Rebellious and inspiring, remarkably resilient against the test of time, unmistakably unique and full of contradictions, Cuba has the perfect ingredients to concoct the most tempting and irresistible of travel destinations. Not just because it is trending now in every social network or because it's the subject on everyone's lips as a land on the verge of dramatic change, but because at its very core Cuba embodies all that is ultimately intriguing and fascinating. Pure magical realism, as Colombian author (and friend of Cuba) Garcia Marquez would call it.
Cuba Quick Facts
- 110 860 km² (almost half of UK)
- 11 242 628 hab.
- Cuban Pesos (CUP)
- 110 v / 60 Hz
- Dial code
- Time zone
- GMT -5 hours
Cuba, the forsaken but not forgotten pearl of the Caribbean
Enveloped in a time-warp that has, for decades, given it a distinctive appeal for curious travellers in search of unique "hidden secrets", Cuba has represented that highly-desirable far away place forever stuck in time, moving (if at all) at a far slower pace than the rest of the world.
It has beckoned many with the glory of its beaches and untouched keys, with the nostalgia of bygone eras still present in the form of old classic cars roaming the streets and picturesque colonial cities that have changed little through time, and it has charmed many with its triumphant air of defiance and rebelliousness that is ubiquitous to all of Cuba.
This is the Cuba we strive to bring you, the pure, raw beating soul of a nation that has withstood the many adversities of over half a century of relative isolation, and which is now resurfacing anew with the prospect of possible political changes, economic reforms (that are already under way) and development.
Whether you want to experience just one side of Cuba (be it the history, the beaches, the revolution, the unspoilt nature or the world-famous music) or you want to take it all on in and embrace as much of the island as possible, we have the right travel experience for you.
Read on to discover all that awaits in this magical island and all that we can help you see and do there.
Why the time to see Cuba is now. Right Now!
The slowly developing Cuba of today
Cuba is at a time of change. It has been changing slowly over the last few years, but at such painstakingly slow motion that none of the changes are that much noticeable to the naked eye. Not yet, anyway. This might all soon change if relations with the U.S. are once again re-established and the lifting of the embargo allows for more foreign investment and faster-paced modernisation.
However, regardless of U.S. intervention (or lack thereof) economic change is already happening in Cuba, it has been happening for a while in fact. Over the last three to four years reforms have been taking place, allowing new private businesses to be set up and giving way to the booming explosion of entrepreneurs that are overtaking much of the island with privately owned restaurants, bars, guest houses and even beauty salons and spas. The old concept of the "paladares" and "casas particulares" from the 90s (which were subject to much stricter regulations) is being revived, given a fresh new lease of life and taking on a new higher level of sophistication and liberty. Individuals now have much more freedom in how to create and shape their own businesses, with a much more ample in which way they can go. What this means for you as a traveller, is the unique chance of seeing skilful, resourceful and inventive individuals come up with successful business ideas that will leave a lasting impression on you.
Also, for the first time in years Cubans have been allowed to sell and buy homes and cars, as well as to travel outside the country without the need to apply for an exit permit. It all means the island is taking bigger steps than ever in opening up to the world and Cuban themselves have a closer touch with the outside world than they had ever before.
That's not to say the island has become a capitalist society overnight or that it's rapidly losing its vintage appeal. Globalisation and mass-marketing are still a world away, and authorities go to big lengths to keep it that way and preserve all that is appealing and unique about Cuba. All that these new private business ventures mean is that the state is slowly backing away from the authoritarian and austere paternalistic approach of the Soviet era and giving citizens a bigger say in how they can earn their living.
This is precisely why you should see Cuba now, while the decaying grandeur, the crumbling opulence of once grand buildings and the many restored colonial master pieces are still undisturbed by modern developments. They gracefully sit side by side and often next to some completely different type of architecture, creating a striking landscape that has become iconic in many photographs of Cuba.
The Cuba that's rapidly being rescued from oblivion
If you go to Cuba now it'll be hard for you to believe that after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro and before the 1990s when the URRS collapsed, there was no tourism at all in the island. Hardly any foreign visitor came to Cuba during those years, partly because there was very little tourism infrastructure in place and partly because the country wasn't precisely welcoming outsiders either.
