All about Cuba

Cuba is home to exceptionally friendly people, exotic flora, tropical climate and a vibrant nightlife.

Cuba is a Caribbean destination like no other. It is both pristine and exotic, hiding many unpredictable secrets. It also boasts magnificent white sand beaches with clean, sparkling turquoise waters. Cuba is home to exceptionally friendly people, exotic flora, tropical climate and a vibrant nightlife. If you like the Latin beat, then this is the place to visit, where hot salsa music can be heard everywhere. All this, plus the warm welcome from the Cuban people, make this island – the largest in the Caribbean – very attractive to millions of tourists every year.

Communication

If you wish to make an international call, it is much quicker and more convenient to do so from your hotel. Provide all the details to the operator and your call will be put through to the front desk or in your room if possible. The charge for calls to European countries is about $7 to $9 a minute and $3 to $5 to America, from hotels. As billing is per minute, keep it brief unless you are in for a steep bill. Remember to omit the first 0 of the STD code when calling.

Should you be dialing yourself, the code is: 119 + country code + area code.

Some Country Codes
Country Code
Canada & USA 1
Mexico 52
Argentina 54
Brazil 55
Portugal 351
Spain 34
Slovenia 386
Slovakia 421
Sweden 46
Norway 47
UK 44
Russia 7
Cuban Area Codes
Area Code
Havana 7
Cayo Largo 45
Isla de la Juventud 46
Ciego de Ávila 33
Cayo Coco/Cayo Guillermo 33
Camagüey 32
Guardalavaca 24

Customs

Visitors who are well prepared and adhere to a few simple rules should have smooth passage through customs, both when entering and leaving Cuba. Here’s some key information to remember:

Cuban customs laws prohibit any imports of pornographic material, narcotics, live animals and firearms, although the latter can be authorized by the organization in charge of this tourist modality when used for hunting purposes. Any possession, consumption of and traffic in narcotics and other substances is penalized, except for that of personal use if accompanied by the relevant letter with the doctor’s prescription.

Inbound travelers

In addition to their personal jewelry, cameras and other valuables, visitors are allowed to bring into Cuba, duty free, two bottles of liquor, one carton of cigarettes and up to 10 kilograms of medicine. Gifts up to a value of $250 can also be brought in. Of that, $50 is duty-free; the rest is 100% taxable.

Narcotics and firearms, except for authorized hunting weapons, are not allowed into the country. No restrictions exist on the amount of money a visitor can bring into the country, but amounts over $5,000 should be declared.

(New) VCR and DVD players are now allowed into the island: Cuban customs offices have lifted the restrictions on the import of VCR and DVD players into the national territory. Starting 1 May 2007, travelers can bring them into the country regardless of type, brand or model, including the built-in ones in other equipment. Tourists are allowed to take their personal effects, which include the articles (new or used) that they reasonably need for their holidays (according to the length and purpose of the trip), plus: sports equipment, jewelry, photographic cameras, camcorders, cellular phones, Blackberries, laptops, iPods, mp3 players, video games, hair dryers, electric shavers, binoculars, one portable radio receiver, tape recorders, one portable music instrument and a sound recording device. It is prohibited to bring into the country such items as narcotics, explosives, pornography, any items (including literature) intended to be used against national security, animals and plants regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), GPS devices, cordless phones (for household use) that operate in bands different from 40-49 MHz and 2.4 and 5 GHz.

(New) Effective 20 December 2007, walkie-talkies are now allowed into Cuba for tourists. They must be registered at customs when entering and you must take them back with you.

Outbound travelers

Make sure you save CUC 25 (Cuban Convertible pesos) in cash for your departure tax at the airport. Visitors leaving Cuba can take away 50 cigars, and 1.14 liters of liquor (two regular-sized bottles of 750 ml.). In order to export other items, such as art and antiques, you must procure a permit from the National Registry of Cultural Objects. Most legitimate vendors have such permits and can officially stamp your receipt.

Strict rules apply to taking plants and animals out of Cuba. The Convention on International Trading in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) prohibits taking the following out of the country: indigenous flora and fauna; live or preserved specimens and articles made from parts of endangered species. However, articles made from species approved by the CITES Administrative Authority in Cuba may be taken out.

