Epic colonial architecture, libidinous young salsa dancers, Che Guevara murals, white-powder sandy beaches, swaying fields of sugar cane - the images of Cuba are as transfixing as they are timeless. This is an island of unique historical heritage floating amid a sea of encroaching globalisation.

Travel in Cuba can involve anything from sipping mojittos at an all-inclusive resort in Varadero to scraping the spit and sawdust off your shoes outside the Casa de las Tradiciones in Santiago. The burgeoning tourist sector rubs up against the Cuba of communist myth.

Fast Facts:
Full Name: Republic of Cuba
Capital City: Havana (pop 2200000)
Area: 110,860 sq km, 42,803 sq miles
Population: 11,000,000
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -5 ()
Daylight Saving Start: start of April
Daylight Saving End: end of September
Languages: Spanish (official)
Religion: 47% Catholic, 4% Protestant, 2% Santería (many Catholics also practice Santería)
Currency: Cuban Peso (CUC$)
Electricity: 110/220V 60HzHz
Electric Plug Details:Country Dialing Code 53

There are no great differences in seasonal temperature in Cuba, its pleasant subtropical climate being augmented by the gentle northeasterly trade winds. The wet summer season is between May and October, and the drier winter season runs from November through April. The average temperature reaches 27°C (81°F) in July and August and 22°C (72°F) in February. An average of 80% humidity exists all year round, with things just a little more sticky in the wet season. There are no great differences in seasonal temperature in Cuba, its pleasant subtropical climate being augmented by the gentle northeasterly trade winds. The wet summer season is between May and October, and the drier winter season runs from November through April. The average temperature reaches 27°C (81°F) in July and August and 22°C (72°F) in February. An average of 80% humidity exists all year round, with things just a little more sticky in the wet season. If you're coming between Dec-Mar you may want to bring a sweater for the cooler evenings. A light rain jacket is a wise precaution any time of year.

Health Conditions
Hepatitis. Several different viruses cause hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes. Hepatitis A is transmitted by contaminated food and drinking water. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. Hepatitis E is transmitted in the same way as hepatitis A; it can be particularly serious in pregnant women. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with infected blood, blood products or body fluids, for example through sexual contact, unsterilised needles (and shaving equipment) and blood transfusions, or contact with blood via small breaks in the skin. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. Hepatitis C and D are spread in the same way as hepatitis B and can also lead to long-term complications. There are vaccines against hepatitis A and B, but there are currently no vaccines against the other types. Following the basic rules about food and water (hepatitis A and E) and avoiding risk situations (hepatitis B, C and D) are important preventative measures. Hepatitis A is a common problem among travellers drinking tap water in areas with poor sanitation.


Time & Place
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -5 ()
Daylight Saving: Start: start of April - End: end of September
Weights Measures System: Metric

Cuba is part of the West Indies and is situated within the Antilles Archipelago. Havana is a mere 170km (105mi) from Florida's Key West, in the USA, and Pinar del Río Province is 210km (130mi) from Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. Cuba's other close neighbours are Jamaica, the Bahamas and Haiti, 77km (48mi) away across the Windward Passage. Cuba's main island is the 15th largest island in the world, measuring 1250km (777mi) long and 191km (9119mi) wide at its widest point. Cuba also lays claim to the Isla de la Juventud and a further 4200-odd coral cays and islets, most of which are low-lying and uninhabited. Much of Cuba is made up of fertile flatlands where cattle are grazed and sugarcane, coffee and tobacco are grown. The Oriental, Central and Occidental mountain ranges cover 25% of the country, the highest point being Pico Turquino (1972m/6469ft). Cuba's longest river is the 343km (213mi) Río Cauto, although it's barely navigable, even for small boats. The North American and Caribbean tectonic plates meet in the 7200m/23622ft-deep Cayman Trench between Jamaica and Cuba, and the region is thus prone to earthquakes.

Crossing Borders
Visas Overview
Virtually all visitors require a Cuban visa or Tourist Card, available from travel agencies, tour operators or a Cuban consulate, for a stay of one month. These days cards are often given out on flights before landing. Check with your travel agency/flight operator before departure. Your stay can be extended for a further 30 days at an immigration office situated in any major provincial Cuban town (cost 25.00). After 60 days you must leave the country - although you can return immediately.
The USA officially prohibits its citizens from travelling to Cuba unless they obtain a special license and very heavy fines are imposed on visitors not fulfilling this requirement.

