Cuba Travel Guide & Resources

There is no place like Cuba, and there’s no way to experience it except to learn for yourself. When you get there, what will you see?

‘50s-era American cars speed alongside miles of golden beaches, while colonial mansions and revolutionary graffiti line the cobblestone streets of Havana – a city frozen in time. When the sun sets, lovers stroll down the seaside promenade, and sultry Afro-Cuban beats escape the salsa clubs to make the city come alive. Outside Havana, the island boasts swaths of untouched tropical wilderness, filled to the brim with rare and colorful birds. Colonial fortresses dot the countryside, and centuries-old Spanish architecture dominates most city centers.

Road Scholar has been taking Americans to Cuba since 1997, and our experts help navigate the complex rules and regulations around travel to the island. See answers to questions you may have about traveling to Cuba or read below to learn more about this intriguing destination.

 

Cuba 101

 

Cuba at a Glance

  • Population: 11.27 million
  • Language: Spanish
  • Capital: Havana (population 2.1 million)
  • Currency: Peso (CUP), Convertible Peso (CUC)
  • Time Zone: UTC-5 (Same as Eastern Standard Time)
  • Size: 42,426 square miles – 17th largest island in the world
  • Major Cities: Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey, Holguín, Guantánamo, Santa Clara

 

 

Geography

By land area, Cuba is largest country in the Caribbean and the 17th largest island in the world. Though most of the country’s 42,426 square miles comes from the main island, Cuba is also made up of more than 4,000 smaller islands, cays and archipelagos.

Cuba is mostly flat with rolling plains, though the island is home to the Sierra Maestra and Sierra Cristal mountain ranges in the southeast. The coastal area of Cuba is made of beautiful white sand beaches, with the occasional mangrove or marsh.

 


 

Wildlife

While Cuba’s isolation has been detrimental to its people, it’s allowed the island’s wide range of rare and endemic animals to thrive in its untouched and well-preserved wilderness. Among other fascinating wildlife, Cuba is home to:

  • The bee hummingbird – the smallest bird in the world measuring just 2 inches long and weighing only .056 ounces.
  • The Monte Iberia dwarf eleuth – one of the tiniest frogs in the world at just .33 inches long.
  • The Cuban trogon – Cuba’s bizarre and colorful national bird can be found island-wide.
  • The Cuban solenodon – one of the rarest animals in the world, this shrew-like mammal is endemic to the island, has venomous saliva and has only been caught 37 times.

Cuba also boasts four percent of the world’s land species, including 17,801 species of animals, 9,107 species of plant and 25 endemic species of birds.
In addition, Cuba has six UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and seven national parks.

Road Scholar's Board of Directors Visit Cuba
 

 

“Havana is a fascinating city, starting to emerge from a time warp and bursting with new-found energy. The Cubans have unquenchable spirit, and are filled with joy. The experience will exceed your wildest expectations.” 
 

— Freddie from Carmel, Indiana —

Cuba Travel


Can I Go to Cuba?

Yes! Travel to Cuba is allowed, but with certain restrictions. As an educational travel organization, Road Scholar operates within these restrictions – in fact, we’ve been providing learning adventures to Cuba since 1997!

Americans can only go to Cuba with an authorized group that promotes People-to-People or educational activities – which is why Road Scholar is one of the leading organizations able to offer travel to Cuba.

 

Weather in Cuba

 The Dry Season: November through AprilSunny

The dry season is the best time to visit Cuba. Since Cuba is close to the Tropic of Cancer, the trade winds keep the heat down – particularly in the summer – and offer a nice reprieve from the humidity that usually sits around 80 percent.

rainy The Rainy Season: May through July, plus October

The rainy season is usually mild, so it’s still a great time to visit. And the occasional Cuban thunderstorm is a rare spectacle.

Hurricane

The Hurricane Season: August through September

The only thing to watch out for is the Hurricane season which encompasses August through September. Besides that, Cuba is tropical, sunny and downright gorgeous!

 

Cuba Travel Tips


These general tips will make your Cuba travel enjoyable!