Culture

Cuban musicians
Traditional cuban music band

The culture of Cuba enjoys international reputation as one of the richest in the world. It has passed through four historically important generations, accounting for all its richness, diversity and significance.

Cuba has produced major international figures in literature and fine arts, film, ballet, modern dance and theater. The country is also renowned for its original rhythms, such as danzón, son, bolero, mambo, cha-cha-chá and many more. Cuba’s prestigious cultural events attract international celebrities in dance, music, theater and other forms of art. Some of these gatherings include Casa de las Américas Literary Contest, Havana International Ballet Festival, the Festival of New Latin American Cinema and the International Jazz Festival.

Cuba also boasts a really rich literature that has given rise to many important writers and poets. Thus, the culture of Cuba enlightens tourists about the social heritage of the country.

Flora & Fauna

More than 300 protected areas in the country occupy some 22% of the island. Six of these have been declared World Biosphere Reserves by UNESCO: Guanahacabibes Peninsula, Sierra del Rosario and Ciénaga de Zapata, in the west; Buenavista in central Cuba and Baconao Park and Cuchillas del Toa in the east. More than half of the island’s diverse flora and fauna are indigenous.

As you would expect in tropical climate, Cuba has many species of plants. Nearly 7,000 of them can be found in our territory, of which some 50% are native to the island. The flora is varied, with orchids ranking high. Orchids have outstanding colors, flawless shapes and account for more than 300 species. The national flower of Cuba is the white ginger lily or mariposa blanca (Hedychium coronarium), a tiny orchid with white petals. The national tree is the royal palm tree or palma real (Roystonea), reaching heights of 15 to 23 m. (50-75 ft.). Both can be found all over the island.

Palm tree
The national tree is the royal palm tree or palma real (Roystonea)

The mountainous areas are covered by tropical forest, but Cuba is essentially palm-studded grassland. Pines like those in the southeastern US grow on the slopes of Sierra de los Órganos (a low mountain range) and on Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth), off the mainland. The lower coastal areas, especially in the south, have mangrove swamps. There is a small area around Guantánamo Bay where desert plants grow.

Only small animals inhabit Cuba. These include tropical bats, rodents, birds and many species of reptiles and insects. No land animal is harmful in Cuba. The largest animals you can find are deer, wild boar and freshwater crocodiles. It is bird life what makes Cuba so special, with approximately 300 native species. Of course, the most famous bird on the island is the bee hummingbird or zunzuncito/pájaro mosca (Mellisuga helenae), the smallest in the world. Cuba's national bird, however, is the Cuban trogon or tocororo (Priotelus temnurus), whose natural habitats are dry forests, moist forests and heavily degraded former forests.

Tocororo
Cuban trogon or tocororo (Priotelus temnurus)

The forests and hilly areas of Cuba are home to diverse species of wildlife, some of the most important being:

  • Jutía (a rodent), also known as banana rat (Capromyidae family)
  • Snakes like the boa constrictor or majá de Santamaría
  • The Cuban high-crested toad

Cuba’s flora and fauna form an exuberant and striking picture of the landscapes of the island. It can be said that its wildlife is one of the primary attractions of this Caribbean haven.

Food & Drinks

Cuban cuisine is influenced by Spanish, African and Chinese methods of cooking. The Spanish introduced root vegetables, rice and beef and some of their own regional dishes. West Africans brought in yams and tropical vegetables, while the Chinese taught the locals how to use fresh fruit and vegetables to whip up unusual meals.

"Criolla" cooking (comida Criolla) is very popular throughout the country, although it can be difficult at times to come by all of the required ingredients. Such cooking style uses pork steaks with yams, rice and beans (either kidney or black), flavored with a variety of spices.

The national dish is ajiaco, a stew of assorted root vegetables cooked with pork, poultry or beef. Other typical dishes are lechón (roast pork); fried green plantains (tachinos, chatinos or tostones); black beans, congrí (rice and red beans), moros y cristianos (rice and black beans) and picadillo a la habanera (ground beef in tomato sauce), roast chicken and tamales, among others. The Cuban sweet tooth ensures that each meal will include luscious desserts.

