Welcome to Travel Planning 101. Find country specific information about where you are going and what to do to prepare to get there!
- Travel highlights of the country.
- Fun facts and background information.
- History notes, facts on currency, health, holidays and transportation.
- Pre-departure tips, when to go, and visa information.
- Information on weather and electricity plugs.
- Suggestions on things to do if you have extra time to explore on your own.
Places To See
Cueva Punta del Este
The Cueva de Punta del Este has been called the 'Sistine Chapel' of Caribbean Indian art. Long before the Spanish conquest (experts estimate around AD 800), Indians painted some 235 pictographs on the walls and ceiling of the cave. The largest has 28 concentric circles of red and black, and the paintings have been interpreted as a solar calendar.
Discovered in 1910, they're considered the most important of their kind in the Caribbean. Smaller, similar paintings can be seen in the Cueva de Ambrosio in Varadero. The long, shadeless white beach nearby is another draw (for you and the mosquitoes - bring insect repellent).
Museo de Ciencias Naturales Sandalio de Noda
The most interesting sight is the Museo de Ciencias Naturales Sandalio de Noda. In a wild, neogothic-meets-Moorish mansion built by local doctor and world traveler Francisco Guasch, this museum (called Palacio de Guasch by locals) has everything from a concrete T-Rex to a stuffed baby giraffe. Come for the flowering garden, architectural details and friendly specialist staff.
La Jungla de Jones
La Jungla de Jones is a rich and verdant botanical garden containing over 80 varieties of tree. The highlight of La Jungla is the aptly named Bamboo Cathedral, an enclosed space surrounded by huge clumps of craning bamboo that only a few strands of sunlight manage to penetrate.
Bisected by a network of shaded trails and punctuated by bamboo, mangoes and Yamagüa, this expansive and recently restored garden once belonged to two American botanists, Helen and Harris Jones who set up the establishment in 1902 with the intention of studying plants and trees from around the world.
Mirador de Bacunayagua
Above the Vía Blanca on the border of Habana and Matanzas Provinces is the Mirador de Bacunayagua, an outlook over Cuba's longest (313m) and highest (100m) bridge. This is one of the best views in Cuba, with densely wooded valley chasms backed by blue waves. All tour buses between Varadero and Habana stop here.
Valle de los Ingenios
The ruins of dozens of ingenios (small 19th-century sugar mills), including slave quarters and manor houses, are scattered throughout this valley. The royal palms, waving cane and rolling hills are timelessly beautiful. The prime sight is Manaca Iznaga, an estate purchased in 1795 by the dastardly Pedro Iznaga, who became rich by trafficking in slaves.
The Cuban calendar is loaded with holidays, but there are only a few that might affect your travel plans; among them are December 25 (not declared an official holiday until after the Pope visited in 1998), January 1, May 1 (Labor Day)and July 26 (the Day of the National Rebellion). On these days, stores will be closed and transport (except for planes) erratic.
The year kicks off with big street parties countrywide on January 1 as Cubans celebrate the triumph of the Revolution, the anniversary of Fidel's 1959 victory. Hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Cubans converge on Havana's Plaza de la Revolución on Labor Day (May 1) to witness military parades and listen to impassioned annual 'worker's day' speeches. It's a fantastic spectacle, even if you're lukewarm about the polemics.
Arguably the biggest and most colorful carnival in the Caribbean, the famous Santiago Carnaval (held end of July) is a riot of floats, dancers, rum, rumba and more. Mid-August sees everyone bustin' rhymes at the wildly successful Festival Internacional 'Habana Hip-Hop'. Ballet is showcased in mid-October, jazz in late November, and film in December. On December 24 in the town of Remedios, extravagant fireworks and floats commemorate Las Parrandas, one of Cuba's most outrageous festivals.
When to go?
