I think we all picture colorful vintage cars when we think of Cuba, but that is only a small part of why Cuba is truly an unspoiled step back in time. Initially, I was so overtaken with the cars, buildings, and people, that I didn't even notice what was missing...McDonalds, Starbucks, billboards, and hotel chains. Yes, there really is a place left that we haven't ruined...but don't worry, we will. Go before it's too late!
Apparently Cuba was bombarded with American tourists when the travel ban was lifted, but that ended in November 2017, when traveling as a tourist was again restricted. In my next post, I will share how I was able to visit and what to know before you go. From what I observed, Cuba was far from being overwhelmed with tourists, although I visited during shoulder season. There was a cruise ship (apparently they are making room to support more) and an occasional group tour, but turn a corner and you'll find narrow streets with locals looking out from their balconies, kids playing, and dogs napping.
I only scratched the surface of this amazing country, but wanted to share a few highlights to help inspire you to book this Bucketlist trip.
Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is where I made my basecamp and where I recommend staying. As a UNESCO world heritage site, the magnificent buildings are being preserved and restored. It is fantastic for walking and people watching, with 5 plazas and the Malecon all accessible. Hemingway's hangouts such as the Floridita are also located here, but unfortunately are quite touristy.
I stayed within a couple blocks of the main street Obispo at a casa particular booked via AirBnB. I miss looking out from my balcony and seeing my neighborhood come to life each morning. It is a bit noisy (bring your earplugs), but I'll never forget the sound of children playing, dogs barking, and neighbors calling to each other.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano
The Cuban Art Factory in Havana is an unique experience not to be missed. It's an industrial warehouse with a labyrinth of stairs and rooms hidden behind curtains, plywood sliding doors, and literal holes in walls. The room may contain local art, a bar, a DJ, or a live performance...you never know what you will find behind the curtain!
The best way to experience Havana is to walk and stop. Explore the streets and alleys of Old Havana until you pop out into a park or plaza with a cafe that catches your eye (or ear). Grab a mojito or daiquiri and listen to the Cuban beat. Don't be surprised to see locals popping their heads over balconies to watch or people just start dancing and singing along.
Make sure to get in the mood for your trip by building your Cuba playlist, starting with the Buena Vista Social Club!
Riding through the Viñales Valley, smoking my Cuban, was an experience of a lifetime. Viñales is a small town in the country, ~2.5hrs from Havana. While not exactly a secret, with seemingly every local renting a room in their house, it still holds it's charm.
I went horseback riding through the valley with only my guide Humberto from Authentic Viñales Tours. We visited local farms, including his friend's tobacco farm, where they had just killed a 7ft constrictor who was eating their chickens! I learned about the tobacco process and even rolled my own cigar...with a little help! Growers are able to keep 10% of their crop to sell and use. They keep the best...so this is where to buy your cigars...for a fraction of the cost.
I don't imagine Cuba will change overnight, but if you've felt its call as I have, don't delay! Keep in mind that if you want to "go back in time" there will be inconveniences. These are part of the adventure and the stories you will later share. While you can visit on a cruise ship or with a tour group, you will miss out on the real Cuba. I will share the details on how a US citizen can visit independently (legally) in my next post.
Please share any questions or comments below.
Related Post: How to Travel to Cuba