Cuba: from the old buildings to the rustic countryside, cobblestone streets, vintage cars and rich culture, Cuba is a destination that makes it onto most people’s travel bucket lists.
This Caribbean island country boasts some of the most idyllic beaches and attractions in the world, and there’s something for nearly every type of traveler.
Whether you’re planning to explore historical Havana or enjoy one of the all-inclusive resorts the island has to offer, this Cuba travel guide will help you maximize your time on this beautiful Caribbean island.
- When to Travel to Cuba
- Things to Know Before You Visit Cuba
- Things to Do in Cuba
- Places to Visit in Cuba
- Getting Around Cuba
- Highlights of Traveling to Cuba
Where is Cuba?
Officially known as The Republic of Cuba, as it includes not only the main island of Cuba, but Isla de la Juventad and several smaller islands (or chains of islands), Cuba is located in the northern Caribbean where the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean meet (see map below).
Cuba is south of the USA (specifically the state of Florida), north of Jamaica, east of Mexico and west of The Bahamas.
The South American continent sits below it.
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, measuring 104,556 km2 (40,369 sq mi) and has the second highest population in the Caribbean, second only to Haiti.
When to Travel to Cuba
Cuba has two main seasons, the rainy season (from May to October) and the dry season (from November to April).
This makes the most popular time to visit Cuba towards the end of October until April. Temperatures during this time range between 75° and 80°F (24° to 27°C).
The coastal regions and beaches have their best weather during this time.
The sun can be intense at the beginning of the dry season, so if you want to narrow it down even further, we suggest March or April, when it’s not too hot.
Temperatures are fairly steady at 80° to 84°F during this time (27°to 29°C).
What makes this time ideal is that you just miss peak tourist season which spans- from mid-December to mid-March. This is when the beaches are crowded, restaurants are full and prices are the highest.
Weather in Cuba
Cuba is a tropical island in the Caribbean, so you can expect plenty of warm sunshine and humidity.
As mentioned, Cuba has two main seasons, the rainy season (May-Oct) and the dry season (Nov-April), with an average temperature of 77°F (25°C). Peak summer temperatures average 81°F (27°C), and peak winter 70°F (21°C).
August is the hottest month with January being the coldest.
Things to Know Before You Visit Cuba
Prepping for the perfect vacation does require some planning, but we’ve done the hard work for you and made a list of some things you should know about Cuba to help you prepare.
Traveling to Cuba
Visa & Passport Requirements
Anyone traveling to Cuba must obtain a visa or “tourist card” from the Cuban diplomatic mission in your respective country.
Alternatively, you could apply through a travel agency or certain authorized airlines.
The tourist card will allow you to visit the country for 30 days, which should be sufficient for your vacation.
There are 19 countries which are exempt from needing a visa, and you can find this information online.
Unfortunately, Canada or the USA are not part of this list, but if you want to book from Mexico, you could do so without needing a visa since Mexico falls under the list of exempt countries.
Flights to Cuba
Most major airlines fly to the José Martí International Airport in Havana, so it’s highly likely that you’ll find a flight from your country.
There are direct flights from most major US and Canadian cities.
At the time of writing, you could fly from the US to Cuba for as little as $162 round trip.
Is Cuba Safe to Travel To?
No country in the world is totally crime free but Cuba is generally a friendly and peaceful country with one of the lowest violent crime rates in the Caribbean and South America.
Petty crime exists, like with anywhere, but it’s mainly pickpocketing and theft. keep your personal belongings close to you and don’t leave them unattended - especially at the beaches and popular tourist attractions.
Avoid drinking tap water and be sure to protect yourself from mosquitoes while in Cuba. The roads are sometimes in poor condition so it’s best not to drive on your own; rather take a taxi and leave the driving to the locals who are used to the roads.
What Language is Spoken in Cuba?
Spanish and Haitian Creole are the two prominent languages.
Most Cubans speak only Spanish but in the larger cities and tourist areas English is common, so should have no problem communicating.
