Comprising the largest island in the Caribbean and several archipelagos, Cuba sits where the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean, and the northern Caribbean Sea meet. It’s a melting pot for different cultures and typographically diverse, but if you’re wondering, is Cuba worth visiting? We have your answer.
From the rich socialist history and breathtaking natural beauty to the cigars, rum, and rumba rhythms, Cuba quite literally moves to the beat of its own drum. Salsa, Mambo, and Tango have all emerged from the island’s sultry Caribbean shores. Cuba is regarded as the birthplace of many Latin music styles, closely attributed to the making of Afro-Cuban culture.
Having been named one of the New York Times’ hottest destinations since relations with the US were re-established in 2014, tourism is on the rise. But if you’re still not persuaded, our seven reasons to visit Cuba will have you booking your one-way flight. A gateway to the Central Americas, Cuba is an island paradise just waiting to be discovered. Let’s get into it.
Cuba is a hotspot for nature lovers. Comprising rolling plains, dense jungle, rugged mountains, and powdery beaches, the island has great diversity and natural beauty at every turn. The main island is long and narrow, stretching 1,200 km from east to west but only 100 km north to south.
One-third of the country is made up of mountain terrain, with the Cordillera de Guaniguanico, Sierra Cristal, and the Sierra Maestra ranges dominating the southeast, while the other two-thirds are primarily lowland and coastal plains. These are used for farming and they continue from east to west. Cuba boasts more than 5,500 km of coastline broken into hundreds of bays, cradling crystal clear waters and pristine white sands.
With the Atlantic to the north and the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, Cuba’s beach scene is as diverse as the island itself. From the wild Hicacos Peninsula and its 20 km of golden sands to the calm Trinidadian waters of Playa Ancon, there’s something for everyone. Sun-soaking, cave-exploring, field-strolling, you name it. Cuba has it.
What good would a beach trip or morning hike be without the promise of a bit of sunshine? If you’re a sun lover and can’t stand the cold, Cuba can’t be faulted when it comes to the weather.
The island benefits from a warm tropical climate and year-round high temperatures. Anchored in the Caribbean, Cuba receives 400 hours of sunshine in the summer months, and you can expect balmy weather all year. There are two distinct seasons in Cuba, November to April, which is dry with more sunshine, and May to October, the wet, albeit largely sunny, season.
You can expect slight rainfall in the dry months and thundery afternoons, leading to stormy nights in the rainy months. But Cuba is warm and sunny no matter the season. Average temperatures remain in the high 80s all year round, making for pleasant exploring conditions, whether it be the capital or the sandy shores.
Cuba has been a totalitarian state governed by the Communist Party of Cuba since the 1960s. Often characterized as non-democratic and authoritarian, Cuba’s socialist political system is based on the “One state. One party” principle. Viewed as a communist dictator by the US but an adored and revered leader by Cubans, Fidel Castro led Cuba as chief of state and a socialist economy until his death in 2016.
Although Cuba’s politics are not idealized by the west or favorable in the eyes of all residents, the politics and political history are fascinating. One reason to visit the country is to see socialism through your own eyes as Cuba preserves some of the last remnants of real-world socialism.
You’ll find public rallies happening in the streets on historic anniversaries; billboards spreading political messages replacing consumer ads; and public monuments upholding the memories of socialism’s founders, with statues and parks named after Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Friedrich Engels. A trip to Cuba is a journey through political history and an insight into the socialist conditions that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the brink of World War III, and decades of political isolation of Cuba thereafter.
Cuba is generally affordable – perhaps not compared to other parts of Latin America like Venezuela and Columbia. But it’s widely considered the cheapest country in the Caribbean to travel, and costs are far below the average for the United States.
Since the higher demand for tourist services in Cuba, prices have started to hike. And since the country lacks a free market environment, approval for hotel and resort construction can take a while, meaning options are limited. Cuba even has a particular second currency for tourists which means visitors will likely be forced to pay an inflated price for goods and services. But one thing you can bank on when visiting the “Pearl of the Antilles” is cheap alcohol and good times.
Outside of the fancy hotels and tourist bars, beer is extremely cheap. You can find local brands like Cristal and Bucanero for as little as one dollar in state-run stores, and it’s not illegal to drink in public spaces either, so it’s always a good idea to stock up for the road or your very own Cuban beach party. You can find cheap cocktails everywhere too because the liquor is often locally-brewed. Cubans take massive pride in their rum production, and if you’re not drinking craft cocktails prepared with different varieties of Havana Club, you’re seriously missing out.
Americans still can’t use credit cards or ATMs in Cuba because of the remaining economic sanctions. This means US citizens must exchange cash and budget for their whole trip in advance, but you can also exchange US dollars in Havana. You could buy a foreign pre-paid debit card to avoid this hurdle, but you’ll have to do so in Mexico or Canada.
Low-end hotels start at $25 a night, you can find cheap local food for $5 a dish, and for your true vintage Havana moment, an antique car rental will cost you around $80 a day. This makes Cuba 30 percent cheaper than the Dominican Republic and as much as 65 percent cheaper than Barbados.
Speaking of sizzling local plates of cheap Cuban favorites, if the price wasn’t enough to tempt you to eat off the tourist track, then the unique blends of flavors will do it. Influenced by the sea, the surrounding nations, and the lush land, Cuban food won’t disappoint.
