What U.S. Tourists Will Discover in Cuba

The Spanish colonial town of Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bud Ellison [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

The newly friendly behavior between the U.S. and Cuba has all sorts of political and economic implications. For most Americans, however, the thaw in one of the longest-running feuds in modern times means that a new and exciting travel destination is about to open up.

In the past, travel to Cuba for U.S. residents was, at best, a gray area. Though Cuba did not turn them away, travelers from the States who visited the communist Caribbean country were faced with possible sanctions when they returned home.

This policy, seen as woefully outdated by critics, seems to be changing. A U.S. congressional delegation recently visited the country and, though restrictions have not been completely removed, they have been eased. The biggest symbol of the U.S. policy shift is Cuban cigars. Famously outlawed in the U.S. for more than 50 years, the world famous tobacco products can now be brought in by travelers, provided the value does not exceed $100.

Despite these changes brought about by the White House, ordinary tourist visits to Cuba are still officially banned. A congressional vote would be necessary to do away with the remaining sanctions.

Old Havana streets
Vintage American cars still drive the streets of Old Havana. Guillaume Baviere [CC by 2.0]/flickr

The new regulations make it possible for people to visit for a number of reasons without first obtaining special written permission. Major U.S. airlines are trying to position themselves for what will eventually be a rush of travelers. United Airlines, for one, has announced plans to begin offering service to Havana from its hub cities.

If you can fit your travel plans into one of the officially acceptable reasons to visit Cuba (or when all sanctions are finally lifted), what will you find once you get to the island?

To most people in the U.S., Cuba is a land defined by vague stereotypes. On one hand, the island is portrayed as a romantic place with old cars, excellent cigars and people who are not yet completely distracted by technology. On the other hand, it is defined as a place of political repression and self-imposed poverty.

Cuba has been cut off from the U.S., but not from the rest of the world. The tourism industry is still alive, and though nothing like the glamorous pre-Castro days, it is growing.

Havana's Malecon
Havana’s Malécon provides a lovely photo backdrop. neiljs [CC by 2.0]/flickr

In places like Old Havana (Habana Vieja), you will find plenty of charmingly unkempt buildings and 1950s automobiles on the streets. The Havana waterfront area, known as the Malécon, draws tourists with one of the most-photographed views in Cuba. You can even visit the Tropicana, the most famous (and notorious) nightclub in Havana. It is still open, though only for tourists. Most ordinary Cubans cannot afford it.

Of course, Cuba is not just Havana. Some of the country’s most interesting places are far from the capital. The central city of Santa Clara, for example, is known for its vibrant arts scene and youthful culture. Visitors can get in touch with this creative energy at la Casa de la Ciudad. They can also take in Cuba’s only official drag show and attend a hard rock festival in October.

The center of tourism in Cuba is not in Santa Clara, or even in Havana. It is in Varadero. Despite Cuba’s non-capitalist image, this is one of the largest resort areas in the Caribbean. Dozens of hotels offer all-inclusive package vacations to visitors who mostly come from Canada and Europe. This is a more modern area, with little of the historic charm that characterizes Cuba’s other destinations. That said, a few days here could provide a welcome respite from the rather-basic accommodations and conditions in much of the rest of the country.

Varadero Beach
Varadero’s beaches are popular with travelers from outside the U.S. Anton Novoselov [CC by 2.0]/flickr

Some people like to say that Cuba seems frozen in the ’50s. In the city of Trinidad, that means the 1850s, not the 1950s. This well-preserved enclave was a thriving city in the 19th century, as part of the Spanish colonial empire. The streets coming off the atmospheric Plaza Mayor are one of the main reasons UNESCO decided to declare Trinidad a World Heritage Site. The glut of museums and the opportunities to take horse-drawn carriage rides makes this an ideal place for history lovers.

Cuba’s most overlooked feature is its nature. The Zapata Wetlands are part of the largest swamp in the Caribbean. More than 200 bird species live here, as do innumerable plants and rare animals such as the Cuban crocodile and large, slow-moving manatee.

Vinales valley
Tobacco farms line the lush Vinales valley. Thomas Münter [CC by 2.0]/flickr

Nature is also dominant in Cuba’s inland mountains. Vinales is the most popular inland destination for tourists. This is largely thanks to the many tobacco farms that sit in this lush valley. The mountains scenery and cooler weather have inspired many people, including former President Fidel Castro.

Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes, meanwhile, is a wilder inland attraction, with caves, waterfalls, dense forests and a decent network of trails.

Visitors from around the world are already exploring Cuba. Tourists from the U.S. seems likely to join them soon and will see that the island offers more than they thought.