Cuba Travel Guide

Cuban History & Culture

A Brief Timeline of Cuban History

Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, the island of Cuba was inhabited by the indigenous Taíno people. By 1514, they had been massacred by the Spanish conquistadors. The colony quickly began to prosper, thanks its prime location as a trading outpost for the sugar and slave trades. There were several unsuccessful rebellions in the 19th century, but the Spanish eventually withdrew in 1898 after the Spanish-American war and Cuba gained independence in 1902.

Cuba saw an immediate jump in economic development, but was roiled with political corruption. A string of dictators ruled over the island before Fulgencio Batista was deposed in the revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Raúl Castro took over in 2008 because of his brother’s illness, and he soon started to enact capitalist reforms. The Obama Administration reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015, but the embargo is still in place.

Is Cuba communist?

In short, yes. Cuba is governed by the Communist Party of Cuba, the only political party on the island. The government owns and operates everything from restaurants and hotels to telecommunications. Education, health, transportation, media and just about everything else are all socialized, meaning all Cubans pay for those goods and all Cubans get access to them. 

Cuba’s Relationship with the United States

After Guevara and Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista during the Cuban Revolution,  Cuba has been governed as a socialist state under communist principles, thus prompting the U.S. to cut ties with the island. Cuba and the United States restored diplomatic relations on 20 July 2015, which had been severed in 1961 during the Cold War. U.S. diplomatic representation in Cuba is handled by the United States Embassy in Havana, and there is a similar Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Road Scholar’s Relationship with Cuba

Road Scholar has been taking Americans to Cuba since 1997 under a license issued by the Office of Foreign Asset Control (a division of the United States Treasury Department), which proves we plan activities that help support the Cuban people. Thousands of people have learned about Cuba and have supported the locals through our learning adventures.

In 2018, Road Scholar became one of only four U.S.-based organizations to be granted permission to open an office in Cuba. Notable tenants in this historic building in Havana include CNN and the Associated Press. Our Havana office employee, Ileana Piño, greets each Road Scholar group in Cuba.

Taíno Indians arrive on the island of Cuba.
Christopher Columbus claims Cuba for Spain.
Spanish-American War; Spain relinquishes sovereignty over Cuba.
Fulgencio Batista becomes president.
The Cuban Revolution; Fidel Castro & Che Guevara overthrow Batista and establish a communist government.
Road Scholar is granted a special license by the U.S. government.
7,000 Road Scholars learn about Cuba.
Road Scholar is granted permission to open an office in Cuba


Cuban Food & Drink

The basic Cuban diet makes use of both Spanish and African foods and spices. Cuban food frequently uses beans and rice as the base, but they mix in fried plantains, cucumbers, pork, chicken and potatoes to spice things up. Where Cuba really stands out is with its sweets. Cubans famously have a sweet tooth, and they savor special occasions when they get to eat cake. They fervently believe their national ice cream manufacturer “Copelia” makes the finest ice cream in the world. 

Additionally, tap water is not safe to drink, but thankfully, you’ll have plenty of other tasty options! Cubans are very fond of their rum, and it’s used in the island’s most popular drinks like the Cuba Libre and Mojito. Cuban coffee is also world famous. Café Cubano has far more caffeine and sugar than its American counterpart, so even though it may be a shock, it’s a must-try. Besides that, Cuban soft drinks are widespread, the most popular being Jupino, a sweet pineapple soda. 


“This Cuban adventure was an extraordinary combination of the historical and current situation of this magical island. The opportunity to support locals resulted in memorable experiences on a deeply personal level. My fascination with Cuba has increased by this truly unique adventure.”

— Joyce from Ferndale, California —

Adventures in Cuba

Road Scholar offers opportunities to travel legally to Cuba under the new OFAC Regulations published June 5, 2019. Following the General License category “Support for the Cuban People,” Road Scholar programs include activities intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba. Each day's program promotes independence for the Cuban people and results in meaningful interactions with the Cuban people.

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