Backpacking Cuba

Looking for important travel information while backpacking around Cuba? Here you will find information on working in Cuba, entry visas, Cuba hostels, and much more.

Table of Contents

Facts About Cuba

Although typically considered as a single territory, the Republic of Cuba is an archipelago of islands, consisting of the island of Cuba (which is part of the Greater Antilles), the Isle of Youth and other smaller islands. Located in the Northern Caribbean, it is connected to the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

The most populous country in the region, Cuba also enjoys one of the most diverse cultures thanks to its rich history. The earliest inhabitants were the Guanajatabey people, who were later supplanted by the Taino and Ciboney peoples (commonly known as the Arawak). However, the recorded history of Cuba only begins with Christopher Columbus, who claimed the island for Spain on October 28th 1492. In the face of concerted resistance from the Taino peoples, this arrangement was only consolidated by 1514 with the establishment of the first Spanish settlement, which would later become Havana. Aided by a huge influx of African slaves, the island prospered as an exporter of sugar, tobacco and coffee, staying in Spanish hands for 388 years until the pro-independence movement was galvanised by Jose Marti in the 1890s, climaxing with the Spanish-American War and formal independence in 1902.

The modern history and culture of Cuba has been shaped in large part by fractious relations with their former liberators, courtesy of Fidel Castro’s Communist regime, in power since the Cuban Revolution of 1959. That said, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, attitudes have changed marginally, with palpable benefits for tourism, making it an extremely popular place to visit.

  • Population – 11,382,820 (2006 estimate)
  • Language – Spanish
  • Tel Services – Country Code
  • Currency – Peso
  • Time – GMT -5

Climate

Cuba has a semi-tropical climate due to its proximity to the Tropic of Cancer. Temperatures can be very high, but trade winds generally take the edge off. The dry season is typically between November and April, with May and June the wettest months.

Average temperature in Cuba
Period Celsius
January-March 21
April-June 25
July-September 26
October-December 23

It is worth remembering that Cuba has historically suffered from hurricanes, from the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846 to modern natural disasters like Hurricane Allen in 1980 and Hurricane Wilma in 2005. With that in mind, be wary of travelling in September and October.

Things to see and do

Cuba enjoys 2 million visitors annually, largely due to the capital city of Havana. A major attraction is El Capitolio Nacional, completed in 1929 it was the former seat of the pre-revolutionary government and is now the Cuban Academy of Sciences and stands in beautiful neo-classical style. Even more imposing is the incredible Christ of Havana, recalling the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro and looking over the city from the other side of the bay. Also worth a visit are the 16th century Castillo del Morro, the 18th century La Cabana fortress and the 760 hectare Lenin Park. On the culture front, make time for the Museum of the Revolution in the old Presidential Palace, the National Aquarium and the Casa de Las Americas museum.

It needn’t all be sightseeing either, as you’ll find a number of beaches approximately half an hour outside the city. The most popular of these are Bacuranao, Tarare and Guanabo. When the sun sets though, head back to Old Havana for restaurants or Vedado for the best clubs in the capital.

It’s not all about Havana though. Santiago de Cuba is a thriving city, with the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba in June and July a national event, dating back to the 17th century and encompassing dancing, music and plenty of drinking.

Alternatively, the historic centre of Cienfugos on the southern coast is a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its collection of 19th century neo-classical buildings like the unique Arco de Triunfo. The Vinales Valley is another popular tourist destination, being a great spot for hiking and rock climbing, despite its official use for growing tobacco and other crops. If you’re interested in the communist heritage of the country though, you’d be well advised to pop over to Santa Clara, where you’ll find a Mausoleum for fallen revolutionaries, including Che Guevara.

Just to prove it’s not all about the main island though, you can easily take a boat to the Isla de la Juventud from Batabano for approximately 50 pesos per person and check out the pleasant Playa Paraiso.

Useful links

Cuba Tourist Board
154 Shaftesbury Avenue
London WC2H 8JT
United Kingdom
www.cubatravel.cu

Travel

Jose Marti International Airport is the main international and domestic airport in Cuba, situated a short distance from central Havana with Cubana de Aviacion operating a service to and from London-Gatwick. However, there is no bus service from the airport.

Another option is Juan Gualberto Gomez International Airport in Varadero, where Monarch Airlines and Thomsonfly operate to and from London-Gatwick, and MyTravel travel from London-Gatwick and Manchester.

Once in the country, there is a fairly decent railway network revolving around the three main stations of Casablanca, La Coubre and Central Rail Station. The Havana to Santiago route is a good option for tourists. Alternatively, you can opt for buses to get from city to city. Viazul and ASTRO Bus provide this good budget service, mainly from Havana.

Accommodation

Havana is a surprisingly expensive city to visit in general, and hotels are no exception. The best hotels are by and large located in the Vedado area and, for a top hotel, you can expect to pay upwards of ₱70 per night. However, there are budget options between ₱15 and ₱25 a night, such as the Hotel Caribbean in the Prado promenade and the Hotel Tropicoco. As a whole, Old Havana is an excellent district to try if you want a well-priced hotel, but be prepared to compromise on quality.

