Cuba is perhaps the most fascinating island in the Caribbean -- if you can get there (although recent changes in Cuba travel rules are making the journey far easier). It's a contradictory destination where stunning beaches and luxurious tourist-only resorts are only a small part of the Cuban experience.
If you go, take time not only to savor this country’s extraordinary beauty, but to talk to the people, listen to their music, and explore their cities and towns — this is the essence of traveling to Cuba.
Cuba Basic Travel Information
Location: Between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, 95 miles south of Key West, Fla.
Size: 42,803 square miles. See Map
Language: Spanish, with some English spoken in the main tourist spots
Currency: Peso, both convertible and nonconvertible.
Telephone Country Code: 53
Tipping: 15 to 20 percent
Weather: The average temperature is 78 degrees. June to November is hurricane season. Rainy season is May to October.
Airport: Jose Marti International Airport, Havana
Cuba Activities and Attractions
Make sure to spend some time in Havana, designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The old center in particular is captivating with its mix of 16th- and 17th-century Spanish Baroque architecture, neoclassical monuments and charming homes.
Other cities worth visiting include Trinidad, Baracoa and Santiago. For a more scenic view of the country, visit Sierra Maestra National Park and climb Cuba’s highest peak. If you’re a fan of cigars, don’t leave without a visit to the tobacco fields of the Viñales Valley.
Cuba’s main beach resort area is Varadero, consisting of about 13 miles of fine white-sand beach with an extensive selection of watersports and lined by all-inclusive resorts. Guardalavaca, another of Cuba's top beach destinations, is near interesting dive and archaeological sites and has some excellent resorts. If you want to get away from it all and don’t mind a lack of facilities, head to Cayo Sabinal, where you’ll find undisturbed beaches tucked away.
Cuba Hotels and Resorts
Stay at one of the big all-inclusives, many of which are around Varadero, and you’ll be surrounded by Europeans and Canadians, with an array of activities, meal and nightlife options at your fingertips. Stay at a private home, known as casas particulares, and you’ll have a chance to get to know a Cuban family; on the downside, your accommodations may be fairly basic. You’ll also find plenty of midrange to upscale state-run chain hotels housed in restored colonial buildings, plus well-known international brands like Occidental, Sol Melia and Barcelo.
Cuba Restaurants and Cuisine
It’s possible to trace Spanish, American, Arawak Indian and African influences in the popular cuisine of Cuba. Traditional dishes include a root vegetable stew called ajiaco, which is cooked with pork, chicken or beef.
Other Cuban specialties include roast pork, or lechón; fried plantains, called tachinos, chatinos or tostones; and moros y cristianos, commonly known as rice with black beans. Eating at a paladar, a privately run restaurant, is an excellent way to sample local fare and meet Cubans — try Havana’s La Guarida.
Cuba Culture and History
Columbus discovered Cuba in 1492, and Diego Velázquez colonized the island in the 1500s. Spanish domination ended with Cuba’s military occupation by the United States in 1898. Although the occupation ended in 1902 when Cuba became an independent republic, the U.S. continued to meddle in Cuban politics. In 1953, Fidel Castro began a movement to overthrow the U.S.-backed dictatorship of President Fulgencio Batista.
The Western Hemisphere’s first communist state was established on Jan. 1, 1959, with Castro at its head. The U.S. continues its presence in Cuba with a naval base at Guantanamo Bay.
Cuba Events and Festivals
Cubans are passionate about their music and the country is the birthplace of the rumba, the mambo, cha-cha, salsa and more. The International Jazz Festival has an excellent line-up of well-known musicians. Las Parrandas in Remedios at the end of the year is one of the biggest street parties and religious carnivals in Cuba. Another don’t-miss carnival takes place in summer in Santiago.
If you’re staying in or near Havana don’t miss the opportunity to see a local salsa or jazz group playing. Try La Zorra y El Cuervo for jazz or Macumba Habana for salsa. Or do as the locals do and head down to the Malecon, Havana’s famous sea wall, with some beers or a bottle of rum and simply hang out under the stars. Visit the Havana bars made famous by Ernest Hemingway -- El Floridita, where the daiquiri was invented, and La Bodeguita del Medio, both in Old Havana. Outside of the capital, you’ll find the greatest variety of nightlife in the hotels.