With Cuba such a hot travel topic lately, I thought I would jump in and add some more to the discussion, having made a few trips to shoot a documentary a few years back.While Canadians and Europeans have been visiting the Country for ages, the tourism doors have only recently started to open for Americans, as airlines scramble to add direct flights into Havana from the U.S.* I had great experiences each time, but it was certainly disheartening to see the struggle with poverty the erroneous embargo has inflicted on these people (food shortages are very real ,just wander into a local market). Yet spirits are high, and their education programs, focus on the arts & medical care, are all outstanding. Tourism has steadily grown over the years, even before travel was “easier”. When I was there, there was only one direct flight from the U.S. but it was based on a number of factors to even get on that chartered flight, so I always opted for a few days in Mexico (Tulum) before flying into Havana direct from Cancun (*word to the wise, fly Aeromexico airlines, not Cubana – old Russian planes). Meanwhile, the tarmac in Havana was full of planes in from Europe and Canada…America was literally the last to arrive.
Certainly the resort business is growing, but remember they are hard pressed for some conveniences (it made me crazy to witness ridiculous entitlement from wealthy visitors when the population was struggling for basics). Yes, the white-sand beaches are beautiful but you will do yourself a disservice by skipping the cultural offerings of the Cities: Havana and Santiago de Cuba. (PS. you fly one one city to another, never drive. Your car is not likely to make it (tires) and the countryside is less safe for the average tourist) Time has stopped in Cuba since the revolution, so yes the buildings are crumbled and the paint is stripping (but still colorful), and the 1950’s cars would be the envy of every car collector abroad (which has been painted with regular paint in brilliant colors, and often have holes in the floor bed), but there is something absolutely magic about it. It’s a photographer’s paradise. For now. But change is coming…
The below is for Havana (I have much more to add, but that will have to come at a later date. This is a basic overview)
Do: Walk the Melacon (along the water), sloooooow down….seriously. Wander into a bar and have a daquiri,Cuba Libre, Mojito, Cubanitos – anything made with Cuba’s incredible Rum (if it was good enough for Hemingway…which you will see a few of his statues around;). Listen to live music as often as you can. Hit the arts market. Buy jewelry, paintings – it’s all incredible.
See: Old Havana and Old Square – take a walking tour where available. The history is incredible. The National Museum of Fine arts is great too.
Eat: I’m not going to lie: It can be difficult to find a good meal in Havana. Yes, there is an abundance of seafood, and It’s not for lack of traditional cuisine. It’s food resources. You’ll get a lot of rice, beans, yucca (a typical root vegetable) or plantain….or panini type sandwiches. But I did have some great meals at people’s homes, or in the back private rooms of some restaurants (I was with local musicians, so I certainly got some great access.) I’t s been a couple of year’s since I have been back, so if you have new suggestions I am all ears!
Stay: The hotels in Havana are surprisingly expensive, and fill up quickly. Popular for western tourists include: Iberostar Parque Hotel, Melia Habana, Melia Cohiba, Capri La Habana, Hotel Saratoga and Hotel de Nacional. As an alternative (and something I used a lot for a low cost, neighborhood experience), stay at Casa Particulares – people’s homes which have been registered as vacation rentals. Much of the time, the people live there and you get a room. But there are full spaces to rent too. Airbnb recently started listing some here: www.airbnb.com/s/Cuba
Remember, keep an open mind and stay humble, don’t ask stupid questions (I was regularly outwitted by precocious pre-teens with an excellent sense of global politics, and there was CNN streaming in a cafe I was in and internet – however spotty) and keep your wits about you. Be safe, soak in the sounds and rhythm of this unique and magical place, caught in time.
*In 2016, The United States government announced new rules that allow Americans to travel independently to Cuba on what they call “people-to-people” trips, one of the most popular ways to see the island. This means that Americans who want to go and spend their time meeting ordinary Cubans no longer have to book their trip through an organization. They can buy a ticket on a charter flight or from a commercial airline — book themselves somewhere to stay on Airbnb, and voilà.