  • Bring U.S dollars in cash to exchange. ATMs are rare and most places don’t accept American credit cards.
  • Check beforehand if your cell phone plan will work in Cuba.
  • Learn some Spanish! All groups are accompanied by a bilingual Cuban group leader and saying, “Hola” or, “Buenos dias” is always appreciated.
  • Don’t be afraid to shop, but beware of anybody who walks up to you selling something (often cigars). They’re usually counterfeits.
  • Gifts are appreciated by locals. Rather than giving gifts to locals on the street, the Group Leader will gather and discreetly distribute gifts to needy Cubans.
  • Don’t drink tap water! Only drink bottled water, so stock up before a day trip.
  • Hold onto your purse in crowded areas.
  • Keep your wallet in your front pocket.
  • If you have easy access to foreign currency, like the British Pound or Canadian Dollar, you may want to bring it to avoid paying the penalty fee on American Dollars.

What to Pack for Cuba

  • Cash (to exchange for local Cuban Convertible Pesos)
  • Cuban visa 
  • Passport
  • Credit card (even though ATMs are rare, it’s good to have)
  • Comfortable walking shoes and sandals/flip flops
  • Face cloth (many hotels do not have face cloths)
  • Full med-kit (over-the-counter items like Advil, sunscreen, deodorant and tampons are expensive and hard to find in Cuba.
Cuban Tourism

To be clear, Americans are not allowed to go to Cuba for tourism. Group travel is permitted through United States organizations engaging in a full-time schedule of People-to-People educational activities.

Attractions in Cuba
  • Old Havana – the city center of the original city is brimming with perfectly preserved 17th-centure colonial architecture. This UNESCO Heritage Site is a must-see.
  • The Malecón – this famous promenade in Havana has long been a romantic seaside road where local fisherman and lovers alike congregate.
  • Varadero Beaches – with over 20 km of golden beaches and crystal clear water, Varadero’s famous beaches are a premier destination in Cuba.
  • Trinidad – a 16th-century town frozen in time from its days as a sugar colony, replete with preserved colonial mansions and churches.
  • Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion – this historic gathering place served as the location for numerous revolutionary rallies, with Fidel Castro giving speeches to millions.

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

— Joyce from Ferndale, California —

Recommended Reading for Cuba

“The Cuba Reader: History, Culture, Politics” by Aviva Chomsky, Barry Carr, & Pamela Maria Smorkaloff

Organized chronologically, this multi-faceted portrait of a nation, with most of the selections by Cuban writers, includes not only history, journalism and literature but also songs, paintings, poems, cartoons and speeches.

“Cuba” by Pierre Hausherr and Francois Missen

With full-page photographs, introductory essays on history, architecture, music, food and more, this oversized, illustrated paperback by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Francois Missen and photographer Pierre Hausherr captures the spirit of Cuba, its people, nature and culture.

“Trading with the Enemy” by Tom Miller

Miller captures the openness, sensuality and pride of Cuba and the Cubans in this eloquent account of entertaining travels in Fidel's Cuba.

“Listen, Yankee, Why Cuba Matters” by Tom Hayden

With an unabashedly liberal bias, Hayden insightfully covers the often troubled relationship between these two nations and brings readers to the present with consideration for the future of U.S.-Cuban relations.

“The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway

The best-known novel about Cuba written by a non-Cuban author. The story tells of a Cuban fisherman’s best catch and his enduring spirit. The novel won Hemingway the Nobel prize and was inspired by the many years he spent on the island.

“Che Guevara, A Revolutionary Life” by Jon Lee Anderson

A revised and updated edition of Anderson's definitive biography, published to mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.

“Cuba, What Everyone Needs to Know” by Julia Sweig

Director for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Sweig traces the geography, history and identity of Cuba in this admirably succinct history of the island nation and its role in world affairs.

“Our Man in Havana” by Graham Greene

The story of a British vacuum cleaner salesman who gets accidentally drawn into Cold War espionage with disastrous (and hilarious) results. Published in 1958, months before Castro and his men swept into Havana, the story is a portrait of an immensely corrupt, pre-revolutionary society.

“Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost” by Paul Hendrickson

Focusing on the years 1934 to 1961, from Hemingway's pinnacle as the reigning monarch of American letters until his suicide, Paul Hendrickson traces the writer's life through the story of his beloved boat, Pilar.

“Dreaming in Cuban” by Cristina Garcia

A short, poetic novel of three generations of Cuban women, their reaction to the revolution and the complex relation between those who remained in Cuba and those who settled in the United States. Excellent reading.

“I left Cuba with an empathy and understanding of the Cuban people that I don't think I could've gotten on my own.”
 

