If you are looking for pristine beaches, lush tropical weather and communities that are barely touched by mass tourism, then Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic may just be your ideal holiday destinations. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean; in fact all the other Caribbean islands could fit into it! Cuba is one of the few remaining Communist countries in the world, which means that the country is not jaded by hordes of tourists (particularly as in theory Americans are banned from entry) and it is guaranteed to possess a uniquely different atmosphere than the rest of the Capitalist west.
Just to the east of Cuba is Hispaniola, the island which is home to Haiti on the West and the Dominican Republic on the East. Despite sharing one island, the culture and people of Haiti and the Dominican Republic are very different. When in Haiti, you will hear Creole being spoken as the language of choice, and you may witness the traditional presence of Voodoo. Cross over to the Dominican Republic and you will hear Spanish and notice that the Dominicans have discarded their African religions and instead embraced Christianity. Although Haiti is the poorest country in the West and the Dominican Republic and Cuba also face their share of monetary problems, any visit to this region will surely be rich in cultural experiences.
The problem with the national currency in Cuba is they don’t just have one currency – they have three! This can make matters more confusing for the average westerner because you have the Cuban Peso (or the moneda nacional), the US dollar and the Convertible Peso.
However, as a tourist you will usually only use the US dollar, which is the stronger currency, and something that can be used almost everywhere in Cuba. Roughly speaking, you can expect to find a medium priced beach resort costing anything between US$50-$100 per night, with the higher range often including food and drinks. In the cities, a mid-range tourist hotel might only cost $30, and you will find a buffet lunch or dinner for anything between $5-$15. A can of beer costs between $1-$2, with higher prices mainly found in beach resort areas.
The official currency in Haiti is the gourde, with 100 centimes to the gourde.
$1 US = 36 HTG (Haiti Gourdes)
£ 1 Pound Sterling = 60HTG
1 Euro = 37 HTG
Just as in Cuba, the currency of Haiti also has a few complications to fool tourists. The Gourde was fixed to the US dollar in the past, at the rate of 5 Gourdes to 1 US. Although this is no longer the case you might hear the 5 Gourde bill being called 1 Haitian Dollar, with 2 Gourdes being 2 Haitian Dollars, and so on. Therefore a hotel room may be quoted as 200 but the locals may say the rate is 40! Haiti is a relatively cheap country, however, the true bargains of Haiti are often well hidden to the tourists by clever salesmen, so bargaining is always worth a try!
The currency in DR is the Peso. You should be able to exchange money quite easily, though you will receive better rates at the bank. If travelling from a smaller country, it might be worth remembering that US dollars will be exchanged with more ease than, say, New Zealand dollars.
$1 US = 20 DOP (Dominican Republic Pesos)
1 Pound = 32 DOP
1 Euro = 20 DOP
A decent budget hotel in the Dominican republic could cost around US$25 per night however food and transport costs can be quite cheap if you are willing to travel on public buses and eat local food or shop at markets.
Although Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean it is still a mean feat that they manage to squeeze 11 million inhabitants in. Of these 11 million people, official statistics say that a third of people are white (mostly of Spanish origin); with 12% black and 22% are of mixed race (mulatto).
In Haiti, about 80% of the six million inhabitants live rurally. Predominantly black, 95% of Haiti’s population descends from Africa, with the remaining 5% being either mulattos, white or people from the Middle East. Interesting minority groups have formed and there are small Syrian and Lebanese communities, as well as some descendants of Poland who deserted Napoleon’s war in the 1800s and settled in Haiti.
The Dominican Republic is home to more than 8 million people, with about 70% of these people having mixed ancestry (either mestizo or mulatto), with smaller Spanish and African minorities. Unfortunately, less than 5% of the Dominican population are classed as wealthy and it seems that wealth and power is held by the whiter classes and the darker the peoples skin is, the poorer they tend to be.
To experience the life of the local inhabitants, one of the best ways of getting around Haiti and the Dominican Republic is by bus. In Haiti the local buses are called the taptap, in the Dominican Republic they are called gua-gua. To get a ride on these buses you just need to flag one down from the highways edge. The buses are manned by a conductor who will ask for your fare after you have managed to find a seat on the often crowded and uncomfortable bus.
However, when in Cuba, you will find that train travel is the method of choice. In fact, Cuba is the only country in the Caribbean with a functioning train service. Getting a ticket is said to be quite easy, and whilst the trains are often old, they are comfortable and full of character but very infrequent. Public transport around the island is virtually non-existant and so are private cars. There exists an egalitarian system of organised lift shares where people have to share their cars. It’s unlikely as a traveller you would be able to enter into this, so hiring a car is your only viable option if you are travelling outside of a tour.
