Cuba is in transition. After 55 years of Communism and the accompanying U.S. embargo, change is in the air. The U.S. and Cuba have recently renewed diplomatic relations, U.S. airlines are now flying to many Cuban cities, new hotel rooms are being built throughout the country and Google just signed an agreement with the Cuban government granting users quicker access to its content. If you want to see Cuba before it changes this may be the time to go.
What you need to know before you go.
What are the “must sees” while you are in Cuba? Actually, the entire island is a “must see,” from its beaches, architecture, music, natural parks with unparalleled biodiversity, pulsating nightlife, but time is limited so focus on:
The air is balmy and smells slightly of salt. The Spanish colonial buildings display their architectural brilliance. Tropical greenery explodes in the many city parks. Music wafts from cafes and pedestrian streets. Classic American cars from the 1950s cruise by. You’re in Havana, Cuba’s lively, friendly capital.
Check out the old city (Habana Vieja). See the colonial and art deco architecture, museums, art galleries, nightlife and paladares. Take the Hop-on-hop-off bus for the equivalent of about US$10 in front of the Hotel Inglaterra or, for an “only-in-Havana” treat, tour the city in a classic American car for about US$30/hour.
For sheer spectacular natural beauty, this is the place. About 3-1/2 hours east of Havana, Viñales is the source of the world’s best tobacco. Take a tour of a tobacco plantation, have lunch at an organic farm, take an underground river tour in one of the massive caves, hike or bike the valleys and lush green countryside.
Founded in 1514 and a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1988, Trinidad is a wonderfully preserved colonial town in the center of Cuba, about 5 hours west of Havana. Here is a town with a dual personality.
By day it is a bucolic village with cobblestone streets, colorful flowers dripping from the wrought iron balconies of colonial homes and Cuban cowboys trotting through town on their steeds. Once night falls, however, Trinidad turns into party central. There are dozens of clubs featuring all types of exceptionally good music. Dancing is almost mandatory. Can’t dance? Take a class at one of the salsa schools. There is enough in a Trinidad evening to keep you busy till the wee hours of the morning. If you need the next day to recuperate, do so on one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen, Playa Ancon, a 20 minute bus ride from town. Have lunch there and enjoy a chilled Cuban rum drink served in its own coconut.
Whatever changes come to Cuba in the near future they are not likely to be sweeping or immediate. Still, you may want to experience and capture the spirit of Cuba at this particular and unique period in its history.