The buzz about the end of the near 50-year U.S.-Cuba trade embargo is mounting and soon enough American will have the privilege of experiencing Cuba as tourists, like the rest of the world’s citizens have all along. Despite being just 100 miles off the coast of Florida, Cuba is figuratively worlds away from the familiar capitalist lifestyle we lead in the States. From its unique music to its unbelievably resilient and friendly people, this amazing country is certainly more than a coming attraction: it’s a must-see, and you should see it now (or soon) – before the country is Americanized beyond recognition, which it could very well be within ten years or perhaps less.
The first and most important distinction that must be made is that it is not illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba. It’s just illegal to spend money once you get there. It is true, though, that if you travel there you will inevitably spend money, so American tourists should seriously consider whether it is worth the risk in committing such a crime.
If you do decide to travel to Cuba, you are advised not to use your U.S.-based/issued bank or credit cards. That means bringing a big wad of cash and not losing it. Additionally, there is still a steep tax when converting U.S. traveler’s checks and dollars, so it’s best to bring Canadian money or Euros.
Many people believe that Cuba is a dangerous travel destination, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. There is very little crime in Cuba except for the large cities like Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Nearly everywhere you go, locals will go out of their way to help you – so much so that you need to be selective about who to ask for help. Of course, you should always have your wits about you, but travelers needn’t worry about serious crime.
With money and safety concerns settled, it’s time to hit the road and see what Cuba has to offer – and there’s plenty. Here are few highlights of the sights, sounds, and tastes of this beautiful island nation:
- Havana: Most visitors to Cuba arrive in Havana, which is the perfect launching point for all the sights on the island. Most of the tourist-worthy sights in Havana are located in “Habana Vieja” (Old Havana). Walk along narrow cobblestone streets lined with a mixture of polished colonial buildings and dilapidated apartment complexes. Be sure to walk along the Malecon (the boardwalk) and have a drink at La Floridita, the bar that Hemingway made famous. And, of course, you must take in some salsa music at night in the hip Vedado neighborhood.
- Trinidad: An 8-hour bus ride from Havana, Trinidad is Cuba’s colonial gem. The maze-like cobblestone streets lead to the Plaza Mayor, where shops skirt the main church and visitors and locals alike take in live music at the Casa de la Musica or open-air stage nearby.
- Santiago de Cuba: A city with a strong Afro-Cuban history and presence, Santiago de Cuba was the sight for many Revolutionary events such as the historic July 26 attack on the Moncada barracks and Fidel’s victorious march into the Plaza de la Revolucion on January 1, 1959. In addition, Santiago boasts its own brand of salsa called “son,” which means steamy, sizzling nights are ahead of you in such well-known establishments as La Casa de la Trova or Casa de las Tradiciones.
- Baracoa: This place is all about the outdoors and relaxation. With the enormous plateau called El Yunque, the UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site of Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, and beautiful Playa Maguana, there’s plenty of exploration and nature for every type of traveler.
To get a real taste of Cuba, I would highly suggest getting off the tourist trail by staying in a local home called a “casa particular” and dining at a “paladar” instead of a mainstream restaurant. Casas particulares are owned by Cuban families who pay a heavy tax to rent out a maximum of two rooms in their home. Staying at a casa particular instead of the larger hotels allows you to learn a great deal about Cuban family life. Similarly, paladares are a small restaurants inside residential homes. The owners of these eateries also pay a heavy tax to run their businesses from home. Most paladares are hard to find, so make sure you ask the locals where to go.
If you sleep and dine locally, you will certainly have more opportunities to have authentic interactions with the locals and learn more about their lifestyle. The hosts are eager to please you, their customer, and they’re equally interested in understanding where you come from and what life is like off their Cuban rock. Most of these families will never see the world outside of their island, so share what you can – or better yet, leave a gift behind for them as a symbol of your appreciation.
There are now direct flights to and from the U.S. and Cuba, but these flights are only offered to Americans on business or naturalized citizens who still have relatives in Cuba. For tourist travel information, Cheapflights.com offers a good Travelnomics: Calling on Cuba guide, which offers the most comprehensive information on air travel to Cuba.
Read my own travels in Cuba through Gadling’s Cuba Libre series HERE.
Read about Gadling’s other Coming Attractions HERE.