The best time to go to Cuba is between December and April, after the lashing rains of the hurricane season and before the hot and sticky discomfort of the scorching summer months. However this is also when planeloads of Canadians and Europeans arrive in pursuit of the southern sun, and room prices soar by up to 20%. Cubans take their holidays in July and August, so local beaches are very crowded at this time. Christmas, Easter and the period around 26 July, when Cubans celebrate the anniversary of the revolution, are also very busy. August to November is the worst time for hurricanes, while the winter months can bring in cold fronts when temperatures in the north and west of the island can dip under 15ºC (60°F).
Weather aside, Cuba has few other hurdles for visitors. Culture vultures should keep a close eye on the annual arts calendar for festivals and events; baseball fans will certainly not want to miss the post season, which runs from April to May; and political junkies may want to catch important days in the socialist calendar, particularly Día de los Trabajadores (Labor day; May 1) and Day of the National Rebellion (July 26).
Travel Visa Overview
Regular tourists who plan to spend up to two months in Cuba do not need visas. Instead, you get a tarjeta de turista (tourist card) valid for 30 days (Canadians get 90 days), which can be extended for another 30 days once you're in Cuba. Those going 'air only' usually buy the tourist card from the travel agency or airline office that sells them the plane ticket (equivalent of
The USA officially prohibits its citizens from travelling to Cuba unless they obtain special permission; very heavy fines are imposed on visitors not fulfilling this requirement.
American-style plug with two parallel flat blades above a circular grounding pin
European plug with two circular metal pins
Japanese-style plug with two parallel flat blades
Several different viruses cause hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes.
There are 6 known types of viral hepatitis:A, B, C, D, E and G. G is not dangerous. A and E are passed on by the fecal-oral route of transmission; there is a vaccine. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. A and E cause an acute illness, but you will recover fully from it.
B and D are passed on via blood, saliva, semen and vaginal fluids. They can be passed on by close contact, sexual contact, and blood-to-blood contact. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. There is a vaccine.
Hepatitis C is only passed on from blood-to-blood contact. There is no vaccine.
There are no great differences in seasonal temperature in Cuba, its pleasant subtropical climate being augmented by the gentle northeasterly trade winds. The wet summer season is between May and October, and the drier winter season runs from November through April. The average temperature reaches 27°C (81°F) in July and August and 22°C (72°F) in February. An average of 80% humidity exists all year round, with things just a little more sticky in the wet season. If you're coming between December and March, be prepared for cooler evenings. A light rain jacket is a wise precaution any time of year.
History and Culture
After the revolution the arts were actively supported by the government: many theatres, museums and arts schools were founded, musicians were guaranteed a salary and a national film industry was established. The government has sought to redress the influence of North American mass culture by subsidising Afro-Cuban cultural groups and performing ensembles, which contributes to a proud and lively cultural identity.
Pre-20th Centure History
It's thought that humans first cruised from South America to Cuba around 3500 BC. Primarily fishers and hunter-gatherers, these original inhabitants were later joined by the agriculturalist Taino, a branch of the Arawak Indians. Christopher Columbus sighted Cuba on 27 October 1492, and by 1514, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar had conquered the island for the Spanish crown and founded seven settlements. When captured Taino chief and resistance fighter Hatuey was condemned to die at the stake, he refused baptism, saying that he never wanted to see another Spaniard again, not even in heaven.
Cattle ranching quickly became the mainstay of the Cuban economy. Large estates were established on the island under the encomienda system, enslaving the Indians. By 1542, when the system was abolished, only around 5000 Indians (of an estimated 100,000 half a century before) survived. Undaunted, the Spanish imported African slaves as replacements. Cuba's African slaves retained their tribal groupings, and certain aspects of their culture endure.
By the 17th century, other European powers had begun to challenge Spain's grip on the Caribbean. British troops invaded Cuba in June 1762 and occupied Havana for 11 months, importing more slaves and vastly expanding Cuba's trade links. In 1817, Spain's long-standing monopoly on tobacco ended, which raised prices, encouraging the crop's expansion. Sugar had also become a major industry, as American independence in 1783 created new markets, and the 1791 slave uprising in Haiti eliminated Cuba's biggest sugar-producing competitor. By 1820 Cuba was the world's largest sugar producer.
