In the past year Cuba has become one of the hottest destinations from the US. But not all travel restrictions have been lifted, and the Trump administration is still considering further rollbacks. Going there is very much a proposition in flux. For the most up-to-date information, see the U.S. State Department’s Cuba travel page. travel.state.gov
Tour operators remain the best way, and, for the moment at least, really the only certain way. It is possible to get visas for “educational” purposes, or journalism (or a few other, much more specific, reasons), but those are now being more scrutinized and are tightening. And they don’t allow you to go everywhere you want. With accredited tour groups you travel easier if you let them handle the details, such as documentation and currency, and they are best for finding locales off the beaten path from Havana, the country’s largest, most famous and most popular city.
And there is so much more to see than Havana.
Brookelynn Graditi, a journalist with a blog about her Cuba travels, began her travels with a trip to Las Terrazas, an eco-village nearly an hour away from downtown Havana. “It’s a biosphere preserve located in the Sierra del Rosario mountains with miles of vibrant green plants and thriving animal life — upwards of 100 different species of spiders, if I remember correctly,” she said. Zip lining, horseback riding and swimming in the San Juan River are opportunities available to tourists. She later traveled to the hills above Las Terrazas, stopping at Maria’s café. “An old woman, Maria farms her coffee beans in the mountains where she lives. She sells it in various forms from a small café in the backyard of her home.”
Graditi stayed in the Hotel Park View in downtown Havana, but many tourists stay in private homes or Airbnbs. “The Cubans are incredibly welcoming to tourists in their homes and neighborhoods.” Cuban hotels are not as modernized as American hotels, but Graditi said they weren’t bad. Many serve breakfast and have bars and restaurants, some have wifi, for a fee. The hotels she experienced were old but clean, and had friendly, helpful staffs. She also liked Hotel Sevilla Havana and Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
Outside of Havana, Graditi recommends Vinales, a rural town in western Cuba “full of culture and coffee”, and Cojimar, a small, “must see” fishing village east of Havana.
Cuba native Sheyla Paz is owner of Nashville-based travel company Your Tour Guide to Cuba. Since hotels can’t accommodate all the visitors, many Cubans have opened their homes, known as casa particulares. Prices there can range from $25 to $1,800 a night. “After reestablishing US -Cuba relationships, hotels tripled their prices,” she said.
“Things take place in Cuba very slowly. Right now, they are building new hotels, which should be completed by 2020.” The Cuban government recently signed a deal with Starwood Hotels to manage five hotels, including the newly renovated Hotel Manzana in Old Havana. But Paz recommends staying in a private home, for a more authentic experience.
Cuba — the name means “great place” and “where fertile land is abundant” — is 780 miles long. It’s the largest island in the Caribbean and has mostly flat to rolling plains, except for the Sierra Maestra mountains in the southeast. Havana is the most populated city, followed by Santiago de Cuba. As remarkable and not to be missed as Havana is, there are so many other places to visit in Cuba, a country with 15 provinces and the wonderfully named Isle of Youth.
“Viñales in the Pinar del Rio province is a must-visit location,” says Paz. “There, people enjoy the beautiful prehistoric park, lunch at a paladar (private restaurant) and visit the cigar plantations.”
Varadero, east of Havana, attracts the most tourists with its sparkling white sand beaches. Non US citizens can go anywhere and enjoy everything, but for Americans, the beaches are still off limits, for sme ridiculous reason. (Check with different tour operators to see if they have a way around that. Things are changing fast.)
The colonial city of Trinidad, in the center, is a World Heritage Site and one of the most visited cities in Cuba. Try to put that on your itinerary.
“Santiago de Cuba, the crib of the revolution, used to be Cuba’s first capital,” Sheyla Paz schools us. “It has colonial architecture and narrow streets. Musicians are always performing on the streets, and La Casa de la Troba is one of the unique musical performance places to visit.” Cuba is also known for its preserved coral reefs. Although most people live in small towns or the big cities, there are over 4,000 islands and cays around Cuba, many of which are part of archipelagos. The Sabana-Camagüey Archipelago runs along the northern coast and contains roughly 2,517 cays and islands. Cayo Coco, Cayo Santa Maria, Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Largo del Sur are spectacular and the most popular.
Cuban food is excellent and has a lot in common with Spanish food, sharing spices and techniques, but is not spicy. The traditional Cuban meal isn’t served in courses — all food is served together. At a private restaurant or hotel you can be served in courses.
Paz said a typical meal could consist of plantains, black beans and rice, ropa vieja (shredded beef), Cuban bread, pork with onions, and tropical fruits, staples of the Cuban diet. “Many of the meat dishes are cooked slowly with light sauces. Garlic, cumin, oregano, and bay leaves are dominant.”
Americans who travel to Cuba are invariably captivated by the charm and warmth of the Cuban people. “There is genuine happiness amongst them and it’s contagious,” says Adam Linderman, sales director for Cuba Educational Travel. “The people are resilient and optimistic.” It’s a great combination and, one suspects, has been a necessary attitude.
Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, says that while the number of quality hotels and bed and breakfasts has increased, they are not up to U.S. standards. If you stay in an Airbnb or bed and breakfast, you likely won’t have hot water. “We always tell people that traveling to Cuba is about the experience you are going to have on the island, not the accomodations. There really are no typical tourists destinations in Cuba, because it’s not a typical tourist destination, period.”
Popper also recommends Vinales. “The landscape is gorgeous, granite hills, flat ground, things that pop up out of nowhere. The beauty is incomparable. It’s also the region where they grow the largest amount of tobacco. The local Cubans are agrarian by nature, and different than anywhere.”
And go to Matanzas, he says, an hour and a half east, rooted in Afro Cubanism, where many people were brought during slavery. “It’s a small city, but beautiful and rich in architecture. Around every corner and alleyway there is something. Most people know it for the beach area, Baradero.” Other tips include Cienfuegos and Trinidad. “Both of these are rich in Spanish colonial architecture. Well preserved. Cobblestone streets, terra cotta roofs.”
Popper recommends venturing to Camaguey. “People are further removed from city life,” he said. “They are pretty approachable.” He also enjoys visiting Holguin, another town farther east, and Baracoa, a little town about four hours to the north. Santiago de Cuba is very different from Havana, he says.
People tell him they want to go to Cuba before it changes. “I always tell people everything changes,” he says. “But in Cuba, change comes a little more slowly. This is a special time to go. When you go to Cuba, they are so enamored with the fact that our two countries are communicating, and you don’t get that everywhere else around the world. You are welcome in Cuba. It’s a sensation.”