In general, Cuba is not a particularly cheap place to visit. A comfortable weekly budget for two travellers sharing a room, who eat out and go out every night, stay in cheap hotels or Cuban homes and move around the country using buses and trains, works out at around $500CUC per person. However, with some considerable effort and a willingness to sacrifice some quality and comfort, it is possible to get by on much less. The key to living on a shoestring budget is to stick as much as possible to national-peso goods and services, though often you’ll be obliged to pay in convertible pesos.
Given the prevalence of fresh-food markets, street vendors and house-front caterers, all of which accept national pesos, the biggest savings can be made when buying food and drink. Stick to the above and you can survive on just $40–50CUP per day, equivalent to less than $3CUC. In the more likely event that you eat in restaurants, paladars or casas particulares, $20–40CUC should cover breakfast, lunch and dinner.
You’ll have to pay for accommodation in convertible pesos, since national-peso hotels are for Cubans only; casas particulares can be let to national-peso-paying Cubans or convertible-peso-paying foreigners, but not to both. You’re unlikely to find a hotel room for less than $25CUC, though some of the older, more basic hotels that cater to Cubans as much as foreign visitors offer lower rates.
When travelling long distances non-Cubans are, on the whole, obliged to use convertible-peso services, whether on buses, long-distance taxis, trains or planes. If you travel by Víazul bus, expect to pay between $10CUC and $50CUC for most journeys. Long-distance private taxis can sometimes work out cheaper than buses if you share them with three or four other hard-currency-paying travellers. The cost of public transport is more flexible within the towns and cities, where local buses cost next to nothing, though most foreign visitors use taxis or tourist buses.
Crimes against visitors are on the rise in many Cuban cities, particularly Havana (including some violent crime), so it pays to be careful. That said, gun crime is virtually unheard of and murder rates are estimated to be way below those of most Latin American countries, though official crime statistics are kept under wraps by the Cuban government. In the vast majority of cases, the worst you’re likely to experience is incessant attention from jineteros, but a few simple precautions will help ensure that you don’t fall prey to any petty crime. While there’s no need to be suspicious of everyone who tries to strike up a conversation with you (and many people will), a measure of caution is still advisable. You should always carry a photocopy of your passport (or the passport itself), as the police sometimes ask to inspect them.
The most common assault upon tourists is bag-snatching or pickpocketing (particularly in Habana Vieja and Centro Habana), so always make sure you sling bags across your body rather than letting them dangle from one shoulder. Unfortunately, bag snatches in which cross-body straps have been slashed are becoming more common; the ultimate self-protection is to carry no visible bag at all. Keep cameras concealed whenever possible, don’t carry valuables in easy-to-reach pockets and always carry only the minimum amount of cash. A common trick is for thieves on bicycles to ride past and snatch at bags, hats and sunglasses, so wear these at your discretion. Needless to say, don’t leave bags and possessions unattended anywhere, but be especially vigilant on beaches, where theft is common.
Other than this, watch out for scams from street operators. Never accept the offer of moneychangers on the street, as some will take your money and run – literally – or try to confuse you by mixing up national pesos with convertible pesos, or palm you off with counterfeit notes. Exercise extra caution when using unofficial taxis, particularly when riding in a cab where “a friend” is accompanying the driver. Although you’re unlikely to suffer a violent attack, you may well find yourself pickpocketed. This is a particularly common trick on arrival at the airport, where you should be especially vigilant. Even if you are on a tight budget, it’s well worth getting a tourist taxi into the centre when you’re loaded with all your valuables and possessions.
Some hotels are not entirely secure, so be sure to put any valuables in the hotel security box, if there is one, or at least stash them out of sight. Registered casas particulares are, as a rule, safe, but you stay in an unregistered one at your peril.
At airports, thefts from luggage during baggage handling both on arrival and departure are a significant possibility, so consider carrying valuables in your hand luggage, using suitcase locks and having bags shrink-wrapped before check-in.
Though car theft is rare, rental-car break-ins are much more common. Take all the usual sensible precautions: leave nothing visible in your car – including items you may consider worthless like maps, snacks or CDs – even if you’re only away from it for a short period of time. Furthermore, thieves are not just interested in your personal possessions but will break into and damage cars to take the radios, break off wing mirrors, wrench off spare parts and even take the wheels. To avoid this, always park your vehicle in a car park, guarded compound or other secure place. Car rental agencies will be able to advise you on those nearest to you, or, failing that, ask at a large hotel. Casa particular owners will also be able to tell you where to park safely. If the worst happens and you suffer a break-in, call the rental company first, which should have supplied you with an emergency number. They can advise you how to proceed from there and will either inform the police themselves or direct you to the correct police station. You must report the crime to be able to get a replacement car and for your own insurance purposes.
Though violent sexual attacks against female tourists are virtually unheard of, women travellers in Cuba should brace themselves for a quite remarkable level of attention. The nonstop attention can be unnerving, but in general, Cuban men manage to combine a courtly romanticism with wit and charm, meaning the persistent come-ons will probably leave you irritated rather than threatened. If you’re not interested, there’s no sure-fire way to stop the flow of comments and approaches, but decisively saying “no”, not wearing skimpy clothing and avoiding eye contact with men you don’t know will lessen the flow of attention a little. Even a few hours of friendship with a Cuban man can lead to pledges of eternal love but bear in mind that marriage to a foreigner is a tried-and-tested method of emigrating. Aside from this, women travelling in Cuba are treated with a great deal of courtesy and respect. The country is remarkably safe and you are able to move around freely, particularly at night, with more ease than in many Western cities, and you should encounter few problems.
Should you be unfortunate enough to be robbed and want to make an insurance claim, you must report the crime to the police and get a statement. Be aware, though, that the police in Cuba can be surprisingly uncooperative and sometimes indifferent to non-violent crime – they may even try to blame you for not being more vigilant. You must insist upon getting the statement there and then, as there is little chance of receiving anything from them at a later date. Unfortunately, the chance of your possessions being recovered is equally remote. The emergency number for the Cuban police differs from place to place, though 106 has now become standardized in most provinces.
Following any kind of emergency, whether medical, financial or legal, you should, at some point, contact Asistur, the tourist-assistance agency. It has branches in most provincial capitals and can arrange replacement travel documents, help with insurance issues and recover lost luggage as well as provide a host of other services. In the case of a serious emergency, you should also notify your foreign consul or embassy.
The electricity supply is generally 110V 60Hz, but always check, as in some hotels it is 220V, and in a significant number of casas particulares there is both. Plug adaptors and voltage converters are almost impossible to buy in Cuba, so if you intend to use electrical items from the UK or the rest of Europe, Australia or New Zealand, then you should, as a minimum, bring a plug adaptor and maybe voltage converter too.
To enter Cuba, you must have a ten-year passport, valid for two months after your departure from Cuba, an onward or return plane ticket and health insurance. You’ll also need a tourist card (tarjeta del turista), essentially a visa. Although you can buy tourist cards from Cuban consulates outside Cuba, some tour operators, airlines and travel agents also sell them and you can purchase them online. Consulates can usually sell tourist cards instantly, but in some countries you may have to wait for a week. In addition to the completed application form, you’ll need your passport (and sometimes a photocopy of its main page) plus confirmation of your travel arrangements, specifically a return plane ticket and an accommodation booking, though the latter is rarely checked. Please always check with your local embassy for the most accurate travel information.
For full details of import and export regulations, consult the Cuban Customs website.
There are no consulates or embassies in Cuba for Australia or New Zealand. The local Canadian Embassy and the Australian and New Zealand embassies in Mexico provide consular assistance to Australians and New Zealanders in Cuba. Please visit the websites for the British Embassy, Canadian Embassy and the US Embassy for the most up-to-date information.
Travel insurance covering medical expenses is mandatory when visiting Cuba. Immigration authorities have been known to do spot-checks when you are entering the country. Those without insurance are required to take out an insurance policy with Asistur, the tourist-assistance agency, before they are granted entrance.
