Cuba travel guide: Essential information to travel to Cubaby | November 21, 2023
Cuba is an island located in the Caribbean Sea. Most people know about the Cuban Revolution and its impact in recent world history before they travel to Cuba, but this island is so much more than that. The people are lively and fun, the cities are colorful and the natural landscapes are unmatched.
In this Cuba travel guide you will discover the essential information you need for traveling to Cuba, like a brief summary of its history, its gastronomy, essential attractions and more.
You can also read our travel tips for Cuba for additional information to help you navigate a trip to Cuba successfully.
The flag of Cuba was created in 1850 by anti-Spanish Cuban nationals in New York City.
Also known as “the Lone Star flag”, it has three blue stripes and two white ones, with a triangle in the left corner and within it a single white star.
Each design element has its own meaning:
- The three blue stripes represent the three districts found in Cuba at that time of Spanish dominion.
- The two white stripes represent the purity of their cause.
- The red triangle symbolizes strength, equality and perseverance
- The white star represents independence.
Where is Cuba?
Cuba is an island located in the Greater Antilles of the West Indies. The country also comprises the Isle of Youth (“Isla de la Juventud” in Spanish) and more than 4.000 keys. You can find more than 600 beaches alongside the coast of Cuba!
It borders the Caribbean Sea to the south and the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico to the north. The nearest countries are Haiti (77 km to the East of Cuba) and the Bahamas (80 km to the north). The United States is 150 km to the north of Cuba.
Cuba’s relief is mostly plain (about 75% of the territory), with only 3 mountain ranges:
- Sierra Maestra, a famous area home to renowned Cuban national parks like Turquino Peak.
- Sierra de Guaniguanico, located in the Pinar del Rio province.
- Sierra del Escambray (Guamuhaya), an eco-tourism paradise located in Central Cuba.
History and Heritage of Cuba
The history of Cuba can be cataloged into three specific periods: precolonial, colonial and post colonial Cuba.
Cuba had been populated for more than 4 thousand years before Cristopher Columbus arrived in the country in October, 1492. Three native populations resided in Cuba during precolonial times, of which there isn’t much documentary evidence. They were the Ciboney, Taino and Guanahatabey peoples.
Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar settled in Cuba in 1511, giving way to the colonial period of Cuban history as its first governor (adelantado). The colonial period was characterized for the large presence of African slaves, the sugarcane plantations and cruelty against the native population of Cuba. The period lasted until the Treaty of Paris signed on the 10th of December, 1898, which granted Cuba independence from Spain but left the island in the control of the United States during the Spanish-American War.
Post colonial times in Cuba can be divided in two different stages, divided by the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
The stage before the Revolution was characterized by the strong influence of the US, visible in every aspect of government and the economy. Cubans were fighting for their total independence and against foreign rule during this time. The local rulers were also problematic, with corruption and assassinations being par for the course.
Gerardo Machado y Morales was a Cuban president who was corrupt and who gradually became a dictator. A military coup organized by Fulgencio Batista succeeded in running him out of power and out of the country. Batista stayed in power for 25 years, through presidents installed by himself or directly (from 1940 to 1944 and then from 1952 to 1959).
His dictatorial hold on power ended with the Cuban Revolution, led by Fidel Castro. The start of the revolution can be placed on December 2, 1956, when Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and more landed in Cuba aboard the yacht “Granma” after being in exile.
After years of guerrilla warfare, Batista left Cuba on January 1, 1959. He would spend the rest of his life in exile. The first provisional government was installed a week later, with Fidel Castro serving as prime minister.
The new administration followed the teachings of communism, with close relations to the Soviet Union and a very strained relationship with the US (who ended up installing an embargo against Cuba that severely affected the economy of the island).
Fidel Castro would stay in control of Cuban politics until 2008, succeeded by his brother Raúl Castro, and he died in 2016.
Culture and traditions of Cuba
The people of Cuba are fun and hospitable, always ready to talk for ages with the tourists that visit Cuba. They’re welcoming and warm, and like for people to know about real life on the island.
If you would like to partake in typical Cuban festivities, carnaval and local parties in the town square are your best bet. Prepare to drink rum and dance the night away!
As we said, Cubans are fun. Music is heard everywhere in Cuba, the people like to dance, sing and talk amongst them and with travelers.
Other elements of importance in Cuban culture are tobacco, rum and coffee, the country’s main exports. There are many tourist places that offer visitors the chance of learning about these industries, especially for tobacco aficionados. Pinar del Rio, and particularly Viñales, are perfect starting points for this attraction.
Gastronomy of Cuba
The gastronomy of Cuba represents the cultural influence found in the island, mainly from the Spanish, African, Taino and Caribbean cuisines.
The dishes that represent Cuban food are ropa vieja, tostones, rice and beans, chicken and rice, Moros y Cristianos and congrí.
In terms of typical Cuban drinks, rum and sugarcane are prevalent. The Cuba Libre (rum with Coca-cola and lemon) is an obvious choice, as well as the daiquiri, mojito and piña colada.
