted at the other popular beaches of Cuba, it’s a fair bet that Cayo Largo will be able to satisfy your needs.


 

Food, Drink & Nightlife

Food in Cuba
Being a country with a tropical climate, Cuban food is heavily influenced by exotic fruits, root vegetables and seafood, though that’s not to say that’s all there is to find. Having at one point been a country with many slave colonies, Cuba is host to a variety of African inspired dishes, while the embargo from the US has forced Cuba to look elsewhere in varying its diet and has resulted in quite unique culinary innovations.

From the simple moros y cristianos (black beans with rice) and Yuca con Mojo (casava sauteed in orange juice) to the more complex Pernil Relleno De Moros Y Cristianos.

(the aforementioned moros y cristianos stuffed inside pork shoulder and marinated with sour orange, garlic and oregano) Cuban dishes are widely varied and vary even more regionally, especially depending on what can be produced locally. The comparative lack of import ability means dishes can often completely vanish from the menu if their sources aren’t close enough and especially if not near to a port.

 

Where to eat the best food in Cuba

Protip, don’t just go to the tourist restaurants in Cuba. Sure, you may be getting a more ‘guaranteed’ dining experience in certain ways, but the real fun is exchanging your tourist pesos for local ones and trying out the eateries for the masses! Since 2011, the government has opened up to the idea of paladares which are locally run eateries, not owned by the state. The quality may vary a little more, but it’s an authentic Cuban experience with much less standardised menus and much more affordable pricing.

 

The Dona Eutimia in Havana has seen some love from tourists as a homely eatery with good food and the El Cocinero in Vedado has been loved for its trendy rooftop dining experience. For the most homely of all experiences though, it’s hard not to recommend a Casa Particular or local Cuban homestay. Most Cubans would cook for themselves in daily life and few things can compare to the offered breakfasts at these lovely homestays.

 

Best restaurants in Havana

  1. La Guarida is an easy recommendation for two reasons. First, it has a wide variety of delicious food at reasonable prices as one might expect. Second, it was the filming spot for Strawberry and Chocolate, one of the first Cuban films to tackle LGBT rights and achieve international renown for it. The decor certainly likes to remind the diner of this fact, so cinephiles will definitely have a good time here.

  2. BellaHabana in the district of Miramar is a very notable spot for its focus on fusion food, attempting to give traditional Cuban foods an international twist with a particular focus on seafood.

  3. El Templete is already a delicious eatery in its own right, but what truly sets it apart is its location. Situated directly next to the Plaza de Armas, El Templete has an absolutely stunning view of the nearby areas if you choose to sit outside. Perfect for people-watching as well as seeing those gorgeous 50s era cars rolling on by like a timewarp.

 

Best restaurants in Trinidad

  1. Sol Ananda is a truly gorgeous restaurant in Trinidad, located in a house dating all the way back to the mid 1700s. With a curious mix of local and South-Asian cuisine, it does a wonderful job for the taste buds as well as providing a visual feast in its old fashioned architecture and interior.

  2. Mesón del Regidor is a cafe/restaurant that truly sets itself apart with the entertainment. Local musicians treat this cafe as a regular haunt and serenade the visitors with their latest traditional creations. If you want an authentic Cuban cultural experience while you have an authentic Cuban breakfast, you couldn’t ask for somewhere better.

  3. Casa El Tulipan may be cheating a little bit since it’s not a restaurant per-se, it’s one of those casa particulars we talked about earlier. All the same, the food produced by the friendly couple who run the home is gorgeous and the home itself features a rooftop terrace with beautiful views over Trinidad. This particular Casa was impressive enough to get special mention in The Guardian with its friendly owners highlighted for their strong grasp of English which will surely lead to some great and fascinating conversations.

 

Bottled water in Cuba

It’s generally not advised to drink the tap water of Cuba. While Cuba broadly speaking does have solid sanitation, risks of certain pathogens do indeed exist and as with all travel, the risk simply being unused to the local water can still give an unwary traveler a case of the runs. It may be a good idea to remember this when visiting restaurants too, as asking for a glass of water may give you it straight from the tap rather than specially filtered. Bottled water is thankfully common in all areas that tourists congregate in, as well as being readily provided at most major hotels. 


 

Produce in Cuba

Best place to buy cigars in Cuba

If there’s one thing Cuba’s famous for that isn’t the revolution, it has to be cigars. And even that’s heavily tied in with Fidel Castro’s love for them, so perhaps it is revolutionary after all. Most notable for this is the Cohiba brand of cigars produced by the state-owned Habanos S.A. which must be distinguished from the Dominican brand of the same name. Unquestionably the best place to get these would be the La Corona cigar factory in Havana, offering a wide variety of cigars for sale and tours of the facility itself.