Government Type: Communist republic
Government Leaders: Fidel Castro Ruz President of the Council of State (head of state and government)

People & Society
People 60% Spanish descent, 22% mixed-race, 11% African descent, 1% Chinese
Religion:47% Catholic, 4% Protestant, 2% Santería (many Catholics also practice Santería)

Culture & History
After the revolution the arts were actively supported by the government: many theatres, museums and arts schools were founded, musicians were guaranteed a salary and a national film industry was established. The government has sought to redress the influence of North American mass culture by subsidising Afro-Cuban cultural groups and performing ensembles, which contributes to a proud and lively cultural identity.

Pre 20th Century History
It's thought that humans first cruised from South America to Cuba around 3500 BC. Primarily fishers and hunter-gatherers, these original inhabitants were later joined by the agriculturalist Taino, a branch of the Arawak Indians. Christopher Columbus sighted Cuba on 27 October 1492, and by 1514, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar had conquered the island for the Spanish crown and founded seven settlements. When captured Taino chief and resistance fighter Hatuey was condemned to die at the stake, he refused baptism, saying that he never wanted to see another Spaniard again, not even in heaven. Cattle ranching quickly became the mainstay of the Cuban economy. Large estates were established on the island under the encomienda system, enslaving the Indians. By 1542, when the system was abolished, only around 5000 Indians (of an estimated 100,000 half a century before) survived. Undaunted, the Spanish imported African slaves as replacements. Cuba's African slaves retained their tribal groupings, and certain aspects of their culture endure. By the 17th century, other European powers had begun to challenge Spain's grip on the Caribbean. British troops invaded Cuba in June 1762 and occupied Havana for 11 months, importing more slaves and vastly expanding Cuba's trade links. In 1817, Spain's long-standing monopoly on tobacco ended, which raised prices, encouraging the crop's expansion. Sugar had also become a major industry, as American independence in 1783 created new markets, and the 1791 slave uprising in Haiti eliminated Cuba's biggest sugar-producing competitor. By 1820 Cuba was the world's largest sugar producer. Cuba and Puerto Rico were Spain's last holdings in the Western Hemisphere. Spanish loyalists fled the former colonies and arrived in Cuba in droves. Even they, however, began demanding home rule for the island, albeit under the Spanish flag. Cuba's First War of Independence was launched in October 1868. After 10 years and 200,000 deaths, the rebels were spent and a pact was signed granting them amnesty. A group of Cuban exiles in the USA began plotting the overthrow of the Spanish colonial government. They landed on Cuba's east coast in 1895; one of them, the poet Martí, conspicuous on his white horse, was shot and killed in a skirmish with Spanish soldiers. His martyrdom earned him the permanent position of Cuba's national hero. Gómez and rebel leader Antonio Maceo pushed westward, burning everything in their path. Spain came down hard, forcing civilians into reconcentración camps and publicly executing rebel sympathisers. These methods effectively reestablished Spanish control, but Cuba's agriculture-based economy was in ruins. The Spaniards adopted a more conciliatory approach, offering Cuba home rule, but the embittered populace would agree to nothing short of full independence. José Martí had long warned of US interest in Cuba, and in 1898 he was proved right. After years of reading lurid (and often inaccurate) tabloid tales about Cuba's Second War for Independence, the American public was fascinated with the island. Although everything was quiet, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst told his illustrator not to come home just yet: 'You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war.' In February 1898 the US warship Maine, anchored outside Havana harbour, exploded mysteriously. All but two of its officers were off the ship at the time. The Spanish-American war had begun. Spain, weakened by conflict elsewhere, limped to battle, trying to preserve some dignity in the Caribbean. They nearly beat future US president Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders (though they'd had to leave their horses on the mainland) in the Battle of San Juan Hill. The USA's vastly superior forces eventually prevailed, however, and on December 12, 1898, a peace treaty ending the war was signed. The Cubans, including General Calixto García, whose largely black army had inflicted dozens of defeats on the Spanish, were not invited.

