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GoNOMAD DESTINATION MINI GUIDE

Cuba: The Forbidden Country


By Michael DeFreitas

WHERE
Cuba, at 1,250 km/775 miles long and 191 km/118 miles wide, is one of the largest islands in the world (the size of England) and dominates the Caribbean landscape. 

WHY GO
Cuba is home to 11 million people that are friendlier to visitors than most North Americans are told. Since the fall of Communism, the Cuban government has taken great steps to develop its tourism industry, and today more than two million visitors sample its Old World charm each year.
Read Cuba hotel reviews

Cuba was Spain's main base in the New World and as such, serves as the Caribbean's great historical archive of 16th and 17th century architecture. Havana was founded in 1514 and Old Havana is now an United Nations World Heritage Site, receiving international aid to help restore many of its older buildings.

Still, Cuba remains largely unexplored and unspoiled by travelers, the majority of which stay on the Varadero peninsula east of Havana. The island is ruggedly beautiful, inexpensive, very accessible, safe and the people are among the friendliest in the Caribbean. If you are an explorer at heart and seek adventure in a friendly, uncomplicated, Old World setting, without hordes of tourists, put Cuba at the top of your list. 

WHEN TO GO
Unlike other Caribbean destinations which have a very defined "high" and "low" tourist season, Cuba is the ultimate year round destination. It is the least expensive Caribbean destination to visit at any time of the year, but some of the larger international resorts offer slightly lower rates in the low season.

The high tourist season runs from November to April and coincides with the islands dry season. The low season coincides with the rainy season, which runs from May to October. However, Cuba's three mountain ranges tend to trap moist air all year round, so even in the dry season you can expect brief afternoon showers. 

Summer temps average 25 C (77 F) while winter temps dip to 22 C (71.6 F). Moderate trade winds temper the hotter summer months.

GETTING THERE
Despite what most Americans are told Cuba is not a difficult place to visit. But in order to do so legally, you must be a member of an educational or humanitarian group. For those of us who are not joining a group, a number of Canadian airlines including Canada 3000, Air Canada and Air Transat have regular daily and charter flights. Since there are no direct flights from the USA available for non-Cuban nationals, all Americans must enter Cuba from a destination like Canada, Jamaica, the Bahamas or Mexico. Other airlines serving Cuba include Bahamas Air, Air Jamaica and Cubanair.

Four tour companies specializing in Cuban vacations for American citizens are:

  • Cubanacán Canada International
    372 Bat St., Suite 406, Toronto, Ont., Canada
    Tel: 416-601-0343, fax: 416-601-0346.
  • Cubanatours
    Baja California 255, Edif. B, Despacho 103 Colonia, Hipodromo Condesa, Mexico D.F.
    Tel: 574-4921
  • Havanatur Nassau
    West Hill St., PO Box 10246, Nassau, Bahamas
    Tel: 242-322-2796, fax: 242-238-7980.
  • Signature Vacations
    160 Bloor St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M4W 1B9
    Tel: 416-960-2540, fax: 416-967-4951.

Getting Around
Don't be fooled by its island-like size on a map of the Caribbean: Cuba is deceptively large. By far the best way to see the island is to rent a car. With over 16,000 kms of paved roads, there are few places you cannot get to. Do not believe what you have heard or read about many places being off limits: it is simply not true. There are actually very few places off limits to travelers and since they are mostly military-related, you probably won't be interested in them anyway. 

Generally, the roads are good and the high gas prices guarantee you will encounter little traffic on most highways. Expect to pay $50 - $60US per day including insurance and a deposit (better rates for weekly rentals). Gasoline is about $3.40US per gallon.

Also, as few locals own cars and public transportation is unreliable, locals often wait long hours for a ride to the next town. With a car, you’re likely to become an unofficial taxi service. Relax and pick up the people waiting for rides. It’s generally very safe and a great way to meet locals and see another side of the country.

If you really must get to the other side of the island quickly, Aero Caribbean flies to most destinations within Cuba for $25 - $75 one way.
Calle 23 3113, Vedado, Havana, Tel: 79-7524.


