|Currency||Cuban peso (CUP)|
Cuban convertible peso (CUC)
|Area||total: 110,860 sq km |
water: 0 sq km
land: 110,860 sq km
|Population||11,224,321 (July 2002 est.)|
|Religion||nominally 85% Roman Catholic prior to Castro assuming power; Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, and Santeria are also represented|
Cuba is a Caribbean island between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. It lies 150 km (90 Miles) south of Key West, Florida between the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas, to the west of Haiti, and northwest of Jamaica.
Before the 1959 Communist Revolution, Cuba was a popular tourist destination for United States citizens. Since the Revolution, Cuba has been embargoed by the United States and travel between the two neighbors has to be via a third country, unless one is traveling under a license from the US government, in which case direct flights from the US to Cuba can be arranged. After 1959, Cuban tourism was mostly for Cubans only, and the facilities weren't renewed until around the 1990's, when Cuba changed it's policy on tourism after they lost the support of the former Soviet Union. Now, many Europeans and U.S. visitors (albeit often illegally) come to the island, and in the typical tourist regions like Varadero and Holguin, a lot of modern 3-star to 5-star hotels are available, while in less touristy regions, visitors are still able to rent rooms in many Cuban homes (called casas particulares).
- Havana (city) (Ciudad de la Habana)
- Isla de la Juventud (special municipality)
- Maria la Gorda
- Las Tunas
- Santiago de Cuba
- Havana - cosmopolitan capital with a swinging nightlife
- Trinidad de Cuba World Heritage Site for its charming, colonial-era scenery
- Santiago de Cuba - coastal city rich in Carribbean influence
- Isla de la Juventud
- Cayo Coco - beach resort
- Cayo Largo - small island, with nudist facilities
- Varadero - major beach resort, east of Havana
- Valley de Vinales- rolling hills and mountain scenery
Due to economic problems, much of the country's infrastructure is in need of repair. Water is drinkable in almost all tourist hotels (and also in many other places), but it is better to ask beforehand. Generally, in major tourist destinations there will be few problems with either power or water, as most tourist accomodations will offer 220V as well as 110V power sources. Outages are common in Cuba, except in touristy places that can afford a generator, and buses and trains rarely run according to schedule.
Visa and legal issues
A tourist visa card (visada tarjeta del turista) is necessary for travellers from most nations. This visa, which is really little more than a piece of paper on which you list your vital statistics, costs 25 CUC. It is important to note that the policy has recently changed, and you have to pay those 25 CUC (or 25 Euro) at the airport, when leaving Cuba. So always put 25 CUC in your passport after arriving in Cuba, you'll need it. Usually, your travel agency will give you a discount of those 25 CUC when booking an holiday arrangement. You will need a passport valid at least six months past the end of your planned return. The tourist visa is usually valid for 30 days and can be extended for another 30 days at any immigration office in Cuba. It can usually be extended twice, afterwards you need a serious reason when you want a third extension.
On arrival you must have a legal housing booking for at least three days. If you've written in the name of a good hotel on the tourist card, the officials should rarely ask for proof.
Cuban customs (http://www.aduana.islagrande.cu/mapa3.htm) regulations may seem strict, but in practice, tourists are rarely checked. This doesn't mean they are not checked at all. They will go over your personal details carefully.
Warning for US travellers
For political reasons, legally travelling to Cuba from the United States of America, one of its nearest neighbors, is not currently possible. Many US citizens travel by way of Canada, the Bahamas or Mexico.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not illegal for US citizens to travel to Cuba, per se. It is illegal for US citizens to spend money in Cuba. US citizens should also be aware that it is illegal for them to visit Cuba without a license issued by the US Treasury Department. It should also be noted by that those looking to evade the US regulations, that should the US Government become aware that a US citizen has travelled to Cuba, OFAC will assume that the US citizens will have spent money in Cuba if staying more than one day. The issue is further complicated by OFAC's stance that US citizens may not receive goods or services for free from any Cuban national. These new restrictions are outlined in an OFAC policy statement from June 2004. (http://www.travel.state.gov/travel/cuba.html). If the US government finds out about your visit as a US citizen, you may be subject to fines or criminal prosecution. Currently, the National Lawyers Guild (http://www.nlg.org) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (http://www.ccr-ny.org)] provide legal representation for US citizens accused of violating the Travel Ban.
The United States is represented by an Interests Section located in the Swiss Embassy. Counsel Services are not available.
Credit cards, ATM cards and traveler's checks drawn on American banks are not technically valid in Cuba, though many have had success cashing U.S. traveller's checks at major tourist hotels. American Express is not accepted in case it was either in US Dollars or made by a American bank, though again, some have had success in cashing American Express checks. For example, Swiss Traveller Checks will be accepted, as long as they are in Swiss Francs, even if the checks are made "in licence" of an American bank, as long as the real producer of them is Non-American. Better bring cash to Cuba, they accept Canadian Dollars, English Pounds, Euros, Swiss Francs and HK Yuan currencies without any fees. For US Dollar, they will tax you with 10%, so better change to either Canadian Dollar or Swiss Franc first, before travelling there (Euro are changed 1:1, so it means at current exchange rates also a loss of around 6%)
Jose Marti International Airport in Havana the main gateway and is served by major airlines from points in Canada, Mexico and Europe. There are also regional flights from others caribbean islands. An official taxi to Havana center costs 15-25 CUC but you can find cheaper ones (not legal). (It's like 1 CUC per kilometer)
There are also regular holiday charter flights to the resorts like Varadero, and these can sometimes be less expensive than those going to Havana.
