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Cuba could portray itself as the archetypal Caribbean island paradise, 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 than generic Caribbean bliss. Those who venture away from the beaches and resorts will find charmingly dilapidated colonial architecture and grand plazas, streets filled with classic vintage automobiles, and the hip-swaying sounds of salsa music filling the night air. Cuba is about cigar smoke and rum cocktails, baseball, and everywhere visual references to the 1959 revolution which still dominates Cuban identity. The largest island in the Caribbean has a dramatic history and a very distinct culture; it is the perfect destination for those in search of something a little different on their beach holiday.
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. 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 lovely bays and beaches.
Today, Cuba is starting to really exploit its glorious attractions, welcoming droves of travellers keen to explore this once mysterious island. The years of political isolation post-revolution have largely protected Cuba from mass tourism; the main towns and villages retain a crumbling colonial charm and are generally devoid of the large resorts that blight some of its neighbouring islands.
With its turbulent history and great offering of natural attractions, Cuba ticks all the boxes for an adventurous Caribbean getaway. 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.
Cuba is a country like no other: visitors here experience the thrill of novelty, of being in unfamiliar territory. There is much to see and do, particularly if you enjoy Havana's majestically decaying colonial architecture and revolutionary artefacts infused with communist iconography. Cuba is a vibrant, fun and unique holiday destination and just wandering around the streets or along the beaches is entertainment enough for most visitors. There are, however, plenty of cultural and historical attractions for those who enjoy more traditional sightseeing, including the Museo de la Revolucion, the Capitolio Nacional, and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
Then there are the fabulous beaches, mercifully largely free of the rampant resort development you'll find elsewhere in the Caribbean. And the beaches are not the only natural wonders. It is a pity that many visitors never get out of the capital because the countryside holds a wealth of natural splendour and interesting attractions, such as the sugarcane palaces of Trinidad and the colonial city of Sancti Spiritus. Cuba is also developing its potential for eco-tourism with environmentally stunning areas like the Montemar Natural Park which includes forests, marshes and beautiful clear lagoons. The cave systems of Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas are also pleasantly unspoiled, allowing for a more authentic caving experience than many of the glitzy tourist-orientated caves found on the international circuit.
Built in 1791, the stately Baroque residence of Cuba's colonial governors and former Presidential Palace, the Palace of the Captains General, stands as an impressive sight on the Plaza de Armas and is now the repository for the city's primary museum collections. The building itself is truly wonderful, with a central courtyard containing a white marble statue of Christopher Columbus. It has been beautifully restored and by itself justifies the entrance fee.
The museum's displays and exhibits tell the tale of Havana, from its founding to the present day, including rooms devoted to the Cuban wars for national independence. The colourful Hall of Flags contains the original Cuban flag, as well as a number of others used by the Spanish colonial government. There are also exhibits relating to archaeology, folklore and weaponry, and an art collection that includes porcelain, paintings and furniture of historic value and great beauty.
The treasures are varied and interesting but a guided tour does help supplement the labels which are not comprehensive. Visitors should note that there have been reports of the museum attendants trying to hustle tourists out of money by offering to take photos for them, so be aware that they may approach you.
Even non-smokers have to agree that a visit to Cuba would not be complete without investigating the island's most famous export: cigars. The art of cigar-making in Cuba is old and a source of national pride. The three main factories in Havana offer tours for visitors to see how the cigars are still rolled by hand.
In the oldest factory, Partagas, founded in 1827, a reader is traditionally employed to keep workers entertained while they fashion the famous cigars; apparently this is the reason some of the famous cigars are named after literary characters. Tours run every 20-30 minutes, depending on what language you want to be guided in. A tour lasts about 45 minutes.
Havana's other cigar factories are La Corona and the lesser-visited Romeo y Julieta. There are shops attached to the factories where cigars can be purchased. Visitors are advised not to buy cigars from people off the street, as these are usually rolled banana leaves fashioned into cigar look-alikes and the sellers are persistent hustlers. Los Cohiba Esplendidos are supposed to be the best cigars in Cuba, formerly only available to Fidel Castro.
The Plaza de la Revolucion is a famous landmark in Havana. The gigantic square, which is dominated by the imposing José Martí Memorial, has provided the setting for numerous political rallies, and the podium in front of the memorial is where important political figures, like Fidel Castro, have addressed more than a million Cubans on important occasions, such as 1 May and 26 July each year.
At the foot of the memorial is a museum dedicated to José Martí, a national hero who would most likely have become Cuba's first president had he survived the Second War of Independence in 1895. It is possible to take the elevator to the top of the 138-foot (42m) memorial, the highest structure in the city, to see some great views of Havana and get some photographs. Located behind the memorial are the closely guarded offices of Castro.
