Tips and things to do in Cuba: The ultimate guide for first-time visitors to post-Fidel Cuba

From the elegantly crumbling facades of its colonial cities to the sumptuous palm trees, rivers and waterfalls of its eastern province, Cuba's many charms will seduce even the most world-weary party animal, music enthusiast, history buff or nature lover. 

With Cuba having recently opened up to US tourism and the recent death of Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary leader who built this communist state, there is even more reason to visit this country before everything changes. 

Here is a guide on how to make the most of this vibrant, unforgettable and often, confusing country 

36 Hours in Havana

With Cuba'€™s guarded openness to private enterprise grabbing hold, classic American cars and salsa singers now share the cityscape with new and inventive offerings in food, culture and nightlife.

When to go

Playa Ancon, Cuba - December 7, 2014: A woman from Europe lays in the sun at the base of a palm tree at Playa Ancon, which is located several kilometers outside the colonial town of Trinidad, Cuba. Credit: iStock
STR21-CUBA

Playa Ancon, located several kilometres outside the colonial town of Trinidad, Cuba. Photo: iStock

The most popular time to visit Cuba's warm, tropical climate is the dry season, which runs from November to April. Accommodation is more expensive and harder to come by, especially over Christmas and New Year, so be prepared to pay up and book well ahead during this period. 

You're more likely to get good deals on flights and tours during the shoulder periods of April and October, and those willing to risk a little rain will be rewarded by shorter queues and lower prices between May and October. Summer can be wet and humid, however storms tend to clear quickly. There's also a hurricane risk between June and October.

Getting there

José Martí International in Havana is Cuba's busiest and most well serviced airport, but thanks to a decades-long standoff between the communist nation and the US, most airlines don't fly directly there. From Australia, your best (and cheapest) bet is to go via the US then Mexico, or through Canada, with connections in Cancun or Toronto. Air Canada, LATAM, Aeromexico and Interjet all fly into Havana. Try a combination of connections and airlines to get the best value for money.

It takes 30 to 40 minutes to reach the centre of Havana from the airport and will cost roughly $CUC25 in a taxi. Many hotels or homestays will happily arrange a transfer for a similar price, so it's worth asking.

 

Best kiss of the trip thus far 😉🐬 #chowiethedolphin #cuba #cayoblanco

A photo posted by Jess Doyle (@jessamy_d) on

Advertisement

Accommodation

Luxury

Infrastructure is haphazard and building materials scarce and expensive, which means hotels can sometimes be underwhelming, even at the higher end of the price range. While Havana has the most luxury options, few breathe history like Hotel Nacional ($CUC300 - $CUC376 for a double room). Just metres from the ocean in Vedado, its art deco halls have hosted everyone from Winston Churchill to Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and notorious Mafia kingpins since the 1930s. 

Outside Havana, most luxury hotels are clustered around the resort town of Varadero, where white sand beaches, swaying palms and blue water are ripped straight from a screensaver. 

Budget

The best way to see Cuba and get the 'real local experience' is via its casas particulares – B&B style private homestays. You'll meet the residents and get the best value by a long shot, with one night setting you back between $CUC20 and $CUC40. Be sure to book ahead and confirm by phone, as internet access is limited. If the casa is full when you arrive, it's not uncommon to be directed to another down the road. Both casas and conventional, dormitory-style hostels can be booked via Hostelworld.com and despite limited internet access, some enterprising Cubans have registered their homes on airbnb.

While bathrooms are actually pretty good here, the plumbing is often old so used toilet paper goes into bins instead of being flushed down the toilet. Don't worry, they have signs up in the bathroom so you don't forget.

How to get around

Public transport in Cuba is often slow with frequent cancellations and delays, making taxis a convenient choice for getting around within cities or for larger groups travelling long distances. For cross-country travel, steer clear of painfully slow trains and opt instead for the Viazul bus service. It connects the capitals of most provinces as well as some popular tourist destinations and tickets can be booked via Cubatur or at the local tourist information centre.

Car rental can be expensive (roughly $CUC50 per day), roads hazardous and rules ambiguous. If you do decide to go it alone, try to avoid driving at night. Try Transtur, Car Rental or Cubacar.

Where to go

Quintessential Cuba: Havana

Havana, Cuba - June 13, 2016: Tourists walk in the Plaza de la Catedral district with the Cuban and Canadian flags flying prominently from one of the historic buildings on the corner of Calle de los Mercaderes and Emperado. iStock

The Plaza de la Catedral district in Havana. Photo: iStock

When most people think of Cuba, it's the peeling grandeur of Havana that springs to mind. And, like salsa and cigars, rum is in the city's DNA.

For the ultimate Instagram moment, take a spin along the waterfront in one of the classic 1950s cars parked near the Capitolio Nacional or Hotel Inglaterra in Old Havana (agree the price and time before, approximately $CUC30 per car, per hour) before retiring to one of the town's many watering holes for a cocktail and live music. 

You couldn't throw a stone without hitting a bar where Ernest Hemingway used to drink, but his favourite mojito joint was La Bodeguita del Medio on Calle Empedrado, which serves up traditional Cuban food in addition to potent tipple inside its atmospherically graffitied walls. 

