Despite the best efforts of the power to its north, the sun still shines on Cuba. It's the Caribbean's largest and least commercialized island and one of the world's last bastions of communism. The island's relative political isolation has prevented it from being overrun by tourists, and locals are sincerely friendly to those who do venture in - even blockade runners from the US get a warm welcome! The Helms-Burton Act has allowed Cuba to find its place in the post-Soviet world gradually, without the sudden destabilizing shock of mass consumer tourism from the United States. 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.
Although you can't quite hear the colonial architecture peeling in the streets, even Cuba's larger towns are pretty relaxed. 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, spelunkers or those who just want to smoke a fine cigar under a palm tree.
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% mulatto, 11% African descent, 1% Chinese
Religion: 47% Catholic, 4% Protestant, 2% Santería (many Catholics also practice Santería
Government: Communist republic
Head of State: Fidel Castro
GDP: US$20 billion
GDP per head: US$2000
Annual growth: 2.5%
Major industries: Sugar, minerals, tobacco, agricultural, medicine & tourism
Major trading partners: Western Europe, Latin America, Russia, China, Iran & North Korea
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 traveling to Cuba unless they obtain a special license; travel restrictions are relaxing, however.
Health risks: Cuba is a very healthy country. Hepatitis A is a common problem among travelers drinking tap water in areas with poor sanitation.
Time: USA Eastern Standard Time
Electricity: 110-230V, three phase 60 Hz
Weights & measures: Metric with US and Spanish variations
When to Go
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.
LAND & CLIMATE
Neighbors: The island country of Cuba is separated from the United States to the north by the Straits of Florida and from Mexico to the west by the Yucatan Channel. The Bahamas are to the east and northeast, Haiti is to the southeast across the Windward Passage, and Jamaica is to the south. The country is surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea.
Size Comparison: Less than half the size of New Zealand
Most of this narrow stretch of land is made up of flat or rolling terrain. The country’s mountainous regions are scattered throughout the island and do not stem from a central mass. The principal ranges are the Sierra de los Órganos in the west, the Sierra de Trinidad in the central part of the island, and the Sierra Maestra in the southeast. Pico Turquino in the Sierra Maestra is the highest point in Cuba (2,005 meters/6,578 feet).
Numerous gulfs and bays indent Cuba’s irregular coastline, which measures about 3,740 kilometers (about 2,320 miles) long. Among the country’s many excellent harbors are Bahía de La Habana, Bahía de Cárdenas, Bahía Honda, Bahía de Matanzas, and Bahía de Nuevitas on the north coast and Guantánamo Bay, Santiago de Cuba, Bahía de Cienfuegos, and Trinidad on the south coast.
One of the island’s most extraordinary natural features is its many large limestone caverns, notably the caves of Cotilla near the capital city of Havana.
Major Rivers and Lakes
Cuba's longest river is the Río Cauto in the southeast (240 kilometers/150 miles). It is navigable for less than half its length.
Weather and Climate
A semitropical climate helps support Cuba's successful sugarcane industry. The mean annual temperature is 25°C (77°F), with summer extremes of heat and relative humidity tempered by the prevailing northeast trade winds. Most of the annual rainfall, which averages about 1,320 millimeters (about 52 inches), occurs during the wet season from May to October. During the months of August, September, and October, Cubans must brace for occasional violent tropical hurricanes.
Although Cuba was once almost entirely forested, by the late 1950s only 14 percent of the country remained under forest cover. As a result of reforestation efforts, this figure has risen to 16.8 percent (1995). Reforestation efforts are still under way.
Deforestation and agriculture contribute to soil erosion, another environmental challenge in Cuba. Agriculture is vital to Cuba's economy: food makes up 89.3 percent (1980) of the country's total exports. More than 41.1 percent (1996) of the country's area is devoted to arable land and permanent crops. Cuba's integrated pest management program, an alternative to pesticide use, has made environmental gains while maintaining agricultural output and reducing costs.
Cuba has the greatest biodiversity in the Caribbean, and the country's vast mangrove swamps and wetlands support a wide variety of marine life. Parks and other reserves protect 17.4 percent (1997) of Cuba's land. Coastal pollution and excessive hunting present severe threats to wildlife populations, however.
Cuba is party to international agreements concerning biodiversity, climate change, endangered species, hazardous wastes, marine dumping, and ship pollution.