Opposite the memorial, on the far side of the square, is the much-photographed Che Guevara image with the slogan (Forever Onwards Towards Victory), that identifies the Ministry of the Interior building. The square is worth a visit if for no other reason than the important role it has played in Cuban history.
The Bellas Artes Museum was founded in 1913 and is now split into two buildings, both architecturally interesting and impressive, housing International and Cuban art respectively. Both fine art collections are worthy of detailed exploration and should delight any visitor interested in art.
The Colección de Arte Universal covers everything from ancient Greek artefacts and Latin American pieces to art by French, Dutch and Italian painters, and includes work by masters such as Gainsborough, Goya and Rubens. The Colección de Arte Cubano is also outstanding and covers works from the 16th to the 20th centuries by prominent Cuban artists.
The Cuban galleries have rooms dedicated to religion, landscape, portraits and scenes from Cuban life. Of course, the hyperrealism of the revolution and post-revolution years is also prominent and this has probably become the style of art most associated with modern Cuba. Famous paintings in the contemporary section include Gitana Tropical by Victor Manuel Garcia (the 'Cuban Mona Lisa') and El Rapto de las Mulatas by Carlos Enriquez.
Formerly the Presidential Palace and headquarters of the Cuban government, this impressive building now houses documents, photographs and artefacts pertaining to the Cuban Revolution. The museum provides an excellent introduction to Cuba's historical struggle for independence - there are even blood-stained and bullet-riddled uniforms on display!
Prepare to spend a few hours wandering from room to room as the story unfolds, from Spanish colonial times to the present day. In front of the museum entrance stands a watchtower that was part of the old city walls, as well as a tank used by Fidel Castro during the battle of the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Behind the museum is the glass-encased yacht, the 'Granma', which brought 82 revolutionaries, including Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, from Mexico to set the 1956 Revolution in motion.
The anti-imperialist tone of the museum will delight some and possibly upset others but for history buffs and those interested in the revolution this museum is a treasure trove. Make sure to get the correct change at the museum counter as there have been reports of minor money scams.
Cuba is developing its eco-tourism potential and one of the prime spots for getting back to nature is the Montemar Natural Park on the Zapata Peninsula in the province of Matanzas (about 75 miles/120km from Havana). The hour long drive from Havana is well worth the effort as the park can occupy the whole family for at least a day.
The peninsula is home to one of the largest swamps in the Caribbean, and its vast area also includes forests, crystal-clear lagoons and canals. Its exuberant flora, including more than 900 species of plants (115 of them endemic to Cuba) is complemented by its rich fauna, consisting of 160 bird species and 12 types of animal, including crocodiles.
One of the park's many interesting features is the Laguna del Tesoro (Treasure Lagoon), a fresh water reservoir inhabited by golden trout. In the midst of the lagoon is a reproduction Taino village with its houses built on pillars. There are also nature trails, a bird watching centre, and the largest flooded cave in Cuba. There is also a scuba centre, crocodile farm and several restaurants. Kids will love the chance to be outdoors and expend some energy, and things like the crocodile farm and the flooded cave are delightful attractions for children and adults alike.
One of Havana's grandest pieces of architecture, the Capitolio is an important landmark and one of Centro Habana's major touristic sights. It was designed to resemble the US Capitol in Washington DC, and the similarity is obvious. A monumental stone stairway leads to the vast domed hall, from where tours will take visitors beyond the doors to elaborately decorated chambers that once housed the seat of Cuban Congress.
Today, it is home to the National Library and Academy of Sciences, and many of its rooms are still used for state events. It also houses a planetarium and a museum. Directly beneath the dome lies an imitation 24-carat diamond set into the marble floor, from where all highway distances between Havana and all sites in Cuba are measured.
The building is today a bit rundown and the inside is often closed for renovations. Even so the outside makes a great photo spot. The area is a hot spot for vendors, artists and beggars which can make it interesting but be sure to watch your belongings carefully.
The large park region, which is a World Heritage Biosphere Reserve, is filled with attractions, including wildlife refuges and coffee plantations. It is possible to climb 459 stone steps to the summit of the huge rock, La Gran Piedra, and stand 4,049ft (1,234m) above sea level for a beautiful view. It is said that on a dark night, one can see the lights of Jamaica in the distance.
The park boasts extremely varied attractions and their relation to a general theme is not always obvious but there is an attempt to move chronologically through history beginning with the prehistoric and ending with the Cuban revolution. In the Valle de la Prehistoria visitors are awed by dozens of life-size model dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures lurking in lush vegetation.
