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La Habana, Cuba. Photo by Alessandro Caproni. (Used by permission)

Traveling in Cuba

Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean lying between the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and Haiti with Mexico to the East and Jamaica to the North West. It`s just 145km/90 mi from Florida`s Key West and yet an entire world away.

It conjures up images of rebellions and revolutionaries, of decadence and socialism, of sultry dance and music, long white beaches, rum and tobacco. Although it has also held the image of being retro and poetically poor, things are changing in Cuba with the government untightening its socialist fist allowing private enterprise and encouraging tourism for the first time.

Getting to Cuba from Canada, Mexico or Europe is easy. There are regular on flights from Cancun Mexico, Nassau and Jamaica. Virgin Fly direct from London or Air France from Paris. Cubana flies direct from Moscow, Madrid, Rome, as well as Toronto, Mexico City and a number of South American cities.

American Citizens must travel with an organization that has an official license from the U.S. State Department, but there are some charter flights between Miami and Havana. See Insight Cuba for more details.

Cuba has a tropical climate with warm humid weather all year around, though it can get chilly in the inland mountains.


Area

110,860 sq km / 42,803 sq mi

Population

11,270,000 (2012 estimate)

Official Language

Spanish

Currency

Cuban Peso (US Dollar accepted)

Driving Orientation

Right

Major Cities

  1. Havana (capital)
  2. Santiago
  3. Trinidad
  4. Camagüey
  5. Baracoa

Top Destinations

  1. Varadero Beach
  2. Zapata Cienaga Biosphere Reserve
  3. Guanahacabibes National Park
  4. Sierra Maestra
  5. Gardines De La Reina
  6. Viñales & Pinar del Rio
  7. Baracoa
  8. Santa Clara

Travel Photos

Some great photos of Cuba.


Major Cities

Havana

The sultry capital and largest city of Cuba (nearly 2.2 million inhabitants) is known for its vibrant nightlife, classic American vintage cars, gracefully crumbling streets and resilient inhabitants. The people of Havana seem to carry out half their lives on the street, and the other watching from a balcony. They are living proof that you don`t need money to have style and swagger.

Ironically it is socialism that has kept Havana`s decedent architecture for us to appreciate today. From the Baroque of the 15th C to the 1930s gangsters Art Deco, there has been very little pulling down and redevelopment like in the West. However, Havana is changing and right now might be the time to see the last bastions of socialism as Havana is gradually getting polished.

Attractions

La Habana Vieja Old Havana was founded in 1519, but mostly built in the 17th C and 18th C from the riches of sugar, slavery and silver being transported from Mexico and Peru. It still contains market squares, courtyards, colonnaded and arcades, fountains, churches, old street lamps and shady benches. Obispo Street is probably the most popular pedestrian street in old Havana and the best spot to get an expresso coffee. While there check out the Florida Hotel and Ambos Mundos Hotel where writer Ernest Hemingway lived.

Plaza de la Revolución is dominated by a statue of Jose Marti and the iconic image of Chè Guevara. This is where Fidel Castro made his long speech to the masses.

Céspedes Park Plaza de Armas is another one of Havana`s social hearts, it was laid out during the 1600s and is a great place to peruse stalls of antiques and classical books and perhaps pick up an original piece of Chè.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza This fort is the oldest in the New World and has now reopened as Cuba’s premier maritime museum.

El Malecón is the picturesque 8km/ 5mi promenade along Havana`s shore line, a must for photos.

AHavana nightlife Things don`t really start happening until well after 10pm but dress up as most clubs have a dress codes (no flip flops or shorts). You`ll be better received by locals too, no matter how poor Cubans are, they make an effort when they go out and don`t really understand why tourists don`t.

Privé is the place to dive into the jazz scene with local celebrities like Harold Lopez-Nussa and Michel Herrera, Santiago Feliú and Frank Delgado often jiving here.

Salon Rosado de La Tropical is an outdoor salsa palace where locals grind to the hottest timba, regguetón and salsa. It`s mostly live with some DJs). Musicians that might make a show are Eliot Revé, Paulo FG, El Micha, Kelvis Ochoa, X Alfonso, and Interactivo. It`s also the HQ to ProElectronica, Cuba’s annual electronic music festival.

The Tropicana offers an old fashion cabarets dinner shows with scantily but spectacularly adorned dancers shimming on stage in the grand old hotels garden. This is more for tourists than locals but its pure, unadulterated entertainment. Book tickets at your hotel.