Money in Cuba
The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), which was the national currency, has been removed from circulation as of 1st January 2021. If you happen to have any in your possession, you can change it for the new Cuban National Peso between January and June.
As of the time of writing this article, the Cuba National Peso (CUP) is the only legal cash currency in Cuba.
You cannot withdraw US currency from a bank or ATM in Cuba, but if you carry them with you, you can change dollars at a bank for Cuban currency.
We recommend that you only change currency at a bank or Cadeca exchange houses as counterfeit money is not uncommon in Cuba.
Is Cuba Expensive?
Cuba is very affordable compared to other Caribbean islands, but being a tourist destination, it is more expensive than most South American countries.
Cuba used to have a second currency just for tourists, the Cuban Convertible Peso, which was 1:1 to the US dollar. As you’ve read above, this is now done away with.
Cheap or expensive is a matter of perspective, but some practical examples should give you good gauge (these are approximate figures):
- McDonald’s combo meal - $5.00
- Pint of beer - $2.00
- Meal for 2 at an average restaurant - $30.00
- 3 star hotel - (+-) $60.00 per night
- 5 star hotel - (+-) $140.00 per night
Travellers recommend around $150 per day to spend in Cuba, although you could get by with $50 a day if you’re on a budget.
Tipping Etiquette in Cuba
Tipping is a big deal in Cuba, so you should expect to be giving out tips pretty much everywhere you go, right down to the guy who sets up your umbrella and chairs at the beach. Travellers recommend tipping between 1-3 dollars at a restaurant. Normally would expect to tip at a restaurant or hotel, but in Cuba you should also expect to tip at museums and shops!
Prior to January 2021, the CUC was the standard currency for tipping, but since that is no longer used, you will have to use the CUP.
Bear in mind that the CUC was equivalent to the dollar, while the CUP is considerably lower in value, so you will have to do some conversions in your head before tipping to avoid offending the locals.
It would be wise to keep smaller bills in your wallet to avoid the awkward scenario of tipping with a larger bill and having to ask for change.
How to Pay for Things in Cuba
Since credit and debit cards are accepted in most hotels and resorts in Cuba, we recommend paying for the “big stuff” with your card to avoid carrying large amounts of cash with you, since pickpocketing is common in Cuba.
Your hotel room should come equipped with a safe, so leave your cash in there and carry around only what you need for the day.
Be sure to check with your bank regarding fees for using credit and debit cards internationally.
Depending on which country you’re travelling from, swiping can end up rather expensive, especially if you’re someone who prefers to pay mostly by card.
Dress & What to Pack for Cuba
You’re most likely going to Cuba in the dry season, which means warm sunny weather.
You will want to pack t-shirts and shorts, and comfortable shoes or sandals as you will be doing a lot of walking and sightseeing.
A hat would be a good idea as you’ll probably be walking around in the sun for a long time. Even though it’s called the “dry season”, Cuba is a tropical island, which means sporadic rainfall, so carry a raincoat or jacket.
Cuba doesn’t have a dress code as such, but most a la carte restaurants will not allow jeans and sandals, and it is frowned upon in certain hotels.
You will surely want to dine in style most nights, so we recommend packing some smart casual wear (collared shirts and long trousers) and closed shoes. A coat is optional.
For women, a dress or skirt will do. The dress code is more relaxed at buffet meals.
Cuban Laws to Know
- At the time of writing, Covid regulations are in effect in most countries and Cuba is no different. Failure to wear masks in public or comply with other basic Covid laws may result in a fine or prosecution.
- Since Cuba is a communist country, avoid talking about politics. If the locals overhear speaking negatively about the government, they may report you.
- If you enjoy fruit and carry some on the plane, try to finish it before you reach immigration as you will not be allowed in the country with it
- Public displays of affection are frowned upon and may draw unwanted attention from police, so save the steamy stuff for indoors.
- The legal drinking age is 16, and drinking in public is allowed.
- Cuba has strict export regulations so make sure you keep the receipts for anything you purchase as it may be required at customs.
- Be careful when taking pictures; photography of children or women is prohibited.
