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Cuba Travel Guide
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.
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.
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.
The official language is Spanish, but English is spoken in the main tourist spots.
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.
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. Rabies should only be a risk for those exposed to animal bites, but if you are planning to spend a lot of time outdoors a vaccination is recommended. Food in Cuba is generally 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.
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 at major tourist sites and on buses and trains. Crime is on the increase and visitors should be particularly careful after dark in Havana; there have been multiple incidents in Centro Habana late at night when foreign nationals were stabbed or robbed. Visitors are advised to take taxis after dark rather than walk. Beware of thefts from rooms in 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.
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.
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.
Ministerio de Turismo, Havana: +53 (0)7 334 323 or
Cuban Interest Section, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 797 8518.
Cuban Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7240 2488.
Cuban Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 563 0141.
Consulate General of Cuba, Sydney, Australia: +61 (0)2 9698 9797.
Cuban Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 346 2215.
Cuban Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 (0)1 475 0899.
Cuban Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 (0)4 472 3748.
US Interests Section (USINT), Havana: +53 (0)7 833 3551.
British Embassy, Havana: +53 (0)7 214 2200.
Canadian Embassy, Havana (also responsible for Australia): +53 (0)7 204 2516.
South African Embassy, Havana: +53 (0)7 204 9671/6.
Irish Embassy, Mexico City, Mexico (also responsible for Cuba): +52 55 5520 5803.
New Zealand Embassy, Mexico City, Mexico (also responsible for Cuba): +52 55 5283 9460.