A very typical Cuban meal would be a salad (lettuce, tomato, beetroot and sliced cold carrot) or a plate of fruit (sliced orange, grapefruit and mango when in season) for starters. This would be followed by large plates placed in the middle of the table, so that everyone can help themselves: usually, black beans and rice, fried bananas and the center plate of meat. This would most likely be pork, chicken or steak, but always cooked with plenty of garlic.A very typical Cuban meal would be a salad (lettuce, tomato, beetroot and sliced cold carrot) or a plate of fruit (sliced orange, grapefruit and mango when in season) for starters. This would be followed by large plates placed in the middle of the table, so that everyone can help themselves: usually, black beans and rice, fried bananas and the center plate of meat. This would most likely be pork, chicken or steak, but always cooked with plenty of garlic.

Vegetarians are no so well catered for except in hotel buffets, where there is always a good assortment. If waiters or chefs know the foods you can or cannot eat, they may even whip up a special plate just for you.

As a nation surrounded by seawater, there is a wide selection of fish and shellfish available in most restaurants. The buzzword is ‘pescado’ (fish); however, it refers to whatever has been caught that day and you will rarely see the actual name of the fish. Langostas (lobsters) and camarones (shrimps) are common in the waters around us, but are still quite a pricey dish, although nowhere near as expensive as back home.

You will discover during your holiday that Cubans produce a lot of their own drinks. The local beers are very good and the main brands are Cristal, Mayabe and Bucanero. They also produce specialty cacao, orange and coffee liqueurs. Tropicola and TuKola are local brands of Coke, widely used in Cuba Libre cocktails. When out on tour, you may try some fresh sugarcane juice or coconut milk.

Cubans drink coffee out of tiny cups and like it sweet, strong and not too hot. The quality of Cuban rum is recognized internationally and comes in four distillations: refined, white, gold and aged. Gold and aged rums are better for drinking straight, while white rum (Carta Blanca or Carta Plata) is best for cocktails. Several of the world’s most famous rum-based cocktails are Cuban, and are served in most bars around the globe. Such drinks include Cuba Libre, Mojito, Daiquirí, Cubanito and Saoco.

Daiquiri
Classic Daiquiri in Floridita Bar Restaurant

Apparently, there are some 69 cocktails that can be made out of Havana Club Rum.

Geography

  • Location: Northwest Caribbean
  • Time GMT – 5 (GMT – 4 from last Sunday in March to last Sunday in October)
  • Area: 109,886.19 km2 (44,218 sq. miles)
  • Population: 11,240,841 million
  • Population Density: 102 per sq. km.
  • Capital: Havana
  • Population: 2.2 million

The Republic of Cuba is an archipelago in the Caribbean Sea, near the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico. The country consists of the main island, Cuba, the largest in the Caribbean, the Isle of Youth (Isla de la Juventud), Cayo Largo and some 4,195 islets and keys. Cuba is divided into 15 provinces, 169 municipalities and the Special Municipality of the Isle of Youth. From west to east, the provinces are Pinar del Río, Artemisa, Mayabeque, Havana, Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Villa Clara, Sancti Spíritus, Ciego de Ávila, Camagüey, Las Tunas, Holguín, Granma, Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo.

Cuba is a long, narrow island (1,200 kilometers from Cabo de San Antonio, the westernmost tip, to Punta de Maisí, at the easternmost end). At its widest point, it measures 191 kilometers; with only 31 kilometers at its narrowest. The Cuban landscape is dominated by plains, with four major mountain ranges: the Guaniguanico mountains, in the west; the Guamuhaya mountains in the central part; the Sagua-Baracoa range and the Sierra Maestra mountains in the east. The latter contains the country´s highest peak: Turquino, rising 1,974 meters. The landscape is diverse, ranging from semi-deserts to tropical rain forests. The country has a large biodiversity and well-preserved ecosystems.

ECONOMY: Up until the demise of the Soviet Union, over 85% of Cuba’s trade was with the eastern bloc. The collapse of the Union has caused Cuba to look for other trading partners and rethink its economic planning. This has brought about many joint ventures with foreign countries, such as Canada, Spain, Germany, South America and the UK. Cuba’s main income earners are tourism, sugarcane, nickel, construction materials, oil, medical drugs, as well as coffee, tobacco and citrus fruits.

GOVERNMENT: The Republic of Cuba is one of the last strongholds of socialism, with people exercising their power through the Municipal, Provincial and National Assemblies. Raúl Castro Ruz is the President of the Council of Ministers and of the Council of State, as well as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba.

