Cuba has the flair of the Caribbean, but it is very different from the other Caribbean countries and islands. This is because the revolution in the 50s resulted in a unique model of society and government. Because of this, travellers visiting Cuba can see many distinctive things, such as old men playing beautiful music that seems like it is right out of the Ry Cooder film "Buena Vista Social Club". It feels like an island frozen in time thanks to all the classic cars filling the streets, some of which canʼt be found anywhere else. Explore all these things, and also enjoy the laid-back life of the Caribbean.
Facts and numbers
From both London and Dublin there are sometimes direct flights to Havana, however, many times there is likely to be a layover in Paris. Flights from both of these locations with a stopover generally take around 14 to 17 hours. Flights with a stopover, for example in the United States, are cheaper, but the flight time is several hours longer. Travellers who have a stopover in America should remember to apply for 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)|
|Time difference||From Central European Time: 6 hours / From Greenwich Mean Time: 5 Hours (please note that Cubaʼs clock change dates may differ)|
|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.
The largest city in Cuba is the capital city of Havana, which has a population of around 2 million. The following 3 largest cities are Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey and Holguín.
Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, there were three different Indian tribes living in Cuba, with the Arawak being the largest tribe. After the Spanish arrival, it only took about one century before the original inhabitants of the island had almost died out, mainly due to European diseases, to which they had no resistance. In the 17th and 18th centuries, tens of thousands of slaves, mostly from West Africa, were imported for the extremely labour-intensive cultivation of sugar cane.
Independence of Spain
Throughout the early 1800s, while other Spanish colonies in Latin America rebelled and declared their independence, Cuba remained loyal to Spain. However, from 1868 onwards, revolts against Spanish rule began occurring repeatedly in Cuba, but these revolts were always suppressed or, at best, rewarded with a little more autonomy from the Spanish motherland. One of the rebel leaders during this time was José Marti, who became a Cuban national hero and whose name is renowned throughout Cuba and other parts of Latin America. It was only when the United States joined the rebellion and fought a war against the Spaniards in 1898 that Cuba became independent.
This in turn brought a lot of US influence to Cuba. Because of the US participation in the battles against the Spaniards, the Americans were granted in the subsequent peace treaties, among other things, the right to build a large naval base on Cuba (Guantánmo Bay) and to use it as semi-American territory.
Military coup and dictatorship from 1933 onwards
In September 1933, the so-called “Sergeantsʼ Revolt” led by Sergeant Fulgencio Batista overthrew the existing Cuban government. Batista dominated the Cuban political sphere for the next 25 years, first through a series of political puppet presidents and eventually as dictator himself. During this period, Batista pursued a military and repressive policy, which, among other things, severely limited the political rights of the population. The disparity between rich and poor Cubans became ever greater during this time. Approximately one third of Cubans lived below the poverty line during this period, while the country as a whole was prosperous.
Revolution and socialist government
Through violent battles in 1958 and 1959, the Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel and Raúl Castro, Ernesto "Che" Guevara overthrew dictator Batista and established a socialist state. The resulting seizure of American companies and citizens led to a permanent embargo by the US and other Western countries. Cuba had to find other trading partners for imports, exports and armaments and started to cooperate with socialist countries, especially with the former Soviet Union.
Due to Cubaʼs strategic location, the conflict between the US and the USSR over the stationing of medium-range missiles in Cuba escalated in 1962 into the so-called “Cuban Missile Crisis”. To this day, Cuba suffers from economic sanctions and is one of the few countries not to be a member of intergovernmental cooperation establishments, such as the World Trade Organization.
Hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees left the country in waves, most of whom settled 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, Cubaʼs most important trading partners and lenders were lost, and in the early 1990s, Cuba entered a serious economic crisis. Cuba had previously been the main provider of sugar to all the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. This revenue provided approximately two thirds of their funding for goods such as food and fuel, as well as 80 percent of its machinery and spare parts. This new development meant that suddenly 85 percent of Cubaʼs foreign trade was no longer available. 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. To compensate for the loss of exports, the government decided to expand the tourism sector. The economy became more decentralised and private sector activity was allowed in a number of economic areas. Joint ventures in the tourism sector, cooperation with new countries (including Spain, Italy, Canada, Brazil, the Peopleʼs Republic of China and Venezuela), the development of oil production and the extraction of significant 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.
Therefore, autumn and winter are considered the best time to travel to Cuba, as it is not too hot, and it rains less. There is a constant north-easterly wind, which helps mitigate the heat of the tropical climate, so a trip during our summer months, when there is more rain in Cuba, is also possible. An advantage of travelling to Cuba in the summer months is that prices are generally lower.
The temperature of the seawater is very pleasant due to a constant flow of warm equatorial currents. Temperatures are usually around 25 °C. Travellers can therefore look forward to a warm dip in the water on Cubaʼs beaches.
