Coming attractions: Cuba

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.

Getting there:

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, 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.

A review of’s “Travelnomics: Calling on Cuba” guide

Change is upon Cuba, and American travelers are especially eager to capitalize on the end of the travel embargo. In anticipation of the easing of travel restrictions to Cuba, recently put together “Travelnomics: Calling on Cuba,” a helpful PDF guide on traveling to Cuba. The guide provides travelers with a glimpse of life and travel in Cuba, travel accounts from writers familiar with the country, and a list of airlines that are or will fly to Cuba.

Having traveled to Cuba myself, I think this handy guide is an accurate reflection of what it’s like to travel there. It provides interested travelers with a good overview of the country’s sights, sounds, and smells, which helped remind me of what made Cuba such a unique place — lost in time and unbelievably beautiful. Keith Jenkins of Velvet Escape and Cuba travel expert Christopher Baker further describe the country’s real richness and warmth.

I did, however, find the “Cuba — Fact or Fiction” section only marginally useful for travelers, as food, accommodations, and money were not properly addressed and present significant challenges for American travelers in particular. There are two kinds of “restaurants”, “hotels”, and currencies in Cuba, and the guide doesn’t make this distinction. Travelnomics guides “are written to help the traveler find deals in a down economy and reassure travelers that travel is easy and affordable,” but traveling in Cuba is not cheap (even penny-pinching budget travelers will find themselves spending about $50 a day) and the guide does not sufficiently “break down the barriers to Cuba travel” as it states in the guide’s subheading.

Right now, not anyone can just hop on a plane to Cuba. The list of airlines flying to Cuba seems a little too anticipatory and not cautionary enough.

For a more comprehensive guide to travel to Cuba, you might want to read my “Cuba Libre: Travel observations and tips.”

Cool Lust-Collazo photo exhibition in Havana

During my time in Cuba, I grew increasingly obsessed with those colorful, old, refurbished American cars that would go galumphing down narrow urban streets. I mean, who wouldn’t? I’m not even a car lover, but these clunky vehicles give Havana its character and speaks volumes about the country’s history as well as its relationship with the United States.

As another great effort to bring awareness to the slowly opening door of travel to Cuba, the Cuban government commissioned U.S. photographer, Melani Lust, and Cuban photographer, Bryan Collazo, to create a ground-breaking joint exhibition to build bridges between the two countries. This video features Lust and Collazo’s photographs of post-embargo automobiles in Havana in January 2009, during the 50th anniversary celebration of Castro’s Revolution.

Feel free to check out my own photos of old cars in Cuba in the gallery below.


If you are in Havana, this special exhibition runs May 8-June 8 at the Deposito de Automoviles in Havana.

Travel guidebooks: Choosing the one that’s just right

My Cuba travel companions and I accomplished the ultimate travel guidebook experiment during the first week of our travels. We each decided to bring a different Cuba guide with us to test which guidebook reigned supreme (kind of like the Iron Chef: Cuba). I was never a good science student, so I apologize for the rudimentary experiment form that follows…

To identify the guidebook that provides the most comprehensive and useful information for travelers to Cuba.

Participants and their respective materials (guidebooks):
Lora – Lonely Planet Cuba by Brendan Sainsbury
Frank – Frommer’s Guide to Cuba by Susan Boobbyer
Peter – The Rough Guide to Cuba by Matthew Norman & Fiona McAuslan
Brenda – Moon Handbook Cuba by Christopher P. Baker


1. Carry each book with us every day while sightseeing in Havana for one week in April 2009. (I unfortunately didn’t bring my Moon Handbook with me to Cuba, but have since browsed through it carefully. The other three we humped everywhere. Only the Havana sections were thoroughly utilized, as well as general tips for other destinations such as Trinidad.)
2. Identify travel guidebook components and assessment criteria.
3. Use assessment criteria to rank the usefulness and/or accuracy of the guidebook components.

Before the trip, most participants’ top guidebook choice was Lonely Planet. Personally, I permanently dissed Lonely Planet when I was writing for Viva Travel Guides in Colombia last year and found out that LP’s Colombia guidebook writer, Thomas Kohnstamm, researched his book (with LP’s consent) from the States. Despite these sentiments, I suspected we would likely discover that, while LP’s information would be quite useful, it would also be the most used guidebook in Cuba, thereby making it an overexposed travel resource.
What follows is our assessment of the important guidebook components.

  • Author: There’s really no doubt about the most experienced Cuba author in the bunch. Moon’s Christopher P. Baker has been traveling to Cuba for nearly 20 years — once by motorcycle. And he’s met Fidel Castro. (Read my “Talking Travel” post with him HERE).
  • Country overview and history: Lonely Planet always does a fantastic job with the informational section to country guides, and this one is full of well-written, helpful history and facts.
  • Suggested itineraries: LP’s Brendan Sainsbury also puts together some really original trip ideas like “Roads less traveled” and “Bird-watchers dream.” However, the one problem with these is their length. Sainsbury has several trips of up to two months, but tourist visas expire after 30 days.
  • Maps: Lonely Planet, hands down. Their maps are not only accurate but extremely handy.
  • Accurate information: Moon Handbooks is chock full of accurate and insightful info. Spot-on addresses, up-to-date phone numbers, and exact hours of operation are all there.
  • Size: Frommer’s Cuba is the lightest and most travel friendly. It’s not realistic to carry around a hunking travel guide like the Rough Guide to Cuba or Moon Cuba.
  • Cuba-specific issues we encountered: The casas particulares information in all of the books just aren’t useful — the reason being that casas, with their two-guestroom per night limit, can easily become full.
  • Online tools and information: Moon Cuba has the richest online resource, with information drawn from Baker’s guidebook as well as a cool blog updated by Baker himself. Be aware, however, that Internet is expensive in Cuba (US$8 per hour). Do your research ahead of time, and leave your time there for travel.

