Though it is only 90 miles from Florida, Cuba has been the ultimate off-the-beaten-path destination for US-based travelers. A trade embargo and travel restrictions have made Cuba off limits for a long time. But with the recent political and diplomatic changes, U.S citizens will soon legally be able to travel to the island nation.
So if Cuba has been on your travel bucket list, now is a great time to start researching and planning that trip of a lifetime. As US-Cuban relations continue to warm, the chance to travel is coming soon. And, as more and more tourists start coming to Cuba, the island will inevitably change.
Cuba is an incredibly colorful country. However, landing here is a bit surreal. You will immediately be reminded that Cuba has not had economic relations with the US for five decades. You will not see any familiar landmarks – no Starbucks, no banking institutions, no convenience stores, no modern cars. Entering Cuba is like stepping back in time.
Famous for its cigars, Cuba is also know for its classic cars, its rum (locally called ron), and its intense love of baseball. But there is so much more to do than smoke cigars and drink mojitos. Cuba has such a rich history and culture that you could easily spend two weeks on the island and still not have scratched the surface. Here are some of the things that can be seen, heard, and experienced while in Cuba.
Vedado is the central business district in Havana. It is the most-modern part of Cuba. This is a great place to start your trip and get yourself acclimated to Cuban life. You can explore almost everything on foot (if you are ready to put some miles in). It is well worth the walk; you'll cover lots of ground while seeing some of Havana’s most historical sites.
The Malecon is an eight kilometer stretch of seawall that is a local hangout. Take a long stroll day or night to get a firsthand glimpse of Havana and to socialize with its residents.
Plaza de Revolucion
This was where Fidel Castro would host large scale political rallies. It is home to the Jose Marti Memorial. Across the way, you will see the Ministerio del Interior, which is well known for the mural of Che Guevara that adorns the side of the building.
Baseball at Estudio Latinamericano
This is a "must do" during baseball season! The Industriales are the favorite local team, and the experience is NOTHING like catching a game in the States. If you are a baseball fan, this is arguably one of the top attractions in Havana.
Hotel Nacional was THE hotel before the US restricted travel to Cuba. The likes of Frank Sinatra used to stay here. You can still catch the nightly cabaret show or see the famous Buena Vista Social Club play here on Tuesday nights!
Havana Vieja (or Old Havana) is what people think of when they think of Cuba. Colorful architecture? Check. Energetic nightlife? Check. Bustling streets filled with classic cars? Check.
Havana Vieja is the magnificent historic hub of Cuba. You cannot miss exploring this area.
La Catedral de la Virgen Maria
Found in the center of Old Havana, this church is one of the most famous examples of Cuban Baroque architecture. Built in 1748, it stills serves as the Catholic center of the island.
Once a residential neighborhood for Cuban aristocrats, the Plaza Vieja was the site of executions, processions and bullfights. The wealthy citizens who lived here would watch events from their balconies. Those times are long past, but you can still see the classic architecture to this day.
La Floridita was the favorite hangout of Ernest Hemingway. The bar is very famous for its daiquiris. It’s a great place to spend an evening listening to live music and drinking more than your fair share of rum-based cocktails.
The most upscale hotel in Cuba, it might be the only place in the country that feels truly modern. Head up to the rooftop for a spectacular view of the city. You can have a drink at the bar or take dip in the pool.
Vinales is where you can go if you feel the need to get out of town for a weekend in the country. It is an easy two-hour drive from Havana. This is the laid back, small town you are looking for.
The valley here has many small tobacco farms that are open to visitors. You can stop in to see how they process fresh tobacco leaves and how they roll their world famous cigars.
Small town life
Vinales is a small town with just a handful of storefronts. That said, it is the perfect place to get a glimpse of small town life in Cuba. While here, you can have a drink at the neighborhood bar, grab a pizza (which will be nothing like what you are thinking) and wander through the local market.
If you're lucky, you'll catch the band Valle Son playing at a local watering hole in Vinales. One of the most famous bands in Cuba, they are often in their hometown playing short sets for their friends.
Tips and Good Things to Know
Currency – Be aware that there are TWO forms of currency in Cuba (one for locals and one for visitors), and one is worth significantly more than the other. Cuban pesos (CUP) that are issued to Cuban citizens by the government are only worth 1/25th of a Cuban Convertible (CUC), the tourist currency. Convertibles are designed to hold a value similar to the US Dollar. How can you spot the difference between the CUP and the CUC? The tourist currency features pictures of national monuments while the local currency features famous Cubans.
Casa particulares are essentially bed and breakfasts. They are a fantastic way to meet local families, learn their stories and get the inside scoop on where to go and what to do. If you want to see the real Cuba, our best advice is to avoid the government run hotels and make the effort to stay at these less-formal venues.
One word of caution: even though most locals you will meet will be nothing but extremely helpful, be aware that one of the most common local scams is to walk tourists around town and then bring them to local bars and have them purchase expensive drinks. This is nothing to be overly concerned about; just politely decline any offers for a private tour.
Internet – Plan on being without it. Enjoy it!
Have you had a chance to experience Destination Cuba? What are your favorite must-visit locations on the island?