Cigars to beaches: The ultimate checklist for your vacation in Cuba

  • AFP
  • Updated: May 11, 2016 11:13 IST
In this file photo from Aug 2014, some people ride on horseback as others swim in the cool Caribbean waters of Mi Cayito beach, on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba. Here’s all you need to know for a wonderful holiday in Cuba. (AP)

From intrepid travellers to glossy brochures, Cuba is a destination that’s on the up. Since the US President’s landmark visit to the island back in March, Cuba has been a focus of interest for the tourism industry. Airlines, such as Corsair, are opening routes to the Island, the Starwood group has two hotels planned, and Celestyal Cruises is chartering a ship to the island all year long. So if Cuba is on your list of holiday destinations, here are a few things to consider before booking your trip.

Do tourists need a visa to visit Cuba?
Although Cuba has effectively come in from the cold, administrative formalities for tourists entering the country have not yet been removed. Visitors to the island need a “Tourist Card,” valid for a maximum stay of 30 days and renewable once on the island. The card is available from local embassies and consulates or sometimes from tour operators. Note that travelers need a return ticket in order to get their “Tourist Card.” It’s also wise to take out a suitable travel insurance policy to cover any emergency medical fees or repatriation costs.

What’s the best time of year to visit Cuba?

High season (dry weather) runs from November to May. But the blue skies and pleasant temperatures also bring high prices, which can be a real drawback to visiting the island in this ideal period. (iStock)

Prices tend to be at their highest during the winter holiday season. Visiting in July or August is another option. However, Cubans will also be on vacation, and you certainly won’t be the only ones holidaying during this period.

Are Cuba’s “casas particulares” a reliable form of accommodation?

Cubans host tourists in the equivalent of “bed and breakfast” or “homestay” accommodation. This cost-effective solution is a great way of experiencing authentic Cuba alongside the locals. (Shutterstock)

Casas particulares can be identified by signs on the outside of houses that welcome guests. They usually have two or three rooms available for visitors and often provide low-cost meals. In fact, casas particulares have all the advantages of hotel accommodation but come at a lower cost. However, be aware that hot water isn’t always guaranteed and that the WC may be located outside.

How can you ride in one of Cuba’s famous 1950s-style American cars?

Visitors hoping to see Cuba’s vintage cars will need to move quickly before modernity invades the island and sweeps aside these traditional symbols of the island (which are banned from export). (iStock)

The easiest option is to flag down one of the many unofficial taxis, but make sure you agree on the price of the ride before setting off. Remember that not all of Cuba’s vintage cars are open topped. Plus, seeing as they date from the 1950s, shock absorbers and suspension can leave a lot to be desired -- don’t expect the most comfortable or relaxing ride of your life. These old Chevrolets and Cadillacs are now also being used for tourist tours and excursions, available from various agencies.

Where can you buy real Cuban cigars?

A woman smokes a cigar during the contest for the longest ash, at the XVI Havana Cigar Festival, in the Cuban capital on February 27, 2014. (AFP)

Cigars are another traditional symbol of Cuba and they’re a great gift idea for souvenir hunters. Steer clear of the street hawkers peddling cigars at supposedly “low” prices. The safest and cheapest way to buy genuine Cuban cigars is to go directly to a cigar factory.

What are the best beaches in Cuba?

Thanks to its ideal location to the north of the Caribbean, Cuba offers tourists the paradise landscapes typically associated with the region. (Shutterstock)

Visitors looking for laid-back lounging or beach-hopping should head to the north coast. Varadero Beach -- a 1½ hour drive from Havana -- is a particularly well-known destination. Further afield, Playa Pilar is a still relatively unspoiled beach where visitors can relish in natural surroundings. Heading further east, Playa Los Pinos can be a good place to stop since it has plenty of hotels. Trinidad, on Cuba’s south coast, is another recommended destination for visitors looking for beach time. Fans of snorkeling and diving should head to Maria la Gorda, Isla de la Juventud, Cayo Largo, Cayo Coco or Santiago de Cuba in the east of the island.

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