Cuba: This Year's Top Pick

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Havana: For Americans it is so close and yet so far Havana: For Americans it is so close and yet so far

Cuba has been on my travel list for a few years now. When my buddy Jared and I were backpacking through Central America I tried to convince him we could fly into Cuba for a week, but he was too scared of getting in trouble. If you are American (yes, I'm guilty as charged), then the trick is to fly into Cuba from Central America. Do not try and fly directly into Cuba from the United States, Mexico, or Canada, as TSA officials are prevalent and customs officials will recognize that you should not be there. But if you fly into Havana from somewhere like Costa Rica, Guatemala, or Panama, then you are golden. Plenty of Americans have done it already. It is not the Cuban authorities you need to worry about, but rather the American ones. Cuba is happy just to receive our tourist money, they don't ask many questions.

Classic taxi in Havana
Click photo to enlarge

source: WikiMedia

Now be honest, doesn't Cuba interest you, at least a little? Think of those iconic Havana nights back in the 1920s and again during '50s, when Havana was the Paris of the Americas and one of Frank Sinatra's favorite hotspots... Think about the Havana Conference, one of the biggest ever mob family meetings in history, one that dictated mob policies for the ensuing decades... Think of all the 1950s cars used as taxis still to this day thanks to the US trade embargo...

Now can you honestly still say that you
don't have at least a little interest in Cuba?

As I already regret not seeing North Korea before Kim Jong-Il died, I vowed back then not to make that mistake twice; Without a doubt I had planned to visit Cuba during 2012, before Castro gets any older. Of course here is in 2013 now and I still haven't made it...but I will! The reason I wanted to visit both countries before their leaders died is not due to any form of support or approval towards the respective leaders of those two natiions, but because I worry that as those two countries both exist in such a delicate balance of communism and tourism, there is no telling what could happen once power shifts. Fidel Castro has been the figurehead of the island nation for almost 50 years, although he retired in 2008, I'm sure his continued existence is part of the glue that holds Cuba together.

Havana, Cuba
Havana, capital of Cuba

In the early 1960s, following America's ban on Cuba tourism and the systematic government shutdown of many popular nightclubs and gambling halls associated with illegal activities, Cuba's tourism industry came to a screeching halt. In was not until the early 1990s that the numbers began to improve. Even so, with 80% of pre-embargo tourists coming from the United States, it is hard to imagine Havana ever seeing such glory days ago without a change in American policy.

Nowadays over two million visitors a year grace the Cuban ground, most notably vacationers from Canada, Mexico, and all over Europe. As a matter-of-fact, tourism policies and general attitudes towards tourists have improved leaps and bounds, even more so in the last decade! Yes, truly Cuba is once again -- for the third time, actually -- officially become an up-and-coming tourist destination, with statistics improving every year.

The country even offers a variety of both budget and luxury accommodations. Plus, thanks to its countless museums Havana is home to many random and interesting pieces of history from all over the world. One of the more surprising is the Museo Napoliónico, which includes one of Napoleon’s teeth and the general’s death mask. And it should be no surprise that Ernest Hemingway's former house (and yes, even boat) are now a museum as well.

Varadero, Cuba
Off the coast of Varadero. Click photograph to enlarge.

Yes, Havana has a lot to offer, but there is more to Cuba than just that bustling metropolis. Just east of Havana is Varadero, an upper-class tourist town full of beaches that is home to many resorts, as well as the country's only golf course. The western side of Cuba is the center of the cigar industry, particularly the city of Pinar del Rio. There is Trinidad, a famous World Heritage Site, and Santa Clara, both located in central Cuba. And in the far east of Cuba you can find Baracoa and Santiago de Cuba, two other cities with huge historical importance.

If you find yourself in a small town as the day is drawing to a close, it should be no trouble at all to find a "casa particular" or private house for the night. Cuban people are known for being very friendly and what better way to get a firsthand experience in the culture and local life. Electricity can be spotty however, but as with everything else, there have been great improvements since 2008.

Cuba as it currently stands is a flower about to bloom, an ideal travel blogger's mecca that features just enough tourists to bring the country to life without spoiling or tarnishing it. And 2013 is the perfect year to visit there before the word gets out and the masses start flooding in. Besides, now is also a fantastic time to see the Cuba of the 21st century before it looses its 20th century appeal. After all, those taxis won't run forever! (The new wave has already started and trust me, they are not so iconic-looking ugghh.)

  So, to all you Americans reading this: would you attempt a trip to Cuba without telling the US government?

Derek Freal

" ǝʌıʇɔǝdsɹǝd ɹǝɥʇouɐ ɯoɹɟ sƃuıɥʇ ǝǝs oʇ ǝʌol ı "
Derek is a perpetual wanderer, cultural enthusiast, and lifelong traveler. He loves going places where he does not speak a word of the local language and must communicate with hand gestures, as well as places where he is forced to squat awkwardly to poo (supposedly its healthier and more efficient). Say Hello On Twitter!


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