There is also a magnificent 45-hectare (111-acre) garden, the Jardin Ave de Paraiso, dating from 1860, that was laid out on a former coffee plantation and features a series of colour-coded gardens with unique scents and displays in each. An artistic community consisting of 10 families have formed a fieldstone hamlet, offering artwork of a high standard at Comunidad Artistas Oasis.
There is also an Auto Museum, an aquarium, and multiple museums dedicated to Cuban history and the revolution. This is the area from which Castro planned the July 26th movement and it is of huge national importance to the Cubans. At Baconao Park there really is something for everyone.
Santiago's most impressive structure is poised ominously atop the cliffs at the narrow entrance to Santiago Bay, about nine miles (14km) south of Santiago. This enormous piece of military architecture, a maze of stairways and dungeons, was begun in 1640 and was originally built to defend the bay from pirates and naval attack.
The Morro was rebuilt in 1664 after the English pirate, Henry Morgan, reduced it to rubble. At one stage in its long history the castle was also used as a prison before being converted once again into a military fortress. The castle now houses the Museum of Piracy, featuring excellent displays on piracy, colonialism and slavery. There are old blunderbusses, muskets, cutlasses and Toldeo blades in glass cases.
The Morro is one of the best-preserved 17th-century Spanish fortresses in the world and it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are amazing views from all over the fortress and many enviable photo opportunities. There is also a restaurant on the terrace. The Morro is a fascinating place to explore and visitors to Santiago are encouraged not to pass this attraction up.
Bacardi, the world's largest family-owned spirits company, started producing rum in Santiago way back in 1862. The family was forced to flee Cuba after the revolution in 1959, and Bacardi drinks are not found in Cuba today, but the brand still strongly associates itself with the country.
Interestingly, it was the fruit bats that nested in the rafters of the original rum factory that gave Bacardi rum its world-famous bat logo. The company's current production sales exceed 240 million bottles a year, in about 170 countries.
Emilio Bacardi's private art and antique collection is still in Santiago, as is the original family rum distillery, and it is this collection that you can view in the Emilio Bacardi Moreau Museum. It is not a rum museum or a distillery tour but an eccentric collection of the famous family's historical artefacts and art.
A fun and educational outing, the Emilio Bacardi Moreau Museum is well worth a visit when in Santiago. Budget at least an hour to take in all the sights the museum has to offer. Those who want to take photographs in the museum must ask permission and pay an additional fee.
Santa Ifigenia Cemetery was officially founded in 1868 - although some of its graves are older - and declared a National Monument in 1937. It now shelters a number of important historical and cultural figures including war heroes and famous politicians and artists.
The gateway to this cemetery is dominated by a memorial to Cuban soldiers who died fighting in Angola. From here, the visitor is led to the impressive tomb of Cuban national hero, revolutionary and writer Jose Marti. The tomb is in the form of a crenulated hexagonal tower with each side representing one of Cuba's six original provinces. The round mausoleum is designed so that the sun will always shine on Marti's casket, which is draped with the Cuban flag.
The cemetery also contains a shrine to the Virgin of Charity, Cuba's patron saint, in the form of the Basilica del Cobre. This little church is said to be the scene of miracles performed by the saint. It is a very attractive cemetery with a number of impressive and quite original tombs and strolling around it is intriguing; a lot can be learned about a culture from the way they commemorate their dead.
Old Havana (Habana Vieja) is a very special area in Cuba which delights travellers and locals alike. This historic section of Cuba's capital was founded in 1519 and for centuries was an important naval port of colonial Spain. Being in such a strategic position, the city was targeted by pirates and fought over on numerous occasions, and the ruins of the defensive walls that surrounded the city can still be seen.
During the years of Prohibition in the United States, Habana Vieja turned into a playground for Americans who flocked here for the cheap liquor, gambling, prostitution and hedonistic lifestyle. One of the district's most famous bars is La Bodeguita Del Medio, which was the favoured haunt of legendary US writer, Ernest Hemingway.
The Old City now also contains museums, hotels, restaurants and shops lining the original cobble-stoned streets. Surrounding the picturesque squares (plazas) are beautiful restored colonial buildings with grand facades, and striking churches that form a magnificent setting for the late afternoon chess and domino games and salsa music. The Plaza de Armas was the seat of power in Cuba for 400 years, being the base of operations for the Spanish Captain's General, US military governors and the Cuban president, and today is home to an interesting book market, among other things.
Cuba's largest cave system, with more than 29 miles (46km) of underground galleries spanning eight different levels, the Santo Tomás caves are situated about 10 miles (16km) west of Vinales.