The airports are all full-climatised and quite modern, compared to other destinations in middle america, and offer good medical treatments in case of problems. Also, there are no pickpockets at all, so you can feel save and have your money with you without too much worry.
There is no regular ferries or boats to Cuba from foreign ports. Yachters are expected to anchor at the public marinas (http://www.dtcuba.com/eng/buscar_nauticas.asp). Also, most ports are closed and you are not allowed to walk around there.
Probably the best way for a foreigner to get around on Cuba is on the V�azul buses  (http://www.viazul.cu). These are well-staffed and luxurious air-conditioned buses with toilets. Big comfy seats, and lots of legroom. Refreshments and bathroom breaks are provided. V�azul buses are mostly used by foreigners and rich locals. For popular routes like Havana-Vinales you'll need to book your ticket a day before departure to secure your seat, you may not get a ticket if you just show up right before departure. Bring a Lpngslefe (Pullover) up in the Bus - the Airconditions normally run on highest level.
Alternatively there is the regular Astro bus system for local people and it also services smaller and non-touristic cities. Foreigners are charged higher prices, but it is still 3-4 times cheaper then Viazul. Pre-booking is mandatory and this requires Spanish skills. However, these buses often miss their schedule, break down and are overcrowded.
It is also possible to cover some distances on special tourist minibuses, vans carring 4-5 tourists. The cost is a few dollars more but highly recommended if you are not planning to sleep the whole distance, plus, you can ask the driver to stop along the way.
Official taxis are pretty expensive for long distances. For example cost of Havana-Vinales route is about CUC 90-100. However, there are some locals who are willing to illegally ride "taxi" with their old car for somewhat less money, if you are open to adventures (and don't mind the smell of gasoline).
Car rental starts from CUC 65/day + a full tank of gasoline. Rental cars are for the most part fairly new, imported European models (contrast with the 1950s American vehicles that the Cubans are forced to rely upon since the US embargo).
Generally traffic is medium, especially away from Havana, but be warned - you share the highways with cyclists (sometimes going the wrong way, and at night usually without lights) and horse drawn vehicles. Also note that the main highway is crossed at occasional intervals by railway tracks - take care to slow down before going over to avoid damage to tyres / suspension.
Gasoline costs CUC 1,5/Regular and 1,60/Super per litre.
Cuba also runs a train between Havana and Santiago, a trip lasting around 12 hours. The trains, imported from France, are modern, comfortable, often too heavily air conditioned, and also feature snack service.
Cuba's national carrier is Cubana de Aviaci�n (http://www.cubana.cu). If you want to reach a distant part of the island (like Santiago de Cuba from Havana), you can make this trip fast and comfortable with one of the domestic flights.
The official language of Cuba is Spanish. The Spanish spoken in Cuba is quite different from that spoken in Spain. They like to swallow the last sound in a word and generally swallow the 's' sound. See also: Spanish phrasebook
Until the end of 2004 there were 3 currencies circulating in Cuba: local Pesos (CU), Convertible Pesos (CUC) and US Dollar (USD). USD and CUC were equal in value, and tourists could pay by USD to local people who changed in back to their local Pesos.
Since November 2004 Castro made a change: USD is penalized with a 10% exchange tax, so it doesn't circulate in the country as before. Now the official currency which a tourist can own is CUC. Some advise to take Euros (EUR), because EUR exchange rate seems to be about 10% better than of US dollars. (Official rate in December 2005 was 1CUC=1.04 EUR=0.89 USD (before surcharge)). However taking the exchange rates between the USD and EUR into account the actual difference is only 5% and then still you have to pay commission when exchanging your USD into EUR. Canadian Dollar are, together with Swiss Francs, also accepted for exchange everywhere, without any taxes.
It is a common wrong thinking that tourists can't change local pesos (CU) at banks. Yes they can, however, goods you can buy for local pesos are limited. But to buy some fruits, vegetables, fresh juices and snacks from street vendors it is a good idea to have some local pesos. But don't change more than EUR 10-15 at time, because as said, their use is limited and with an exchange rate of 1 EUR = 24 CU (December 2005) you'll have plenty for about a week.
As any third world country, most of the merchandise available is designed for tourists to take back home. The biggest Cuban export are Rum, Cigars and Coffee. All of which are available at government owned stores (including the duty free store at the airport) or on the streets. For genuine merchandise, you should pay the official price at the legal stores.
Another thing Cubans do well is music such as salsa, son and Afro-Cubano. You can purchase CDs or tapes anywhere but it is recommended paying the average cost of US$20 to guarantee quality and to support the artists.
