A Caribbean archipelago comprised of two main islands and several smaller siblings, the Republic of Cuba looms large in the imagination despite its diminutive size. Known for its cigars and smooth-sipping rum, not to mention international political figures such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, it is perhaps most paradoxically seen as a symbol of freedom. Not only has it stood up to its colonial overlords but also the might of the U.S, and if you can understand the peculiar liberty fostered here you will be a long way to understanding much of grass roots Latin America.
The islands themselves are delightful, packed with luscious greenery and old school charms as classic Chevrolets and Buicks chug through dusty Iberian streets. The atmosphere in Habana has an intangible quality that many poets have failed to capture, intoxicating and invigorating like one of its famous cigars. The towering limestone cliffs of Vinales are riddled with caves and dusted with a generous icing of verdant greenery. Complete a pilgrimage to the dazzling Che murals at Santa Clara and then relax on one of Varadero’s many sun-soaked beaches.
For all this, the real experience is the people. Since Raul Castro took office in 2008 there has been a great deal of modernisation and it is easier than ever to mix with the locals. They’re exceptionally friendly and often extremely candid, and mingling a little will open your mind to an entirely different world.
The main international airport is 25km south of Habana. There are no direct flights from the US, but there are regional connections within the Caribbean and a few beyond. There are no scheduled ferry services.
Train services are limited but the buses have good coverage. You’ll have to hire a car or bicycle to get off the beaten track though.
Climate: Subtropical. Hot summers, warm winters, heavy rainfall in summer. Temperature: Max 33°C (August), Min 18°C (January). Rainfall: Max 170mm (October), Min 45mm (January).
Currency: Cuban convertible peso (CUC)
Business etiquette: Business is conducted fairly informally and dress tends to reflect this. A light shirt is often appropriate. Expect to spend time fostering a relationship before doing business. Negotiations are likely to be subject to the limitations of Cuba’s communist economy.
Tipping: 10 percent is standard
Duty free: 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250g tobacco; 3 bottles alcoholic beverages; gifts to US$50; 10kg medicine.
Safety: Do not pack valuables in checked luggage as thefts occur during baggage handling.
Laws: Carry identification at all times. Serious crimes may attract the death penalty. Importing religious material or preaching is illegal in some cases. Suspects may be imprisoned for the duration of a criminal investigation.
Healthcare: Vaccinations required for hepatitis A and tetanus. Excellent facilities are available but drugs and medicines are in short supply. Health insurance is essential; visitors may have to prove their ability to pay before treatment.
Socket type: Type A, Type C