Based on Christopher P. Baker’s wealth of experience in Cuba, Moon is a sure thing. Sainsbury’s Lonely Planet Cuba is also a rich and trusty companion. Frommer’s Cuba, though the most recently updated (in January 2009), provided the most basic travel and destination info. We didn’t use the Rough Guide to Cuba at all; it was unjustifiably heavy and difficult to follow.

I think it’s worth mentioning that too many people carry the Lonely Planet guidebook around — not just in Cuba but around the world. In Cuba, it’s the only one I saw in at least five different languages (the content is the same). While useful, Lonely Planet is suffering from a unfortunate hipster effect: the same restaurants, hotels, and sights are becoming overrun by “budget backpackers,” and travelers are relying too heavily on LP-specific travel tips and suggestions.

Cuba is a really easy place to travel without a guidebook, but few tourists are willing to trust themselves and explore the place emptyhanded.

Please keep in mind that this experiment was based purely on our experience using Cuba guidebooks in Cuba and that our collective experience using these guidebooks should be taken as lightly or seriously as you deem worthy.

Cuba Libre: Travel observations and tips

Cuba is one of the most distinct places in the world. I can say this with complete certainty having traveled to nearly 50 countries on this globe and never encountered anything like it. During the brief two weeks I was there, I was able to enjoy the hospitality of a most vibrant people, as well as experience life with little to no American influence.

As I conclude my Cuba Libre series, there are just a few more observations and travel tips to share with you….

Food and Accommodations
If you really want to learn about the Cuban culture and interact with the locals, eat at a paladar instead of a restaurant. Most paladares are hard to find, so just ask the locals where to go and they’ll point you in the right direction. Along the same lines, stay at the casas particulares instead of the larger hotels. I learned a great deal about family life just by observing the interactions between members of my host families.

In both cases (paladares and casas particulares), 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.

Solo and Female Travelers
Solo travelers should be aware that, though Cuba is one of the safest countries to travel in, it can be a lonely existence while you’re on the road. I was used to meeting people in hostels, but Cuban casas have a two guest room policy, meaning you have just one other person or couple staying in the same house as you. If you guys don’t hit it off, you’re really on your own. If you hit the music venues at night, though, you are bound to meet other travelers with the same predicament.

Also, female travelers will certainly get their fair share of attention by the men (in the form of whistling, shouting, or aggressive talking). If you don’t like the attention, ignore it. If that doesn’t work, just say “no” and they will get it.

Personally, I always felt very safe traveling in Cuba. When you’re walking around in a city (like Havana or Santiago) at night, you should walk on the street rather than the sidewalk, as the streets are better lit. I always felt safe walking around at night – even along darker streets in Havana. However, don’t be bold and stupid. Use common sense.

You will likely develop a tolerance or maybe even a fascination (as I did) for the onslaught of political billboards and slogans that are plastered on city walls or strewn along the countryside. The most common slogans portray images of Cuba’s colonial independence leaders José Martí and Antonio Maceo, the Revolutionary leaders Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos, or the five Cuban prisoners (often depicted in a star or with the word “Volverán” – “They will return”).

“Viva Cuba Libre” and the other popular slogan “Viva la Revolución” (which mean “Long Live Free Cuba/the Revolution” seem to me like desperate reminders for the Cuban people that Fidel’s victorious revolution that ended 50 years ago still lives on today. However, based on conversations with locals, I sense most Cubans wish it to be a distant memory and want to embrace change soon, before their already dire social, political, and economic situation worsens.

Plan ahead for long distance trips across the island. During peak travel seasons (May-July; November-January) buses fill up quickly and flights to hotspots like Baracoa, Santiago, and Trinidad are booked weeks – if not months – in advance. You can reserve a seat on long distance buses. Bring a sweater or blanket with you, as these buses are air-conditioned and can get quite cold – especially at night when there’s no sun.

Don’t expect to use the phone or the internet while you’re in Cuba. Both are expensive. Your host should be able to make calls for you within Cuba, but international calls can only be made at ETECSA offices in major cities and are ridiculously overpriced. Using the internet for an hour costs $10, and you cannot connect to it using your own laptop. It’s best to just avoid communication with the outside world altogether. Heck, that’s the Cuban reality, so you might as well experience it like a local.

For a complete listing of my Cuba Libre posts, please click HERE or skip straight to the good stuff —

  • How Cuba survives with two currencies
  • Cuba: How to get in, where to stay, where to eat
  • My first impressions of Cuba
  • How to prepare for Cuba
  • My days in Havana, Part One
  • Being sick in Cuba
  • My days in Havana, Part Two
  • The vibrant nightlife in Trinidad
  • Salsa dancing in Santiago de Cuba
  • The eco-tourism potential of Baracoa