Between rolling mountains and dazzling shores, fine cigars and vintage cars, Cuba captivates visitors with its abundant tropical pleasures and cultural treasures. White-sand beaches entice sun worshippers by day, and clubs pulsing with Afro-Cuban jazz own the night. In Havana, locals debate baseball on street corners shaded by royal palms and neo-classical buildings while Studebakers whiz past. In the colonial town of Trinidad, villagers gather in plazas lit by wrought-iron lamps, and in the countryside, tobacco fields tended by guajiros (farmers) spread across the Viñales Valley. Cuba Vacations is a great way to enjoy a wonderful beach vacation that has so much more to offer.
Central Cuba is Cuba’s geographic heart which beats with the rhythms of Afro-Cuban music, of turquoise waves crashing on white-sand beaches, and of life unfolding in splendid colonial cities. Its coral reefs are awash in color, its mangrove swamps attract flamingos by the thousands, and its lush mountain valleys are filled with birdsong of all types. Central Cuba’s northern and southern coasts have many beautiful stretches of sand. The beach count leaps dramatically when you include the hundreds of cayos (keys) that flank the shores.
Eastern Cuba is the region known as El Oriente has a variety of sublimely beautiful settings—from palm-lined beaches to the city of Santiago. Resorts rise in many a cove on Holguín’s northern coast, especially around Guardalavaca. The white-sand beaches here, and their dark-sand counterparts on Granma’s southern coast, draw Canadians and Europeans seeking isolated vacations. Along both shores, water-sports outfitters stand ready to help sailors, fishermen, scuba divers, and snorkelers.
Western Cuba has pristine strands of María la Gorda to Varadero’s internationally popular white-sand beaches. The provinces of Matanzas, Artemisa, and Pinar del Río, along with the Municipio Especial Isla de la Juventud, offer attractions that range from the traditional tobacco plantations of Viñales to the cosmopolitan beaches of Varadero to the wilds and wetlands on the Península de Zapata. In addition, pristine beaches and nonpareil diving opportunities can be found off—among other spots—Cayo Levisa, the Península de Guanahacabibes, Cayo Largo, and the Zapata Peninsula. Cuba vacations has it all. For more information on Cuba’s beautiful beaches, visit our Greater Antilles Travel page.
Cuba lies within the tropics, though its climate—generally hot and moist—is more properly semi- or subtropical. There are only two seasons: wet (May to November) and dry (December to April), with regional variations. Seasonal weather in Cuba is influenced by the warm Gulf Stream currents and by the North Atlantic high-pressure zone that lies northeast of Cuba and gives rise to the near-constant brisa, the local name for the trade winds that caress Cuba year-round. Despite its more southerly latitude, Havana is cooler than most northern cities in July and August, because the northern trades get up about ten o’clock in the morning and blow until about five o’clock the next morning.” Summer months, however, can be insufferably hot and humid. Cuba’s mean annual temperature is 77°F, with an average of eight hours of sunshine per day throughout the year. There is little seasonal variation, with an average temperature in January of 77°F, rising (along with humidity) to an average of 81°F in July. Nonetheless, in summer the temperature can rise to 90°C or more, and far higher in the Oriente, especially the lowlands of Guantánamo Province (the hottest part of the country). The southern coast is generally hotter than the north coast, which receives the trades. Winds sometimes rip across the central plains in summer.
The peak tourist season runs roughly from mid-December to mid-March, and all of July and August. Prices are highest and crowds thickest in high summer, when the holiday season for Cubans gets underway. As much of the atmosphere of the smaller resorts is generated by tourists, Cuban and foreign, out of season they can seem somewhat dull – although you’ll benefit from lower prices. The cities, particularly Havana and Santiago, are always buzzing and offer good value for money throughout the year.
Getting to Cuba
US citizens traveling to Cuba, no matter how they get there, must qualify for a “licence to travel”. The stipulations for obtaining a licence have changed several times in the last fifteen years in the ongoing tug-of-war between the US government’s conservative and liberal factions over the provisions and enforcement of the embargo, so it’s always worth checking what the latest rules and definitions are at www.treasury.gov or www.havana.usint.gov.
