I get asked a lot about Cuba’s climate and the best seasons to visit. And since Tropical Storm Isaac has been in the news for the last few days, I’ll later talk about hurricanes in the Caribbean basin.
In general, Cuba has a climate similar to Hawaii’s. Both are located about the same latitude, just south of the Tropic of Cancer. Technically this makes their climates “tropical,” but the surrounding oceans and trade winds make their climates effectively more “semi-tropical.” Both island groups range from northwest to the southeast, where it is relatively warmer. Both have trade winds that bring rain primarily to the north and east sides, where there are many more rivers and rainforests. The south and west sides of all these islands tend to be dry and desert-like, and the ocean waters are consistently more clear, due to less run-off from streams. The higher you go up into the hills and mountains of both island groups, the cooler it is, especially at night.
Cuba has a wet season and a dry season, but it can rain any day of the year. The dry season is roughly from November to April. During the wet season, from May to October, it may rain several times a week, but it rarely rains continuously day after day. It often comes down hard for a short time, then the clouds break and the sun comes out. Because it’s warm, the rain isn’t as difficult to deal with as in many mainland locations. If you get wet, you’ll stay cool, and you’ll eventually dry off. I usually carry a small compact umbrella with me during the wet season. Unlike Hawaii and California, Cuba’s afternoon storms are often accompanied by dramatic thunder and lightning, adding even more intrigue and excitement to the Twilight Zone that is today’s Cuba.
Like Hawaii, Cuba is okay to visit in the summer. Because both are closer to the equator than most of the U.S., you won’t find significantly longer days in the summer and much shorter days in the winter. In the summer I suggest taking tours as early as possible, then spending afternoons relaxing in your air-conditioned hotel or in the shade around the pool or at the beach. Havana is a safe and fascinating city for you to walk around at night, listening to music, people-watching, shopping for art work, and asking locals to pop the hoods of their vintage Studebakers, DeSotos, and Cadillacs.
Hurricanes are another matter. Those of you scheduled for our November Expedition shouldn’t be overly concerned. Please remember that if you pick a Caribbean location (such as Havana, Miami, Cancun, or Kingston) and a particular week of the year, the odds of being seriously affected by a future hurricane there during your vacation are about a thousand to one. In addition, the Cuban Emergency System has been shown to be very capable of carrying out large-scale evacuations, especially with regards to tourists. I’ve never hesitated to travel to Cuba during Hurricane season, which technically is June 1 to November 30. The peak times are mid August through mid-October.
Having said that, Tropical Storm Isaac today blasted Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands with heavy wind and rain. It is headed west and will soon past just south of the Dominican Republic, and then Haiti, where a half million citizens have been living in tents since the great earthquake over two and a half years ago. Isaac may produce 8-12 inches of rain in the mountains. It’s going to be another especially difficult week for that poor country.
At this point things get especially interesting. There are roughly three paths Isaac could take. It could pass south or north of Cuba, traveling parallel to the main island, and gathering tremendous strength by moving slowly over warm water. By then Tropical Storm Isaac could likely be upgraded to a hurricane. From there it would likely head for somewhere along the U.S. Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Tampa. On the other hand, if Isaac moves slowly from the southeast to the northwest over Cuba for any significant distance, the hurricane is likely to break up and be much less of a threat to the gulf coast. But the amount of damage to Cuba due to extreme rainfall in the mountains could be catastrophic. It seems ironic that God or Mother Nature or Whomever might sacrifice Cuba to limit damage to American cities along the gulf.
Another newsworthy possibility is that Isaac will pass to the south of Cuba, gaining tremendous strength as it passes over the very warm water in this area, and becomes a Category 1 or higher hurricane. Sometimes ‘canes moving northwest to the middle of the Gulf of Mexico will turn back towards the northeast and head for Florida. If it comes ashore around Tampa in a few days, at the start of the Republican Convention in that city, there will definitely be some serious logistical issues. Over 50,000 Republican delegates and officials are scheduled to be arriving in the Tampa Bay area in the next few days.
A worst case scenario would involve a direct hit on Tampa Bay, or Isaac’s eye coming onshore a few miles to the north, just as the convention is under way. Hurricanes in the northern hemisphere rotate counterclockwise. The upper right quadrant is the one to watch, as the rotation pushes walls of water ahead of it. Tampa Bay is especially vulnerable, because it is a funnel bay, where water would be pushed INTO the bay and upstream. It has a wide mouth, and the surrounding topography is essentially flat. Over the next few days we could be viewing a slow-motion developing disaster for the Tampa Bay area as well as for the Republicans at their convention (I’m an Independent, by the way.)
This next week in the western Caribbean is probably going to be very interesting, but also very tragic for people in at least a few countries. Let’s all hope and pray for the best possible outcome.