Leaving aside any political or ideological concerns or constraints, a short holiday travelling in Cuba can be highly recommended. Whilst recognising that many readers may prefer all inclusive holidays, at a resort such as Varadero on the north coast of the island, this article focuses on independent travel.
First time visitors to the island are mostly pleasantly surprised and return home with positive stories to tell. Most of the local people are welcoming and friendly; some speak English although Spanish is the national language. Cuba is generally a safe environment and is not expensive for visitors. Travelling independently in Cuba, however, is not without its challenges.
Planning Your Visit to Cuba
There are travel companies based outside Cuba that can take foreigners to, and around, the island. Alternatively, visitors can use specialist companies also based outside Cuba – these experts will book flights, accommodation and car hire in advance and offer advice to travellers.
Most foreign visitors prefer to avoid the extreme heat in the summer and the hurricane season so late Autumn/Fall and Spring are probably the best times to go.
Most people will find Havana an excellent place to start the tour; it is likely that the international flight will arrive there.
One recommended itinerary (enjoyed by the author) for a fortnight’s leisurely holiday is:
Three days in Habana (Havana) (music, museums, old cars, street life)
Two days in Cienfuegos (Spanish colonial town)
Four days in the World Heritage Site of Trinidad including some time on the nearby Caribbean beach environment
One day in Sancti Spiritus (a small country town)
Two days in Santa Clara (Che Guevara links)
Two days back in Havana before flying home
Accommodation in Cuba
There is a wide range of hotels and hostels available.
For a special experience, however, and an extremely inexpensive option, travellers may wish to stay in peoples’ private homes, called a casa particular. They offer different types of accommodation (independent apartments, accommodation with private entrances, hotel-like rooms in homes shared with families or other guests). Breakfast may also be available.
These rooms have a daily rate ranging from 20-25 US$ in Havana and Santiago to 15-25 US$ in other towns and cities. The Casa Particular Organisation website is one example of where a traveller can book this type of accommodation in advance.The casas particulares from this source are all state licenced.
Car Hire in Cuba
This is relatively expensive. The author of this article arranged in advance for the hire of a car when leaving Havana to visit other parts of Cuba. A hire car is not needed whilst staying in the capital as walking is easy and pleasant and there are also plenty of taxis, of both the two and four-wheeled variety.
A few suggestions and observations relating to driving in Cuba:
It would be wise to purchase a map, or maps, of Cuba before leaving home as they are in very short supply on the island.
Compared with other countries, there are very few road signs.
Fuel is not in short supply but there are not many filling stations and also the petrol is often a low octane variety.
Road surfaces are generally adequate but the huge, unfinished eight-lane motorway, stretching from Havana towards the east, has many potholes. It is a bizarre sight to see food vendors offering their wares alongside the motorway and an occasional goat will stop in the middle of this highway. To compensate for all that, it has virtually no traffic!
In the countryside there is limited public transport and few local people own their own car so there are many hitchhikers. It is quite normal and acceptable to offer a ride to these Cubans, but clearly this will be a decision for the foreign travellers.
It is not recommended to drive after dark. Street lighting is not common outside the large cities.
Be extremely vigilant where railway lines cross the road. There are no warning lights or barriers and trains have the right of way.
Tipping in Cuba
Tipping is a subject which can provoke strong opinions. It is a fact that, compared with many travellers’ lives back at home, most Cubans are not well paid. There are adequate supplies of food and an impressive health service but there are shortages of basic luxury goods. The author not only gave money as tips for services received, but also took toiletries, pens and pencils. These were very well received.
By common consent, it is likely that Cuba will change rapidly during the next few years as economic embargoes and restrictions involving some foreign countries diminish, or possibly even end. The character of the country is likely to be affected, so the traveller considering a visit may wish to come to this special Caribbean island before it changes too significantly.