Laura Crawley - Freelance Writer
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One of the last truly unique places in the world, Cuba is both stuck in time and, in other ways, rapidly changing. If you happen to be an explorer that wants to immerse yourself in cultures where western influence is limited or non-existent, this island nation may be for you. Only 90 miles south of Key West, Cuba has been heavily influenced by the US trade embargo that started in 1962 and the socialist dictatorship government run by the Castro family. The infrastructure, with its eclectic cultural influences, is as colorful as it is diverse in nature. The local architecture is a fusion of many well-studied designs such as neoclassical, baroque, Spanish colonialism and art deco.
This guide will explore the history, food, and tourist information for your next trip. For travelers from the United States especially, check with the US State Department website for the most up-to-date information, as restrictions have changed several times over the last ten years.
Cuba's history is filled with dependence on other countries such as Spain, the US, and the USSR. Until Christopher Columbus landed in 1492, the island was inhabited only by the indigenous Guanajatabey people. Spain soon after conquered Cuba and appointed governors to rule in the capital city of Havana. Sugar and tobacco became Cuba's primary exports, and at the time African slaves were brought over to help with agriculture. Colonization lasted from 1492 until the Spanish-American war in 1898. Following the Spanish American War, the US military ruled the island until their independence in 1902.
Flourishing economic development brought along political corruption and the eventual Cuban revolution (1953-1959), where Fidel Castro came into power. The new government aligned with communism and the USSR. Strong ties with and support for the Soviet Union ultimately led to frosty relations with the US and led to the Trade Embargo. With Cuba's government being supported solely by Soviet subsidies, the 1991 dissolution of the USSR led to an economic crisis that in part reverberates to this day. Cuban-US relations have improved in more recent years, although they haven't thawed fully. Cuba remains, in many ways, as it has since the US Trade Embargo.
There are several airports in Cuba, but the main one is Jose Marti International Airport just outside of Havana. Buses are the main source of public transport for interprovincial journeys. In general, foreign travelers use one service and locals another. State taxis are usually metered. When hiring a private car, make sure to settle on a price before you get into the vehicle to avoid confusion.
For adventurous travelers that will do a lot of exploring, consider renting a car. Prices tend to be on the higher side, and all the rental companies are state run. The largest companies are Havanautos and Cubacar. Again, it's best to secure your reservation well in advance.
As of May 2010, Cuba requires travelers to have non US based health insurance. In some instances, the insurance may be included with your airline ticket. If not, there is an option to purchase it on arrival. Make sure to check for up-to-date requirements and that you can satisfy the health insurance requirement before you fly. Keep your boarding pass with you as you will need it to obtain medical care.
Foreign travelers that need medical support are usually referred to the Clinica Central Cira Garcia Hospital located in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana. Consultations and treatment often require payment in cash with CUC or by credit card from a non-US bank. Depending on where you live, there may have vaccination requirements to obtain a visa. Check ahead of time to avoid delays.
December to April is drier with more pleasant temperatures. May to October brings the rainy season with higher temperatures and more humidity. June to October are the wettest months and the most festive with several holiday celebrations, including Carnival in July. Tourists most often come in the summer despite the temperatures, especially around Carnival time. The Atlantic hurricane season coincides with the rainy season, so keep this in mind when planning your travel.
Cuban culture is a true melting pot with elements of Spanish, French, African, Asian, and American influences. Their love of baseball comes from their American neighbors. The simple but flavorful cuisine and vintage cars result from many economic hardships throughout the years. Salsa dancing, art, and warm locals give the dilapidated infrastructure a unique vibrance. Cuban music has been heavily influenced by jazz, salsa, Spanish nuevo flamenco, and tango. Their primary language is Spanish, but many Cubans speak some English.
The convertible peso (CUC) and the Cuban peso (CUP) are the two official currencies with most transactions in CUC. Cuban pesos are generally accepted in local markets, buses, street food vendors, and some local bars and restaurants. If you have US credit or debit cards, they will most likely not be accepted, even at ATMs. Cash in Euros or Canadian dollars is more readily exchanged for CUC at the airport. There may be a tax charged on currency exchange, especially US dollars.
Convertible pesos are the most widely accepted and should be used for tips in general. You can also consult your hotel for current rates during your stay. Below are some guidelines to consider:
Restaurants: 5-10% of your bill is common, if not already included.
Hotel: have 1 CUC note on hand for tipping the bellhop, cleaning, and hotel staff during your stay.
Public toilets: a customary tip for attendants is around 50 cents CUC.
Live music/street performers: 2 CUC is sufficient for most.
Standard voltage is 110V with type A, B, C, and L sockets. Some modern hotels use 220V, so make sure to check the outlet before plugging in. Because of the variability, including a travel adapter into your luggage may be advisable.
Internet connection is generally slow in Cuba and not always readily available. However, larger, more luxurious hotels may have high-speed wifi available, whereas others may charge per hour or be non-existent.
It's best to stick to bottled water or boiled water for consumption to try and avoid tummy troubles. Fresh fruits and veggies should be washed thoroughly before eating, and avoid ice in your refreshments unless you know it comes from a sterilized source.
It's common to find public bathrooms lacking toilet paper, soap, and seat covers. Bring a small supply of toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you in your day bag, just in case. Don't forget to tip the bathroom attendant if present.
There are many options for tours in a classic car around the island, from Havana to Vinales National Park to food tours. Being driven around with your guide in these vintage beauties is an essential part of any Cuban vacation.
This UNESCO World heritage not only has natural beauty but that of small villages and farms, with whom many still use traditional farming techniques. Surrounded by mountains, this valley has fertile soil and is a conducive climate for agriculture and tobacco. Remnants of a 160 million year limestone plateau, many mogotes have caves carved from years of rainwater; some can even be toured. A nature attraction for climbers, there are many mogotes that are still virgin territory. Hiking, biking, and climbing tours are available.
To truly experience Cuba's cultural heart, you must visit old Havana. Vintage cars travel up and down the streets, as this part of the city beats to the drum of another time. Vibrant colors and art satisfy the eyes as the faint percussive beats of salsa or tango drift from open windows. Often in disrepair, the Spanish colonial buildings add another layer to the landscape. So slow down here and soak in the area's sights, sounds, smells, and flavors.
Accessible as a day trip from Havana, this unique colorful neighborhood in the district of Jaimanitas is worth a visit. Resident Jose Rodriguez Fuster slowly transformed the rundown fishing village into a work of art for the benefit of tourists and locals alike. Using mostly mosaic and painted tiles, he started with his own home, and it soon spilled onto his neighbors' homes, bus stops, playgrounds, and other public spaces.
This approximately 200 km long archipelago is an ocean lover's dream. There is no shortage of beautiful beaches, coral reefs, sport fishing, or diving. There is even a chance you may see a crocodile floating above as you dive the reefs.
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