Cuba: Get it While It's Hot (and Unspoiled)

Travel to Cuba is opening up in a big way following an easing of restrictions for US tourists who want to visit this tropical paradise; and now is the time to plan that Havana Nights vacation of your dreams - before the influx of travelers makes the vintage cars, deteriorating colonial architecture, and illicit cigars naught but charming symbols of the past.

How can this affect you?
If you want to see the Cuban way of life firsthand, without signing up for a big group tour, then your travel planning just got easier. As of March 16th, solo people-to-people educational travel to Cuba is now officially legal for American citizens. While traveling purely for touristic pursuits, aka, lounging on a beach all day, is still prohibited, that doesn't mean you need to spend all your time in a museum.

Actually, the amendments to the Cuba sanctions encourage Americans to get out there and interact with the locals. The recent statement released by the Departments of Treasury and Commerce states that "Individuals will be authorized to travel to Cuba for individual people-to-people educational travel, provided that the traveler engages in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and that will result in a meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba." This sounds like a win-win situation to us!

What are your options?
At the moment, there are no regular commercial flights to Cuba from the States, although these are expected to come soon as airlines receive approval from Cuban and US government officials. You might consider booking an all-inclusive cruise, which will arrange all of the appropriate people-to-people interactions for your time on the island. One of the newest of these planned escapes is Fathom's small-ship cruise – a truly immersive experience covering 3 cities and allowing travelers to see inside Cuban society.

If you’d rather fly, there are currently charter flights available from Miami, Tampa, New York and other cities (some operated by American Airlines and Jet Blue), soon to be joined by regular commercial flights.  Overall, you are still required to book a travel package for your time in Cuba, including hotels, transfers and tours.  However, travel can now be done on a private basis, with activities customized to your interests.  The biggest issue is likely to be finding space on flights and hotels/tours.  Cuba is hot – so you will need to plan as far ahead as possible.

What might your Cuban experience look like?
There are a multitude of sights, sounds, colors, and rhythms you could see in Cuba's vibrant and tropical surroundings, but the following are some of highlights from Cuba's cultural scene that you will not want to miss.

If you're in the city of Trinidad – a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can admire the impressive architecture hailing from the glory days of the sugar industry – you can also check out the Museo de Arquitectura Colonial. After that, head over to the Casa de Aldeman Ortiz, which houses an art gallery where you can purchase handmade art, jewelry, and special delicate embroidery.
If you're an art lover in Havana, you must visit the Pabellón Cuba, a contemporary art institution near Calle 23's artisan market. Fábrica de Arte Cubano is another contemporary art destination; it holds events and promotes Cuban artists and creatives in a converted factory. Or visit Casa Oswaldo Guayasamín, the former home and studio of this famous painter who also supported the Cuban revolution. For Cuba's premiere collection of native photography, you can stop at the Fototeca de Cuba in the Plaza Vieja.

Before leaving the square, you can even try out Leonardo da Vinci's camera obscura concept in Old Havana. If it's a sunny day, you should see a nice view of Havana as an upside down reflection in the darkroom set up on a rooftop in the corner of the Plaza Vieja.
If you're more of a literature buff, you might be interested in some of Hemingway's favorite haunts from his over two decades in Cuba. The writer's former home, now the Museo Ernest Hemingway, is just a short drive outside of Havana. After seeing where Hemingway received his inspiration, you might feel inspired to order a rum beverage like the literary master himself would have done. If you don’t mind a pricier mojito, you can head to the modest La Bodeguita del Medio where Hemingway was once a regular. One can find this classic Cuban cocktail all over the island, so you might also discover your own favorite spot.

If you're a fan of dance, Cuba is famous for many Latin-rhythm dance styles inspired by Spanish and African origins. Salsa, rumba, habanera, comparsa – try them all! Get your dancing feet wet by walking down the Callejón de Hamel on a Sunday afternoon and soaking up the colorful street murals and energetic rumba music in this center of Afro-Cuban culture. To jump into the world of salsa, you can visit the 1830 Club in Havana. Pay a small cover fee and spend the night dancing salsa al fresco, or just sitting back with a Cuba libre while you watch both amateurs and professionals show off their skills. Mingling with the locals? Check. Don't forget the classical dance scene: you can watch a spectacular performance by the Cuban National Ballet, without breaking your budget, in Havana's Gran Teatro.

If you're crazy for architecture, you will appreciate how Cuba's architecture helps to evoke the island's unique spirit of being suspended in the past. A mix of architectural influences makes up the fabric of Cuba's eclectic cities. You can see everything from surviving colonial-style mansions like the Casa de los Condes de Jaruco, to the crown of Cuban baroque – the Cathedral of Saint Christopher in Old Havana, to art nouveau structures like the Palacio Cueto in Plaza Vieja, to art deco triumphs like the Edificio Bacardí, completed in 1929, and even Gothic masterpieces like the Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús.

If you're moved by music, you will want to make time to visit a Casa de la Trova, which is the state-run music salon found in most Cuban cities. These important cultural institutions keep the folk music of Cuba alive and allow visitors to get in touch with the locals in an authentic atmosphere. The locations in Santiago de Cuba and Camagüey are highly recommended.

If you're someone who travels for the food, then Cuban cuisine will not disappoint. Like its architecture, dance, and music, Cuban dishes are diverse and largely influenced by African and Spanish cultures, as well as the tropical climate. To find a quality meal, one only needs to locate a paladar, a local family-run restaurant, and don't forget to bring your appetite.

What's the bottom line?
The recent Cuba travel news has everyone eyeing this island paradise. First President Obama's historic visit, followed by the Rolling Stones performing a free concert in the country where their music was once silenced – these are signs that Cuba may be on the cusp of significant developments. As more tourists undoubtedly fill Cuba's quaint rundown streets, the country will be making some changes to accommodate its visitors. It is not certain how much of Cuba's fascinating old-world atmosphere will remain once these changes unfold, but it seems unanimous that now is a great time to visit. As part of your "educational" travel, you will be meeting with the locals, promoting cultural exchange, and feasting all of your senses on Cuba's unique blend of influences.