Tucked away in the northern part of the Caribbean is Cuba. While many people have heard of Cuba and its famous history, few people can say that they have visited Cuba.
One reason for fewer visitors is because of the poor relationship between the United States and Cuba, which began during the Cold War. However, travel doesn’t have to be tainted by politics, and Cuba is an enigma worth studying.
Bienvenidos – Welcome to Cuba
Cuba comes in many layers and while the outside may look shabby, there is gold hidden underneath the surface. Old facades and bright colors line the streets of Cuba, and a vibrant island culture greets you as you step off of the plane. The country’s economy has long struggled from US embargos, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the faces of Cuban people. With warm smiles and high energy, Cubans eagerly embrace all visitors to their island.
Crowned as the stoic leader of Cuba, Havana is the country’s capital. As the most well-known city in Cuba, it is also the number one place to visit for tourists. The spotlights in Havana shine on the city’s history, art, and gastronomy. Pirates once plumaged the shores of Havana, before colonialism changed the culture. Now, Havana is famous for its art museums and colorful avenues. Even more popular are the bohemian cafes and bars, which entice visitors with a good meal and a strong drink.
- Culture and Language
- Visa Requirements
- Spending Budget
- How to Get Around
- Top Cities to Visit
Culture and Language
While Cuba is most famous for its history with Spain, the Soviet Union, and the United States, the island’s history began long ago. The Guanajatabey (also spelled Guanahatabey), who were the first colonizers, discovered the island in the fourth millennium BC. Afterwards, the Taíno and Ciboney people migrated to the island and pushed the Guanajatabey people into the western area of Cuba.
It was then, in the famous year of 1492, that Christopher Columbus discovered Cuba. This led to the country’s first foreign relationship and started the islands colonization by Spain. Under Spain’s control, Cuba was flooded with African slaves as the land was converted into sugar plantations. As the wealth on the island grew and cities like Havana were developed, pirates targeted the island.
For much of the 16th to the 19th century, Cuba was under attack. Pirates began the turmoil, but problems continued well into the late 1800s as the country struggled for independence from the United States. While the Cuba became independent in 1902, the end of the war was far from over and the country’s relationship with the United States continued to deteriorate.
One of the biggest disagreements occurred after the Cuban Revolution, which started in 1953 and saw Fidel Castro rise to power. Castro’s relationship with Ernesto Guevara, better known as Che, was a tremendous influence on Cuba’s revolution. Che was Argentinian, but his Marxist ideas suited Castro and they quickly became friends. The relationship would be one that the United States would soon despise.
Castro, guided by Che, pushed out the United States, which led to the start of problems between the two countries. The United States always thought they would maintain their influence over Cuba, but with Castro shutting them out, their grip was slipping, and the Soviet Union was entering the scene.
Under influence from the Soviet Union, Cuba became an ally and depended on the Soviet’s aid. This deeply upset the United States and led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis uncovered that there were Soviet missiles in Cuba, which was far too close for comfort for the United States.
Ultimately, the relationship between the two countries could not be recovered and even today, Cuba-US relations are unstable.
Even with the people being ricocheted around the rocks, the Cuban spirit cannot be broken. The people are full of life and they enjoy it. Their survivalist culture has proven them right throughout the years and shown that even through multiple hardships, Cuba can and will survive. With a zest for life, Cubans enjoy big celebrations, cozy gatherings, and salsa dancing.
Spanish and Latin culture are still prominent in Cuba. Spanish is the official language on the island. While most people on the island only speak Spanish, English is becoming more common in the tourist areas as the country has opened up to visitors in the recent years. However, African culture is also prominent because of the country’s history with colonization and the introduction of African slaves. Today, Creole is the second most spoken language in Cuba, which was brought from Haiti but originally rooted from West Africa.
For US citizens, visiting Cuba is a little complicated because of the unstable relationship between the two countries. While US passports are valid in Cuba and you can legally enter Cuba from the United States, there are a few restrictions set in place by the US government.
Under the current administration, independent travel to Cuba is not possible. If you want to travel to Cuba, you will need to declare a reason for being in the country, which would grant you the ability to travel to Cuba. There are twelve reasons that you can visit Cuba, but tourism is not one of them.
US Authorized Travel Categories and Banned Establishments
You can find a list of the authorized travel categories at the US government’s travel.state.gov Cuba page. However, most people who visit Cuba will travel under the “Support for the Cuban People” category, which means they will only stay at, eat in, and enjoy locally run establishments. This also gives you the most freedom to travel around the country.
The United States has an updated list on their state.gov website that gives travelers the names of the banned establishments. For US travelers, you cannot support or spend money at any of the entities or sub-entities on the list. The vast majority of the list consists of hotels, but you will also find holding companies and Cuba’s government ministries. Some of these entities may also run restaurants or travel companies, so do your research before you book a tour or take a seat at a table.
