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Cuba can portray itself as the archetypal image of a Caribbean island with its sandy, palm-fringed shores washed by crystal-clear waters and cooled by breezes carrying the scent of frangipani, mango and guava. But Cuba has so much more to offer those who venture away from its beaches to the towns and cities and their Spanish colonial architecture and grand plazas, where classic automobiles labour along streets and country roads, and the hip-swaying sounds of salsa music fill the night air. Together with cigar smoke and rum cocktails, baseball, and everywhere visual references of the 1959 revolution, these picture-postcard portraits of Cuba tell a more complete tale of the largest island in the Caribbean.
Christopher Columbus discovered Cuba on his way back to Spain after his second voyage to the New World in 1492 and was the first European to remark on its beauty. Today, the island state is starting to exploit its glorious attractions and offers visitors an alternative Caribbean holiday.
Cuba is so large that it allegedly confused Columbus, who thought he had discovered a continent and not an island. It sits at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico; the main island is 746 miles (1,200km) long with an irregular coastline that offers hundreds of bays and beaches. The years of political isolation have protected Cuba from mass tourism; the main towns and villages retain a crumbling colonial charm and are generally devoid of resorts that blight some of its neighbouring islands.
With its history and great choice of natural attractions Cuba has much to offer. But most visitors agree that Cuba is a country so individual and extraordinary, that to be truly understood and appreciated it has to be experienced in person.
Cuba is an exciting and diverse country, from the architecture and rhythms of Havana to relaxing beach resorts like Varadero; from the natural beaulty of Vinales to must-see cities like Trinidad and Cienfuegos. With so much to see it can a challenge to organise a holiday to Cuba, so let our Cuba Tours experts take care of all the arrangements - including your visa!
Cuba is a country like no other: visitors here experience the thrill of the new; of being in unfamiliar territory. There is much to see and do, particularly if you enjoy Havana's majestically decaying colonial architecture and revolutionary artefacts infused with communist iconography. Then there are the fabulous beaches, mercifully free of the rampant resort development you'll find elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Few visitors get out of the capital, which is a pity as the countryside holds a wealth of natural splendour and interesting attractions such as the sugarcane palaces of Trinidad and the colonial city of Sancti Spiritus.
Cuba is a year-round destination although is busiest over the cooler winter months of December to March. The tail-end of the hurricane season is September to October when wet and windy weather is the norm.
Cubans tend to be warm and hospitable, and business is conducted more informally than in other countries. Establishing a good relationship is vital to successful business and some time may be given over to small talk. Due to relative isolation from the global economy, business in Cuba tends to take some time and effort, and one is often hemmed in by the country's communist practices. Punctuality is always important, but don't expect meetings to begin on time or deals to be struck quickly. Dress tends to be more casual than elsewhere and businessmen usually wear traditional shirts and women dress sophisticatedly. Business hours are usually 8.30am to 12.30pm and 1.30pm to 4.30pm Monday to Friday. Some businesses are open every second Saturday.
The climate is hot and humid all year round, divided into a dry season (November to April) and a rainy season (May to October). The dry season is the busiest and prices are higher at this time. September to October is hurricane season.
The international access code for Cuba is +53. The outgoing code is 119 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 11944 for the United Kingdom). The city code for Havana is (0)7. Cellular phone companies have roaming agreements with many international cell phone companies, but not the United States. A GSM network covers most main towns, and cell phones are available for rent. Public telephones are widely available for domestic as well as international calls, but international calls are expensive. Pre-paid phone cards are available. Internet cafes are located in the main towns and cities.
Visitors should address Cuban men as 'señor' and women as 'señora'. While many Cubans will engage in political discussion and debate, it is not advised to criticise the government too vocally, and one should be respectful of revolutionary figures such as Fidel Castro and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.
