Brightly coloured architecture, a thriving music scene and idyllic sandy beaches; Cuba is an incredible and unique place to visit. The Caribbean country provides travellers with everything a tropical island has to offer, with a funky culture at its heart. With its classic cars and complex political history, Cuba will be like nothing you’ve ever experienced.
Although it’s had a tumultuous past, Cuba has started to open up more and more to tourists. This has allowed Cuba to thrive and offer an entirely new experience to international visitors in a country that has been closed off for most of its existence. If you’re looking for something totally new fairly unknown to tourists, then Cuba is the place for you.
What to do
Cuba is a fantastic country for travellers looking for adventure. The extensive and varied rural landscapes play host to plenty of hiking expeditions, whilst the country’s coastline offers a range of different beaches that are perfect for sunbathing or swimming. The island’s position in the Caribbean sea means that water temperatures are very pleasant all year round, so snorkelling and scuba diving are also popular coastal activities.
Central Cuba is brimming with culture that gives you plenty of activities to try in the cities, such as trying your hand at rolling a traditional Cuban cigar or taking a salsa lesson in Havana. There’s a wealth of interesting things to do in Cuba that are not to be missed, and you’ll find yourself going home wishing you’d had enough time for them all.
Music is a huge part of Cuban culture, and many people travel to the country purely for this reason. The music in Cuba is rich and varied, and everywhere you turn on this tropical island its influence can be seen, with Cubans dancing and singing on the street. Streets are filled with small music venues where you’ll find people dancing salsa and listening to rumba. They love to see participation, and if there’s one thing you do before leaving the country, it’s to get stuck in and give the salsa a whirl.
When to visit
Although Cuba is slowly rising in popularity, conventional traveller’s accommodation is not as popular here. You’ll struggle to find any hostels, and even hotels are surprisingly hard to come by.
If you’re staying in Cuba, your best bet is to stay in Casas Particulars; homes of Cuban people who rent them out and therefore provide a unique cultural experience. Just call Cubans the original Airbnb hosts. There are two types of Casa Particulars, ones with a blue sign outside and another with an orange sign. The Blue signed homes are specifically made for foreigners and the orange signed homes are for Cubans. You can get into trouble if you stay in the wrong house.
If you don’t think staying in someone else’s house is for you, you can seek out one of the hotels. The hotels are either owned by Cuban hotel chains, owned by the government or are owned by international chains. Surprisingly the international hotel chains tend not to be found in Havana or the more touristy areas, but rather on beach resorts. The Cuban hotel chains can be found usually in cities, towns and beach resorts. There are five main Cuban hotel chains which tend to be looked on more favourably by the Cuban government, but don’t tend to even come close to the standards of Casas Particulars.
Very few Cubans own cars, so the main form of getting around in the country is public transport, which seems neither tourist nor local friendly. If you’re expecting your train to be on time or for reliable public transport, you’re in for a nasty surprise.
Generally, the buses in Cuba are your safest bet. They work on a two-tier basis; Víazul for foreign passport holders which serve all the mainland cities and smaller, tourist hotspots, and the local bus service which tends to be overcrowded and without a timetable but is much cheaper.
For travel around the cities, almost every major area has a taxi. Some taxis can be fake and will prey on tourists while charging extortionate rates, usually around the airport and Old Havana. To spot legitimate taxis look for a blue license plate and ‘taxi’ sign while the one. To avoid any scams, agree on a price before getting into the taxi. If you want to travel around in one of the famous vintage Cadillacs and Ladas, expect to pay more for the privilege.
Food & drink
Unlike the stereotype of Cubans loving spicy and flavourful food, the opposite is almost true. To an extent, Cubans dislike spicy food and herbs which are hard to come by on the island.
Due to Cuba’s economic instability and embargo with the US, certain foods are hard to come by and it’s not unusual for restaurants to not be able to serve everything on the menu. This being said, the portions tend to be excessive as if to make up for this, and the food is often locally grown and fresh. It’s probably worth saying that being a vegetarian in Cuba can be difficult with meat dominating most dishes, as you’re likely to find a lot of fried pork and chicken accompanied by rice, beans and vegetables.
The best places to eat in Cubaare the paladares, which are owned by individuals rather than being government-owned restaurants. The government-owned eateries are notorious for having slow service, poor quality of food and a lack of variety. Paladares, however, are small restaurants which have been owned by Cuban locals since owning a small business became legal. The menus fluctuate greatly, as owners can have one ingredient one hour and then run out the next, forcing them to improvise. This is why many paladares have their menus written on chalkboards, rather than in a more permanent way.
As you’d expect Cuba thrives on rum. The national drink is cheap and available almost everywhere. Dark rum is served neat while the cheaper form of white rum is found mixed into cocktails. Unsurprisingly the Cuban drinking age is 16. Salud!