Discovering Cuba’s Inner Beauty – Pinar del Rio

After 25 years of living, working in adventure tourism and criss-crossing Cuba more times than we can count, at WoWCuba we should obviously be intimately familiar with alot of service providers, facilities, activities and areas available to visiting explorers by now. But the largest Island in the greater Antilles has 15 provinces and 1 special municipality, so there are always opportunities to dig deeper on our quest to keep up with new initiatives in farming and ecotourism trends. As a Cuban-Canadian couple we really enjoy and are often inspired by visiting farms, diving, hiking, nature, unique entrepreneurs and indulging in good food. We aren’t suckers for nightlife and avoid discos/hotel-type animation. We love to hit the road in September when the weather cools down just a bit and summer vacationers have disappeared. Following is my wish list so far for what I’d love to squeeze in on our next visit(s) to Pinar del Rio province. Not all places are new to us, but some are.

Dive Maria la Gorda, Blue Hole in Cabo San Antonio
Hike Guanhacabibes “Del Bosque al Mar” or “Cueva las Perlas”, Baby turtle release (mid-Sept) at Playa La Barca
Visit Cueva del Palmarito
Visit Viñales zipline
Visit Mirador/Lookout (22.625503, -83.743849)
Visit “Finca Coco Solo” Farm, “Finca L’Armonia” Farm, Patio MogoteArt, Finca C&J and El Rincón del Café
Visit Palacio de Guasch
Eat El Cuajani
Eat La Berenjena eco restaurant
Eat Agroecological Sunset Restaurant
Eat Jardin del Arte Sano
Drink Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso lookout
Drink Casa del Mojito
Stay Cabo San Antonio
Stay rural Viñales *Mogote Art, Brisas de San Vicente, Finca Media Luna or maybe Las Españolas (affiliate links)
Stay Castillo en las Nubes
Stay|Eat Puerto Esperanza Villa Wendy (affiliate link)

On that list, I have to admit that Mogote Art (available to book on AirBnB, but many  places listed on that platform are available for less $ locally) and Castillo en las Nubes are on the higher end of our personal accommodation budget. That said, we do occasionally spring for an overnight somewhere special and rarely regret it; sometimes we still discover something pretty spectacular along the way that’s not on any tourist radar. We’ll see where the wind blows us this fall. One thing’s for sure; the time we invest into Discovering Cuba’s Inner Beauty is well-spent. And if you’re one of our lucky guests, then you get the full benefits of our fabulous finds, first-hand experiences and adventures with streamlined planning and targeted recommendations.

 

 

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Protected Areas in Cuba

Over 20% of Cuba’s national territory is protected in 211 diverse land and marine areas.

Pause and reflect on that a moment, and compare that figure to the percentage of protected land/marine areas in other nations. It’s a hugely significant commitment, and not only in terms of implementing protective measures. Commitment to protecting these areas ensures that biodiversity, reforestation, and pure air and water resources are available to future generations. At the same time it’s a daunting task that requires enforcement, human resources, and most importantly implementation of educational programs to ensure visitors and locals alike are fully aware of how to respect the natural elements around them, and the larger significance of those fragile ecosystems to the local and international communities alike. Cuba doesn’t have all the resources it requires to effectively carry out this essential task for such a monumental territory, and it’s why you’ll sometimes see things like illegal extraction of wood from protected woodlots, mindless tourists who divert from designated trails in search of a smart-looking selfie, carelessly discarded trash on nature trails, or parrots and pretty polymita snail shells for sale as you climb La Farola mountain road to Baracoa. Designating the areas for protection is only part of the battle. Educating the public and enforcing their protected status to preserve the priceless natural treasures they contain is the real challenge.

Cuba’s protected areas include:
14 National Parks: Guanahacabibes, Cayos de San Felipe, Viñales, Punta Frances, Zapata Swamp , Los Caimanes, Caguanes, Jardines de la Reina, Pico Cristal, La Mensura-Pilotos, Desembarco del Granma, Turquino, Pico Bayamesa, Alejandro de Humboldt
6 Biosphere Reserves: Geographical zones in which human and economic development is balanced with the conservation and protection of the natural environment in which they are located, in Cuba they include the Sierra del Rosario (PRI/ART), Guanahacabibes Peninsula (PRI), Cuchillas del Toa (HOG/GUA), Baconao (SCU/GUA), Zapata Swamp (MTZ) & Buenavista (VCA/SSP/CDA).
6 Ramsar Sites: Wetlands of international importance, these include the Lanier Swamp & Southern part of the Isle of Youth, Zapata Swamp, Buenavista, Wetlands north of Ciego de Avila, Rio Maximo Wetlands, and Delta del Cauto Wetlands.
2 Natural World Heritage Sites: This UNESCO designation is bestowed on select world locations that have been nominated and confirmed for inclusion. In Cuba we are honored to showcase the Desembarco del Granma National Park and the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, both in the eastern end of the island.
28 Areas Important for Bird Conservation: This title is granted by the nonprofit BirdLife International and is designated to areas containing one or more globally threatened species, birds with a restricted distribution range, exclusive of their biome (ecological community), or those that gather in large numbers for reproduction, feeding or migration. The areas include: Mil Cumbres, wetlands south of Pinar del Rio, Sierra del Rosario, Lanier Swamp & South of the the Isle of Youth, Zapata Swamp, Las Picúas-Cayo del Cristo, Cays in the Mid-East of Villa Clara, wetlands south of Sancti Spiritus, Topes de Collantes, Alturas de Banao, great wetlands north of Ciego de Ávila, Sabinal-Ballenatos-Nuevitas Bay Cays, Río Máximo-Cayo Guajaba, Romano-Cruz-Mégano Grande-Paredón Grande Cays, Limones-Tuabaquey (Sierra de Cubitas), Sierra del Chorrillo (Najasa), Turquino-Bayamesa, Desembarco del Granma, Delta del Cauto, Balsas-Cobarrubias coastal region (Gibara), La Mensura, Delta del Mayarí, Pico Cristal, Gran Piedra-Pico Mogote, Siboney-Juticí, Alejandro de Humboldt, Hatibonico-Baitiquirí-Imías

Management of the 211 protected areas is categorized as follows:
4 Natural Reserves: These are protected areas created to preserve the natural habitat from human actions and maintain it as close as possible to its original state. Services to visitors are not offered at these sites.
14 National Parks: These are zones for the care, conservation, recovery or preservation of nature. They are land, marine, or a combination of both in natural or semi natural state, with sparse or no human population, designated to protect ecological integrity.
24 Natural Protected Landscapes: These are areas in natural or semi natural states, managed with goals of protection and maintenance of natural conditions, environmental services and development of sustainable tourism. They do not possess notable value in terms of natural resources, but serve as biological corridors, maintain air quality, water, protect against erosion, and maintain esthetic values, etc. They are generally located in areas of ecological, environmental and touristic interest.
32 Ecological Reserves: These are ecosystems or important regions or natural scenes, in which animal and plant species, the habitat and geomorphological elements, are of special scientific, educational, recreational and touristic importance.
45 Fauna Refuges: These are areas where the protection and management of habitats or species are essential for the subsistence of wild fauna populations.
41 Managed Flora Reserves: These are natural or semi natural areas that require management interventions to ensure the protection and maintenance of natural complexes or ecosystems.
18 Managed Resource Protected Areas: These are areas in natural or semi natural states, whose management is to guarantee the protection and maintenance of biological diversity. They combine conservation with the sustainable use of natural resources to generate certain services that satisfy local needs.
33 Outstanding Natural Elements: These are areas with natural elements of great local significance. They are sometimes located within a larger protected area.