For all insurance issues within Cuba, including the purchase of policies, contact Asistur. It has branches in most provincial capitals. Asistur may be the logical place to buy a policy for many US citizens as US insurance providers generally don’t cover Cuba.
Getting internet access in Cuba is still not particularly easy or cheap and wi-fi barely exists at all outside of the upmarket hotels. There are cybercafés in all the major Cuban cities and resorts but usually just one or two, and in many towns there are none at all. Finding somewhere with a reliable, fast connection is an even greater challenge. The hotels offer the fastest and most robust connections but their rates can be exorbitant. ETECSA, which runs the national telephone network, operates Telepunto centres where you can get online; there’s one in most provincial capitals, but connections are often painstakingly slow and, particularly in Havana, you’re sometimes better off at a hotel. Note that wherever you access the internet, you may occasionally be required to show a passport.
Having always been keen to control the flow of information to the Cuban public, the government has, unsurprisingly, restricted its citizens’ access to the internet. However, though internet connections in private homes are illegal, some Cuban homes do have them, and anyone can go online in Telepuntos. Locals also have access to Cuban-based email accounts, and there is an increasing number of Cuban homes using email, mostly casas particulares. All hotels now have email addresses and online booking, but most restaurants do not.
There are few public laundry services in Cuba. Most foreign visitors do their own or rely on the hotel service, although if you are staying in a casa particular your hosts are likely to offer to do yours for you for a small extra charge.
There’s a good chance you’ll get back home from Cuba before your postcards do. Don’t expect airmail to reach Europe or North America in less than two weeks, while it is not unknown for letters to arrive a month or more after they have been sent. Theft is so widespread within the postal system that if you send anything other than a letter there’s a significant chance that it won’t arrive at all. You should also be aware that letters and packages coming into Cuba are sometimes opened as a matter of government policy.
Stamps are sold in both convertible and national pesos at post offices, white-and-blue post office kiosks (marked Correos de Cuba) and in many hotels ($CUC only at the latter). Convertible peso rates are reasonable. However, if you request national-peso stamps, which you are entitled to do, it can work out over 15 times cheaper.
All large towns and cities have a post office, normally open Monday to Saturday from 8am to 6pm. Most provincial capitals and major tourist resorts have a branch with DHL and EMS courier services. Some of the larger hotels offer a full range of postal services, including DHL, EMS and the Cuban equivalent Cubanacán Express, usually at the desk marked Telecorreos. What post offices there are in smaller towns and villages offer services in national pesos only and are more likely to be closed at the weekend.
If you’re sending packages overseas, stick to DHL, by far the safest and most reliable option.
In general, Cuban maps are infrequently updated, a little unreliable and hard to find. The exception is the national road map book, the Guía de Carreteras, which covers the whole country and also carries basic street maps for many of the major cities – invaluable if you plan to make any long-distance car or bike journeys around the island. You can buy it in bookshops, tourist gift shops and some branches of Infotur. However, some minor roads are not marked on this or any other map and there is still a gap in the market for a fully comprehensive national road map or street atlas. Geographical and orienteering maps are nonexistent.
Opening hours in Cuba are far from an exact science and should generally be taken with a generous pinch of salt. Office hours are normally 8.30am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, with one-hour lunchtime closures common, anytime between noon and 2pm. Standard opening hours for state restaurants and paladars are from noon to 11pm. but it’s not unusual for places to close early, depending on the level of business. Museums are usually open Tuesday to Saturday from 9am to 6pm, and many also close for an hour at lunch. Those open on Sunday generally close in the afternoon. Expect museums, especially in Havana, to keep longer opening hours in July and August and sometimes in January, February and March too. Shops are generally open 9am to 6pm Monday to Saturday, a minority closing for lunch, while the shopping malls and department stores in Havana and Varadero stay open as late as 8pm. Sunday trading is increasingly common, with most places open until noon or 1pm, longer in the major resorts. Hotel shops stay open all day. Banks generally operate Monday to Friday 8am to 3pm, but this varies. There is no culture of siesta in Cuba.
The chances are that it will be cheaper to use your mobile phone than a payphone to ring abroad from Cuba, though US travellers may encounter added complications. However, if you are making a call to a Cuban number then it’s usually much more economical to use a payphone.
Cubacel, part of national telecommunications company ETECSA, is the sole mobile phone service provider in Cuba. If you intend to bring your own handset to Cuba you should check first whether or not your service provider has a roaming agreement with Cubacel, either by contacting your own provider or consulting the list on the ETECSA website.
Most of the major British, Australasian and Canadian operators now have such agreements and, as of September 2015, Verizon became the first US-based mobile phone company to offer roaming in Cuba to its customers.
There are significant parts of the country, such as much of Pinar del Río province, where you are unlikely to get any mobile phone network coverage at all, rendering your phone useless for calls and texts in these parts.
There are various kinds of payphones in Cuba, and several distinct ways that you can make and pay for calls. National rates for payphones are reasonable. International rates are exorbitant.
Prepaid cards, known as Chip cards and priced in convertible pesos, can be bought from post offices, hotels, travel agents, some banks, Telepuntos and large walk-in phone booths known as Minipuntos. They only work in Chip card phones, most of which are coloured blue and found in hotels, Telepuntos, Minipuntos and other tourist establishments.
Propia cards are sold in both national and convertible pesos and are compatible with all phones besides the Chip card phones. They are compatible with all phones besides the Chip card phones. Rather than inserting the card in a phone, when calling you enter the unique account code found on the card.
The new generation of coin-operated phones, grey in colour and with a digital display, are an easy and cheap way to make a local call – international calls aren’t permitted. They only accept national peso coins, in denominations of 5¢, 20¢ and $1CUP, and can also take Propia cards. Coin-operated phones can be hard to find and tend to be located outside in the street and rarely in call centres. There are also still some rusty old analogue payphones, especially in small towns, which only accept 5 centavo coins, have no digital display and have a slim chance of working at all.
To make a call within the same province but to a different municipality you may need an exit code (código de salida) for the place from where you are making the call. Exit codes are available from the operator. If you are calling from a prepaid card phone simply dial t0 followed by the area code and number and this will put you through directly.
Some interprovincial calls are only possible through the operator. If you’re consistently failing to get through on a direct line, dial 00 or 110.
You may see Cuban telephone numbers written as, for example, “48 7711 al 18”, meaning that when dialling the final two digits you may have to try all the numbers in between and including 11 and 18 before you get through.
Making an overseas phone call from a private phone in a house has its own special procedure and can be quite confusing, not to mention very costly – use a payphone if at all possible.
Cuba is on Eastern Standard Time in winter and Eastern Daylight Time in summer. It is five hours behind London, fifteen hours behind Sydney and on the same time as New York.
The national tourist information network is Infotur, and has desks in many hotels and at the larger airports and branches in most major cities and resorts, though many are rudimentary affairs. The friendly staff are generally willing to help with all sorts of queries, though they do try to steer visitors towards the state-run tourist apparatus. They carry a few basic guides and maps but are generally low on free literature and printed information. You can, however, book hotel rooms, rental cars, organized excursions and long distance bus tickets through them. Officially they do not supply information on paladars or casas particulares, though the staff are often willing to help with their own recommendations.
The three principal national travel agents, Cubanacán, Cubatur and Havanatur, have offices in most major cities and resorts and effectively double up as information offices, particularly in those places where there is no Infotur office. Though their principal aim is to sell you their own packages and organized excursions, the staff are accustomed to supplying any kind of tourist information. These agencies can also book hotel rooms and are usually the most convenient place to book Víazul bus tickets. Be aware that all information outlets and travel agents in Cuba, including Cuban websites, are run by the state and are unlikely to offer impartial advice on, for example, accommodation deals or places to eat.
With very little printed tourist literature it’s well worth checking the internet for tourist information. The official Cuban sites, cubaweb.cu and dtcuba.com are worthwhile but foreign sites tend to be more reliable. Among the best are lahabana.com and cuba-junky.com.
