Cuba Holiday Planning Guide
The largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba lies just 140 km (90 mi) south of Florida and captivates a growing number of Western visitors with its tropical landscapes and cultural attractions. Sightseeing in Cuba inevitably begins in Havana, a city of photogenic architecture, lively nightlife, and a passion for baseball. The country's smaller colonial towns usually feature central squares, ideal places to meet the locals under wrought-iron street lamps. Savvy visitors escape the cities during their Cuba holidays, devoting plenty of time to the country's charming countryside, where you can get the feel for this diverse land by conversing with friendly tobacco farmers and small-scale fruit producers.
Places to Visit in Cuba
Regions of CubaPinar del Rio Province
: The major attractions in this rural province are its World Heritage-listed agricultural valley, popular among hikers and rock climbers, and a model eco-village.Isla de la Juventud
: Visit this island on your vacation in Cuba to discover the country's colorful pirate past that served as a model for both J. M. Barrie's "Neverland" and Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island."Cienfuegos Province
: Dotted with sugar cane plantations, the country's smallest province attracts nature enthusiasts with its picturesque waterfalls, many underwater caves, and more than 50 dive sites.Villa Clara Province
: This paradisal province attracts tourists with its powdery white-sand beaches, numerous coral reefs, and modern tourist resorts.
Cities in CubaVaradero
: One of the largest resort areas in the Caribbean boasts many popular tourist attractions in Cuba, including virgin forests, beaches, and offshore cays.Havana
: Cuba's capital and major commercial center exhibits a blend of European, African, and American cultural influences and a curious mixture of elegance and decay.Cayo Guillermo
: Dotted with all-inclusive resorts, this popular international tourist destination draws visitors with its scenery, seaside attractions, and accessibility from the mainland.Vinales
: Nestled in a World Heritage-listed valley, this small agricultural town dotted with squat wooden homes offers a taste of authentic rural life on a Cuba holiday.Santiago de Cuba
: This fast-paced city of undeniable cultural and political relevance draws international visitors with its colonial architecture, monumental squares and sculptures, and a scattering of museums.Trinidad
: This charming, rustic, World Heritage-listed town deserves to be featured on any history buff's Cuba itinerary. Holguin
: For a different perspective on Cuban life, head to this quiet destination, appealing to visitors with its parks, squares, and locally brewed beer.
Popular Cuba Tourist AttractionsVaradero Beach
: Tourists from all over the world flock to this long, heavenly beach, cooled by pleasant tropical breezes and serving as the ideal spot for a classic sun-and-sand Cuba vacation.Old Havana
: The World Heritage-listed downtown of Cuba's capital features numerous examples of Baroque and Neoclassical architecture and represents the starting point of many Cuba tours.El Malecon
: Lined with cafes, bars, and restaurants, this bustling esplanade connects Havana's city center with its harbor.Old Square (Plaza Vieja)
: Designed and laid out in the 1550s, this picturesque square serves as a living reminder of Cuba's colonial past and a popular tourist hub.Plaza de la Catedral
: Surrounded by popular restaurants, this epicenter of Havana's World Heritage-listed old town is home to one of the city's oldest Catholic churches and a museum of colonial art.Valle de Vinales
: This agricultural heart of Cuba ensures outstanding opportunities for horseback riding, hiking, climbing, and exploration of the caves dotting the surrounding hillsides.Playa Paraiso
: Located in a nature reserve, this pristine beach frequently tops Cuba itineraries thanks to its calm shallow waters and soft white sands.Delfinario
: By offering dolphin shows and the opportunity to swim with these intelligent mammals, Delfinario deserves to be featured on any Cuba itinerary catered for families.Sirena Beach
: Sparsely shaded by tropical palms, this white-sand beach allows you to snorkel and swim while watching captive dolphins frolicking in an ocean pen.Ancon Beach
: This long, sandy beach with a busy resort at one end provides plenty of opportunities for fun and relaxation, including snorkeling among tropical fish.
Planning a Cuba Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Cuba with Kids
With its modern, all-inclusive resorts featuring kid-friendly activities, clear waters, and the longest white-sand beach in Cuba, Varadero
is probably the best choice for a family vacation in Cuba.
