The largest of the Caribbean islands, Cuba is instantly intoxicating. With the sound of salsa wafting from every bar and the smell of sofrito and sweet tobacco lingering on the warm breeze, Cuba is an immersive, rewarding destination. Vintage 1950’s cars add pops of bubble-gum colour to the romantic, crumbling colonial streets of Havana – still stylish even though they may be held together with duct tape. Blessed with glorious golden beaches as well as a fascinating, long-reaching history, this island paradise is perfect for those who like a dose of culture with their R&R, but you’ll need to be quick and catch it now at its chaotic, alluring best before it changes forever.
Quick country facts
- Recommended airlines
Virgin Atlantic direct from London, Air Canada, Swiss, KLM and Air France indirect
- Flight time
10 hours with a direct flight
- Time zone
GMT -5 hours
- Visa requirements
Cuban Tourist card necessary in advance of travel
Cuba is an island so the only way to get there is by air or as a stop on a cruise ship. There are two major airports in Havana serving international carriers – most flights arrive into Havana but some charter operations arrive into the beach resort of Varadero. It’s not usually possible to combine the two.
Cuba is the largest Caribbean island and has a selection of regional airports connecting Havana to the likes of Santa Clara, Camagüey, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba, as well as the resorts of Varadero, Cayo Largo, Cayo Las Brujas and Cayo Coco. However, the state-owned planes are aging and have a poor safety record so we recommend travel overland if there’s time. For the intrepid there is a railway network covering the island, as well as a large selection of local coaches. For more comfort we would recommend private car transfers, or you can hire a car and self-drive, although this last option is only really suitable for those with a really good grasp of Spanish, plenty of time and a sense of adventure
Driving in Cuba can be enjoyable but many journeys take longer than expected if self-driving as road signs have largely been melted down for scrap. With a private driver on hand, expect journey times of around 5 hours from Havana to Cienfuegos, and 6 hours from Havana to Trinidad. Getting from end to end (for example driving to Santiago de Cuba in the east) will involve at least one overnight stay each way, making a multi-stop itinerary, but there are some great loops possible around the island for those who would like to see more of the country.
Accommodation varies from B&B accommodation in private homes (known as Casas Particulares) to large chain resort hotels. There is no true five star offering in the country and in fact in general this is a destination which is difficult to do in luxury due to shortages of basic items including building materials. But there is history in spades and what the hotels may lack in facilities many make up for in ambiance and charm. Start planning early though – Cuba is experiencing an influx of visitors and there is a chronic shortage of good quality accommodation, forcing prices up to around $500 per room per night for a small room at one of Havana’s top hotels and making finding any rooms at all hard at short notice. Staying in a few Casas Particulares alongside your hotel stays makes for a rewarding way to experience local culture and keep costs down at the same time.
Weather and When to go
Cuba, like all Caribbean islands, is best visited from December to May, as it has a tropical climate and experiences a rainy season from May to October. It’s worth noting however that winter can get a bit chillier than you might expect – it might not be warm enough to lie out at the beach in December or January, despite clear, blue skies overhead. You’ll need to plan 6-9 months in advance if you want to visit Cuba between December and February or over Easter.
Rains start off very intermittently and May and June can be fine, warm months to travel with only a day or so of rain per week. The heaviest rains don’t normally arrive until late July. September and October are right in the middle of the region’s hurricane season and offer humidity, regular, heavy rain and – worst-case-scenario – a tropical storm or hurricane.
Cuba is at its busiest from mid-December to mid-March, and Havana can be over-run with cruise-ship day-trippers at this time, with prices at their highest and availability very scarce. Moving away from Havana Cuba’s colonial gems Trinidad and Santiago are likely to be a bit quieter even in peak season due to the extra effort involved to reach them. July and August is also a busy time, despite the possibility of rain or hurricanes, as pressure on accommodation at peak times forces holiday makers to travel in what used to be the ‘off’ season’.
Spring (mid-March to mid-April) offers probably the best of all possible worlds – slightly lower prices, warm and sunny weather and fewer crowds.
- NOT ADVISED