An international network of tourist information offices is run by the Cuban Tourist Board. There are branches in several Latin American and European countries, including the UK, as well as in Canada and China.
Away from the package holiday resorts, life for disabled travellers in Cuba is very tricky: there are very few amenities or services provided for people with disabilities; pavements are generally poor, paths uneven and dropped kerbs extremely scarce (you rarely see anyone in a wheelchair in the street in Cuba); disabled toilets are more or less nonexistent outside the resorts and public buses are not modified for wheelchair users, while the tourist buses do not have ramps. To get around, using a taxi is the best option, as accessible car hire is difficult to find. On the brighter side, Cubans are generally very helpful and accommodating, while most upmarket hotels are well equipped for disabled travellers, each with at least one specially designed room and all the necessary lifts and ramps.
Working in Cuba as a foreign national is more complicated than in most countries, and anyone thinking of picking up a casual job on the island can pretty much forget it. All wages in Cuba are paid by the state in national pesos, so if the bureaucracy doesn’t stop you the hourly rates probably will. The majority of foreign workers here are either diplomats or in big business, and the only realistic chance most people have of working is to join one of the voluntary brigades. Studying here is easier, as Spanish classes are offered at universities, by tour operators and also represent a significant niche in the private enterprise market.
If you plan to study or work in Cuba then you must have the relevant visas organized before you arrive. Students must have a student visa entitling them to stay in the country for longer than a month; these can be arranged through the Cuban consulate, though sometimes language schools can assist you with this.
There is an array of organizations that send people to Cuba to study, mostly to learn Spanish. You can, however, take Spanish classes independently without too much hassle. The most obvious place to go is the University of Havana, where the Faculty of Modern Languages has been running courses aimed specifically at foreign students and visitors for many years. You can also combine Spanish studies with courses in dance or Cuban culture, or even just study Cuban culture on its own. The university provides full-board on-campus accommodation for two weeks, including the cost of lessons.
Aside from the universities, the best way to arrange a proper course of Spanish classes in Cuba is through professional organizations based outside the country, like Caledonia or Cactus Language.
Providing you take common-sense precautions, visiting Cuba poses no particular health risks. In fact, some of the most impressive advances made by the revolutionary government since 1959 have been in the field of medicine and the free healthcare provided to all Cuban citizens. Despite all the investment, Cuba’s health service has been hit hard by the US trade embargo, particularly in terms of the supply of medicines. It’s essential to bring your own medical kit from home, including painkillers and any prescription drugs that you use, as availability is limited in Cuba.
No vaccinations are legally required to visit Cuba, unless you’re arriving from a country where yellow fever and cholera are endemic, in which case you’ll need a vaccination certificate. It is still advisable, however, to get inoculations for hepatitis A, cholera, tetanus and to a lesser extent rabies and typhoid. A booster dose of the hepatitis A vaccination within six to 12 months of the first dose will provide immunity for approximately 10 years.
Despite Cuba’s colourful variety of fauna, there are no dangerously venomous animals on the island – the occasional scorpion is about as scary as it gets, while the chances of contracting diseases from bites and stings are extremely slim. Cuba is not malarial and mosquitoes are relatively absent from towns and cities due to regular fumigation. They are, however, prevalent in many rural areas. Basic, common-sense precautions include covering your skin, not sitting out at dusk, closing windows at this time, and using DEET repellent.
There are occasional outbreaks of dengue fever, a viral infection spread by mosquitoes. It can occasionally be fatal, though usually only among the very young or old or those with compromised immunity; reported number of deaths in Cuba have been in single figures, and serious cases are rare. There’s no vaccine, so prevention is the best policy. Avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes, and be aware that though more common after dusk, mosquitoes can strike throughout the day. Symptoms develop rapidly following infection and include extreme aches and pains in the bones and joints, severe headaches, dizziness, fever and vomiting. Should you experience any of the above symptoms, seek medical advice immediately – early detection and access to proper medical care eases symptoms and lowers fatality rates to below 1%.
More widespread wherever there is livestock, ticks lie in the grass waiting for passing victims and burrow into the skin of any mammal they can get hold of. Repellent is ineffective, so your best form of defence is to wear trousers tucked into socks. It is possible to remove ticks with tweezers, but make sure that the head, which can easily get left behind, is plucked out along with the body. Smearing them first with Vaseline or even strong alcohol leaves less of a margin for error. Minuscule sand flies can make their presence felt on beaches at dusk by inflicting bites that cause prolonged itchiness.
A cholera outbreak in eastern Cuba in 2012 caused three fatalities, while another in Havana in early 2013 was the country’s biggest outbreak in decades; dozens of people were infected, but none fatally so. As cholera appears in epidemics rather than isolated cases, you will probably hear about it should it be present when you visit. The disease is carried by contaminated water or food and is characterized by sudden attacks of diarrhoea with severe cramps and debilitation. Cholera can prove fatal if untreated, but foreign visitors are at a very low risk of contracting it.
Due to the risk of parasites, drinking tap water is never a good idea in Cuba, even in the swankiest hotels. Whenever you are offered water, whether in a restaurant, paladar or private house, it’s a good idea to check if it has been boiled – in most cases it will have been. Bottled water is available in convertible-peso shops and most tourist bars and restaurants.
Although reports of food poisoning are few and far between, there are good reasons for exercising caution when eating in Cuba. Food bought on the street is in the highest-risk category and you should be aware that there is no official regulatory system ensuring acceptable levels of hygiene. Self-regulation does seem to be enough in most cases, but you should still be cautious when buying pizzas, meat-based snacks or ice cream from street-sellers. Power cuts are common and there is no guarantee that defrosted food is not subsequently refrozen. National-peso restaurants can be equally suspect, particularly those in out-of-the-way places.
Cuba’s humid tropical climate means you should take all the usual common-sense precautions: drink plenty of water, limit exposure to the sun (especially between 11am and 3pm) and don’t use a sunscreen with a protection factor of less than 15, and if you’re fair-skinned or burn easily, no lower than 25. You may find sunscreen difficult to find away from hotels and convertible-peso shops, so be sure to pack some before taking any trips into less-visited areas.
Don’t assume that Cuba’s world-famous free health service extends to foreign visitors – far from it. In fact, the government has used the advances made in medicine to earn extra revenue for the regime through a system of health tourism. Each year, thousands of foreigners come to Cuba for everything from surgery to relaxation at a network of anti-stress clinics, and these services don’t come cheap. There are specific hospitals for foreign patients and a network of clinics, pharmacies and other health services targeted specifically at tourists, run by Servimed. The only general hospital for foreigners, as compared to the smaller clinics found in around half-a-dozen cities and resorts across the island, is the Clínica Central Cira García in Havana.
If you do wind up in hospital in Cuba, one of the first things you or someone you know should do is contact Asistur, which usually deals with insurance claims on behalf of the hospital, as well as offering various kinds of assistance, from supplying ambulances and wheelchairs to obtaining and sending medical reports. However, for minor complaints you shouldn’t have to go further than the hotel doctor, who will give you a consultation. If you’re staying in a casa particular your best bet, if you feel ill, is to inform your hosts, who should be able to call the family doctor, the médico de la familia, and arrange a house-call. This is common practice in Cuba where, with one doctor for every 169 inhabitants, it’s possible for them to personally visit all their patients.
There is no single emergency number for ringing an ambulance, but you can call 105 from most provinces and 7 838 1185 or 7 838 2185 to get one in Havana. You can also try Asistur’s emergency Havana numbers (7 866 8339 and and 7 866 8527).
There are two types of pharmacy in Cuba: national-peso places for the population at large; and Servimed pharmacies aimed primarily at tourists, charging in convertible pesos and usually located within a clínica internacional. Tourists are permitted to use the antiquated national-peso establishments but will rarely find anything of use besides aspirin, as they primarily deal in prescription-only drugs. The Servimed pharmacies only exist in some of the largest towns (as detailed throughout the guide), but even these don’t have the range of medicines that you might expect.
