For the last two decades, the popular refrain on visiting Cuba has been “Go now before it changes forever”, which has seen tourism in Cuba rocket. There have been some startling developments in that time, but the Cuban story, and the country itself, never ceases to captivate and enthral. This is an island that lurches forward, then crunches into reverse with such regularity that change, in some senses, is a constant. Yet it is also a place renowned for its stagnation over the last six decades, since the 1959 Revolution stopped the clocks and turned everything upside down. On a visit to Cuba you’ll be struck by vintage radios, refrigerators and lamps furnishing the average home and swinging neon signs hanging over storefronts; on the same streets are antique pharmacies and traditional barbers, and iconic classic American cars are everywhere. But this is no retro trend, it’s make-do-and-mend, frozen-in-carbonite Cuba.
Continue reading to find out more about...
In spite of all this living history, the pace of modernization on the island is increasing exponentially. Rampant hotel building is throwing up new, swish places to stay all over the island, but some of the best places to stay in Cuba are found in the mesmerizing capital, Havana. In the past couple of years, Cuba has finally launched its first mobile internet service, too, and wi-fi is now common throughout the country – making travel in Cuba easier than ever before – though it’s in public parks and squares, rather than in the privacy of their own homes, that most Cubans get online. Like so much of life in this remarkably sociable nation, accessing the internet is a shared, outdoor experience.
Capitolio building in Central Havana, Cuba © lazyllama/Shutterstock
Cuba Fact file
- Cuba’s huge population across 110,861 sq km of land make it the largest island in the Caribbean by both population and area.
- The Eastern province of Granma and one of Cuba’s national newspapers are both named after the boat which carried Fidel Castro and 81 other rebels from Mexico to Cuba to start the revolutionary war in 1956. The boat itself was named after the original owner’s grandmother.
- Christmas was abolished as a public holiday in Cuba in 1969 and officially reinstated in 1998.
- Cuba has an adult literacy rate among the highest in the world.
- The world’s smallest bird, the bee hummingbird, is indigenous to Cuba.
Best places to visit in Cuba
Cuban travel is characterized by heat, music, dance and culture. It’s not possible to see all the island has to offer on one trip, so here are some of the very best places to visit in Cuba.
Jewel of coastal eastern Cuba, tiny Baracoa makes an ideal base for exploring the verdant rainforest, mountain peaks and tranquil rivers dotted about this part of Guantánamo province.
Jardines del Rey
One of Cuba’s most popular resorts has miles of beaches, including one of the country’s best in Playa Pilar, its largest coral reef and its top kitesurfing spot.
Trinidad old town
No visit to Cuba is complete without seeing this beautiful sixteenth-century town, packed with colonial mansions and churches, threaded together by cobbled streets and compact plazas.
Museo Presidio Modelo
Tour the isolated prison where Fidel Castro and his cohorts were incarcerated.
Particularly enchanting in the morning when mist rises from the valley floor, Viñales’ prehistoric landscape is unforgettable.
Villa Clara Northern Cays
The cays’ stunning white sand beaches sit in isolated splendour at the end of a narrow causeway.
Las Terrazas, Pinar del Río
Thickly wooded hillsides, grassy slopes and natural swimming pools make this idyllic eco-resort a great base for a few days’ of exploratory Cuban travel.
World-renowned Cuban cigars are made by hand in workshop-factories all over the island. Look in on the rows of nimble-fingered workers on fascinating factory tours in Havana, Pinar del Río, Santa Clara and elsewhere.
This well-preserved colonial centre boasts perfectly restored centuries-old buildings throughout its narrow streets and historic plazas.
The most overlooked of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the 500-year-old heart of Camagüey, with its tangle of streets, abundant churches and lovely squares is a great place to wander around and to stay, with some of the best places to stay in Cuba.
Camaguey, Cuba - Ignacio Agramonte Park © Alexandre G. ROSA/Shutterstock
Where to go in Cuba
The capital, Havana
No trip to Cuba would be complete without a visit to the potent capital, Havana, a unique, personable and pedestrian-friendly metropolis with largely traffic-free streets away from the main thoroughfares. Its time-warped colonial core, Habana Vieja, is where so much of what is excitingly new as well as fascinatingly old is found, and is accordingly a mainstay of Cuba tourism. Crammed with architectural splendours dating as far back as the sixteenth century, it’s home to some of the freshest, most interesting restaurants, bars, boutique hotels and casas particulares. Elsewhere there are handsome streets unspoiled by tawdry multinational chain stores and fast-food outlets: urban development here has been undertaken sensitively, with the city retaining many of its colonial mansions and numerous 1950s hallmarks.
West of Havana
To the west of Havana, Cuba’s nature-tourism centres of Artemisa and Pinar del Río are popular destinations with day-trippers but also offer more than enough to sustain a longer stay for visitors to Cuba. The most accessible resorts here are Las Terrazas and Soroa, focused around the subtropical, smooth-topped Sierra del Rosario mountain range; but it’s the peculiarly shaped mogote hills of the prehistoric Viñales valley that attract most attention, while tiny Viñales village is a pleasant hangout frequented by a friendly traveller community. Beyond, on a gnarled rod of land pointing out towards Mexico, there’s unparalleled seclusion and outstanding scuba diving at María La Gorda.