BEST MAJOR ATTRACTIONS

  • La Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
    The forbidden city in the forbidden country. No trip to Cuba would be complete without a visit to the oldest and most beautiful city in the Caribbean.
  • Plaza de Armas
    The oldest part of the Old Havana. In the northeast corner of the square under the boughs of a large ceiba tree, you will find a small stone column believed to mark the spot of the city's first mass in 1519.
  • Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs)
    A number of historical sites and museums reflect the Cuban side of this monumental fiasco.
  • Santiago de Cuba
    The island’s first capital city and birth place of Castro and the Revolution (capital moral de la Revolución Cubana).The Moncada Garrison police station still bear the bullet holes of Castro's failed attack in July 1953. 

BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTIONS

  • Vinales Valley National Monument
    Situated about 210 km/120 miles west of Havana, The Vinales Valley is to Cuba what Yosemite is to California. Tucked into the Sierra de los Organos range are a few fertile valleys that comprise the area called Viñales. Scattered throughout these valleys are free standing rock outcroppings called mogotes, which resemble the hills of Quilin in southern China.
  • El Laquito Cigar Factory 
    Cuba's premier cigar factory still rolls Fidel Castro's favorite cigars. Tours available to the public. Calle 146 32302, Marianao, Havana, Tel: 21-0554. 
  • Speaking of cigars, Wings of the World Travel, can arrange cigar tours which include  factories, museums, plantations, growing areas along with general sightseeing excursions. 1636 3rd Ave., Suite #232, New York, NY 10128, Tel: (800) 465-8687.
  • Finca Vigia
    A quaint house in the picturesque town San Francisco de Paula, about 16km/10 miles east of Havana, was Ernest Hemingway's home from 1941 -1960 from where he wrote Old Man and the Sea. It is now a museum.

BEST ACTIVITIES AND TOURS

  • Cuevas del Indio
    Located in the Viñales Valley this cave is part of the second largest cave system in the Western hemisphere.  The attraction here is an underground boat ride through the large cave.
  • Hoteles Horizontes 
    Calle 23 #156, Vedado, Havana, Tel: 33-4142, fax 33-3161. 
    Organized one-week ecotour packages to places like Havana, the Viñales Valley, Soroa, and Zapata.  Packages include transportation, hotel and tours.  

 

At present there are few volunteer programs in Cuba and they are not really for Americans. The VSO in Canada offers a few programs including volunteer teaching for children with disabilities. Remember Cuba is not that open to this kind of stuff yet.

BEST LOCAL HAUNT
The main tourist area in Varadero has many local haunts, but the best are in Havana.

  • Hotel Ambos Mundos Bar Old Havana, Calle Obispo #153, esq Mercaderes, Tel: 66-9530, fax: 66-9532.  Hemingway lived in this hotel -- and at the bar -- from 1936-1941.

BEST LODGINGS
Most visitors to Cuba stay at the big resorts like Beaches or Club Med on Varadero peninsula, but to really experience the flavor of Cuba you must stay in Havana.

  • Hotel Ambos Mundos 
    Old Havana, Calle Obispo #153, esq Mercaderes
    Tel: 66-9530, fax: 66-9532
    This 52-room hotel occupies a five-story historic building dating back to 1887. The building was totally restored in 1996. One of attractions of this hotel is room 511 where Hemingway lived for five years. The room remains as he left it in 1941.  Rates $60 - $100.
  • Hostal Valencia
    Old Havana, Calle Oficios #53, esq Obrapía y Lamparilla
    Tel: 62-3801,fax 33-8697
    This restored 18th century mansion is modeled on Spanish paradores. Twelve spacious rooms with lofty balconies encircle an inner courtyard where independent travelers can share a $1 beer with habaneros (Havana locals).  Rates $44 - $80.
  • Hotel Inglaterra
    Havana Central, Paseo del Prado #416
    Tel: 62-7071, fax 33-8254
    Immortalized in Graham Green's novel Our Man in Havana, it's probably one of Havana's most charming hotels.  Built in 1875 it was the favorite haunt of visiting dignitaries and correspondents.  Rates $70 - $100.
Homestays are also possible through a network of private homes offering rooms--some better than others.