- Military zones and prohibited areas are not always well highlighted with signage but photography in these areas is a serious offence, so be aware of where you are. Taking photos of police or military personnel is illegal.
- If you’re a serious photographer and want to take your equipment with you, you will need a special import permit.
- Finally, Cuba exercises a zero tolerance policy regarding possession or trafficking of illegal drugs, so please ensure you pack your suitcase yourself and don’t carry anything for another person.
Things to Do in Cuba
Being one of the Caribbean islands means Cuba is packed with fun things to do! Here are just some of them:
- Snorkelling. Caribbean waters are littered with hard and soft coral in abundance; a paradise for snorkelers.
- Diving. Cuba has the third largest reef in the world and almost guaranteed shark sightings
- Hiking. With mountain ranges, rivers and dense forestry, Cuba has some of the best scenic hiking trails.
- A trip to one of the wildlife parks will give you the opportunity to see animals indigenous to Cuba.
- Whether you’re a frequent cigar smoker or just intrigued by it, visit a cigar farm to see how it’s all made and sample some of the finest cigars.
- Rent and drive restored vintage cars around Cuba.
- A visit to the Vegas Grande Waterfall in Topes de Collantes National Park in Cuba is a once in a lifetime experience!
Places to Visit in Cuba
No doubt the beaches are top of mind when planning a trip to any part of the Caribbean, and Cuba has some of the best of them - Cayo Coco and Cayo Santa Maria to name just two. In Varadero you will find the longest beach in Cuba!
If you want to immerse yourself in the local culture, Havana is the place to be. Old Havana in particular is where you will experience the rich history of Cuba, with its museums, originally preserved buildings and cobblestone streets. It is a vibrant city and the heartbeat of Cuba.
For the nocturnally inclined, Centro Havana has the best nightlife, but for the family vacation, Varadero is highly recommended by travellers (some of the best beaches there too).
Getting Around Cuba
Cuba is the only country in the Caribbean with a railway system, and it runs from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, covering north to south. You will need your passport to buy a train ticket.
Long distance taxis are available if you prefer to travel that way, but it will be more expensive. The cheapest way to travel long distances is via bus but that is significantly slower and will eat up your precious vacation time. You can of course do a quick flight from one city to the next, but you will forego the scenic experience.
For travel within a city, buses (also called guaguas) are the main form of travel, but not recommended for tourists as they are crowded and not very organized.
They are the cheapest though (most trips will cost you less than half a peso), so if you think you can get the hang of it, you will save some cash. Taxis are abundant and usually the preferred choice for tourists. Note that taxis in Cuba don’t have meters, so you will pay flat rates.
Some state-owned taxis do have meters but they are rarely used by the drivers.
Highlights of Traveling to Cuba
Although Cuba has plenty to offer the casual traveler, there are treasures to be discovered by those who look a little deeper. Here are some of them:
- Best cup of coffee: Café El Escorial in Havana
- Where to buy the best cigars: El Corrojo at Melia Cohiba Hotel, Vedado, Havana
- Best local drink: The national drink of Cuba is called “Libre”.Though the ingredients are simple (cola, rum and lime), the locals have a “special way” of making it that you will just have to try for yourself.
- Hidden gem: El Nico waterfalls, tucked away in the 80 kilometre Topes de Collantes nature reserve. One of the park guides can get you there.
- Best snorkelling: Go to the beach at Campismo Los Cocos in Jibacoa, swim a few minutes out and you will find the best coral reef. With a 2-3 metre drop off point and about 12 metres to the bottom, you can find debris from shipwrecks there!
- Little-Known Fact: Cuba is also called "El Cocodrilo" or "El Caimá", which means crocodile in Spanish, as it resembles the shape of crocodile from the air.
- Don’t Forget to Pack: Some type of mosquito repellant as Cuba is renowned for these pesky critters.
By now you’re just about done with that cup of coffee and you know a whole lot more about Cuba than you did a few minutes ago. You’re now ready to start booking your flight and deciding where to stay in Cuba. Don’t worry, we’ve covered that too.