Weather in Cuba
The weather in Cuba is subtropical, usually warm all year long. There are only two seasons: the dry and wet ones, spanning from November to April and from May to November respectively. The best time for Cuba travel is during the dry season, although it’s also the high season for Cuba tourism.
The average temperatures range from 20ºC in January to 27ºC in July.
Currency of Cuba
The official currency of Cuba is the Cuban peso (C.U.P.). Its exchange rate is set, it doesn’t fluctuate due to the government’s influence. You can get 24 C.U.P. in exchange for 1 USD, and 25 in exchange for 1 Euro.
The easiest way to exchange foreign currencies if you travel to Cuba is going to CADECAS (the governmental exchange offices) or ATMs, although they don’t always work.
Credit cards are usually accepted, but it’s best to always carry the local currency while on a trip to Cuba.
Things to do in Cuba
Travel to Cuba will never be boring. Whether you like learning about the history of your holiday destinations, you prefer relaxing on the beach or you like walking around in nature, you won’t lack things to do in Cuba. Keep reading to discover our selection of attractions you can’t miss during Cuba travel.
Museo de la Revolución
The Museo de la Revolución is one of the essential things to do in Havana if you would like to learn more about this time in Cuban history.
In this museum you will learn about the causes and consequences of the revolution, on top of being able to see important artifacts used in the revolution, news clippings and more.
Stroll through Old Havana
This area is one of the essential places to visit in Cuba and probably the best representation of life on the island. Walk around, talk to the locals and take as many pictures as you can. This place will stay with you long after you leave Cuba!
Viñales Valley, or Valle de Viñales, is located west of Havana. Its landscape is characterized by the heaps of stone and abundant vegetation.
This place is perfect to experience rural Cuba and, since the main attractions for Cuba tourism in the area are the tobacco farms, this is where you need to go to learn how to roll an authentic Cuban cigar. You can taste them and buy them as souvenirs as well.
Bay of Pigs
This place played an important role in Cuban history due to the invasion that took place there. Now, it’s the perfect place to go scuba diving when you visit Cuba! It’s extremely close to the Ciénaga de Zapata, so it’s easy to visit them both in a single trip.
Cayo Guillermo is one of the most spectacular natural environments to see if you’re traveling to Cuba. Measuring only 13 km², this tiny key is perfect for scuba diving and snorkeling because of the amazing sealife you can see. If that’s not for you, simply lying down in the white sand and enjoying the clear sea will be more than enough enjoyment.
There are 6 biosphere reserves in Cuban soil, as designated by UNESCO, which are good attractions if you’re interested in exploring the natural landscapes in the island. They are: Sierra del Rosario, Cuchillas del Toa, Península de Guanahacabibes, Baconao, Ciénaga de Zapata and Buenavista.
If you like to enjoy a day in the sun, Varadero beach is the perfect option. It’s a small, quiet city with some of the best beaches in the country. It’s also a good location for scuba diving and snorkeling.
You can also book excursions to other nearby beaches like, for example, Cayo Blanco.
There are also 6 Ramsar sites in Cuba, which aim to protect the wetlands of international importance.
The 6 protected wetlands are: Ciénaga de Lanier y Sur de la Isla de la Juventud, Ciénaga de Zapata, Buenavista, Gran Humedal del Norte de Ciego de Ávila, Humedal del Río Máximo-Cagüey and Humedal Delta del Cauto.
Other two proposals are being studied, for the Península de Guanahacabibes and the Humedal Sur de Los Palacios, both located in the Pinar del Rio province.
Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt
Alejandro de Humboldt National Park was designated as a Natural World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2001. Located in North-East Cuba, its amazing biodiversity makes it a perfect place to hike.
Is Cuba safe?
Is Cuba safe to travel? Yes, there’s a very low crime rate and there’s a good police presence. However, as with most tourist places, it’s best to be cautious to avoid inconveniences.
For starters, be wary of overcharging, a common practice amongst Cuban tourist providers. Try to bargain when possible. Also, it’s advisable to carry little amounts of cash and to avoid walking around alone at night (especially in Old Havana and Vedado). Avoid displaying your valuables and look out for pickpockets in public transport.
In terms of natural dangers, it’s best to avoid the hurricane season spanning from July to November to travel to Cuba safely.
Do I need a visa for Cuba?
There are two types of Cuban tourist cards:
- Standard (Cuba Green card): for eligible travelers who are traveling to Cuba from all other countries except the US. The government fees for this visa cost 22€.
- Specific (Pink tourist card): US citizens and travelers of other countries who enter Cuba from the US (by plane, boat or on a layover) will need to get this type of Cuban visa, even if they’re not citizens of the USA. The government fees cost 120€.
Both tourist cards allow holders to stay in the country for 30 days and they’re both single-entry.
It’s also important to read about the Cuba entry requirements before you travel to Cuba. For example, it’s mandatory to have travel insurance for Cuba.
Also, do I need any vaccinations for Cuba? Only the yellow fever vaccine is mandatory for those traveling from endemic countries.