Cuba has the flair of the Caribbean, but on the other hand, it is very different from the other Caribbean countries and islands, because it chose a different model of society. Because of this, travellers in Cuba can see old men making beautiful music, like in Ry Cooder’s film "Buena Vista Social Club", old-timers on the streets that you won’t see anywhere else, and enjoy the relaxed life in the Caribbean.
Facts and numbers
From London, there are expensive direct flights to Cuba or cheaper, longer flights with a stopover. Flights with a stopover, for example in the United States, are cheaper, but the flight time is a few hours longer. Travellers who make a stopover in the USA should not forget to apply for an ESTA USA. Without an ESTA it is not possible to check in for a flight to America.
|Capital||Havana (Spanish: La Habana)|
|Population||11.2 million (2019 census)|
|Religion||Most important religions: Roman Catholic Church and Santeria, and different Protestant communities|
|Money||Cuban peso (CUP) and convertibele peso (CUC)|
|Time difference||6 hours|
|Flight time||With direct flights: 10 to 12 hours|
|Plug||Type A, B, C and L (for A and B a travel plug is required)|
|Tap water||Not safe to drink|
|Visa||Cuba visa required|
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean. In addition to the main island of Cuba, the smaller island Isla de la Juventud and more than 1,000 small islands belong to Cuba. Cuba is divided into 15 provinces and a special administrative region (Municipio especial) Isla de la Juventud. Even though the shortest distance between Cuba and the United States (Key West) is only 160 kilometres, Americans are only allowed to travel to Cuba under special circumstances.
Cuba’s largest cities, in addition to the capital Havana, are Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey and Holguín, with about 2 million inhabitants.
Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, three different Indian peoples lived in Cuba, of which the Arawak formed the largest group. Within a century the original inhabitants were virtually extinct, mainly due to European diseases against which they had not developed any resistance. In the 17th and 18th centuries, tens of thousands of slaves, mainly from West Africa, were imported for the very labour-intensive cultivation of sugarcane.
Independence of Spain
In the 1920s, Cuba remained loyal to Spain, while the other Spanish colonies in Latin America rebelled and declared themselves independent. From 1868 onwards, however, rebellions against Spanish domination also repeatedly arose in Cuba, but these were always suppressed or at most rewarded with a little more autonomy from the Spanish motherland. One of the rebel leaders was José Marti, who thus became a national hero of Cuba and whose name is a recurring one in Cuba and in other parts of Latin America. It was only when the United States intervened in the uprising and fought a public war against the Spaniards in 1898 that Cuba became independent.
However, this gave the USA a lot of influence over Cuba. Through the participation of the U.S.in the battles against the Spaniards, the subsequent peace treaties gave the Americans, among other things, the right to build a large naval base on Cuba (Guantanamo Bay) and to use it as virtual American territory.
Military coup and dictatorship from 1933 onwards
In September 1933 the Cuban government was overthrown by the so-called sergeant revolt led by Sergeant Fulgencio Batista. Batista dominated Cuban politics for the next 25 years, first through a series of puppets as president and then as dictator himself. During this period, Batista pursued a military and repressive policy, which, among other things, severely restricted the political rights of the population. The difference between wealthy and poor Cubans became bigger and bigger during this time. Approximately one third of the Cubans lived below the poverty line during this period, while the country as a whole was prosperous.
Revolution and socialist state
After fierce fighting in 1958 and 1959, dictator Batista was overthrown by Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel and Raúl Castro, Ernesto "Che" Guevara and others, and a socialist state was established. The resulting expropriation of American companies and American citizens led to a permanent embargo by the U.S. and other Western states. Cuba had to find other cooperation partners for import and export and armaments and began to work with socialist states, primarily with the former Soviet Union.
Because of Cuba’s strategic location, in 1962 the conflict between the USA and the USSR over the stationing of medium-range missiles in Cuba escalated into the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis. Even today, Cuba still suffers from economic sanctions and is one of the few countries that are not a member of interstate alliances such as the World Trade Organisation.
Thousands of Cuban refugees left their country in multiple waves, with most of them settling in Florida, mainly in Miami (a district in the centre of Miami is now called Little Havana).
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Communist regime in Eastern Europe, Cuba’s main trading partner and financer disappeared, and in the early 1990s Cuba entered a serious economic crisis. Whereas previously Cuba had supplied the socialist states of Eastern Europe with almost all its sugar harvest, and had bought two thirds of its food, almost all its fuel and 80 percent of its machines and spare parts, suddenly 85 percent of its foreign trade was no longer available. The Cuban industry and transport came to a standstill due to the lack of fuel, and strict food rationing led to malnutrition on the island for the first time in many years. The government decided to expand the tourism sector to compensate for the loss of exports. The economy became more decentralised and work in the private sector was allowed in a number of economic sectors. Joint ventures in the tourism sector, cooperation with new countries (including Spain, Italy, Canada, Brazil, the People’s Republic of China and Venezuela), the development of oil production and the extraction of substantial nickel reserves contributed to the stabilisation of the Cuban economy.
Cuba has a tropical maritime climate with a drier season from November to April, and a rainy season from May to October.
Our autumn and winter are therefore considered to be the best travel time for Cuba as it is not too hot and it rains less. The heat of the tropical climate is tempered by a constant northeasterly wind, making a trip during our summer months, when there is more rain in Cuba, also possible. An advantage of travelling to Cuba during our summer months is that prices are generally lower there.