— Donna from Silver Spring, Maryland —

Timeline of Cuban History


1250
Taíno Indians arrive on the island of Cuba.

Taíno people were among the indigenous people of the Caribbean and Florida. It is speculated that Taíno tribes were forced westward, some two-hundred years before the Spanish arrival, by a bloodthirsty tribe known as Caribs. In Cuba, the Taínos were able to hunt, fish, plant crops and live peacefully. 

1492
Christopher Columbus claims Cuba for Spain.

With the Papal Bull of 1493, Pope Alexander VI commanded Spain to conquer, colonize and convert the pagans of the New World to Catholicism. On arrival, Columbus observed the Taíno dwellings, describing them as "looking like tents in a camp. All were of palm branches, beautifully constructed."

1514
Havana is founded as San Cristóbal de la Habana.

The name of Cuba itself, HavanaCamagüey, and many others were derived from Classic Taíno, and indigenous words such as tobaccohurricane and canoe were transferred to English and are used today. Some 400 Taíno terms and place-names survive to the present day.

1864
Baseball introduced in Cuba

Student Nemesio Guillot returns from school in the U.S. and introduces baseball to Cuba. Guillot  founded the first major baseball club in the country. It became the most played sport in the country in the 1870s and is strongly associated with Cuban nationalism.

1898
The battleship USS Maine explodes.

The battleship USS Maine was sent to protect U.S. interests during the Cuban revolt against Spain. It exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, igniting The Spanish-American War.

1898
Spain relinquishes sovereignty over Cuba.

By the late 1800s, colonies allover the new world began to fight for their independence from Spain. Cuban people were divided. Some wanted to remain a Spanish colony, some wanted to be annexed by the United States, and still others wanted Cuba to be an independent country. In 1898 the US joined Cuba's fight for independence after the bombing of the USS Maine. The U.S. won the Spanish-American war and occupied Cuba until 1902

1940
Ernest Hemingway purchases a home outside of Havana.

In 1940, Hemingway, with his new wife Martha, purchased a home outside Havana, Cuba. He would live there for the next twenty years. The Hemingways named the site Finca Vigia, or “lookout farm.” They shared their home with dozens of Hemingway’s beloved cats, as well as trophies from many successful hunts and fishing expeditions.

1940
Fulgencio Batista becomes president

Fulgencio Batista Zaldivar was the elected President of Cuba from 1940 to 1944, and U.S.-backed dictator from 1952 to 1959, before being overthrown during the Cuban Revolution. He instated the 1940 Constitution of Cuba and served until 1944. In 1952 he decided to run for president once again, and, facing electoral defeat, he led a US-backed military coup. His increasingly corrupt and repressive military government led to the Cuban Revolution under the command of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

1955
Che Guevara

Fidel and Raul Castro meet the revolutionary Che Guevara in Mexico.

1959
Batista is overthrown

Batista is overthrown by Castro’s army of 9,000 guerillas and flees Cuba.

1960
La Coubre March

Fidel Castro (first from left) and Che Guevara (center) at the La Coubre March, a memorial service for the victims of the La Coubre explosion.

1961
Bay of Pigs Invasion

The Bay of Pigs invasion was a failed attempt by the U.S. government to invade and take over the communist government of Fidel Castro. The invading force was defeated in 3 days by the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces.

1962
End of Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban missile crisis resolves and the USSR removes its missiles from Cuba.

1989
The Special Period in Time of Peace

Known in Spanish as "Período especial", the Special Period in Cuba was a euphemism for an extended period of economic crisis that began in 1989, primarily as a result of the dissolution of the USSR. This recession transformed Cuban society and the economy, as it necessitated the successful introduction of sustainable agriculture, decreased use of automobiles, and overhauled industry, health, and diet countrywide. 

1997
Road Scholar goes to Cuba

The United States government grants “People-to People” license to Road Scholar. 

2012
Cubans can buy and sell cars legally for the first time.

Tens of thousands of vintage American cars remain in Cuba, manufactured before the revolution and subsequent US embargo of 1960. With no automobile imports coming in, the cars are preserved by Cuban mechanics and improvised fixes by the owners.

2015
7,000 Road Scholars learn about Cuba
2018
Road Scholar granted permission to open Cuba office

Road Scholar becomes 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.

“Your view of Cuba (and maybe the world) will find new clarity and joy. Trust me, you must go and experience Cuba yourself... and Road Scholar is the best way for the average person to do it. ”
 

— Robert from Twin Falls, Idaho —

Cuba Culture
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. Since then, Cuba has been governed as a socialist state under communist principles, thus prompting the U.S. to cut ties with the island. 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.

