For years, Cuba seemed trapped in time. The visible effects of the Communist regime and US trade ban –1950s finned American cars, the faded grandeur of colonial buildings, predominant trades of coffee, tobacco and sugar cane – all gave the country a unique appeal, but one that seemed to be stuck in the past. Recently, however, Cuba has been catching up with the rest of the Caribbean islands and its tourist trade has boomed.
These days, Cuba isn’t just about the glories of old Havana: mojitos, salsa and promenades along the Malecon. The abundance of powder-white sand beaches has been drawing in tourists on flights to Cuba and a rash of all-inclusive resorts (particularly around Varadero) has sprung up. Regeneration is being carried out in the towns; new buildings are rising and repairs taking place on the old, especially in Havana.
All of which may have made Cuba the perfect holiday destination: step off a Cuba flight and relax and enjoy the Caribbean climate and setting, take in the culture of towns such as Havana or Santiago de Cuba, discover the unspoiled interior and plantations, or just lie back at the pool of a five-star hotel with some local rum.
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Cuba is usually hot, but summer can be the wettest season. Visitors arriving between May and October will encounter a lot of rain and 80 per cent humidity. Late October and early November can have hurricanes and other coastal storms. The drier season starts at the end of November and lasts until April. In winter months, from December to March, the weather is more comfortable, with sunny days, little rain and cooler evenings.
The most popular time to visit is December to January, though if you visit then be prepared for cooler evenings. The months of July and August are also very popular with holidaymakers. Time around national holidays – Christmas, Easter, New Year and 26 July (the anniversary of the revolution) – is also very popular with tourists hoping to join in the festivities. In the towns such as Havana and Santiago de Cuba, peak season runs for most of the year.
Unsurprisingly, off season is October and November when hurricanes are most likely. This is the time when cheap flights to Cuba and discount accommodation are most likely to be found.
Flying is an easy way to get around the island; Cubana Airlines offers a good network of Cuba flights to popular destinations.
The cheapest way to get to most destinations is by bus. The excellent tourist bus service is run by Viazul, which operates coaches with air-conditioning, video and toilet. The route network connects most towns in Cuba that you could wish to visit. It may be worth bringing a jumper, as temperatures are much more “refreshing” than those outside. There is also a slightly cheaper service run by Astro bus, which is used mainly by locals. For the smaller fare, it is less reliable and often slower, with fewer spaces for foreigners. However, if you’re travelling further off the beaten track, it may be the only way to go.
Hiring a car is easy and there are many rental companies. The road network is excellent, but there are many other dangers to beware: if you’re visiting in high season, book in advance as all rental cars can get reserved. Attempts at parting foreigners from their cash are even more common at less-reputable rental companies in Cuba than the rest of the world. A good tip is to take a photograph of your car when you drop it off at the airport, so you have proof that you did not cause any damage to it. English will not be spoken everywhere you go, so take a good road map to find your way and learn enough Spanish to ask directions. Always ensure you have enough gas and fill up when you can – don’t just assume you will pass a petrol station when the tank is running low, on many roads they are few and far between.
(prices quoted are from London)