The island, off-limits to Americans for decades,
now welcomes visitors for unique cultural exchanges
By Lucy Spicer
Justin Gibson/Natural Habitat Adventures
An economic embargo put in place by John F. Kennedy in 1962 restricted relations between the U.S. and Cuba. While a trade embargo still remains, a directive from former President Barack Obama has lifted certain restrictions, including some pertaining to travel. Americans now can acquaint themselves with the island nation legally if their travel plans fall under 12 approved categories, including family visits, educational activities and humanitarian projects.
Strictly speaking, travel to Cuba solely for tourist pursuits remains prohibited. However, authorized tour and cruise itineraries, often called "people-to-people" trips, fall under the category of "educational activities," as their purpose is to promote cultural exchanges between the people of the U.S. and Cuba.
According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, people-to-people travel requires 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 meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba." With colonial cities full of stunning architecture, vibrant nightlife and a bevy of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Cuba has no problem filling up a schedule.
Cuba's capital city is, without a doubt, the island's most popular destination for people-to-people activities, and for good reason. Among the eclectic and colorful architecture, parades of classic cars, the enticing smells from street vendors' carts and the lilting sounds of live outdoor music, Havana is a feast for the senses. With so much to experience, it's no wonder that most visitors' itineraries devote several days to exploring this bustling locale.
Take in the pastel hues and elegant arches of Old Havana's architecture. Established by the Spanish in 1519, this neighborhood was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. A guided tour led by an architect can help you identify the different elements that make up this historic part of the city, such as baroque and neoclassical monuments, in addition to its five unique plazas.
Continue to absorb Havana's beauty by exploring the intricately designed, 140-acre Colon Cemetery; museums dedicated to art, history, religion, music, cars, cigars and more; or Muraleando, a community project featuring murals and sculptures made of repurposed objects. Other notable experiences include a visit to Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway's home for roughly 20 years, where he wrote "The Old Man and the Sea." Throughout your stay in Havana, you also will undoubtedly savor a meal at a paladar, a locally owned restaurant, and you may have the opportunity to tour the farm that supplied the fresh ingredients for your plate.
Depending on which people-to-people tour itinerary or cruise-connected shore excursion you choose, you could find yourself learning about literacy efforts from a University of Havana professor, watching a showcase at a performing arts school, taking a cooking lesson from a local chef or discussing the history of baseball with former players. With so many opportunities for cultural exchange, it may be worth choosing your travel program based on which people-to-people experiences interest you most -- after all, many itineraries travel to the same towns and visit the same sites, but the interactions with the locals can vary significantly.
Oceangoing companies that make stops in Havana include Oceania Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line and Viking Cruises. Prices start at $489 for four-night Norwegian voyages to the Cuban capital and the company's private Bahamian island.
Escorted tour companies including Intrepid Travel, Cosmos, Globus, Tauck, Collette, Natural Habitat Adventures and Gate 1 Travel offer Cuba-focused journeys lasting from four to 17 days, with pricing from $2,149 for Gate 1's five-day " Havana, Face to Face."
Located on the southern shore of the Matanzas Province, roughly halfway between Havana and Cienfuegos, is the Zapata Peninsula. This large swath of land contains the Cienaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve, covering more than 1.5 million acres; it includes a national park and, in 2001, was designated a Ramsar Site -- a wetland of international importance.
While the conservation of this area is a serious undertaking, the peninsula also is home to modestly sized communities whose economies rely on tourism. Since U.S. travelers cannot be "tourists" in Cuba, there are some itineraries that visit the Zapata Peninsula in the name of education. A local naturalist will be your guide to this significant stretch of protected land, and make sure to keep your eye out for endemic and endangered species like the Zapata wren. Bird-watching is a popular activity here, in addition to fishing and snorkeling off Playa Larga.
Explore the Zapata Peninsula on the 12-day "Undiscovered Cuba" tour with Natural Habitat Adventures. Departures are offered this April and November, with prices starting at $9,395.