Cuba and Puerto Rico were Spain's last holdings in the Western Hemisphere. Spanish loyalists fled the former colonies and arrived in Cuba in droves. Even they, however, began demanding home rule for the island, albeit under the Spanish flag. Cuba's First War of Independence was launched in October 1868. After 10 years and 200,000 deaths, the rebels were spent and a pact was signed granting them amnesty. A group of Cuban exiles in the USA began plotting the overthrow of the Spanish colonial government. They landed on Cuba's east coast in 1895; one of them, the poet Martí, conspicuous on his white horse, was shot and killed in a skirmish with Spanish soldiers. His martyrdom earned him the permanent position of Cuba's national hero.
Gómez and rebel leader Antonio Maceo pushed westward, burning everything in their path. Spain came down hard, forcing civilians into reconcentración camps and publicly executing rebel sympathisers. These methods effectively reestablished Spanish control, but Cuba's agriculture-based economy was in ruins. The Spaniards adopted a more conciliatory approach, offering Cuba home rule, but the embittered populace would agree to nothing short of full independence.
José Martí had long warned of US interest in Cuba, and in 1898 he was proved right. After years of reading lurid (and often inaccurate) tabloid tales about Cuba's Second War for Independence, the American public was fascinated with the island. Although everything was quiet, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst told his illustrator not to come home just yet: 'You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war.' In February 1898 the US warship Maine, anchored outside Havana harbour, exploded mysteriously. All but two of its officers were off the ship at the time. The Spanish-American war had begun.
Spain, weakened by conflict elsewhere, limped to battle, trying to preserve some dignity in the Caribbean. They nearly beat future US president Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders (though they'd had to leave their horses on the mainland) in the Battle of San Juan Hill. The USA's vastly superior forces eventually prevailed, however, and on December 12, 1898, a peace treaty ending the war was signed. The Cubans, including General Calixto García, whose largely black army had inflicted dozens of defeats on the Spanish, were not invited.
In November 1900, a Cuban constitution was drafted. Connecticut senator Orville Platt attached a rider giving the US the right to intervene militarily in Cuba whenever it saw fit. Given the choice of accepting this Platt Amendment or remaining under US military occupation indefinitely, the Cubans begrudgingly accepted the amendment; in 1903, the US used the amendment to grab the naval base at Guantánamo.
On May 20, 1902, Cuba became an independent republic, led by a series of corrupt governments, starting with the first president, Tomás Estrada Palma, right up to dictator Fulgencio Batista, who first took power in a 1933 coup.
Batista was duly elected president in 1940, when he drafted a democratic constitution guaranteeing many rights. He was succeeded by two corrupt and inefficient governments, and on March 10, 1952, he staged another coup.
A revolutionary circle formed in Havana, with Fidel Castro and many others at its core. On July 26, 1953, Castro led 119 rebels in an attack on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba. The assault failed when a patrol 4WD encountered Castro's motorcade, costing the attackers the element of surprise.
Castro and a few others escaped into the nearby mountains, where they planned their guerrilla campaign. Soon after, Castro was captured and stood trial; he received a 15-year sentence on Isla de Pinos (now Isla de la Juventud).
In February 1955 Batista won the presidency and freed all political prisoners, including Castro, who went to Mexico and trained a revolutionary force called the 26th of July Movement ('M-26-7'). On December 2, 1956, Castro and 81 companions alighted from the Granma at Playa Las Coloradas in the Oriente. The group was quickly routed by Batista's army, but Castro and 11 others (including Argentine doctor Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, Fidel's brother Raúl, and Camilo Cienfuegos) escaped into the Sierra Maestra.
