The Complete Guide To: Cuba

With Fidel Castro stepping down, it's only a matter of time before the US embargo ends and the island is overrun by American tourists, says Simon Calder. So, if you want to go, go now


Cuba: Libre?

That all depends what exactly you mean by libre, or free. Certainly, in the 15 years since British holidaymakers started heading for Havana and beyond in significant numbers, more than one million of us have enjoyed the sense of liberation bestowed by travelling to a warm, welcoming and relaxed nation. We, of course, do not have to live there, and can enjoy free and easy travel around the Caribbean's largest and most beautiful island. Cuba combines natural beauty (in both her landscapes and her people) with a depth of culture unequalled elsewhere in the Caribbean.

In Cuba, summer and winter are barely discernable and, unless you are extremely unlucky, the weather will be hot and sunny throughout your visit. In the coolest months, from December to March, the average day hits an eminently tolerable high of 79F (26C), with six hours of sunshine. The sand is softer and whiter than snow, a broad, bright strand between a straggle of hotels and the Atlantic Ocean. The sea is improbably blue and calm, the power of the Gulf Stream tempered by a fringe of coral reefs. And for tourists who are seeking more prosaic rewards, Cuba has rum, cigars, and the best collection of 1950s American cars in the world. Indeed, you frequently sense that little has changed since the 1959 revolution swept Fidel Castro to power.

Now that the old dictator has found an alternative to "Socialism or Death", ie superannuation, plenty will change. As Castro retires, the world community is calling upon his brother and apparent heir, Raúl Castro, to reform the communist state where democracy is a sham and free speech is shackled. Within a year, I predict that the US embargo that stops Americans from vacationing in Cuba will end. Barack Obama has promised, if he wins the White House, to abolish the "Trading with the Enemy" rules that effectively ban US citizens from visiting Cuba. Once the brakes are off, you can expect Americans in their millions to be dancing in the calles of the de facto capital of the Caribbean. So, to enjoy the unique island in its entrancingly dilapidated condition, go now.

Fidel, Che Guevara and the rest of the revolutionaries started their struggle with the oppressive regime of Fulgencio Batista in the Sierra Maestra mountains of south-east Cuba. They won on New Year's Day 1959 – and since then Dr Castro has ruled the island with remarkable successes in the fields of health, education and not-being-bullied-by-the-US. His people, though, have had to endure severe economic privations and the absence of human rights, enforced by a highly efficient secret police force, modelled on the KGB, and supported by a web of Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, a kind of political Neighbourhood Watch scheme.

Sounds like a laugh a minute

Funnily enough, it is – at least for visitors. Despite occasional attempts to stop locals fraternising with tourists, you are likely to meet dozens of friendly, hospitable people who are immensely proud of their island despite the suppression of dissent and economic privations that they endure. Cuban culture has no equal: a blend of Spanish and West African blood, spiced up by numerous other nationalities, including some Chinese, and simmered for several centuries under the tropical sun to create everything from salsa to socialism. In this one-party state, life can seem like one long party – in spite of the Cuban Communist Party controlling much of day-to-day life.

An excellent place to witness this is Havana's Tropical club (also referred to as the Salon Rosada), an open-air nightspot in the Marianao district of the Cuban capital. It is open at weekends only, from around 9pm to midnight, but presents a far more realistic picture of the island than the nearby Tropicana, which hosted Sinatra before the revolution, and now appeals mainly to tourist groups and Party faithful. Instead, arrive at the Tropical in good time and be prepared to queue.

After salsa, sleep – but where in Havana?

If you feel nostalgic for the glory days of the revolution, head for the 23-storey Hotel Habana Libre (00 53 7834 6100; www.solmelia.com). This is the capital's leading landmark, and began life as the Hilton Hotel until the rebel leaders made it their headquarters after their triumph in 1959. A double room costs £146 including breakfast. If you prefer a taste of pre-revolutionary Cuba, try the Hotel Nacional, a national monument on the corner of Calle 0 and Calle 21 (00 53 7 836 3564; www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com). This stylish 1930s building, set in its own opulent gardens close to the sea, features in Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, but is now the preserve of large tour groups. Through a tour operator such as Virgin Holidays (0870 990 4205; www.virginholidays.co.uk), a week's stay here, with breakfast, plus flights from London on Virgin Atlantic, costs £689, based on two sharing.