If a daiquiri is more your style, wander over to El Floridita – the writer and longtime Havana resident pronounced theirs the best in the world. 

Hotel Nacional also boasts one of the chicest alfresco bars and has the benefit of being close to the lively clubs and music venues of Vedado. That said, be sure to spend at least one evening at Casa de la Musica in kitschy Miramar for the true Buena Vista Social Club experience – and don't even think about arriving before 11pm.

Historic beauty with a unique party scene: Trinidad

Panoramic view over the city of Trinidad, Cuba with mountains in the background and a blue sky. The bell tower belongs to the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco. Credit: iStock
STR21-CUBA

Panoramic view over the city of Trinidad, Cuba. Photo: iStock

Havana is undoubtedly the nightlife capital, but historic Trinidad has a few tricks up its sleeves. Horse-drawn carts click down the brightly painted streets of this UNESCO World Heritage-listed town by day, but at night the Plaza Major comes alive with dancing, music and drinking in the streets. (Yes, drinking outdoors is legal and provided you're not belligerent, won't raise an eyebrow).

Take a seat on "The Steps" where a small hole in the wall called Best Mojito will serve you a takeaway drink for just a couple of Cuban convertible pesos and a rare wifi connection sees tourists and locals linger long after dark. A $CUC1 cover charge will get you a table at the top of The Steps right next to the open-air stage, which has an assortment of music and dancers from 8.30pm until midnight. Just be sure to leave your inhibitions at the door – you will be asked to dance. 

For a truly unforgettable late-night experience, head to Disco Ayala – a nightclub built inside a natural cave that attracts a mostly Cuban crowd. It's wildly humid in summer and the dancefloor is covered in puddles after rain, but where else can you find a smoke machine, flashing lights and DJs surrounded by stalactites? It's open Tuesday to Sunday 10pm to 2am and later on Fridays and Saturdays; admission is $CUC5 and includes a drink.

The spirit of revolution: Santa Clara

Cuban national flag on pole set on balcony of obsolete building in Santa Clara, Cuba. istock

An obsolete building in Santa Clara, Cuba. Photo: iStock

Smack-bang in the centre of the country, Santa Clara was the first major city to be liberated from the Batista regime in 1958. Fittingly, it became the final resting place of Che Guevara himself, and his remains are interred here inside an imposing mausoleum along with those of 23 other insurgents.

It's the museum next door that's most intriguing, however, giving an insight into the man whose iconic image adorns public murals around the country.

Santa Clara is also home to Fabrica de Tabacos Constantino Perez Carrodegua, one of Cuba's best tobacco factories. Book a tour through Cubatur to see how the famed cigars get made and pick up a Montecristo, Partarga or Romeo y Julieta at the factory shop nearby.

Breathtaking vistas and tobacco plantations: Vinales​

Valle de Vinales National Park in Pinar del Rio province, Cuba. UNESCO World Heritage site. istock

Valle de Vinales National Park, Cuba. Photo: iStock

After Havana and Trinidad, Vinales is one of the most popular towns with visitors – and it's not hard to see why. In the nearby Parque Nacional Vinales, limestone outcrops tower over ox-ploughed tobacco plantations, making the small town and its surrounds the perfect place to slow down and get a taste of rural Cuban life at its most idyllic. 

As most of the sights are outside town, a Vinales bus tour runs nine times a day from the town square, or you can go it alone by booking a rental car.

The essentials

Visa and documentation

Australians require a tourist card to board the plane to Havana. Some airlines such as Air Canada include this cost in the overall ticket price but be sure to check when booking your flight. If you go via Mexico, you're able to purchase one at the airport for approximately $A30- $A40. Travel insurance is required to enter the country, so keep a copy of your policy with you to show officials at immigration. See smartraveller.gov.au/Cuba

Money

Two currencies are in circulation in Cuba, the Cuban Peso (CUP), which locals earn and Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), which are issued to tourists. One CUC is equal to a US dollar and is worth between 23 and 25 CUP. Accommodation and most items are priced in CUCs. Be sure to bring enough cash for the entire trip, preferably in Euros or Canadian dollars as few places will exchange Australian money and the Cuban government levies a penalty of 10 per cent for changing US currency on top of a 3 per cent financial transaction charge. While most towns do have ATMs, MasterCard won't work and neither will many Australian bankcards. Tipping is customary (approximately 10 per cent in restaurants) so carry some small notes. Given the average salary is around $CUC30 a month a modest tip can make a big difference.

Health

The standard traveller vaccinations are recommended (Hepatitis A and B, Typhoid) and the country does have rabies and some reported cases of Zika Virus. You should bring any medications you may require with you. Carry toilet paper and hand sanitiser on you as it's not always available in public bathrooms. See smartraveller.gov.au/Cuba

Internet and Wifi

​Since 2015, 35 public wifi spots have been installed in parks and squares around Cuba, but it is still illegal for most residents to have internet in their homes. Connecting is expensive and unreliable, but you can purchase a card with login details for $CUC2 - $CUC5 from stores with an ETECSA sign (they're usually located close to the wifi zone). Treat your time here as a digital detox and get around the old fashioned way – with a map.

Comments