Cuba is officially open to American tourists for the first time in over 50 years, and a self-declared people-to-people exchange* itinerary is your excuse to go! We are pleased to feature highlights from guest blogger, Maggie Archbold's itinerary to Cuba and her perspectives on this colorful Caribbean nation in transition.
In 10 days, we traveled from Havana, to Viñales, to Trinidad, and back. Our people to people itinerary included comfortable homestays in casa particulares; mouthwatering meals at family-run paladars; and fascinating visits to community projects and sites that spotlighted artists and artisans, engaged with local religious and cultural traditions, and revealed socio-economic systems that are utterly unique to this communist country.
Our homestay was in Habana Vieja, the dynamic ‘Old Havana’—a hub for tourist activity crowded with national museums, souvenir shops, and sites to see. From our base, it was easy to access the working-class neighborhood of Habana Centro (Lonely Planet tells you that this is where you can glimpse the ‘real Cuba’), the more urban Vedado (location of the famous Hotel Nacional, lively jazz clubs, and Anthony Bourdain’s favorite paladar), and the upscale neighborhood of Miramar (with expansive embassies and military compounds, and some truly memorable rooftop bars).
Los Pocitos Community Project
We also ventured further into the city to the district of Marianao, where we visited professor Michél Santor, who teaches at the University of Havana. Michél gave us a tour of Los Pocitos: an ‘unofficial neighborhood that serves as the center of the Abakúa fraternal society. Los Pocitos is unique for its active expressions of Afro-Cuban identities but, due in part to contentious religious practices, the community is largely not recognized by the national government. While rich in culture, the people of Los Pocitos are poor and many rely on an informal economy to subsist. Michel and his colleagues have committed to a participatory development project in Los Pocitos in order to help the community build more secure livelihoods by drawing on their strengths. For voluntourists who can commit to at least a week of work, this is an excellent opportunity to contribute to a well-conceived sustainable development project. (See Global Family Travels exciting new trip to Cuba, which includes a visit and workshop with Los Pocitos, and many more community projects like it!)
A short day-trip from Havana, Las Terrazas is a long-standing eco-community and Unesco Biosphere Reserve. For us, it was also a pleasant interval from the bustle of Havana; a haven for bird-watching, nature-walking, and canopy-touring. Las Terrazas is also home to an eclectic community of artists (with open studios), including those with a passion for the culinary arts. Vegetarians in Cuba will likely tire of arroz y frijoles (as good as they are); Las Terrazas will be your haven for organic vegetable-eating at the notable eco-restaurant El Romero.
Valle de Viñales
Another hour and a half north of Las Terrazas is the picturesque Valley of Viñales, with its rolling hills, steep cliff-faces, and sprawling green tobacco fields. We had just one day in Viñales and could have opted for a variety of activities, from horseback riding, to cave touring, to archeological exploration; we chose to rent bikes and follow the valley’s curves up and down from farm to farm, exploring the agriculture and enjoying the expansive scenery. We learned from local experts about the process for tobacco cultivation and cigar-making and visited a palm-thatched tobacco house, where plants are dried and eventually rolled into the cigars that have contributed to Cuba’s fame worldwide. Our hosts cooked us dinner in the casa particular, and we learned from them about smoking cigars, “à la Che,” (with a little bit of honey dipped onto the head).
Trinidad is a 5.5 hour drive from Havana, and is well worth the trip. The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage in 1988, and is known for its cobbled streets and exceptionally preserved colonial architecture. Tour books will describe Trinidad using tropes like ‘frozen in time,’ ‘slow-paced,’ and ‘sleepy.’ For history lovers and peace seekers, Trinidad will not disappoint—but the city is also very much alive with music, culture, art, and activity. Outdoor casas de musicas animate the nights in Trinidad, just as the clip-clopping of horse drawn carriages, the calls of vendors peddling produce, and the sounds of tour buses squeezing their ways through 16th century streets provide a soundtrack for the days.
A walking tour of the city’s endless and unexpected historical landmarks could fill up a whole day. We decided to do the tour on bikes, before heading out to the pristine Playa Ancón and cooling off in the Caribbean (even in December, it was nearly 90 degrees). For our second day, we took the antique steam train to the Valle de los Ingenios, the center of Cuba’s sugar production industry—which was the largest in the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. We visited the now-dilapidated factories, practiced pressing sugar cane, explored the role that slave labor played in sustaining this vast enterprise, and learned about Cuba’s process for nationalizing the industry.
Create Your Own People-to-People Exchange Itinerary to Cuba!
If you are interested in traveling to Cuba, we are happy to help you customize your own People-to-People exchange, or join us on our latest trip to Discover Cuba: Cultural Immersion and Community Projects.
Maggie Archbold is the Program Coordinator for the Seattle World Affairs Council's Global Classroom program.
*Note: A People-to-People Exchange is one of the 12 authorized travel categories for Americans to Cuba by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Learn more here.