Currently there are two categories of licence: General and Specific. Confusingly, for a General Licence no application is necessary. If your trip fits into one of the categories which the US Government allows – usually travelling on behalf of an institution for educational, journalistic, diplomatic or religious purposes – then you can travel without having to make an application to the Treasury Department. Individuals travelling independently tend to have to apply for a Specific Licence, which is much more complicated. The various specialist US tour operators organizing legal tours to the island should be able to assist you in getting your license and are the most useful sources of information and help.
Getting to Cuba from the US has never been easier and though only a few airlines operate direct flights from the UK, there are plenty flying direct from elsewhere in Europe. Canada has had more flights to Cuba than any other country for years, but there are no direct flights at all from Australia. The point of entry for the vast majority of international scheduled flights is Havana’s José Martí airport, though some flights, and in particular from Canada and the US, go direct to a number of the much smaller regional airports, most commonly Varadero, Santa Clara, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba. These same airports are served by charter flights from Europe, Canada, the US and elsewhere, as are the tiny resort-based airports at Cayo Coco and Cayo Largo del Sur and, to a lesser extent, the airport in Cienfuegos.
Getting Around in Cuba
Bus travel is a dependable way of getting around Cuba, at least in the more popular areas. Víazul is the main long-distance bus company available to non-Cubans, with fairly punctual and reliable air-conditioned coaches going to destinations of interest to travelers. Víazul charges for tickets in convertibles. Buses schedule regular stops for lunch/dinner and always carry two drivers. Bring warm layers – the air conditioning blasts an Arctic chill. Reserve ahead on the more popular routes, particularly in high season. A handy new route from Trinidad goes daily to Santa Clara, Remedios, Caibarien and Cayo Santa Maria.
Note that the demand in high season outstrips availability. If you can’t get a seat on the bus you want, look for other stranded travelers to join for a shared taxi to your destination. Reservations with Víazul are necessary during peak travel periods (June to August, Christmas and Easter) and on popular routes (Havana–Trinidad, Trinidad–Santa Clara, and Santiago de Cuba–Baracoa). You can usually book a day or two beforehand.
Renting A Car
Renting a car in Cuba is easy, but once you’ve factored in gas, insurance, hire fees etc, it isn’t cheap. Prices vary with car size, season, and length of rental. Bank on paying an average of CUC$70 per day for a medium-sized car. It’s actually cheaper to hire a taxi for distances of under 150 km. Rental cars come with a required CUC$15 to CUC$30 per day insurance, which covers everything but theft of the radio (store in the trunk at night) and tires. If you do have an accident, you must get a copy of the denuncia (police report) to be eligible for the insurance coverage, a process which can take all day. If the police determine that you are the party responsible for the accident, say adiós to your deposit.
Renting a car in Cuba is straightforward. You’ll need your passport, driver’s license and a refundable deposit of between CUC$150 and CUC$250 (cash or credit card). You can rent a car in one city and drop it off in another for a reasonable fee, which is handy. If you’re on a tight budget, ask about diesel cars – some agencies stock a few and you’ll save bundles in gas money. Note that there are very few rental cars with automatic transmission. Petty theft of mirrors, antennas, taillights etc is common, so it’s worth it to pay someone to watch your car for the night.
Knowing the dangers of actually getting behind the wheel in Cuba, it’s not surprising that many tourists choose to use taxis to get around instead. There are certainly plenty available for hire, but should you choose this particular mode of transportation, take into account the following so that you do so safely. First and foremost, avoid taking rides with unlicensed taxis. They are often driven by thieves who are out to pick up and rob passengers. Be particularly careful of fare amount when hiring a taxi, especially in Havana.
If possible, ask someone who is native or at least familiar with the system how much the fare should be prior to heading to your destination. This way you will know beforehand how much the driver should be charging you and can avoid be scammed out of an exorbitant fee by a dishonest driver. If you can’t confer with a local, insist that the meter be used to remove any doubt.
