8 Things You Shouldn’t Miss On Your Trip to Cuba

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visiting Cuba

Now that travel restrictions to Cuba are loosening and commercial airlines are operating non-stop flights from American soil for the first time in more than half a century, tourists are flocking to this once off-limits Caribbean destination. But while travel to Cuba is definitely easier today than it was last year, restrictions are still in place and a “people-to-people permit” is necessary, as is traveling with an approved operator like smarTours in a group.

Group travel has pros and cons. On the plus side, it brings security, especially when booking hotel rooms, because the government tourism board controls inventory and can move your booking at any time.  You are also sure to meet locals you may not otherwise through planned events and have instant travel buddies. But at the same time, it doesn’t leave much time for spontaneity, which means sticking to a tight schedule and ordering from a set menu at restaurants instead of trying foods that spark more of an interest.

I took the opportunity to jet to the island with smarTours earlier this year. I couldn’t wait to see brightly colored vintage cars from the 1940’s and 50’s rumble past the malecon and streets of Old Havana. We drank mojitos nightly made with fresh sugar cane and watched brightly dressed Cubans salsa dance at nightclubs. We ate in, paladeras, which are family-run operations set up in people’s houses, and are making the culinary scene more vibrant.

The best parts about travel are the unexpected elements. smarTours worked with a local tour agency to set up experiences that are open to the public- like meeting with a group of elementary age kids learning dance and gymnastics in a worn down warehouse. They also went out of their way to make sure our experience took in all the major attractions on the island. Before booking a tour, make sure it includes these 7 essential stops, many of them art focused.

Revolution Square

1. Revolution Square

The site where Fidel Casto gave his endless speeches and where Pope Francis delivered mass last month, the square also features a 500-foot-high monument to scholar Jose Marti, who was one of three people to overthrow the Spanish regime in 1898. When we visited, we spotted Dikeme Mutombo and other past pro basketball players in town to visit with some young Cuban players as part of an NBA goodwill program.

The-National-Hotel-Cuba-900x675

2. The National Hotel

Built by a New York architectural firm and opened in 1930, when Cuba was still a prime travel destination for Americans, this hotel gained notoriety in October 1962. That was when it served as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s headquarters to prepare to defend Havana from an aerial attack during the 18 tense days of the crisis when the U.S. and the former Soviet Union came as close as they ever did during the Cold War to nuclear war. Today the hotel has a small museum dedicated to the story of this crisis. It is also still a functioning hotel, and over the years has entertained guests from Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner to Ernest Hemingway. The hotel is still open to guests today.

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3. Old Town Havana

Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, taking a tour of Old Havana is another mandatory stop on any Cuban trip. It’s best to visit with an art historian or other knowledgeable guide to learn the story behind the stunning buildings ranging from 16th-century colonial squares to impressive Art Deco from a period when Havana was a world financial capital, competitive with Wall Street.

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Ernest-Hemingway-House-Cuba-900x675

4. Hemingway House

Hemingway spent the last 22-years of his life in a hillside residence just outside of Havana where he entertained fellow writers, diplomats and movie stars in the years before his death. Hemingway left Cuba in 1961, just before the U.S. and Cuba severed diplomatic ties, and committed suicide in Idaho later that year. Today old artifacts from his life can be seen in his former residence, and there is even a working bar on site serving up pineapple and rum concoctions with fresh sugar cane squeezed on top.

5. Jaimanitas Neighborhood

Havana is filled with street art these days, which was a stark difference to what I was expecting a communist country to have. In the fishing village of Jaimanitas, on the northwest outskirts of Havana, are several blocks where the gated homes are covered entirely in mosaic tile. These once ordinary homes began to be transformed into works of art three decades ago when artist Jose Fuster took up residence here and opened a studio. First he decorated his home, turning it into a mosaic wonderland with small colorful tiles adorning fountains, stairs, rooftops, benches and every other surface. Over the years, Fuster began to offer his artistic largesse to neighboring properties and the project grew to include the homes of some 80 of his neighbors! Inspired by nature, Santeria, Picasso and Spanish architect Gaudi who integrated crafts such as stained glass and ceramic works into his buildings, Fuster’s ever-evolving masterpiece is an ongoing pursuit.

Muraleando in Cuba

6. Visit Muraleando

Also known as the “The Tank” this was one of my favorite experiences on the trip. Here an abandoned water tank that used to service steam trains has been transformed into a bustling community center where neighborhood kids can learn painting, music, ceramics, dancing, theater and filmmaking. Several of the instructors gave us an impromptu musical performance before answering questions about the project, giving us insight into how economically challenged neighborhoods in Havana are supporting themselves from within. The center provides free services to some 200 children, and local art can also be purchased on site.

7. Fustas

Another artsy stop is Fustas, which is a fisherman’s village turned art project that has been attracting local artists to create massive mosaics here since the 1960s.  The project was started by NAME some 22-years-ago in an effort to introduce beauty into a poor village. Today, on-site art for sale helps fund the project.

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