Countries like Cuba pose a dilemma to travel writers and guidebook editors.

The idea is to cut through the hyperbole with simple language and honest descriptions. But there are a few places where the breathless superlatives all come true true, and where the travel writing clichés all make sense. Cuba is one such place.

The country’s history reads like an epic of magical realism. Its politics are a lingering ember of the titanic ideological battles of the 20th century. Its music, art and dance have been exported around the world with the vibrancy of a cultural superpower. And at the heart of it all are the Cuban people: resolute, proud and with a joie de vivre that puts more materially “advanced” countries to shame.

But Cuba today stands on the cusp of transformation. Despite the unpredictable swings of its giant neighbour it seems inevitable that one way or another, the question of Cuba’s place in the world will soon be resolved.

What that means for this island of 11.2 million people is far from certain. What happens to a nation’s cultural identity when the forces that have kept it in relative isolation are swept away? Will Cuba revert to its pre-1953 status as a playground for the wealthy and privileged? Or in this era of ‘overtourism’ will the country’s all-inclusive beach resorts become the next Cancun for spring-breakers, a Cuban Disneyland-on-sea?

Or perhaps the future holds something else for this special and enigmatic island. The concept of “people-to-people” tourism suggests a new approach, a model of grassroots tourism that puts ordinary Cubans in the driving seat and enables them to protect and nurture their heritage and culture as they find their feet in a new world.

This question isn’t for governments and travel companies to ponder. It’s for the Cuban people to decide and it’s for us, the tourists who are visiting the island in record numbers, to support them. We influence the shape of Cuba’s evolving tourism industry through our actions, our decisions and our purchases. It’s a position of great responsibility and it can be hard at times to know where to begin.

That’s why we created this guide. This is your introduction to the Cuban people and culture, a peek at what makes the country tick, and where to look for an authentic, immersive and culturally sensitive experience. You won’t find any reviews for 5* all-inclusive resorts, but if you’re looking for a taste of the “real” Cuba, clichéd or not, then you’re in good company here.

Welcome to Cuba!

Odonnell Cuba Baracoa 035

Mural in Baracoa

Credit: Jim O'Donnell

Cuba travel FAQs

Cuba travel FAQs
By Susana Corona Cruz

Why does Cuba have two currencies?

Why does Cuba have two currencies?
Cuba has a somewhat complex dual currency system, using both the Cuban Peso (Moneda Nacional / CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

The CUP is the everyday currency for Cubans: people are paid in CUP and it’s what they use on public transport, in state-owned stores, etc.

Tourists will use the CUC to pay for pretty much everything: hotels, meals, entry to museums, concerts, etc., although there’s nothing stopping you from getting your hands on some CUP for small purchases such as ice cream, snacks and street food.

An easy way to remember the difference: CUP bills have pictures of national heroes, while CUC bills have pictures of national monuments.

How do I exchange money?
Cuban currency isn’t available internationally, so you’ll need to bring cash with you and exchange it when you arrive. The CUC is pegged to the US dollar (1:1) and there is a 10 per cent fee for exchanging US dollars.

It’s best to exchange money at a bank, at bureaus (casa de cambio), airports or hotels. Never change money with anyone on the street, no matter how friendly or honest they may look.

Will my credit card work in Cuba?
Most European and Canadian credit cards will work as normal in Cuba. Cards from European and Canadian banks should work in ATMs, although fees may vary (in addition to your bank fee). It’s always smart to check with your bank before you travel.

Most American debit and credit cards won’t work in Cuba, either for making payments or in ATMs. Bring plenty of cash and leave the plastic behind.

How will we get around?
Organised tours will use private cars or minibuses for small and private groups, or larger buses for big group tours.

Depending on your itinerary you may take a short internal flight, such as from Havana to Santiago. Flight services can be unreliable, but your tour operator will handle any complications.

Is Cuba child and family friendly?
ubans are fanatical about children and will go out of their way to bring a smile to their faces, but the tourist infrastructure is still fairly patchy and facilities for infants and younger children can be lacking.

For Americans on “people-to-people” trips, a packed, cultural itinerary with little beach time might not be ideal for younger kids but could make an eye-opening experience for adolescents.

If travelling with infants be sure to bring enough diapers and formula for your entire trip, as stores often run short.

On the plus side, children are never seen as an annoyance in Cuba and they will be given constant attention. Remember that it’s a touchy-feely culture – don’t be upset by friendly patting and hair stroking, it’s all meant with the utmost affection.

What vaccinations are required?
There are no specific shots required for Cuba, aside from the standard travel vaccinations (exact recommendations vary by country / healthcare provider).

That said there are a number of illnesses that travellers should be aware of, most notably dengue and zika – both of which are carried by mosquitoes. Practice common sense mosquito precautions, bring a good repellent and use it liberally, especially during dusk and evening.

Unboiled tap water should be avoided. If you’re served drinking water or juice it will probably be bottled water, but feel free to double check without causing any offence.

Is Cuba safe?
Cuba is one of the safest countries in the Americas. You can feel at ease even in the biggest cities and most crime is non-violent, opportunistic theft. Practice the same common sense you’d use anywhere else: don’t wear flashy jewelry, keep an eye on your valuables and don’t find yourself on a quiet street late at night.

Mild annoyances in the cities include hustlers trying to sell you fake cigars, offering to exchange dodgy money in the street, or other sharp-talking (but usually good natured) con artists. Keep your wits about you and you’ll enjoy a perfectly pleasant trip.

Off The Beaten Path In Cuba

Susana Corona Cruz

Susana is a Cuban-born travel writer, blogger and translator. Now based in Europe, Susana returns to her motherland at least once a year to rediscover, photograph and write about her birthplace. She works as an editor and translator for online and offline publications and her work has appeared in The Luxury Report and London magazine Latino Life.

Off The Beaten Path In Cuba

Jim O'Donnell

Freelance journalist, author and photographer, Jim O’Donnell focuses on conservation, human rights, and travel. A former archaeologist, O’Donnell is the author of Notes for the Aurora Society as well as numerous articles, several sordid tales, various angry letters-to-the-editor and other scribblings. He lives in New Mexico with his two children.

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