If Cuba Is on Your Bucket List, Book It While You Still Can
As President Donald Trump considers rolling back the Obama administration's open policy with Cuba, travelers with a hankering for Havana may want to speed up their plans.
What is the appeal of Cuba? For some, it's finally taking a bite of that forbidden fruit. After more than 50 years of closed doors, visiting our neighbor 90 miles south of Key West became as easy as booking a ticket online and buying a visa at the airport. For others, it's the unique opportunity to experience the culture and history of a place they never had the chance to get to know.
“In the past two years since President Obama announced his policy of opening up to Cuba, we've seen economic exchanges, investments and jobs growth in the U.S. and in Cuba's private sector," Christopher Sabatini, executive director of research non-profit Global Americans and professor of international relations and policy at Columbia University, said in a statement. Reversing those reforms would cost U.S. air and cruise lines $3.5 billion and impact up to 10,154 jobs, according to an analysis from anti-embargo advocacy group Engage Cuba.
But Trump has criticized Obama's initiatives, taking to Twitter immediately following Fidel Castro's death in 2016, threatening to “terminate” ties, to the approval of many of his Cuban-American supporters.
“As the president has said, the current Cuba policy is a bad deal. It does not do enough to support human rights in Cuba,” White House spokesman Michael Short said. “We anticipate an announcement in the coming weeks.”
Trump is expected to announce his plan of action in Miami, where more than half of the majority (66.8 percent) Hispanic population is Cuban-American, sometime in June.
What this could mean for travel
A major target of the Trump administration is expected to be any transactions between U.S. companies and Cuban firms that provide profits for the Cuban military, the New York Times reported. This would be a major roadblock for hotel companies, like Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which manage Cuban-owned properties, and would likely either prohibit or deter other U.S. hospitality brands from doing business with the island nation.
Meanwhile, the future of Airbnb, which has 22,000 listings in 70 different Cuban cities and towns — hosting 70,000 guests per month in 2017 so far — according to a new report, remains uncertain. Even if the company is allowed to side-step any new regulations, which is a possibility, demand is likely to decrease.
Cruises to Cuba have been on the rise, with Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival Cruises all announcing new routes in 2016, among others. Even if the White House returns to pre-Obama regulations on travel licenses, cruise operators could likely continue using the people-to-people licenses they currently run under, making them a potentially easier option than visiting solo. For the seven U.S. airlines that fly to Cuba, ticket sales could drop by as much as $512 million, according to the Engage Cuba report.
While U.S. travelers are already required to fulfill one of 12 qualifying reasons for entering Cuba, this is currently run under an honor system that doesn't require them to prove their plans. If Trump returns to pre-Obama policies, obtaining a visa for a trip could once again become more complicated. And Trump will likely clamp down on Obama's loose policy on taking home Cuba's famous rum and cigars.
If you go
Jansel Reina, a 29-year-old guide who grew up in a much different Havana than the one he's been touring Americans and other visitors around over the past two years, told Travel + Leisure that seeing people from around the world experience Cuba for the first time has made him understand just how much “humility, sociability, friendliness, and beauty” it has to offer, beyond its historic architecture and stunning beaches.
“It is a great experience to see, speak, and share with Americans after years of separation between both peoples,” he said. “We have gotten to know their culture, share our experiences, and achieve agreements and business in a peaceful way. We benefit from each other.”
Claudia Fisher, 27, of New York City, just returned home from an eight-day trip with tales of art shows, rum, dance, and live music, but it was these moments of casual cultural exchange with newfound friends that stood out.
“We made friends with a local artist when we went to Callejon de Hamel, which is this little alleyway covered in graffiti murals with art installations and display rooms,” she told T+L. “We met up with him and his friends later at one of their apartments and drank Havana Club and listened to music, and got to see a little glimpse into what people our age's daily routines were like.”