It is also important that you keep all receipts from your trip to Cuba. Yes, every single one. The US government may ask citizens and residents for any records of your trip for up to 5 years after your return to the United States. While you probably won’t be asked for them, it’s best that you keep track of your receipts and file them in a safe place, once you have returned home.
For most travelers, it can be a pain to navigate the laws regarding traveling to Cuba, and it is wise to seek a travel agency to assist you in planning your trip. Agencies can ensure that you get all the proper paperwork and guarantee that you will be cleared for travel.
Cuba requires that you get a Cuban Visa to enter the country. The visa can be obtained online prior to your trip or with help from your airline. You will also need to get clearance from the US government prior to your trip, which is why it is useful to use a travel agency to help you with your plans and ensure that you meet all the requirements.
Aside from visa and permission, you will need your valid US passport to enter Cuba. It will need to have two blank pages for your stamps. Most American credit and debit cards do not function in Cuba because of the embargo, and you will need to travel with a sufficient amount of cash to cover your vacation. Any amount of cash over $5,000 US dollars, must be declared upon entry into the country. You may leave with up to $5,000 US dollars, but exporting the local Cuban currency is strictly prohibited.
Cuban Health Insurance
Finally, you are required to have Cuban health insurance for the duration of your trip. Most airlines will include the cost of this health insurance into the price of your ticket, but if they don’t, you can purchase Cuban health insurance at the airport in Cuba upon your arrival. Most of the insurance plans will cost about $3 US dollars per day of your trip. Proof of this health insurance, a return ticket, and sufficient funds will need to be provided to gain entry into Cuba.
While the cost of health insurance adds up, it is only one part of your spending budget for Cuba. With the embargo, it is important that you thoroughly plan your trip to Cuba before you arrive in the country. A spending budget is a great way to help you estimate the costs of your trip to ensure you travel with the correct amount of cash to Cuba. To help you reduce the amount of cash that you will travel with, it is a good idea to book as much of your trip as you can, prior to your arrival in Cuba.
Your flight and accommodation can all be booked prior to your arrival in Cuba, but the cost of food, drink, and transportation will all need to be paid with cash while you are visiting the country. Since you need to support the local people, it is also best to wait to book local tours and activities until you are in Cuba. So, don’t worry about making those bookings in advance.
Flights to Cuba are fairly affordable and the average cost sits at about $300 US dollars. However, with more people traveling to Cuba, you can find some prices under $200 US dollars if you search through multiple airline’s websites or hire a travel agent. The prices will also change according to the time of year you visit Cuba.
Tourist high season in Cuba is during the winter months. December, January, February, and March are when most travelers are eager to hit the Cuban beaches and stroll the colorful avenues. The winter months also line up with Cuba’s dry season, which means less rain and more sun for big adventures.
Once you have arranged for your flight to Cuba, you need to look at different accommodation options. Accommodation in Cuba ranges from moderately expensive to luxury prices, and it is important to make your bookings in advance. Booking ahead of time also means that you won’t have to travel with as much cash. Most people make their reservations through Airbnb, but some local hotels may have their own websites that you can use to book your room.
Hostels are the most affordable option in Cuba, but they can be harder to book online. However, many backpackers who wait until they are in Cuba can still find rooms at hostels. Most hostels will charge $6-$15 US dollars per night.
The next most affordable option is what locals call casa particulares. This is a private room inside a home that is owned by a local. These rooms are rented through Airbnb, and there are plenty of listings on the site. Most private rooms can be rented for $20-$50 US dollars per night. Casa particulares are a great option for travelers who want to connect with the local people and venture more in-depth with Cuban culture.
If you aren’t comfortable with either of those options or if you have a bigger budget, you may want to stay in a hotel. There are plenty of boutique hotels on the island that are locally owned. If the name is not on the restricted list issued by the US government, you are safe to stay there. However, the nightly rate for hotels varies from $100 US dollars per night to over $500 US dollars per night.
With all of your bookings pre-arranged and paid for prior to your trip, it is then time to focus on how much cash you need when you are in Cuba. The vast majority of accommodation establishments will not provide any food or drink service, so the price of meals and drinks will need to be considered as a part of your cash fund. Cuba is budget friendly, but it has some high-end establishments too.
Much like Cuba’s history, their cuisine is very diverse. Most dishes are influenced by Africa, Spain, and the Caribbean. But Cuba is also a Latin country, and many of the flavors are also similar to those found throughout Latin America.
One of the best and most flavorful dishes in Cuba is called ropa vieja. This dish includes shredded beef, which has been slow cooked in a tomato sauce. The meat is then served with rice and fried plantains. Another favorite dish amongst travelers and locals is called pernil relleno de moros y Cristianos. This dish combines roast pork with strong flavors like orange, oregano, and garlic. Like most dishes, it is served with rice, beans, and plantains.