Cuba has two units of currency: the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), neither of which can be bought or sold outside Cuba itself so you can’t get your hands on either until you arrive. While Cuban salaries are paid in CUP, the vast majority of foreign visitors use CUC. This dual-currency system is unpopular among Cubans and its elimination has been on the cards for years but for now it still pays to get your head around it.
The colour and images on convertible peso banknotes are distinct from those on regular pesos and the notes clearly feature the words “pesos convertibles”. The banknote denominations are 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, 3 and 1. The CUC is divided into centavos and there are $1CUC, 50c, 25c, 10c and 5c coins. The Cuban peso, which is also referred to as the national peso (peso nacional or moneda nacional), is divided into 100 centavos. Banknotes are issued in denominations of 50, 20, 10, 5, 3 and 1. The lowest-value coin is the virtually worthless 1c, followed by the 5c, 20c, 1-peso and 3-peso coins, the last adorned with the face of Che Guevara.
Hard currency is king in Cuba, and wherever you are it pays to always have at least some money in cash. It’s best to carry convertible pesos in low denominations, as many shops and restaurants simply won’t have enough change. Be particularly wary of this at bus and train stations or you may find yourself unable to buy a ticket. If you do end up having to use a $50CUC or $100CUC note, you will usually be asked to show your passport for security. The slightest tear in any banknote means it is likely to be refused.
There is a 10% charge applied when exchanging US dollars in cash. Scottish, Northern Irish and Australian banknotes and coins cannot be exchanged in Cuba.
Visa and MasterCard credit cards and debit cards are more widely accepted than travellers’ cheques for purchases. However, Maestro and Cirrus debit cards are not accepted at all, nor are any cards issued by a US bank or credit card company; American Express and Diners Club are generally unusable regardless of the country of issue. Although you’ll generally be OK using cards in upmarket hotels, restaurants and touristy shops, when dealing with any kind of private enterprise, from paladars to puncture repairs, anything other than cash isn’t worth a centavo. For most Cubans, plastic remains an unfamiliar alternative, and in most small- to medium-sized towns, cards are absolutely useless. Bear in mind also that power cuts are common in Cuba and sometimes render cards unusable.
The number of ATMs in Cuba is slowly increasing but there are still relatively few, and some of them only accept cards issued by Cuban banks. Among those that do accept foreign cards, very few take anything other than Visa, and again none accept cards issued by US banks. Most ATMs display stickers stating clearly the cards they accept. Those that take foreign cards are generally found in top-class hotels, branches of the Banco Financiero Internacional, the Banco de Crédito y Comercio and some CADECA casas de cambio.
As the CUC is not traded internationally, all transactions (including cash withdrawals) involving a foreign credit or debit card in Cuba will be converted into US dollars, for which a commission will be charged. At the current three percent rate, if you withdraw $100CUC from an ATM it will appear as US$103 on your transaction receipt. Some ATMs have a $200CUC withdrawal limit, including the commission charge, effectively making the limit $190CUC in most instances. There is no such limit if you withdraw cash through a bank teller, but the commission for this type of transaction is sometimes around one percent higher. Credit cards are more useful for obtaining cash advances, though be aware of the interest charges that these will incur. For most cash advances you’ll need to deal with a bank clerk.
Banking hours in Cuba are generally Monday to Friday 8am to 3pm, while a tiny minority of banks are open Saturday mornings. However, in touristy areas opening hours are sometimes longer for foreign currency transactions, referred to at banks as the “servicio de caja especial”. Not all Cuban banks readily handle foreign currency transactions; those most accustomed to doing so are the Banco Financiero Internacional and the Banco de Crédito y Comercio, both with branches in all the major cities. Whether withdrawing money with a credit or debit card or cashing travellers’ cheques, you’ll need to show your passport for any transaction at a bank.
The government body CADECA runs the country’s bureaux de change, known as casas de cambio, found in hotels, roadside kiosks and buildings that look more like banks. These establishments are where you should change convertible pesos into national pesos, though you can exchange foreign currency too and travellers’ cheques, and use a Visa card or MasterCard to withdraw cash. They have more flexible opening hours than the banks – generally Monday to Saturday 8am to 6pm and Sunday 8am until noon. No commission is charged for buying national pesos.
Black market salesmen often hang around outside casas de cambio and may offer a favourable exchange rate or, sometimes more temptingly, the opportunity to buy pesos without having to queue. Although dealing with a black market salesman is unlikely to get you into any trouble, it could result in a prison sentence for the Cuban. You may also be approached by people on the street offering to exchange your money, sometimes at an exceptionally good rate. This is always a con.
Current exchange rates can be checked at xe.com.
For any kind of money problems, most people are directed to Asistur, set up specifically to provide assistance to tourists with financial difficulties, as well as offering advice on legal and other matters. Asistur can arrange to have money sent to you from abroad as well as provide loans or cash advances. There are branches in a few of the big cities and resorts.
Other than Asistur, the firm to contact if you have problems with your credit or debit cards is FINCIMEX, which has offices in at least ten Cuban cities and can provide records of recent card transactions and shed light on problems such as a credit card being declined in a shop.
Cuba’s confusing dual-currency system has its own vocabulary, consisting of a collection of widely used terms and slang words. The first thing to learn when trying to make sense of it all is that both national pesos and convertible pesos are represented with the dollar sign ($). Often common sense is the only indicator you have to determine which of the two currencies a price is given in when written down, but sometimes prices are specified as CUC, MN or CUP. Thus one national peso is sometimes written $1MN. In spoken language, the most common word for convertible pesos is simply CUCs (pronounced “kooks”). Other commonly used qualifiers are divisas for convertible pesos and moneda nacional for national pesos. However, many Cubans refer to either currency as pesos, in which case you may have to ask if they mean pesos cubanos or pesos convertibles.
The general rule for most visitors is to assume that everything will be paid for with convertible pesos. Ninety-nine percent of state-run hotels, many state-run restaurants, museums, most bars, nightclubs and music venues and the vast majority of products in shops are priced in convertible pesos, though you can use euros in one or two restaurants and other establishments. You’ll be expected to use CUC to pay for a room in a casa particular, a meal in a paladar and most private taxi fares, though there is occasionally some flexibility.
Entrance to most cinemas and sports arenas, plus rides on local buses, street snacks and food from agromercados are all paid for with national pesos, while some shops away from the touristy areas stock products priced in national pesos too. There are also goods and services priced in both currencies. Usually this means the national peso charge applies only to Cubans, while non-Cubans pay the equivalent in convertible pesos, as is the case with tollgates on roads and museum entrance fees. However, in some instances tourists are merely advised rather than obliged to pay in convertible pesos, and by doing so occasionally enjoy some kind of benefit, such as being able to bypass a waiting list or queue. There are also services priced in national pesos which are the exclusive preserve of Cubans, such as Astro buses(see Interprovincial buses) and some casas particulares.
Beach and placid waters aside, Cuba is not a country with an ample stock of entertainment for children. But what the country lacks in amenities, it makes up for in enthusiasm. By and large Cubans love children and welcome them everywhere, and having a kid or two in tow is often a passport to seeing a hidden side of Cuban social life. Practically speaking you’ll be able to find things like nappies in the department stores of bigger towns and some of the hotel shops, though the quality might not be what you’re used to. Baby wipes and nappy bags are less common so it’s wise to bring your own. To get hold of baby food you may need to visit the larger supermarkets. The only milk widely available is UHT.
Make sure your first-aid kit has child-strength fever reducers, diarrhoea medicine, cold remedies, plasters, antihistamines and other medicines. These are available throughout the country but not always readily so and tend to be more expensive than at home. Plenty of child-friendly sunscreen is essential; the Caribbean sun is very hot, particularly during the rainy season (May-Oct). Remember also to bring lots of loose cotton clothing, plus a few long-sleeved tops and trousers to combat the brutal air conditioning in restaurants and buses. It’s also a good idea to pack a raincoat and appropriate footwear, as sudden downpours are common even outside the rainy season. Bear in mind that with limited laundry facilities you may be hand-washing many garments, so take items that are easy to launder and dry.