Beyond the salsa and rumba clubs, Havana a rich in concert venues with regular ballet and classical music performances.

Eastern Beaches Just a short bus or taxi ride away are lovely beaches. Guanabo Beach 27 km/ 17mi from Havana with long length of beaches backed by shopping malls and modern hotels. Santa María del Mar is a village with no hotels (but houses for rent) and it`s a lovely day trip.

Accommodations

Hotel Saratoga Set in a recently restored and dashingly handsome building that was originally built in 1879, this historic hotel hit its stride during the glamor days of the 1930s when Cuba was what Las Vegas is today. The rooftop restaurant offers wonderful views of the sunset and is also a great evening option on Havana`s balmy nights to catch a warm breeze. The food is surprisingly elegant and cosmopolitan too.

Hotel Telegrafo This is a simple but authentic choice that sits on the corner of the iconic Prado Street (Paseo de Marti) and Neptuno Street. It`s a typical Havanan building with high ceilings, thick walls, an inner courtyard and bright blue doors leading onto the street facing balconies.

Iberostar Parque Central This elegant Spanish colonial hotel has a central location, spacious rooms that will make you feel like you are in a ballroom, one of the best pools in Havana as well as one of the best rooftops. Guests rave about the food too, especially the decadent buffet breakfasts.

Hotel Sevilla This hotel was founded in 1908 and is considered to be the first luxury hotel in Havana. It was Al Capone`s choice in Havana and where the original Hollywood Brat Pack of the 1950s (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr etc) partied. Today it is still an exquisite 5-star hotel catering for a far more restrained clientele but its fancy facades, looming ceiling and art deco pool area still whisper of an exciting past.

Restaurants

Don`t expect to easily find tasty foods in Havana. Although with new laws allowing locals to open restaurants, Havana`s food culture is on the rise.

San Cristòbal This is a paladar, which is a traditional Cuban-Creole seafood restaurant. Unlike the rustic ones you`ll find in beach towns, this one is set in a 19th century mansion and surrounded by antiques. Try gourmet versions of yucca, roast pork, lobster, fresh fish and spicy prawns. There is no website or Facebook but they have been featured in CNN traveler.

El Aljibe In the posh suburb of Miramar. El Aljibe serves updated traditional Cuban cuisine like chicken in sour orange sauce. They also serve black beans, white rice, salad and desserts, and have the best international wine list in Havana.

La Casa This sleek retro restaurant is set in a large 50s style house with the choice of a dining room or garden seating. It`s menu is European and International with touches of Greek, Italian and Spanish blended with some local Caribbean ingredients such as platano (savory banana) and lots of seafood. Try the rabbit lasagna with eggplant, avocado, pepper and parmentier sauce.

La Fontana Restaurant Some tourists claim La Fontana is the best grill in Cuba. It serves up spectacular seafood and meats with tasty condiments. Try the octopus grilled over charcoal with pesto, or choose a sea snail in garlic and aged rum.

Santiago de Cuba

Santiago is the second city of Cuba, and the birthplace of its revolutionary spirit. Fidel Castro and Chè Guevara launched their movement from here in the 1950's. Its proximity to Jamaica and other tropical isles has given the city a strong Caribbean character and carnival atmosphere and holds the biggest carnival in Cuba each July.

Attractions

Plaza De La Revolucion This large handsome square has an imposing statue of patriot Antonio Maceo surrounded by massive machetes sculptures. They say Fidel Castro once spoke to one million people here. Nearby you`ll find several churches and small museums to wander including the Metropolitan Cathedral, House of Poetry and Carnival Museum. Also nearby the Diego Velazquez Museum is in one of the oldest houses in the Americas (1511) and houses antiques from the Spanish empire.

French Quarter, Tivolí This is a good area to wander during the evening and find a small music club. One such spot is the Casa de las Tradiciones where top Cuban musicians often make surprise appearances.

San Pedro de la Roca del Morro Castle This important fortress was one of the first in the America`s (1637) ensuring Spain’s trade roots and protecting the city from pirates. It has been beautifully restored and has stunning views from its wonderful position at the mouth of Santiago Harbor.

La Gran Piedra Take a tour up through picturesque coffee plantations and the stunning Botanical Gardens. The view from the rock is breathtaking and they say on a clear night you can see Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Baconao Biosphere Reserve An hour or so by car out of Santiago through more coffee plantations and jungle and in the shadow of the mighty Sierra Maestra mountains, you`ll reach secluded beaches where you can snorkel shipwrecks.