Top Places to Visit
As the capital of Cuba and the major transport hub, virtually all visitors will spend at least some time exploring Havana. This sophisticated, retro and cosmopolitan city is known for its spectacular nightlife, but days offer just as much excitement. Start in La Habana Vieja, or the Old Town, where crumbling colonial buildings and vibrant mid-century structures stand side by side. Don’t leave Havana without watching cigars being rolled by hand in a small factory, or tasting some local rum fresh from the distillery. Mingle with the locals along Malecón, the seawall right along the coast that offers sea views and plenty of fun.
Just a short drive from Havana is Varadero, a popular beach resort town found on Hicacos Peninsula. Many miles of coastline let you enjoy views of the Atlantic Ocean, and the white sandy beaches and blue warm waters really are stunning to behold. While the gorgeous beach is the reason why Varadero is among the best places to visit in Cuba, there is plenty more to do. Parque Josone is a gorgeous park filled with botanical gardens, lakes, wildlife and bridges, not to mention music, vendors and even camel rides for kids. Also worth exploring are the Bellamar Caves, an extensive cavern system that been available to visitors for more than 150 years.
Cayo Largo del Sur
Cayo Largo del Sur, also known just as Cayo Largo, is a small island off the mainland of Cuba. If you are visiting Cuba in order to find gorgeous, uncrowded beaches, then it makes sense to visit the resort-like island of Cayo Largo. The largest and most popular beach on the island is Playa Sirena, the perfect spot to unwind and soak up the sun. Common activities on Cayo Largo include swimming, snorkeling, surfing and kayaking. The Marina is a hub for the island, and it is also where you’ll find the fascinating sea turtle hatchery, which offers regular tours to visitors.
Maria La Gorda
On the far western tip of Cuba is the small town of Maria la Gorda. While Maria la Gorda might not have a lot of infrastructure or big tourist attractions, it still gets plenty of visitors throughout the year. That’s because Maria la Gorda is one of the top diving destinations in the Caribbean. If you’re a scuba diver, then make your way to the area for guided trips out to sea. The underwater marine life is rich, and regular trips depart from the marina. Many visitors opt for an inclusive package that combines accommodation, dining and diving in one price. Snorkeling trips are also popular, though less common than diving excursions.
Jardines Del Rey
Just north of the mainland, and connected via bridges, is the archipelago called Jardines del Rey. Jardines del Rey, or Gardens of the King, is a chain of islands including Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo, Cayo Paredon Grande and Cayo Romano. The islands weren’t true tourist destinations until the 1990s, when the first hotel was built. Even today, many visitors come for the fact that the chain is still largely undeveloped. Playa Pilar on Cayo Coco is one of the most beautiful and popular beaches, and it is located just steps from a number of all-inclusive resorts.
Things to Do
The SCUBALIBRE Diving Club Club offers several Scuba Diving Courses. Graduates will earn their International Certificates, including Discovery Courses (resort course). Our dives include; Reef Snorkeling tour, Reef, wrecks, caves, wall, deep, and night dives to depths of up to 131 feet (40 meters). For more information call 53 5 2634648, or visit them on the web at ScubaLibre Varadero.
Vintage Car Tours
Locally owned company offering customized day tours and transfers, their team will show the very best of Cuba. They are dedicated to providing you with an authentic and unforgettable Cuba tour experience. They can help you achieve in one adventure what has taken them years – to go inside the country in a deeper, more personal way. With VintageCars Tours you will have unrivaled access to local people from all walks of life while you experience an island that has so much to offer, that sometimes you won’t even know where to begin. For more information call 53 45 614884, or visit them on the web at Vintage Car Tours.
Bike Rental & Tours Havana
Their tours are for all ages, at an easy pace, enjoying the ride lasts about four hours with breaks. They visit the Malecon, Old Havana, Paseo del Prado, Capitolio, Central Park streets of Centro Habana, Revolution Square, Paseo, Vedado and Miramar. They can also go to White House, Christ of Havana and across the bay in Rule Ferri. Their tours are flexible, the customer can choose the itinerary. For more information call 53 5 4637103, or visit them on the web at Bike Rental & Tours Havana.
