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By Patricia Schultz, Author, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” | July 15, 2015
Cuba is on everyone’s lips these days. Should you go now? My answer is a resounding “yes!” While Cuba may not be for everyone, my April trip with US-based International Expeditions was an experience simply not to be found anywhere else. Just 90 miles from our shores, it is an exotic and welcoming destination that feels light years away. It is a place of romance and intrigue, at once elegant and downtrodden, uplifting and at times heartbreaking.
Visit Cuba Before the Travel Boom
After the December announcement that America and Cuba had agreed to talk, new measures were introduced to lift the 50-year ban against American travelers. The word is out: Visit Cuba now before the travel boom changes it forever.
Although I wholeheartedly recommend Cuba as a destination, it is not for the average traveler. There are no ATMs and U.S. bank credit cards cannot be used (yet). If is famously short of hotel rooms, however, privately owned homes called casas particulares are permitted to rent out rooms. Poor plumbing can mean total outages, though temporary lack of hot water and/or low pressure is more likely. A hotel bar might display five drinks when only one is available to order. Meals are generally fresh but basic, often accompanied by a cool breeze or sweeping view, personable service, and live music and were committees surprising in their sophistication. Although the air conditioning often rumbles, it does work – but don’t consider traveling in the summer months, notorious as hurricane season, with heavy heat and high humidity.
Travel to Cuba with International Expedition
My trip with International Expeditions was a people-to-people tour – until things change and a better infrastructure is built, it is the most rewarding way to go. Cultural exchange is the goal, so expect visits to a variety of cultural and educational institutions where the talent displayed was always top notch. Music is Cuba’s enduring legacy and has remained ingrained in every Cuban regardless of color, age or status. Walking down a dirt road in a small village, we heard a child’s joyous song pour out the open window of an after-school program. Wildly diverse and always infectious, Cuba’s music is my most vivid memory.
But the country’s heart-breaking aspects can be hard to shake. Most adult Cubans are employed by he state with a monthly wage of $20. Doctors and other professionals make $40. Women waited outside our hotels rubbing their arms and asking for soap. Aside from this, I did not see any begging or harassment nor any signs of petty crime. The gap between haves and have-nots is wide and obvious, but everywhere we went we were met with curiosity, friendliness and kindness. “Viva America” was commonly heard.
Cuba, which means “fertile land” in the indigenous Taino language, is a large country of great diversity. Roads are few but well-paved, without advertisements or billboards (occasional Che Guevara portraits and other nods to La Revolucion can be seen). We followed the blissfully undeveloped coastline and visit pristine national parks where we met with local naturalists and conservation leaders. Of the historically rich cities on our itinerary, Trinidad is Cuba’s postcard-perfect winner.
1950’s American Cars
But it was Havana, Cuba that left us speechless. Recent facelifts and re-gentrification of its mostly pedestrian Old Quarter recall its one-time reputation as Paris of the Caribbean. Those who look beyond this touristed area of alfresco cafes and boutique hotels will see a more realistic Havana where facades of crumbling apartments in once-magnificent structures are now black from the exhaust of 1950’s American cars, city icons featured on countless postcards and t-shirts. On our last night we piled into four of them (some are classic beauties used as tourist taxis) to drink in the Malecon at sunset – the 6-mile long seawall and boulevard where all of Havana comes to chat, stroll, fish or enjoy a beer. We danced to the music of Buena Vista Social Club, embracing our inner Cuban.
Visit Cuba Within 12 Categories of Travel
Government authorized people-t0-people tours are the wisest choice today, but they are not conventional vacations. They do not include any of the country’s 300-some unspoiled white-sand beaches, nor the chance to soak up some rays. “Leisure” tourism is still not officially allowed, and Americans traveling independently must adhere to one of twelve authorized categories of travel (religious or educational activities, journalism, humanitarian projects, etc.). Travelers wanting luxury hotels with room service or reliable wifi and air conditioning might want to wait until Cuba’s breaking-in period is over. This is a country on the brink of change, and it is anyone’s guess how quickly it will come and the results it will bring. But this much is for sure: the world has moved on, and it is Cuba’s turn to catch up.
Patricia Schultz is the author of the #1 New York Timesbestsellers 1,000 Places to See Before You Die and 1,000 Places to See in the United States and Canada Before You Die. A veteran travel journalist with 25 years of experience, she has written for guides such as Frommer’s and Berlitz and periodicals including The Wall Street Journal and Travel Weekly, where she is a contributing editor. She also executive-produced a Travel Channel television show based on 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Her home base is New York City. To purchase a copy of the bestselling book, click here!