LANGUAGE: The official language is Spanish, although many Cubans have studied English, French, German or Russian.

HEALTH: Cuba’s primary healthcare system is considered unique in Latin America, as medical services are provided free of charge to all Cubans. The infant mortality rate is 4.6 per 1,000 live births (end of 2012), while life expectancy stands at 75 years. Cuba is among six countries in the world that produce interferon. Its vaccines against meningitis B and C and hepatitis B are unique in the world. These achievements are made possible thanks to the 211 scientific research institutes and production facilities.

EDUCATION: Education is provided free of charge at all levels and is compulsory through ninth grade. In 1961, the country eradicated illiteracy through the National Literacy Campaign. Specialized polytechnics, universities and other higher education centers exist in all the provinces.

ETHNIC BACKGROUND: Most Cubans are of mixed race. Criollos (over 65%) are from European descent, Mulatos (25%) are a fusion of European and African descent, Morenos (10%) are of pure African ancestry; and finally, there is a small percentage of Spanish and Chinese.

History

Cuba was first discovered by Christopher Columbus on 27 October 1492. For a man who had seen countless tropical islands, he was extremely impressed with Cuba, saying “this is the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen”. After its discovery, the island was quickly colonized by the Spaniards, at the expense of the local aboriginal population. By 1600, Spain had founded the first seven settlements: Baracoa, Bayamo, Trinidad, Sancti Spíritus, Puerto Príncipe and San Cristóbal de la Habana.

By the 19th century, a sentiment of national belonging had started to emerge in the hearts of the Cuban population; thus, a movement arose to gain independence from Europe. The First War of Independence began on 10 October 1868, led by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, known as “the Father of the Homeland”. After ten years of fighting, the struggle ended in defeat.

The second attempt started on 24 February 1895, led this time by José Martí, considered the country’s National Hero. He founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in early 1892; and by 1898, victory was within sight. However, the US Government intervened and declared war on Spain, but prevented Cuba from attaining power even after their defeat.

The Republic was declared on 20 May 1902, followed by a long period of economic and political dominance by the US that lasted through 1 January 1959, when the Revolution finally triumphed. This was achieved after several years of fighting in the Sierra Maestra mountain range near Santiago, assisted by an underground struggle in the cities that finally toppled the Batista regime on New Year’s Eve.

Money

All goods and services in Cuba are priced in Cuban Convertible Pesos only (including transportation and the departure tax from Cuba, priced and payable in CUC).

Convertible pesos (CUC)

The Convertible Peso is now valued at US$ 1.03. Currency exchange from US dollars into convertible pesos will be subject to a 10% surcharge, while transactions from Canadian dollars, euros, pounds sterling and Swiss francs will not be taxed when exchanged into convertible pesos; of course, the amount of CUC you will receive for your Canadian dollars will reflect its new, stronger value (US$ 1.08).

Cuban Convertible Pesos
Convertible Cuban Pesos. All goods and services in Cuba are priced in this money.

Credit cards

All credit card transactions, regardless of the card holder’s nationality, are charged at 11.24%. Credit cards are accepted in most hotels, restaurants and shops, although they must not be drawn from a US bank. When paying by credit card, it is advisable to keep your passport ready and, please, be prepared to sometimes wait a while for the assistant to get clearance. Credit cards such MBNA, Abbey National, Capital One, AMEX and Diners are not accepted in Cuba, since these are affiliated to US banks. Despite the new monetary policy recently established, credit cards will continue to be accepted as a form of payment for any service contracted or goods purchased, as well as for money withdrawn from ATM machines, which are only available at the banks. While there are limited numbers of ATMs in Cuba, you cannot use your bank card to withdraw cash. You can use your credit card to withdraw CUC from ATMs; however, you will be charged the standard 11.24%, plus your credit card interest from the day of the withdrawal. Visa, Thomas Cook & American Express Travelers’ Checks and Visa & MasterCard credit cards are accepted in Cuba.

Cuban pesos (CUP)

Based on the monetary legislation, all the prices you will see are in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). It is virtually impossible for a visitor in Cuba to spend local Cuban pesos, which can only be utilized by locals. So, basically, you don’t need them and it is pointless getting any unless you want a souvenir, which, by the way, can also be procured in CUC.