Cuban Food

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. There’s only one way to find out!

Cuban Drink

First of all, tap water is not safe to drink. Always drink bottled water or boiled water. 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. 

Cuban Government

The Cuban government consists of a one-party communist state, the Cuban Communist Party. Cuba is constitutionally defined as a socialist state governed by Marxist-Leninist principles. Revolutionary leader Fidel Castro largely controlled the government from 1959 to 2008, first as Prime Minister and then as President. In 2008, Fidel Castro resigned and his brother Raúl Castro took over. Raúl has consistently been more open to capitalist reforms than his brother, which played a big part in the U.S. and Cuba restoring diplomatic relations in 2015.

Money in Cuba

Cuba has two currencies, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP). 

The CUC is not an internationally traded currency; you can only buy CUC once you get to Cuba. There should be an exchange at the airport. The exchange rate is 1 CUC = 1 USD. However, there is a 10 percent penalty when exchanging U.S. dollars and a 3 percent currency exchange fee, so it’s really 1 CUC = .87 USD. If easily accessible, exchanging foreign currency like the British Pound or the Canadian Dollar avoids paying the penalty fee on American Dollars.

There are virtually no ATMs and credit cards are accepted at only a handful of places, so make sure you bring cash!

Cuba FAQ
Is Cuba safe?

Cuba is very well-policed, and crime is extremely low. Cubans are generally safe and careful drivers, and almost all Cuban hotels have the appropriate safety devices and procedures in place. In addition, violent crimes and gun crimes are virtually unheard of. The criminal justice system is also highly efficient, as some places even boast a near 100 percent success rate in solving violent crimes. Pickpockets and snatchers do exist, though, and you should be careful with your belongings in crowded places. Scammers are also common – especially with counterfeit cigars – and you should avoid buying items from street vendors.

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. 

Is the Cuban embargo over?

The embargo is not over; the United States still maintains an official ban on trade and commercial activity with Cuba. The embargo must be ended by an act of Congress, not by executive order.

Can Americans travel to Cuba on their own?

No, Americans are not allowed to travel to Cuba individually. Travel is permitted through an organization that arranges a full-time itinerary of People-to-People activities. Fortunately, Road Scholar programs apply because of our People-to-People activities and educational focus; we are proud to be the world’s largest not-for-provider provider of learning adventures to Cuba.

When’s the best time to go to Cuba?

The best time to go to Cuba is November through April. The weather is sunny but not too hot or humid, and the island is at its most exciting. That said, any time is a good time to go to Cuba.

Does Cuba have internet?

Cuba has limited internet access that is often slow and unreliable, especially outside of Havana. To get online you’ll need to buy an access card with a passcode that can be purchased from most hotels and some stores in town. You will need to be in a wifi hotspot to use the internet. Many hotels have a wifi area. However, hotels sometimes sell out of internet cards at the end of the day. You should plan on going off the grid when you are in Cuba.

Does Cuba have ATMs?

Yes Cuba has ATMs, but they are few and far between. Don’t count on finding one. Bring cash and exchange it instead.

Do businesses in Cuba accept credit cards?

Cuba does not currently have the infrastructure to complete transactions with American credit cards and most places are cash only. Bring cash to exchange to CUC upon arrival.

Can I use my cell phone in Cuba?

Most mobile phones work in Cuba – except U.S. phones, that is. Because of the embargo, U.S. carriers don’t have service in Cuba. You should plan on buying a prepaid phone or card or using only public phones. If you do happen to have a cell phone plan that works in Cuba, make sure to tell you friends not to call or leave voicemails, as the rates are exorbitantly high.

Can I drink the water in Cuba?

No, the tap water is not safe to drink at most places in Cuba. You should only drink bottled water in Cuba. Locals generally boil tap water before drinking, and you should do the same. Most hotels and resorts provide bottled water for free.

Can I purchase cigars and rum?

Persons authorized to travel to Cuba may purchase alcohol and tobacco products while in Cuba for personal consumption. Authorized travelers may also return to the United States with alcohol and/or tobacco products acquired in Cuba as accompanied baggage for personal use. The Cuban goverment considers “personal use” of an imported item to include giving the item to another individual as a personal gift, but not the transfer of the item to another person for payment or other consideration.

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