Long closed to most U.S. travelers, Cuba is now subject to fewer travel restrictions, and Americans are discovering what the rest of the world has known for years: the island nation 90 miles south of Florida has friendly people, a vibrant culture, beautiful beaches, and 1950's-era cars that still run. No matter the politics, Cuba and its people are sure to leave a lasting impression on you.
Visiting Cuba is like entering a time warp. Because of longtime Cuban government restrictions placed on the purchase of imported cars, many Cubans have had to ingeniously make do with American cars dating from the 1950s and early 1960s.
Replacement parts are scarce but clever mechanics have found ways to keep them running. Hence a trip to Cuba is much like watching a classic car rally, except that these classic cars are in full use as taxis and private vehicles.
The time warp continues in the aging houses and mansions you encounter on a guided Cuba tour in Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and probably the best preserved city center in the Caribbean. Many have Spanish-style balconies, arcades, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards. Some appear to be on life support but remain standing, much as the classic cars keep running.
Visiting Cuba Today
Cuba is experiencing a surge in interest due to the recent restoration of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuban governments. This beautiful and elusive country is now more accessible to one of its closest neighbors and American travelers are itching to visit.
There are still some travel restrictions in place for US citizens however. As relaxing as it might sound, it's still technically illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba to laze on the beach, mojito in hand.
However, the OFAC (Office of Foreign Asset Control) does permit American travel to Cuba, provided it fits within 1 of 12 general categories. One of the most popular of these is 'educational activities' and tour operators have long led 'people to people' tours, which include activities like visiting with local musicians, farmers, and artisans. This is how the majority of American citizens have legally traveled to Cuba for the past few years.
More recently, travel regulations were further relaxed, giving tour operators even more flexibility with the types of itineraries they run in Cuba. This means virtually any tour in Cuba is legal for American travelers, but always check direct with the tour operator first.
Options for Cuba travel include primarily guided tours in Cuba. Taking a tour is one of the best ways to have an authentic experience in this rich and diverse country. Taking a tour doesn't mean being stuck in a large group on a coach bus either. Some companies limit their groups to 10-15 like-minded travelers to provide an intimate, accessible experience.
Why Consider a Tour In Cuba?
Although traveling to Cuba independently is now possible, it’s still wise to consider a tour. Due to the increased demand, hotel rooms in popular cities like Havana and Trinidad are hard to come by. This means that unless you plan many months in advance, you might be relegated to a less than desirable hotel that isn’t centrally located. Tour operators, on the other hand, purchase rooms in bulk up to a year in advance, so you are guaranteed a room in some of the country’s most famous and beautiful accommodations.
The infrastructure in Cuba, specifically the road and transportation network, are still quite basic and developing. It can be hard to get around from city to city and all of the signs are in Spanish. Speaking of language barriers, it’s a challenge to find many English speakers outside of hotels and major tourist attractions.
On a tour, you’ll hit the major tourist sites, such as El Floridita (where Hemingway himself used to drink) but you’ll also have a chance to meet local artists and business people - all who can offer unique glimpses into the current affairs of this fascinating country. Tour guides can often show you a side of Cuba that you’d otherwise miss if traveling independently.
Must See Cuban Cities
Tours in Cuba often begin in Havana, with the most direct flights from Miami and other US cities. However, it is recommended to explore beyond the famous capital city, venturing farther afield to places like Vinales Valley, Trinidad, and Santa Clara. These ‘secondary’ cities have less tourists, but offer unique cultural and natural experiences that are not to be missed.
The small city of Vinales, and the surrounding UNESCO World Heritage Site Vinales Valley, lies a few hours to the west of Havana. If Havana is like stepping back to the 1950’s, it can be said that visiting Vinales harkens back even further to the 19th century.
This largely agricultural area, where crops such as coffee and tobacco are still grown following centuries old traditions, is an outdoor-lover’s paradise. The lush landscape is dotted with karsts which attract climbers and hikers alike. The region is also known for its music and arts scene, much like other parts of Cuba. See best Cuba travel packages to Vinales
Trinidad & Topes de Collantes
The beautiful cobblestoned-street city of Trinidad lies in the southern part of the island, about a 6 hours drive on Cuba’s notoriously choppy roads. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, Trinidad has been beautifully preserved to its colonial charms. Artist galleries and restaurants with live music line the narrow cobblestone streets. Walking through an open door might reveal a couple of men playing dominos on a plastic table or a traditional pig roast in process.
Visit the Plaza Major to experience an open air colonial architecture museum and then check out live music next to the cathedral in the same location. Although accommodation is hard to come by, many Cuba tours make stops in Trinidad to take in its authenticity.