A day trip to Havana
is a must for discovering the country's rich cultural and historic heritage. The town's colorful murals, bustling squares, and shrines will make the perfect background on your family photos.
The World Heritage-listed city of Trinidad
also offers plenty of sightseeing opportunities, along with good snorkeling options and boat excursions to a couple of "desert islands" nearby.
For a taste of authentic rural life, take your kids to Vinales
, a rustic agricultural town nestled in a World Heritage-listed valley surrounded by low mountains.
Things to Do in Cuba with Kids
Cuba may lack family-oriented theme parks, but it more than make up for that deficiency with its colorful historical legacy.
For a nice slice of history include the 16th-century fortress of El Morro
on your Cuba itinerary, or stroll down the tree-lined Paseo del Prado
to see notable city buildings.
You can let the kids mingle with the locals at Callejon de Hamel
, a vibrant alley district filled with colorful murals. A walk along El Malecon
will also provide a look at the cultural quirks of everyday life in the capital.
To escape from the bustle and hassle of the bigger cities on your Cuba holiday, head to Las Terrazas
to discover gorgeous natural pools, or explore Bellamar Caves
to see otherworldly rock formations. Topes de Collantes
, a mountainous nature reserve known for its two World Heritage Sites, offers scenic hiking trails that go along waterfalls, rivers, and clear natural pools. It's an ideal place for families to appreciate Cuba's unspoiled outdoors.
The Cuban coast is lined with kid-friendly beaches covered in fine white sand. Good places to visit if you're looking for classic beach fun include Playa Paraiso
and Playa Pilar
Suitable alternatives like Cayo Guillermo
are perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving. To add a little education to an entertaining experience, take your kids swimming with dolphins at Delfinario
Tips for a Family Vacation in Cuba
To optimize your Cuba vacation, bring everything you and your children might need (from sunscreen and personal hygiene items, to baby formulas, diapers, and prescription medicines), because finding modern consumption items in Cuban stores can be difficult.
To avoid unpleasant side effects, drink only bottled water. Some resorts near Varadero
and Cayo Coco
use filters to purify their water, which makes them a good choice for families with little kids--or anyone with a sensitive stomach.
Internet access is expensive if available, so prepare your kids to part from their cell phones and tablets during your Cuba holiday.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Cuba
Cuisine of Cuba
Mixing Spanish and African cooking styles, native Taino influences, and Caribbean flavors, Cuban cuisine promises an interesting culinary experience on your Cuba vacation.
Cubans start their day with a light breakfast that consists of grilled bread called "tostada," which they often break into pieces and dip into espresso coffee with milk. Fresh fruit like mangos, oranges, and pineapples are also eaten at breakfast.
A typical Cuban meal includes some version of rice and beans. Meat (pork or chicken) is commonly prepared in one of the two popular sauces: "mojo," made with oil, garlic, onion, oregano, and lime juice, or a tomato-based "criollo" sauce.
"Mixto," a Cuban sandwich based on lightly buttered bread and roast pork, is a popular lunch choice.
Shopping in Cuba
Cuba is certainly no retail paradise, and even though modern shopping malls have been emerging since the late 1990s, cigars, rum, coffee, music CDs, and craftworks remain the best purchases on many Cuba holidays. Varadero
offer the widest range of shopping opportunities, from street markets to specialty shops.
Flea markets and "casas comisionistas," the Cuban version of a pawnshop, are great places to browse for vintage items, including Art Deco furniture, 1970s revolutionary posters, and all sorts of 1950s memorabilia.
A trip to Guardalavaca
can provide a memorable shopping experience, which includes browsing through flea market stalls for artworks and handicrafts, namely leather belts, handbags, and hats.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Cuba
Interesting Facts About Cuba
● Cuba is the largest and the most populated island in the Caribbean, with over 11 million inhabitants
● Cuba's health care system is one of the world's best, with the second highest doctor-to-patient ratio in the world (1:170)
● Just before he signed the embargo against Cuba, John F. Kennedy renewed his personal supplies with 1,200 Cuban cigars
● Fidel Castro never erected any monuments to glorify his own achievements, but he commissioned statues of figures he admired, including Che Guevara and John Lennon
● Many babies born to Cuban immigrants living in the United States in the 1970s were named "Usnavi" after U.S. Navy
Things You Should NOT Do in Cuba
Avoid uncomfortable situations during your vacation in Cuba by refraining from any banter about the Cuban revolution, current political system, or Castro's significance.
