Less than a hundred miles off the coast of the United States, Cuba is a step into a seemingly lost era. Travelers dreaming of visiting Cuba conjure images of classic fifties cars set against crumbling Spanish colonial facades. They picture lively street-side musicians and miles of gorgeous coastline. And that’s largely what you find when you visit the country. The country boasts some of the best Spanish-Colonial architecture in the Americas, the most pristine coral reefs in the Caribbean, and a fascinating, vibrant culture. Cuba is one of the more intriguing places in the Caribbean. Although the decades-long U.S. embargo shielded Cuba from much American influence, Cuba hosts millions of travelers from Europe and Latin America each year. Many tourists opt for luxury resort hotels, but it’s possible to independently travel the country on a much lower budget. Particularly if you plan to travel independently, it’s important to understand Cuba’s complex history, as well as the current political situation since these will crop up in small ways throughout your visit.
I visited Cuba in 2010 and had mixed feelings about the country; the locals were in a downswing on trusting the government and were afraid to talk with tourists. Recently, travel friends reported that much has changed and independent travelers will find opportunities for fascinating conversations and local experiences all over the island nation. Cuba is safe for travelers, including families—a big factor for indie travel. And there are a lot of fun moments to discover: the local obsession with baseball, the fluidity of time, the love for soul-satisfying beats. Also, all travelers should realize that the transportation infrastructure in Cuba is rough, and you should make a strong commitment to understanding responsible travel considerations unique to Cuba.
This travel guide focuses on helping those taking independent route through Cuba’s major travel spots, and it highlights the most important historical situations and pressing issues you’ll need to know. It also includes city recs and responsible travel options, too!
Before You Go, What You Should Know
Understanding these pieces of Cuba’s recent history is an important part of ensuring that conversations with locals are undertaken with thoughtful and considered opinions.
A Cuban revolution in 1959 overthrew the U.S.-backed military dictatorship led by Batista. Che Guevara—a revolutionary hero depicted all over the small island in everything from posters to graffiti—and Fidel Castro led the revolution and their win secured Castro as the country’s Communist dictator. The Cuban Missile Crisis had two major effects. It triggered the U.S. to sever relations with Cuba and sign a trade-embargo. It also secured Cuba’s relationship with, and dependence on, the Soviet Union. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the nineties were tense and tough for Cubans. Food shortages, power cuts, and the continued repressive regime had many Cubans fleeing the regime to the U.S. From then until now, the quality of life in Cuba has fluctuated with the government’s shifting policies. It’s also in the nineties when Cuba opened to tourism. It’s this period of time, post-nineties, that has many Cuban-Americans leery of the enthusiasm tourists have for visiting Cuba and thus tacitly supporting the government. The thawing of the U.S.-Cuba relationship began in December 2014 and will take many years to fully implement planned changes to the relationship between the two countries. The thawing has stalled a bit, however, with U.S. policy changes after Obama took office, but it’s still a vastly different scenario than it was before 2014.
For travelers, understanding these pieces of recent history is an important way to ensure that conversations with locals are undertaken with thoughtful and considered opinions.
The Fast-Facts About Cuba Travel
Electricity: 127V/60Hz (American plug). You may find 220V outlets as well, but most hotel outlets label outlets nowadays.
Primary Airports: Havana (HAV), Santiago de Cuba (SCU) , Varadero (VRA), Santa Clara (SNU), Holguin (HOG)
Language: Spanish is the national language and you’ll have a much better trip if you learn some basics. The Cuban accent is also pretty strong, so it can take a few days to suss it out if you plan to trot out that high school Spanish. You should also download a language app on your smartphone to grease the wheels of communicating locally.
Internet Situation: WiFi increasingly common and national data plans were introduced in 2019. Make plans to have reduced access, and you might be lucky and find it a couple times. (And that also means making sure you have all travel documents and specifics saved offline!).
Food Considerations: The food scene is going through a renaissance as the government allows family-run paladares to operate. Outside of those places, government-run establishments leave a lot to be desired (::cough cough::). Vegetarian food is tricky on the independent travel route, but the AlaMesa app is a good place to start for all travelers. Many tourist restaurants are heavy on fish, and the beans have animal fat at the very least. The fresh fruit is gorgeous and eggs are plentiful. Vegetarians should bring nutritious snacks. You can find a few types of ubiquitous, cheap street food, like pizzas. If you go this route, remember to follow these street-food safety principles.
Festivals of Note: The Carnaval de Santiago de Cuba takes place annually in July in Santiago, Cuba. And for cigar lovers, the Habanos Cuban Cigar Festival takes place every February in Havana. Others are listed here.