The 211 sites are listed by province and referenced with further details on the SNAP (National System for Protected Areas) website en español.
Other links for references and information en español on Cuba’s protected sites include CITMA and EcuRed.

Protected Areas in Cuba (listed by province)

Pinar del Rio
Managed Resource Protected Areas Mil Cumbres, Guanahacabibes Peninsula
Outstanding Natural Elements Banco San Antonio, La Mina Mogote, Sierra del Pesquero – Mina – Sumidero
National Parks Viñales, Guanahacabibes, Cayo San Felipe
Ecological Reserves Los Pretiles, Sierra de la Guira, Gramales – Cabeza – La Peña, Sierra de San Carlos, Sierra de Guane, Paso Real de Guane
Fauna Refuges Lugones Swamp, Humedal Sur de los Palacios Wetland, Cayo Levisa – Corona de San Carlos, Punta Caribe
Managed Flora Reserves Cerro de Cabras, San Ubaldo – Sabanalamar, Sierra de Contadores – Cayo Ratones, Sierra Preluda – Cuabales de Cajálbana

Artemisa
Managed Resource Protected Areas Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve
Outstanding Natural Elements Santa Cruz River Canyon, Pan de Guajaibón, Soroa Mogote
Natural Protected Landscapes Guajaibón, Ariguanabo River
Fauna Refuges Cayos Las Cayamas – Los Guzmanes
Ecological Reserves El Salón
Managed Flora Reserves San Marcos
Natural Reserves Las Peladas, El Mulo

Havana
Natural Protected Landscapes Ensenada de Portier – Lamas, Isla Josefina, Tarara River Valley, Tiscornia Cove, Rincón de Guanabo, Laguna de Cobre – Itabo
Ecological Reserves La Coca
Managed Flora Reserves Cojímar River mouth, Cuabal de Minas

Mayabeque
Natural Protected Landscapes Escaleras de Jaruco
Fauna Refuges Batabanó Gulf, Southwest of El Inglés
Managed Flora Reserves Galindo, Boca de Canasí, Loma del Grillo

Matanzas
Managed Resource Protected Areas Zapata Peninsula, Yumuri Valley
Outstanding Natural Elements Bellamar Caves, Santa Catalina Cave, Zapata flooded cave system, La Pluma Cave
National Parks Zapata Swamp
Natural Protected Landscapes Varahicacos, Canimar River Valley
Fauna Refuges Cayos de las Cinco Leguas, Sierra Bibanasí, Hanabana Channels, Bermejas, Maya Lake
Ecological Reserves Cayo Mono – Galindo, Bacunayagua
Managed Flora Reserves Tres Ceibas de Clavellinas (home to the Molocactus Matanzanus in the Yumuri Valley)
Cienfuegos
Outstanding Natural Elements Martín Infierno Cave (houses one of the largest stalagmites in the world, in El Colorado, Cumanayagua), Rancho Luna Cove
Natural Protected Landscapes El Plurial, Guajimico, Aguacata – Boca de Carreras, Yaguanabo Valley
Fauna Refuges Guanaroca – Punta Gavilan
Ecological Reserves Pico San Juan

Villa Clara
Outstanding Natural Elements Ojo del Mégano (the deepest underwater cave in Cuba, east-northeast of the Bay of Cadiz)
Natural Protected Landscapes Hanabanilla
National Parks Los Caimanes
Fauna Refuges Cayo Francés, Lanzanillo – Pajonal – Fragoso, Las Picúas – Cayo Cristo, Cayo Santa María, Las Loras
Ecological Reserves Mogotes de Jumagua
Managed Flora Reserves Sabanas de Santa Clara, Monte Ramonal

Sancti Spiritus
Managed Resource Protected Areas Buenavista, Jobo Rosado
Outstanding Natural Elements La Chucha, Loma de Tasajera
Natural Protected Landscapes Topes de Collantes
National Parks Caguanes
Fauna Refuges Delta de Agabama, Delta de Higuanojo, Tunas de Zaza
Ecological Reserves Lomas de Banao
Managed Flora Reserves Lomas de Fomento, Arena Sílice de Casilda, Lebrije

Ciego de Avila
Managed Resource Protected Areas Wetlands North of Ciego de Avila
Outstanding Natural Elements Boquerón de Ciego de Avila, Pilar Dunes, Buchillones – Punta Alegre
National Parks Jardines de la Reina
Fauna Refuges Cayos de Ana María, El Venero, Loma de Santa María, Loma de Cunagua, La Lecha – La Laguna Lake System
Ecological Reserves Center and West of Cayo Coco

Camaguey
Managed Resource Protected Areas Cayo Romano Wetlands, Sierra del Chorrillo, Sierra de Cubitas, Cayo Guajaba, Cayo Sabinal
Outstanding Natural Elements Najasa Fossil Forest (forest turned to stone, of paleontological value), Cangilones del Rio Máximo
Natural Protected Landscapes Cerro Cachimbo, Sierra de Najasa
Fauna Refuges Correa, Máximo River, Cayos Los Ballenatos, Mangroves of Nuevitas Bay, Cayo Cruz, Macurije – Santa María
Ecological Reserves Limones – Tuabaguey, Maternillos – Tortuguilla
Managed Flora Reserves Silla de Cayo Romano, Los Orientales, San Felipe Wetlands, Laguna Larga, Sierra de Guaicanamar

Las Tunas
Fauna Refuges Malagueta Bay, Ojo de Agua, Cayo Rabihorcado
Ecological Reserves Nuevas Grandes Bay – La Isleta
Managed Flora Reserves San Miguel de Junco, Las Nuevas, Monte Naranjito