Cementerio Santa Ifigenia There are many important Cubans buried here, most notably Jose Marti and Emilio Bacardi (yes, the rum founder). They say they are preparing for Fidel Castro at the moment.

Accommodations

In Santiago de Cuba tourists need to be realistic about the possibilities of reliable internet, hot water and 5 star trimmings. To avoid disappointment have patience with local hotel employees who also have to manage with dilapidated infrastructure and get into the spirit of the place in other ways.

Gran Hotel Escuela This is also a hospitality school and you`ll see lots of young and enthusiastic Cubans passing through. There is a touch of communist spartanisms in the old four-story building with huge rooms that dwarf the plain single beds.

Meliá Santiago de Cuba The only 5-star hotel in Santiago with 302 comfortable rooms, it`s your best bet for Internet. The rooms are large with up-to-date bathrooms, some with Jacuzzi and the outdoor pool is lovely. It is located ten minutes from the city center in a safe quite residential neighborhood.

Casa Granda This hotel is located right in the heart of Santiago with views of the Metropolitan Cathedral, House of Poetry, Carnival Museum and more from its broad and beautiful tiled terrace. It`s a great base for the cites nightlife.

Restaurants

El Palenquito Even though this restaurant looks like it is someone`s backyard under a thatched pavilion it is reputed to have one of the best barbeques in Cuba. Try the Kebabs.

Restaurante Aurora This one also seems like an oasis in someone`s private garden. As well as wholesome local foods, they have great mojitos and daiquiris.

Rumba Café this restaurant is located in downtown Santiago de Cuba and run by an Italian cook. It serves up great Italian and Cuban dishes in an early 20th Century Art Nouveau, Republican Cuban and Italian décor. ) Try the Café con Maní (black coffee with peanuts).

Trinidad

Trinidad is a perfectly preserved Spanish town built on the sweat and tears of the sugar industry and slaves. Together with the nearby Valle de los Ingenios it has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988. The city is located on the Caribbean coast near the Escambray Mountains.

Attractions

Plaza Mayor This gorgeous space showcases the handsome colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, pastel colored houses rimmed with intricate wrought-iron. Buildings of interest include Santísima Trinidad Cathedral and Convento de San Francisco.

Night life Casas de Musica are dotted throughout Trinidad, including the one next to the cathedral in Plaza Major. There are also unusual discothèques, including one in church ruins, and another in a large cave complete with stalagmites and stalactites (it`s up the hill with no name or markings, ask a local for help finding it). There is salsa dancing in the square almost every night.

Valley of the Sugar Mills This adjacent valley consists of around 70 historic mills that are World Heritage Sites. The tallest, la Torre Iznaga, is 45 m/ 148 ft. tall built in 1816.

Climb the hill Behind the town northeast from the Plaza Mayor you`ll get a great view of the town and surrounding area. You`ll also walk through some poorer areas. Only do this during the day and don`t take any valuables except your camera. It`s generally pretty safe and the worst thing that will happen is kids asking you for coins.

Coasts and Beaches 20 km/12 mi from Trinidad is Topes de Collantes, one of Cuba’s premier ecotourism centers and the site of beautiful waterfalls. Continue onto Casilda Bay to snorkel or dive. Ancon Beach is pure white heaven.

Accommodations

Casa Colonial Trinidad This is a colonial house with a shady patio rambling onto a pretty garden where humming birds frolic. The rooms are luxurious and the fresh breakfast is generous.

Casa de Miriam One of the highlights of this simple guest house in Miriam`s hospitality and the other is her seafood dinners. It`s close to the center of town and there is a lovely rooftop terrace to take in the sunset.

Iberostar Grand Hotel Trinidad Located in the center of Trinidad this is an old colonial building that has been converted into a 5-star hotel without losing its charm.

Restaurants

Paladar la Marinera The thing to do here is pre-order the stuffed fish with lobster and shrimp ahead of time or you`ll miss out. If you can`t do this the paella and an octopus plate come highly recommended. This restaurant is a short drive out of Trinidad.

Quince Catorze Trinidad Live music with genuine dancers and great seafood served on very old porcelain. Try the Shrimp Traviata.

Davimart The family-run restaurant is located a short walking distance from the center of town in a residential area with sensational seafood (visually as well as flavor). This restaurant was featured in Afar magazine as an example of family run restaurants that have been allowed to set up in the last few years.

