With diplomatic and trade relations opening between Cuba and the United States, the Caribbean nation has been in the news as a must-see travel destination of late. For Americans this presents an ideal opportunity to visit a neighbouring nation with a culture so different from their own, but for the rest of the world, travel to Cuba has always been possible, you just need to do a wee bit of planning, as you would any holiday, before you go. Cuba is a very tourist-friendly destination and Cubans on the whole, are a spectacularly friendly bunch who understand the questions visitors may have about their country.
Homestay host Fanny and her family in their home in Havana.
There are two styles of holiday available to anyone thinking of going to Cuba: the all-inclusive package holiday resort or you can stay with a local in what’s known as a casa particular. At Homestay.com we specialise in the latter so you can book and stay with an enthusiastic Cuban host who will be happy to give you guidance or show you around the place they call home.
If you are considering Cuba as your next holiday destination or are in the process of planning a trip, here are the answers to some of the questions you may have. If we have missed any out, leave a comment below and we’ll do our best to answer them.
An affordable Caribbean island with year-round sunshine, amazing architecture, spectacular national parks and soft, sandy beaches? Sounds good enough to me.
If you still need convincing however, Cuba’s history as an island nation and the changes that took place in the Revolution of 1959 mean that the country has carved itself a culture that is entirely its own.
Many feel the relaxing of relations between the US and Cuba will lead to Cuba changing, creating a more Westernised nation full of the multinational brands we all know. At the moment, this is not the case. The vintage cars and local labels still dominate the landscape.
That’s entirely up to you: Cuba is not a particularly large island so if you are planning on staying a week or more, you’ll probably have a chance to see a couple of places. Havana on the north coast is Cuba’s capital city and is known for its colourful colonial houses, rambling old town, blissful sea views and epic baseball games.
On the south coast the towns of Trinidad and Cienfuegos are popular spots while the inland town of Viñales is known for its tobacco growing and for the production of those famous Cuban cigars. The region is also home to the Viñales National Park, a lush valley of protected landscape.
All these cities have plenty of casas particulares for you to choose from when you visit.
A casa particular is a guesthouse style of accommodation run by Cuban families. Those who wish to open their homes as a casa particular must obtain a licence from the government and so are full-time hosts to travellers. Most provide breakfast, just like a B&B, and can offer travel tips on different things to do in their region.
Many are well-connected to help you explore the lesser-known parts of the island. Need a ride from Havana to Trinidad? Your host can probably sort you out. Ever wanted to ride on horse-back through the countryside, or roll your own cigar from freshly dried leaves? Your host should also be able to help you.
There are hotels throughout Cuba, some exist as all-inclusive resorts while others, mostly in Havana, are the city-break style we are all familiar with. While plenty of them offer great bars to go for an elegant mojito, and offer Wifi (something that is pretty hard to come by in Cuba), you can stay in a hotel anywhere in the world, while casas particulares only exist in Cuba. So try something different.
Jorge and his family on the balcony of their Havana home.
As our host Jorge in Havana told us “Only in a homestay with a local can you have the best conversations in a familiar, intimate atmosphere where you can have the warm welcome of a home. It's here you can you get a sense of the history, the folklore and see where two cultures or religions can come together.”
While it is always warm in Cuba, rainfall can vary depending on the time of year. June is usually the wettest month with hurricane season running from June until November. While this by no means that Cuba is off limits during this time, there is a higher risk of storms, as in the rest of the Caribbean.
The Malecon walkway of Havana
While there are not a lot of US airlines up and running to Cuba yet, this is set to change. Several US airlines including American Airlines, Jet Blue, Delta and United have received approval to operate flights, most have yet to introduce chartered flights.
Several long-haul airlines including KLM, Air France, Air Canada, Iberia, Virgin Atlantic, Air China and Avianca all operate regular services in and out of Havana.
The short answer to this is yes. American citizens cannot yet obtain tourist visas and so must travel under the 12 permitted travel reasons, including visits to family members, business, and professional or humanitarian projects.
Most other nationalities are allowed to enter on tourist visas which can be obtained from the Cuban Embassy. Check with your country’s department of foreign affairs or your closest Cuban Embassy for more information.
Traditional colonial architecture in Cienfuegos, Cuba
There are two currencies in Cuba, the Cuban national peso (CUP) which is used by locals and is also known as moneda nacional. The second currency is the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), which is used by tourists and can be obtained from the Bureau de Change (CADECA as they are known) in Havana Airport. You will have to queue for this so set aside some time if you are arranging an airport pick up when you arrive.
Outside of the airport, CADECAs can be found in banks, however outside of central Havana, coming across a bank that will change foreign currency or even an ATM machine can be tricky business. The best advice is to change all your money when you first arrive and keep cash with you at all times.
With a climate that feels like it’s always summer, pack light, breathable clothing as the weather is hot and humid. If you are travelling during the wet season, it is most definitely advisable to pack an umbrella or light rain jacket but even these will not save you if you are caught in a torrential Cuban thunderstorm.
Aside from clothes, you don’t need to pack a whole lot. Bring your own toiletries rather than relying on your host to provide them as these can be pricey for locals. Make sure you have plenty of cash as credit and debit cards are generally not accepted and pack some sun cream and insect repellent to make sure you come back with a holiday glow rather than a burn.
It’s also worth noting that if you are on any prescription medication or want to take an emergency stash of over-the-counter medicines that these should be bought before you go. Cubans have access to a free healthcare system but foreigners there do not, so it’s best to pack a first aid kit before you go. You probably won’t need it, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Image courtesy of Guillaume Baviere.
Cuba has something of a bad rep when it comes to food and the idea of eating in a Communist state for many conjures up images of post-war Russia rather than sun-kissed islands. However, while the all-you-can-eat buffets available at the holiday resorts can be pretty poor quality, the standard of food grown in Cuba is in fact quite high.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Cuba lost its main trading partner and the country was forced to re-think its approach to farming and to food in particular. As a result, organic or nearly organic farming has been heavily invested in, meaning that great quality, seasonal produce is affordable for all.
If meals are provided in your casa particular, you are sure to sample some of this sustainable food which will most likely have been grown at the nearby organopónico, or urban organic farm. So while you may not find a three star Michelin restaurant in Havana, you are certain to get a decent meal.
Image courtesy of Mark Rowland.
To each their own is the short answer but Cuba's two main exports that the world knows of are cigars and of course, rum. Both can be purchased for significantly cheaper in Cuba than anywhere else in the world, just be mindful of the regulations around declaring goods and the limits on bringing in such items to your native country.
Apart from that the other envy-inducing thing to bring back with you is a sun-tan to make your friends jealous, and tales of your adventures exploring the country.
Browse our homestays in Cuba to find the host that's right for you.
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