Holguin
Outstanding Natural Elements Bitirí Natural Bridge, Carstic Hills of Maniabón,
Natural Protected Landscapes Naranjo Bay
National Parks Pico Cristal, La Mensura – Pilotos
Fauna Refuges Tanamo Bay & Cays, Balsas de Gibara, Boca de Cananova, Delta de Mayari
Ecological Reserves Caletones
Managed Flora Reserves Loma de Miraflores, Cabo Lucrecia – Punta de Mulas, Matamoros – Dos Ríos, Ceja de Melones, Ramon Peninsula
Natural Reserves Cerro Galano

Granma
Outstanding Natural Elements Banco de Buena Esperanza – Manáguano
National Parks Desembarco de Granma, Turquíno, Pico Bayamesa
Fauna Refuges Delta de Cauto, Gua Cove, Manzanillo Cays, Monte Palmarito
Ecological Reserves Pico Caracas, El Gigante, El Macío
Managed Flora Reserves Monte Natural Cupaynicú

Santiago de Cuba
Managed Resource Protected Areas Baconao Biosphere Reserve, Carso de Baire
Outstanding Natural Elements Alcarraza Waterfall
Natural Protected Landscapes Gran Piedra, Estrella – Aguadores
Fauna Refuges San Miguel de Parada
Ecological Reserves Siboney – Justisí, Loma del Gato – Monte Líbano, Pico Mogote
Managed Flora Reserves La Caoba, Monte de Barrancas, Monte Bisse, Charrascales de Micara, Pozo Prieto, Caraquitas
Natural Reserves El Retiro

Guantanamo
Managed Resource Protected Areas Cuchillas del Toa
Outstanding Natural Elements Maisi – Caleta, Yunque de Baracoa, Yumurí Canyon, Pan de Azúcar, Pinares de Montecristo, Yara – Majayara, Paso de los Alemanes, Resolladero del Río Cuzco
Natural Protected Landscapes Maisi – Yumurí
National Parks Alejandro de Humboldt
Ecological Reserves Parnaso – Los Montes, Hatibonico, Alto de las Canas, Baitiquirí, Boquerón, Tacre
Managed Flora Reserves Esparto, Monte Verde, Macambo, Pico Galán

Isle of Youth
Managed Resource Protected Areas South of the Isle of Youth, La Cañada
Outstanding Natural Elements Pinar Calizo
Natural Protected Landscapes Sierra de las Casas
National Parks Punta Francés
Fauna Refuges Cayo Campos – Cayo Rosario, Cienaga de Lanier, Cayos los Indios
Ecological Reserves Cayo Largo, Los Indios, Punta del Este

Access to some of the more popular facilities doesn’t (yet) always require advance reservations. For some you can just purchase an excursion locally with transport/guide/entry, or pay directly at the Flora/Fauna gate where prices are established/scaled for visitors and for Cuban residents. But there other guided hikes/visits that are only available if you plan in advance. Some areas have “limited access” (like the Saturn Cave for example, near the Varadero airport, which tops out at 80 visitors/hour). Others (such as the Hoyo de Morlotte in the Desembarco del Granma park) are much further off the beaten path and you’ll only be able to visit and gain access by arranging in advance for an official park guide to meet you there. In our experience, exploring trails in the company of a knowledgeable local guide totally enhances the experience and proffers not only diverse information on local flora & fauna, but sometimes even a little history and local anecdotes as well. WoWCuba can arrange for entrance and official guided visits to many protected areas in Cuba as part of a bespoke WoWCuba travel package.

Cycling Safely in Cuba

mark twain
Is your well-being paramount to the tour company you’re considering for your cycle trip in Cuba?  Should your eyebrows be raised if they are they promoting cycling experiences after dark, in the urban core of the city of Havana, or riding activities during the summer rainy season?

Yes, everyone knows that biking is coming back in vogue in Cuba (for us die-hard bike fanatics it never went out of style…), but as much as we love the sport, it’s not for everyone and it’s essential to be realistic when making your travel plan. Travelers engaging in short-duration bicycle excursions on a holiday are not always frequent riders, and may lack experience navigating urban traffic or otherwise underestimate some of the challenges of riding a bicycle in a foreign tropical country. WoWCuba / MacQueen’s Island Tours takes client safety very seriously and so urges anyone considering incorporating cycling into their travel itinerary in Cuba to keep in mind some of the red flags that are being raised at WoWCuba / MacQueen’s with several of the promos we’ve seen for new 2-wheeled adventures popping up around Cuba.
 
Biking in urban centers comes with certain risks.
Is the tour operator trying to sell you a Havana City Bike Tour focused only only gushing about the benefits…like appreciating the sights/sounds/smells of its busy streets from the seat of a bike? Are you picturing the wind running through your hair while your selfie stick sticks precariously out of the super-cute wicker basket on your beach cruiser’s handlebars and everything always turns out hunky-dory? If that’s the case, then they are probably sorely remiss in preparing you for the reality and risks of riding a bike in Havana.

One of them is traffic, especially in the urban center of Havana where designated bicycle lanes are practically non-existent. While Cuba’s capital was ahead of the times in the early 1990’s with its bike lanes and infrastructure, much of that has gone by the wayside. To get to/from Old Havana the bike (and passenger) boats still operate between Casablanca & Regla. When I see groups of tourists taking up the limited # of spots on these “shortcuts” originally intended for moving the local (not visiting) population, I sometimes feel that it’s unfair to locals who depend on these methods of transportation to conduct the essential activities of their daily lives. We also have the bike bus that connects Habana Vieja to Habana del Este, but the special bike lanes in the city core disappeared with the Special Period. So don’t let them kid you with clever travel copy. Yes, a trip designer can always try and pick some of the lesser-travelled streets when designing a cycling route without leaving Havana’s urban center. But if you ask anyone in Cuba with half a notion of what the term elevated liability means, they’ll agree that you almost need an extra set of eyes in the back of your head to safely navigate Havana streets by bicycle these days.
Havana drivers (and their sometimes rickety cars) are not particularly courteous to each other, much less to cyclists, and there are several areas where cycling is in fact prohibited. Even along the iconic Malecon seawall and 5th Avenue in Miramar, where the non-allowance of cycling activities is signaled by a sign with a bicycle in the middle and red circular band around the outside.

Noxious vehicle fumes (or the stench of garbage rotting in heat) are another negative for cyclists in Cuban cities. This remains a frequent report of detracting factors to city riding. Getting out of the city altogether and heading east or west are two of the best ways to avoid some of the above hazards. .

Helmets are not the law in Cuba, but if you value your head…
We’re not sure what self-respecting bicycle company would not provide helmets for their clients, or neglect to ensure that they use them while riding in Cuba, but as advocates for helmet use based on a lifetime of professional and retail experience, we suggest you don’t leave your safety up to chance. Just use a helmet while riding. Brain injuries happen when you’re least expecting them, and not protecting your non-returnable hard drive with one of today’s lightweight/vented helmets is simply not smart. A company that offers you a bike tour while claiming they look out for your safety, but then neglect to take responsibility for something as basic as committing to providing a helmet on a bicycle tour is probably not a true specialist in cycling activities.