Camagüey

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Attractions

Damajaqua Cascades Located about 25 minutes outside the city center of Puerto Plata, Damajaqua Cascades (also known as 27 Waterfalls) is an amazing adventure. For a fee of about $10, you jump and slide down to the bottom of the clear, gorgeous falls after a scenic hour-long hike. Near the entrance is a bar and gift shop. Be aware that this can be physically challenging and you should be comfortable with jumping off 10–25 foot cliffs into water.

Mount Isabel de Torres Take the cable car up the beautiful Mount Isabel de Torres. It is a smooth, easy ride that will allow you to appreciate the views of the bay as well as the feeling of rising through the clouds. At the top sits a massive sculpted rendition of Christ the Redeemer. This experience is ideal for those who want to preserve memories with breathtaking photographs.

Sosua Beach The beach, often crowded, rose to popularity for a reason. It is about a 20 minute drive from the center of Puerto Plata. Relax and enjoy the clear, blue seas, a drink in the sparkling sand, and some delicious food from local vendors. You can snorkel or take scuba diving lessons to see the colorful fish that populate the warm ocean waters.

Playa Dorada Playa Dorada (The Golden Beach) sits on the Dominican Republic’s Amber Coast. As the name suggests, it is filled with a long expanse of golden sand. It is a hot tourist spot for its stunning view, excellent upkeep, and the stretch of hotels that line it.

Accommodations

Casa Colonial Beach & Spa Casa Colonial is a place of luxury. The spa services, the magnificent food, the rooftop pool, and the beautiful accommodations will guarantee that you have a relaxing and enjoyable stay.

Blue JackTar Located right on the beach, Blue JackTar is a quiet getaway. The friendly staff is not overbearing if you want to have uninterrupted relaxation. Lay out on the beach beds and enjoy a drink from the bar out on the sand.

Iberostar Costa Dorada Located right on Playa Dorada, Iberostar Costa Dorada is a beautiful location with excellent service. It has a rifle target range on site as well as a pool. During the weekend, the hotel comes alive with locals. For a boisterous party atmosphere, come during the weekend. For a peaceful, relaxing vacation, stay during the week.

Jasmine Spa and Wellness Holistic Health The Jasmine Spa and Wellness Holistic Health Hotel will give you a healing and relaxing holiday. Excellent spa services, a delicious range of meals and tea, stunning mountain views, and the peaceful ambience make ideal for a quiet escape from city life and an activity-packed schedule.

Restaurants

Le Papillon The owner and chef, Thomas, will make you feel like family when you walk through the door. The menu features beautifully-presented and absolutely delicious cuisine, inspired by the food of France and Germany. All the ingredients are fresh, making it a nice counterpoint to all-inclusive hotel food.

Mares Restaurant & Lounge For a relaxing and romantic dinner, ask to be seated by the outdoor pool. Friendly staff will ensure that you have an unforgettable dining experience to complement the delicious and fresh food.

Los Tres Cocos Wonderful food and atmosphere characterize the contemporary restaurant, Los Tres Cocos. A continually changing menu to capture what is in-season will allow you to try something new each time you come. Fantastic service and an involved chef top off the Los Tres Cocos experience.

Baracoa

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Attractions

Damajaqua Cascades Located about 25 minutes outside the city center of Puerto Plata, Damajaqua Cascades (also known as 27 Waterfalls) is an amazing adventure. For a fee of about $10, you jump and slide down to the bottom of the clear, gorgeous falls after a scenic hour-long hike. Near the entrance is a bar and gift shop. Be aware that this can be physically challenging and you should be comfortable with jumping off 10–25 foot cliffs into water.

Mount Isabel de Torres Take the cable car up the beautiful Mount Isabel de Torres. It is a smooth, easy ride that will allow you to appreciate the views of the bay as well as the feeling of rising through the clouds. At the top sits a massive sculpted rendition of Christ the Redeemer. This experience is ideal for those who want to preserve memories with breathtaking photographs.

Sosua Beach The beach, often crowded, rose to popularity for a reason. It is about a 20 minute drive from the center of Puerto Plata. Relax and enjoy the clear, blue seas, a drink in the sparkling sand, and some delicious food from local vendors. You can snorkel or take scuba diving lessons to see the colorful fish that populate the warm ocean waters.

Playa Dorada Playa Dorada (The Golden Beach) sits on the Dominican Republic’s Amber Coast. As the name suggests, it is filled with a long expanse of golden sand. It is a hot tourist spot for its stunning view, excellent upkeep, and the stretch of hotels that line it.