Public toilets are scarce in Cuba, and there are few places with dedicated baby-changing facilities – hand-washing facilities can be patchy so antibacterial hand wipes are useful.
In terms of accommodation, children under 12 can stay for half price in many hotel rooms and if no extra bed is required they may stay for free. Staying in a casa particular is a great way to give children a taste of Cuba beyond the tourist belt. Rooms often have extra beds for children and many households have pets and courtyards where children can play. However, be aware that most houses, even those with steep narrow stairs and high balconies, do not have child gates or safety restraints.
Eating out, children are made very welcome pretty much everywhere. Children’s menus are on the rise but generally still scarce. Places with high chairs are similarly rare – most children sit on their parents’ laps. Discreet breastfeeding in public is fine.
When travelling around Cuba with children, it’s important to remember you’ll often be dealing with long queues and sporadic schedules. Long bus journeys can be particularly exhausting and uncomfortable. If you plan on renting a car, bring your own child or baby seat, as rental companies never supply them and there are none in Cuba. Newer cars are fitted with three-point seat belts in the front and seat belts in the back. Poor-quality pavements make using a buggy or pram difficult, so it’s a good idea to consider an alternative like a baby sling or backpack.
As a general definition, the pejorative term jinetero refers to a male hustler, or someone who will find girls, cigars, taxis or accommodation for a visitor and then take a cut for the service. He – though more commonly this is the preserve of his female counterpart, a jinetera – is often also the sexual partner to a foreigner, usually for material gain.
Immediately after assuming power, Castro’s regime banned prostitution and, officially at least, wiped it off the streets, with prostitutes and pimps rehabilitated into society. The resurgence of the tourist industry has seen prostitution slink back into business since the mid-1990s; however, in Cuba this entails a rather hazily defined exchange of services.
In the eyes of Cubans, being a jinetero or jinetera can mean anything from prostitute to paid escort, opportunist to simply a Cuban boyfriend or girlfriend.
As an obvious foreign face in Havana, you will often be pursued by persistent jineteros and jineteras. Many Cubans are desperate to leave the country and see marrying a foreigner as the best way out, while others simply want to live the good life and are more than happy to spend a few days or hours pampering the egos of middle-aged Westerners in order to go to the best clubs and restaurants and be bought the latest fashions.
Police sometimes stop tourists’ cars and question Cuban passengers they suspect to be jineteros or jineteras, and casas particulares must register all Cuban guests accompanying foreigners (foreigners themselves are not penalized in any way).
Public toilets are few and far between in Cuba, and even fast-food joints often don’t have a washroom. You’re more likely to find bathrooms in hotels and petrol stations, but don’t expect toilet paper to be supplied – carry your own. Train and bus stations usually have toilets, but conditions are often appalling. Cuban plumbing systems, be they in a casa particular or hotel, cannot cope with waste paper, so to avoid blockages remember to dispose of your paper in the bins provided.
Cuba has some of the most highly regarded festivals in Latin America, and events like the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano continue to grow in prestige and attract growing numbers of visitors. There are also plenty of lesser-known festivals celebrating Afro-Cuban dance, literature, ballet and other arts, and a whole host of smaller but worthwhile events in other provinces. Catching one of these can make all the difference to a visit to a less-than-dynamic town.
Cuba’s main carnival takes place in Santiago de Cuba in July and is an altogether unmissable experience. As well as numerous parades featuring dramatically costumed carnival queens waving from floats, and more down-to-earth neighbourhood percussion bands, several stage areas are set up around the town where live salsa bands play nightly. Also worth checking out are the smaller carnivals held in Havana and other provincial towns, such as Guantánamo in late August, which feature parades and boisterous street parties as well. Here are listings for the main festivals and a selection of smaller events.
Liberation Day (Jan 1). This public holiday celebrates the first day of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution as much as the first day of the year, with street parties and free concerts throughout the country.
Feria Internacional del Libro de La Habana (Havana International Book Fair) Havana (mid/late Feb–early March). You’ll find more books on Cuban politics and ideology at this citywide festival than you can shake a stick at, as well as new fiction and poetry, at the Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabaña in Habana del Este (as well as at several bookshops across the capital). Events include discussions, poetry readings, children’s events and concerts. Havana’s Casa de las Américas also presents its literary prize during the festival period.
Festival del Habano (Cuban Cigar Festival) Havana and Pinar del Río (late Feb). A commercialized festival promoting the Cuban cigar industry, but still a great event for any cigar enthusiast with visits to cigar factories and tobacco plantations, a trade fair and plenty of tastings.
Festival Internacional de la Trova “Pepe Sánchez” Santiago de Cuba (usually March 19-24). Commemorating the life of the great nineteenth-century Santiaguero trova composer José “Pepe” Sánchez, this festival fills the town’s streets, parks and most important music venues with the sounds of acoustic guitars and butter-smooth troubadours.
Festival Internacional del Cine Pobre Gibara (mid-April). Small coastal town Gibara hosts the annual International Low Budget Film Festival. As well as public screenings in the local cinema and on outside projectors, there’s a competition for fiction and documentary films as well as an assortment of captivating exhibitions, recitals, seminars and concerts.
International Urban Dance Festival: “Old Havana, City in Motion” Havana (mid-April). Rather than displays of breakdancing and body-popping, this festival, organized by the well-respected Retazos Dance Company, uses sites around Habana Vieja to show off contemporary dance choreography, with accompanying master classes, lectures, workshops and night-time jazz jams.
Bienal de La Habana (April-May). This month-long biennale focuses on Cuban, Latin American, Caribbean, African and Middle Eastern artists. It takes place in dozens of galleries, museums and cultural centres all over the city, such as Pabellón Cuba and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
International Workers’ Day (1 May). Known in Cuba simply by its date, Primero de Mayo is vigorously celebrated in this communist country. A crowd of around twenty thousand, waving banners and paper flags, march past dignitaries in front of the José Martí memorial in Havana, with similar parades taking place across the country, in a quintessentially Cuban celebration of national pride and workers’ solidarity.
Romerías de Mayo San Isidoro de Holguín (May 2-8). A yearly pilgrimage, Mass and three-day celebration of performing arts in this eastern city.
Feria Internacional Cubadisco Havana (mid to late May). A celebration of the local recording industry, in which Cuban musicians who have released albums in the preceding year compete for the title of best album. The finale is held at Salón Rosado de la Tropical Benny Moré.
Festival Internacional “Boleros de Oro” Havana (late June). The siren song of bolero, a musical genre born in Cuba in the nineteenth century, draws singers from all over Latin America for this week-long Havana festival organized by UNEAC. Concert venues usually include Teatro Mella and Teatro América in Havana as well as venues elsewhere in the country.
Camagüey Carnival Camagüey (mid June to late June). With over thirty outdoor stages and party areas set up throughout the city, and big stars like Adalberto Álvarez and his Orchestra in attendance, this is one of the worthier provincial carnivals.
Fiesta del Caribe Santiago de Cuba (first week of July). Santiago’s week-long celebration of Caribbean music and dance culture takes place at the beginning of July, with free concerts and dance displays in Parque Céspedes and throughout the city.
Carnaval de Santiago de Cuba Santiago de Cuba (mid-July). Cuba’s most exuberant carnival holds Santiago in its thrall for the last two weeks of July, with costumed parades and congas, salsa bands and late-night parties. Official dates are 18-27 but the week-long run-up is often just as lively.
Carnaval de La Habana Havana (late July to early Aug). Usually lasting a week or so, the Havana carnival is a jubilant affair with many of the country’s top bands playing to packed crowds throughout the city, and a weekend parade of floats working its way along the Malecón.
Simposio de Hip Hop Cubano Havana (late Aug). Superseding the former Festival de Rap, this five-day event, whose main venue is the Casa de Cultura de Plaza in Havana’s Vedado district, has become a more studied affair with conferences, discussions and workshops but fortunately there are still live performances too, at venues around the city.
