"Cigar smoke hanging in the air, crazy horns playing in the bar, my Mojito was almost finished and emulating Hemingway I ordered another for myself and several for the band…"
The musicians had piled out of a gigantic lemon-yellow Cadillac coupe earlier in the evening. Spotting me, guidebook in hand, I was invited to see their impromptu gig in a huge mouldering house in southern Havana which clearly struggled to accommodate the revellers inside. Since arriving in the country I had enjoyed much of Cuba’s legendary hospitality. The Cubans are genuinely welcoming people with ready smiles and encouragement for any traveller. Their country boasts historic colonial cities, broad pristine beaches and dramatic mountains. Go before it changes forever!
Max Noins - Traveller
Official Language: Spanish
Religions: Nominally Roman Catholic before Communist Revolution 87%, Protestant, Santeria and Yoruba beliefs 13%
Voltage: 220 volts. Sockets are a mixture of the European, two-pronged round variety and US flat-pin.
Virtually all nationalities need a tourist or embarkation card (“tarjeta de embarque”) to enter Cuba. Tourist cards are usually valid for 30 days. In theory you have to show an outbound flight ticket before you'll be given a card, but this is rarely checked. For your own safety and freedom of movement, a copy of the tourist card together with a copy of your passport must be kept on you at all times - particularly when travelling outside of the main towns. You must also retain this card for when you exit Cuba.
The US government prohibits its citizens from travelling to Cuba.
The monetary unit in Cuba is the Cuba Convertible Peso (CUC) which is divided into 100 centavos. Approximate exchange rates (as at May 2008) are as follows:
1 Pound Sterling: 1.80 CUC
1 US Dollar: 0.92 CUC
1 Euro: 1.42 CUC
XE.com is a useful site for currency conversion.
Important Currency Changes: Until recently US dollars were accepted for all purchases in Cuba. However President Fidel Castro has banned the currency in response to the tightening of sanctions by the US. From November 14 2004, all shops, restaurants and bars now accept only the Cuban peso. Therefore it is now advisable to take currency and travellers cheques in £ sterling or Euros which you can then change easily. It is still possible to exchange US dollars; however transactions are subject to a hefty 10% commission. As the situation is likely to be unstable we recommend that you take a variety of currencies (including a small amount of US dollars). The Local Payment for your tour must now be paid in Euros (US dollars will not be accepted) – please see your Trip Dossier for the exact amount payable. Airport departure tax must also be paid in convertible pesos and not US dollars.
Please note: While no longer the current legal tender in Cuba, prices in this dossier are in US$ for ease of reference only. Cubans generally quote prices in US$ and CUC.
Remember that once out of Cuba you will not be able to use or exchange Cuban pesos whether they are convertible pesos or local pesos (moneda nacional). Therefore you must make sure you spend/exchange/donate any left over money before leaving the country.
We strongly advise you to take a combination of the following:
Currency can be changed at official exchange houses (casa de cambios) called CADECA.
Credit and Debit Cards
ATM machines do exist in Cuba, but they generally don’t work too efficiently, so it’s best to have plenty of cash with you. You can get cash advances through your credit card from banks but they will NOT accept any US issued credit cards. Getting a cash advance can be a very drawn out process and all banks will need to see your passport and possibly require a photocopy. If you do decide to queue in a bank always check that what you want to do is going to be possible before lining up. Different banks have different rules. For example some banks do not exchange traveller’s cheques. They may also have a limit to the amount of currency you can exchange. Always try to exchange as much as you can at one time and try to ask cashiers for small notes.
The following cards are widely accepted Visa, MasterCard, Access, Diners and Banamex in most Cuban ATMs (if you can find one that works), banks and tourist shops and in some restaurants and hotels. The most accepted credit card is Visa, although authorisation can sometimes be denied due to poor computer connections or other problems. Note there may sometimes be commission charged when getting cash advances by credit card (1% normally) at CADECAS although it is free at banks.
The Pre Departure Booklet contains general information about organising your spending money. Your Tour Leader will be able to advise you on local facilities.
Please also note that Cuba is a relatively expensive country for travellers.
Generally speaking most museums in Cuba cost between US$2 and US$10. There are many interesting museums to visit, but please bear in mind that some museums are closed on Mondays. There are many churches and cathedrals in Cuba, most free to enter but some do have a charge. Flash photography is strictly forbidden and in many churches, museums and other sites you will be expected to pay to take your camera and/or video inside; the charge is normally around US$2-3 extra.
You might also get the chance to take in an evening cabaret show such as the famous Tropicana (US$65+) or you might like to try the Parisien in the Nacional Hotel in Vedado which is just as good but half the price. If you want to listen to typical Cuban music visit the Casa de la Trova, ($5 entry) where you will find all the locals. All the above are in Havana but also remember that all the other towns and cities have good nightlife. There is also a Tropicana nightclub in Santiago which is a little cheaper.
If you have an International Student Card you will often be entitled to reduced entrance fees.
All of our itineraries include some free time, the amount of which usually depends on the style of tour you are travelling on (Adventurer trips generally have more than Traveller). If you wish to take optional excursions your Tour Leader will be able to advise you of the possibilities in each area.