The temperature of the sea water is very pleasant due to a constant supply of warm, equatorial currents. Temperatures are about 25 °C. Travellers can therefore look forward to a warm bath on the beaches of Cuba.
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Population and culture
According to the 2019 census, Cuba has about 11.2 million inhabitants. More than two million of these live in the capital, Havana, and its surroundings. By Latin American standards, Cuba has a high life expectancy of 78.66 years, which is even slightly higher than the life expectancy in the USA (78.54 years). Due to the increase in life expectancy and the reduction of infant mortality at birth to 5.5 cases per 1,000 births (for comparison: the Netherlands:4.2 cases, USA: 6.5 cases per 1,000 births), the population of Cuba constantly increased until 2016. Since 2016, the population has remained the same or even decreased slightly.
Cuba’s population is multi-ethnic, which can be explained by its complicated colonial origins and its slave economy. Marriages between ethnic groups are widespread and therefore there is both a wide variety of ethnic groups and a certain discrepancy in the country’s population census: While the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami found that 62% of Cubans are black, the 2002 Cuban Census showed that 65.05% of the population is white. Socially desirable answers and a politically motivated formulation may play a role in the various results. However, it cannot be disputed that the population of Cuba has many different ethnicities.
Cuba is officially a secular state. Before the 1992 amendment of the constitution, Cuba classified itself as an atheistic state. With the new constitution, freedom of religion increased. The most important religions in Cuba are Catholic Christianity and the Santería, a religion based on the traditional religion of the West African Yoruba, which is strongly mixed with Christian elements.
Spanish is spoken in Cuba. Minority languages, such as the Indian languages, which exist in other Latin American countries, hardly exist in Cuba. Despite the many tourists, barely any English names can be found in museums and elsewhere in Cuba. Due to the long, dormant conflicts between Cuba and the USA, English was a language that was not easily taught or learned in the country. Although more and more young people are now learning English privately and English is even taught in schools, the spread of the language is still limited. Most teachers are too poorly trained and the supply is certainly not sufficient. Travellers who book a package holiday with an all-inclusive hotel or a fully organised trip with an English-speaking guide do not need Spanish, but apart from the hotel staff they will also have hardly any contact with the locals, which is very unfortunate. Travellers that want to go to Cuba should therefore learn a little Spanish beforehand!
The currency in Cuba is a special case. There are in fact two different currencies in the country, the peso cubano (CUP or MN for moneda nacional), the actual currency for the local population, in which state wages, food and general services are also paid. In addition, there is the convertible peso (CUC), which was introduced in 1994 and is specifically intended for tourists. Some luxury products can only be paid with convertible pesos. In this way, the government gets access to foreign currency. The exchange ratio set by the government is 1:24 when buying Cuban pesos with CUC and 25:1 when exchanging Cuban pesos for convertible pesos.
It is important to know that bank cards are not accepted in Cuba. It is no use taking bank cards with you to Cuba. The easiest way to withdraw money is with a credit card. As long as your bank is not a U.S. credit institution and has no U.S. parent company, both VISA and Masterc*Card should work. MasterCard does advise cardholders to check with their own bank or credit card company if the credit card can be used abroad, and if necessary activate it for use abroad.
Cash is the most used means of payment. Except in large hotels, one cannot assume that they will be able to pay everywhere without cash (i.e. with a credit card, because bank cards don’t work anyway).
Before leaving for Cuba, British nationals must have applied for and filled in a visa. The Cuba visa is suited for tourists who arrive once (single entry) and do not stay longer than 30 days in the country.
Travellers who meet these conditions can apply for their visa (visa card) online. The visa for Cuba is a paper card that is sent by post and must be filled in by hand. You will receive the visa by post within one week after completing and paying the costs.
The Cuba visa - also called visa card or green visa - is not a digital document, but a paper document consisting of just one page. Travellers who do not travel to Cuba by plane from Europe, but by cruise ship or plane from the USA (so with a stopover in the United States), need a different visa: a pink visa, for which a surcharge of £58.00 per person is charged.
Apply for a Cuba visa now
Safety and health
Cuba is for the most part a safe country, but even in Cuba tourists can become victims of theft, bodily harm or violent crime. Women who travel alone may, in extreme cases, be victims of sexual crimes. It is important to be aware that Cuba is a socialist country with one party, and therefore freedom of speech and press freedom are not guaranteed. The planned economy may cause shortages of daily necessities. Avoid political discussions, especially on issues related to recent history and relations between Cuba and the United States.
Foreign travellers need to be able to identify themselves at all times. A copy of the passport is generally sufficient for this purpose. Keep money, identification documents, airline tickets, driving license, a list of addresses and other important documents in a safe place and make copies of them.
Health and vaccinations
Upon arrival, travellers must be able to prove that they have valid private (foreign) health insurance. It is best to bring a confirmation of the insurance in Spanish with you when you travel.
Travellers from Europe to Cuba are not required to be vaccinated. A vaccination against hepatitis A is recommended for all travellers, a vaccination against hepatitis B, typhoid and rabies for travellers who stay for a longer period of time or have an increased health risk.
In Cuba there is no malaria, but Zika Virus, dengue fever, diarrhoea, cholera, ciguatera (a fish poisoning, which occurs mainly between April and September after eating fish that have eaten poisonous algae) and rabies (mainly transmitted by dogs, cats and bats). Because of the risk of Zika virus infection and dengue fever, the use of insect repellents such as DEET or Picaridin for Cuba is recommended, especially during the day.
Discuss with your family doctor or vaccination specialist which vaccinations are recommended in your personal situation.