Safety: Cuba is safe. You can walk around at night and the country is proud of the very low rates of violent crime and theft. Be wary of hustlers in Havana, however. There are a few tourist scams, and they will surely recommend places where they get a commission. Just exercise normal caution when meeting new friends.
Budget: The accommodation is quite expensive, so plan on a higher daily spend rate than in many developing countries. Plan on $45-$65 for a solo traveler, $66-$100 if you’re splitting expenses. These posts provide couple, solo, and general travel budgets for Cuba.
Accommodation: Expect hotels to vary widely in quality. The infrastructure in Cuba is old, so read reviews and go with an open mind. Throughout the country, you used to have to use very specific local booking engines to find local casa particulares (sites like Cuba Booking Room and Your Casa Particular. Now, however, there are heaps of more mainstream options on services were you likely already have an account—Booking.com and Expedia are now in the marketplace and it’s made it easier but a bit more soulless. Now the hotels and casa particulares are mixed on the platforms, and even Airbnb entered Cuba in 2015 and has listings across the country (my readers get an Airbnb credit). Note that casa particulares are still budget options and cost between $20-30 USD a night, and even with the easy increased access to booking sites, you should book accommodation ahead of time—increased tourism demands are stressing the country’s accommodations. Specific recommendations for cities are below.
Visas: This is a fast-changing situation. As of 2016, Americans could legally enter Cuba as long as they travel for one of 12 listed reasons, more on that here and here. Tourism is not one of those reasons, but it’s still possible (as of May 2019) to schedule independent travel under the Support the Cuban People Category. Cuba will not stamp your passport if you’re not visiting under one of the 12 OFAC travel licenses—instead, they stamp a piece of paper when you enter the country. You can sometimes buy a visa/tourist card at the airport for $20 USD; you purchase the tourist visa from the airline at the gateway airport to Cuba. This post gives a rundown of the process and requirements for Americans. For other countries, check your visa requirements here.
Possible Issues: Airport immigration spot-checks for travel insurance according to online buzz—pick a good travel insurance. I usually go with World Nomads, but my review outlines full considerations. Then print your proof before you board your plane.
Socially Responsible Travel: Start your Cuba trip with a stop at Cuba Libro bookstore in Havana and they will give you the skinny on everything you need to know about this side of the Cuban travel industry. In fact, email before your trip to see if they need any supplies you can bring with you.
Pre-Trip Reading Inspiration: Books About Cuba
Fiction and Nonfiction Books About Cuba:
- The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba. Makes a good history read, but a little more accessible. Published in 2014, it’s the most recent and gives a great overview of the modern Cuba visitors will find.
- Cuba, What Everyone Needs to Know. If you’re interested in a deeper accounting of Cuban history, this is accessible and thorough enough to flesh out any gaps in your understanding—while still being compact.
- Dirty Havana Trilogy. Tales from a former journalist on some raunchy (mis)adventures in Havana. Published in 2002, it’s a good contemporary read about modern Havana.
- Adios, Happy Homeland. A collection of stories, the author uses modern myths and Cuban commentary to build a fascinating and unique complementary collection of stories.
- Dancing to “Almendra”: A Novel: If you like getting a dose of history through fiction, this story weaves together fascinating characters and elements of 50s Cuban history.
Podcasts and Online Reads:
- RadioLab: Los Friskis: A fantastic podcast episode about a group of eighties Cuban misfits who found rock-and-roll and created a revolution within a revolution, going into exile without ever leaving home.
- Our Human Planet: Cuba: A long-time traveler and filmmaker explores the various facets of Cuba now that it’s opening to tourism, and offers a niche look at everything from transportation to traditional games.
- NPR’s Brief History of U.S.-Cuba Relationship: NPR takes all the highs and lows over the past 100 years and makes it easy to understand and consume.
- Claimed: Fascinating profile on Slate about the claims U.S. citizens and companies have over property in Cuba. I didn’t know that these unpaid claims were the foundation of the U.S. embargo—it’s a good read.
- In Pursuit of the Wild Cohiba: This is narrative presents backstory on Che Guevara, cigars, and an intriguing, unseen side of Cuba.
- Cuba, in Clothes: This presents an interesting way to use the lens of fashion to learn about the Cuba that is just now emerging after the U.S. lifted the embargo and more money is flowing into the country.
- Word of Memory Stick: Without email and Facebook, how would you communicate? This article looks at how Cubans share their lives and stories when the rest of the world uses technology.
- Cinefilia en Habana: A look at how one Cuban filmmaker bucks the revolution and reimagines Utopia.
Things to Do in Cuba: City Recommendations
Unlike other guides on this site, this one won’t break down the recommendations by city, but instead present a list of activities and where you can partake. Cuba is quite small, so some travelers choose to take weekend or day trips from Havana. I spent a week in Trinidad and a week in Havana—with better weather (boo February, boo) we would have ventured further. Here are the highlights!