All prices below are approximate and are likely to change due to local inflation or exchange rates.
Taxis are recommended for longer journeys within a city. You can also try the coco-taxis (similar to the tuk-tuk or auto rickshaw), especially in Trinidad, which are quite different. With the exception of coco-taxis, normal taxis have meters but you’ll quite often find that the driver would prefer to just give you a set price and not switch on the meter, as this way the money goes straight into his pocket rather than to the government. The price will usually be almost the same as it would have been with the meter. Local buses get very crowded and are best avoided but you might like to try the “camello” in Havana (a semi-truck with a camel shaped trailer where the passengers mostly stand).
The Pre-Departure Booklet that you will receive once you have booked your tour contains a comprehensive list of items that you should consider bringing with you. Please also check your Trip Dossier for any special requirements.
The Imaginative Traveller Recommends: Bring a backpack or easy to carry luggage and travel light. You will have to carry your own luggage frequently – don't let this be an ordeal.
As a general guideline, clothing should be lightweight, loose fitting, hard-wearing and easily washed. In the hot summer months, cotton clothing is much more comfortable than man-made materials like nylon. Be prepared for cooler evenings - for this reason you will generally find it better to pack several thin layers rather than one thick layer. A fleece can be invaluable and double as a pillow. A water resistant jacket is essential during the rainy season between November and April.
Whilst few of our tours can be described as physically demanding you will find all activities more enjoyable if you are reasonably fit and active.
Whenever you use a western or squat style toilet please place your toilet paper in the rubbish bin provided – DO NOT flush it down the toilet as this may block the sewerage system. You may also want to carry your own toilet paper as not all toilets will supply it.
The Imaginative Traveller Recommends: You may find it useful to take along a supply of antiseptic gel (i.e. water free soap) and plastic bags to put your toilet paper in if it cannot be burnt / placed in a bin.
Throwing rubbish on the floor may be acceptable to some locals, but please hold on to your waste until you find a litterbin or somewhere appropriate to dispose of it.
Begging is not common in Cuba but has started to appear at some tourist destinations. Ultimately donations are a travellers personal choice; however, our recommendation is NOT to give money, pens, gifts or sweets as this may result in the imprisonment of the beggar by local police authorities. If you do want to help it is probably better to give to a recognised charity. If you choose not to give, simply say no with a smile and keep on walking. If you learn nothing else of the local language, try to learn to say ‘no thank you’.
Haggling is expected in Cuba and hunting for bargains can be a real highlight. For tips on bargaining and shopping etiquette please see the Pre-departure Booklet.
The main buys are of course rum, cigars and all types of Latin music: salsa, zapateo, cha-cha-cha, rumba, jazz. They sell just about everything with Che Guevara on it, as he is the national hero, even though he was an Argentine. Paintings are a good buy, especially if you’re good at bargaining. You can find many places to buy locally painted art in the stalls around the main plaza in Havana and also, along the river’s edge, there is a large souvenir market which is full of local artisan pieces.
Bear in mind that it can be very expensive and rarely reliable to send packages home so try to buy only what you can carry home.
The Meeting Point for your tour should be clearly marked on your travel vouchers.
José Martí International Airport is 25km south-west of Havana. You should find an ATM among all the booths and kiosks on the ground floor, and another on the second floor, where departing passengers check in. Taxis wait in a long line just outside the ground floor exit. Unfortunately all the different taxi companies line up and are assigned to clients in order. Therefore it's luck of the draw if you get one of the more expensive cab companies, like Taxi OK, or one of the cheaper ones, like Panataxi or Havanautos. You can try demanding a Panataxi or Havanautos taxi or you could try negotiating a flat rate but this may not work. A taxi to downtown Havana should cost between US$10 and US$15, although it's not uncommon for the meter or arranged fee to reach US$20.
The Meeting Point for your tour should be clearly marked on your travel vouchers. A complete list of all meeting point hotels can also be found at www.imtravdossiers.com. If you have not arranged for us to meet and transfer you on arrival, it is a relatively simple matter to make your own way to the meeting point.
Crime does exist in Cuba but on a relatively small scale considering that many people live in poverty. It is important to be sensible and alert but like anywhere in the world, you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Care should be taken, especially whilst walking around the larger cities. Try to keep away from dark quiet areas if on your own, particularly late at night and try to always take a taxi. We suggest that whenever possible you leave all of your important documents in the safe (“caja fuertes”) or at least locked in your main luggage. However you should always carry some form of ID or a photocopy of your passport.
It is advisable not to wear expensive looking watches or jewellery. Keep your camera concealed when not in use. Remember that most thieves don't use violence but rely mostly on diversionary tactics which can take place at anytime of the day or night. Do not be paranoid, but just be aware that it could happen at anytime. Always be vigilant and the chances are nothing will ever happen to you. The safety of our passengers is our tour leaders’ number one concern and they will provide all necessary local information during the pre-departure meeting.