Eating in Cuba is unlikely to be a gourmet experience. Food shortages and the general state of the economy means that you might have money to spend on food but you may find that there is little to buy with your cash. If Cuba was to name a national dish you could bet that their rice and kidney beans with chicken or pork dish would rank highly.
Cuban food may be a little blander than you are used to because Cubans don’t seem to use many spices or herbs. The food ranges dramatically in health terms. On one hand you will have the grease from a pan served with your meal as ‘sauce’, however their fruit and vegetables are mostly organic, because the trade embargo with the US means that pesticides and chemicals are hard to import.
It goes without saying that when in Cuba you should ensure you try a selection of Cuba produced rum. The most popular rum is Havana Club and all good barmen will know how to whip up a daiquiri for you!
When in Haiti you have two types of cuisine on offer, French and Creole. Again, you will find that beans and rice features heavily in both types of cuisine. There are plenty of food stalls set up at markets and bus stations. A tasty treat to try is fried plantain, a similar fruit to the banana, which will only set you back around five gourdes for a quick snack.
Unlike Cuba or Haiti, food in the Dominican Republic is often more spicy and flavoursome. La bandera (the flag) is the national dish which consists of rice, beans, salad, stewed meat and fried green plantains. A great celebratory dish that the Dominicans are very proud of is the sancocho de siete carnes (seven meat soup), which lives up to its namesake and contains seven types of meat. Whilst this is not a vegetarian’s dish of choice it is proudly served at family celebrations, parties and festivals.
Spanish is the official language of Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Whilst Haiti may claim that French is their official language, it is important to note that only about 10% of the population speaks French who are mostly the ruling class, with the other 90% speaking Creole.
The pleasant tropical climate of Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic are one of their key selling points. With an average annual temperature on Hispaniola of 80°F and similar temperatures on Cuba. The only downside to all this beautiful heat is that Hispaniola can get quite humid, although this is less noticeable in Cuba due to the island’s long and narrow shape with encourages a beautiful sea breeze. At any rate, you can leave the woollies at home and expect a holiday in the sun!
Throughout this region, you will be better received if you dress neatly and conservatively. Naturally you should cover up when in churches; some government buildings won’t allow shorts or tank tops. Use the locals as a guide try to match your clothing style to theirs. Despite much of the population of the region being poor, the people take pride in their appearance and therefore cannot understand why a ‘rich’ foreigner would travel around looking shabby.
Travel to Cuba requires a passport with at least six months validity and a tarjeta de turista(tourist card). You can obtain your tourist card when you book your flight to Cuba, and if necessary you can pick up a tourist card on arrival to the airport at Havana (but not at other airports). If you are a US citizen you are not allowed to enter Cuba due to a ban imposed by the US government in 1961, which was introduced to stop American citizens holidaying and thus supporting a ‘repressive Communist regime’ and government.
Cubans don’t hold any grudges against Americans visiting and will admit any American who has been able to work around the US ban and fly via Canada, Mexico or some other country. Americans in Cuba should be very careful not to lose their passport, and try to avoid getting a Cuban stamp when arriving or departing. More typically now, they the authorities will stamp a bit of paper and insert it in your passport rather than stamping the passport itself, thereby anyone planning to visit USA at any stage avoids the Cuba stigma. The ban on Cuban travel was softened slightly in 1995 when the list of people who can receive a ‘license’ to visit Cuba was extended to include students on exchange, people attending conferences, freelance journalists, religious missionaries, as well as researchers and funded journalists. Despite this small concession, the ban on American travel to Cuba is still strong, and for your ordinary US citizen wanting to visit Cuba in the near future, travelling there on the sly appears to be the only option.
If you are from Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Liechtenstein, Monaco, South Korea, Switzerland, UK and US, you won’t need a visa, just a valid passport. If you are from any country that is not listed above you require a tourist visa, which is valid for three months and be applied for at an embassy/consulate or upon arrival.
All visitors require a valid passport and then tourists will either require a tourist card or a visa depending on their home country. Any citizen from Canada the USA and a number of European countries are eligible for a tourist card, all citizens from Australia, UK, New Zealand and some European countries instead require a visa. Check with your embassy for up to date information and application procedures.
Communism has allowed Cuba to be a well-immunised and healthy country. Excellent medical treatment is available to both locals and foreigners and tourists will find that medical treatment is quite cheap.
As a precaution, do not drink the water in Cuba, Haiti or the Dominican Republic. Make sure you are healthy before heading off on your holiday and are up to date will all the required immunizations for the region (Hepatitis, Tetanus, Diphtheria, Typhoid and Yellow Fever). You can give yourself a healthy advantage by packing a good insect repellent, because many of the more nasty diseases in this region are spread by mosquito.
For more information on international travel and health, check out the World Health Organization website.
By Lorna Musgrove
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