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CUBA

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Classic cars, Havana, Cuba
Havana (La Habana), © Can Stock Photo / rgbspace

Cuba is officially known as the Republic of Cuba and has a population of over 11 million.  The country is located in the Caribbean, south of Florida & the Bahamas.  It consists of the largest island in the Caribbean, plus a number of small islands around it.  Cuba was claimed by Columbus upon landing there in 1492.  It remained Spanish until 1898 and had affiliation with the United States until Fidel Castro and the Communist Party took over in 1965.  The United States has never recognized Cuba and bans all travel and trade with it.  Cuba cigars have become more famous due to their illegal nature in the United States.  Cuba's isolation from the United States affected its access to American automotive parts and the country has now become famous for the repair and restoration of vehicles that were on the island prior to 1965.  Havana is the capital and largest city, with a population of more than 2 million.  Havana is a cultural experience that makes Cuba unique.  Varadero is popular for its beaches, however the food at all-inclusive resorts in Cuba tends to fall short of expectation when compared to other Caribbbean destinations.  Our recommendation is to concentrate on a cultural experience when visitng Cuba and to pick another Caribbean island for lounging on the beach.

Weather:

Cuba experiences a typical Caribbean climate.  The dry season extends from November to April, while the rest of the year is subject to heavier rainfall.   Winter has average highs that are comfortable room temperature, while summers are a few degrees higher and average about 25 C (80 F).  Cuba is directly in the path of the Caribbean hurricane season in September and October.

Transportation:

American citizens are prohibited from spending any money in Cuba, which effectively denies access to the country.  Non US affiliated airlines fly in to several airports in Cuba.  The airport in Havana is too small for some aircraft.  For example, WestJet flies to Varadero, Cayo Coco, Holguin and Santa Clara, but not Havana.  Virgin Atlantic, Air France, KLM, Air Canada, Iberia, British Airways and Air Europa have service to Cuba.  No major cruise lines visit Cuba.

El Morro Castle, Havana, Cuba

El Morro Castle, © Can Stock Photo / Rostislavv

Other facts about Cuba:

  • Spanish is the official language, but English is commonly spoken.

  • The currency is the Cuban Convertible peso, but US and Canadian $ are accepted.  Most hotels have a money exchange office on site.  Visa and Mastercard cheques and credit cards are widely accepted.  American Express is not commonly accepted.  ATMs are not available in Cuba.

  • Voltage is 110V or 220V, so bring an adapter just in case.

  • A tourist card, provided at the airport, must be carried at all times.

  • Travelers must prove they have health insurance to enter the country.  This is related to ensuring visitors do not take advantage of the free medical care that is provided to inhabitants.

  • There is a mandatory airport tax of CUC 25 payable only in Cuban convertible pesos.

  • Export is permitted of 20 cigars or 50 if they are sealed in an official container.  

  • Americans cannot import Cuban goods, including Cuban cigars, into the US by any means.

Capitolio and Grand Theater of Havana, Cuba

Capitolio and Grand Theater, © Can Stock Photo / yykkaa

Attractions in Havana (La Habana):

Things to see and do:

  • The Old Town (Habana Vieja) is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It is a bit more spread out than other old towns around the world.  The Old Town is bordered by the Malecon (sea wall), where you can watch the sunset over the city.  The Malecon covers 5 miles from Havana Harbor to Vedado.  San Lázaro Street runs parallel to it at the northern section.  The Old Town includes the Havana Cathedral, Plaza de Armas and the Plaza Vieja (the old Plaza).  In times gone by a bullfight or an execution might happen in the Plaza Vieja.  Also in Old Town is the well known Bodeguita del Medio, one of the bars where Ernest Hemingway used to hang out.  Have a mojito there in his honor.  El Templete, in the Old Town, marks the location of the founding of the city in 1519.

