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|Introduction to Cuba
Cuba is the Caribbean's largest and least commercialised island and one of the world's last bastions of communism. Its relative political isolation has prevented it from being overrun by tourists, and locals are sincerely friendly to those who do venture in.
Despite the formality of the colonial architecture, Cuba is pretty relaxed, even in the larger towns. The most frenetic it gets is in the middle of an enthusiastic chachachá, and the loudest it gets is behind one of the huge finned American cars chugging the streets.
If you want it even quieter, Cuba's backcountry and beaches are perfect chillout destinations for hikers, swimmers, cyclers, spelunkers or those who just want to smoke a fine cigar under a palm tree.
The Helms-Burton Act has allowed Cuba to find its place in the post-Soviet world gradually, without the sudden destabilising shock of mass consumer tourism from the United States (regular US citizens are not allowed to visit Cuba). It's only a matter of time before American-imposed travel and trade barriers fall. No doubt millions will come when flights from Miami resume. Clearly, the time to go is now.
As of 8 November, 2004, US Dollars are no longer legal tender in Cuba. Travellers must now use 'convertible pesos'; travellers' cheques and credit cards drawn on American banks are also no longer acceptable. Exchanging US Dollars incurs a 10% charge.
Full country name: Republic of Cuba
Area: 110,860 sq km
Population: 11 million
Capital City: Havana (pop 2,200,000)
People: 60% Spanish descent, 22% mixed-race, 11% African descent, 1% Chinese
Religion: 47% Catholic, 4% Protestant, 2% Santería (many Catholics also practice Santería)
Government: Communist republic
Head of State: President of the Council of State Fidel Castro Ruz
GDP: US$20 billion
GDP per capita: US$2,000
Annual Growth: 2.5%
Major Industries: Sugar, minerals, tobacco, agricultural, medicine and tourism
Major Trading Partners: Western Europe, Latin America, Russia, China, Iran, North Korea
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Visas: Virtually all visitors require a Cuban visa or Tourist Card, available from travel agencies, tour operators or a Cuban consulate for a stay of one month. The USA officially prohibits its citizens from travelling to Cuba unless they obtain a special license and very heavy fines are imposed on visitors not fulfilling this requirement.
Health risks: hepatitis (Several different viruses cause hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes. Hepatitis A is transmitted by contaminated food and drinking water. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. Hepatitis E is transmitted in the same way as hepatitis A; it can be particularly serious in pregnant women. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with infected blood, blood products or body fluids, for example through sexual contact, unsterilised needles (and shaving equipment) and blood transfusions, or contact with blood via small breaks in the skin. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. Hepatitis C and D are spread in the same way as hepatitis B and can also lead to long-term complications. There are vaccines against hepatitis A and B, but there are currently no vaccines against the other types. Following the basic rules about food and water (hepatitis A and E) and avoiding risk situations (hepatitis B, C and D) are important preventative measures. Hepatitis A is a common problem among travellers drinking tap water in areas with poor sanitation)
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -5 (USA Eastern Standard Time)
Dialling Code: 53
Electricity: 110/220V ,60Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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The Havana Carnival in late July and early August features parades in front of the Capitolio or along the Malecón on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. The Jornadas de la Cultura Camagneyana is scheduled for the first two weeks of February, and the Festival Internacional de Jazz fills the first week of December with song and dance. April sees the Semana de la Cultura celebrated in Baracoa and the Electroacoustic Music Festival in Varadero. The first week of May has the Romería de Mayo in Holguin, and at the end of June Trinidad hosts the Fiestas Sanjuaneras. Carnival is celebrated in Santiago de Cuba during the last two weeks of July and the first week of August to coincide with the holidays around July 26. Carnival marks the end of the sugar harvest and originated as a period in which the slaves were allowed to celebrate. For those 10 days the drum is king. The Festival of Caribbean Culture is celebrated in June or July, October has the 10-day Havana Festival of Contemporary Music and the Semana de la Cultura Trinitaria happens in Trinidad in late November. The International Festival of Latin American Film is held in Havana in December of each year.
1 January - Liberation Day
1 May - Labor Day
25-27 July - Celebration of the National Rebellion
10 October - Day of Cuban Culture
Note that Christmas Day has been observed as a public holiday since the Pope's visit in 1997.
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|Best time to Visit
There isn't a bad time to visit Cuba. The hot, rainy season runs from May to October but winter (December to April) is the island's peak tourist season, when planeloads of Canadians and Europeans arrive in pursuit of the southern sun. Cubans take their hols in July and August, so this is when the local beaches are most crowded. Christmas, Easter and the period around 26 July, when Cubans celebrate the anniversary of the revolution, are also very busy.