Beaches in Cuba
There are beach resorts the length and breadth of the country that attract tourists to Cuba, but none is more complete than Varadero, the long-time premier holiday destination and crux of Cuban tourism, two hours’ drive east of Havana in Matanzas province. Based on a highway of dazzling white sand that stretches almost the entire length of the 25km Península de Hicacos, Varadero offers the classic package-holiday experience. For the tried-and-tested combination of watersports, sunbathing and relaxing in all-inclusive hotels, there is nowhere better in Cuba. On the opposite side of the province, the Península de Zapata, with its diversity of wildlife, organized excursions and scuba diving, offers a melange of different possibilities. The grittier Cárdenas and provincial capital Matanzas contrast with Varadero’s madeto-measure appeal, but it’s the nearby natural attractions of the Bellamar caves and the verdant splendour of the Yumurí valley that provide the focus for most day-trips.
Trinidad, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and around
Travelling east of Matanzas province, either on the Autopista Nacional or the island-long Carretera Central, public transport links become weaker, and picturesque but worn-out towns take over from brochure-friendly hotspots. There is, however, a concentration of activity around the historically precious Trinidad, a small colonial city brimming with symbols of Cuba’s past, which attracts tour groups and backpackers in equal numbers. If you’re intending to spend more than a few days in the island’s centre, this is by far the best base, within short taxi rides of a small but well-equipped beach resort, the Península de Ancón, and the Topes de Collantes hiking centre in the Sierra del Escambray. Slightly further afield are a few larger cities: lively Santa Clara is best known for its Che Guevara connections, while laidback Cienfuegos, next to the placid waters of a sweeping bay, is sprinkled with colourful architecture, including a splendid nineteenth-century theatre. Further east, historic Sancti Spíritus and modest Ciego de Ávila, both workaday cities in their namesake provinces, will appeal to anyone looking to escape the tourist limelight without having to work hard to find a memorable and comfortable place to stay. The luxurious and expanding resorts of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, off the north coast of Ciego de Ávila province, feature wide swathes of creamy-white beaches while the tranquil countryside nearby, with its pretty lakes and low hills, is best enjoyed from the small town of Morón, the most popular base for independent travellers in the province.
Camagüey and Holguín
Heading eastwards back on the Carretera Central into Camagüey province, romantic, attractive and underrated Camagüey, the third most populous city in Cuba, is a sightseer’s delight, fully meriting its UNESCO Heritage Site award, with numerous intriguing buildings and a half-decent nightlife. In the north of the province, the small, rather remote resort of Santa Lucía is a much-promoted though modestly equipped option for sunseekers; while there’s an excellent alternative north of here in tiny Cayo Sabinal, with long empty beaches and romantically rustic facilities; you’ll find some of the best places to stay in Cuba here. Another 200km east along the Carretera Central is the amiable city of Holguín, the threshold to the province of the same name, containing the biggest concentration of pre-Columbian sites in the country. On the northern coast of Holguín province, Guardalavaca (together with the neighbouring playas Esmeralda, Pesquero and luxurious Turquesa) is one of the country’s liveliest and most attractive resorts, spread along a shady beach with ample opportunities for watersports.
Atlantic Ocean Coastline in City of Baracoa Cuba © Autumn Sky Photography/Shutterstock
Forming the far eastern tip of the island, Guantánamo province is best known for its infamous US naval base, but the region’s most enchanting spot is the jaunty coastal town of Baracoa. Isolated from the rest of the country by a high rib of mountains, this quirky, friendly town – freckled with colonial houses – is an unrivalled retreat popular with long-term travellers, and offers ample opportunities for revelling in the glorious outdoors.
Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba province, on the island’s southeast coast, could make a holiday in itself, with a sparkling coastline fretted with golden-sand beaches such as Chivirico; the undulating emerald mountains of the Sierra Maestra, made for trekking; and Santiago, the home of traditional Cuban music and the country’s most vibrant and energetic city after Havana. Host to Cuba’s most exuberant carnival every July, when a deluge of loud, rhythmic and passionate sounds surges through the streets, you can hear some of the best Cuban musicians here year-round. Trekkers and Revolution enthusiasts will want to follow the Sierra Maestra as it snakes west of here along the south coast into Granma province, with various revolutionary landmarks and nature trails.
Isla de la Juventud
Lying off the southern coast of Artemisa province, the Isla de la Juventud is an inconvenient three-hour ferry ride or a forty-minute flight away from the mainland but its remoteness is part of its appeal and it feels even more time-warped than the rest of the country. Easily explored over a weekend, the island promises leisurely walks, some of the best diving in the country and a personable, very low-key capital town in Nueva Gerona. In the same archipelago is luxurious and anodyne Cayo Largo, the southern coastline’s only sizeable beach resort.
