Cuba, a large Caribbean island nation under communist rule, is known for its white-sand beaches, rolling mountains, cigars and rum. The colorful capital of Cuba, Havana, features well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture within its 16th-century core, Old Havana, loomed over by the pre-revolutionary Capitolio. Salsa emanates from the city’s dance clubs and cabaret shows are performed at the famed Tropicana.
Tourism was initially restricted to enclave resorts where tourists would be segregated from Cuban society, referred to as “enclave tourism” and “tourism apartheid”. Contacts between foreign visitors and ordinary Cubans were de facto illegal between 1992 and 1997. Nevertheless, the rapid growth of tourism during the Special Period had widespread social and economic repercussions in Cuba, and led to speculation about the emergence of a two-tier economy.
Cuba has tripled its market share of Caribbean tourism in the last decade as a result of significant investment in tourism infrastructure, this growth rate is predicted to continue. 1.9 million tourists visited Cuba in 2003, predominantly from Canada and the European Union, generating revenue of $2.1 billion. Cuba recorded 2,688,000 international tourists in 2011, the third-highest figure in the Caribbean (behind the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico).
Cuba is known for its cultural diversity, built from Spanish, African, French and Asian influences. Whether in literature or fine art, film, ballet, modern dance or theatre – the island has produced numerous famous artists in many different disciplines.
Naturally Cuban music must also be mentioned for the island is the birthplace of such intoxicating rhythms as the Danzón, the Son, the Bolero, the Mambo and the Cha Cha Cha.
The cultural treasures of Cuba include, above all, the imposing buildings of the colonial era.
The following towns have been declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO:
• The historic town centre of Habana Vieja and the fort (Havana)
• The old town of Trinidad (Sancti Spíritus)
• The sugar factories around Trinidad (Sancti Spíritus)
• The fortifications of San Pedro de la Roca del Morro (Santiago de Cuba)
• The ruins of the French coffee plantations of La Gran Piedra (Santiago de Cuba)
• The National Park “Desembarco del Granma”
But in almost every Cuban town you can find buildings, theatres, churches or old forts that are well worth seeing.
Cuba’s political and economic isolation has provided the outside world little opportunity to see its wildlife … until now. It may be renowned for its politics and its cigars, but Cuba is home to some of the most unusual creatures on earth, including the feisty Cuban crocodile, the world’s smallest bird and frog, and migrating land crabs.
Cuba’s diverse wildlife stems from its unique natural history. Cuba was not originally in the Caribbean Sea but in the Pacific Ocean, where the island was situated 100 million years ago, before the forces of continental drift slowly brought it into the Caribbean. As the island migrated over the ages, an astonishing variety of life arrived by air, sea, and possibly by land bridges that may have once existed. Over time, these animals adapted to their new environment. Today, more than half of Cuba’s plants and animals, including more than 80 percent of its reptiles and amphibians, are found nowhere else on the planet.
Protected by its isolation, the wildlife of Cuba has remained naturally preserved, untouched, and unexplored. Through a special arrangement with the Cuban government, unprecedented access was granted to film the island’s natural riches.
With most of the island south of the Tropic of Cancer, the local climate is tropical, moderated by north-easterly trade winds that blow year-round. The temperature is also shaped by the Caribbean current, which brings in warm water from the equator. This makes the climate of Cuba warmer than Hong Kong, which is at around the same latitude as Cuba, but has a subtropical climate instead of a tropical climate. In general (with local variations), there is a drier season from November to April, and a rainier season from May to October. The average temperature is 21 °C (69.8 °F) in January and 27 °C (80.6 °F) in July. The warm temperatures of the Caribbean Sea and the fact that Cuba sits across the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico combine to make the country prone to frequent hurricanes. These are most common in September and October.
Time & Date: GMT -5
The peso (ISO 4217 code: CUP, sometimes called the “national currency” or in Spanish moneda nacional) is one of two official currencies in use in Cuba, the other being the convertible peso (ISO 4217 code: CUC, occasionally called “dollar” in the spoken language). There are currently 25 CUP per CUC.
Most Cuban state workers receive their wages in national pesos, but some receive a portion of their salary in convertible pesos. Shops that sell basics like fruit and vegetables generally accept only the normal peso. “Dollar shops” sell the rest. The word “pesos” may refer to both types of money.
Cuban convertible pesos are 25 times more valuable, but that does not completely eliminate the confusion for tourists. Since goods bought in national pesos have government-controlled prices, tourists are sometimes confused by prices that look “too cheap.” The hard (CUC) pesos are easy to tell apart from the national (CUP) ones, as CUC coins have an octagonal shape within the outer round rim. The only exception to this is the most common CUP coin, the 1 peso, also has this octagonal shape. Also, CUC currency shows monuments, and CUP bills have portraits.
The official language of Cuba is Spanish and the vast majority of Cubans speak it. Spanish as spoken in Cuba is known as Cuban Spanish and is a form of Caribbean Spanish. Lucumí, a dialect of the West African language Yoruba, is also used as a liturgical language by practitioners of Santería, and so only as a second language. Haitian Creole is the second most spoken language in Cuba, and is spoken by Haitian immigrants and their descendants. Other languages spoken by immigrants include Galician and Corsican
When buying your travel insurance, always check the small print – some policies specifically exclude ‘dangerous activities’, which could be anything from scuba diving to horse riding. You should check whether the medical coverage is on a pay first, claim later basis and, more importantly, ensure that your medical coverage includes the cost of medical evacuation.
Regular tourists who plan to spend up to two months in Cuba do not need visas. Instead, you get a tarjeta de turista (tourist card) valid for 30 days, which can be extended once you’re in Cuba (Canadians get 90 days plus the option of a 90-day extension).
Package tourists receive their card with their other travel documents. Those going ‘air only’ usually buy the tourist card from the travel agency or airline office that sells them the plane ticket, but policies vary (eg Canadian airlines give out tourist cards on their airplanes), so you’ll need to check ahead with the airline office via phone or email.
In some cases you may be required to buy and/or pick up the card at your departure airport, sometimes at the flight gate itself some minutes before departure. Some independent travelers have been denied access to Cuba flights because they inadvertently haven’t obtained a tourist card.
Once in Havana, tourist-card extensions or replacements cost another CUC$25. You cannot leave Cuba without presenting your tourist card. If you lose it, you can expect to face at least a day of frustrating Cuba-style bureaucracy to get it replaced.You are not permitted entry to Cuba without an onward ticket.Fill the tourist card out clearly and carefully, as Cuban customs are particularly fussy about crossings out and illegibility.
Visitors with visas or anyone who has stayed in Cuba longer than 90 days must apply for an exit permit from an immigration office. The Cuban consulate in London issues official visas (£22 plus two photos; £47 by mail). They take two weeks to process, and the name of an official contact in Cuba is necessary.
José Martí International Airport
Frank Pais International Airport
Currency: Cuban Peso
Population: 11.48 million
Official language: Spanish