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|Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending
Currency: Cuban Peso
As of 8 November, 2004, US Dollars are no longer legal tender in Cuba. Travellers must now use 'convertible pesos'; travellers' cheques and credit cards drawn on American banks are also no longer acceptable. Exchanging US Dollars incurs a 10% charge. Cuban pesos, or moneda nacional, can be used at local venta libre stores, cafeterias and street stands, cinemas, and many other businesses away from popular tourist destinations. Cadeca, with kiosks throughout Cuba, changes currency at fair rates.
A Visa or MasterCard (or two) issued by a non-US bank is the way to go. For a Caribbean destination, Cuba is still reasonably affordable, though not cheap. A double room in a medium-priced beachside resort runs to the equivalent of about US$50, US$100 all-inclusive. The same room in a state-run hotel costs around US$35, and in a private residence US$15-25. A meal in a state-run restaurant is US$10-15, while dinner for one at a paladar (privately owned restaurant) averages US$7. Taking the bus or train runs about US$4 for 100 miles (160km), while a rental car could cost as much as US$100 a day, more than in neighboring Florida.
Cuban tourism workers rely on tips. People who deserve a US$1 tip include museum staff who give you a complete tour, hotel guards who watch your rental car all night, helpful bus drivers, attentive waitstaff or anyone in the service industry who goes beyond the call of duty. Do not offer money to officials to obtain preferential treatment; governmental corruption is rare in Cuba and attempted bribery will only make things worse.
Paladars may or may not add 10-20% onto your bill as a 'tax' or 'service charge'. If you suspect a scam, ask to keep the bill and see what happens. All private businesses are heavily taxed to discourage competition with state-run entities, and the added costs are, of course, passed on to you. Avoid jineteros (touts) who offer to lead you to a room or restaurant, unless you don't mind having an extra US$5 or so tacked onto your bill.
Refrain from handing out money or anything else to children or beggars on the street. Cubans are not allowed to beg from tourists, and plainclothes police are on duty in most places where tourists and Cubans mix. It may be gratifying to hand out trinkets to people you view as needy, but these people could be questioned as soon as you disappear from sight, and you may be personally responsible for sending someone to prison.
If you're not in the habit of tipping, you'll learn fast in Cuba. Wandering son septets, parking guards, ladies at bathroom entrances, restaurant wait staff, tour guides – they're all working for hard currency tips. Musicians who besiege tourists while they dine, converse or flirt will want a peso, but only give what you feel the music is worth. Taxi drivers will appreciate 10% of the meter fare, but if you've negotiated a ride without the meter, don't tip as the whole fare is going straight into their wallets.
Tipping can quickly resuelvan las cosas (fix things up). If you want to stay beyond the hotel check out time or enter a site after hours, for instance, small tips (CUP1.00 to CUP5.00) bend rules, open doors and send people looking the other way.
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Havana is the centre of all things Cuban. There's an air of faded glory about the city; streamlined 50s and 60s American cars cruise the streets as the paint peels from the walls of almost everywhere. The city is lined with glorious Spanish colonial architecture, much of which is under restoration.
Laid-back Baracoa, with its palm tree-lined coast, sits on a headland between two picturesque bays near Cuba's easternmost point of Cabo Maisí. Founded in 1512 by Diego Velázquez, this is Cuba's oldest European settlement.
Baracoa, accessible only by sea up until the 1960s, was an important Spanish outpost, as evidenced by the three impressive forts: Fuerte Matachín, now housing the museo municipal; Fuerte de la Punta, now refitted with a restaurant; and El Castillo de Seboruco, now a pleasant hotel.
Pinar del Río Province
Naturalists will love this westernmost part of the country. It boasts two UNESCO biosphere reserves protecting some of the country's loveliest landscapes, including parts of the 175m-long (574ft) Cordillera de Guaniguanico, which is something of a hiker's paradise.
The province is famous for its surreal and beautiful limestone pincushion hills. The area is riddled with caves carved by underground rivers, some of which make for great diving. If you'd rather scuba through saltwater, María la Gorda boasts some of the finest underwater scenery in the Caribbean.
Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba, the second biggest city in Cuba, is Havana's rival when it comes to literature, music and politics, and is regarded as the 'cradle of the revolution' because of the pivotal role it played in overthrowing the Batista regime.
The city overlooks the Bahía de Santiago de Cuba and, unlike other Cuban towns, has a distinct Caribbean flavour due to the influence of French planters and Haitians who settled in the 19th century. The city's character is also due to its isolation from Havana, and its history is just as colourful.
Trinidad was founded in 1514, but remained a backwater haven for smugglers until the late 18th century. This changed in the early 19th century when a slave revolt in Haiti caused French planters to flee to Trinidad, where they re-established their mini-empires.
Trinidad boomed until the Wars of Independence devastated the region's sugar plantations and the town again fell into obscurity. The legacy of this short-lived sugar-boom wealth can be seen in the town's baroque church towers, Carrara marble floors, wrought-iron grills and run-down mansions.
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