Modern History
The USA, hobbled by a law requiring its own government to respect Cuban self-determination, could not annex Cuba outright, as it did Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Instead, they installed a governor, General John Brooke, and began a series of public works projects, building schools and improving public health, that further tied Cuba to the USA. US leaders did retain the legal right to intervene militarily in Cuba's domestic affairs: in 1903, the USA built a naval base at Guantánamo Bay that is still in operation - notoriously so - today. By the 1920s US companies owned two-thirds of Cuba's farmland, imposing tariffs that crippled Cuba's own manufacturing industries. Discrimination against blacks was institutionalised. Tourism based on drinking, gambling and prostitution flourished. The hardships of the Great Depression led to civil unrest, which was violently quelled by President Gerado Machado y Morales. In 1933 Morales was overthrown in a coup, and army sergeant Fulgencio Batista seized power. Over the next 20 years Cuba crumbled, and its assets were increasingly placed into foreign hands. On January 1, 1959, Batista's dictatorship was overthrown after a three-year guerilla campaign led by young lawyer Fidel Castro, flanked by military leaders 'Che' Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Batista fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic, taking with him 40 million of government funds. Castro was named prime minister and began reforming the nation's economy, cutting rents and nationalising landholdings larger than 400 hectares. Relations with the USA, already shaky, deteriorated when he nationalised US-owned petroleum refineries that had refused to process Russian oil. The Americans retaliated by cutting Cuban sugar imports, thus crippling the Cuban economy, and the CIA began plotting devious ways to overthrow the revolutionary government. Desperate for cash, Castro turned to the Soviet Union, which promptly paid top dollar for Cuba's sugar surplus. In 1961, 1400 CIA-trained Cuban expats, mainly upper-middle-class Batista supporters who had fled to Miami after the revolution, attacked the island at the Bay of Pigs. They were promptly captured and ransomed back to the US for medical supplies. The following week, Castro announced the 'socialist nature' of the revolutionary government, something he'd always denied. The Soviet Union, always eager to help a struggling socialist nation (particularly one so strategically located) sent much-needed food, technical support and, of course, nuclear weapons. The October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is said to be the closest the world has ever come to nuclear conflict. The missiles were shipped back to the USSR, and the USA, already refusing to import Cuban goods, declared a full embargo. Castro and his Minister of Economics, Che Guevara, began actively supporting guerilla groups in South America and Africa, sending troops and advisers to assist socialist insurgencies in Zaire, Angola, Mozambique, Bolivia (where Guevara was killed) and Ethiopia. The US response was to support dictators in many of those countries. By the 1970s, Cuba had limited itself to sending doctors and technicians abroad; there were problems enough at home. Despite massive Soviet aid, the Cuban command economy was in ruins, and the country's plight worsened in 1989 when Eastern Europe collapsed and Russia withdrew its aid. In December 1991, the Cuban Constitution was amended to remove all references to Marxism-Leninism, and economic reforms began. In 1993, laws passed allowing Cubans to own and use US dollars, be self-employed and open farmers' markets. Taxes on dollar incomes and profits were levied in 1994, and in September 1996 foreign companies were allowed to wholly own and operate businesses and purchase real estate. These measures gradually brought the economy out of its post-Soviet tailspin. The US responded by stiffening its embargo with the Helms-Burton Act, ironically solidifying Castro's position as defender of Cuba against the 'evil' empire. Critics of the Cuban government's human rights record include the Pope. At least 500 people are 'prisoners of conscience'. Each year, hundreds of Cubans brave the shark-infested waters separating Cuba from the USA, hoping to make a landfall that guarantees US citizenship and support from the wealthy Cuban exile community in Miami, Florida. In November 1999, six-year-old Elián González, whose mother died during that dangerous trip, made it to Miami by clinging to an innertube. This prompted an unusual custody battle between the boy's great uncle in Florida and his father in Cuba. US officials enforced a court order returning Elián to his father. While there is broad support in the US for a relaxation of sanctions against Cuba, Washington continues to pander to the powerful Cuban community in Florida. In May 2002, it accused Cuba of producing biological weapons and added it to its list of 'axis of evil' countries (coinciding with an historic goodwill visit by former US president Jimmy Carter). Meanwhile, Cuba's worsening human rights record drew criticism from all quarters, such as the European Union (which has threatened sanctions), the UN Human Rights Commission, and even old friends such as Mexico and Uruguay (with whom diplomatic ties were suspended in 2002).

Recent History
Throughout 2004-5 a series of tit for tat measures between the Cuban and US governments put the prospect of an end to the embargo on the back burner once again. In May 2004 the Bush administration set up a special commission designed to bring about the swift demise to the Castro regime. New laws heightened restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting family members in Cuba and placed similar restrictions on the sending of money between the US and the Caribbean country. Castro responded in November 2004 by taking the US dollar out of circulation. He also sought sanctuary in ever-closer relations with enigmatic Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. The 2005 hurricane season hit Cuba hard. In July Hurricane Dennis destroyed housing and crops in the Cienfuegos and Sancti Spiritus provinces and knocked out a trio of Trinidad´s hotels (all but one have now re-opened). A few months later Hurricane Wilma swung by and flooded much of Habana Centro.