- Slurping down a cone from Coppelia Ice Cream in Havana—it’s a Cuban institution.
- Starting each day with delicious guava juice and a plate of mamey fruit.
- Watching kids play baseball in every open space.
- Wandering the colorful streets of Trinidad and learning salsa to the beats of Afro-Caribbean music.
- Photographing the crumbling colonial buildings in Habana Vieja.
Things to Do in Cuba
- Wander Havana and explore with this detailed laminated city map, updated in late 2016. Since Cuba is changing quickly, it helps to have a solid map for exploring. This company also has a detailed map for all of Cuba, ideal if you are road-tripping across the country.
- Museo del Chocolate in Havana. It was unseasonably wet and cold when I visited so I took refuge in this delicious smelling shop and loved their hot chocolate and various treats (churros!).
- Pass through Callejón de Hamel in Centro Havana to see the quirky street art and murals from Salvador Gonzalez, a local artist. Go at noon on a Sunday for an experience that you’ll remember forever—drums, rhythms, and Afro-Cuban music for hours.
- The long stretch of Havana’s Malecón is quintessentially Cuban. Like a lot of the country, it’s best to plan for a stroll and give yourself time to relax and just enjoy. Cubans have a sidewalk culture—life is lived in the open, so give yourself time to soak it in.
- Walk from Old Town to the National Hotel along the Malecón and plan on finishing here just before sunset so you can grab a drink and watch the sunset over the water.
- Wander the streets of Trinidad and shop the tiny side roads. Seriously beautiful and low-slung colonial town.
- Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Bandidos in Trinidad. Fascinating and has gorgeous views.
- Book a tour before you leave; if there’s something you just absolutely need to do, book that experience ahead of time. Companies like Cuban Adventure and WoWCuba allow online booking and that will ensure your adventure actually happens (since the internet is scarce to research and book one you are there). For everything else though, day trips are easy to book and your casa particular owner is often very amenable with recommendations for things in the area.
- Visit the Valle de los Ingenios with a local man running ethical horse trips. You can also board a vintage 1907 American steam train to travel through gorgeous UNESCO recognized valleys outside of Trinidad and end at the sugar estate of Manaca-Iznaga. The train ride is more touristy, the horse day trips are an amazing way to get out and explore the region.
- Use the Viazul bus network to easily visit anywhere in Cuba. In the height of tourist season you may need to book ahead.
- Head to Cienfuegos for the El Nicho Waterfalls and revel in the pretty, lush green as you hike and swim.
- Remedios is a quaint enough town on it’s own, but if you find yourself in Cuba over Christmas, no where else can you experience something like their celebrations, called Las Parrandas.
- An eco-tourism project done right, Las Terrazas in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve (a UNESCO site) offers everything from hiking to ziplining.
- Head to Viñales; friends of mine count this as one of their favorite spots to visit. You can swim in caves or just enjoy the pretty scenery.
- Visit Baracoa, the first settlement in Cuba. I didn’t make it here but I will return for it. From here you can raft, hike, or just enjoy El Yunque Biosphere Reserve and Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt.
- Plan a scuba dive at María la Gorda—it’s a popular spot because they have a perfect combination of clear waters, gorgeous dives, and a great dive operation.
- Find a way to be among the mere 500 annual divers permitted on the pristine reefs of Jardines de la Reina.
- Book a bike tour to experience the rural Cuba—although you could theoretically bike the country yourself, companies like WoWCuba have bike routes that take you through the highlights, while stopping in family-run guesthouses and restaurants, which offers a great way to infuse money directly into the local economy.
- Hightail it to Santiago de Cuba for a different slice of Cuban life. It’s quite far from the tourist trail but pairs well with a visit to Baracoa. You’ll find a bit gritty and less touristy side of Afro-Cuban culture.
- Go off the path at the gorgeously placed Hotel el Salton, which is two hours from Santiago de Cuba. An ALA reader says this spot has “everything you can possibly want for some authentic experiences, getting lost in the jungle, and getting away from the city.”
Places to Eat and Sleep
- Head to the National Hotel on Havana’s Malecon for sunset drinks.
- Gorgeous Seaside Havana Airbnb. Sleep seaside in a beautiful white apartment located on Havana’s Malecon. With seaside views and a very reasonable price tag, it’s the best deal I’ve seen online. I often use Airbnb on my travels; if you’re new to it use this link a free credit for ALA readers. :)
- Hostal Cuba in Trinidad. This spot is top-ranked and I’ve never heard a bad word about it. It’s well located in Trinidad and makes a great base for your stay.
- Casa de la Músíca in Trinidad. So enjoyable to pass the evening here. Locals come out to interact with tourists, play music, and just salsa.
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