Cuba Country Guide
Cuba swings to a different rhythm, and at first it can be hard to get the beat. Opinions are divided on the effect of Castro, 40 years of US blockade and the collapse of the Soviet Union. They have health care, education, food and work but Cubans are still not free to say what they think.
Fortunately, the country has undergone a transformation since it opened its doors to global tourism in the 1990s. Staying at a casa particular (a private home with rooms to rent) gives the traveller a glimpse of life for the average Cubano, and opens up parts of the country that were once inaccessible or off-limits. It also frees up more money to enjoy the raucous nightlife that made Havana famous.
The country’s heritage is in safe hands. Historic Havana and Trinidad, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, have undergone painstaking restoration and preservation. Walking around them is like a trip back in time.
The concept of ‘ecotourism’ is catching on here, and in this respect, the blockade has helped. Cuba has not suffered a half century of reckless expansion along its beautiful coastline, and there are countless pristine beaches waiting to be explored.
GMT – 5 (GMT – 4 from last Sunday in March to last Sunday in October.)
110,860 sq km (42,803 sq miles).
11.3 million (UN estimate 2005).
102 per sq km.
Havana. Population: 2.2 million (2006).
Cuba is the largest Caribbean island, about the size of England, and the most westerly of the Greater Antilles group, lying 145km (90 miles) south of Florida. A quarter of the country is fairly mountainous. West of Havana is the narrow Sierra de los Organos, rising to 750m (2,461ft) and containing the Guaniguanicos hills in the west. South of the Sierra is a narrow strip of 2,320 sq km (860 sq miles) where the finest Cuban tobacco is grown. The Trinidad Mountains, starting in the centre, rise to 1,100m (3,609ft) in the east. Encircling the port of Santiago are the rugged mountains of the Sierra Maestra. A quarter of the island is covered with mountain forests of pine and mahogany.
Socialist Republic. Gained independence from Spain in 1898.
Head of State
Raul Castro since 2008.
Long-term dictator Fidel Castro Ruz, premier 1959-76 and president since 1976, finally stepped down as Cuba’s leader in February 2008. He had withdrawn from public life due to ill health in 2006, naming his brother Raul Castro as acting head of state. Raul was confirmed as leader shortly after Fidel’s announcement.
It marks a fascinating point in the country’s history. The constitution of Cuba, most-recently amended in 2002, guarantees that the Communist Party (PCC) should remain not only the sole legal party in Cuba but also ‘the leading force of society and state’. However, beginning with Eisenhower in 1959, George W Bush is the 10th US president to predict the regime’s imminent downfall.
The official language is Spanish.
Roman Catholic majority. There are also minority Afro-Cuban religions.
110/230 volts AC, 60Hz. American-style flat two-pin plugs are generally used, except in certain large hotels where the European round two-pin plug is standard.
A handshake is the normal form of greeting. Cubans generally address each other as compañero, but visitors should use señor or señora. Some Cubans have two surnames after their Christian name and the first surname is the correct one to use. Normal courtesies should be observed when visiting someone’s home and a small gift may be given if invited for a meal. Cuban men rarely wear shorts away from the beach. Visitors doing so are not frowned upon, but they may receive the odd sideways glance. Women should cover their legs and shoulders if visiting churches. Cuban women tend to dress up for evenings out.
Convertible Peso (CUC; symbol CUC$) = 100 centavos. Notes are in denominations of CUC$100, 50, 20, 10 and 5. Coins are in denominations of CUC$1, and 20, 5, 2 and 1 centavos.
Note: US Dollars are no longer accepted in Cuba and visitors will be charged 20% commission on exchanging them. In the 1990s, Cuba decided to slowly get rid of its Dollar reserves, banning the currency from general use and introduced the replacement CUC as a ‘tourist dollar’ under its control. Cuban nationals continue to be paid in the Cuban Peso (CUP). In some tourist areas, the Euro is also accepted. Hard currency (ie CUCs not CUPs) must be used in most transactions.
Money should be exchanged at state-run CADECAs (cheaper than banks) or international air- and seaports. Dollars attract a 10% surcharge on top of the normal commission (US citizens should bring Euros to exchange). All local currency must be exchanged again before leaving the country. Card transactions attract a surcharge (3 to 5%) – see below.
Credit/Debit Cards and ATMs
MasterCard and Visa are increasingly accepted, provided they are not issued by a US bank, or a bank with links to the USA, but hefty fees are often added. ATMs are still rare, but cash can be obtained in banks with non-US Visa credit and Visa debit cards. Cirrus/Maestro is not accepted.
US Dollar, Pounds Sterling and other major currencies are accepted; US Dollar cheques issued by US banks are not accepted. It is recommended to take cheques in a currency other than US Dollars.
Mon-Fri 0830-1200 and 1330-1500, Sat 0830-1030. Hours may vary and banks may be open all day in larger cities.
Exchange Rate Indicators
Date Apr 09
Cuba Duty Free
• 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250g of tobacco.
• Three bottles of alcoholic beverages.
• Gifts up to a value of US$50 (articles up to US$200 will be subject to customs duty payments).
• 10kg of medicines in original packaging.
Natural fruits, seeds, beans or vegetables; meat and dairy products; weapons and ammunition; video cassettes and household appliances; all pornographic material and drugs.
Note: Electrical items with heavy power consumption may be confiscated and returned upon departure.
Food and Drink
Mains water may cause mild abdominal upsets. Stick to bottled water if possible. Milk is pasteurised and dairy products (with the exception of some cheap ice creams) are safe for consumption. Local meat, poultry, seafoods and fruit are generally considered safe to eat.
Dengue fever may occur as well as outbreaks of dengue haemorrhagic fever and meningitis, particularly in urban areas such as Havana. Rabies is present. For those at high risk, vaccination should be considered. If bitten, seek medical advice without delay.
Obtain adequate health insurance before travelling. Prior to treatment, visitors may need to show proof of ability to pay, though some emergency services are provided free of charge. Standards of care and training are excellent, but equipment and drugs are often in short supply.