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
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.