Very informative, 90-minute guided tours take visitors 138 feet (42m) above the valley floor into the sixth gallery, where fantastic limestone formations, glittering stalactites and stalagmites, underground lakes and vast caverns are revealed by the light of headlamps. You may be taken to level seven as well but unless you are an advanced caver you will most likely be limited to these two levels; the entrances to levels six and seven are semi-hidden on a forested slope overlooking the valley and they provide wonderful vantage points for views and photographs.
The cave system includes a tiny museum and visitor centre but for the most part the caves have been kept in their natural state, avoiding the tourist traps of electrical lighting and souvenir stands. In accordance with this lack of commercialisation, the place is refreshingly devoid of large crowds and tour groups which allows for a more mysterious and authentic tour than is usually possible in famous cave systems.
Trinidad has a number of museums housed in colonial mansions, but one of the best is the beautifully renovated Museo Romántico overlooking the main square, Plaza Mayor. The Plaza Mayor is the historic centre of Trinidad and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mansions, or palaces, that surround the square date back to the 18th and 19th centuries when trade in sugar and slaves brought great wealth to the area.
The Museo Romántico, or Brunet Palace, was built in 1812 by the wealthy Borrell family but it takes its name from the Brunet son-in-law who took over the house. The museum displays mostly the belongings and personal collections of these two grand families and boasts an excellent exhibition of paintings, decorative furniture and porcelain from the 1830s.
The mansion itself is the main attraction, however, with the original marble floors still on display and splendid frescoes and neoclassical architecture and decoration. The Plaza Mayor is an un-missable attraction in Trinidad and visitors will do themselves an injustice if they don't explore some of these magnificent old houses, which provide so much insight into a certain period of Cuban history.
This neo-classical mansion belonged to one of the richest families in Cuba, the Borrell family, between 1827 and 1830 but it was bought by German sugarcane plantation owner Justo Cantero, a controversial figure in local gossip. The mansion, now a museum, is still called Casa Cantero.
The grandiose house, just off Plaza Mayor, is in itself the main attraction, with beautiful wall murals depicting classical scenes and splendid decor in the rooms. Apart from the cool, stylish rooms, the museum also displays some exhibits relating to the sugar industry and history of Trinidad, including collections of weaponry, furniture, art and important documents.
One of Casa Cantero's most popular attractions is the superb view that can be seen from the mansion's tower - from here you can see wonderful vistas of Trinidad and the Escambray Mountains. This view alone will more than justify the entrance fee for photographers. The museum starts getting crowded after 11am, when the tour buses arrive, so it is best to visit early in the morning to enjoy the charm of the place.
The soft sand and still, warm waters backed by palm trees make the beach at Playa Ancón a popular excursion from Trinidad. Situated at the end of the peninsula, seven miles (12km) south of Trinidad, Playa Ancón offers watersports and some good offshore snorkelling and diving sites. The colourful coral, rock tunnels and other exciting features of the seabed make this beach a scuba divers playground.
Visitors can take a yacht out into the ocean for a swim, or hire boats to explore the coast or go fishing. The beach is famous among locals and travellers alike and the crowds there are a great mix of the two: it can be pleasant to go during the week when it is quieter; but, although it can get crowded during the weekend, it is quite fun watching the locals cavort and it is a good opportunity to mingle and meet people.
Make sure to bring snacks or a picnic because food stalls at the beach are limited and the hotels along the beach front generally only cater for their guests. A lovely way to see the countryside is to cycle from Trinidad to this beautiful beach - passing through a picturesque little village on the way - which is not strenuous.
If you are interested in the history of the revolution then visiting Moncada Barracks is something you must do in Cuba. The bullet-ridden Moncada Barracks and adjacent Parque Historico Abel Santamaria were the setting for very important events in Cuba's history.
In 1953, a group led by Fidel Castro attacked the barracks in an attempt to steal weapons and launch the revolution, but the plan failed and 61 of them were killed. The rest were captured and many tortured to death by Batista's army. Castro himself was later tried in the Escuela de Enfermeras for leading the attack, and this is when he wrote his famous 'History Will Absolve Me' speech.
This failed attack is widely considered to mark the beginning of the Cuban revolution and the date of the attack, 26 July, was adopted by Castro as the name for his revolutionary movement (Movimiento 26 Julio) which succeeded in overthrowing Batista's dictatorship in 1959. The barracks was converted into a school after the revolution and in 1978 the perimeter walls were rebuilt and half of the building became a museum.
Located in the Viñales Valley, the Cueva del Indio is a magical place for kids to visit. In addition to the caves, the area provides some great family activities such as hiking and climbing, as well as some gorgeous rock pools for swimming in the stunningly bright green water.
The caves are named for the local Indians who once inhabited them, the Guanajatabey Amerindians, who carved shelters into the limestone rock and hid in the caves from Spanish colonialists. Some of their bones were unearthed in the cave system and their art is still visible on the walls. The caves were rediscovered in 1920 and, with a gallery spanning 27 miles (45km), the Cueva del Indio cave system is very impressive.