Cuban Pesos
Cuban Pesos

Tipping

Since tipping became legal, it is now the norm to tip in Cuba. It is up to you to decide how much you tip, but 10% would be a good benchmark and one convertible peso for small service. Many Cuban workers rely on tips to supplement their basic income and they all work really hard. Tips help them get a better lifestyle. So if you receive good service, it is very good etiquette to tip accordingly.

Moving Around

Unfortunately, getting about using public transport can be a major undertaking; and the same holds true for the other cities on the island. On the other hand, there are plenty of taxis around, as well as cocotaxis (may be found in Havana), which offer a safe, fast way of getting around and across town.

Taxis: Certainly, the safest, most comfortable way of getting about in Havana is by taxi. There are many cars bearing the word “taxi”, but not all of them are cleared to pick up tourists. Official taxis can be easily recognized because they are new and well-kept, comfortable and almost always air-conditioned. They all have blue license or number plates. Avoid illegal taxis. Taxis can be engaged by phone or flagged down on the street.

Cocotaxis: An original means of transport for tourists is the cocotaxi, an egg-shaped yellow scooter that can carry two passengers, as well as the driver. It costs more or less the same as a taxi, but has no meter. It is very useful for short rides.

Horse-drawn vehicle: In Old Havana, it is possible to go on an enjoyable sightseeing tour in horse-drawn carriages (perfectly restored old carts or colonial-style carriages), quite unlike those used by Cubans outside town. These horse-drawn vehicles are not exactly cheap, but can be a picturesque way of moving around in the city.

Rickshaws: A more environmentally friendly but slower alternative to taxis is the rickshaw, or bicitaxi, as they are known in Cuba. These are used by Cubans and tourists alike for short rides downtown. They circulate mostly in Old Havana, or can be found outside hotel entrances.

Hop On & Hop Off "Tour Bus": These are mostly red double-decker, open top coaches which can be seen around some cities. Tickets can be used all day long and for different lines, from 9:00 am until 9:00 pm.

VIAZUL coaches: The company provides transportation to Cuba’s main cities, towns and tourist resorts.

There is a variety of taxis, car rental offices and buses to choose from. There are 17 airports, supplemented by an extensive highway and freeway network linking almost all of the country’s regions. There are also other services, such as charters and air-taxis, as well as railroad and bus services.

Religion

Religion does not generally play a large part in a Cuban’s daily life. Years ago, before the Revolution, people used to practice Catholicism. Churches were scattered throughout the country, some of which were very beautiful and ornate. Nowadays, it is a different story, with only 80,000 devout Catholics on the island.

Church of El Cobre
Church of El Cobre

With ever-growing numbers of people coming from different locations and following different beliefs, Cuba has become a country with a large array of religions. You will find Baptists and Methodists congregating on Sundays; and Havana boasts a mosque, a synagogue and a Quaker meeting house. Although Christianity has a small following, animism ancestor worship from Africa has strong numbers and not just among black Cubans.

The Africans absorbed certain Catholic ways into their own religions and were, therefore, accepted in Cuba. There are three main forms of African-based beliefs still around today. The first is Santería, or saint worship. There are hundreds of such saints linked to Catholic saints, with both Christian and African names. Saints’ Day celebrations are colorful affairs, with families decorating little shrines in their homes and inviting friends to share rum and an assortment of cakes. Palo Monte is a highly secret religion, where black magic plays a part. The select few gather in a masonic-type lodge and even have their own special handshake. Abacuá is open only to men and has a small following. The religion originates in Nigeria and its members are called karabalís.

Sports

Although a small country, Cuba has excelled in international sporting events, particularly in boxing and athletics. This is owed, for the most part, to the Government’s support in this field, as it sees sports as an important, comprehensive part of education. In 1991, Cuba hosted the Pan-American Games, the most prestigious sporting event held in the country.

Among the population, baseball is all-time favorite and every town has its own stadium to practice this game.

When watching any Olympic Games, it is very difficult to overlook the Cuban competitors, particularly the boxers, who always snatch the largest number of medals. Almost every town has gyms that host frequent boxing tournaments.

Cuba boxing team
Cuba boxing team

Every year, Cuba hosts a large array of international sporting events. Cuba is known around the world for its boxing, baseball and volleyball, and boasts outstanding athletes in track and field, judo, fencing, Greco-Roman wrestling, free-style wrestling, chess and weightlifting.

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