Why We Went to Cuba
Just under a year ago Barack Obama and his entourage landed their helicopters in our backyard. He was visiting Panama City to attend the Seventh Summit of the Americas. Admittedly our backyard is a public park and he didn’t drop by for breakfast but it was an exciting and memorable moment nonetheless. The rest of the world, however, will more likely associate this Summit as the meeting in which Obama met with Cuban President Raul Castro. After decades of dispute, the two countries were taking steps to normalise diplomatic relations.
A Bit of History…
Following Castro’s Revolution in 1959 that deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista the Eisenhower administration cut all diplomatic ties with the new communist government by imposing a trade embargo on Cuba. The aim was to push Cuba toward collapse whilst ‘empowering Cubans to build an open and democratic country’. After 54 years of isolation, The White House has admitted that ‘this policy has had little effect. Today, the country is still governed by the Castros and the Communist Party’.
As such, the US decided to make some changes and within four months after the Summit of the Americas, in August 2015, the US reopened their embassy in Havana. At the same time the Cubans opened the doors to their embassy in Washington. Travel and commerce restrictions between America and Cuba have since been loosened (note loosened, not lifted!) and Obama visited Cuba in March 2016, the first time that an American president has set foot in this Caribbean archipelago in 88 years!
Not surprisingly these recent events have propelled Cuba into the spotlight and onto many ‘hot destination’ lists. ‘Go now before it changes!’ the media urges. And so we did, booking a 10-day tour for the family over the half-term break.
To view all our blog posts in the Cuba with Kids series see our Family Guide to Cuba.
What to Expect
Expect the unexpected! Click on Instagram video below to press play:
It’s hard to sum Cuba up. On one hand it’s an incredible country; a throw back to a bygone era where classic cars roam the streets and run-down colonnades exude a Colonial charm. For families it’s a fascinating place to visit – lively, colourful and culturally rich. But beyond the brightly painted houses, you can’t ignore the hardship that people face here. Life is incredibly tough. And while I don’t confess to being a Cuba expert by any means, we felt that the country resembled something of a pressure cooker and that many people were longing for change without daring to admit it, not even to themselves. It’ll be interesting to see what the next chapter brings.
Why You’ll Love It
- Lively, colourful and culturally rich
- Best mojitos and cigars in the world!
- Warm all year round
- Talented musicians and dancers (there is live music everywhere!)
- Safe for tourists
- The wheels!
- Fans of Ernest Hemingway will feel his presence all over Havana.
Why The Kids Will Love It
- White beaches and shallow calm waters
- A culture that excels in thinking outside the box
- Riding horses with cowboys
- Swimming under waterfalls
- Exploring ancient cave networks and underground rivers
- Taking a ride in a convertible car (regardless of its age, make or model!)
- Making, and drinking guarapo (sugar cane juice)
- Extremely kind and warm people who love children!
Watch our Cuba With Kids Video Series:
Accommodation Options in Cuba for Families
Accommodation in Cuba broadly falls into two categories; hotels and casas particulares, ‘Private Homes’. Hotels range from the historic, such as the Hotel Nacional de Cuba that hosted a myriad of stars (and mafioso) in its heyday to all-inclusive resorts. There has also been an increase in properties appearing on the popular home booking site, Airbnb.com recently, particularly in Havana.
Hotels in Cuba range from the grand and historic to budget, basic hostels. There are also a large number of all-inclusive beach resorts. Hotels are owned and run by either the Cuban state or as joint ventures with foreign companies. There are no hotels in Cuba that are 100% foreign-owned. This website, www.cubahotelreservation.com, comes recommended and often has some good deals.
Casas particulares are literally rooms in people’s houses. In the late 90s the government permitted families to rent out their rooms to tourists as private B&B businesses. This legislation was in response to Cuba’s economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s, a time of considerable hardship and tight rationing which Castro termed ‘The Special Period’. (After the US imposed their trade embargo in 1960, the markets of the eastern bloc became Cuba’s lifeline).
We opted for Casas Particulares and found their homely environments suited us as a family. After putting the children to bed for example, my husband and I could enjoy a mojito together in the sitting room or out on the terrace. For more details on Casas Particulares, and how to book them see: Cuba With Kids: Staying in a Casa Particular
Medical Care in Cuba
Cuba is known for training some of the best doctors in the world and medical facilities in Havana are good. For emergency medical assistance, there are a number of International clinics across the island including the Cira Garcia Clinic in Havana: Calle 20 No 4101 y Avenida 41, Playa on tel: 204 2811 (+ Ext 445 to request an ambulance).
Servimed is a state owned and run company that offers foreigners access to the 16 Cuban hospitals and clinics that provide more than 100 types of health services. This is separate from the not-for-profit health system available to Cuban citizens. If you do fall ill, ask your hotel or casa particular owner for a doctor’s referral. A listing of hospitals in Cuba can be found here.