Accommodations

Casa Colonial Beach & Spa Casa Colonial is a place of luxury. The spa services, the magnificent food, the rooftop pool, and the beautiful accommodations will guarantee that you have a relaxing and enjoyable stay.

Blue JackTar Located right on the beach, Blue JackTar is a quiet getaway. The friendly staff is not overbearing if you want to have uninterrupted relaxation. Lay out on the beach beds and enjoy a drink from the bar out on the sand.

Iberostar Costa Dorada Located right on Playa Dorada, Iberostar Costa Dorada is a beautiful location with excellent service. It has a rifle target range on site as well as a pool. During the weekend, the hotel comes alive with locals. For a boisterous party atmosphere, come during the weekend. For a peaceful, relaxing vacation, stay during the week.

Jasmine Spa and Wellness Holistic Health The Jasmine Spa and Wellness Holistic Health Hotel will give you a healing and relaxing holiday. Excellent spa services, a delicious range of meals and tea, stunning mountain views, and the peaceful ambience make ideal for a quiet escape from city life and an activity-packed schedule.

Restaurants

Le Papillon The owner and chef, Thomas, will make you feel like family when you walk through the door. The menu features beautifully-presented and absolutely delicious cuisine, inspired by the food of France and Germany. All the ingredients are fresh, making it a nice counterpoint to all-inclusive hotel food.

Mares Restaurant & Lounge For a relaxing and romantic dinner, ask to be seated by the outdoor pool. Friendly staff will ensure that you have an unforgettable dining experience to complement the delicious and fresh food.

Los Tres Cocos Wonderful food and atmosphere characterize the contemporary restaurant, Los Tres Cocos. A continually changing menu to capture what is in-season will allow you to try something new each time you come. Fantastic service and an involved chef top off the Los Tres Cocos experience.


Top Destinations

Varadero Beach

This is one of the largest resort areas in the Caribbean and boasts more than 20 km/ 12.5 mi of white sandy beaches plus caves and a chain of easily accessed pristine cays. In this region you can scuba dive, deep-sea fish and yacht or just relax in the sand.

Zapata Cienaga Biosphere Reserve

One of Cuba's six UNESCO biospheres, the Zapata reserve contains the largest wetlands. Here you`ll find the world's smallest bird, the bee hummingbird and rare manatees (endangered) as well as Cuban crocodiles.

Guanahacabibes National Park

This is a peninsula separated from the rest of the island by white sandy plains and its beaches are reputed to have some of the purest white silica sands on the planet. There are 172 species of birds, and 4 out of 7 species of turtles exist here. The coastline has coral reefs, secluded cays and islets. You can scuba dive the Maria la Gorda which consists of 29 diving sites less than an hour from the coast.

Sierra Maestra

The legendary and rugged Sierra Maestra mountain range is where Castro and Chè plotted the revolution to bring down the Batista government in 1959. These days, there are no remnants of the rebel camps but it`s fascinating to hike and imagine the battles in such treacherous terrain.

Gardines De La Reina

Said to be one of the best diving spots in the Caribbean, and sometimes called the Galapagos of the Caribbean, it is the third longest barrier reef in the world at 145km/ 90 mi long. There are also fascinating wrecks to dive in the area.

Viñales & Pinar del Rio

The beautiful and lush valley of Pinar del Río is about 26 kilometers north of the city of Pinar del Río, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is said to be another of Fidel Castro's favorite holiday spots in Cuba. There are numerous fascinating tours of Tobacco Plantations in the area and this is also an excellent area for a horse back tour.

Baracoa

Baracoa is believed to be founded where Christopher Columbus came aground in the 1490s and where the Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar landed in 1511. It`s an unspoiled and undeveloped colonial village surrounded by tranquil beaches and virgin forests where bike and donkey are the best way to get around.

Santa Clara

This rustic region is home to Chè Guevara`s mausoleum. (American citizens are not permitted inside). Those interested in rebel history can go nearby to the Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado. This is where Chè and his men derailed a train and turned the tide of history. In the province there are many smaller beach resorts as well as excellent diving on what are known as the Northern Cays.

Zapata Peninsula and the Bay of Pigs

In 1961 the US Navy landed on the beaches of the 'Bay of Pigs'. Some who come here say there is nothing really to see except extremely undeveloped fishing and farming communities (the nearest resorts are 34km away in Playa Giron). But divers appreciate the turquoise waters, deep coral reefs, finding untouched beaches and mingling with friendly locals.


Cuba Travel Links

Here are some links that we've found useful in planning our travels in Cuba.