A specialist operator such as South American Experience (0845 277 3366; www.southamericanexperience.co.uk), though, is more likely to steer you to one of the new generation of hotels in former colonial mansions, run by the Habaguanex organisation which is connected to the city historian's office. Star properties include the Hotel Florida in the heart of Old Havana (00 53 7 862 4127; www.habaguanex.com). Rooms are arranged around a cool courtyard, dappled with light, and justify the £83 rate for a double room, including breakfast.

It's worth noting, however, that many of these old properties have some rooms with inward-facing windows, or no windows at all. Hotel del Tejadillo, another lovely little place just around the corner from the cathedral, for example has 32 rooms – but only nine have windows. The only real luxury option is the Hotel Saratoga (00 53 7 868 1000; www.hotel-saratoga.com) on the Paseo del Prado overlooking the Capitol building and with panoramic views from the stylish rooftop pool. Booking through a company such as hotelopia (www.hotelopia.co.uk) you can get a double room for as little as £125 including breakfast.

More cheaply, plenty of homes offer private rooms for foreigners for about £38 for a double including breakfast (dinner is often also available), but most of these are in Centro Habana; they are banned within Old Havana. Just look for signs saying casa particular.

Old Havana, an acorn-shaped huddle of homes and churches (plus a muddle of shops, hotels and restaurants in various states of decline) squeezed between the main square and the harbour, is by far the most pleasant area in which to stay. It is close to all the sights, the most significant of which is the Presidential Palace: not the heavily guarded headquarters of one or other of the Castro brothers, of course, but the residence of the dictator he deposed: Fulgencio Batista.

The palace on Prado, north of the main square, has become the Museum of the Revolution (00 53 7 862 4092; open 10am-5pm daily, admission roughly £2).

Upstairs, you find a curious contrast between the palatial interior (lots of Tiffany glass) and the minutiae of the revolution, labelled only in Spanish. Downstairs, in the Che Room, you can see the caskets that bore the remains of Ernesto Guevara and his comrades back from Bolivia, plus a lone sock that once belonged to the Argentine revolutionary.

Continue with a sweep through the deliciously decrepit churches and mansions of Old Havana, then hop aboard a "camel" – the humped and articulated buses that ferry Habañeros around the capital for 20 centavos (less than a penny) and take a look at the mural to Che on the otherwise bleak Plaza de la Revolució*.

Forget the Reds – I want a sun bed

Then head east to the superb strip of sand known as Varadero, about 200km from Havana. On the way, call in at the city of Matanzas, known unconvincingly as the Athens of Cuba. But besides a few neo-classical buildings, it has a wonderfully atmospheric main square. One highlight is the Liceo de Matanzas music school, a breathtaking 19th-century treat, the most notable modern feature of which is a huge mural of a chess-playing Che.

Varadero is squarely package-holiday territory, comprising mainly a string of all-inclusive resorts. The leading British tour operators offer good deals that include charter flights to Varadero's own airport. For example, Thomas Cook (0870 010 0437; www.thomascook.com) has a fortnight all-inclusive at the five-star Hotel Iberostar Varadero with flights from Manchester or Gatwick, for £765 per person based on two staying.

I want to see the 'real' Cuba

Then leave Varadero and explore. Bear in mind that Cuba is bigger than all the other Caribbean islands put together. It has the same area as England, but it is longer and thinner: around 1,200km long and up to 210km wide, shaped (if you use your imagination) like a lizard. Don't expect to get around the island with any haste. Cuba's roads are in a state of disrepair, which means that even the Viazul fleet of modern, air-conditioned buses (00 53 7 881 1413; www.viazul.cu) is likely to average 40mph or less. The railway network makes Britain's look a model of order and efficiency; if you arrive in roughly the right town on approximately the right date you can count yourself lucky.

You could rent a car – and Cubaism (0800 298 9555; www.havanacarhire.com) can fix you up with one for around u

o £250 for a week, picking up and dropping off at Havana airport – but be warned that night driving is not to be recommended. Hazards include potholes, vehicles with no lights, and wandering livestock. Added to that, one of the many things in short supply in Cuba is road signage.

You can easily pay up to 60 convertible pesos (CUC) (£32) a day for an economy vehicle on top of which you have to pay about 20 per cent for insurance. However, it does give you the freedom to explore at your own pace.

First, head south across the sleepy interior to the Bay of Pigs, where the Americans unsuccessfully tried to mount an invasion in 1961. There's the obligatory museum about the heroic defence of the island, and not a bad beach. The coast road unwinds to the port of Cienfuegos, on a fine, broad bay whose loveliness is marred only by a half-built nuclear power station.