 

Best rum to try in Cuba

If there’s any recognised Cuban rum brand, it would have to be Havana Club and for good reason. While there are plenty of knockoffs and okay imports, the best stuff is found in the city that it’s named for. The Añejo 3 Años is a much lauded vanilla and pear rum that’s perfectly suited for mojitos. Standing strong alongside the Havana Club is the Legendario brand and its crowning Elixir de Cuba that features a much sweeter taste than that of the Havana Club fare, likely owing to its extracts of raisin with hints of honey.

 

Working in Cuba

 

WiFi availability in Cuba

Cuba is not the most wifi-friendly of countries, it must be said. Internet does indeed exist, but you aren’t going to be getting a private signal from any random cafe. What you’ll typically need is a ‘wifi card’ from the ETECSA (Telecommunications Company of Cuba SA). These cards can be bought in most commercial stores and at airports, though lines for them have a tendency to be fairly long. These same cards are often sold at hotels, but beware the inflated premium price tag of such a convenience. Be aware as well that these cards can only be bought when you have your passport present, so don’t forget to bring it with you!

Thankfully the costs for this aren’t too exorbitant. It’s currently approximately $1 equivalent per hour of internet access, with this price having gone down considerable over the years. Availability is also increasing, with many wifi hotspots available in Havana, but again, you’ll require the wifi card to make any actual use of them.

Speed can be slow and unstable at times, but is again rapidly improving. Censorship is also a real issue, but this is thankfully not overly pervasive and not even as bad as China. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, it should all work perfectly fine.

 

Power voltage in Cuba

Power supply in Cuba is primarily 110 volts, however hotels typically offer 220 volts. Sockets are typically designed to take both American flattened two-pin plugs and European rounded two-pin plugs, so North American or European adapters should work perfectly fine.

 

How to buy electronics in Cuba

The Cuban electronics industry is overwhelmingly dominated by the Caribbean TRD Retail Store Chain (TRD) which reportedly owned over 50% of the Cuban electronics market in 2017, according to the Havana Times. In the same article that states this, it points out the existence of joint ventures with companies such as Samsung which helps to provide a wider variety of more modern technology which should prove useful to tourists in need. 


Volunteering in Cuba

Teaching English in Cuba

Cuba has a high demand for quality educators so teaching English in Cuba is far from an impossibility! The prime gateway is the requirement of at least a Bachelors Degree to be qualified. After that, it’s simply a matter of building up your skill set and watching for available job listings! Teaching in Cuba is of course exclusively found in the state sector, so conditions for teachers are rather standardised. Salaries are usually up to $2000 USD per month (generous in Cuban currency) with 35-40 hour weekly work schedules. Contract duration is typically between 1-2 years with possibilities for extension depending on performance.

 

Working with an NGO in Cuba

Volunteer NGO work in Cuba is far from unheard of. So long as activities aren’t overtly anti-government, the Cuban state has typically shown itself as highly co-operative with such groups. Oxfam, CARE and many others operate openly within Cuba attempting to help the more vulnerable elements of Cuban society so getting involved with them isn’t at all impossible. It would be advised to look into any locally based NGO groups that operate in Cuba and contacting them for more information!

 

Working in healthcare in Cuba

By far the best way to get involved in working in Cuban healthcare is through the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM). Signing onto a course there is free. Tuition is free. Accommodation is free. There’s even a small stipend to help students get by! International students from across the world, including America, are fully welcome to apply and hopefully even move onto job opportunities in the country! Cuba is perhaps one of the only countries that isn’t exactly hurting for more doctors, but it hardly hurts to ask! Specialist skills especially would be in high demand anywhere, along with English speaking doctors who could treat foreign tourists.


 

Future of Tourism in Cuba

Cuba tourism statistics

Tourism in Cuba has been on a fairly consistent rise, stifled only somewhat by the tightening sanctions of the US under the Trump administration. According to Travel Weekly Cuba’s tourist numbers increased by 300,000 between 2017 and 2018, going from 4.5 to 4.8 million, with an anticipated increase again to 5.1 million by the end of 2019! This is a jump of over 60% in the last five years, with the US and Canada comprising the majority of visitors. Cubatrade.org particularly shows that in spite of mounting US pressure, there has been a growth in both regular US visitors and a dramatic growth in Cuban-US visitors to the island nation.

 

Trends and plans for Cuba tourism in the future

According to Travel Agent Central, Cuban tourism is experiencing a rebound and growing dramatically. Cruise ship arrivals alone grew by 48% between 2017 and 2018 while overall landfall in the country has steadily gone up for a long period now. With the 500th anniversary of the capital Havana’s foundation due in November of 2019, it can likely be expected for traditional Cuban culture, architecture and identity to undergo a proud renaissance in the face of this mass travel growth.