Places to see
There is nowhere in the world like Havana. From the resplendent Spanish colonial architecture of the Old Town, to the spectacular dilapidation of Havana Centro, a city of stalwart survivors and masterful musicians rocks indefatigably to the syncopated beat of the rumba. Bereft of the consumer-driven trappings of other less colourful metropolises, Havana remains characterful, safe, and packed with a plethora of interesting museums. For history buffs there's the living breathing essence of UNESCO-sponsered Havana Vieja; for beach bums there's the sun-splashed tranquility of Playas del Este.

There really isn't a bad time to visit Havana. The hot, rainy season runs from May to October but winter (December to April) is the island's peak tourist season, when planeloads of Canadians and Europeans arrive in pursuit of the southern sun. Cubans take their holidays in July and August, crowding local beaches. Christmas, Easter and the period around 26 July, when Cubans celebrate the anniversary of the revolution, are also very busy. New Year's Eve coincides with the anniversary of Castro's troops marching into the city, so make hotel reservations early and plan to dance all night.
Havana, like the rest of Cuba, has two kinds of weather: hot and really, really hot. In July and August most of Havana goes on vacation to escape the sultry heat, which is bolstered by the humidity. The rainy season runs from May to October, overlapping with the hurricane season, which is generally from June to November. Havana can very occasionally be affected by cold winds from the North American interior, causing a day or two of temperatures below the 10°C (50°F) mark. Bring warmer clothes for the evenings if you are visiting at this time of year - it's colder than you think.
Havana is an amazingly safe city, and the heavy police presence on the streets keeps it so. You can walk through areas here in the middle of the night that you wouldn't dare enter midday in places like London or New York. However, watch out for young men on bicycles who try to snatch purses, handbags or cameras. Like anywhere in the world, pickpockets are active on crowded city buses.
Don't stop to talk to anyone offering 'Havana cigars' on the street, as these are the most persistent hustlers around. Shops may try to overcharge or cheat you, especially if your Spanish is minimal. Verify all prices before buying, check the addition and count your change before leaving the counter.
Environmentally, crumbling sidewalks with big holes can be a problem, and the air pollution is irritating. Take care walking on La Rampa when it rains, as the slick sidewalks throw people on their backsides regularly.
The ongoing digitisation of Cuba's telephony system means that many numbers throughout the country are changing. Eventually, all numbers will have six digits, although confusingly some Havana numbers have seven. There are Etcesa phone booths everywhere, and you can buy phone cards in dollar and peso denominations, although only dollar cards let you phone overseas.
The best cards for calls from Havana are called Propia. They allow you to call from any phone - even ones permitting only emergency calls - using a personal code. The rates are the cheapest as well.
Cuba's two mobile-phone companies are and Cubacel ( While you may be able to use your own equipment, you have to pre-buy their services. Cubacel has over 15 offices around the country (including at the Havana airport) where you can do this. Their plan costs 3.00 per day (plus 7.00 per day if you use their equipment, though most Nokia phones will work) and each local call costs from 0.52 to 0.70. Note that you pay for incoming as well as outgoing calls. International rates are 2.70 per minute to the US and 5.85 per minute to Europe.
Colonial Havana is chock-a-block with museums, memorials, art galleries, churches and other historical monuments. Places and palaces are constantly being restored, so a steady stream of new and interesting sites are being opened to the public.
Habana Vieja is notorious for overpriced, mediocre paladares. There's a better selection in Centro Habana and Vedado, while Miramar/Playa is a gastronomic heaven. The city has a wide variety of Spanish clubs, restaurants, ice-cream parlours and even takeaway pizza and cajitas - an entire meal in a cardboard box.
The Teatro Nacional, also a regular venue of the National Symphony Orchestra, has a great cafe, open all night for dancing and live salsa music. If you'd rather do the crawl, Old Havana and Vedado are awash with bars and nightclubs, some made famous by the clientele, others by their fancy frippery.
Havana has a surprising number of open-air markets, arts and crafts markets, old-fashioned covered shopping arcades, peso bazaars and shopping malls, though choice is limited by western standards. The city's art scene is cutting edge and ever-changing and collectors, browsers and admirers will find many galleries in which to while away hours.
The Havana Carnival in late February and early March features parades in front of the Capitolio or along the Malecón on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. The Havana International Jazz Festival happens every second year in February. Every other year, the International Guitar Festival gets strumming in May. The Festival of Caribbean Culture is celebrated in June or July, while the International Theatre Festival is held every other September. October has the 10-day Havana Festival of Contemporary Music as well as the Havana Ballet Festival later in the month. The International Festival of New Latin American Film screens every December. Christmas Day has been observed as a public holiday since the Pope's visit in 1997. The Havana Book Festival takes place each year in February.

Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba, the second biggest city in Cuba, is Havana's rival in literature, music and politics, and is regarded as the 'cradle of the revolution' because of the pivotal role it played in overthrowing the Batista regime.
The city overlooks the Bahía de Santiago de Cuba and, unlike other Cuban towns, has a distinct Caribbean flavour due to the influence of French planters and Haitians who settled in the 19th century. The city's character is also due to its isolation from Havana, and its history is just as colourful.

Trinidad was founded in 1514, but remained a backwater haven for smugglers until the late 18th century. This changed in the early 19th century when a slave revolt in Haiti caused French planters to flee to Trinidad, where they re-established their mini-empires.
Trinidad boomed until the Wars of Independence devastated the region's sugar plantations and the town again fell into obscurity. The legacy of this short-lived sugar-boom wealth can be seen in the town's baroque church towers, Carrara marble floors, wrought-iron grills and run-down mansions.

Valle de los Ingenios
The ruins of dozens of ingenios (small 19th-century sugar mills), including milling machinery, slave quarters and manor houses, dot this verdant valley. The royal palms, waving cane and rolling hills are timelessly beautiful. The prime sight is Manaca Iznaga, an estate purchased in 1795 by the dastardly Pedro Iznaga, who became rich by trafficking in slaves.

The Havana Carnival in late July and early August features parades in front of the Capitolio or along the Malecón on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. The Jornadas de la Cultura Camagneyana is scheduled for the first two weeks of February, and the Festival Internacional de Jazz fills the first week of December with song and dance. April sees the Semana de la Cultura celebrated in Baracoa and the Electroacoustic Music Festival in Varadero. The first week of May has the Romería de Mayo in Holguin, and at the end of June Trinidad hosts the Fiestas Sanjuaneras. Carnival is celebrated in Santiago de Cuba during the last two weeks of July and the first week of August to coincide with the holidays around July 26. Carnival marks the end of the sugar harvest and originated as a period in which the slaves were allowed to celebrate. For those 10 days the drum is king. The Festival of Caribbean Culture is celebrated in June or July, October has the 10-day Havana Festival of Contemporary Music and the Semana de la Cultura Trinitaria happens in Trinidad in late November. The International Festival of Latin American Film is held in Havana in December of each year.
Public Holidays
1 January - Liberation Day
1 May - Labor Day
25-27 July - Celebration of the National Rebellion
10 October - Day of Cuban Culture
Note that Christmas Day has been observed as a public holiday since the Pope's visit in 1997.

Almost all visitors to Cuba arrive by air, with scheduled flights arriving from Canada, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Europe. The main gateways for US travellers continue to be Cancún, Nassau and Toronto. There are direct flights available from the USA, but to take them US citizens will need the permission of the US Treasury Department, which restricts travel to Cuba to journalists, researchers and a handful of other groups. There's a USD25.00 airport departure tax.

Thanks to the US blockade of Cuba, very few cruise ships call into Cuban ports, and there are no scheduled passenger ships that service the country. Private yachts regularly call into Cuba's plentiful harbours and anchorages.
Cubana airlines has an extensive domestic air network that services all of the regional centres, and flights within the country are not expensive, but prices have been on the rise. Most domestic flights are on smaller propeller aircraft, which can be a little hair-raising.

Viázul is the bus company in Cuba that is geared towards tourists. Its buses are air-conditioned and uncrowded and all passengers are required to pay in dollars. Privately owned trucks (camiones particulares) have taken over much of the passenger transportation business, especially in eastern Cuba.

The train system has deteriorated rapidly over the past several years. There are some inexpensive, comfortable train routes, particularly between major cities, but otherwise the bus is now the way to go.

Cuba boasts Latin America's most extensive system of roads, and renting a car is definitely the easiest, if not the cheapest, way to see the country - but beware. Road rules in Cuba are open to interpretation and road signage varies between the poor to the non-existent. Many Cubans hitchhike as a means of getting around; locally the activity is known as hacer botella (literally 'to make a bottle' with the hand). Government vehicles are legally required to pick up hitchhikers if they have the room, and town exits and major crossroads often have yellow-clad amarillo officials armed with clipboards to organise the Cubans waiting for a ride.