Cuba travel guide
Stepping into Havana for the first time is a film-set ideal, a nostalgic world of classic cars, crackling transistor radios, clacking dominoes and children playing with handmade toys in the street. As you meander into the countryside, cowboy-hatted farmers ride horses through the forests, and oxen plough the fields, wheelbarrows spill over with homegrown veg and rocking chair bound residents sip rum on the porch.
Almost six decades of communism may have stripped Cuba of its material wealth; the ration system leaves many hungry and shops echo in their emptiness. But the country's cultural riches - from salsa to ballet, jazz to the heady percussion of the Afro-Cuban religions - have been preserved in time, and as the US slowly breaks down the virtual wall it has created around Cuba, there is a new found urgency to visit this island in its last days of isolation, while it still continues to pulse with its own unique beat.
Few nations have the romance of Cuba; a beautiful, tropical island that fought its way out of capitalism led by charismatic comrades.
Cuba is still a Caribbean island, and the beaches and bays are a holiday must. Just don't make the mistake of thinking this is all there is – as our Cuba travel guide reveals, there's a whole world beyond the resorts.
the home of tropical communism. It is one of only four communist states, with China, Laos and Vietnam.
easy to understand. If you come here with preconceived ideas, you'll leave more confused than ever.
Our Cuba Holidays
What we rate & what we don't
Nature & national parks
Cuba's culture is widely enjoyed, yet nature fans should not dismiss the Caribbean's largest isle. 19 percent of Cuba's land is protected, and two of its nine UNESCO sites are natural, protecting marine limestone terraces and montane forests. There are endemic birds and orchids, hikes through the dramatic scenery of the Sierra Maestra and superb diving, without the tourist hordes of better known nature destinations.
One of Cuba's most overlooked spots, this little seaside town gives way to some of Cuba's most dramatic landscapes: river filled rainforests, towering mountains, glorious waterfalls and the flat topped El Yunque mountain, which is ideal for hiking. Baracoa's unique character has been preserved by its geographical isolation; until the 1960s it was only accessible by boat.
Santiago de Cuba
Steamy Santiago has Cuba's hottest climate - and its hottest culture. Edgy and urban, Santiago proudly divides opinion; some revel in its fiery Afro-Haitian culture and well worn city centre, too far from Havana for the limited wealth to filter down. Others are shocked at the hardship and hawkers. The bullet riddled Moncada Barracks are a legacy to the revolution that never happened here.
If you're looking for a last minute break, Cuba may not be the place for you. With travel here becoming easier for US citizens, and other nationalities racing to see Cuba "before the Americans get here" or "before it changes", tourism is booming, for better or worse. Rooms and rental cars book up months in advance, especially between Christmas and Easter - so get ahead of the game.
Habana Vieja - Old Havana - is pretty much everything you dreamed it would be. While other historical centres have become victims of ther own success, gentrification has not penetrated this communist capital, and the 1950s cars, streetsids salsa, crumbling colonial casas and seductive locals mean you will never have your finger far from your camera shutter.
Music & dance
Salsa, son, rumba, jazz... Cuba's cobbled streets echo with the sound of some of the world's most seductive music. You'd pay a fortune to see musicians this good elsewhere; here, it'll cost you a few pesos as a tip, and they even take requests. Take salsa classes here and learn with the best, watch a performance by the National Ballet, get serenaded in El Floridita, or join one of the many festivals and carnivals that take place throughout the year.
The original Airbnb, since 1997 Cubans have been allowed to open their homes to guests, in a system known as casas particulares. Most also open their hearts and minds, giving a glimpse into the realities of Cuban life, as you sip coffee or tuck into a homecooked breakfast with your hosts. This is also the best way to get insider tips on where to go; casa owners can arrange lifts and even guides.
The limestone karst filled Valle de Viñales is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and within this mountain-ringed landscape there are tobacco farms, oxen-ploughed fields; quaint villages and a way of life that has changed little in centuries. Explore the caves, ride horseback through the hills or sip an ice-cold Bucanero beer in the plaza as live music echoes off the colonial buildings.
Yes, it's a Caribbean island, and yes, some of its most stunning beaches are found around Varadero. But all inclusive resorts are to Cuba what Cancún is to Mexico or Benidorm is to Spain. Cuba's true beauty is its people and culture, and there are scant chances to encounter either of those here. Plus, the benefit to the wellbeing of the struggling locals is questionable.
Years of rationing, imposed self sufficiency and general poverty have hardly created a Caribbean cornucopia. Some recommend bringing spices or sauces with you to liven up your food, and leaving them to your Cuban hosts as a thank you. Small restaurants - called paladares - are now springing up, these tend to be the best option. Even if the food's not amazing, the atmosphere is wonderfully homely.
Cuban hotels are state run, and aside from the most exclusive, they are fairly shabby affairs; the general advice is to “remove one star” for a true reflection of facilities. The food is also uninspiring; we advise casas particulares (guesthouses) and paladares (privately owned restaurants) all the way.
