Cuba travel guide

2 minute summary

Stepping into Havana for the first time is a film-set ideal, a nostalgic world of classic cars, crackling transistor radios, clacking dominoes and children playing with handmade toys in the street. As you meander into the countryside, cowboy-hatted farmers ride horses through the forests, and oxen plough the fields, wheelbarrows spill over with homegrown veg and rocking chair bound residents sip rum on the porch.
Almost six decades of communism may have stripped Cuba of its material wealth; the ration system leaves many hungry and shops echo in their emptiness. But the country's cultural riches - from salsa to ballet, jazz to the heady percussion of the Afro-Cuban religions - have been preserved in time, and as Castro and Obama shake hands for the first time, there is a new-found urgency to visit this island in its last days of isolation, while it still continues to pulse with its own, unique beat.
Cuba is still a Caribbean island, and the beaches and bays are a vacation must. Just don't make the mistake of thinking this is all there is – as our Cuba travel guide reveals, there's a whole world beyond the resorts.
Cuba is...

the home of tropical communism. It is one of only four communist states, with China, Laos and Vietnam.
Cuba isn't...

easy to understand. If you come here with preconceived ideas, you'll leave more confused than ever.

What we rate & what we don't

Our best & worst of Cuba


Nature & national parks Baracoa Santiago de Cuba Cayos Levisa & Jutias

Nature & national parks

Cuba's culture is widely enjoyed, yet nature fans should not dismiss the Caribbean's largest isle. 19 percent of Cuba's land is protected, and two of its nine UNESCO sites are natural - protecting marine limestone terraces and montane forests. There are endemic birds and orchids, hikes through the dramatic scenery of the Sierra Maestra and superb diving - without the tourist hordes of better-known nature destinations.


One of Cuba's most overlooked spots, this little seaside town gives way to some of Cuba's most dramatic landscapes: river-filled rainforests, towering mountains, glorious waterfalls and the flat-topped El Yunque mountain - ideal for hiking. Baracoa's unique character has been preserved by its geographical isolation; until the 1960s it was only accessible by boat.

Santiago de Cuba

Steamy Santiago has Cuba's hottest climate - and its hottest culture. Edgy and urban, Santiago proudly divides opinion - some revel in its fiery Afro-Haitian culture and well-worn city centre, too far from Havana for the limited wealth to filter down. Others are shocked at the hardship and hawkers. The bullet-riddled Moncada Barracks are a legacy to the revolution that never happened here.

Cayos Levisa & Jutias

You don't need to hole up in an all-inclusive to get access to Cuba's beautiful beaches. Take a day trip to these little cays from Viñales - Levisa has little bungalows and a diving centre, while the lesser-visited Jutias has a pristine beach, skeletal, sun-bleached mangroves and kayak rental. Sometimes an entrepreneurial fisherman will cook your lunch on the beach over an open fire.


Havana Music & dance Home stays Pinar del Rio


Habana Vieja - Old Havana - is pretty much everything you could dream it to be. While other historical centres have become victims of ther own success, gentrification has not penetrated this communist capital, and the 1950s cars, streetsids salsa, crumbling colonial casas and seductive locals mean you will never have your finger far from your camera shutter.

Music & dance

Salsa, son, rumba, jazz... Cuba's cobbled streets echo with the sound of some of the world's most seductive music. You'd pay a fortune to see musicians this good elsewhere - here, it'll cost you a few pesos as a tip - they even take requests. Take salsa classes here and learn with the best - or go and see the National Ballet, get serenaded in El Floridita, or join on of the many festivals and carnivals.

Home stays

The original Airbnb, since 1997 Cubans have been allowed to open their homes to guests – known as casas particulares. Most also open their hearts and minds – giving a glimpse into the realities of Cuban life, as you sip coffee or tuck into a home cooked breakfast with your hosts. This is also the best way to get insider tips on where to go; casa owners can arrange lifts and even guides.

Pinar del Rio

The limestone karst-filled Valle de Viñales is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and within this mountain-ringed landscape there are tobacco farms, oxen-ploughed fields; quaint villages and a way of life that has changed little in centuries. Explore the caves, ride horseback through the hills or sip an ice-cold Bucanero beer in the plaza as live music echoes off the colonial buildings.


Varadero Communist food Hotel stars Endless advertisements


Yes, it's a Caribbean island, and yes, some of its most stunning beaches are found around Varadero. But all-inclusive resorts are to Cuba what Cancún is to Mexico or Benidorm is to Spain. Cuba's true beauty is its people and culture - and there are scant chances to encounter them here - and the benefit to the wellbeing of the struggling locals is questionable.

Communist food

Years of rationing, imposed self-sufficiency and general poverty have hardly created a Caribbean cornucopia. Some recommend bringing spices with you to liven up your food - and leaving them to your Cuban hosts as a thank you. Small restaurants - called paladares - are now springing up, these tend to be the best option. Even if the food's not amazing, the atmosphere is wonderfully homely.

Hotel stars

Cuban hotels are state run, and aside from the most exclusive, they are fairly shabby affairs; the general advice is to “remove one star” for a true reflection of facilities. The food is also uninspiring - we advise casas particulares (guesthouses) and paladares (privately owned restaurants) all the way.