  • El Morro Castle - the fortress guarding the entrance to the harbor, typical of many Caribbean ports.  It was built in the 16th century and is across Havana Harbor by tunnel from the Old Town.  There are several other Spanish fortifications around the harbor that were built to protect Havana.  These include the Fortress San Carlos de la Cabaña, Castillo de la Real Fuerza (in the Old Town) and the  Fortress San Salvador de la Punta (along the Malecon).  While touring the fortifications across the harbor from the Old Town, also visit the Christ of Havana, a large marble sculpture overseeing the city.

Malecon, Havana, Cuba

Malecon, (c) Can Stock Photo Inc. / rgbspace

  • At the western edge of the Old Town, a series of attractions extend southward from the Malecon.  At the Museo de la Revolución, see the tank that Castro drove during the Bay of Pigs battle.  Also at the museum is the yacht that brought Castro and Che Guevara to Cuba from Mexico in 1956.  Immediately south of the Museum of the Revolution is the Museum of Fine Arts (Muse Nacional de Bellas Artes).  Another block to the south is the frequently photographed Hotel Plaza, built in the 1890s.  El Floridita is a block further south.  This bar has a seat reserved for Ernest Hemmingway.  A walk of two more blocks takes you to the Great Theatre of Havana.  Directly opposite the theater is the National Capitol (El Capitolio Nacional).  The Capitol includes the Statue of the Republic, the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Museum of Natural History. 

  • Centro Habana - the New Town is located directly to the west of the Old Town.

  • Plaza de la Revolucion - take an elevator up the 350 foot Jose Marti Memorial for views of the city.  See the image of Che Guevara in front of the Ministry of the Interior.

  • Cemetery Colon (Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón) - one of the world's most famous cemeteries, with over a million tombs.

  • Tropicana Cabaret - an open-air nightclub built in 1939.  Carmen Miranda performed here.  This was the inspiration for the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas.

  • Visit the famous 1950s mobster hotels - Hotel Nacional de Cuba and Hotel Habana Libre in Vedado. 

  • Watch a baseball game.  It's an obsession in Cuba.  See the Serie Nacional de Béisbol (late October to April) or during the play-offs (April/May).

  • Take a cab ride in a classic car.

Varadero, Cuba

Varadero, © Can Stock Photo / gvictoria

Things to see and do near Havana:

  • Playas del Este, just east of the city along the coastal highway, which offers an uninterrupted six kilometre stretch of palm-shaded sands.

  • Travel 2 hours east to the beaches on the narrow peninsula of Varadero.  This has become a strip of large all-inclusive resorts, similar to the Riviera Maya in Mexico.

  • Visit the Cayo Largo Turtle Farm, La Granja de las Tortugas, to see Green Sea Turtles on the island of Cayo Largo several hours south of Havana.  Bring the rescue center turtle food as a donation to help support the survival of this species.

Savor the Tastes of Cuba:

  • Smoke a Cuban cigar.  Try Fábrica El Laguito, makers of Havana's famous Montecristos and Cohibas cigars.  Take a cigar factory tours, such as Partagas, La Corona or Romeo y Julieta.

  • Cuban sandwich - Cuban bread with roast pork, sliced ham, swiss cheese, pickles and mustard.

  • Frita - hamburger with chorizo ground in.

  • Boliche - beef roast stuffed with hard boiled eggs and spicy sausage.

  • Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor

  • Rice with almost anything.

Havana Cathedral, Cuba

Havana Cathedral, © Can Stock Photo / frankix

Hotels in Cuba:

  • Most popular accommodation software (Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline etc) is US affiliated and will not allow Cuban accommodation in their data.

  • Take That Vacation recommends Iberostar in Cuba and in particular the Iberostar Parque Central in the heart of Havana.

  • Cuba Accommodation

  • Try a casa particular (the Cuban phrase for a B&B private room) and experience the local ambience of the people of Cuba.  Some suggestions are Casa Particular Organization and Cuba Particular.

  • For transportation from Varadero airport to Havana, try Viazul.


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