The city is in fact filled with proud locals who greet Americans with a smile and, especially if you speak Spanish, are ready to teach a first-timer all about their complicated homeland over a sunset stroll along the Malecón, on a long, slow drive with the windows down in a 1950s-era Chevy, or over a shared plate of tostones in a homey paladar. If you're hastily making plans as Trump's decision looms, here are our recommendations for a quick trip to Havana.
Founded in 1519, the narrow streets of Old Havana are oozing with history. Wander past its colorful Moorish, Baroque, and neoclassical buildings, some crumbling and others undergoing restoration, and then learn about what led them to their varying states of ruin (among other stories of political upheaval) at the Museum of the Revolution.
Get a taste for Cuban art, music, and culture at the popular Fábrica de Arte Cubano, where you can sip cocktails, dance, and mingle with the creative types behind the work while you browse.
Haggle over crafts and hydrate with fresh coconut water at the San José Artisans' Market, and learn all about the country's most beloved spirit at the Havana Club Museum of Rum.
Just before sunset, head to the Malecón, or sea wall, where friends and lovers young and old gather for a romantic, leisurely stroll along the water. You'll hear cannon shots in the distance, but don't be alarmed: Every night at 9 p.m., a traditional procession is performed at El Morro Castle across the bay, a tribute to the Spanish reign of the city's past. It's worth stopping by to view it up close.
And to get the most out of Havana and its outskirts, consider booking a local tour guide to take you around. Without readily available Wi-Fi to aid your every move, it can make things much easier. (Reina, who runs affordable, customized tours that include transportation, can be best reached by e-mail at email@example.com.)
To eat and drink
Havana's paladares, or privately-owned restaurants, offer a range of dining experiences, from down-home (literally, inside the owner's home), to elegant. In the bottom floor of a mansion in Central Havana you'll find San Cristóbal, where Cuban-Creole dishes are served among antique knick-knacks – it's so unique, it even attracted former president Barack Obama.
Located on the site of an old vegetable oil factory, El Cocinero is an industrial-chic rooftop popular with Havana's trendy crowd, best for light snacks and plenty of cocktails.
And you're guaranteed to see a line outside La Bodeguita del Medio, the rumored birthplace of the mojito, where Pablo Neruda, Ernest Hemingway, and other great minds have convened.
Airbnb is an easy way to stay in Havana: You'll find a wide variety of listings, from modernized apartments and rooms in old mansions to colorful bed and breakfasts and quaint casa particulares (homestays).
The most sophisticated hotel in Verdado, a mostly-residential neighborhood about 10 minutes outside of Old Havana that's filled with character, Hotel Nacional de Cuba has hosted everyone from Frank Sinatra to Winston Churchill. Even if you don't stay, stop by at night for drinks in its lush courtyard overlooking the Malecón, where mojitos are served while live music plays, or seek out the “secret” cigar room and have a smoke.
In the heart of Old Havana, Hotel Ambos Mundos is an Art Deco mecca for literature lovers, as it was the first Cuban residence of Ernest Hemingway. His old room is still intact and on view for visitors to see, and it doesn't seem like much has changed in the years since.
The likes of Beyoncé and Madonna have chosen Havana's stylish Hotel Saratoga, a pricey option with a rooftop pool and prime location to show for it.
About two and a half hours west of Havana, rural Viñales is rising in popularity thanks to its tobacco fields and scenic limestone hills. Ride a horse through the valley and learn about Cuban cigar-making, or take a hike through the caves at Cuevas de Santo Tomas.
Like any good Caribbean island, Cuba is filled with beautiful beaches. Two hours east of Havana, Playa Varadero is lined with 12 miles of all-inclusive resorts. Just half an hour outside the city is Santa Maria del Mar, an easy escape with white sand and turquoise waters.
Thirty minutes west of Havana, Fusterlandia is a whimsical spot any Gaudí fans will appreciate – the enclave is covered in colorful mosaics. Cuban artist José Fuster started the project in his own home and then asked to decorate for his neighbors, eventually turning a downtrodden neighborhood into a fairytale-like artist's haven.