Although once a mysterious land that was off limits to most Americans, Cuba is now becoming easier to visit. While Cuban cigars, rum, and retro culture are popular and worth visiting for, so are the water sports and beaches. Scuba dive with nurse sharks and explore underwater playgrounds, or take advantage of the wind and learn to kite surf while overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
While independent travel to Cuba is becoming much easier for Americans, it's still recommended to travel on a tour. For decades, this was the only way that Americans could enter the country, and as the tourism infrastructure is still developing, joining a tour will make for a more comfortable trip.
Water sports are all the rage in Cuba, and for good reason. The island experiences warm weather almost year round, so join the locals and take advantage of all the activities to do in that clear, blue water.
Cuba is surrounded by the warm ocean (the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean), and dive spots can be found off all coasts. However, the south is preferred by most divers. The water is much clearer here as it's further from the Atlantic Ocean, making visibility better.
Cuba has declared several of their sites National Marine Parks, which means you’ll get to see the natural beauty underwater without destruction from fishing. Some of the sea life you may spot include turtles, parrotfish, barracuda, nurse sharks, and whale sharks.
With so many fish in the Cuban waters, you’re bound to catch one! Reserve a spot on a local boat to go deep sea fishing to catch blue marlin, tuna, barracuda, and sailfish. The northern coast is more popular for this activity, as you can get deeper out into the Atlantic.
For those who want to stay closer to shore, fly fishing is another popular activity in Cuba. There are over 200 uninhabited cays that are abundant with fish. Groupers, snappers, tarpon, and bonefish are often found here.
The best way to take advantage of trade winds is to ride them! People have been flocking to Cuba for years to "surf" the wind. You’ll have the board strapped to your feet as you hold onto a parachute that picks you up with the wind.
Kitesurfing is great for beginners who want to be on the water, but don’t want to take on surfing quite yet. There’s technique to it, but it's easy to pick up the basics, especially with a good instructor.
Best Time to Visit Cuba
Hurricane season is typically June through November, so plan your trip around that to have the best chance of participating in outdoor activities. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't book a trip during the summer though. There are still plenty of sunny days to enjoy on the beach, although temperatures do increase quite a bit. Cuba's summer is June through August and can see triple digit temperatures. December to May are the best times to come. The weather cools down, and the threat of hurricanes has passed.
What to Look for in a Trip to Cuba
While Cuba is a relatively small island, there's still a variety of terrain and activities available, from hill country to tropical beaches to lively cultural cities. Choosing the right tour for you will come down to the kinds of activities you're most interested in.
The accommodation options will also be an important part of any tour in Cuba. Hotels are common throughout the country, but a more personalized form of lodging is in homestays (or casas particulares; see below). Even some guided tours make the most of this local tourism specialty, so be sure to ask about this option when booking a tour.
Typical Tour Cost
On an organized tour to Cuba you can expect to pay around $100 per day, while staying in homestays. Tours that include a lot of equipment (such as adventure sport equipment) are a bit more expensive. Sailing tours could be a memorable once-in-a-lifetime experience, but are likely to be the priciest option, at around $200 per day.
Aside from local homestays, lodging in Cuba may be a bit more expensive than you expect. Hotels start at about $100 a night and go up in price the farther away from the city center they are. Alternatively, local Cuban homestays (known as casas particulares) are a way for the average Cuban to make a bit of extra money, and are a great way to learn more about typical everyday life in Cuba. Also, vacation rentals are starting to become an option. These can end up being cheaper than a hotel overall with all the amenities they include.
Taxis can take you from the airport to downtown Havana for about $30 USD. Destinations further out will be more expensive, but select buses are available for less. A popular option is renting a car, but will run you about $75-$100 per day plus insurance. Organized tours, especially multi-day tours, usually include transportation in the overall cost, meaning you can sit back and relax, knowing all the details have been taken care of.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
You’ll want to pack lightweight clothing as well as sun protection, including hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen. You’ll be exposed to the sun all day, and being on the water makes it worse due to the reflection.
Water sports equipment will be provided by your tour operator, so there's no need to bring anything from home!
You'll need a tourist card (essentially, a visa) to enter Cuba, so make sure you get this well in advance. Also make sure your passport is valid for at least six months past the date you'll be leaving Cuba. Two pages are required for entry and exit stamps, so have multiple pages available. Vaccinations are not required at this time, although it's always a good idea to be up-to-date with your standard immunizations.
It's always a good idea to purchase comprehensive travel insurance before leaving home. This can protect you against trip cancellations or accidents.
If renting a car, be aware that not all roads in Cuba are paved, so take extra care.
When participating in water sports, check the weather conditions before heading out on the water. If there are signs posted saying to stay off the beach, abide by them for your own safety. If not going with a tour group, make sure you go with a buddy so someone can keep an eye on you at all times.
Zika outbreaks have been reported in Cuba, so take extra care to protect yourself from mosquitoes. Pregnant women, or those wishing to become pregnant in the near future, should consider planning their trip for another time.