Travellers with kids in Cuba will find this a wonderful family activity; children will love the boat ride across the underground lake in the cave, and discovering the stalactites, stalagmites and petroglyphs on the walls of the cave. There is a museum and a cafeteria within the cave system. It doesn't take long to take the tour through the caves but it is quite a magical experience and worth a quick detour.
This aquarium, located in Habana Vieja, is a scientific research centre which aims to educate the public and conserve marine life. The aquarium features about eight big tanks displaying some truly beautiful freshwater and saltwater fish, along with coral and other tropical species.
The first marine mammal the aquarium collected was a seal called Silvia and seals remain a popular attraction at the Acuario Nacional: The Seal Stage has capacity for 1,000 spectators. The dolphins are also popular and have won awards for their performances. The Dolphinarium can hold 1,200 spectators and up to eight dolphins perform simultaneously.
Two exhibits which particularly please kids are the reproduction of a mangrove forest and the marine grotto. Children will love the aquarium and will delight in watching the dolphins, sea lions and seals, while parents can enjoy lunch in the aquarium's underwater restaurant.
The aquarium has consistently been voted one of Havana's top tourist attractions for kids and those travelling with children in Cuba shouldn't miss it.
A Camera Obscura is a dark room in which a lens and a series of mirrors reflect images of exterior surroundings onto a concave surface. Leonardo da Vinci first described such a camera in 1490. The Camara Obscura in Havana is in the old city, on the corner of Plaza Vieja, and it offers spectacular 360-degree views over the city of Havana from a telescopic lens located atop a 115-foot (35m) tall tower.
Guides give ten-minute tours of the old city and the bay, using the camera to point out special places, architectural highlights and Old Havana's attractions. Some of the guides also use the camera to spy discreetly on people in the area in a very entertaining way; it is a great opportunity for people watching! The guides have various language skills and it is not difficult to find one that speaks English.
If you are travelling with kids in Cuba then the Camera Obscura is a great activity; children love the camera and the feeling of being a spy with access to a whole city. Apart from the camera tour you also gain access to a roof garden which is a nice spot from which to take photographs.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is located in the Cuban provinces of Holguín and Guantánamo, and features an impressive selection of flora and fauna, such as parrots, lizards and hummingbirds, which are unique to the area. The amount of endemic species in the park has made it one of the most valuable areas in the world for research and conservation.
The area is said to be the most humid place in Cuba and this, in addition to the incredibly varied topography, may well be a factor in encouraging the diversity of species. The region has seen very little habitation by humankind and it remains a remarkably unspoiled wilderness area. In fact, it is widely hailed as the most important nature reserve in the Caribbean.
The well-visited park is a firm favourite among young travellers to Cuba, and regularly features on lists of the best things to do with kids while in the country. It should appeal to all ages: who can resist pristine waterfalls and stunning natural rock pools to swim in? A guide is compulsory when touring the reserve. Although it is a few hours from Santiago de Cuba by bus or car to this incredible park it is a worthwhile excursion and makes for a wonderful weekend getaway.
Ernest Hemingway may be an American by birth, but Cubans have adopted this rambunctious writer/adventurer as their own - especially in Havana, where you'll find memorials to his apartments, regular haunts, and even favourite drinks. Hemingway was a keen fisherman (and a keen drinker) and the bars and harbour in Cuba are full of references to him and his escapades.
Finca Vigia, his home just outside Havana, has been restored and now functions as a museum to the famous author. The residence is kept as it was when he lived there, and visitors can see his typewriter and library of over 8,000 books. It was in this house that Hemingway wrote two of his most famous books, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature).
Walking around the house feels very personal and informal which makes it a special experience for fans of Hemingway. The museum has been known to close often for renovations so try to ensure that it is open for visitors before setting off. Although, a walk around the house and area may prove sufficiently exciting for many.
A five-mile (8km) esplanade, roadway and seawall, running between the harbour in Old Havana and the historically Russian area of Vedado, a stroll along El Malécon is the perfect way to start any Havana adventure.
The two-hour walk, described by many as a cross-section of Cuba's history, begins in Habana Vieja, where the buildings have had their famous pastel colours faded by the sun and the salty sea-wind, and goes past various monuments to significant figures in Cuba's struggle history (including Máximo Gomez and Calixto García), before ending up in the area of Verdado, a funky downtown district with great sights and vibrant nightlife.
Walking El Malecon one bears witness to the strange disparity in Cuba between the wealthy tourist hotels and the rundown local joints. Construction of the walkway began in 1901 and its main purpose was to protect the city from the sea but today it is a very popular social haunt.