Endless advertisements

Capitalism ends as soon as you step off the plane. In Cuba, the only advertising is for the communist party; the only billboards promote Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. It's a refreshing escape from the daily commercial bombardment. Any souvenirs you pick up here will be unbranded (handmade musical instruments and clothing, hand-rolled cigars) - save, perhaps, the odd, cheap bottle of Havana Club or Habanos cigar.

Food, shopping & people

Travel like a local with our Cuba travel guide

Eating & drinking in Cuba

Coppelia ice-cream is a national institution. Queues trail in the heat for a couple of hours every day – but apparently it’s worth it!
Cuban fresh fruit is something to look forward to every morning. Don't just stick to what you know; try pink-fleshed guava, sweet chirimoya and avocado-like mamey.
Seafood is exceptional here; lobster is cheap and abundant - ask your casa hosts if they can prepare it for you.
Guava jelly is a sweet accompaniment to fresh bread and cheese.
Despite Cuba’s rifts with the US, its most popular sport is baseball. However, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was dominoes, which is played on every street corner.

People & language

The Taino indians disappeared centuries ago, and modern Cuba is a Brazil-type blend of Latin and Afrocaribbean cultures. The poorer east is the Afro-Cuban hub - come here for son music, rumba dance and the santeria fusion religion. All Cubans speak Spanish, but many letters are dropped and there is plenty of local slang - but any attempts to speak cubano will be much appreciated.
Black beans and rice
is known as
"moros y cristianos" - Moors and Christians
In the home of the cigar, it's known as a "puro"
"Yuma" means foreigner. It's the Cuban version of "gringo"

Gifts & shopping

Decades of trade embargoes and an anti-capitalist mindset mean most of Cuba’s department stores lie empty. However, What it lacks in manufactured goods, it makes up for in homegrown skill.
Bring the sounds of Cuba home with you! Buy handcrafted musical instruments, such as guiras (made from gourds), claves (pairs of wooden sticks) and maracas – the shopkeeper will likely give you an impromptu percussion lesson.
The government’s emphasis on culture means artists’ studios abound, particularly in Old Havana and the eco-village of Las Terrazas. Paintings, prints and sketches capture the colours of Cuba, and make a unique souvenir.

Fast facts

An entire generation of Cubans grew up without Christmas.

It was banned as a public vacation following the revolution and was only reintroduced in 1997.

How much does it cost?

Room in a casa particular: £15
Coppelia ice cream: 2p a scoop
Dinner in a casa: £5.95
A daiquiri in La Floridita: £3.90, with free banana chips
Roll of 10 cigars from a tobacco farmer: £14.80
Entry to the Museum of the Revolution: £4.20

A brief history of Cuba

Few nations have such a romantic history as that of Cuba, and despite the current frustrations with poverty, ration books and the crumbling casas, you can still sense the locals swelling with ride when they talk about the La Revolución.Read more ▼
Photo credits: [Nature & national parks: David Bacon] [Baracoa: Jeroen] [Santiago de Cuba: Marika Bortolami] [Cayos Levisa & Jutias: Vicki Brown] [Home stays: Vicki Brown] [Varadero & all-inclusives: oknidius] [Communist food: Laura] [Hotel stars: Thomassin Mickael] [Advertising: Mark Scott Johnson] [Eating and drinking - lobster dish: Vicki Brown] [Gifts and shopping: Mike Tungate] [How much does it cost - daiquiri: TheCulinaryGeek]
Written by Vicki Brown
Cuba adventure tours

Cuba adventure tours

Authentic Cuba using guesthouses and local guides

From US $450 8 Days ex flights
Cuba tours

Cuba tours

Tailormade vacations in the pearl of the Carribean

From 995 15 Days ex flights
Self drive Cuba family vacation

Self drive Cuba family vacation

Family vacation Cuba for parents & children

From 1590 15 Days ex flights
Cuba tour, The Revolutionary Trail

Cuba tour, The Revolutionary Trail

Follow in the footsteps of the revolutionaries

From £1925 10 Days ex flights
Cuba cultural holiday

Cuba cultural vacation

Immerse yourself in Cuban culture on this 8 day adventure

From US $680 8 Days ex flights
Cuba cultural tour, 9 days

Cuba cultural tour, 9 days

Fun and legal tour for American travelers

From US $1600 9 Days ex flights
Small group tour to Cuba

Small group tour to Cuba

Discover the fascinating diversity of Cuba

From US $1180 20 Days ex flights
Trekking holiday in Cuba

Trekking vacation in Cuba

Hiking and exploring the unspoiled national parks of Cuba

From £270 4 Days ex flights
Eastern Cuba self drive vacation

Eastern Cuba self drive vacation

Discover lesser explored Eastern Cuba

From £2050 12 days ex flights
Scuba diving or snorkeling holiday in Cuba

Scuba diving or snorkeling vacation in Cuba

Viva la Scuba!

From US $2900 8 Days ex flights
Scuba diving and tour in Cuba

Scuba diving and tour in Cuba

Scuba diving and roundtrip Cuba with homestays and/or hotels

From 995 15 Days ex flights
Cuba tailor made vacation, nature and culture

Cuba tailor made vacation, nature and culture

Explore the highlights of Castro's Cuba

From £3010 15 days ex flights
Cuba small group vacation

Cuba small group vacation

Authentic small group trips to Cuba

From US $2400 9 Days ex flights
Convert currencies