Tourists are permitted to import or export a maxiumum of 100 Cuban pesos or 200 convertible pesos at any one time.
Debit cards cannot be used. Visa & Mastercard can be used, including cash advances You must have a PIN number set up at home. There is an 11% "tax" on Visa use but the exchange is then set to american dollars. For reference:(Dec.2005) the in-country exchange 100 Canadian dollars was 72 CUC or 1.39 CDN =1 CUC but the exchange rate at the time for american dollars vs canadian was 1 american= 1.20 canadaian....so 100 cuc plus 11% is 111 *1.20 =1.332 using a visa card. So it was better to use the visa by a little bit.
In Varadaro the Euro exchange rate is 0.95. So you can get about 1.05 pesos. But its usually just used interchangeably.
Banks are generally open until 5pm. When going to a bank take enough time, because service is usually slow and many people may already be waiting. There are no classical live queues in banks -- instead you sit down and a guard will point who is next when a counter is freed. Foreigners may get preferred treatment in exchange for a small tip. You must bring your passport in case you want to exchange traveller checks, cash is changed without passport usually. Feel free to use the service offered in hotels, since the exchange rates are everywhere the same, there won't be any bad or good rates, since it's regulated by the state.
The food in Cuba is notorious for being bland, however, this really depends on the hotel. One hotel which seems to have pretty good food reviews is Iberostar Tainos or Sol Sirenas in Varadero. Black beans is a main staple in Cuban households. Cubans eat mainly only pork and chicken. Beef, fish, lobster, turtle, and just about everything else is illegal to sell outside of state owned hotels and restaurants. If you eat in a 'paladares' which are privately owned restaurants and you have turtle, you are not only eating endangered animals, you're eating illegal food. Even the jail sentence for a Cuban killing a cow is very strict.
A tasty serving of rice, vegetables, plantains, and pork or beef (called a "cajita" ["little box" in English]) is an attractive and affordable option, and are generally sold for around $1USD out of people's homes.
Cuban national cocktails include the Cuba Libre (rum and coke) and the Mojito (rum, lime, sugar, mint leaves and ice). Cristal is a light beer and is available in dollar stores where Cubans with CUCs (convertable pesos) & visitors may shop. Cubans prefer the Bucanero Fuerte, which at 5.5% alcohol is a strong (hence the 'fuerte') darker beer.
If you want to experience something of the real life of Cubans the best places to stay are in Casas Particulares (private houses licensed to offer lodging services to foreigners). They are cheaper than hotels (average CUC 20/room) and the food (breakfast CUC 3-4, dinner CUC 7-10) is invariably better than you would get in a hotel. Staying in someone's house, you may be shown family photos, and enjoy a more intimate and enlightening experience. However, many hosts may look artificially too friendly, perhaps something to do with the business side of your stay.
The University of Havana offers both long and short Spanish courses.
The average official salary for Cubans is US$15. However, non-Cubans can obtain a work visa if they find a position with a legal establishment, such as the government, which renewable every six months.
Cuba is generally a very safe country; strict and prominent policing, combined with neighborhood watch style-programs keep the streets safe from violent crime. Nonetheless, a certain degree of caution is advisable, especially in major cities. Visitors are advised to avoid coming to the attention of the Cuban police and security services. Drug laws can be draconian and their implementation unpredictable. The same may be said about the laws concerning prostitution. The importation, procession or production of pornography is strictly prohibited.
Tourists, then, are advised not to involve themselves in the following three areas: politics, drugs, or pornography/prostitution.
Cuba is considered very healthy except for the water; even the Cubans boil their water. The best solution is bottled water and lots of it (especially for visitors who are not used to the 30 C degree and plus temperatures).
The island is subtropical and so the host to a number of diseases. An aggressive program of inoculations is worth considering when planning a trip to Cuba.
Visitors who get sick in Cuba can easily see a doctor. Cuba's health care system is in good shape and the number of doctors per capita is higher than in Canada. Finding medication is often very difficult. It is highly recommended to stock up on off-the-shelf medication before heading to Cuba. Do not attempt to import psychoactive drugs into Cuba.
Havana also features a clinic (and emergency room) for foreigners, which offers extremely prompt service.
You must pay a departure tax of 25 CUC at the airport.
Export of goods
- Cigars. If you are planning to take big quantities (several boxes or more) of cigars with you, be sure you have purchased them officially from an approved shop that gives you proper purchase documentation. If you buy cigars cheap on streets and you don't have official purchase invoice then your cigars may/will be confiscated. Americans are no longer allowed to bring Cuban Cigars back into the US, regardless of their value, if they have an OFAC license, or even if they were given as a gift.
- Paintings and artwork. Officially you'll need permission to export paintings that are larger than 70cm/side. When you buy artwork from approved shop then they'll give you also the required document, that consists of one paper and one stamp that will be glued on back of your painting. Serial numbers on the stamp and paper must match. Cost of the document is about CUC 2-3. In reality, it is possible that no one will be interested in your paintings.