For years, Cuba seemed trapped in time. The visible effects of the Communist regime and US trade ban –1950s finned American cars, the faded grandeur of colonial buildings, predominant trades of coffee, tobacco and sugar cane – all gave the country a unique appeal, but one that seemed to be stuck in the past. Recently, however, Cuba has been catching up with the rest of the Caribbean islands and its tourist trade has boomed.
These days, Cuba isn’t just about the glories of old Havana: mojitos, salsa and promenades along the Malecon. The abundance of powder-white sand beaches has been drawing in tourists on flights to Cuba and a rash of all-inclusive resorts (particularly around Varadero) has sprung up. Regeneration is being carried out in the towns; new buildings are rising and repairs taking place on the old, especially in Havana.
All of which may have made Cuba the perfect holiday destination: step off a Cuba flight and relax and enjoy the Caribbean climate and setting, take in the culture of towns such as Havana or Santiago de Cuba, discover the unspoiled interior and plantations, or just lie back at the pool of a five-star hotel with some local rum.
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Cuba is usually hot, but summer can be the wettest season. Visitors arriving between May and October will encounter a lot of rain and 80 per cent humidity. Late October and early November can have hurricanes and other coastal storms. The drier season starts at the end of November and lasts until April. In winter months, from December to March, the weather is more comfortable, with sunny days, little rain and cooler evenings.
When to fly to Cuba
The most popular time to visit is December to January, though if you visit then be prepared for cooler evenings. The months of July and August are also very popular with holidaymakers. Time around national holidays – Christmas, Easter, New Year and 26 July (the anniversary of the revolution) – is also very popular with tourists hoping to join in the festivities. In the towns such as Havana and Santiago de Cuba, peak season runs for most of the year.
Unsurprisingly, off season is October and November when hurricanes are most likely. This is the time when cheap flights to Cuba and discount accommodation are most likely to be found.
Getting around Cuba
Flying is an easy way to get around the island; Cubana Airlines offers a good network of Cuba flights to popular destinations.
The cheapest way to get to most destinations is by bus. The excellent tourist bus service is run by Viazul, which operates coaches with air-conditioning, video and toilet. The route network connects most towns in Cuba that you could wish to visit. It may be worth bringing a jumper, as temperatures are much more “refreshing” than those outside. There is also a slightly cheaper service run by Astro bus, which is used mainly by locals. For the smaller fare, it is less reliable and often slower, with fewer spaces for foreigners. However, if you’re travelling further off the beaten track, it may be the only way to go.
Hiring a car is easy and there are many rental companies. The road network is excellent, but there are many other dangers to beware: if you’re visiting in high season, book in advance as all rental cars can get reserved. Attempts at parting foreigners from their cash are even more common at less-reputable rental companies in Cuba than the rest of the world. A good tip is to take a photograph of your car when you drop it off at the airport, so you have proof that you did not cause any damage to it. English will not be spoken everywhere you go, so take a good road map to find your way and learn enough Spanish to ask directions. Always ensure you have enough gas and fill up when you can – don’t just assume you will pass a petrol station when the tank is running low, on many roads they are few and far between.
Cuba insider information
- Havana is the first port of call for most visitors. The country’s capital is an aesthetic mixture of Spanish colonial architecture, dilapidated buildings and, of course, the 1950s American-finned cars. When in Havana, don’t miss a walk along the Malecon – the huge sea wall. The views are spectacular, it is the perfect place to see El Castillo Havana (the castle), the sea, the town itself and also to people -watch. Try and visit both in the day and the night, when it comes alive with bars and music.
- Cienfuegos City, often referred to as the “pearl of the South”, is on the southern coast of the country, built into a natural bay. Today a world heritage site, the city was settled by French colonialists in 1819 and its buildings reflect its past. As well as numerous attractions such as botanical gardens, a cemetery and stunning beaches, Cienfuegos is also home to the world’s highest stalagmite. Housed in the Martin Infierno Cave, the stalagmite is 67 metres (220 feet) high. Visiting it is an adventure in itself: head east to the mountains from the city, and enter the cave through the Yaguanabo Beach.
- The Caribbean beaches are one of the biggest draws of Cuba, and many holidaymakers don’t leave their all-inclusive resort. For the most idyllic beaches, head for Cayo Largo del Sur on the Caribbean side of the island. This island lies just offshore and has all you could want from a Caribbean beach: white sand, palm trees, grapefruit fields, parrots and excellent diving.
- Be alert to potential scams and attempts to make money. One popular trick, described by many tourists, is the request for “milk for my baby”. A tourist is approached and asked, not for money, but just to buy some milk for the Cuban’s baby. Both go together to a local shop to buy milk, so the tourist knows their money is going on the actual product. However, the next day, the milk is returned to the shop for real money. Don’t get angry if you fear you are being scammed. Maintain a good humour with any hustlers and politely refuse.
- Are you looking for a hotel in Cuba? With trivago you can compare reviews and room prices for hotels in Havana or hotels in Santiago de Cuba.