Festival Internacional de Ballet de la Habana Havana (late Oct to early Nov). Held in even-numbered years and presided over by Alicia Alonso and the Cuban National Ballet. Recent highlights have included performances by visiting Cubans Carlos Acosta and José Manuel Carreño. Performances take place at the Gran Teatro and Teatro Mella.
Festival de Matamoros Son Santiago (mid to late Oct). This three-day festival, a tribute to the Santiago de Cuba nineteenth-century musician Miguel Matamoros, draws music stars from around the country for concerts, dance competitions, workshops and seminars. While the focus is on son, expect to see many other traditional styles of music, including salsa.
Havana International Theatre Festival Havana (Oct-Nov). Excellent ten-day theatre festival showcasing classics and contemporary Cuban works as well as productions by theatre groups from Latin America, Europe and the US, with plenty of free street theatre in the city’s open spaces as well.
Festival de la Habana de Música Contemporánea Havana (late Nov). A festival of classical and chamber music staged in venues around the city, such as the Casa de las Americas and the Convento de San Francisco de Asís.
Baila en Cuba – Encuentro Mundial de Bailadores y Academias de Baile de Casino y Salsa Havana (late Nov). A commercial event consisting of a week of concerts, workshops and classes showcasing and teaching Cuban dance styles. There’s usually an impressive line-up of salsa bands too.
Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano Havana (early Dec). One of Cuba’s top events, this ten-day film festival combines the newest Cuban, Latin American and Western films with established classics, as well as providing a networking opportunity for leading independent directors and anyone else interested in film. Information, accreditation and programmes are available at the Hotel Nacional, from where the event is managed. It’s well worth paying $40CUC accreditation, which gains you access to all screenings, seminars and talks and many after parties.
Havana International Jazz Festival Havana (mid-Dec). Organized by the Cuban Institute of Music and Cuban jazz legend Chucho Valdés, this is the powerhouse event in the local international jazz calendar. It consistently attracts an excellent line-up: Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Haden and Max Roach have all played in the past, alongside Cuban luminaries such as Bobby Carcassés, Roberto Fonseca and of course Chucho Valdés himself. Venues across the city include Teatro Mella, Teatro Karl Marx, Teatro Amadeo Roldan, Teatro América and the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza.
Parrandas de Remedios Remedios, Villa Clara (Dec 24). An unusual and exuberant carnivalesque display of floats, fireworks and partying.
Cuba has an unusually high proportion of world-class sportsmen and women but its sporting facilities, for both participatory and spectator sports, lag some way behind the standards set by its athletes. Nevertheless, you can catch a game in the national baseball, basketball and soccer leagues for next to nothing, while Cuba is endowed with countless outstanding scuba-diving and fishing sites. Hiking and cycling are both popular outdoor activities for foreign visitors but access to either requires some advance planning.
For some outsiders, the national Cuban baseball league, the Serie Nacional de Béisbol, isn’t just one of the best leagues outside of the US to see world class players, but represents a nostalgic version of the game, harking back to a time when the sport elsewhere – particularly in the US – wasn’t awash with money and spoiled by celebrity and commercialism. Every province has a team and every provincial capital a stadium, most of which were built in the 1960s or early 1970s, and are relatively intimate affairs, with the exception of Havana’s 55,000 capacity Estadio Latinoamericano. Free of mascots, cheerleaders, obtrusive music blasted through PA systems and any form of commercial distraction, all the attention is instead on the game.
The national league adopted a new season structure in 2012. The first half of the season begins in late summer or autumn depending on the year (in recent years start months have ranged from August to November), as the 16 teams play the first of their 45 regular season games in an all against all contest. In March the top eight teams play a further 42 games to qualify for play-offs, semifinals and finals in May. Traditionally, games start around 8pm during the week, though in recent years there have been plenty of 2pm and 3pm start times, both throughout the week and at weekends. Some stadiums now have special seating areas and higher admission costs for non-Cubans.
Dominant teams over the last decade have included Ciego de Ávila, Industriales of Havana, Villa Clara and Santiago de Cuba. By far the best resource for anything relating to Cuban baseball, including season schedules and tournament information, is the website baseballdecuba.com.
The national basketball league, the Liga Superior de Baloncesto, generates some exciting clashes, even though most of the arenas are on the small side. There are only eight teams in the league, with Ciego de Ávila the dominant force over the last decade. The timing of the basketball season, played over a 28-round regular season followed by semi-finals and finals, is inconsistent from year to year but most recently has taken place between January and April.
There is a national football (soccer) league as well, with its season running from October to February, followed by play-offs and finals in March. Pinar del Río, Villa Clara and Cienfuegos have been the most consistently strong teams over the last three decades. There are very few custom-built football stadiums, with many games taking place in baseball stadiums or on scrappy pitches with very little enclosure.
Cuba is a scuba-diving paradise. Most of the major beach resorts, including Varadero, Cayo Coco, Santa Lucía and Guardalavaca, have at least one dive centre, with numerous others all over the island, including several in Havana. The most reliable dive sites are generally off the south coast where the waters tend to be clearer, away from the churning waves of the Atlantic Ocean, which affect visibility off Cuba’s northern shores. For the top dive spots head for María La Gorda in southwestern Pinar del Río, Punta Francés on the southwestern tip of the Isla de la Juventud, and the Jardines de la Reina off the southern coastlines of Ciego de Ávila. All three have been declared National Marine Parks by the Cuban government and as a result are protected from man-made abuses, particularly commercial fishing.
Diving in Cuba is worthwhile in any season, but during the hurricane season (June to November) and particularly in September and October, there is a higher chance that the weather will interfere and affect visibility. Among the marine life you can expect to see in Cuban waters are nurse sharks, parrotfish, turtles, stingrays, barracuda, tarpon, moray eels, bonefish, snapper and tuna. The best time to see whale sharks, arguably the highlight of any diving trip to the island, is in November, while in the spring the fish are in greater abundance. On the other hand, from late April to late May there is an increased chance of swimming into what Cubans call el caribé, invisible jellyfish with a severe sting, found predominantly off the southern coast of the island. To counter this you can either wear a full wetsuit or simply make sure you dive off the northern coastline at this time of year.
The principal dive operator in Cuba is Marlin, which runs most of the dive centres and many of the marinas. The only other significant players are Gaviota, Cubanacán and Cubamar Viajes. Most dive centres are ACUC certified, but a few are SSI or SNSI certified, and all offer courses accredited to one or more of these diving associations. There are countless opportunities for all levels of diving, from absolute beginners to hardened professionals, but the best place to start is in a hotel-based diving resort, where you can take your first lesson in the safety of a swimming pool.
Kitesurfing is new to Cuba but is growing quickly. The last few years have seen the country’s first clutch of kitesurfing schools and centres set up in the sport’s hotspots, Varadero, Cayo Guillermo and Playas del Este in Havana , all on the northern coast where you’ll get the best winds (commonly 14-20 knots). Equipment rental in general is scarce but possible in all three of these places and easiest in Varadero where there are two schools. The best months for wind are between November and April.
Cuba is now firmly established as one of the best fishing destinations in the Caribbean, if not the world. Largely free from the voracious appetite of the huge US fishing market and discovered only relatively recently by the rest of the world, Cuba’s lakes, reservoirs and coastal areas offer all kinds of outstanding fishing opportunities.