Travellers to Cuba over 18 years do not need to pay customs duty on 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250g of tobacco; 3 bottles of alcoholic beverages; gifts to the value of US$50; and up to 10kg of medicine. Seeds, fresh animal or vegetable products, narcotics and psychotropic substances; explosives, firearms and ammunition; pornographic material; publications directed against public order and morality and household electrical appliances are all prohibited. Strict regulations govern the import or export of philatelic collections; precious stones and metals; artistic, historical or cultural artefacts; and books printed prior to 1940.
Most older hotels use 110-volt power, while newer hotels use 220 volts. A variety of outlets are in use, but the flat and round two-pin plugs are most common.
Health insurance, with provision for emergency repatriation, is compulsory for visitors to Cuba. Those travellers without adequate health insurance will be obliged to purchase Cuban health insurance on arrival. No vaccinations are officially required, however visitors are advised to take precautions against typhoid if travelling to rural areas. Most of the more serious tropical diseases are rare in Cuba, but viral meningitis and dengue fever do occasionally break out, including in urban areas like Havana. Dengue fever is on the increase and the best prevention against it is mosquito repellent and suitable clothing to avoid being bitten. Hepatitis A is common. Food is considered safe. Bottled water is available and advised for the first few weeks, although mains water is chlorinated. Cuban medical facilities are mediocre and many medicines are unavailable, so those requiring regular prescription drugs should bring them, along with a copy of the prescription and a doctor's letter to facilitate entry through customs.
The official language is Spanish, but English is spoken in the main tourist spots.
The official currency is the Cuban Peso (CUP), divided into 100 centavos, but the 'tourist' currency is the Peso Convertible (CUC), which replaces the US Dollar as currency in tourist related establishments like hotels, restaurants and so called 'dollar shops'. US Dollars are no longer accepted as payment, and a 10% commission or more is charged to exchange them, therefore the best currency to bring along is Euros, the British Pound or Canadian Dollars. The CUC is almost equal in value to the US Dollar. Some places only accept Cuban pesos and others only Pesos Convertible (usually tourist related establishments). Money should only be changed at official exchange bureaux or banks to avoid scams confusing the two currencies. Visa and MasterCard are generally accepted only in major cities and hotels as long as they haven't been issued by a US bank; Diners Club has limited acceptance, and American Express is not accepted anywhere on the island. Travellers cheques are less readily accepted than credit cards, but all major currencies are acceptable, except for US bank issued cheques. No US-issued credit or debit cards will work in ATMs, but those holding other cards issued in other countries should be able to get pesos at most major tourist destinations. Euro or Sterling travellers cheques are accepted at Cuban banks and Bureaux de Change.
In lieu of a visa, a Tourist Card ("Tarjeta del Turista"), costing US$25 or equivalent, may be issued by tour operators, travel agents or airlines for a single-entry holiday trip of up to 30 days, provided land arrangements are pre-booked and paid. A return ticket or proof of onward travel is required, as well as sufficient funds to cover the period of intended stay in Cuba (US$50 or equivalent per day). All those entering Cuba must hold travel insurance to cover medical expenses, with coverage in Cuba, for the period of stay. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Cuba is considered free from any threat of global terrorism, but has an increasing crime rate. Visitors are warned that theft from baggage during handling is common, and valuables should not be packed in suitcases. Be wary of pickpockets and bag snatchers in major tourist sites and on buses or trains. Crime is on the increase and visitors should be particularly careful after dark in Havana; in October 2005 there were two incidents in Centro Habana at about 2am, where foreign nationals were stabbed and robbed, and visitors are advised to take taxis after dark rather than walk. Beware of thefts from rooms in casas particulares (private homes). Tropical storms and hurricanes usually occur between June and November; although good warning is given, electricity, water and communications can be disrupted for weeks. Fidel Castro, Cuban leader since 1959, has handed the reigns over to his brother, Raul, following surgery and a long period of rest. Although the political situation is calm at present, political gatherings should be avoided.
Local time is GMT -5 (GMT-4 from the second Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October).
Tipping in convertible pesos is very welcomed as salaries in the service industry are small. A 10% tip is appreciated in restaurants and by taxi drivers. Small amounts are appreciated by all service staff.