Best time to travel Cuba
The best time to travel to Cuba is typically between December and May, however, you can almost always except sunny warm weather due to the islands fairly close location to the equator.
Festival-wise, the best celebrations in Cuba take place from July 25th to 27th where the locals take to the streets to celebrate the success of the Cuban Revolution. Expect rallies, speeches and dances. The Cubans celebrate these days as the happiest days in Cuban history. Read more about when to go to Cuba.
Entry requirements for Cuba
Cuban travel has never been this easy, but there are still plenty of entry requirements to take stock of. 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. Though rarely checked, visitors may be required to present an insurance policy at immigration valid for the period of their stay in Cuba – if you do get checked and you do not have proof of insurance you may be required to purchase a Cuban health insurance policy. US insurance companies do
not currently provide coverage for Cuba. 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. In the UK, you can also buy them at the airport. 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. They are valid for thirty days for
UK, US and Australasian citizens, and ninety days for Canadians, and must be used within 180 days of issue. You will need to show your tourist card at customs on arrival and departure.
Once in Cuba, you can renew a tourist card for another thirty days for a fee of $25CUC, paid for in special stamps, which you can buy from banks. To do this consult a buro de turismo, found in the larger hotels, or one of the immigration offices in various provinces (listed throughout the Guide). There is an office in Havana dedicated specifically to visa extensions. When renewing your visa you will need details (perhaps including a receipt) of where you are staying.
Should you wish to stay longer than sixty days as a tourist (120 if you are Canadian) you will have to leave Cuban territory and return with a new tourist card. Many people do this by island-hopping to other Caribbean destinations or Mexico and getting another tourist card from the Cuban consulate there. For full details of import and export regulations, consult the Cuban Customs website.
Appearance of Varadero beach, at cubian Matanzas province © Kako Escalona/Shutterstock
How to get to Cuba
Travel to Cuba from the US has never been easier and though only a few airlines operate direct flights from the UK, there are plenty flying direct from elsewhere in Europe. Canada has had more flights to Cuba than any other country for years but there are no direct flights at all from Australia.
The point of entry for the vast majority of international scheduled flights is Havana’s José Martí airport, though some flights, and in particular from Canada and the US, go direct to a number of the much smaller regional airports, most commonly Varadero, Santa Clara, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba. These same airports are served by charter flights from Europe, Canada, the US and elsewhere, as are the tiny resort-based airports at Cayo Coco and Cayo Largo del Sur and, to a lesser extent, the airport in Cienfuegos. For more information on getting to Cuba, see the Getting There page.
Where to stay in Cuba
Cuba’s accommodation options have increased greatly in both number and quality in recent years. Broadly speaking, accommodation on the island falls into two types: hotels and casas particulares – literally “private houses” – which often provide the best places to stay in Cuba.
The hotels themselves divide into two relatively distinct groups: those run by wholly Cuban-owned chains, which are therefore state-run and -owned; and those run by international chains. Click here to find out more about the best places to stay in Cuba.
Creating an itinerary for when you travel Cuba
Transportation in Cuba is somewhat unorganised and defies logic. It is recommended to plan your trip beforehand rather than trying your luck with spontaneous trips to avoid unpleasant delays. For inspiration, an itinerary combining city, culture and paradise-like beaches is recommended to get the best from your travels in Cuba.
Days 1 - 3: Havana
Havana, the vibrant capital made up of vintage cars, colourful colonial-style buildings, cigars and salsa. Head to Habana Vieja, also known as Old Havana, to eat churros and explore the streets where the decaying buildings are surprisingly pretty and charming. Embark on a classic car tour, where you will be driven to all the hot spots in Havana in a tasteful vintage car. Be sure to check out the Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Square) and the infamous Havana Cathedral. The Sinistro cigar factory is quite the icon in Havana and provides tours in which you can roll your own cigars, perfect for a handmade souvenir.
Days 3 - 7: Playa Jibacoa and Varadero
About 60 km from Havana lies Cuba's best-kept secret, Playa Jibacoa. This picturesque beach is postcard worthy for its soft white sands and clear emerald waters. The beauty of Playa Jibacoa is that it is secluded and rarely known to tourists. Relax, swim and dive the sunken shipwrecks for a few days and enjoy the Caribbean heat. If you want a beach-break that a little more well known, then you can travel a little further to Varadero. Varadero offers the same gorgeous beaches but with more tourists and hotel chains.
The Cuban Revolution is an important part of history that sits respectively in the hearts of the Cuban people. They proudly admire their ‘four horsemen of the revolution’, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos as heroes who gave Cuba back to the people. The armed revolution began in 1953 and ended in 1959 when tyrannical dictator Fulgencio Batista was successfully overthrown.
The media in Cuba
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.
Newspapers and magazines
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 Rebelde founded 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.
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.
Sports and outdoor activities in Cuba
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.
Other spectator sports
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.
Culture and etiquette in Cuba
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.
Shopping in Cuba
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.
Books and music
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.
Arts and crafts
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.
Antiques and vintage memorabilia
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.