A better option for the backpacker who wants to get a fuller experience of living in Cuba are the casas particulares. Private houses offering lodging services to foreigners, they are markedly cheaper than hotels and with superior food to add to the bargain. Even in Havana, you can expect to pay just ₱10-₱20 per night. However, be sure to book in advance and don’t be afraid to look beyond Havana for better prices.

Health care issues

There is no private health care in Cuba, everything is covered by the national health service. The quality of Cuba’s medical services is surprisingly decent, with a doctor available for every 170 residents (a ratio second only to Italy in the world). That said, as a foreigner, expect problems getting immediate treatment should you fall ill , although Havana does have a clinic especially for foreigners.

Once in Cuba, watch out for the water, and be wary of the milk and eggs, which can be unpasteurised. Opinion varies on disease protection before visiting the island, with some recommending a full program of inoculations and, conversely, many travellers going with none. In general though, Hepatitis B and tetanus shots are recommended.

Entry Visas for Cuba

A tourist visa card is necessary for most visitors, costing ₱15 and valid for 30 days. Once this expires, you can buy another from any Cuban immigration office, but any further extensions require a very good reason. Exempted countries are mainly those in the Caribbean and Africa, along with some parts of Central and Eastern Europe. A pre-requisite for the visa card is a passport valid for at least 6 months after your departure date from Cuba. To get the visa card, either go to your nearest Cuban Embassy or get the authorisation direct from your travel agent. The office in the UK can be found at the following address:

Cuban Embassy in the UK
167 High Holborn
London WC1 6PA
Tel: 020 7240 2488

When you reach Cuba, you will be expected to state your lodgings for the first three days of the visit. Moreover, when you leave the country, there is a compulsory Departure Tax of $25 CUC.

If you are a journalist or looking to conduct business in Cuba, the visa application process is far more costly and equally as complicated.

Foreigner Work Permits in Cuba

Due to the political situation in Cuba, it is bordering on the impossible to find paid employment if you are a foreigner. However, should you want to pursue the matter, check with your Cuban Embassy.

Opportunities for voluntary work are available in the community, in education or for the environment. One notable organisation is the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, which commissions International Work Brigades in a number of areas in the country.

How to Say Common Spanish Phrases

The official language of Cuba is Spanish and, although there are some regional patois, knowledge of Spanish will make your stay immeasurably easier. Here are a few basic phrases to help you get along:

Meeting People

English
Spanish
yes
si
no
no
thank you
gracias
You are welcome
De nada
please
por favor
Excuse me
Discúlpeme
hello
hola
goodbye
adiós
Good morning
Buenos dias
Good night
Buenas noches
I do not understand.
No entiendo.
Do you speak…?
Habla usted…?
English
Inglés
Spanish
Español
What is your name?
Como se llama usted?
Nice to meet you
Encantado de conocerle
How are you?
Cómo estás?
Good
bien
bad
mal

Directions

English
Spanish
map
el mapa
left
la izquierda
right
la derecha
Straight on
directo
far
lejos
near
cerca

Methods of Transport

English
Spanish
Where is…?
Dónde está…?
How much is the fare?
Cuanto es lo justo?
Ticket
boleto
A ticket to…, please.
Un boleto para…, por favor.
Where are you going?
Hacia dónde vas?
Where do you live?
Dónde vive usted?
train
el tren
bus
el autobús
underground
el metro
airport
el aeropuerto
Train station
la estación del tren
Bus station
la estación de autobuses
Underground station
la estación del metro
departure
la salida
arrival
la llegada
parking
el estacionamiento

Time

English
Spanish
What time is it?
Qué hora es?
Today
hoy
yesterday
ayer
tomorrow
mañana

Accommodation

English
Spanish
hotel
el hotel
room
el cuarto
reservation
la reservación
Are there any vacancies?
Tiene habitaciones?
No vacancies.
No hay lugares.
Passport
el pasaporte

Places

English
Spanish
Post office
la officina de correo
bank
el banco
Police station
la estación de policía
hospital
el hospital
chemist
la farmacia
shop
la tienda
restaurant
el restaurante
museum
el museo
church
la iglesia
square
la plaza
strret
la calle

Shopping

English
Spanish
How much does this cost?
Cuánto cuesta?
I will buy it
Lo compro
I would like to buy…
Me gustaría comprar…
Do you have…?
Tiene usted…?
open
abierto
closed
cerrado
postcard
la postal
stamps
los timbres
little
poco
lot
mucho
all
todo

Meals

English
Spanish
breakfast
el desayuno
lunch
el almuerzo
dinner
la cena
vegetarian
vegetariano/vegetariana
cheers!
skal!
The bill please
Me trae la cuenta por favor

Drinks

English
Spanish
drink
la bebida
coffee
el café
tea
el té
juice
el jugo
water
el agua
beer
la cerveza
wine
el vino

Food

English
Spanish
meat
la carne
fish
el pescado
vegetable
las verduras
fruit
la fruta
potato
la patata
salad
la ensalada
dessert
el postre

 

Cuba Hostels

Hostels are a cheap form of accomodation, and so they are essential to backpackers and other budget travellers.

Sorry, no hostels have been registered for this country yet.

There you have it, the ultimate Cuba backpacking guide. We hope you have found all the information you need for backpacking around Cuba.

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