All family members should be up-to-date on their immunisations prior to travel and travel insurance is obligatory (make sure if covers you in Cuba, and includes ground and air ambulance transport, payment of hospital bills, 24-hour telephone assistance. See FAQ below for travel insurance recommendation). Bring your own medical kit with you with all basics and any medication you might be taking.
Dengue Fever is prevalent in Cuba and precautions should be taken to avoid being bitten by the dengue mosquito. It is an infectious tropical disease also known as ‘break bone fever’ owing to the severe joint and muscle pain victims experience. We have written a longer post on how to avoid catching dengue fever here.
There have been confirmed cases of the Zika virus in Cuba. This virus is spread through the bite of the Aedes mosquito and results in ‘Zika Fever’. Symptoms are similar to those of Dengue and include sore joints, rashes, fever and conjunctivities. The Zika Virus is particularly dangerous for pregnant women. For information, check with your doctor before travelling.
Car Rental and Transport Options in Cuba for Families
There are four main options for transport including car rental (self-drive), car rental with driver, taxi and bus. For families I’d recommend self-driving as the most comfortable and cost-effective mode of transport. For more information on all the options, including how to book a car and what road map apps to download, take a look at Cuba with Kids: Car Rental and Transport Options for Families
Cuba is not famous for its food – its cuisine is based on staples of rice and beans – but with more and more private restaurants slowly creeping onto the scene, you can eat very well so long as you know where to go.
Although you won’t find many (or in our case, any) kids’ menus we found many child-friendly options on restaurant menus including pasta, grilled children and rice dishes. The children also loved (alcohol-free!) mojitos and guarapo (sugar cane juice).
One thing we quickly learnt was that you have to book a table in advance (if you want to eat in one of better restaurants) as supply has yet to meet tourist demand! See our individual city guides for restaurant recommendations.
Best Time for Families to Visit Cuba
Cuba is warm for most of the year with temperatures ranging between 20-35C. The dry season runs from November to April. Between December and March the weather can get quite cool. This is a good time to visit the cities but not necessarily the best time to visit the beach. We visited in February and wore jeans and a light jumper on most days. Hurricane season runs from June to November. Although they are infrequent, Cuba is well prepared for them. This website will give you more information on hurricanes.
What to Pack for Cuba
Cuba may be famous for many things: cars, architecture, museums, music, dance, art, mojitos, cigars, easy-going people and a revolution to name but a few, but it is also known for the considerable economic hardship it has suffered. Nowhere is this reflected more than in everyday shops. Essential items come and go depending on Cuba’s general bookkeeping each month.
With that in mind, I urge families to take everything they think they will need! To see which items we valued the most see Cuba with Kids: What To Pack (we will be publishing the post shortly. See schedule here)
FAQ for Cuba
I’m a US citizen. Can I go to Cuba? Take a look at CNN’s 7 Things Americans should know about travel to Cuba.
What documents do I need for Cuba? You will need a Tourist Card, Passport (with at least 6 months left before its expiration date), driver’s licence (if renting a car) and Travel Insurance. For more details on these items, see our FAQ in our Family Guide to Cuba.
How can I access the internet in Cuba? Access to the internet is very limited in Cuba. There is one service provider called ETECSA (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A). You can buy ETECSA scratch cards from some of the major hotels and at any ETESCA vendor. These cards give you a username and password that allow you to login to a wifi zones. The price of a 1-hour card ranges from 2 – 5 CUC depending on where you buy them (they are cheaper in the ETECSA shops). Prepare yourself for multiple login attempts and drop-offs, the connections are fragile and the bandwidth slow!
How much should I tip in Cuba? Tips are hugely appreciated in Cuba and go a long way. Our UK travel agent gave us the following guidelines: (figures are in USD which are the equivalent to CUC)
Porter: US$1-2 per bag/suitcase.
Housekeeping: US$1-2 per room per day
Driver: US$2-3 per person per day
Guide: US$3-6 per person per day
Is Cuba safe for tourists? Generally speaking, yes. Crime levels are low and mainly in the form of opportunity theft. When we were in Trinidad our driver joked that if we left our children with the name and address of our hotel around their necks, someone would almost certainly escort them home. We didn’t put his theory to test though!
What is the healthcare like in Cuba? Cuba is known for training some of the best doctors in the world and medical facilities in Havana are good. For emergency medical assistance, there are a number of International clinics across the island including the Cira Garcia Clinic in Havana: Calle 20 No 4101 y Avenida 41, Playa on tel: 204 2811 (+ Ext 445 to request an ambulance). You should contact your insurance/medical assistance company promptly if you are referred to a medical facility for treatment.
What kind of insurance do I need for Cuba? Travel and medical insurance is compulsory and you may be asked to present your insurance policy on arrival at customs. If you already have private insurance, check that it covers you in Cuba. Ours didn’t. We took out separate insurance with World Nomads. ($162 for family)
What is the electricity voltage in Cuba? 110v, although some luxury hotels have 220v
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To view all our blog posts in the Cuba with Kids series see our Family Guide to Cuba.