It all changed in the mid 1990s when after the ties with the Soviet Union were severed, Cuba needed to find another source of income fast and tourism was the answer. Soon after, hotel development ensued and beachside resorts like Varadero started growing, welcoming back foreigners and adding newer properties to accommodate a larger influx of visitors.
The result you have now is a good number of quality hotels and resorts in all of Cuba's main cities and coastal towns. Likewise, cities of great heritage and cultural value have received a makeover to preserve aging colonial marvels and provide lodging to visitors in ancient, revived builds that still keep all original features. Such is the case for many of the small boutique hotels and hostels in Old Havana operating under the Habaguanex chain, all of which were aging colonial beauties restored by the Office of the Historian of the City.
There's also the ever popular casas particulares, also known as homestays where you stay in a rented room inside a local's home and as well as enjoying original vintage furniture housed in antique colonial mansions or more modern, typically Cuban house layouts, you also get to enjoy their company and a rare insight into Cuban daily life and Cuba family life. It's a wonderful opportunity to really immerse in the local culture and interact with Cubans, many of which speak some level of English and most of whom are more than eager to communicate with their guests. Some casas particulares today have evolved into very professional, chic and trendy guest houses of such elegance and that they resemble more boutique hotels than BandBs. Some of them are rented out entirely to guests so that there isn't a live-in owner in them, while other have carried out extensive structural modifications so that the hosts' living quarters are well separated from the guests, allowing for more intimacy but still with a touch of social insertion. The choice of casas particulares is wide and varied, and, depending on what you want to get out of the experience, we can recommend or arrange the right place for you to stay in Cuba.
Pure magical realism - "Lo real maravilloso"
Cuba is a place of striking juxtapositions, perplexing enigmas and head-scratching incongruities. It's a place where the real and the surreal lovingly hold hands and where the line that tells one from the other gets incredibly blurry at times.
The literary genre of "magical realism" itself, which Nobel Prize winner Colombian writer (and loyal friend of Fidel Castro), Gabriel Garcia Marquez made so popular, had its roots in Cuba, as it was Cuban predecessor and award-winning writer Alejo Carpentier one of the first (if not the first) pioneers of the much-loved Latin American genre. And with good reason too, even back in the early 1900s when the Cuban Revolution was a but a flickering utopia that had no place in the island's American mafia-owned hotels and casino-riddled reality, Cuba was still a natural paradise full of contradictions where "lo real maravilloso" could happen and did happen at every other turn.
Today this magic realism resounds truer than ever. As Carpentier described "lo real maravilloso" happens when the line between magic and reality becomes blurred and he used to say of Latin America as a whole: "But what is the history of Latin America but a chronicle of magical realism?" This sounds even truer for Cuba's riveting, history, where the 1950s David vs Goliath revolution of bearded peasants saw the underdogs triumphing over the corrupt American-backed Cuban government. This happened in the same place where nowadays shiny new buildings stand next to crumbling colonial beauties, slowly falling to pieces, the same place where the ideals upholded by the revolution harmoniously coexist with a more capitalist approach towards the tourist industry. Cuba is also the very same place where two currencies are simultaneously used…in short it is a place where virtually anything is possible.
That Cuba has managed to survive at all after longer than 50 years of paused development, and a harsh economic blockade, is miraculous in itself. It is just one of the many things that confounds and perplexes, astounds and marvels about this little country. As with countless other things you'll encounter along your Cuban journey, upon facing one of those moments of magical realism you will stare in wonder and think… "only in Cuba".
A living museum of old American cars
Everywhere in Cuba, no matter where you are or where you go, you can expect to find moving relics on wheels that have outstandingly withstood the test of time. With the oldest mobiles dating all the way back to the late1940s, you can expect to see a full moving display of classic American cars rolling their way along Cuba's rocky, pothole-filled streets.
They beautifully (sometimes clumsily, sometimes majestically, depending on their condition and how well-kept they are) speed along at their noisy pace, leaving a trail of black smoke and awe-struck tourists looking on. While some cars visibly show the years of neglect and lack of upkeep, others have been so meticulously looked after, it hurts to see them inching away on such poor pavements.