Trinidad also acts as a great jumping off point for Cuba adventures into Topes de Collantes, one of Cuba’s many national parks. Located about 12 miles from the city, Topes de Collantes lies in a mountainous region home to a plethora of flora and fauna, many endemic to Cuba.
Guided hikes are available around the park and are mostly mellow over well blazed trails. There are opportunities to hike with a local naturalist, who can point out local bird varieties. Other hikes end at picturesque waterfalls where a cool swim is inviting in the tropical heat. Topes de Collantes is most popular with local Cubans on vacation, although many tourists, especially Europeans, are starting to discover its charms.
Santa Clara is located is close proximity to Havana, due east about 3 hours. It’s probably most famous for being the place where revolutionary fighter Che Guevara is buried, and thousands of tourists flock here to see his final resting place. This historic city is also where the final battle of the Cuban Revolution took place in 1958.
Two columns of revolutionary fighters attacked the city, one led by Che. After intense fighting, the city was captured, and hours later, General Batista, then leader of Cuba, left the country. Santa Clara is a tour highlight for history buffs and a common stopping point on the drive from Havana to Trinidad.
Music & Art in Cuba
There’s something about being in Cuba that brings out the dancer even in those who travel with two left feet. It’s no mystery: the music -- salsa, jazz, rumba, merengue, and other genres, often combined into a unique Afro-Cuban sound -- is both ubiquitous and irresistible. You’ll hear it in clubs, bars, restaurants, bodegas, or just emanating from the nearest homes.
In Havana, there is live music on many street corners, including outside most of the major hotels. If you desire something more formal and organized, the famous Cuban band The Buena Vista Social Club still performs most nights in a bar in Old Havana. While many of the original founders of the group have passed or are no longer playing, a few still remain.
Many tours include a night out to hear these legends of Cuban jazz and it’s well worth the relatively expensive cover charge. Many times, the musicians will hang around after the set and if your Spanish is decent, striking up a conversation could be one of the highlights of your trip.
Other opportunities to see live music include the rooftop bar of the Hotel Inglaterra, located near Parque Central, where a salsa or rumba ensemble plays most nights. There are also a number of dance clubs around Havana, including Casa de la Musica de Miramar, El Turquino, and Cabaret Parisien, which hosts an elaborate cabaret show, complete with flowered dancers.
Believe it or not, some of the most authentic music in Cuba can be heard while sitting outside having dinner at a paladares, or local restaurant, in Old Havana. Small groups of musicians will approach your table and give you a private concert, of course in exchange for a few pesos.
Many famous artists, such as Wifredo Lam, have come out of Cuba, however, many are still relatively unknown due to the isolation of the country for so many years. For authentic local Cuban art, a visit to the El Taller Experimental de Grafica is a must. This artist workshop, founded in 1962 with the support of infamous revolutionary Che Guevara, is still a thriving studio today. Inside, artists of all ages delicately create traditional prints using decades old techniques. Prints are for sale and you can discuss the pieces of art direct with the artist, which is a special experience.
Other top art galleries include Galeria Victor Manuel, Galeria Habana, and Fototeca de Cuba, which houses the country’s largest collection of photographs. Although many tours will only include a stop at the Museo de Nacional, most itineraries offer ample free time to explore these artistic havens on your own.
Art is also central to Cuban life, from Havana’s excellent National Museum of Fine Arts to street corner painters and much in between.
The Hemingway Legacy
You might be surprised to learn that American author Ernest Hemingway -- a longtime resident of Havana, where he wrote "The Old Man and the Sea" and "A Moveable Feast" among other works -- is still venerated in Cuba. His finca, where he lived just outside Havana throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, is maintained as a museum, and a popular stop on most tour itineraries.
Everything is kept the way he left it, except that a new set of cats (many of which have six toes, the progeny of Hemingway’s own fleet of stray cats), now curl up on his desk for naps. One of the most intimate glimpses into Hemingway’s sometimes lonely existence is apparent by the writing on the bathroom wall of his home. This is where he recorded his daily weight, in pencil. At some point in history, the writing was covered up, only to be discovered by museum curators years later while conducting restoration around the home.
You can also visit many of his old haunts around Havana such as El Floridita, said to be the birthplace of the daiquiri (one of Hemingway’s favorite libations) and La Bodeguita del Medio, which serves as a virtual Hemingway memorial (though still a working bar, with plenty of atmosphere). Both places can get very crowded with tourists and there are better drinks in town. However, it can be worth the stop for any literary buffs who’d like to sit side by side with Hemingway’s statue at the bar.