Cuban food meshes African, Spanish, and Taino gastronomy, and is spicy and aromatic with a fascinating history. The food in Cuba is reflective of the Afro-Cuban culture and the diverse people that call the island home. Once an important port for trade, Cuba has housed Spaniards, Italians, and even the Chinese, all of whom have left their mark on the island. And with them, they bring culinary traditions that linger in the national dishes.
Cuba was colonized by Spain, hence the primary gastronomical influence and the Spanish language that Cubans still speak. Still, almost 400,000 Africans were bought to Cuba as enslaved people, and it wasn’t until 1886 that the slave trade was abolished on the island. Now 35 to 60 percent of the Cuban population are of African descent, and Afro-Cuban culture bolsters the diet in Cuba. Other things to consider are the French colonists who settled in Cuba from Haiti and the influence of the tropical climate and all-surrounding sea on staple ingredients in Cuban food. Typical meals consist of rice and beans, called “congri” or “Moros” when cooked together, and “Arroz con frijoles” when cooked separately.
Sometimes called a mixto, the Cuban Sandwich itself is a reason as good as any to visit the island. The sandwich was once a traditional lunch of cigar workers and has spread to Cuban American communities all over the states. Built on a base of buttered Cuban bread, the traditional fillings consist of roast pork, thinly sliced Serrano ham, dill pickles, yellow mustard, and Swiss cheese. It may be pressed after assembly in a grooveless grill called a plancha, and the result is a tangy and hearty lunch that warms the soul.
Other national dishes include Ropa Vieja, which translates as “old clothes” and consists of shredded beef, tomatoes, and yellow rice, as well as Mojo-marinated pork shoulder roast, Cuban-style chicken stew, fish with Escabeche sauce, and the Cuban sugar cookies with guava called Toricas de Morón.
Cuba is a musical country, and Cubans are rhythmic people. From the dynamic DJs to the timba bands and energetic street performers, sound reverberates from every corner of every Cuban neighborhood, and it’s easy to feel part of the action in such a colorful atmosphere.
There are tons of high-ranking music schools across the country and Cuba has produced some world-class musicians from Gloria Estefan and Celia Cruz to Mongo Santamaría and the Buena Vista Social Club. Mixing everything from rap, jazz, Afro-beats, and Flamenco, there’s a beat to be drummed all over Cuba. Most hotels and restaurants put on regular live performances, often accompanied by dance so that tourists can get a taste of the life and soul of Cuba.
Music is another element of society where the rich blend of cultures is prevalent in Cuba. The Taíno, Arawak, and Ciboney people, Cuba’s natives, were known for their areito beats, while Spanish influence bought Salsa, Rumba, and Bolero. Danzon is now the official music and dance style of Cuba, dating back to the 1800s, and is often viewed as the root of Afro-Cuban culture.
Whether you’re dancing in a Havanan Club, enjoying the sounds of a timba band over a traditional meal, or moving to the beats of a hip-hop street group, music is vital to any trip to Cuba, and you won’t struggle to find it.
A nation frozen in time, a trip to Cuba is not just a journey through history but a place that will transport you to what once was. From the colonial architecture and antique cars driven by cigar-chuffing locals, to the ancient electronic goods, repaired over and over to last the decades, Cuba looks a lot like it did in the 1950s.
Due to the aforementioned political conditions, Cuba virtually lacks a first-world consumer culture, stuck between industrial capitalism and the Iron Curtain. But this makes for a theme park or insular museum of the past, and it’s all part of the allure.
You won’t find another country with quite so many old cards in use. You can take pictures, hire a driver or even rent one to cruise around in yourself. The owners also have fascinating tricks to divulge about keeping the cars running without access to original parts.
Although not strictly of antiquity, Cuban cigars will have you feeling like a 1950s gangster. Cigars are one of Cuba’s main exports, and they’re considered among the best in the world – along with the cigar rollers who have been practicing their trade for decades. Tobacco is grown on the island and often hand-rolled. Cigars are synonymous will the old-school culture and edgy appeal of Cuba.
When is the best time to go to Cuba?
Between October and April is the best time to visit Cuba when the dry season dominates, and you’ll find warm sunny days with little rainfall. Cuba’s tropical Caribbean climate means it is always hot and sunny, but the wet season tends to thunderstorm, and the increased humidity can be sticky and uncomfortable. The wet season also sees the threat of hurricanes increase, and it can be unsafe to travel at this time. Stick to the dry season for a risk-free trip and to enjoy full days of dry sunshine.
Is Cuba safe to visit as a tourist?
Cuba is a very safe country with low levels of violent crime and a safety index much higher than other Central American holiday hotspots like Mexico and Haiti. A trip to Cuba could expose you to petty crime like pickpocketing and currency scams, but if you remain vigilant and take the same precautions you would elsewhere, there are no reasons to feel unsafe in Cuba.
Still, tap water is not safe to drink on the island, and you should be aware of other threats to health like mosquito-borne illnesses, poor road conditions, and natural disasters. Cuba has experienced over 50 Atlantic hurricanes and is susceptible to tropical storms. Avoid the hurricane season from June to November if you can, and invest in good travel insurance to avoid getting stranded.
What should I avoid in Cuba?
Cuba is a safe country for tourists and a great destination to visit. But there are a few things you can avoid for a smooth trip. These include criticizing Fidel, the late-authoritarian dictator is adored and revered by Cubans; photographing the police – if you want to stay on their good side that is; expecting to be able to use your American Express anywhere in the country; flashing your valuables in public; getting in taxis without licenses, and drinking the tap water!