Caribbean Riders Kite School (CRKS) is without question the best kite boarding school in Varadero, Cuba. Founded by the local riders Carlos Casola and Darien Ramirez Sarabia, CRKS will ensure you learn this exciting sport with a professional kite boarding school committed to ensuring your safety and understanding of all aspects of kite boarding. For more information call 53 5 2772388, or visit them on the web at CaribbeanRiders KiteSchool.
Havana Windsurf is a club for everyone, no matter your level. If you windsurf with them, they´ll promise you to show you all the tricks and become better, and of course, you´ll have a lot of fun windsurfing with them! Havana Windsurf is at the beach La Concha, a very charming beach with crystal clear water. It´s only a twenty minutes drive from the Old City and the best; they are open every day. For more information call 53 5 3574143, or visit them on the web at Havana Windsurf.
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$$ La Fontana
La Fontana, encased in a hard-to-find but beautiful house in Playa, is one of the best restaurants in Havana, a position it has enjoyed pretty much since its inception in 1995 (back in Cuba’s culinary Stone Age). The secret: the restaurant has progressed with the times, adding space, dishes and multiple quirks like fish ponds and live jazz. For more information call 7-202-8337, or visit them on the web at La Fontana.
$$ El Rum Rum de la Habana
El Rum Rum is the talk of Habana Vieja – an ambitious new restaurant run by a cigar sommelier that pays homage to seafood, Spanish gastronomy, cigars and throat-warming shots of the hard stuff. The restaurant is split into three areas. A front bar decked out like a Spanish tavern, an artier inner sanctum, and a patio for cigar smokers. A suave, non-obtrusive house band do the rounds of all three. If you’re struggling for choices, opt for the paella or the inky black rice with octopus. For more information call 7-861-0806, or visit them on Facebook at El Rum de la Habana.
$$ Lamparilla 361 Tapas & Cervezas
Try the perfect tapa-sized lasagna, the crisp sautéed vegetables served in ceramic dishes, the rich espresso-flavored crème brûlée, or the table menus written on dried palm leaves. The restaurant has genuine friendliness and will greet you with sincerity even five minutes before closing time. The open-to-the-street interior is small but thoughtfully decorated. For more information call 52-89-53-24, or visit them on Facebook at Lamparilla 361 Tapas & Cervezas.
$$ Doña Eutimia
They serve decent-sized portions of incredibly tasty Cuban food. The ropa vieja (shredded beef) and minced beef picadillo both deserve to be tried. Doña Eutimia was the first private restaurant to grace this small cul-de-sac near the cathedral. There are at least five other restaurants near Doña Eutimia, and they will try to lure you into their restaurant. Don’t deter from this restaurant, as the food is delicious and you’ll save money. For more information call 53 7 8611332, or visit them on Facebook at Doña Eutimia.
$$ La Cocina de Lilliam
A legend long before Cuban food became legendary, Lilliam’s was once one of Havana’s only posh private restaurants – the long-standing diplomat’s choice. These days it has more competition, but maintains its prominence with classy service, secluded ambiance and freshly cooked food to die for. The experience is as much about the surroundings as the food. The restaurant is set in an illustrious villa in Miramar and you are served in a garden with trickling fountains and lush tropical plants. The menu changes regularly, but there’s usually good steak, octopus and pork options. For more information call 7-209-6514, or visit them on the web at La Cocina de Lilliam.
Bars & Nightlife
There’s a little more attitude at this chic and contemporary suburban house bar than some of the other, more quirky places on this list, but the gorgeous green-treed backyard makes even an ounce of pretension totally reasonable. Cuban drink staples abound, but you also might be able to find some international imports if you’re willing to pay. For more information call 53 7 2022921, or visit them on the web at Espacios.