Capitalism ends as soon as you step off the plane. In Cuba, the only advertising is for the communist party; the only billboards promote Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. It's a refreshing escape from the daily commercial bombardment. Any souvenirs you pick up here will be unbranded (handmade musical instruments and clothing, hand rolled cigars) - save, perhaps, the odd, cheap bottle of Havana Club or Habanos cigar.
Food, shopping & people
Eating & drinking in Cuba
Coppelia ice-cream is a national institution. Queues trail in the heat for a couple of hours every day – but apparently it’s worth it!
Cuban fresh fruit is something to look forward to every morning. Don't just stick to what you know; try pink-fleshed guava, sweet chirimoya and avocado-like mamey.
Seafood is exceptional here; lobster is cheap and abundant - ask your casa hosts if they can prepare it for you.
Guava jelly is a sweet accompaniment to fresh bread and cheese.
People & language
"Yuma" means foreigner. It's the Cuban version of "gringo"
The Taino indians disappeared centuries ago, and modern Cuba is a Brazil-type blend of Latin and Afrocaribbean cultures. The poorer east is the Afro-Cuban hub - come here for son music, rumba dance and the syncretic santeria religion. All Cubans speak Spanish, but many letters are dropped and there is plenty of local slang, making it tricky to grasp. However, any attempts to speak cubano will be much appreciated.
Black beans and rice
is known as
"moros y cristianos" - Moors and Christians
is known as
"moros y cristianos" - Moors and Christians
The cigar, in its home country, is known as a "puro"
Despite Cuba’s rifts with the US, its most popular sport is baseball. However, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was dominoes, which is played on every street corner.
If you'd like to chat about Cuba or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
Gifts & shopping
Decades of trade embargoes and an anti-capitalist mindset mean most of Cuba’s department stores lie empty. However, What it lacks in manufactured goods, it makes up for in homegrown skill.
Bring the sounds of Cuba home with you! Buy handcrafted musical instruments, such as guiras (made from gourds), claves (pairs of wooden sticks) and maracas – the shopkeeper will likely give you an impromptu percussion lesson.
The government’s emphasis on culture means artists’ studios abound, particularly in Old Havana and the eco-village of Las Terrazas. Paintings, prints and sketches capture the colours of Cuba, and make a unique souvenir.
An entire generation of Cubans grew up without Christmas. It was banned as a public holiday following the revolution and was only reintroduced in 1997.
How much does it cost?
Room in a casa particular: £15
Coppelia ice cream: 2p a scoop
Dinner in a casa: £5.95
A daiquiri in La Floridita: £3.90, with free banana chips
Roll of 10 cigars from a tobacco farmer: £14.80
Entry to the Museum of the Revolution: £4.20
Entry to the Museum of the Revolution: £4.20
A brief history of Cuba
Few nations have such a romantic history as that of Cuba, and despite the current frustrations with poverty, ration books and the crumbling casas, you can still sense the locals swelling with pride when they talk about the La Revolución.Read more
More about Cuba
November to April is the best time to visit Cuba to avoid the rains and occasional hurricane.
Cuba is bigger than you think. If you’re planning to spend a week or two here then take a look at our interactive map to help you choose a route...
Cuba's charms are not all cultural; its natural wonders have been recognised by UNESCO, including the ethereal, karst-filled Valley of Vinales...
Casas particulares in Cuba are the original Airbnb: homestays with Cuban families in a network that stretches across the country...
Cuba has 5,700km of coastline, so there are quiet beaches, beaches for water sports, reefs to snorkel, deserted coves and family friendly facilities...
Our favourite cities are Havana, with its classic Malecon, 'Pearl of the South' Cienfuegos, and labyrinthine Camaguey, designed to confuse pirates.
Our mini guide reveals the pros and cons of public and private transport, self drive options and classic cars when planning your Cuba holiday...
A self drive holiday in Cuba offers independence, flexibility and an extra little pinch of adventure, as you explore at your own pace.
Diving in Cuba reveals a marine culture that is just as fascinating as the one on land: a rainbow of reef fish, sponges and turtles.
Salsa in Cuba derives from other dances such as son, mambo and cha-cha-cha, all infused with distinctive Afro Cuban beats.
Travel to Cuba is still for US citizens - find out more in this guide.
Communism may hold the promise of equality for all, yet as Cuba’s LBGT community can attest, this is far from the truth.
Cuban food is bad, isn’t it? According to our travellers, by staying in casas particulares and eating in paladares, you’ll experience a different story.
Cuba’s Revolutionary Trail traces the story of one of the 20th century’s most significant events.
As with most Latin countries, Cuba welcomes children with open arms. But it does so without malaria, altitude or crime; this is a fab family spot.
We have asked destination experts to share their insider Cuba tips and anecdotes with us, from what to eat and pack, to staying in casas particulares.
Step inside any one of Cuba’s Catholic cathedrals and you’ll instantly begin to understand the country’s cultural and architectural heritage.
We've explored some of the big issues facing this little island, from the end of communism to current US-Cuba relations.
Find all of our Cuba guides in one place, for different types of Cuba holidays we offer such as scuba diving or walking in Cuba.