Inland, bass are particularly abundant, especially at Embalse Hanabanilla in Villa Clara, Embalse Zaza in Sancti Spíritus and lakes in Ciego de Ávila province, which between them provide the best locations for freshwater fishing. The top Cuban destination for fly-fishing lies south of the Ciego de Ávila and Camagüey coastlines at the Jardines de la Reina archipelago. This group of some 250 uninhabited cays, stretching for 200km at a distance fluctuating between 50km and 80km from the mainland, is regarded by some experts as offering the finest light-tackle fishing in the world. With commercial fishing illegal here since 1996, other than around the outer extremities, there are virtually untapped sources of bonefish and tarpon as well as an abundance of grouper and snapper. To get a look-in at the Jardines de la Reina archipelago, you will most likely have to go through Avalon, a specialist foreign operator granted exclusive rights of the specialist foreign operators which have attained exclusive rights to regulate and organize the fishing here, in conjunction with the Cuban authorities. Fly-fishing is also excellent at the Peninsula de Zapata. There are numerous other opportunities for saltwater fishing around Cuba, with deep-sea fishing popular off the northern coastlines of Havana, Varadero and Ciego de Ávila, where blue marlin, sail fish, white marlin, barracuda and tuna are among the most dramatic potential catches.
There is no bad time for fishing in Cuban waters, but for the biggest blue marlin, July, August and September are the most rewarding months, while April, May and June attract greater numbers of white marlin and sail fish. The best bass catches usually occur during the winter months, when the average water temperature drops to 22°C.
Equipment for fishing, particularly fly-fishing, is low on the ground in Cuba, and what does exist is almost exclusively the property of the tour operators. Buying anything connected to fishing is all but impossible, so it makes sense to bring as much of your own equipment as you can.
Its associations with the pre-1959 ruling classes made golf something of a frowned-upon sport in Cuba once Fidel Castro took power. The advent of mass tourism, however, has brought it back, and though currently there are only two courses on the island there are plans for more. The biggest, best-equipped and most expensive is the eighteen-hole course run by the Varadero Golf Club, established in 1998. Less taxing are the nine holes of the Club de Golf Habana, just outside the capital, the only course in the country that survived the Revolution.
All three of Cuba’s mountain ranges feature resorts geared toward hikers, from where hiking routes offer a wonderful way to enjoy some of the most breathtaking of Cuban landscapes. Designated hikes tend to be quite short – rarely more than 5km – and trails are often unmarked and difficult to follow without a guide, while going off-trail is largely prohibited. Furthermore, orienteering maps are all but nonexistent. This may be all part of the appeal for some, but it is generally recommended, and sometimes obligatory, that you hire a guide, especially in adverse weather conditions. In the Cordillerra de Guaniguanico in Pinar del Río and Artemisa the place to head for is Las Terrazas, where there is a series of gentle hikes organized mostly for groups. The Topes de Collantes resort in the Escambray Mountains offers a similar programme, while serious hikers should head for the Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra, host to the tallest peak in Cuba, Pico Turquino. To get the most out of hiking opportunities at these resorts you should make bookings in advance or, in the case of the Sierra Maestra, turn up early enough to be allocated a guide, as independent hiking is severely restricted.
Though cycling isn’t particularly popular among Cubans, many tourists take to the saddle to explore cities and travel long distances across the country.
Many Cubans take jobs in the tourist and service industries for the tips that so significantly top up their salaries (the average state wage is equivalent to around $18CUC a month). In general, it’s appropriate to tip waiters, hotel cleaners and baggage carriers, car park attendants, toilet attendants and tour guides, but be aware of the differences between people who own their own business and those who work for the state. For example, a taxi on the meter means the driver works for the state and a tip is appropriate; most taxis don’t have a meter as they are privately owned and paying your fare is enough. Similarly, the hosts at a casa particular wouldn’t expect a tip, though if they employ cleaning staff a tip for them is always a nice gesture. Service charges of 10-12% are now fairly common in state restaurants and in smarter paladars.
Homosexuality is legal in Cuba and the age of consent is 16, though same-sex marriage remains illegal. Despite a very poor overall record on gay rights since the Revolution, there has been marked progress in the social standing and acceptance of gay men and women in Cuba since the early 1990s. That said, police harassment of gay men and particularly of transvestites is still quite common. Despite this, there are now significant numbers of openly gay men in Cuba, though gay women are far less visible. There is still a strong stigma attached to same-sex hand-holding or similar displays of sexuality, but freedom of expression for gay people is greater now than at any point since 1959. There are no official gay clubs and bars as such in Cuba but there are a few gay-friendly venues, particularly in Havana and Santa Clara.
Mariela Castro, the daughter of President Raúl, has emerged as a champion for gay rights in Cuba in recent years. As director of Cenesex, the National Centre for Sex Education, she has been instrumental in a number of initiatives designed to increase tolerance and awareness of gay issues. In 2007 Cenesex was behind the country’s first official recognition and celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia.
There is no pink press in Cuba. The only magazine in which gay issues are regularly discussed is the rather academic Sexología y Sociedad, the quarterly magazine published by Cenesex.
Though the range of consumer products available in Cuba’s shops is slowly expanding, quality and choice are still generally poor – cigars, rum, music and arts and crafts remain the really worthwhile purchases here. The late 1990s saw the first modern shopping malls emerge, predominantly in Havana, but outside of these and a few of the grandest hotels, shopping comes with none of the convenience and choice you’re probably used to. Almost all shops actually carrying any stock now operate in convertible pesos, but a pocketful of national pesos allows you the slim chance of picking up a bargain.
National-peso shops are often poorly lit and badly maintained, and some understandably won’t allow foreign customers, giving priority to the national-peso-earning public. Though they are often half-empty, it’s still possible to unearth the odd antique camera or long-since-deleted record, while others specialize in imported secondhand clothes. The most worthwhile are the casas comisionistas, the Cuban equivalent of a pawnbroker. These can be delightful places to poke around, frequently selling vintage and sometimes antique items, from furniture to pocket watches and transistor radios.
With the price of the world’s finest tobacco at half what you would pay for it outside Cuba, it’s crazy not to consider buying some habanos (the term for Cuban cigars) while on the island. The national chain of La Casa del Habano stores accounts for most of the cigars sold in Cuba, with around 10 outlets in Havana and lots more around the country, often in classy hotels; cigars are also sold in airports, gift shops and a lot of the less classy hotels, too. The industry standard is for cigars to be sold in boxes of 25, though you can find them in boxes of ten or fifteen, and miniatures in small tins too.
There are currently around 30 different brands of Cuban cigar. The biggest names and generally the most coveted: expect to pay upwards of $75CUC for a box of Cohiba, Montecristo, Partagás, Romeo y Julieta, H. Upmann and Hoyo de Monterrey cigars – and for the top dogs or rarest smokes, like Cohiba Esplendidos or Montecristo A, don’t expect much change from $500CUC. Like most habanos brands, these are all hand-made, but if you’re buying cigars as souvenirs or for a novelty smoke, you’d do just as well with one of the less expensive, machine-made brands. The most widely available are Guantanameras – though connoisseurs wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole, at between $20CUC and $30CUC a box you can at least make a purchase without having to ring your bank manager. First-time smokers should start with a mild cigar and take it from there; it makes sense to try a machine-made brand given the lower cost, but of the hand-made brands Hoyo de Monterrey are relatively light.
The biggest business on the black market is selling cigars to foreign visitors, with the average price of a box representing at least as much as the average monthly wage. If you spend any time at all in a Cuban town or city you will inevitably be offered a box of cigars on the street. You can find boxes for as little as $10CUC, but no self-respecting salesman is likely to sell the genuine article at that price and they will almost certainly be fakes.
If you leave Cuba with more than 50 cigars, you’re theoretically required to make a customs declaration; and must also be able to show receipts for your purchases. Sometimes you may be asked to show receipts even for fewer than 50 cigars; if you can’t, you risk having them confiscated. Although most travellers are not checked when leaving, you’re obviously more at risk of having cigars confiscated if you’ve bought them on the black market.
Along with cigars, rum is one of the longest-established Cuban exports and comes with a worldwide reputation. Although there are a few specialist rum shops around the island, you can pick up most of the recognized brands in any large supermarket without fear of paying over the odds. Rum is available in several different strengths, according to how long it was distilled; the most renowned name is Havana Club, whose least expensive type is the light but smooth Añejo Blanco, which will set you back $3–5CUC. The other, darker types increase in strength and quality in the following order: Añejo 3 Años, Añejo Especial, Añejo Reserva, Añejo 7 Años, Cuban Barrel Proof and the potent Máximo Extra Añejo. Other brands to look out for include Caney, Mulata and a number of regional rums like Guayabita del Pinar, from Pinar del Río, and the excellent Santiago de Cuba. The maximum number of bottles permitted by Cuban customs is six.
