Cuba truly is a country like no other, and there's nothing that can really prepare you for the colour, heat and music that hits you upon touching down in Havana. But there is plenty you can do ahead of your trip to make sure you have the Cuban experience you've been dreaming of, from working out your itinerary to learning about the currency system. Here are my top tips for preparing for Cuba.
Book the holiday you want
Cuba is undeniably diverse. There's the sheer exuberance of Havana, the lush greenery of relaxed Remedios, the revolutionary history of Santa Clara, and the paradisiacal beaches of the Villa Clara Keys. How can you possibly choose? The good news is - if you're willing to travel around a bit - in Cuba you can have the best of all these worlds.
You need to go into the booking process knowing what type of trip you're looking for - but don't limit yourself to just one destination. Most travellers won't want to miss the chance to explore iconic Havana, and by opting for a multi-centre holiday you can experience the unique city before flopping on an idyllic beach, mojito in hand, or following the historic revolutionary trail.
Research the weather
Cuba boasts a tropical climate, which means two things: plenty of sun and the odd tropical storm. If you're visiting between December and May you can anticipate endless blue skies and sunny days, so you'll likely get away with nothing but warm weather clothes.
The wet season occurs from June to November, which pushes up the likelihood of precipitation, and means you'll need to come prepared for showers. During the rainy season, the mercury remains high and humidity increases - so you won't be chilly, no matter when you visit.
What to pack
It's hot in Cuba - no matter when you're visiting - so the usual array of shorts, t-shirts and loose dresses is a must. If you're going in rainy season, it's worth packing an umbrella and some waterproof outerwear, but keep it light if you can. A thick coat would not be practical given the humidity.
If Havana is on your itinerary, you'll definitely end up wandering around the enchanting old town, and there's plenty of sightseeing opportunities in the rest of the country too - so comfy shoes are essential.
Two other necessities are bug spray to ward off the mozzies, and strong sun cream to protect your skin against that sizzling Cuban sun. You'll also need some headwear - but hold off buying until you arrive and you'll be able to purchase a traditional Panama hat.
Don't forget to leave some space in your case for the rum and cigars you'll no doubt be bringing home as souvenirs too!
Familiarise yourself with the currency
Looking in from the outside, the currency in Cuba seems somewhat confusing. The nation operates a dual currency system, which means the money you use depends on who you are. Furthermore, you can't exchange any until you actually arrive in the country. In reality, it's not actually that difficult.
Tourists use "Convertible Pesos", which are also known as CUCs. You'll be able to exchange your pounds sterling or US dollars at the airports, and most hotels also offer this service at reception. Bear in mind that you're unlikely to be able to use a bank card, and ATMs are pretty scarce - even in Havana - so drawing out and converting enough money for your whole trip is the most hassle-free way to approach the money situation.
Cuba is a very safe country to visit, but with so much money in your possession, it's a good idea to split the cash and stash it in different bags or in your hotel room, so you're not carrying all your currency with you all the time.
You might notice that locals use a different currency - "Cuban pesos", or CUPs. These are worth less than CUCs, twenty four times less actually, so ensure you check your change when out and about to make sure you've been given the right type of currency.
Learn about the revolution
Cuba boasts a truly fascinating recent history - and many of the things you'll see and do on your trip will be in some way linked to the 1950s Communist Revolution. With this in mind, it's a good idea to brush up on Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and co. before you land.
This should also help you to plan your itinerary. For example, if you're particularly interested in revolutionary history, consider a trip to Santa Clara. There you'll find the incredible Che Guevara Monument, a very special place for many Cubans, where the remains of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and a number of his comrades are kept.
This place is attached to the Che Guevara Museum, which contains myriad fascinating artefacts, from letters and photos to water bottles and guns. Nearby you'll find the site of Batista's last stand, where Guevara led his men in defeating the notorious armoured train. You can visit the remnants of the vehicle and learn more about the intriguing events surrounding it.
In Havana, meanwhile, you can visit Revolution Square to see where Che Guevara and Fidel Castro once worked or visit Che's house.
Plan what you want to see in Havana
As you'd imagine, there's a plethora of things to see and do in Havana, so working out your itinerary ahead of time helps to ensure you don't waste a moment once you're in the city. From wandering the streets of the Old Town and visiting its four main plazas, to sipping sublime mojitos at Hotel Nacional de Cuba and dancing to the Buena Vista Social Club, there are iconic activities that take you from day to night.
Look online to see if the things you want to do match up with the itineraries of any tour operators. Of course, you can explore independently, but if you only have a short time, it helps to have someone who knows where they're going to hand. Taking a tour with local guides also helps you to find out more about your surroundings, which - in a country with so much history - only makes the experience more fascinating.
Explore Cuba's literary heritage
If you want to go the extra mile, why not pick up some Cuban books for the plane? Cuba has a rich literary heritage, with authors like Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway drawing huge amounts of inspiration from their time in Havana. Try Hemingway's iconic "The Old Man and the Sea", or opt for Greene's "Our Man in Havana". Alternatively, choose contemporary Cuban authors such as Leonardo Padura - who has had four of his books converted into a Netflix mini-series titled "Four Seasons in Havana" - or the edgy Pedro Juan Gutierrez, whose arresting novels give you a colourful insight into the lives of true "Habaneros".