A jewel in Fidel's crown?

Not the nuclear power station – but if you continue east for around 100km you reach Trinidad: the colonial gem of Cuba. Many of the town's streets are still cobbled, paved with the stone once used as ballast in the ships of early Spanish traders. This small and beautiful city has some of Cuba's best museums clustered around an exquisite main square, including one, the National Museum of the Struggle against the Insurgents, devoted to the battle against the counter-revolutionaries. The museum is on Calle Fernando Echerri (00 53 419 4121) and opens daily except Monday.

Temptingly close is Playa Ancon, one of the island's best beaches, lined with hotels that have greatly improved since Spanish hoteliers were brought in to spruce them up. Regent Holidays (0845 277 3317; www.regent-holidays.co.uk) organised the first packages from Britain to Cuba, and can fix you up with a visit to Trinidad as part of a 15-day tour, which also takes in Havana, Santa Clara, Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa, and costs around £800 including ground transportation, meals and accommodation but not international flights.

I want my Cuba raw, not refined

Then go further east to the island's grandest scenery. The Sierra Maestra, running along the south coast, is Cuba's highest mountain range with endless – and mainly unexploited – opportunities for trekking. The city of Santiago de Cuba is a smaller, more manageable and more three-dimensional version of Havana. And, at the extreme east, the port of Baracoa is The Town that Time Forgot, with the strongest concentration of the glorious decay that characterises the island. And to find out how Cuba got where it is today, you can see the places where Columbus arrived from Europe, and Che and Fidel arrived from Mexico to start the revolution in 1956.

Base yourself in Cuba's second city, Santiago, and visit the Moncada Barracks – the location of a failed first attempt to overthrow Batista. Fidel Castro was one of the survivors of the 1953 fiasco, and during his trial made his celebrated "history will absolve me" speech; the jury, though, is still out on that one. You can visit part of the barracks; the rest of it has been converted into a school.

The city has a number of good places to stay, including the dazzling Hotel Santiago de Cuba on Avenida de las Americas (00 53 226 87070; www.solmelia.com). Alternatively, the Hotel Rex – close to the Moncada Barracks – is notable as the place that the rebels dined the night before their doomed attack.

Will I eat well?

Possibly. The first independent guidebook to the island recommended: "If you want to lose weight, go to Cuba". Since it was published in 1990, however, things have improved immensely. In the all-inclusive resorts there's plenty of choice at meal times, some of it palatable. For independent travellers, the godsend is the paladar (a small, private restaurant) where you can get fresh, delicious meals for around £12. In Havana, La Cocina de Lilliam, at Calle 48 number 1311 (00 53 7 209 6514) started as a family-run enterprise and has developed into one of the most successful restaurants in the Cuban capital.

Another of international standing – and standards – is La Guarida at Calle Concordia 418 (00 53 7 866 9047; www.laguarida.com) in edgy Central Havana, and which had a starring role in the Oscar-nominated film Fresa y Chocolate. Some state-run restaurants are also improving, such as El Templete on Avenida Carlos Manuel de Cespedes (00 53 7 860 8280), a gourmet seafood restaurant on the harbourfront.

Am I going to enjoy the shopping?

Probably not. There are a couple of reasons why shopping in Cuba is less of a pleasure than it ought to be. First, in many of the ordinary shops hardly anything is on sale (though you may find some intriguing artefacts at the market stalls in Old Havana; a recent visitor tracked down a 1947 Clipper guidebook to Cuba, with an introduction by the president, Dr Ramon Grau San Martin). Next, in the unlikely event that you find something you'd like to buy, you have to battle with the confusion engendered by there being three conflicting currencies (see box).

If you have foreign exchange or a robust credit card, you will hardly be able to move without the offer of rum, cigars or, indeed, prostitutes of both genders. Cuban rum is one of the few of the island's products that have a world-class reputation (another being cigars). Younger, lighter rum is the type primarily used for cocktails. The ageing process is carried out in white oak barrels. Old Havana has a rum museum, the Museo del Ron (00 53 7 862 4108; www.havanaclubfoundation.com), located in an 18th-century palace and which opens daily 9am-5.30pm.

Take this plane to Cuba. but which one?

Ideally, one belonging to Virgin Atlantic (0871 984 0840; www.virgin-atlantic.com), which has flights from Gatwick to Havana each Sunday and Thursday.