Biking in the rain in Cuba can be hazardous.
With a high number of diesel-fuel vehicles on Cuban roads, a film often coats paved road surfaces, making them very slippery when wet. This is especially true at intersections where concrete is more common than asphalt. It can be a braking hazard for those unfamiliar with local road conditions. Rainy season in Cuba typically runs from May to October and rain is more common in the afternoon than morning.

WoWCuba’s tour leaders inform riders of what to expect in rainy conditions before they occur, and our support vehicle is always present when needed as back-up. The decision to ride is ultimately the client’s, but our team always makes participants aware of potential weather and road-related hazards in advance so that riders’ awareness is raised when riding conditions are less than ideal.

Summer temperatures in Cuba are not ideal for cycling.
Besides being rainy season, higher summer temperatures in Cuba can lead to an elevated risk of dehydration for cyclists in Cuba. If you choose to cycle in Cuba in the summer, be sure to always have an adequate supply of potable water. This may not be readily available in retail outlets. A bicycle tour company that suggest clients take care of their own water needs could be risking their dehydration.
WoWCuba’s guided group cycling programs shut down for the summer as we simply feel that the combination of heat and humidity make it a less than ideal time of the year for that type of trip in Cuba. Filtered water is provided for all rides with WoWCuba and immodium is not always available in Cuban pharmacies.

Bicycle repair shops are generally not well-stocked in Cuba.
There are few places where cyclists can purchase spare parts in Cuba, so independent cyclists must be prepared with basic toolkits and spare parts for their equipment. “Poncheras”, or tire repair outlets, do exist and getting a flat repaired is not usually difficult or expensive, providing the tube/tire damage is limited to a puncture (not a blowout).

Riding at night is not recommended.
Well-lit areas are few and far between in Cuba, and night riding is not recommended in Cuba. Even if you have lights and reflective gear, not all drivers will be looking out for cyclists, and with a general absence of designated cycling areas plus Cubans who continue to mix alcohol and driving (elevated risk for this after dark), then you (or the tour operator you choose for your adventure) could be taking your life into your hands by riding at night.

Does your guide team have first aid training?
WoWCuba’s tour leaders are trained to international standards as first aid responders and carry basic first aid supplies in the tour bus at all times, in addition to being in contact with the national public health system’s network for any emergencies that go beyond the scope of their training. Our team is certainly not immune from handling the occasional minor accident, but their accumulated knowledge and training has undeniably come in handy over the years when dealing with a variety of unexpected health complications on tour. If the cycling trip you’re considering :
-is accompanied by Cuban “tour guide” with no official government tour guide accreditation
-has no support vehicle or in-house back-up plan for transporting injured/incapacitated riders
-has no staff with first-aid training certification
then you should be prepared to accept the consequences of signing on for a tour that might be improvisational and carries higher than just the inherent risks of cycling in general.

WoWCuba advocates for a safe, sustainable bicycling experience in Cuba. Choose wisely when comparing tour operators for any active travel endeavours.

B&B Evolution in Cuba

There’s a saying about Cubans “o no llegan o se pasan” reflecting their tendency to either fall completely short or go way overboard, challenged with finding the exact Goldilocks measure of “just right” in many aspects of their daily lives and behaviour. The decor of the very lovely b&b we recently used, situated in a privileged location in Cienfuegos, is a perfect illustration. We made a last minute decision to travel and, as it was low season, we decided to try our luck and see what we could find on arrival. If you ask me, it would have been absolutely perfect if the owner just took away a few of the things that for me seem to clutter and detract from the natural beauty of her home. She charged us $40 CUC/night (excluding breakfast) and in our experience the room was just average by Cuban standards. Typically rooms in that area go for $25 CUC/night. It did have a split air conditioner, hot water and blow dryer, but other than that it was nothing extraordinary. Many b&b’s in Cuba offer those conveniences these days for similar or lower rates in low season. She claims that she recently discovered that one of the new powerhouse hotel booking engines operating in Cuba is selling the very same room for $103 USD per night. She expressed indignation at those rates, incredulous that the re-seller would earn more than she does as an operator, but I told her that’s the cost of dealing with the new US hotel marketing machines and the multiple layers they use to sell services in Cuba.

#1 mistake alot of Cuban B&B owners make when decorating their guestrooms: satin.
This went out in the 70’s, but noone has told Cuban casa particular owners that yet, and they continue to buy yards and yards of the tacky material and have local seamstresses whip up custom-made combinations of bedspreads & matching pillowcases to adorn their rooms. I wish designers in Cuba would start a campaign to get rid of them. I’d honestly rather simple white cotton sheets if that’s all to be found. It’s not, of course, but they don’t have HGTV in Cuba, so maybe it’s just that these operators need some exposure to good & modern design trends. En masse.
bed
#2 mistake: too much clutter. Stick to the basics and invest in quality, not quantity. Drown those creepy gnomes and trash the ceramic dwarfs and toadstools unless your name is Snow White and you’re catering to preschoolers. I really don’t want to see a one-eyed pot-bellied thing leering up at me from a fake waterfall with a knowing grin when I pull back the curtains to gaze at the ocean outside my room.

 


#3 mistake: investing in fancy before the basics. Fix the roof tiles and paint that last flower pot out front even if they belong to a part of the building that’s not under your ownership. The facade is the face of your business. If you have an air conditioner that may spit out the occasional drop of water (or worse), then don’t install it right over the bed. We ended up getting blasted by Tropical Depression Alberto and would have greatly appreciated a simple $5-$10 doorsweep rather than all the fancy plaster ceiling ornaments in our room. We awoke in the middle of the night to a room that had flooded from water coming in under the door, a/c dripping on our heads, and leaky roof that had soaked my leather purse from its resting spot on a ledge leaning against the wall. The casa owner was very friendly, and volunteered all kinds of information we didn’t ask for, including the fact that she has Spanish residence, and the coveted 5-year US visa. But after a sleepless night when I suggested that she consider picking up some simple weather stripping or a rubber door sweep on her next trip to Miami , rather than assimilate the constructive criticism, she dismissed it.

Don’t get me wrong. The place is lovely and the owner goes out of her way to make you feel welcome. There are just times I wish I could just come out and be blunt with some of the operators we come across and tell them that less is more, to identify and look after the basics first and then know where to stop to find that perfect balance. Without offending their sensibilities.