In May of the next year, Batista sent 10,000 troops into the mountains to liquidate Castro's 300 guerrillas. By August, the rebels had defeated this advance and captured a great quantity of arms. Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos opened additional fronts in Las Villas Province, with Che capturing Santa Clara. Batista's troops finally surrendered on December 31, 1958.
On January 1, 1959, Batista fled, taking with him US$40 million in government funds. Castro's column entered Santiago de Cuba that night and Guevara and Cienfuegos arrived in Havana on January 2.
The revolutionary government immediately enacted rent and electricity reductions, abolished racial discrimination and nationalized all holdings over 400 hectares, infuriating Cuba's largest landholders (mostly US companies). Many Cubans also protested at the new policies: between 1959 and 1970, 500,000 Cubans said adios. While clearly left-wing, Castro was no communist when he came to power. However, with US political and business will against him, he found himself driven into the arms of Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet Union massively invested in Cuba and helped the regime through its early years with both military and technical know-how.
In January 1961 the US broke off diplomatic relations and banned US citizens from traveling to Cuba. On April 17, 1961, some 1400 CIA-trained émigrés attacked Cuba, landing in the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). The US took a drubbing.
After this defeat the US declared a full trade embargo (known as the bloqueo). In April 1962, amid rising Cold War tensions, Khrushchev secretly installed missiles in Cuba, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis and bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war. Six days later, after receiving a secret assurance from Kennedy that Cuba would not be invaded, Khrushchev ordered that the missiles be dismantled. Castro was excluded from the deal-making.
Marked by inconsistency and bureaucracy, the Cuban economy languished despite massive injections of Soviet aid. Conversely, educational advances were rapid, particularly the 1961 literacy campaign that taught every Cuban to read and write. Meanwhile, Cuba started supporting revolutionary efforts in Latin America and Africa.
When the Eastern bloc collapsed in 1989, US$5 billion in annual trade and credits to Cuba vanished, forcing Castro to declare a five-year período especial (special period) austerity program, technically ongoing. Rationing and rolling blackouts were instituted and food was scarce.
In August 1993 the US dollar was legalized to provide much-needed liquidity. Class differences re-emerged as people with dollars gained access to goods and services not available in CUP (Cuban pesos); touts (known as jinteros, or jockeys) and prostitutes (jineteras) reappeared.
When it comes to sore subjects, US immigration policy runs a close second to the embargo. The Cuban Adjustment Act (1966) grants residency to any Cuban arriving on US shores. This has sparked immigration crises, including the Mariel boatlift in 1980 when 125,000 people left and the 1994 balsero crisis when some 35,000 people on makeshift rafts struggled across the Florida Straits; many died.
In recent years under George W Bush the US policy, which had softened somewhat under Bill Clinton, became far stricter and travel for Americans to Cuba became far more zealously prosecuted.
On February 18, 2008, in a letter to daily Communist newspaper Granma, Fidel Castro announced to the world that he would not 'aspire or accept' a further term as president and commander in chief. The announcement may have been a surprise (most observers were expecting Fidel to die in office) but there was no revelation about Castro's fitness; his brother and closest ally Raúl Castro had been running the country since Fidel was struck down by serious illness in 2006.
Raúl Castro was duly elected President on February 24, 2008, and is expected to run Cuba for the next few years before passing power onto a younger generation of politicians groomed by Fidel to carry on his legacy.
Despite some progressive but largely symbolic early reforms, Raúl's first year in office sprung few big surprises during an annus horribilis in which the global economic downturn coupled with a trio of devastating hurricanes largely put the brakes on the country's post-Special Period economic rebirth. Perhaps more important for the future of US-Cuban relations is the political reawakening that greeted the inauguration of Barack Obama in the USA in January 2009. The noises made by the new government vis-à-vis better relations with Cuba have been the most open-minded and encouraging for decades. Following the easing of travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans in March 2009, for the first time in nearly 50 years an end to the embargo and a total relaxation of US travel restrictions have started to look like a realistic possibility.
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