BEST EATS
Cubans live a simple life out of necessity so fine food and drink is important to them. Again, there is plenty of good food at all the resorts of Varadero, but if you seek a true Cuban culinary experience make the pilgrimage to Old Havana. Here you will find paladares, small restaurants (no more than 12 seats by law) operated out of private homes. 

  • La Bodeguita del Medio 
    Old Havana, Calle Empedrado #207, Tel: 61-8442. 

Another favorite haunt of "Ernesto" Hemingway is also a great place to experience Cuban cuisine. Do try one of "Papa's" (Hemingway's nickname) favorite rum drinks, the mojitos. 

  • La Mina
    Old Havana, Calle Obispo #109, Tel: 62-0216. 
    A great place to sample Cuban cuisine and mingle with habaneros and Latin American tourists. 

BEST ENTERTAINMENT

All the major hotels in Varadero have stage shows, but again Old Havana is the place to catch the Cuban rhythm.

  • The Tropicana Nightclub
    Calle 72 e/41 y 45, Marianao, Havana, Tel: 20-7507, fax 33-0109.
    This famous open-air nightclub has been in continuous operation since 1939. Great music, great girls, great time. Not to be missed.
  • Cabaret Parisién
    Hotel Nacional, Calle O y La Rampa, tel 33-3564. The next best thing to the Tropicana.
For local music, these two places offer very local "good times." You will need some Spanish, however, if you want to go there.

  • Juventud 2000 Discoclub
    Karl Marx Theatre, Avenida 1 ra y 10, Miramar.
    Tel 30-0720
    Great music, but the local crowd can get out of hand sometimes. Friday, Saturday & Sundays 9:00pm - 2:00am.
  • La Cecillia
    Avenida 5ta y 110, Miramar.
    Tel: 33-1562,
    Offers great salsa Thursday - Sunday 9:30pm - 2:00am. Again the crowd can get rowdy

BEST SHOPPING
The Varadero strip is packed with the big international names, but again head to Havana for a real bargain feast.

  • Plaza de la Catedral
    Calle O'Reilly y Mercaderes.
    On weekends this large open air market comes alive when hundreds of vendors from the countryside bring their crafts to sell.
  • Plaza de Armas
    Calle Obispo y Baratillo.
    A bit more touristy than Plaza de la Catedral, but the next best choice. Every conceivable craft from original Cuban oil paintings and fine wood carvings to 1954 Chevys are on sale.

VISAS AND DOCUMENTS
The easiest and fastest way to enter Cuba is through another country. All foreign tour companies and airlines offering trips to Cuba will issue you a Cuban Tourist Card which you use to enter and leave the country. Cuban immigration stamps the tourist card, so you don't have to worry about Cuban stamps showing up in your passport. Marazul Tours ,250 West 57th St., Suite 1311, New York, NY 10107, Tel: (800) 223-5334 or (212) 582-9570 can help with a tourist card for about $15.

COMMUNICATIONS AND MONEY

The official Cuban currency is the peso, but the currency Cubans love is the US dollar so take plenty of hard cold greenbacks. Traveler's checks and credit cards issued by any US bank or institution are useless, as US Citizens are forbidden from spending dollars in Cuba.

If you are uncomfortable taking large sums of cash, purchase US dollar traveler's checks (Thomas Cook are the best) in your stopover country (Canada, Mexico, Bahamas, etc.). Still take US dollars and have a good assortment of smaller bills because a US dollar goes a long way in Cuba, especially outside the main tourist areas.

HEALTH AND SAFETY
No vaccinations are required for North Americans, but Cuba is a tropical country and there are some bad things like hepatitis A reported. Cuba's tap water is safe to drink and so is the milk (which is pasteurized), but to be safe, drink bottled water in rural areas. 

Most of Cuba is quite safe, but there are plenty of pickpockets and purse-snatchers in the larger centers. Despite petty theft, most Cuban cities are much safer than North American cities. Cubans face serious consequences for interfering with touristas.

BEST RESOURCES

The Cuban government does not really have an organized tourism department, so your best bet for information is Moon's Travel’s Cuba Handbook and:

Cuban Connection
Tel: 800-645-1179, fax 941-793-5204
email cubanconnection@yahoo.com
website www.cuba.tc.

Read more GoNOMAD stories about Cuba

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