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What to expect in Cuba
Bienvenido a Cuba! Its old-world charm will make you feel as if you’ve stepped back into a time gone by. Along the cobblestoned streets in Old Havana, you’ll find beautifully restored buildings side-by-side with crumbling colonial casas, lines of wonderful vintage American cars and old Russian Ladas. Life is vibrant here – on every corner you’ll find people smoking cigars and playing a game of dominoes while salsa music resounds from the open windows. It’s easy to spend hours wandering the colourful streets, taking in the atmosphere. Prepare to be enchanted by this country, its people, history and rhythms.
Cuba’s great for
- Music: If there’s one thing you should know about the Cuban people, it’s this – they love expressing themselves through music. Cuban culture has greatly influenced salsa in particular, and there are various venues dotted across Havana where you can dance to this lively, passionate music. Son Cubana, a gentler and slightly slower predecessor of Salsa, is also a genre of music and dance popular in Cuba, as is Rumba and Bolero. A mix of Latin, Jazz, African and Soul genres are also widely heard throughout the country. Time to dig out those dancing shoes!
- Rum and cigars: No guide to Cuba would be complete without mentioning its world-famous rum and cigars. The country takes great pride in its production, and rightly so. More often than not, you’ll come across drinks and cocktails prepared with different types of Havana Club (the country’s top brand), and the cigars are generally considered the best in the world.
- Nightlife: Havana, in particular, comes alive at night. Fabrica de Arte Cubano in Havana is a converted cooking oil factory which boasts regular electronic music nights with live DJs, concerts, and exhibitions of photographic and cinematic art. Also, don’t miss Trinidad’s nightclub housed in a local cave!
- Art: Many buildings are covered in street art, and there are plenty of galleries. Explore the ‘Fusterlandia’ neighbourhood in Jaimanitas in Havana, where locals have transformed their buildings into multi-coloured works of art. Many showcase an abstract, almost Picasso-esque look about them.
- Performances: If you enjoy live performance and dance, Cuba will not disappoint. You’ll find deeply expressive and vibrant theatrical dance performances rooted in African cultural heritage, performed by the ‘Folkloric dance company’, amongst others. Often these happen on the streets.
- Avoiding mainstream capitalism: If you’re anything like us, the intent of travel is to get away from the ordinary, and Cuba’s rejection of a first-world consumer culture is certainly fascinating. There’s no chance of stumbling across a McDonald’s or any other big chains in communist Cuba.
What's meaningful about Cuba?
As a communist country, Cuba has essentially tried to create a classless society and provides free education and healthcare for all its citizens. Its rejection of capitalist ideals makes it unlike pretty much every other consumer obsessed country across the globe. You’ll struggle to spot many advertising billboards and there’s no chance of seeing the same restaurant chain on every street corner. On the flip side, rations are a reality here, daily essentials are in short supply and enterprise is not traditionally encouraged or celebrated by the Cuban government.
Our top meaningful Cuba experience
For a meaningful experience on your Cuban travels, and to gain an incredible insight into the Cuban way of life, culture and history, we recommend staying at a casa particular. This literally translates as “private home” and involves staying in a B&B owned by a local Cuban family. More often than not you’ll be eating homemade food, listening to their music and finding out what the locals do in their everyday life. While casa particulares are typically more basic than a hotel, the standards have risen significantly over the past few years. They are clean and provide a more personal and meaningful experience of Cuba. In a country where travel and access to the internet is limited, you’re also offering local people a chance to connect and learn about life away from home, as well as helping them to make an additional income.
Our top 4 Cuba highlights
- Rooftop terraces in Havana – Havana’s dreamy rooftop terraces offer everything you could want in a city break: sunset views, amazing cocktails and endless photo opportunities. Ambos Mundos Rooftop bar, Iberostar Parque Central Rooftop Bar and Hotel Inglaterra, in particular, are worth a visit.
- Tobacco Hills of Vinales – Take a stroll, or even a horse ride, through the beautiful countryside around Vinales – a sleepy town which is the heartland of Cuba’s tobacco-growing community. You can visit the farmers themselves, and try a freshly rolled Cuban cigar straight from the source.
- Discover Cuba’s nature in Peninsula de Zapata National Park – Located on Cuba’s southern coast, this national park contains some of the country’s best nature-spotting. Wildlife lovers and divers alike flock here from every corner of the globe just to catch a glimpse of its rare birds.
- Beautiful Baracoa – Hike through the jungle, swim in natural pools and incredible waterfalls, bathe on beautiful black sand beaches and try the unique local cuisine. On the far eastern tip of the country, this place has a character all of its own. This is one of the lesser known, yet unmissable, destinations that should appear on your Cuba bucket list.
Cuba Essential Information
Best time to go
Cuba has a cool breeze all year round. Generally, you’ll have sunshine all year round with some tropical downpours towards the end of the year. September & October are hurricane months, but it’s most likely to just be a bit blustery, and the Cubans will look after you!
English is widely spoken, but knowing some key Spanish phrases will help.
A, B, C & L
And 5.7m of those are in the region of Havana (La Habana Province).