It is very different to do the walk during the day and at night; perhaps the best way is to begin in the afternoon sun so that you can see the colours of the city, and finish in the evening when the lights come on.
Almost all of the Vinales Valley attractions revolve around natural splendour and the Vinales Botanical Garden, the Jardin de las Hermanas Caridad y Carmen Miranda, is a special addition to this panoply of natural bounty. This small botanical garden ranks very highly among things to see and do in Vinales, partly because it is so refreshingly intimate and un-touristy.
The garden was cultivated by a local family, who still live on the property, in order to preserve samples of indigenous tropical plants. It feels like a Cuban version of the Secret Garden; a riot of colour and controlled jungle which delights travellers of all ages. This is an ideal place to familiarise yourself with the flora of the region. Usually there is a family member available to show you around and teach you about all the different species of plants which makes for a lovely, personal experience. Roosters and chickens roam freely in the rambling garden and there are lots of lizards and birds. There are also some quirky decorations (dolls heads adorn some of the fence posts).
You can simply stroll into this garden from the main road of the village, and it is a wonderful place to wander alone, but be aware that although entrance is free small donations are expected, particularly if one of the family members gives you a tour. If you are lucky enough to be invited be sure to have a peek inside the house as it is also very charming.
Cuba has a semitropical, temperate climate and experiences two seasons: a rainy season from May to October, and a dry season from November to April. Generally the weather in Cuba is sunny, hot and humid. The average minimum temperature is 70°F (21°C), and the average maximum temperature is 81°F (27°C). In summer (June to August) the heat can get uncomfortably intense, with temperatures reaching 100°F (38°C) and high humidity. The sea breezes tend to make conditions more pleasant on the coast. The rainy season includes a hurricane season from July to November, with September and October being the months most likely to experience serious tropical storms. Cuba has a very good public safety record when it comes to handling these storms but travellers ought to be aware that travel itineraries can easily be thrown by such weather. December, January and February are the coolest months. December to March is also the most popular time to visit Cuba due to the cooler weather and lack of rain and storms. However, as it can get very crowded over this peak period, March, April and May are also considered good months in which to visit Cuba. Although June through August is a hot period many people do flock to Cuba to celebrate carnival during the summer months.
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 percent 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. No US-issued credit or debit cards will work in ATMs, but those holding cards issued in other countries should be able to get pesos at most major tourist destinations.
The official language is Spanish, but English is spoken in the main tourist spots.
Most older hotels use 110 volt power, 60Hz, while newer hotels use 220 volts, 60Hz. A variety of outlets are in use, but the flat and round two-pin plugs are most common.
US nationals: US nationals must have a passport valid on arrival. A visa is also required if the visitor does not have a Tourist Card.
UK nationals: British nationals must have a passport valid on arrival. A visa is also required if the visitor does not have a Tourist Card.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport valid on arrival. A visa is also required if the visitor does not have a Tourist Card.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport valid for a minimum of 2 months from the arrival date. A visa is also required if the visitor does not have a Tourist Card.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport valid on arrival. A visa is also required if the visitor does not have a Tourist Card.
IR nationals: Irish nationals must have a passport valid for two months beyond the date of arrival. A visa is required if the visitor does not have a Tourist Card.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport valid for two months beyond the date of arrival. A visa is required if the visitor does not have a Tourist Card.
In lieu of a visa, a Tourist Card ("Tarjeta del Turista") may be issued by tour operators, travel agents, or airlines for a single-entry holiday trip of up to 30 days, provided accommodation has been 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 person per day). All those entering Cuba must hold travel insurance, with coverage in Cuba, to ensure cover of medical expenses for the period of stay. 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.
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, particularly if travelling to rural areas. Vaccinations are also recommended for hepatitis A and hepatitis B. Most of the more serious tropical diseases are rare in Cuba, but viral meningitis and dengue fever do occasionally break out, even in urban areas like Havana. Dengue fever is on the increase in most of the Caribbean and the best prevention against it is mosquito repellent and suitable clothing to avoid being bitten. Rabies should only be a risk for those at risk of animal bites, but if you are planning to spend a lot of time outdoors a vaccination should be considered. 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 with, along with a copy of the prescription and a doctor's letter to facilitate entry through customs.
Tipping in convertible pesos is very welcomed as salaries in the service industry are small. A 10 percent tip is appreciated in restaurants and by taxi drivers. Although giving out items like toothbrushes and pens is popularly recommended by travellers, this practice is sometimes frowned upon and certainly not necessary - service staff would almost always prefer a tip to these sorts of gifts.
