CUBA

Introduction

Although typically considered as a single territory, the Republic of Cuba is an archipelago of islands, consisting of the island of Cuba (which is part of the Greater Antilles), the Isle of Youth and other smaller islands. Located in the Northern Caribbean, it is connected to the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

The most populous country in the region, Cuba also enjoys one of the most diverse cultures thanks to its rich history. The earliest inhabitants were the Guanajatabey people, who were later supplanted by the Taíno and Ciboney peoples (commonly known as the Arawak). However, the recorded history of Cuba only begins with Christopher Columbus, who claimed the island for Spain on October 28th 1492. In the face of concerted resistance from the Taíno peoples, this arrangement was only consolidated by 1514 with the establishment of the first Spanish settlement, which would later become Havana. Aided by a huge influx of African slaves, the island prospered as an exporter of sugar, tobacco and coffee, staying in Spanish hands for 388 years until the pro-independence movement was galvanised by José Martí in the 1890s, climaxing with the Spanish-American War and formal independence in 1902.

The modern history and culture of Cuba has been shaped in large part by fractious relations with their former liberators, courtesy of Fidel Castro's Communist regime, in power since the Cuban Revolution of 1959. That said, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, attitudes have changed marginally, with palpable benefits for tourism, making it an extremely popular place to visit.

  • Population – 11,382,820 (2006 estimate)
  • Language – Spanish
  • Tel Services - Country Code
  • Currency – Peso
  • Time – GMT -5

Climate

Cuba has a semi-tropical climate due to its proximity to the Tropic of Cancer. Temperatures can be very high, but trade winds generally take the edge off. The dry season is typically between November and April, with May and June the wettest months.

Average temperature in Cuba
Period Celsius
January-March 21
April-June 25
July-September 26
October-December 23

It is worth remembering that Cuba has historically suffered from hurricanes, from the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846 to modern natural disasters like Hurricane Allen in 1980 and Hurricane Wilma in 2005. With that in mind, be wary of travelling in September and October.

Things to see and do

Cuba enjoys 2 million visitors annually, largely due to the capital city of Havana. A major attraction is El Capitolio Nacional, completed in 1929 it was the former seat of the pre-revolutionary government and is now the Cuban Academy of Sciences and stands in beautiful neo-classical style. Even more imposing is the incredible Christ of Havana, recalling the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro and looking over the city from the other side of the bay. Also worth a visit are the 16th century Castillo del Morro, the 18th century La Cabaña fortress and the 760 hectare Lenin Park. On the culture front, make time for the Museum of the Revolution in the old Presidential Palace, the National Aquarium and the Casa de Las Américas museum.

It needn't all be sightseeing either, as you'll find a number of beaches approximately half an hour outside the city. The most popular of these are Bacuranao, Tarará and Guanabo. When the sun sets though, head back to Old Havana for restaurants or Vedado for the best clubs in the capital.

It's not all about Havana though. Santiago de Cuba is a thriving city, with the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba in June and July a national event, dating back to the 17th century and encompassing dancing, music and plenty of drinking.

Alternatively, the historic centre of Cienfugos on the southern coast is a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its collection of 19th century neo-classical buildings like the unique Arco de Triunfo. The Viñales Valley is another popular tourist destination, being a great spot for hiking and rock climbing, despite its official use for growing tobacco and other crops. If you're interested in the communist heritage of the country though, you'd be well advised to pop over to Santa Clara, where you'll find a Mausoleum for fallen revolutionaries, including Che Guevara.

Just to prove it's not all about the main island though, you can easily take a boat to the Isla de la Juventud from Batabanó for approximately 50 pesos per person and check out the pleasant Playa Paraiso.

Useful links

Cuba Tourist Board
154 Shaftesbury Avenue
London WC2H 8JT
United Kingdom
www.cubatravel.cu

Travel

José Martí International Airport is the main international and domestic airport in Cuba, situated a short distance from central Havana with Cubana de Aviación operating a service to and from London-Gatwick. However, there is no bus service from the airport.

Another option is Juan Gualberto Gómez International Airport in Varadero, where Monarch Airlines and Thomsonfly operate to and from London-Gatwick, and MyTravel travel from London-Gatwick and Manchester.

Once in the country, there is a fairly decent railway network revolving around the three main stations of Casablanca, La Coubre and Central Rail Station. The Havana to Santiago route is a good option for tourists. Alternatively, you can opt for buses to get from city to city. Viazul and ASTRO Bus provide this good budget service, mainly from Havana.

Accommodation

Havana is a surprisingly expensive city to visit in general, and hotels are no exception. The best hotels are by and large located in the Vedado area and, for a top hotel, you can expect to pay upwards of £70 per night. However, there are budget options between £15 and £25 a night, such as the Hotel Caribbean in the Prado promenade and the Hotel Tropicoco. As a whole, Old Havana is an excellent district to try if you want a well-priced hotel, but be prepared to compromise on quality.

A better option for the backpacker who wants to get a fuller experience of living in Cuba are the casas particulares. Private houses offering lodging services to foreigners, they are markedly cheaper than hotels and with superior food to add to the bargain. Even in Havana, you can expect to pay just £10-£20 per night. However, be sure to book in advance and don't be afraid to look beyond Havana for better prices.

Health care issues

There is no private health care in Cuba, everything is covered by the national health service. The quality of Cuba's medical services is surprisingly decent, with a doctor available for every 170 residents (a ratio second only to Italy in the world). That said, as a foreigner, expect problems getting immediate treatment should you fall ill – although Havana does have a clinic especially for foreigners.

Once in Cuba, watch out for the water, and be wary of the milk and eggs, which can be unpasteurised. Opinion varies on disease protection before visiting the island, with some recommending a full program of inoculations and, conversely, many travellers going with none. In general though, Hepatitis B and tetanus shots are recommended.