Fabrica de Arte Cubano FAC
Located in a defunct oil factory, FAC is a prime example of the Cuban government’s dedication to arts and culture. The multi-floored, government-sponsored space — which is part art gallery, part DJ dance club, part concert hall, and part film/performance theater — is giant, with enough outdoor areas and bars to satisfy the hundreds of hipsters who wait in line for an hour to get in every weekend. For more information call 53 7 8382260, or visit them on the web at Fabrica de Arte Cubano FAC.
Cafe Fortuna Joe
The intrigue here is almost 100% the interior decorations. Vintage typewriters, sewing machines, cameras, radios, and even a toilet clutter the space, and tables are made from old cars and other assorted house parts. Imbibing here will make you feel like you’re back home, if your home is your hoarder grandmother’s basement. For more information visit them on the web at Cafe Fortuna Joe.
El Chanchullero de Tapas
With only four small wood tables and a few barstools, plus El Chanchullero’s reputation as the premier hip hole-in-the-wall, don’t be surprised if you have to wait a little while before enjoying a first-rate mojito and the shrimp enchiladas. The graffitied interior makes it feel a little divey, but that’s exactly what a detour off the threaded tourist path should entail. For more information call 53 5 2760938, or visit them on the web at El Chanchullero de Tapas.
Casa de la Musica
The name is one of the best-known for live music, and there are two locales — one in Miramar and one in Centro (though the former is probably the one you want). All kinds of music is featured here — from big famous bands to Reggaeton to even occasionally electronica — but be sure to know who’s playing, lest you stumble in on an off night and find the place brimming with old men and sex workers. The party starts around 11pm! For more information call 53 7 2026147, or visit them on the web at Casa de la Musica.
Top Cuba Hotels
Melia Cayo Coco – Adults Only
Offering an outdoor pool and a private beach area, Melia Cayo Coco – Adults Only is set in Morón in the Ciego de Ávila Region. Guests can enjoy the on-site restaurant. There is a 24-hour front desk, concierge service, hairdresser’s, and gift shop at the property. You can play tennis at this resort, and the area is popular for snorkeling. The resort also offers bike hire and car hire. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room, visit Melia Cayo Coco.
Iberostar Grand Hotel Trinidad
Offering personalised services and colonial style facilities, Iberostar Grand Hotel Trinidad is located in Trinidad. Guests can enjoy the on-site bar. Rooms are equipped with a flat-screen TV. A terrace or balcony are featured in certain rooms. For your comfort, you will find bathrobes and slippers. There is room service and gift shop at the property. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room, visit Iberostar Grand Hotel Trinidad.
Royalton Cayo Santa Maria Adults Only – All Inclusive
Offering an outdoor pool and water sports facilities, Royalton Cayo Santa Maria – Adults Only is located in Caibarién. The resort has a spa center and sauna, and guests can enjoy a drink at the bar. There is a 24-hour front desk and gift shop at the property. You can play tennis at this resort, and the area is popular for snorkeling. The resort also offers car hire. Jardines del Rey International Airport is 47.2 miles from the property. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room, visit Royalton Cayo Santa Maria Adults Only – All Inclusive.
Melia Buena Vista – Adults Only
Offering a hot tub and sauna, Melia Buena Vista is set in Punta Madruguilla Beach, west Cayo Santa María. The resort has 2 outdoor pools and views of the sea, and guests can enjoy a drink at one of the 3 the bars. International food and Caribbean dishes are offered at one of the 3 restaurants: Los Caribes, Los Navegantes and Los Marinos. You will find a 24-hour front desk and hairdresser’s at the property. A number of activities are offered in the area, such as snorkeling and diving. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room, visit Melia Buena Vista – Adults Only.
Sanctuary at Grand Memories Varaderon Adults Only – All Inclusive
Offering a spa centre and water sports facilities, Sanctuary Grand Memories – All Inclusive – Adults Only is situated in Varadero. Guests can enjoy the on-site bar. There is a 24-hour front desk at the property. You can play tennis and table tennis at the hotel. The hotel also offers car hire. The nearest airport is Juan Gualberto Gómez Airport, 21.7 miles from the property. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room, visit Sanctuary at Grand memories Varadero.
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