Cuba is considered comparatively free from the threat of global terrorism, but has an increasing crime rate. Visitors are warned that theft from baggage during handling in airports is common, and valuables should not be packed in suitcases. Be wary of pickpockets and bag snatchers in Old Havana, at major tourist sites and on buses and trains. Visitors are advised to take taxis after dark rather than walk but you should always make sure taxis are registered and not just private cars. If there are political demonstrations of any kind during your holiday you should avoid them; Cuban authorities are known to clamp down on street protests quickly and sometimes violently. Tropical storms and hurricanes usually occur between June and November; although good warning is given, electricity, water and communications can be disrupted for weeks.
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. Homosexuality is legal in Cuba but public displays of affection between same-sex couples are not always well-received by locals. The penalties for possession of illegal drugs are very strict, as are the penalties for any breach of Cuban immigration rules.
Cubans tend to be warm and hospitable, and business is conducted more informally than in many other countries. Establishing a good relationship is vital to successful business and some time may be given over to small talk. Due to relative isolation from the global economy, business in Cuba tends to take some time and effort, and one is often hemmed in by the country's communist practices. Punctuality is always important, but don't expect meetings to begin on time or deals to be struck quickly. The dress code tends to be more casual than elsewhere but businesspeople still usually wear collared shirts and the dress code for women is sophisticated. Business hours are usually about 8.30am to 12.30pm and 1.30pm to 4.30pm, Monday to Friday. Some businesses are open every second Saturday.
The international access code for Cuba is +53. Public telephones are widely available for domestic as well as international calls, but international calls are expensive. Prepaid phone cards are available. Wifi availability in Cuba is expanding rapidly but there is still limited connectivity and internet access is often expensive. A prepaid NAUTA internet card is needed; which you can purchase from a ETECSA station located throughout major cities or at upscale hotels. Once you have a NAUTA card you will need to find a wifi hotspot, in a modern hotel or in a wifi park.
Travellers to Cuba over 18 years do not need to pay customs duty on 400 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 500g of tabacco; 2.5 litres of alcohol; medicines and perfume for personal use; and gifts to the value of CUC 60. The import and export of local currency is prohibited.
Official Tourism Portal, Cuba: www.cubatravel.cu
Cuban Embassy, 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.
Cuban Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6286 8770
Cuban Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 346 2215.
Cuban Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 (0)1 671 8300.
Cuban Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 (0)4 464 2210.
US Embassy, Havana: +53 (0)7 839 4100.
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.
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.
Twenty-five minutes east of Havana are the Playas del Este, a chain of sandy beaches stretching for six miles (10km) between Bacuranao and Guanabo. On the weekends, they are generally packed with Cubans escaping the city.
There are a few tourist hotels lining the coast, but other than that facilities are limited. For those who need an escape from the city the beaches make a good day trip; however, those expecting pristine tropical island beaches might be disappointed. The ocean is still unbelievably inviting, with clear, warm turquoise water, but the beaches themselves tend to suffer from all the rubbish left by the crowds.
During the week the beaches are much quieter and cleaner so that is the time to go if you want a solitary, peaceful experience. There are a number of pristine 'tourist' beaches in Cuba but the Playas del Este are fun because they offer a more genuine experience of the festive Cuban beach lifestyle; if you want to mix with locals and enjoy people watching then this is the perfect place to park your towel. There are usually lots of vendors selling food and beer at reasonable prices on these beaches and people are generally very friendly.
This picturesque emerald valley was once the centre of the sugar trade industry in Cuba, and home to the plantations that brought wealth and prosperity to Trinidad in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the peak of the sugar trade there were over 70 sugar cane mills in the valley area and about 30,000 slaves working on the plantations.
Today, the ruins of estates, sugar mills and other remnants are visited by tourists who are attracted by the beauty of the valley and the historical significance of the slave trade that operated during the valley's boom years. The main site is the Manaca Iznaga, a striking 144ft (44m) high tower that was used by a plantation owner, one of the wealthiest men in Cuba, Pedro Iznaga, to keep watch over his slaves working in the fields. The bells in this tower would toll to signal the end of the working day. Visitors can climb the tower for impressive views over the countryside.
Along with Trinidad, the Valle de los Ingenios has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Horse riding tours to the valley, departing from Trinidad, are a popular way to see the sights and take in the beautiful surroundings.
Located 55 miles (88km) north of Trinidad, the city of Santa Clara is best known for its Che Memorial at the Plaza de la Revolución, and monuments relating to the Cuban Revolution. The armoured train monument (Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado) marks the spot where Che attacked the train, sending Batista's troops to Santiago de Cuba, a battle which was a decisive factor in the victory of the revolutionaries.
