CUBA (República de Cuba)
The Caribbean island of Cuba is one of those places where you can escape the crap of Capitalism, and engage with the people, scenery and culture. One of those places where you won't won't be bombarded with adverts for the latest gadget you don't need, or soft drink that will destroy your teeth and figure. Cuba is one of those places you need to get too quick, before this utopia disappears into the homogenous and bland Western way of living. I was keen to get there while Fidel Castro was alive and in power, but arrived in 2009 when Fidel had made way for his brother to rule. Cuba is in some ways a success story, in other ways a failure, most noticeably around human rights. Although since taking power, Raul Castro has released some prisoners and relaxed a few rules. In Cuba, no one starves, and as such, obesity is not an issue. Begging is also mostly non-existant, along with homelessness. It has a literacy rate of 99.8%, and a life expectancy longer than the USA and China.
For the tourist, getting around the country isn't too difficult. There are internal flights for longer trips, inter-city trips can be done by taxi for around $50 (and by taxi, that's usually a cool old American car from the 50s), or by a Viazul bus for budgeteers. The country is a Caribbean island, so is blessed with some amazing beaches. However most of these are on the North side of the island, and are part of exclusive resorts. The country has maintained it's heritage well, and as such has a number of areas that haven't changed in many decades. Camagüey, Trinidad, Old Habana, and Cienfuegos are all UNESCO hertiage sites, along with the valley of Viñales.
Currency: Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC)/Cuban Peso (Used by Locals only, but possible to get hold of) Numerous charges apply for conversion from Dollar/Euro/Sterling. Dollars attract an extra 10-15% surcharge, which Euros/Sterling doesn't. Maestro is not accepted anywhere.
Visa: Tourist visa required from Embassy/Consulate
Plug: American 2 flat pins, 110V
GMT: GMT -5
GDP Ranking (IMF): Information is unclear, thought to be similar to Peru and Tunisia
Communications: Country code is +53
Health: Cuba has low volumes of medicines due to poverty/USA blockade, so bring essentials/prescriptions. Insurance is essential, as is access to hard currency (£200) in case of a hospital visit. In 2012 Dengue infection cases have risen, awareness of mosquitoes during the day is advisable. Cuba is regarded as Malaria free.
When to Visit: May to Mid November are the wettest months, and thus the low season. Cuba may suffer hurricanes during the Wet Season.
Personal Safety: F&CO Information here. Roberry attacks in Old La Habana are not uncommon, so be on your guard, particularly at night down narrow roads. The police are unlikely to be helpful when reporting robberies.
Getting Around: Cubana are Cuba's main airline, and handle internal flights. Aero-Caribbean also operate internal flights, AeroGaviota handle charter flights. The only bus network for foreigners, is Viazul. Website booking is possible, but if looking to book while in Cuba (bear in mind internet access is very limited in Cuba), turn up 48hrs in advance at the bus station to book tickets. A queue of stand-by's is possible, but you may wait anything from a couple of hours to all day.
What to see/do: Cuba is a very beautiful island, with lots of historical places. Camagüey, Trinidad, Old Habana, and Cienfuegos are all UNESCO listed cities, and worth the visit, particularly Trinidad. Viñales is also very beautiful and UNESCO listed, and is one of the few attractions West of the capital La Habana. Santiago de Cuba has lots of history connected to the revolution led by Castro & Guavara. There are typical resorts on the Northern coast, particularly Varadero, Guardalavaca and Cayo Coco. These resorts have no connection to visiting Cuba, and could be anywhere in the Caribbean.
Food & Drink: Private restaurants are few and far between, they are known as Paladars, with limited seating. It's most common to eat in your hotel or the recommended option, of staying in a Casa Particular and eating home cooked food. Food in Casa Particulars is usually identical, you will be offered chicken, pork or fish with rice. This occasionally varies to include lobster or prawns etc. depending on location. For drink, Cuba is the home of Rum, and it's everywhere. The main beer in Cuba is Cristal, which is rather generic and uninteresting. Bucanero Fuerte is more interesting, along with it's stronger cousin, Bucanero Max.