Prepare to feast your eyes on some stunning vintage beauties, from 1947 Hudsons to 1950 Oldsmobiles, 1956 Dodge convertibles, Chryslers from the mid-50s and an extensive collection of Chevys and Fords of all years and makes. There's also the less pretty Ladas, the small and sweet Polski Fiats and the classic Moskvicths from the 1970s, all remnants of the Soviet era.
Whether you're a classic car aficionado or not, viewing such a mix of different old vehicles makes for quite a unique experience, especially when you see them in full motion, running alongside newer models. Cuba is a rolling car cemetery that comes alive every day, on every road. It's another dose of magic realism that adds to the surrealist feeling that Cuba often evokes.
Virginal keys and islets home to pristine coral reefs
It's no secret to anyone that Cuba, being blessed by its centric position at the midst of The Americas, half-bathed by the Caribbean Sea on the south and the Atlantic Ocean in the north, has a wealth of pristine beaches few places on the world can rival.
Cuba is not a single island, as most think, but an archipelago comprising a chain of islets and smaller keys. Many of these are home to impressive coral reef systems of unspoilt beauty and thriving marine life you can discover on snorkelling excursions, scuba diving adventures or on liveaboard experiences.
From the well-documented beauty of the Jardines del Rey archipelago off Cuba's northern shore to the completely uninhabited Jardines de la Reina archipelago off the southern coast, Cuba is brimming with excellent opportunities to let your hiddden Robison Crusoe persona take over and explore little trodden coasts, virginal seaside landscapes and isolated beaches. Even on the keys that are developed and which boast excellent world class resorts (Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo and more recently Cayo Guillermo) you will still find uncrowded stretches of beaches that you can have all to yourself.
Cuba is home to the second largest coral reef system in the world and boasts a myriad of locations and excellent facilities for diving expeditions. There are a wealth of diving sites to choose from and dives in every category imaginable, from walls to caves and wrecks. With drop offs ranging from 10 to 200 metres, there's fantastic scuba diving to be done for divers of every ability and experience. And with the water being so crystal-clear in many of Cuba's most pristine coastal spots, even snorkellers are guaranteed amazing marine encounters.
The omnipresence of music everywhere
If there is something in Cuba you can't escape regardless of where you go, that is music. You would have to be virtually locked away inside a hotel room to never hear the distant (and not-so-distant) musical notes wafting their way in the air. Even then you wouldn't be able to elude the echoes of guitars strumming, maracas shaking from a local band on the street or the hotel lobby. If you're in Cuba, it's impossible for the music not to reach you in some way.
If you're a music lover you'll enjoy your time in Cuba all the more as music is an element that not only enhances many a visitor's experience but also has the potential to transform your holiday into so much more. Whether you opt to take professional dance classes once in Cuba, either at your resort or through one of our salsa-dancing holiday packages, or if you just want to step into a local club and follow the locals' lead, or even if you're happy to simply sit, watch and listen to the nostalgia-ridden tunes of boleros and traditional music, or to the upbeat sounds and colours of cabaret shows, it will no doubt all add to the experience.
Music is at the very core of each Cuban soul, deeply embedded into each local's being, it's a way of interpreting life; be it through dancing, singing or listening, so in many ways you can't really choose to exclude music as part of your Cuba experience. It will be there, and you will learn more about Cuba from your exposure to it too.
And we're not talking just salsa or the nostalgic tunes that the Buenavista Social Club made famous; Cuba is also well-renowned on the international scene for the quality of its Jazz musicians and the capital has some amazing hideouts for enjoying live jamming sessions. Beyond that there's also the intoxicating tunes of Afro-Cuban beats and guagancó dancing, which shows you another side to Cuba's colourful, multi-genre musical scene.
Cuba is the place where music overlaps and intertwines with everything else; it's a quintessential part of everyday life and adds an extra dimension to Cuba's multi-layered, ethnically-mixed society. You're sure to enjoy seeing how music fits, fuels and inspires Cubans to overlook their daily hardships and meet their adversities with a smile and an unmistakably swaying cadence in their gait.
