After 50 years of being off-limits to most Americans, Cuba is once again rolling out the welcome mat. Recently normalized relations between the U.S. and its Caribbean neighbor mean some travel restrictions have been lifted, making it easier for prospective travelers to visit this enigmatic country, located just 90 miles off Florida’s coast.
While regular leisure travel to Cuba still lies in the future, there are plenty of reasons to visit now before the high-rises and luxury hotels arrive.
A sense of nostalgia. From Prohibition through the 1950s, Havana was the exotic playground of choice for Americans. Everyone from Frank Sinatra to Bugsy Siegal to Ernest Hemingway—and even a few US Presidents—could be found rubbing elbows in the city’s glamorous nightclubs, casinos, and cabarets. Old Havana may look a little worse for wear these days, but her streets still exude a sense of their former glory. Certain venues—such as Sloppy Joe’s Bar, a favorite watering hole of Ol’ Blue Eyes—have been completely restored.
All that music. While Buena Vista Social Club brought traditional son music to the world (see Buenos Vista Social Club — An Accidental Phenomenon), it is by no means the only genre you’ll hear in Cuba. Jazz, salsa, merengue, rumba, and many other musical styles will keep your feet tapping.
The art of living. Havana has a thriving arts community, and you’ll see art everywhere from museums to markets to street murals. Yet Cubans display a sense of artistry in simply living—and living simply. Cooking during the embargo necessitated a culinary ingenuity that ranks alongside any New York restaurant. Each hand-rolled cigar is a masterpiece in itself.
UNESCO sites. Cuba claims nine of them—more than Egypt, Vietnam, Israel, or all of Indonesia. Urban centers such as Trinidad and Cienfuegos are colonial gems, while the 17th-century San Pedro de la Roca Castle—built to protect the island’s second-largest city, Santiago—stands as “the most complete, best-preserved example of Spanish-American military architecture.” Also worth exploring: the remains of 19th-century coffee plantations that dot the southeastern landscape.
Beaches. Like most Caribbean islands, Cuba boasts numerous white-sand beaches—some 300, in fact. Many have remained untouched, at least so far; you’ll find 10 miles of sugary sands (as well as plenty of caves and caverns) around the resort town of Varadero. Playa Ancon, considered one of Cuba’s most beautiful beaches, also has resisted development; it is located near the protected Varahicacos Ecological Reserve, an important migratory corridor for birds.
“Yank tanks.” Nothing epitomizes the entrepreneurial spirit of the Cuban people like the fleet of arduously preserved vintage cars that line the streets of Havana. With government permission required to buy new foreign cars, and the US embargo making it nearly impossible to get parts, Cubans were forced to get creative, cleverly covering up spoiled upholstery and using foraged, mismatched parts under the hood. A nostalgic spin in one these classic relics is a must.
Bragging rights. You’ll always be able to say, “I was in Cuba when ….”
For more information on our upcoming trips to Cuba, visit our Cuba Destination Page.