 

The Martín Infierno Cave

5 de septiembrePhoto credit: 5 de Septiembre

At WoWCuba we relish travelling backroads and would take a meandering scenic route over a boring highway any day. Having spent over a ¼ century criss-crossing Cuba on bicycles, motorcycles, in cars, buses, trains, antique motorcycles and airplanes we sometimes find there are fewer and fewer places in this marvelous land that we’ve not yet had the opportunity to explore. That often leads us to seek out some of the more obscure reference points and research their viability as destinations to share with privileged WoWCuba travelers. This past weekend led us to the Ecotur offices in Cienfuegos where we had the distinct pleasure of meeting a seasoned veteran in nature tourism and sharing an interesting exchange with him about a variety of activities under development in south central Cuba, one of which is the Martin Infierno Cave. The cave, first discovered in Cumanayagua in 1967 and declared National Monument in 1990, features one of the largest stalagmites in the world (over 67 meters, or almost as high as a 20-story building). It is situated 650 meters above sea level, 793 meters long, and reaches 197 meters in depth. Until recently visits were mainly underground and uncontrolled, resulting in some neglect and human-inflicted damage to the natural treasure.
Stalagmite Martin Infierno Cave
Photo Credit: CubaDebate

To our great pleasure, we discovered that Cuban authorities have assigned a ranger/guard to discourage illegal visitation, and assign fines to trespassers. Ecotur reports they now have authorization (for bats, etc) from Cuban Public Health authorities and are working on infrastructure for official excursions to the natural wonder. They expect to finally be able to launch that product, including in the first stage, visits to 2 of its 4 caverns by next spring. In a second phase they hope to be able to introduce safe walkways to minimize damage to the cave’s interior, and eventually allow access to the chamber housing the main attraction, the huge stalagmite.

Note there are several less-than-responsible websites and mass tourism marketing machines out there currently indiscriminately promoting this cave as if it were a legitimate tourist destination, when in fact the National System of Protected Areas (SNAP) clearly indicates that unauthorized and unofficial visits are still prohibited. To preserve the integrity of natural treasures such as this one, WoWCuba strongly urges all responsible travelers to respect local regulations while traveling in Cuba, and be informed of which areas are authorized for visits.

Tread lightly and leave only footprints behind. And a word to some of the newbie tour operators in Cuba: Don’t be tempted to capitalize on Cuba’s natural resources until Cuban authorities have duly researched and authorized activities for visitors to these unique and fragile sites. They will have trained guides to escort visitors and ensure that they are preserved for future generations to contemplate and study.

Havana Girls Trip

A couple of my best Canadian girlfriends are planning a trip to Havana to visit me in May and I want to maximize both our time together and any of their independent exploring with fun, inspirational experiences. While all-inclusives are undeniably easy for organizing and budgeting, I personally can’t think of anything more boring or monotonous to do in Cuba. Especially when your friends are foodies and fortunate to hail from PEI, Canada’s food island. One of my girlfriends has never been here before, so when she asked me if they have 2-ply toilet paper in Cuba (me: we’re sometimes lucky if we have any, might as well a selection or luxury grade!), I decided I better get to work putting together some semblance of an itinerary to truly pique their interest (and tantalize their taste buds) if I’m going to actually pull this off. So if you’re planning a trip to Havana with your girlfriends, sisters or moms, then read on for some of my favorite spots to share with them. If you’re traveling as a group of ladies and prefer to pre-arrange transport & services (for groups, this invariably makes things flow much better), WoWCuba would be happy to oblige. Enjoy!

Getting Around
Bike taxis can be lots of fun and allow you to experience your surroundings a little more interactively, truly taking in the sights, smells and sounds of Cuba’s capital. Hitching a ride in a classic convertible car can be a little exhilarating for those who are new at it. Snapping a selfie with El Morro fortress (or some other iconic Havana landmark in the background) from the back seat of an antique car seems like an obligatory right of passage for visitors to our marvellous and photogenic city these days. Either way, neither of these options are difficult to come by, especially in Old Havana. Just make sure to ask the price before you jump aboard, as some Cuban taxi drivers can be opportunistic. As a rule of thumb, when you do the negotiating up front, there are no unpleasant surprises to deal with later.Shopping
Soaps & Scents
Nothing can remind you of a place or time quite so effectively as a scent or particular flavor and while many features of travel can be now replicated in virtual reality, this is not one of them. So go ahead and indulge yourself, engraining and extending your travel memories through signature scents and flavors.
D’Brujas – hand-crafted scented soaps. Some of the wonderful natural scents include coffee-eucalyptus, coconut, cappuccino, bamboo and more.
Habana 1791 – hand-mixed floral perfumes & scents housed in a historic laboratory-cum-museum
Mariposa perfume – made by Suchel and named after Cuba’s national flower, the butterfly jasmine, this popular Cuban perfume is widely available and costs just $11 CUC.
Locally Handmade Hats, Bags, Clothing, Jewellery, Housewares & more
Alma Cuba Shop – steampunk jewellery, Panama hats, paper products, unusual gifts
Piscolabis – decorative items, glass, ceramics, upcycled pieces, jewellery, café on-site
Galeria Bolo – shoes, bags, wallets and more. Some of their work is exquisite.
Zulu – custom-made leather bags for those who love quality one-of-a-kind items
Clandestina – t-shirts, fabric bags and more by innovative local designers. Quirky humor = free
Mercado Artesanal Antiguos Almacenes De San José – Old Havana Artisans Market
Antiques & Oddities
Bazar Vintage – Vedado storefront specializing in lamps made from upcycled materials
Memorias – vintage gift items in a convenient Old Havana location
Snacking, Cafecitos & Indulgences
Old Havana
Creperie Oasis Nelva – enchanted flower/plant shop & café specializing in crepes
CicloCuba – authentic Cuban sandwiches, fruit smoothies, natural juices, cocktails and radlers (you have to try the pale ale & grapefruit soda combination)! And when it’s in season, their avocado toast is to die for. You just can’t beat Cuban avocadoes.
Jibaro – tapas, delish and varied salads, mains & fabulous mocktails  (it’s super-close to where we work during the week, so great for my girlfriends on their independent forays)
Helad’oro – diverse ice cream flavors, this is their main location. Their ice cream brand can now also be savored in Vedado at the Cafe d’ La Esquina.
Bianchini – homemade sweet treats including vegan options
Café del Angel – café with good breakfasts, tempting (if not a little expensive by Cuban standards) smoothie flavors & designer Jacqueline Fumero’s locally-produced fashions in an artsy neighborhood of Old Havana
Chocolate Museum – savor this Cuban delicacy in solid or liquid forms, dark, white or milk chocolate flavors. They even offer truffels. Product demonstrations also offered on-site at the museum (which is really more of a cafe these days). You’ll often see churro (fried sugar-coated sweet dough) vendors outside. If the chocolate wasn’t tempting enough…
Vedado
Cuba Libro – books & magazines in English, shaded garden, hammocks, coffee, cappucino, tea, scrabble, chess
Café Presidente – great lunch spot with full menu, air conditioning, and consistent service
Café d’ La Esquina – for tapas, mini-pizzas, cocktails, drinks, ice cream, sweets and more
Miramar/Playa
Casa del Gelato – impressive selection of icy gelato treats
Café Fortuna – a funky slow spot where you can select from a broad coffee menu and sip away while seated at a sewing machine, in a bathtub or an old car.