Cubana, the national airline of Cuba (020-7538 5933; www.cubana.cu), flies the same route on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Cubana endured a dismal safety record in the latter part of the 20th century, but has not had a fatal crash since the end of 1999 (when it had two in a week).

From other airports, the main options are Air France and Iberia. Note that US-owned online travel agents such as Expedia and Travelocity are not allowed to sell tickets to Cuba.

Whichever plane you choose to Havana, you'll arrive at José Martí airport, on the south-west outskirts of the capital. (Like many things on the island, it is named after Cuba's 19th-century liberation fighter and national poet.) From here, a taxi into town costs around CUC25 (£13).

If you prefer someone else to do the organising, can choose from a wide range of tour operators, from the specialist Captivating Cuba (0844 412 9917; www.captivatingcuba.com) to adventure trips with Explore (0844 499 0901; www.explore.co.uk).

Any Red Tape?

You need a tourist card, which is issued as a matter of course by package holiday companies or specialist agents, who usually charge around £20. It can also be acquired from the Cuban Consulate in London (167 High Holborn, WC1V 6PA; 020-7240 2488; cuba.embassyhomepage.com). The tourist card is valid for 30 days, but can be extended in Cuba for a further 30 days.

If you are travelling independently and have no accommodation reservations, the immigration official may insist that you book a couple of nights at an expensive hotel before you're allowed through.

More information?

You can try the Cuba Tourist Board in London (020-7240 6655; www.cubatravel.cu), though you are more likely to get some sense out of the relevant Rough Guide or Lonely Planet's Cuba book.

Additional research by Lucy Gillmore and Beatrice Mancini

SPLASH OUT – BUT HOW?

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the Nineties forced the Cuban government to embrace foreign currency and make legal the acceptance of US dollars.

However, in a move said to be a response to the tightening of the American government embargo, US dollars are no longer freely accepted. Instead, tourists are expected to use the convertible peso (CUC), a currency that is unlikely to be recognised beyond the island.

Converting US dollars to CUCs attracts a 10 per cent surcharge: changing sterling (at a current rate of CUC1.80 to £1) or euros doesn't.

Some places, particularly those on the fringes of the official economy, still happily accept cash dollars, and a supply of $1 bills for tips is strongly recommended.

The local currency is the peso (CUP). Change about £10-worth when you arrive, and see how slowly you get through it; most of the tourist economy is based on "hard currency" transactions involving convertible pesos or euros, but you can spend ordinary pesos in some local cafes.

Credit card acceptance (as long as not issued by American banks) is getting wider, but is still not very extensive.

GO WEST

Pinar del Río, Cuba's westernmost province, is a rural backwater of sleepy towns, a patchwork of paddy fields, tobacco crops and sugarcane. The coast is pinpricked by a smattering of low-key resorts, and the autopista is empty apart from the odd 1950s Chevrolet and a lone cyclist or two. Even the mountain range that forms the backbone of the province, the Sierra del Rosario, is low-slung – the highest peak is just 700m. First stop is Las Terrazas, a reforestation and local community project. It was started in the late Sixties and is now an eco-resort. The French cut down all the native vegetation to clear the land for coffee plantations – and the Cubans replanted in terraces. They did it so well that Unesco declared the area a Biosphere Reserve in 1985 and the villagers had to find an alternative income: cue tourism. Activities include guided hikes in the valley, bathing in hot springs, and an exhilarating canopy tour. The colonial-style Moka hotel (www.hotelmoka-lasterrazas. com) has doubles for CUC110 (£61) including breakfast.

A couple of hours further along the autopista and you come to Vinales, which can also be done in a day trip from Havana. Out of the otherworldly valley rises a striking series of mogotes or flat-topped mountains. Rooms with a view can be had at La Ermita (00 53 48 79 6071) for CUC74 (£41), including breakfast.

At the end of the road is the Peninsula de Guanahacabibes. On one side the little diving resort of Maria la Gorda (Fat Maria), on the other, 77km away down a dirt track, is barefoot luxury at its best at Villa Cabo San Antonio, which has eight log cabins and a seemingly endless palm-backed beach. Both properties are owned by the Gaviota group (00 53 48 778131; www.gaviota-grupo.com).

The coral reef off Maria la Gorda is regarded as one of the best dive sites in Cuba. An introductory dive costs CUC45 (£25). Doubles at Cabo San Antonio cost CUC76 (£42) with breakfast and at Maria la Gorda CUC68 (£38) with breakfast.

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