Your Tour Leader’s role is to ensure all aspects of the trip run smoothly. He/she will share their local knowledge, advise on how to fill your free time and co-ordinate the day to day running of the tour – although occasionally he/she may need your understanding if things do not go according to plan. If you have any problems on the tour, please let your Tour Leader know so that steps can be taken to put it right. Tour Leaders are supported by our local agents and a locally based manager. In Cuba we also use the services of specialist guides at sights of particular historical interest.
Please note that some styles of trip, such as Imaginative Escapes or Imaginative Honeymoons, do not have a Tour Leader. However, there will be representatives on hand who will be able to assist you in arranging any excursions that you wish you take.
Most of the accommodation on our Cuba tours are rooms in home-stays (casas particulares) except in the main cities where we stay in simple hotels. The home-stays are family run, simple but clean and centrally-located. All are twin or sometimes triple share (not often). All should have hot water. Inform your tour leader and/or host if you are having difficulties. However if you do experience periods without hot water or lack of pressure please be patient and understanding, as Cuba is a developing country in every sense of the word.
At each hotel your Tour Leader will try to organise the rooming arrangements to suit everyone's requirements. If you are travelling alone you will be allocated a room with another group member of the same sex. If you are travelling as a couple please note that we cannot guarantee the availability of double beds.
A laundry service is available in most of the hotels we use.
Meals are not included in your tour. Most food in Cuba is pretty expensive (compared to the rest of Latin America) for what you get. The best value would be in a “casa particular” or what they call “paladares” which are privately owned restaurants that have opened up all over Cuba. These restaurants are only supposed to have 12 seats (but many obviously break the rules!). Most dishes consist of beans, rice with chicken or pork. “Congri” is the national dish, which is beans and rice. Cows are all Government owned, so you probably won’t see beef outside of Government run restaurants and hotels and it is usually expensive. The same applies to lobsters and prawns which are either saved for the export market or sold in smart hotels and restaurants.
The best and cheapest meal options will be at your homestay. You can expect to pay about US$3 for a breakfast and between $5 -10 for main meal but the size will be much bigger than in a restaurant and far better in most cases.
All drinks such as water, soft or alcoholic drinks are at your own expense at all times. The following is a rough guideline for drinks bought in a shop in the street. Prices in restaurants and hotels can sometimes be more than double the prices specified below;
Drinks such as “guarapo” which is sugar cane juice will cost about US$0.05 but remember it will probably have ice in it, so be careful if you have a sensitive stomach. Cuban coffee is normally good but order a cafecito or café cubano, not café americano (which can be weak and mostly tasteless). You can also get milkshakes (batidos) at street markets.
If you only learn one word in Spanish it’s bound to be “cerveza” – beer! There are countless beers and the most common are Cristal, Mayabe, Hatuey and Bucanero, just to name a few.
Rum (ron) is definitely the most commonly drunk spirit in Cuba, they have over 80 different makes on the island which come in all sorts of cocktails (i.e. mojitos, daiquiris), cuba libre (rum & coke) and of course it can be drunk straight or on the rocks. It is suggested that you don’t drink a 3 star rum on its own though; only do that with a 5 or 7 star rum. Cuba is now producing its own wine from the Pinar del Rio region and is getting most of its expertise from the Spanish.
If you are a strict vegetarian you may experience a distinct lack of variety in the food available, especially in small towns. You might find that you are eating a lot of omelettes and other egg dishes. Our tour leaders will do their best to organise interesting vegetarian alternatives for included meals, but your patience and understanding is requested.
If you have food allergies or preferences, please make them known to your Tour Leader who will do their best to ensure that your requirements are met.
Please note: Unfortunately we can give no guarantee that special requirements can always be met.
As with everywhere, the easiest and cheapest form of communication is via the Internet. Email is without doubt the best way of keeping in contact with family and friends. There are ETECSA offices throughout with public internet facilities. The average cost is US$6 an hour.
To call overseas from Cuba you must dial ‘119’ followed by the country code, city code etc. You can buy special telephone cards from ETECSA offices which also have internet facilities. With these cards you will have to use one of the blue ETECSA public phones, which are everywhere these days.
Please note: Calling from hotels is always VERY expensive, and even if your call is connected for 1 second you will be charged for a full minute.
The postal service is good and stamps are available everywhere.
Availability of Film
Camera film is widely available and generally of good quality.
The weather in Cuba is mild subtropical, thanks to its proximity to the Tropic of Cancer. Its narrow configuration and east to west orientation receives the refreshing action of trade winds and marine breezes. During the short winter (Dec-Feb) cold air masses arrive from the north, but they are of short duration. The average temperature throughout the year varies between 20 and 35ºC, lowering sometimes to 10°C between December and February. The Eastern region enjoys warmer weather than the western and the variations of temperature between the day and the night are less accentuated in the coastal regions than inland. The rainy season is from May to October. The average water temperature is 25°C.
By its geographic situation, the country is affected between June and November by the cyclone season. These can affect the island in hurricane form with winds that goes up to 200 km/h and heavy storms. The experience of a cyclone emergency is disturbing yet all the hotels and homes where we stay are modern structures or have been strengthened to cope with inclement weather.
Average Temperatures in Havana (in Celsius):