For a little more heat, vaca frita is stuffed with strong spices that will make your tastebuds dance. The dish uses skirt steak as the main meat, which has been braised in zesty herbs and spices. Lemon drenched onions and peppers are then thrown on top as a final touch. Tamales are also a favorite dish and snack in Cuba, and you can find them everywhere. They are made with corn but topped with plenty of spice to pack a punch.
Food is affordable in Cuba, if you want it to be. You can eat like the locals to stay on budget, so a meal will cost $8-$20 US dollars at a restaurant. You can find even more affordable meals if you visit the streets stalls, where most dishes cost less than $3 US dollars. Snacks type foods are also sold on the streets and most of those will cost less than $2 US dollars. Buñuelos are a popular street snack made of yuca, which are often sold for less than $1 US dollar.
The party lifestyle is very much alive in Cuba, so you’ll probably want to hit a few bars. Drinks in Cuba range in price, with local options costing about $2 US dollars per beverage. However, you should expect to pay up to $5 US dollars for a drink. In touristy areas, the prices can be even higher and depending on the alcohol, be prepared to spend up to $7+ US dollars for a drink.
All in all, you don’t have to spend a fortune to visit Cuba. While some people splurge and dive right into a luxury vacation, most travelers will spend about $80-$90 US dollars per day in Cuba. Budget travelers can lower that daily average by finding affordable hostels and eating at street vendors’ carts or cooking for themselves. A more moderate budget would cost anywhere from $150-$250 US dollars per day.
How to Get Around
While Cuba is an island, it isn’t small. In fact, Cuba is the Caribbean’s largest island, so it takes a bit of planning if you want to visit various cities on your trip. Flights, bus, taxis, and rentals are all popular options in Cuba.
There are 11 regional airports in Cuba, and most are serviced by two domestic airlines. The international airport is located outside of the capital, Havana. But for some, traveling by plane is the fastest way to get around. However, most flights will originate in Havana from José Martí International Airport.
So, if you are not in Havana and want to fly to another city, you will most likely have to fly to Havana and transfer to a new plane. The cost of domestic flights can add up and you should expect to pay about $110 US dollars for a one-way ticket.
A more affordable option to transport your way around the island is by using Viazul, which is the local bus company. Buses are reliable and affordable, with most tickets costing about $4 US dollars per hour of travel. Tickets can be and are encouraged to be booked in advance.
Taxis can take you around a city or to and from the airport. Most taxis will charge $1 US dollar per kilometer. However, not all taxis use a meter system. You should always agree on a price before you get in and begin a trip with a taxi. Long distance taxis are expensive, and you could be asked to pay up to $80 US dollars for a trip.
Some people prefer to drive themselves by renting a car. Car rentals are popular in Cuba and safe. But the cost may hold some travelers back. Most rentals will charge about $80 US dollars per day. When you are driving, you will need your valid US passport and US driver’s license, or whatever your home country’s passport and license are.
Top Cities to Visit
Havana is mighty popular for tourists who visit Cuba, but it isn’t the only option. There are lots of other cities to visit on the island, and you may find that one captures your heart. Here are Cuba’s top cities for tourists.
Havana is the main highlight of Cuba and arguably, one of the most famous because of its status as a Cuban icon. The city is plastered with color and impressive Spanish colonial architecture. The Plaza Vieja is one of the city’s hotspots where tourists like to meander. Off the streets, you can step inside a museum of art or history to learn more about Cuba and its culture. Some of the best restaurants are also in Havana, so you can have a blast testing the local flavors.
Historic and jaw-droppingly beautiful, Holguín is another popular city in Cuba for tourists to visit. The coast is lined with white-sand beaches, which have attracted thousands of visitors ready to relax in one of the local resorts. The city streets are quite historic and display some of the classic Spanish colonial architecture. A few museums are also a favorite site for visitors, who want to learn more about the area.
Preserved to remember the past, Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, the streets and buildings still display Cuba’s colonial history. Cobblestone streets lead way to small studios, galleries, shops, and local markets. Many of the local restaurants are housed in colonial buildings, which makes them unique to other establishments throughout the country. The nearby Valle de Los Ingenios is also where most of the old sugar plantations were built. You can tour the area and visit the numerous haciendas.
Jutting out from the mainland like a thin twig, Varadero is Cuba’s top resort area. The town is spread out on this narrow strip of land and features highlights like a golf course and ecological nature reservation. The crystal clear of the Atlantic Ocean entices visitors to come and spend their days relaxing in this Cuban paradise. Similar to many resort areas, there are plenty of activities to get the heart racing or places to go and melt your stress away.
Get Out and Go
While some may be hesitant to visit Cuba, now is the time to leap into a great adventure. This once secretive island is slowly being opened to travelers, so they can experience the vibrancy of Cuban culture and the island lifestyle. With no hard feelings about the political issues surrounding the US and Cuba, Cuban hosts are eager to welcome guests with a smile.