As you might know, we recently received our people-to-people license renewal to travel to Cuba. If you haven’t yet made the trip, boy, is it worthwhile. I recently returned from my first trip to Cuba and had an amazing time. In fact, Cuba was the shortest distance I have ever traveled to enter a whole new world.
Since my return, I’ve had Cuba on my mind, and I thought what better way to share my Cuban enthusiasm than to feature it as my next Getaway Dossier.
The most common things people associate with Cuba are cigars, antique cars, and salsa, but there’s much more to the country than you might imagine. This small island contains some of the most creative, artistic, resourceful, cultural, and friendly people you’ll find anywhere, and that’s before we even get to the colonial cities, unique religions, and plentiful World Heritage sites. To help shed light on this mysterious island, here are some of my recommendations for things to see, do, and know if you’re planning a trip to Cuba.
Weather: A two-season climate. Cuba has a semitropical climate, due to its proximity to the Tropic of Cancer, and enjoys warm weather year-round. The average minimum temperature is around 70 degrees, while the average maximum temperature is around 81 degrees. Luckily, the trade winds and sea breezes cause a cooling effect throughout the island, making the heat relatively comfortable.
Cuba is marked by two main seasons, one hot and dry and the other rainy. The rainy season ranges from May to October with hurricane season overlapping from July to November. Due to these weather patterns, the best time to visit is between November and April because these months offer the least rain and coolest climate.
The tropical atmosphere creates high humidity, so lightweight and breathable clothing is a must. I also advise bringing a small, travel umbrella and a plastic rain poncho, because rain can pop up unexpectedly.
Food: Ethnic fusion. Cuba has strong Spanish and African ties, and those cultures have a prominent influence on Cuban cuisine. You can find these flavors in dishes like Moros y Cristianos (rice and beans), which plays an accompanying role in many dishes. Also, due to Cuba’s tropical climate and island geography, main staples in the diet are fruits, root vegetables, and seafood.
Cuban food also contains a lot of meat, such as chicken, pork, and beef. These meats are traditionally cooked in a Sofrito sauce, which is a sauce made of garlic, onions, peppers, oregano, and tomatoes, and is usually slow-roasted for optimum tenderness.
My favorite dish is Ropa Vieja, which comically translates to “old clothes.” But don’t let the name turn you off! Ropa Vieja is shredded beef, which is slow-roasted and then served in a tomato or Sofito sauce. It’s like the Cuban version of southern BBQ and is absolutely delicious.
Currency: Duel currency confusion. Cuba has two parallel currencies, the Cuban Peso and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The Cuban Convertible Peso was created in substitution for foreign currencies and holds a similar value to the U.S. dollar. Tourist attractions, restaurants, shops and basically everyone else accept CUC’s. Be aware that since 2004, the U.S. dollar is no longer accepted in the country. The exchange rate is presently CUC 1 for $1.15.
Cubans and tourists alike tip in Cuba . Tipping is typically appropriate for anyone who performs a service for you. Some examples of potential tips would include 1 CUC for porters, maids, and drivers, while 15 percent is acceptable for waiters and taxi drivers. When in doubt, it is best to tip. Salaries in Cuba are double digit levels, like $35 per month, so you can imagine that tips are received with gratitude.
Landmarks: Towns from the past. Cuba is dotted with unique and historic towns throughout the country. Havana, the capital, is the most well-known Cuban city. It is filled with color, music, and art, and exudes romance and history. Our travelers explore the city on both of our tours, as they engage in cultural and educational activities with locals.
Outside of Havana, the town of Trinidad, which we visit on our Colors of Cuba tour, is definitely a treat. Entering Trinidad is like going back in time. The city was founded in 1514 and was a major center for trading sugar and slaves. Since its foundation, Trinidad, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has not changed and has even undergone major renovations in order to preserve its colonial heritage.
Don’t forget: Sun protection. Since Cuba is close to the Equator, the sun can be hot and damaging, and you don’t have to lay on the beach to suffer from its rays. To avoid any unwanted sunburn, make sure to pack a sun-shielding hat, and be sure to bring sunscreen with you as well. It can be pretty pricey to buy in Cuba, if you can find it. And chances are it won’t be the brand you’re used to using.
In case you burn easily, it’s a good idea to bring aloe or any other skin cooling cream. And remember, even if it’s overcast, the sun it still strong and can be damaging if you don’t take the proper precautions.
Culture: Cuban hospitality. Cuban culture is a complex mixture of influences. It is a meeting point for European, African, Chinese, and North American cultures, and their influences are apparent all throughout the country.
Cubans are passionate and welcoming people, who have a deep-rooted love of music, food, and sports. They especially enjoy spirited conversation, but they prefer to avoid politics with visiting tourists.
Cuban culture is also marked by dance. The cha-cha, rumba, and mambo all originated in Cuba, and are used as means of expression and celebration. In every city and town, you’ll find a “casa de musica” where the locals gather in the evening (and in some places, all day long, too) to play music, listen to music, sing, dance and socialize.
If my dossier is making you long for Cuba, check out our Colors of Cuba or Discover Havana tours! There, you’ll find plenty of information about the fascinating people to people programming in these unforgettable journeys. We’ll take care of all the logistics and formalities for you, so you can relax and enjoy one of the most fulfilling, inspiring and wonderful trips you’ll ever take.