The Ernesto Che Guevara Monument was built to pay homage to the memory of Che and his comrades who fought with him in Bolivia, and the enormous monument incorporates a huge statue of Che with his famous phrase (Forever Onwards Towards Victory), as well as representations of many aspects of his revolutionary life.
To one side of the statue, a huge stone block has been inscribed in full with his farewell letter to Fidel Castro. The monument also includes a mausoleum where the remains of Che and his comrades have been interred, and a museum with displays about his life and involvement in the revolution.
The beautiful colonial city of Sancti Spiritus, with its gracious people, delightful architecture and maze of narrow, winding cobblestone streets, remains almost completely detached from the main tourist trail in Cuba. Located in the centre of the country, 43 miles (70km) east of Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus lies on the banks of the Yayabo River, exuding charm, affability and authenticity.
The old town dates back to 1514 and has been declared a National Monument. It is filled with picturesque, colourful little houses with uneven red-tiled roofs and weathered colonial homes. It also boasts the much-photographed green-towered church which dates back to the early 16th century, making it the oldest church in Cuba. Streets are crammed with horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, scooters and pedestrians licking at ice-creams flavoured with a fruit which grows along the banks of the river. Spanning the river is the Puente Yayabo, an arched brick bridge built by the Spanish in 1815, and the city's most famous sight.
The population of Sancti Spiritus is only about 100,000 and its rundown charm and friendly, laid-back people are part of its appeal. It is also renowned to be the home of many famous Cuban singers and musicians so it is worth seeking out some music when you visit.
In April 1961, the United States (under the auspices of the CIA) launched an attack on Fidel Castro's government, attempting to overthrow it by securing the beach-head at Playa Gíron. The 'Bay of Pigs' invasion, as it has come to be known, was a humiliating failure for the US, only serving to strengthen the Cuban people's support of Castro.
Today, the fascinating Bay of Pigs Museum (Muséo Playa Gíron) stands as a simple record of the Cuban force's victory. Visitors can view maps and displays detailing the course of events as they transpired, as well as actual planes flown by the Cuban army during the siege, fragments of shot-down enemy planes, tanks, mortars and machine guns used in the battle, plus much more. There is also a touching exhibition of photographs and biographies of the 156 Cuban soldiers that were killed during the invasion.
Anyone with even a passing interest in modern history - or how US foreign policy has shaped the world in which we live - will find the Bay of Pigs Museum utterly enthralling. Budget at least two hours to take it all in.
One hundred and ten miles (177km) southeast of Havana is the popular diving and snorkelling paradise of Cayo Largo. The island offers about 16 miles (26km) of white sand and crystal sea, where it is possible to swim and dive among grottos and sandy valleys full of crustaceans, sponges, coral and fish of every hue, shape and size.
There are other numerous smaller cays accessible from the beach, each with their own natural treasures such as Cayo Iguanas, an isolated spot inhabited by iguanas. The living coral reef is also a big draw for visitors. It is possible to rent motorcycles, bicycles, horses and watersports equipment to make the most of a visit to Cayo Largo, which can be reached by yacht, or by daily air connection from Havana.
Cayo Del Sur is the second biggest island in Cuba's Canarreos Archipelago and it has many special beaches to choose from. Nudity is permitted on the island and some of the beaches are frequented by nudists. The island is said to have been used as a base by pirates but now it is a tourist haven; there are a number of all-inclusive resort hotels on the island which has no permanent inhabitants unless you count hotel staff.
With 22 miles (36km) of sandy, white, palm-fringed beach, Varadero Beach has often been referred to as one of the world's most beautiful. The incredibly clear water makes for amazing diving, fishing and snorkelling opportunities, and children splashing around will even be able to spot some fantastic fish with the naked eye. Glass-bottomed boat companies abound here too. Varadero Beach is a wonderful place to spend the day and an absolute must-visit while in Cuba.
Varadero is situated on a spit of land that reaches out into the Atlantic, a two-hour drive to the east of Havana. There are 23 world-renowned dive spots along this stretch of beach and dive centres providing lessons and equipment. There is also deep sea fishing, windsurfing, parasailing, kayaking and sailing to be enjoyed. Outside of the water there are also numerous restaurants, cabaret spots, nightclubs, land sport opportunities, a skydiving centre, golf courses, and much more.
The hotels in Varadero, Cuba's most popular beach resort, are some of the best in the Caribbean. Al Capone used to make this his holiday hideaway when taking a break from racketeering in Chicago. There are a number of big shopping complexes and artisan markets that sell a wide variety of souvenirs. There are also many bars and restaurants in Varadero, and it isn't hard to find live music.
Whether you are visiting for a day on the beach, or staying at the resort for a holiday, Varadero is unmatched in Cuba for its natural beauty and its touristic facilities.
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