Incredible protected nature that dots the entire archipelago
Partly thanks to the lack of tourism for decades, partly thanks to the halt in industrial and agricultural development since the late 50s, Cuba has managed to preserve the virginal state of its wild lands in such a pristine state that few other countries in the world can match. It is widely recognised as having the Caribbean's best-kept wilderness and highly acclaimed for having some of the world's rarest, most peculiar endemic species; such as one of the world's smallest frogs (at just 1cm in length) and the planet's smallest bird (the bee hummingbird).
As it happens 20 per cent of land and sea territory in Cuba are protected natural reserves, which gives any nature lover an immense wealth of awe-inspiring untouched sites to withhold and admire as well as a long list of flora and fauna to discover. This percentage of protection in areas of environmental biodiversity is among the highest of any nation and Cuba has been called the "biological superpower" of the Caribbean by scientists. It offers a vision of the Caribbean that has long ago been lost in other destinations.
Home to 4% of the world' land species, Cuba's rich biodiversity and thriving ecosystems see large populations of migratory birds flocking the island throughout the year while the wetlands and swamps are home to the endemic Cuban crocodile as well as a good number of endemic plants, reptiles and bird species. A birdwatcher's paradise and a nature lover's haven, the island has numerous protected green areas for you to peruse, climb, trek or simply admire.
Protected for years by its isolation from the world, Cuba's wildlife has remained virtually untouched and little explored. Today, over half of the island's plants and animals are found nowhere else on the planet.
Discover Cuba's greenest side with us; from the country's first sustainable community of Las Terrazas to the Sierra Maestra Mountains and declared World Biosphere Reserves such as the world-famous Cienaga de Zapata swamp, the Sierra del Rosario Mountain Range, Buenavista and Baconao - there is a real wealth of sites for avid naturists to explore.
Unmissable Havana in all its glory - drama, lights and sound
If there is one place most visitors to Cuba shouldn't miss out on seeing, even if for just a day (although a full immersion would probably require at least four to seven days to take it all in at a relaxed pace, or at the very bare minimum three days to capture the essentials) that is its quintessential capital city.
Extensively written about, much-talked about and repeatedly photographed, emblematic Havana has long been the iconic image used to represent Cuba's mix of faded grandeur, timeless glamour and alluring seaside beauty. Be it for a shot of its unmistakable Malecon seawall, its landmark Capitolio building or one of Old Havana's pretty colonial streets and classic cars, this is a city easily recognised by most and unlike any other in the world.
There are countless ways in which the image of Havana has been perpetuated in the eyes of outsiders. The only way to see all these archetypal shots come alive in full glory is to stroll these sites in person and add yourself to the list of serial clickers, incessantly snapping away to capture a piece of Havana's rare mix of old and new, sombre and bright, serious and relaxed. In one word, Havana is simply a one-off. You cannot, should not miss it. No excuses.
You can go salsa-dancing virtually anywhere in Cuba. Whether you're no novice to the sultry Latin moves and the fine footwork, or if you want to learn to dance from scratch, Cuba offers numerous options. Even if you have no intention of properly learning and you just want to give it a go on your own at one of the nightclubs, there are plenty of places to have a "salsatastic" time. And, even if you just want to sit back and listen to skilled musicians from a Cuban salsa band, there are many joints where you can catch live performances and fully immerse in a salsa atmosphere.
Or, if you prefer to be a spectator and admire crowds of salsa dancers and carefully choreographed dancing numbers there are also a good number of places where you can just do that. The reality is that you can do all of these at most salsa hangouts in Cuba: people-watch, join in the crowds or formally take lessons. Dancing, watching or learning; it's all up to you, the only requirement is to have a good time.
Whether you want to be involved in the dancing or you’d just be happy to enjoy the virtuosity of talented Cuban musicians playing live, there are numerous places around Cuba where you can enjoy live salsa performances. From Santiago to Trinidad, or Havana to Santa Clara, as true Cuba experts we can recommend the best salsa places in all of Cuba, depending on your salsa skills (whether existent or not) and where you plan to stay. Fantastic local salsa hotspots to head to wherever you stay are: the famous Casa de la Musica, with two in Havana, one in Trinidad and one in Varadero. The Casas de la Musica often have live bands playing salsa music and some nights DJs play international tunes after the band has finished playing.