Dining
Guanabo
Restaurante 421 – specializes in Italian-style pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven, closest restaurant to our house in Guanabo
Le Mare – if this place were set any closer to the ocean they’d have to elevate it on stilts. Enjoy it while it lasts – climate change is coming. I like their shrimp and the flan is divine.
Chicken Little – consistently good service and reasonable prices have kept us loyal clients to this little spot.
Piccolo – really great pizza is served here, it’s a little more expensive than at 421, but very good quality and they make some of their own charcuterie
Old Havana
Donde Lis – if avocado’s in season then you have to try their octopus over a bed of guacamole served with sweet potato chips
Jibaro – also mentioned above under snacks, it’s a terrific not-too-expensive option for an evening meal too
Cafe Bohemia – an oasis from the hustle & bustle of Old Havana, the inner courtyard here is a welcome reprieve.
Ivan Chef Justo – this is on the more expensive end of Cuban restaurants, but still relatively affordable compared to dining out in Canada or the US. Regularly rotating menu, great ambience.
Vedado
Beiruit Shawarma – Chef Alicia’s flavor profiles are spot on, and I must admit this is one of our favorite new spots.
Mediterraneo – food is well-prepared, and their farm-to-table concept is novel in Cuba. Individual travelers can opt to tour their Guanabacoa farm and then dine at the Vedado restaurant afterwards (for a package price). Or for groups, a tour followed by dinner right at the farm can be arranged in advance.
Fuumiyaki – diverse sushi menu, demonstration cooking
Playa
Santy Pescador – sushi served beside the boat that probably caught the fish you’re eating. It may not be set in a Pinterest-worthy, high-end marina with luxury yachts to admire while you savor the salty sea smell over your meal, but the view is definitely authentically Cuban.
La Lisa
Conde Baraca – authentic and affordable Cuban food (much of it grown in-house), good service, unlimited repeats on rice/root vegetable sides, and close to several excellent greenhouses / gardening centers I like to frequent. Show cooking also available here.

Nautical
Time will undoubtedly be spent at Playas del Este as the white sand beach is walkable distance from our house in Mirador de Marbella (Beautiful Sea Lookout). Havana’s eastern beaches are spread over a 20+-kilometer piece of coastline and include (west to east) Bacuranao, Tarara, Megano, Santa Maria del Mar, Boca Ciega, Guanabo, Veneciana and Brisas del Mar. We like the beach at Villa los Pinos in Santa Maria for avoiding some of the larger crowds and rocky entries in the village of Guanabo, but where you still have the option of ordering refreshing local treats such as icy fresh coconut water (served in the coconut), cold drinks or hot tamales, served by the restaurant staff or beach vendors right to your beach chair/umbrella. If we really just want to get away from people and chill then we usually try the beach between Megano and Tarara where water entry is a bit more steep. There are also some nice lagoons for swimming there. For beach glass hunting and walking while relatively undisturbed, the Rincon de Guanabo just past the Brisas del Mar residential community is the best. We recommend taking a bag to collect and later properly dispose of some of the plastic garbage that collects there while you’re at it. Don’t let the presence of sacrificed animal carcasses deter you; that’s part of Santeria religious practices, although we sometimes wish its followers would realize that using the sea as a dumping ground for dead goats/chickens or floating entire cakes as offerings on cardboard bases in the ocean may not be the best way to gain favor with the water goddess Yemaya. If you see any blue bulky fabric packages, probably best just not to disturb them. Even the beach cleaners don’t like to go near that stuff, mostly out of superstition. There’s an elk coral garden off of the point that’s fantastic for snorkeling. You can take a catamaran out there or swim to it if you’re feeling especially energetic. We usually kayak there ourselves and then snorkel. The water in front of the Rincon de Guanabo is full of seaweed so best to start out from the point or Brisas del Mar. Please remember, coral is for admiring but not touching.

While we’re on that topic (looking/not touching), do be aware that you might encounter the occasional slightly depraved Cuban male with a hyperactive libido lurking in the dunes and to be aware of them. They may be flashers, or “tiradores” (public masturbators), as they’re known here. My sister was once scared by one and indignant that another brazen Cuban man reached out and actually touched her butt while biking, but the next time she was prepared and charged at the startled flasher like a crazed banshee, and he quickly disappeared in the opposite direction. I’m not sure if that’s really the wisest action. While it worked for her, I think the best plan is just to discreetly ignore them. Rremember, a reaction could be what most excites a perv – and zero reaction might just take the wind out of their sails, so to speak. But do take the precaution of travelling with a friend if you’re going to be in any isolated areas. A final warning to my best girlfriends: if I find out you’ve been hanging out at the deserted beaches more frequently than is normal, just know I’m onto you both…just kidding (well, kind of…)!!! What they do in the dunes of Guanabo, Cuba, has nothing to do what goes on in the dunes of Blooming Point, PEI, girls. But then again, maybe I’m just not with the times – aren’t we all supposed to be protecting (not romping around in) the dunes these days?

Health & Wellness
Pura Vida – Havana’s premiere health & wellness facility, with a full-range of fitness classes available on a group or personal basis including yoga, pilates, zumba, meditation, weight training, massage, and much, much more.
Vida Spa – specializing in massage and skin care services
O2 Spa – reflexology, massage, gym, hair salon, social spaces, yoga
Atlantic Guanabo – hair, nails, skin care, massage
Memories Miramar – day use of pool, gym, sauna, tennis courts
CicloCuba – quality Specialized bicycle rentals (not beater bikes or single-speed beach cruisers). Walk-ins accepted during the week with a $200 CUC deposit/bike, or you can reserve 3+ rental days in advance and just have your credit card pre-authorized for the security deposit.