You can buy ETECSA cards for pre-paid wifi at specific Cuban government-run spots. Most mobile networks don’t offer roaming (at least, not very affordably!).
Twice a week
Direct flights to Havana from London run twice a week (normally Sundays & Thursdays, but this can vary).
Alternatively, you can go via Paris, Amsterdam & Madrid.
Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC)
You won’t be able to get CUC until you arrive in Cuba. Currency exchange can be done in the airport in Havana when you land, or from cash machines in cities. Check with your bank that your card will work in Cuba before departing.
Good to know….
- Crime rates in Cuba are low compared to other Latin American countries. However, when visiting any country, it’s worth being careful with valuable posessions and cash. Popular areas of old town Havana and the Prado neighbourhood, in particular, sometimes see instances of petty theft.
Language & culture in Cuba
Getting around Cuba
There are several options for getting around Cuba while travelling.
Cuba has an incredibly well connected & affordable bus service, private transfers, and of course self-drive.
The official language of Cuba is Spanish. It is customary to greet your hosts or locals as señor and señora, and you’ll notice that locals address each other as compañero.
The majority of the country is Roman Catholic, while Santería and Abakúa have followers of two Afro-Cuban religions that are also practised widely across Cuba. There are very small Jewish, Hindu and Muslim communities too.
Cubans love going out, dancing and dressing up, with impromptu dancing in the main plazas commonplace. Festivals are also popular – take the Fire Festival in Santiago de Cuba, known locally as “La fiesta del fuego”. It takes place in early July and celebrates the local traditions and culture of the Caribbean people. You’ll feel cultural influences from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Trinidad and others, getting a real flavour of the Caribbean spirit. Lasting over a week, you’ll experience everything from passionate dance routines, famous firework displays, live spoken word and poetry, along with a wealth of theatrical performances.
Internet & wifi in Cuba
Things have certainly moved on in recent years in Cuba. Internet is much more readily available, but you’ll still struggle to connect in some locations (something that is actually quite refreshing!).
Most hotels offer wifi nowadays, albeit with varying degrees of connection strength. In some places, you’ll need to buy a card from a shop, your hotel reception or some casa particulares. This card or token will cost 1.50 cuc for one hour of internet. There are wifi hotspots dotted around Cuba and within most hotels. Simply join the wifi hotspot, enter your temporary login and password from the token and you’ll be online.
The internet is not as fast as you’ll be used to, so keep it simple – probably best not to try downloading a film, as you’ll be waiting more than a while.
It’s not unusual to find local people congregating in parks, glued to their phones, as for many Cubans these public hotspots are the only way to access the internet.
Key phrases to know:
- Hola – Hello!
- Buenos dias/tardes/noches – Good morning/afternoon/evening
- Me llamo/llama – My name is.. (m)/(f) *Hint: two ‘ll’ is pronounced as a ‘y’ sound.
- Adios – Goodbye
- Hasta luego – See you later
- Hasta pronto – See you soon
- Necesito ir a el bano – I need to go to the bathroom?
- Donde esta el bano – Where is the bathroom?
- Cuanto cuesta? – How much does it cost?
- Me gustaria una cerveza/una ron por favor – I would like a beer/a rum please!
- Una cerveza, por favour – One beer please!
- Necesito un médico – I need a doctor
- Me duele aqui – It hurts here
Take a peek at our favourite Cuba itineraries
Is what you can expect to pay per meal – £5 for lunch and £10 for dinner.
Alcoholic drinks are generally very cheap. You can expect to pay around £1-2 for a cold beer, a fresh mojito or delicious daiquiri.
Whilst Cuba is known and celebrated for many things, food isn’t necessarily one of them. That’s not to say you won’t find some great, authentic Cuban dishes. In recent years, the rise of private restaurants (paladars) has meant that the variety and quality available is much better than in the past, and you can eat pretty well in most places now.
With restrictions on trade and rationing, certain ingredients can be limited – garlic, salt and onions tend to be the main staples for seasoning. Rice, beans, plantain and root vegetables are commonly incorporated into many dishes, and you’ll find great seafood near the coast (which is most of the country!).
Vegetarian and vegan options are a little limited at times so you may want to take some snack along from home just in case (you’ll find a bit more on this in our food guide).
Gallery & video
Shopping in Cuba
If you’re looking to shop till you drop, Cuba probably isn’t the place, with perhaps less shopping options than you’d be used to elsewhere. We’d advise that you pack well and take any essential items along with you. Things like toothpaste, sun protection, snacks and general toiletries are not easily available, so it’s important to pack sufficiently to avoid being caught out.
That said, there is a thriving arts and crafts scene, not to mention plenty of choice in locally made rum, cigars and home-grown coffee.
Brief history of tourism in Cuba
Over the years, the political landscape and economic blockade imposed by the United States against Cuba has had a considerable effect on tourism in Cuba.
Policy changes in 1999, however, meant American citizens were allowed to travel legally to Cuba as long as they met certain complicated (and constantly changing) criteria.
In the past decade, in particular, tourism in Cuba has boomed and it has welcomed huge numbers of visitors from around the world, eager to see the unique culture and natural beauty of this island nation.