Established in 1819, the colonial town of Cienfuegos is located on the south-central side of the island, on the shores of its namesake bay. Although many of its initial settlers were of French origin, the city's architecture and layout reveal a pervading Spanish influence. To absorb the scope of the town's design, consider a walking tour of the Urban Historic Centre of Cienfuegos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring well-preserved buildings with plentiful columns, arches and red domes. Climb to the top of the cupola at Ferrer Palace for the best view of the city and see why it has garnered nicknames like The Pearl of the South and The Paris of Cuba. Inside the palace, completed in 1918, visitors find a cultural center with artwork on display.
If your interests lie more with the area's natural landscape, the Cienfuegos Botanical Garden awaits about 10 miles from the city center. This lush green space contains more than 2,000 species, including towering palms, colorful orchids and fruit trees.
The garden began more than a century ago when Boston's Edwin Atkins
visited his father's sugar plantation, preparing to take over the company at a time when Cuba was one of the world's largest sugar producers. Industrialization and the abolition of slavery affected production over the next 50 years, and Atkins contracted with Harvard University to use the land for horticultural research and experiments. Cuba's 1959 revolution and ensuing embargoes ceased the garden's U.S. funding, at which point the local government took ownership. Today, enthusiastic tour guides are available to help navigate through the garden and identify different species of flora and fauna.
Experience both city life and nature in Cienfuegos on the eight-day "Rediscover Cuba" from Collette, with prices from $4,399 for four departures in April.
Traces of the once-bustling sugar industry are visible all around Cuba -- Trinidad, a town roughly 50 miles southeast of Cienfuegos, grew thanks to the sugar's success. But it's also one of Cuba's most well-preserved colonial cities, established in the 16th century, and both Trinidad and the nearby Valley de los Ingenios have been honored by UNESCO designations.
Travel through time by wandering the winding cobblestone streets lined with houses of alternating pastel colors. Keep an ear perked for a soundtrack to accompany your promenade, since it's not unusual for cages of songbirds to be hung outside residences. Musical immersion can continue if your schedule allows time for a visit with an Afro-Cuban dance troupe. Trinidad's nightlife showcases an exciting variety of entertainment, from cabaret-style shows to salsa demonstrations to free band performances in open plazas.
Some itineraries stretch beyond the historic city to the surrounding countryside, which demonstrates the impact of sugar on Cuban history. Dozens of plantations and mills populated the Valley de los Ingenios (which translates to Valley of the Sugar Mills) when the production was at its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries, but this industry flourished on the backs of thousands of slaves.
A visit to an abandoned plantation is sobering but provides valuable insight on Cuba's past -- a goal that people-to-people trips seek to achieve.
Intrepid explores Trinidad's Afro-Cuban roots at a salsa class on the nine-day "Hola Cuba" journey, with prices starting at $3,360 for monthly departures through December.
Santiago de Cuba
If your dream excursion to Cuba involves seeing as much of the island as possible in addition to sailing the surrounding sapphire waters, you probably will find yourself in Santiago de Cuba at some point. Many cruises to Cuba stop only in Havana and pass over other cities in favor of additional Caribbean destinations, but certain land-and-sea tour programs give you the best of both worlds: a schedule full of Cuban culture as well as time on the water.
Santiago de Cuba is the island's second-largest city. Founded in 1514, it has borne witness to war and revolution; this rich history means that museums are plentiful, while the city's waterfront location allows for easy daytrip planning to small islands nearby.
Among the port's impressive military structures is the San Pedro de la Roca Castle, a 17th-century fortress and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Another popular sightseeing spot is a plaza dedicated to Antonio Maceo Grajales, a 19th-century guerrilla war hero, and his monument here is surrounded by 23 machetes. Visitors have a wealth of choices when it comes to historic sites in the city, whether they involve the Spanish-American War, the Cuban War of Independence or figures from more contemporary times, like members of the Castro family.
If this programming seems intense, have no fear: A stop in Santiago de Cuba often includes a jaunt to a neighboring island, such as the quaint fishing community of Cayo Granma. Globus' 10-day "[Cuba by Land & Sea]" makes a stop there during its day in Santiago de Cuba, with prices starting at $2,909.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Spring 2017. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.