Educational Experiences
Vivero Loteria – ornamental cactus/succulent arrangements (Cuba’s largest collection)
El Divino – out-of-this-world wine cellar, fruit trees in extinction in Cuba, orchids
El Ajiaco – Cuban cooking & bartending classes with meal and visit to herb-grower included. Ample seafood options on Cuban-inspired menu.
Quinta de los Molinos – gardens on the university grounds with a butterfly sanctuary and occasional gardening/bonsai workshops. This is an historic oasis in the middle of the city.
Alamar Agricultural Cooperative – We have gradually been planting both at home and in our neighborhood in eastern Havana, so with the community of Alamar being relatively close to home, we love to browse their fruit & palm tree selection. This is the largest and most successful urban gardening center in the city.
Tailors & Seamstresses – This is a dying profession in the developed world, so it’s refreshing to see clothing being repurposed and transformed in Cuba. Bring along some clothes or fabric you’re looking to transform/alter and then ask around for the local seamstress or tailor. Many will accommodate you same-day and are very resourceful with making tailor-made adjustments for just the right fit for your body type. If you bring along some extra needles & thread for their machines (or any other cute or useful sewing accessories), that’s a bonus. I usually voluntarily pay considerably more than what my local seamstress charges and am happy to do so to help support her family. I also enjoy watching her work her talents at her well-worn manual sewing machine.

Culture / Nightlife
Cuban Art Factory (FAC) – one of Havana’s most popular cultural gathering places with a diverse lineup with everything from visual arts, to multiple music genres, poetry, fashion shows and more gracing their stages. You can slip between galleries and concert halls, eat/drink, take dance (even tango) classes, socialize or just drink in the distinctly Cuban atmosphere.
Gran Teatro de La Habana – some of the most elevated cultural performances in Cuba take place in this spectacular & recently-restored setting which is the home to the National Ballet
SuenaCubano.com – a good online source for cultural programming, but best to check in closer to your travel dates for updates.

Support the Cuban People: US-Cuba general travel license category

If you carefully review the US Treasury regulations there are general travel license categories which provide a certain level of freedom for supporting the private sector, and opportunities for engaging with Cubans without a lot of direct supervision from US tour leaders or exorbitant prices from US group people to people tour operators. The “support for the Cuban people” category is one we feel may begin to see more frequent use by independent US travelers, providing they ensure compliance with the full-time itinerary requirement within the parameters of the category. Cuban officials have not supported this category to date as their (understandable) posture is that the best and truest “support for the Cuban people” would be a removal of the US Embargo, of course. But being pragmatic, we think that ideology aside, travelers and Cuban travel intermediaries should be devising more practical ways to work within the existing guidelines that will both satisfy current US legal regulations and Cuban objectives/targets for tourism production without disrespecting Cuba’s right to self-determination and self-government as a sovereign nation. The line of thinking in Cuba is that the US has created this license category as a subversive move, so WoWCuba strongly urges those who select it to be very careful about exactly how they propose to be compliant on the full-time itinerary component of this category within the rule of Cuban law. In Example 1, we’ve replaced the disingenuous suggestion in the US Federal Register document of “volunteering with a recognized nongovernmental organization to build a school for underserved Cuban children” (as this was something Cuba made a priority at the beginning of the Revolution, and education continues to be one of their more successful initiatives) with an activity far more likely to actually transpire and truly benefit the Cuba we know & love.

“Example 1 to §515.574: A group of friends plans to travel and maintain a full-time schedule throughout their trip by [staying at a hotel that does not appear on the Cuba Restricted List (see § 515.209) and volunteering with the recognized environmental organization CITMA or United Nations to clean up a section of public beach in the local community, both providing a positive example in terms of environmental responsibility/community beautification, and more importantly, reducing the possibility that diseases such as dengue or zika would proliferate in the mosquito population]. In their free time, the travelers plan to rent bicycles to explore the streets of Havana and visit an art museum. The travelers’ trip would qualify for the general license because the volunteer activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba and constitute a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people and supports civil society in Cuba, and results in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.

Example 2 to §515.574: An individual plans to travel to Cuba, stay in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eat at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shop at privately-owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas) during his or her four-day trip. While at the casa particular, the individual will have breakfast each morning with the Cuban host and engage with the Cuban host to learn about Cuban culture. In addition, the traveler will complete his or her full-time schedule by supporting Cuban entrepreneurs launching their privately-owned businesses [note there are around 200 private entrepreneurial categories in Cuba]. The traveler’s activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba. Because the individual’s qualifying activities are not limited to staying in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eating at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopping at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas) and the traveler maintains a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people, supports civil society in Cuba, and promotes the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that results in meaningful interaction between the traveler and Cuban individuals, the individual’s travel qualifies for the general license.

Example 3 to §515.574: An individual plans to travel to Cuba, rent a bicycle to explore the neighborhoods and beaches, and engage in brief exchanges with local beach vendors. The individual intends to stay at a hotel that does not appear on the Cuba Restricted List. The traveler’s trip does not qualify for this general license because none of these activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba.”

Note to 515.574(a): Each person relying on the general authorization in this paragraph must retain specific records related to the authorized travel transactions. See §501.601 and §501.602 of this chapter for applicable recordkeeping and reporting requirements.”

Ensuring Compliance

Support for the Cuban people §515.574 covers activities of individuals, human rights organizations & NGO’s that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba when travelers engage in a full-time schedule of activities (generally understood to be ~ 6 hrs/day on weekdays) that enhance contact with Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, and result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba. While most are still misinterpreting the rules of this category, wrongly assuming travelers are required to stay exclusively at private Cuban residences (casa particulares or AirBnB’s), WoWCuba can confirm that’s definitely not the case. We’ve consulted with the US Treasury and they state that, “Private home stays are not obligatory for compliance with the 515.574 GL”. Stays at hotels not on the restricted entities list are fully permissible (basically anywhere except a Gaviota or Habaguanex-owned hotel). License category compliance is a result of engaging in full time activities per the license description. Supporting the private sector can also include dining at privately-owned restaurants (paladares) and shopping at privately-owned small businesses (cuentapropistas).

Support the Cuban People full-time category compliance
WoWCuba’s suggested theme: Environmental Cleanup & Sustainability

If interested in pursuing an itinerary along environmental lines in the Havana area, following are some specific ideas on how to design a compliant program:
Volunteer activities could be with the United Nations or CITMA (Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology & Environment) and include cleaning up a section of public beach, for example, to promote non-proliferation of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue or zika (also a benefit to public health). Landfills & garbage in oceans are major issues on planet Earth and Cuba is not exempt from the problem.

PNP Rincon de Guanabo

The Rincón de Guanabo is a Natural Protected Landscape in desperate need of immediate attention as it’s bordering on neglect, with a lack of financing to ensure its vibrant future. It’s less than 30 minutes east of Havana on the coast close to the Mayabeque provincial border. There’s a small interpretive center located at the Municipal Historic Museum. The UN is looking for help to conserve and sustainably manage the area which features mangroves, turtles in risk of extinction, beach, coral reef with abundant healthy elk coral just a short distance from the shore, and wetlands with local and migrant birds. Garbage and seaweed tend to collect on the beach and following are some photos taken in November 2017 (after Hurricane Irma). Evidently cleanup efforts haven’t yet made it to this section of the beach which is rarely frequented by visitors, but borders the wetlands and mangrove reserve area.