Other good venues for admiring the skill of live Cuban musicians are the Casa de la Trova, with one in Havana’s municipality of Centro Habana and another one in Santiago de Cuba. These venues are more about traditional music than salsa, so the bands that come here to play perform the traditional son tunes that the Buenavista Social Club made famous the world over. They are still a great place to dance in and with the melody being much slower-paced than salsa, virtually anyone can dance along to them. The Casa de la Trova in Santiago de Cuba is the most famous of all as it attracts big names in the music genre such as Eliades Ochoa and members of the Buena Vista Social Club - although after 10 p.m. the music gets cranked up and the songs change to steamier salsa tunes. Also, if you’re staying in an all-inclusive beach resort, you’ll be happy to know that they all offer group salsa classes, so you can spruce up your skills a bit and get a feel for the music before hitting the nightclubs.
Or, if you want to fully immerse in a full-sized Cuban-flavoured salsa experience from start to end you could always go for one of our handmade salsa tours, taking you on a non-stop learning curve throughout the country's most raved about salsa hangouts, with salsa instructors that will perfect and hone your skills along the way so you come back home with a collection of moves to impress.
The towns and cities where time stands still
Cuba is home to some of the world most wonderfully preserved sites, and by this we don't mean just any old quarter or neighbourhood, but entire cities and towns. A dose of abandonment and the lack of modern development have helped conserve cities intact to the point that they have remained forever stuck in time, despite years of decay, inclement weather battering and faded paint flaking. And while some old mansions and palaces are in dire need of urgent repair, there are entire towns like Trinidad that have managed to withstand the test of time against all odds.
Others, like Havana, Camaguey and Cienfuegos (albeit to a somewhat lesser extent) have outstandingly managed to conserve and protect entire neighbourhoods and the vintage timepieces they contain, safeguarding them from the inexorable passage of time.
Of these Cienfuegos is the most glittering, even in the light of economic hardship and lack of maintainance. It boasts spruced-up tree-lined colonial streets, a long and picturesque seaside promenade and a soothing aura of tranquillity that permeates the air and adds to the stuck-in-time appeal. Camaguey is quirky and awe-inspiring in many ways, with its confusing labyrinth-like layout, colourful colonial houses and tumultuous past of pirate invasions. Trinidad is the oldest of them all, the smallest and in some ways the most impressive, as little has changed here over the last few centuries.
From Cienfuegos' 20th century palaces and impressive collection of pretty buildings to Trinidad's untouched 18th century heritage and Camaguey's maze-like, tinajones-lined streets and piracy legends, Cuba has a wealth of beautifully preserved cityscapes that time may have forgotten but the island certainly didn't and you most certainly won't.
Sampling the flavours of hearty Cuban cuisine
One thing Cuba is not too well-known for (and if it is then it's for all the wrong reasons) is the quality of its cuisine. Having suffered a decades' long reputation for being bland, basic and uninspired, food in Cuba has a lot to redeem itself for, and it's already happening.
Over the last few years, partly thanks to the new incentives given to entrepreneurs by the government and partly thanks to the larger influx of more discerning foreign tourists, new restaurants owned by locals are popping up everywhere, rivalling and outdoing the quality of cuisine offered at most hotels and resorts in the island (some of which are responsible for giving Cuban food a bad name).
The famous "paladares" (restaurants housed inside local's homes), much like the "casas particulares", have been re-born again with sleeker, more sophisticated decors as well as reinvented menus that offer a new wealth of gourmet possibilities never before seen in the island. Some have received so much international appraise in fact that the Queen of Spain and many other Hollywood celebrities have paid them a visit.
From juicy and hearty Creole Cuban fare that goes beyond the archetypal rice and black beans, to the likes of Swiss-inspired dishes, haute French cuisine and even Soviet delights cooked by local Slavic housewives and expats that have made Cuba their home, we can help you learn more about what's cooking in Cuba's best-loved kitchens and recommend some of the very best eateries island-wide.