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Population and culture
According to the 2019 census, Cuba has a population of approximately 11.2 million, with more than two million living in the capital, Havana, and the surrounding area. Cuba has a high life expectancy of 78.66 years by Latin American standards. This is even slightly higher than the life expectancy in the US (78.54 years). There was an increase in life expectancy and the reduction of infant mortality at birth to 5.5 cases per 1,000 births (for comparison: the UK: 3.59 cases, USA: 6.5 cases per 1,000 births). This lead to a rise in Cubaʼs population until 2016. Since 2016, the population has remained the same or even decreased slightly.
Cubaʼs population is multi-ethnic, brought about by its complex colonial origins and slave economy. Marriages between ethnic groups are widespread. Therefore, there is both a great diversity of ethnic groups and also a certain discrepancy in censuses of the countryʼs population composition. 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 found that 65.05% of the population is white. Socially desirable answers and a politically motivated formulation may play a role in the different results. However, it cannot be disputed that the population of Cuba has a variety of ethnicities.
Cuba is officially a secular state. Before the 1992 Constitution was changed, Cuba classified itself as an atheist state. With the new constitution, freedom of religion increased. The main religions in Cuba are Catholic Christianity and Santería, a religion based on the traditional religion of the West African Yoruba people, which is strongly mixed with Christian elements.
Spanish is spoken in Cuba. Although you can find native languages spoken throughout most Latin American countries, they are almost non-existent in Cuba. Despite the many tourists, English names are hardly found in museums or most tourist destinations in Cuba. Due to the long, ever-present 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 being taught in schools, the spread of the language is still limited. Most teachers are not properly equipped to so, 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 will most likely not need to speak Spanish, except for perhaps with hotel staff. However, this would mean having hardly any contact with the local population, which is a pity. Travellers who want to go to Cuba should learn a little Spanish beforehand to truly enjoy the culture!
Between 1994 and 2021, Cuba had two currencies that were used side by side. Initially, the local population only used the Cuban Peso (CUP) and for tourists there was a special tourist currency, the convertible peso (CUC). Over the years, the CUC was also increasingly used by locals, especially for luxury products. On 1 January 2021, the CUC was withdrawn from circulation and since then only the CUP can be used in Cuba.
It is important to note that bank/debit cards are not accepted in Cuba. There is no point in bringing debit cards to Cuba. The easiest way to withdraw money is with a credit card. As long as your bank is not a US credit union and does not have a US parent company, both VISA and Mastercard should work. Mastercard does recommend that cardholders check with their own bank or credit card company to see if the credit card can be used abroad, and if necessary activate it for use abroad.
Cash is the most widely used means of payment. Except in large hotels, it is best to assume you have to pay everywhere with cash.
UK and European travellers have to apply for and complete a visa before leaving for Cuba. The Cuba visa is suitable 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 Cuba visa is a paper card that is sent by post and must be filled out by hand. You will receive the visa by mail within a week after you have completed and paid the fee.
The Cuba visa - also called visa card or green visa - is not a digital document, but a paper document consisting of only one page. Travellers who do not travel by plane from the UK/Europe to Cuba, but by cruise ship or by plane from the USA (even if just a layover in America), need a different visa: a pink visa, for which a surcharge of € 58,00 per person is calculated.
Apply for a Cuba visa now
Safety and health
Cuba is basically a safe country, but even in Cuba tourists can be victims of theft, physical injury or violent crime. Women travelling alone can, in exceptional cases, be victims of sexual crimes. It is important to be aware that Cuba is a one-party socialist country and that freedom of speech and freedom of the press are therefore not guaranteed. Due to the socialist planned economy, there may be shortages of daily necessities. Avoid political discussions, especially on issues relating to recent history and relations between Cuba and the United States.
Foreign travellers must be able to prove their identity at all times. A copy of your passport is generally sufficient. Keep money, identification documents, flight tickets, driving licences, a list of addresses and other important documents in a safe place and make copies of them.
Health and vaccinations
On arrival, travellers must be able to show that they have valid personal (foreign) health insurance. It is best to take a confirmation of the insurance in Spanish with you when you travel.
Travellers coming to Cuba from Europe are not obliged to be vaccinated. A vaccination against hepatitis A is recommended for all travellers, as well as a vaccination against hepatitis B, typhoid and rabies for travellers who stay for a longer period or have an increased health risk.
There is no malaria in Cuba, but there is Zika virus, dengue, diarrhoea, cholera, ciguatera (fish poisoning, which occurs mainly between April and September after eating fish that have eaten poisonous algae) and rabies (transmitted mainly by dogs, cats and bats). Because of the risk of infection with the Zika virus and dengue fever, the use of insect repellents such as DEET or Icaridin are recommended for Cuba.
Discuss with your doctor or vaccination specialist which vaccinations are recommended for your personal situation.