Don't take photos of soldiers, police officers, and airport personnel--photographing uniformed personnel remains illegal, as does littering.
Several cultural oddities you should keep in mind during your Cuba holiday--Cubans do not tolerate nose blowing and spitting in public. Also, if you have a craving for papaya, ask for fruta bomba instead. Papaya is vulgar slang for vagina, and asking for it may appear offensive or ignorant.
Holidays & Festivals in Cuba
Cuban public holidays mostly correspond to its revolutionary and military heritage, like Liberation Day (January 1) and National Revolution Day (July 26). These types of holidays are usually celebrated with military parades, street music, and free concerts.
Although most Cubans are Roman Catholic, Christmas was not officially celebrated in Cuba from 1969 to 1998. The celebration of New Year's Eve is much more boisterous, with partygoers cramping the streets and rum flowing into the night.
The last week of July, when the carnival of Santiago de Cuba
takes place, is a good time to plan your Cuba vacation. Don't miss this opportunity to see amazing dancers swaying to the sounds of Afro-Cuban drum music.
In February, Havana
is the site of a cigar festival. Some of the country's most popular art festivals, such as Cine Pobre (Cuba's largest film festival) and an international dance festival also take place in the capital in April.
Useful Cuba Travel Tips
Common Greetings in Cuba
In bigger cities and around tourist resorts you will run into Cubans who speak English. Still, it is useful to carry an electronic translator or a pocket dictionary and learn a few phrases in Spanish, such as "perdon" and "disculpame" (excuse me/sorry) and "por favor" (please). "No me moleste, por favor!" comes in handy when you need to get rid of "jineteros" (street hustlers).
Cubans prefer addressing each other with "companero/companera" (comrade) instead of the traditional "senor/senora." A firm handshake and a friendly "hola" (hello) will suffice upon meeting someone for the first time. Friends and family greet each other with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
Climate of Cuba
Cuba boasts a temperate, semi-tropical climate, with average temperatures hovering around 25 C (77 F) all year round.
The coastal areas enjoy the beneficial cooling effects of trade winds and sea breezes. The eastern coast is frequently hit by hurricanes, especially between August and October.
Rain is more common in the mountains, while droughts can be expected in the area around Guantanamo
The best time to plan your trip to Cuba is from January to April, when you can expect dry, sunny weather.
Transportation in Cuba
Stepping on Cuban streets filled with vintage cars operating as government-licensed taxis feels like stepping back in time. Watch out for unlicensed taxis, though--they're the ones operating without a meter.
Pedal cabs represent a fun way to do some sightseeing around a city, as long as you make sure to agree on the fare upfront. "Camellos" (truck-pulled buses) provide an authentic if a bit unusual alternative in Havana
"Coches de caballo" (horse carriages) will take you from city centers to train/bus stations. From there, you can catch "camiones" (trucks), which are inexpensive and fast, but run on a loose schedule.
"Colectivos" (shared taxis that only leave when full) represent another way to cross long-distance routes during a vacation in Cuba. Cuban railway, which runs from Havana to Santiago
, serves as another reliable option.
Hitchhiking is a big part of Cuban culture, but don't attempt to hitch a ride without a good map and some basic Spanish.
Tipping in Cuba
In Cuba, it's customary to tip workers in service industries, such as waiters, bellhops, hotel cleaning staff, drivers, tour guides, and occasionally chefs. All of them rely heavily on tips, which they appreciate very much.
Be careful not to overtip on your Cuba tour or you will hurt the pride of the workers you encounter. Stick to 10 percent of your bill when dining or drinking, and 1 peso notes when rewarding bellhops and other hotel staff.