First introduced to the island by French plantation owners fleeing the 1798 Haitian revolution, coffee is one of Cuba’s lesser-known traditional products. It’s easy to find and excellent quality, mostly grown and cultivated without the use of chemicals in the rich soils and under the forest canopies of the three principal mountain ranges. Supermarkets are as good as anywhere to find it, but there are a few specialist shops in Havana and elsewhere. The top name is Cubita, but there are plenty of others like Turquino, from the east of the country, Serrano, and even a couple produced under cigar brand names Montecristo and Cohiba.
The Cuban publishing industry is still recovering from the shortages of the Special Period, and bookshops here are generally disappointing, with a very narrow range of titles. Stock is often characterized by nationalist and regime-propping political texts, from the prolific works of the 19th-century independence-fighter José Martí to the speeches of Fidel Castro, and other titles unwavering in their support of the Revolution. Perhaps more universally appealing are the coffee-table photography books covering all aspects of life in one of the most photogenic countries in the world. There are both CUC and national-peso bookshops; the latter often stock academic texts as well as Cuban fiction, and are a good bet for back issues of Cuban magazines at bargain prices.
English-language books are few and far between, but two or three bookshops in Havana and at least one in Varadero and Santiago de Cuba have a handful of foreign-language titles, usually crime novels and pulp fiction.
Some of the most comprehensive catalogues of CDs are found in Artex stores, the chain responsible for promoting culture-based Cuban products. Most provincial capitals now have a branch, and there are several in Havana. Look out also for Egrem stores, run by one of the country’s most prolific record labels and sometimes stocking titles hard to find elsewhere.
One of the most rewarding Cuban shopping experiences is a browse around the arts and crafts – or artesanía – markets. Cuba has its own selection of tacky tailored-to-tourism items, but if you want something a bit more highbrow there are plenty of alternatives, like expressive African-style wood carvings, a wide choice of jewellery, handmade shoes and everything from ceramics to textiles. Haggling is par for the course and often pays dividends, but shopping around won’t reveal any significant differences in price or product.
Look out also for the BfC logo, a seal of above-average quality and the trademark of the Fondos Cubanos de Bienes Culturales, shops selling the work of officially recognized local artisans. Artex shops also make a good port of call for crafts, though they tend to have more mass-produced items.
In recent years, with the expansion of private enterprise, Cuba’s immensely rich bounty of antique and vintage furniture and memorabilia has come onto the open market. Though still quite hard to track down, the rewards for doing so are some extraordinary collections of books, maps, ceramics, glassware and jewellery, as well as Art Deco furniture and all sorts of 1950s memorabilia, from postcards and magazines to cabaret coasters, glasses and swizzle sticks. Look out also for 1970s revolutionary posters and collectable 1990s Cuban baseball cards. You’ll find the richest vintage pickings in Havana and Trinidad.
All types of media in Cuba are tightly censored and closely controlled by the state. While this means that the range of information and opinion is severely restricted and biased, it has also produced media geared to producing (what the government deems to be) socially valuable content, refreshingly free of any significant concern for high ratings and commercial success.
There are very few international newspapers available in Cuba, and your only hope of finding any is to look in the upmarket hotels. Tracking down an English-language newspaper of any description, even in the hotels, is an arduous, usually unrewarding task and you’re far better off looking online.
The main national newspaper, Granma openly declares itself the official mouthpiece of the Cuban Communist Party. The stories in its eight tabloid-size pages are largely of a dry political or economic nature with some arts and sport coverage. Raúl Castro’s speeches or Fidel Castro’s musings are often published in their entirety and the international news has a marked Latin American bias. Articles challenging the official party line do appear, but these are usually directed at specific events and policies rather than overall ideologies. Hotels are more likely to stock the weekly Granma Internacional. Printed in Spanish, English, French, German, Italian, Turkish and Portuguese editions, it offers a roundup of the week’s stories, albeit with a very pro-Cuban government spin. There are two other national papers: Trabajadores, representing the workers’ unions, and Juventud Rebeldefounded in 1965 as the voice of Cuban youth. Content is similar, though Juventud Rebelde, in its Thursday edition, features weekly listings for cultural events and has more articles that regularly critique social issues.
Among the most cultured of Cuba’s magazines is Bohemia, the country’s oldest surviving periodical, founded in 1908, whose relatively broad focus offers a mix of current affairs, historical essays and regular spotlights on art, sport and technology. The best of the more specialized publications are the bimonthly Revolución y Cultura, concentrating on the arts and literature, and the tri-monthly Artecubano, a magazine of book-like proportions tracking the visual arts. There are a number of other worthy magazines, such as La Gaceta de Cuba, covering all forms of art, from music and painting to radio and television; Temas, whose scope includes political theory and contemporary society; and Clave, which focuses on music.
US-based On Cuba magazine and website, is one of the best resources for up-to-date impartial news and views on Cuba and particularly Cuban-US relations and cultural projects. Many journalists are Cuban-based and articles give a welcome insight into the intricacies, pleasures and anomalies of life on the island.
Havana Live website is a good resource for of-the-moment news stories about the capital and beyond, and listing and tourist information.
There are nine national radio stations in Cuba, but tuning into them isn’t always easy, as signal strength varies considerably from place to place. You’re most likely to hear broadcasts from Radio Taíno, the official tourist station, and the only one on which any English is spoken, albeit sporadically. Playing predominantly mainstream pop and Cuban music, Radio Taíno can also a useful source of up-to-date tourist information such as the latest nightspots, forthcoming events and places to eat. Its FM frequency changes depending on where you are in the country.
Musically speaking, other than the ever-popular sounds of Cuban salsa, stations rarely stray away from safe-bet US, Latin and European pop and rock. The predominantly classical music content of Radio Musical Nacional is about as specialist as it gets; the frequency varies around the country.
Of the remaining stations there is little to distinguish one from the other. The exception is Radio Reloj, a 24-hour news station on air since 1947, with reports read out to the ceaseless sound of a ticking clock in the background, as the exact time is announced every minute on the minute; and Radio Rebelde, the station started in the Sierra Maestra by Che Guevara in 1958 to broadcast information about the rebel army’s progress.
There are five national television channels in Cuba: Cubavisión, Telerebelde, Canal Educativo, Canal Educativo 2 and Multivisión, all commercial-free but with a profusion of public service broadcasts, revolutionary slogans and daily slots commemorating historical events and figures. Surprisingly, given the sour relationship between Cuba and the US, Hollywood films are a TV staple, sometimes preceded by a discussion of the film’s value and its central issues. The frequent use of Spanish subtitles as opposed to dubbing makes them watchable for non-Spanish speakers.
Cubavisión hosts a longstanding Cuban television tradition, the staggeringly popular telenovela soap operas, both homegrown and imported (usually from Brazil or Colombia). There are also several weekly music programmes showcasing the best of contemporary Cuban music as well as popular international artists. Saturday evenings are the best time to catch live-broadcast performances from the cream of the national salsa scene.
Telerebelde is the best channel for sports, with live national-league baseball games shown almost daily throughout the season, and basketball, volleyball and boxing making up the bulk of the rest. As the names suggest, both Canal Educativo channels are full of educational programmes, including courses in languages, cookery and various academic disciplines.
The newest channel, Multivisión, began broadcasting in 2008 with a schedule of predominantly foreign-made programmes, including films, Latin American soap operas, National Geographic documentaries and US cop shows and comedies. It has become enormously popular with Cubans.
Officially, satellite TV is the exclusive domain of the hotels, which come with a reasonable range of channels, though you won’t find BBC or VOA. Cuba’s international channel is Cubavisión Internacional, designed for tourists and showing a mixture of films, documentaries and music programmes.