Just off the top of our minds and to show the variety of quality international cuisine you can now enjoy in the island (although it is true the vast majority of these are all in Havana), there are two excellent privately owned Japanese restaurants in the capital: Pp’s Teppanyaki and Santy Pescador, the latter of which enjoys a scenic location overlooking a pier in Jaimanitas, on the edge of the Marina Hemmingway. There’s also an Indian restaurant: Bollywood, the first of its kind and owned by an authentic Indian, so you can expect genuine Indian flavours. Nazdarovie, on the other hand is the island’s first and only Soviet hotel (which went straight to number one in TripAdvisor’s list of Havana restaurants, shortly after launching), a true show of how the island is expanding its culinary horizons. We're sure this is just the beginning and there's much more to come.
The cigars, the coffee and the rum
Visiting tobacco plantations and factories, where skilled men and women sit for hours carefully twisting and kneading the best tobacco leaves on the planet is an experience that incredibly enriches any holiday to Cuba.
You could even learn the very fine art of rolling cigars during one of our Cigar Factory tours. An art Cubans have perfected down to the smallest of details. No cigar made in Cuba is allowed to leave the factory with the slightest flaw or imperfection. Be captivated by the care with which each of these cigars is rolled and admire the well-honed skills and expertise cultivated during generations of tradition (since the time of King Phillip II of Spain, dating all the way back to the 1500s).
Cuba boasts one of the best coffee-growing climates in the world with loamy, rich and fertile soil that gives way to beautiful coffee beans that may not be that well-renowned around the world but whose intense taste when roasted can rival the very best in the planet. Gently cooled by Caribbean breezes, coffee bushes here don't grow in regimented rows but instead are shaded by the island's native trees, allowing plants to flourish in a way that they bear the finest beans. You can get a full immersion into Cuba's coffee production by touring one of the island's scenic coffee plantations in Vinales and thereafter savouring a selection of Cuba's intense espressos.
Likewise, Cuban rum is another legendary produce that the nation is proud of. From its early beginnings when the Bacardi family first founded its distillery in Santiago de Cuba to become the world's leading rum producer to the prestige of the Havana Club rum of today, there is much to be learnt about Cuban rum during a factory tour while you sample some of the finest matured versions.
The legacy of the icons of the Revolution: Che, Castro
Following the trail of the inspiring Cuban revolution that astonished the world is a really engaging way to discover more about the Cuba of today and the events that helped shape this enigmatic island over the years.
The museums and sites you can visit in order to learn more about the revolution are spread out throughout the island so if you really want to dive deep into the history of Fidel Castro's revolution there are a good number places you can go to. From the famous, haunting and bullet-stricken Moncada Barracks and Sierra Maestra Mountains in Santiago de Cuba to the Revolution Square and the Museum of the Revolution in Havana or the Che Memorial in Santa Clara, we can guide you into the best places to soak up the history of the rebels' long battle to overthrow the U.S-controlled and mafia-corrupted Cuban government.
The Cuba that captivates and bewilders
Welcome to the wonders of the iconic lizard-shaped island at the heart of the Caribbean that time forgot and the world is now remembering.
The unsolved riddle of the Caribbean is now easier to discover than it has ever been. Let us take you there and have a go at unravelling its many conundrums.
Cuba 's Fantastic FourThe Most Handy Stuff or Things to spark your interest
More than 991 hotels in Cuba to suit your budget and needs. From 5* luxury city chic to charismatic casas particulares and relaxed seaside resorts at the edge of town.
Get a fully guided insight into Cuba's many attractions with our extensive selection of tours and learn as you wander through wondrous landscapes and captivating cityscapes.
Embark on a journey of discovery to some of Cuba's most enchanting spots, fascinating cities and natural wonders as you take your pick from our variety of islandwide excursions.
Browse through some of Cuba's most interesting attractions and get a glimpse of all the main highlights you shouldn't miss - from quirky museums to restaurants, festivals and events.
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