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.
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Cuba is/isn't

Cuba is...

the home of tropical communism. It is one of only four communist states, with China, Laos and Vietnam.

Cuba isn't...

easy to understand. If you come here with preconceived ideas, you'll leave more confused than ever.

What we rate & what we don't

Underrated

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.

Baracoa

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.

Planning ahead

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.
Rated

Havana

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.

Home stays

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.

Western Cuba

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.
Overrated

Varadero

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.

Communist food

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.

Hotel stars

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.

Endless advertisements

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
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.

Our top Cuba Holiday

Cuban casa holiday

Cuban casa holiday

Go local in Cuba staying in friendly family B&Bs throughout.

From £1198 15 days ex flights
Tailor made:
Everything is tweak-able, giving you the freedom to build a unique and personal trip for your chosen date. Upgrade your accommodation for all - or just part - of your trip, slow down the pace with few extra nights here and there or add a few more active adventures along the way
Helpdesk
Hello. If you'd like to chat about Cuba or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help. Rosy & team.
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

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
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Nick Kenrick] [Is/isn't box: Hyunwon Jang] [Nature & national parks: David Bacon] [Varadero & all-inclusives: oknidius] [Eating and drinking: Claudio Malfitano] [People and languages: Ryan] [Quote : Paolo Gamba] [Gifts and shopping: Y'amal] [How much does it cost: Romtomtom]
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