Another Hemingway haunt worth a visit is La Terraza Restaurant, located in the small fishing village of Cojimar, about 20 minutes from Havana. This is the very place depicted in his novel ‘Old Man and the Sea’ and the walls are adorned with black and white photos of the author himself, including many of him dining at La Terraza. It’s no surprise that Hemingway chose this seaside gem as a top spot in Cuba.
Best Beaches in Cuba
While Americans can’t go to Cuba just for a beach vacation yet, (if that's what you're after, consider the best travel packages to Costa Rica) other nationalities can -- and if you’re in a position to visit one of the island’s 300-some sandy beaches, you may find yourself mostly alone despite the glorious settings.
Among Cuba’s finest beaches are the white-sand Playa Ancon (on the southern, Caribbean side of the island) and 12-mile-long, white-sand Varadero Beach, the best known beach in the country. Both offer crystal clear waters for swimming or snorkeling. Be warned though that if you are looking for seclusion, you won’t find it at Playa Ancon or Playa Varadero. Both are well-trodden with tourists and feature many all inclusive resorts.
Other top beaches include Playa Los Flamencos, located within Cayo Coco off Cuba’s north shore. There are three main beaches in this idyllic location, although Los Flamencos offers the most privacy and tranquility.
Playa Pilar was the choice beach of Ernest Hemingway himself. He spent so much time here that the beach was named after his yacht, the Pilar. This bit of sand on the western tip of Cayo Guillermo is probably one of the least popular beaches in the region, for now.
Playa Los Pinos is perhaps the most deserted beach in all of Cuba. Getting here requires an off-road ride that is not accessible by public transport. But for the intrepid beach goers who make the trip, the reward is a long white sand beach where your only companions might be a band of wild horses.
Playa Esmeralda is a good spot for those wanting a bit of understated luxury. This smaller beach features two luxury hotels that are tastefully situated as not to be an eyesore on the pristine beach environment. If you’re looking to relax and recharge for a few days, in style, this might be the place for you.
Food in Cuba
Cuban food is often thought of as beans and rice, which are indeed served at many meals and can be delicious, but there’s much more to it than that. The cuisine has Spanish, French, African, Chinese, Portuguese, and Arabic influences, along with Caribbean favorites such as fried plantains, similar to but different from bananas.
Stews and many other dishes use a base of sofrito (onion, green pepper, garlic, oregano) for flavoring; more contemporary cuisine includes Spanish-style tapas. Coffee is on the strong side and Cuban sandwiches -- ham, pork, pickle, cheese, and mustard on bread -- are among the world’s best. Besides regular restaurants, a number of private homes, called paladares, now serve as eateries offering authentic local cuisine.
This is great news for visitors as you not only get a fresh, delicious meal, but also the opportunity to catch a glimpse of local, everyday life. Tour companies have caught on and many now include at least one meal at some of the best paladares in Havana such as Doña Eutimia and Le Chansonnier. Just don’t expect a quick meal - Cubans take their time and you should to. Besides, what can beat sitting outside on a warm Havana night, sipping a mojito and eating freshly caught prawns tossed in garlic and pepper while waiting for your main dish of ropa vieja?
Vegetarians and pescatarians should have no trouble finding something to eat, although the former may need to get used to a steady diet of rice, beans, and salad for a few days. Seafood lovers, however, will found a bounty of diverse and fresh options from the surrounding waters.
Regardless of your diet or culinary preferences, you are sure to find something tasty and flavorful in Cuba as long as you are willing to be patient and explore some of the hidden gems in Havana and beyond.
Ultimately, the Cuban people themselves are the stars of any visit to the island. And the best way to meet them is by organized tour, featuring people-to-people encounters.
Travel to Cuba: Practicalities & Logistics
Capital city: Havana (population 2.2 million)
Dialing code: +53
Before you go
Visas are required for all American citizens traveling to Cuba. Most tour operators usually include this fee in the price of the trip, or have a separate visa fee that is paid once your trip is confirmed. Either way, it’s a good idea to book a Cuba trip with a tour company who will handle the visa logistics for you. UK citizens also must obtain a tourist card before traveling to Cuba.
Medical care in Cuba is quite good, with more doctors per capita than many other countries. However, you should always travel with insurance and many tour operators can recommend a plan to cover you while on your trip. Only routine vaccinations are required for Cuba, however, the CDC does recommend both Typhoid and Hepatitis A vaccinations for some travelers.
Cuba is generally very safe compared to other Central and South American countries. Police are everywhere, and especially apparent in high tourist locations. However, as when traveling in any foreign country, use common street sense and pay attention to your surroundings. This is especially true in Havana, Trinidad and other large cities. Crimes of opportunity, such as pick-pocketing, are not unheard of, but a little vigilance goes a long way, and traveling in a group can help deter any potential trouble.