Cuba the promised land

Cuba architecture

Everything you need to know, now that everyone is going.

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 some 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...

 

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