Natural Protected Landscape

Travelers could take this further by separating waste and donating aluminum cans to a private entrepreneur (often elderly people) who gather and return recyclable materials in exchange for a fee, thereby not only leaving a public area cleaner/more beautiful/safer for public health, but also economically assisting a vulnerable segment of Cuba’s society. Another extension of this type of project could include bagging seaweed to take to a local agricultural cooperative (such as the one in Alamar) to be rinsed and transformed into organic compost, where fresh (non-pesticide) materials are sorely needed to keep their urban gardening plots fertile and productive. Seaweed breaks down much faster than a lot of alternative organic matter. Or collecting seaglass for local artisans to be used for recycled art projects. The possibilities for collaboration with the private sector could be extensive.

Affidavits & Paperwork

Independent US travelers to Cuba simply print/complete/sign a do-it-yourself form, take it with them while traveling in the event US authorities request evidence of the purpose of their trip, and then keep their copy on file for 5 years along with their detailed itinerary and any receipts corroborating their licensed travel category compliance. If traveling to Cuba under a general license, upon returning to the US, in the Countries Visited section of the Customs/Immigration form you can freely declare “Cuba (under general license xxx.xxx)” without fear of reprisal. Having a copy of your affidavit can be helpful on the off chance that a US Immigration official requests one. Download a Sample Travel Affidavit Form-General for individual travel categories.

Travel Service Providers

OFAC no longer issues specific licenses to US travel agencies. Neither are US travelers restricted to using travel agents or airlines based or incorporated in the US to make their legal Cuba travel arrangements. Any travel agent or airline in the USA or abroad may be used for these transactions. While the new US limitation on educational group people to people travel (§515.565b) requires that the organization sponsoring the group travel (not necessarily the travel agency employed for prepaying services itself) must be a person subject to US jurisdiction and send a trip chaperone (also subject to US jurisdiction) to accompany the trip and ensure trip compliance, the chaperone/group rules do not apply to the Support the Cuban People general license. According to the Treasury, “There is no prohibition against US persons using 3rd country entities to make travel arrangements, however US persons must comply with one of the general licenses and in the process of making payments be ready to inform any of the banks involved in that payment of the general license they fall under.”

For further information on Legal US Travel to Cuba, visit the US Travelers section of WoWCuba’s website.

Extraordinary Havana Experiences Recommended by WoWCuba for Independent Travelers

This post is in response to the flood of recent requests we’ve been receiving from potential independent travelers who claim they’re too busy to plan or research their Cuba travel but want to see the country’s culture, people and beauty. First, we’d urge reconsidering that stance, since any wise person knows that arming oneself with knowledge about a destination’s people, services, history and even politics will only serve to make one’s independent travel experience richer and more fulfilling. Travel is as much about anticipation and expanding your human horizons as the moments one will live contemplating the sunset from a different perspective while physically present in the destination. Having a solid background or at least even just some basic information about Cuba and the (hopefully off the beaten path) places you intend to explore prior to arriving will impart greater significance to your travel experience and enable you to have more meaningful interactions once here. Put down your selfie stick for awhile, quit taking that shaky video from the top of the double decker bus that you’ll never watch again, and instead resolve to engage in meaningful activities. Observe and try to relate to what you see, smell, taste, feel and hear. Make a conscious decision to travel with purpose. You might thank me for that later.

Starting with Havana…
The following two options are available for advance arrangement only as part of your WoWCuba travel package:
Cuban cooking classes
El Ajiaco Café, a Cuban specialty restaurant in the fishing village of Cojimar just east of Havana, offers instruction in Cuban cuisine. Their offer includes:
-visit to a local herb grower (and their supplier, just 3 blocks from the restaurant) where you can learn about their production process and hand-select herbs to use in food preparation.
-an introduction to Cuban cuisine and its origins, presentation delivered in the El Ajiaco patio (with a restaurant employee providing English translation if required).
-demonstration of how to prepare local dishes including ropa vieja (shredded beef), plus lobster & shrimp enchilado (in tomato sauce).
-instruction on preparation of the Cuban mojito at the bar, followed by making your own version of this, one of Cuba’s 3 signature cocktails.
-your lunch includes bread service (accompanied by several of their own sauces), ajiaco (a typical Cuban root vegetable-based soup/stew), rice, salad, beans, yucca, sample the beef/lobster/shrimp dishes that you learned how to prepare in the kitchen, accompanied by a national brand beverage, your choice of several typical Cuban desserts, traditional coffee, and aged rum to finish of the meal.
Cost: $60 CUC/person includes prepayment to guarantee the service
Schedule: begin @ 10:00 a.m.
Excludes: transportation, gratuities
Group size: 2-6 participants
Advance booking available: in conjunction with any WoWCuba land package

Escorted Art Tour
With advance notice, we can arrange for a Cuban curator as the perfect escort to squire you around the most captivating artistic corners of the nation’s capital. The curator counts on a wide range of connections in the Cuban art world including the most celebrated contemporary Cuban painters such as Kcho and Fabelo to lesser-known and more affordable up & coming artists. Stops on your itinerary can be customized to your particular interests, whether they be art galleries, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, Cuban artist cafes, studios of Cuban designers, or browsing the wares of private antique collectors.
Cost: we offer 1/2 day or full day packages with or without transportation, on a group or private basis. A private 4-hour tour + transport for 2 travelers goes for $112 CUC/person.
Advance booking available: in conjunction with any WoWCuba land package

Following is a selection of DIY activities for cultural exploration, education and enjoyment
Music/Performing Arts
Online Cultural Events Guide: this is one of the best sources of current performance information including artists, details on venues, performance dates and more. Research on planning your ideal independent cultural itinerary should start here. Another option is La Papeleta. The Google translator is a tool you may need to employ for both websites. Some suggested venues:
Fabrica de Arte Cubano: for live music, drinks/snacks, art/sculpture/photography gallery
Corner of 26 & 11, Vedado (53) 7-838-2260
Privé Lounge: for mellower live music, Cuban troubadors, and drinks in a smaller venue
Calle 88A #306, between 3ra & 3raA, Miramar (53) 7-209-2719
Casa de la Musica Miramar: for diverse local acts and salsa dancing (they offer both late afternoon and late evening performances)
Avenida 35, corner of 20, Miramar, Playa (53) 7-204-0447 or 7-202-6147
El Sauce: where you can catch the most contemporary & popular Cuban acts
Calle 9na #12015 between 120 & 130, Cubanacán, Playa (53) 7-204-6247 or 7-204-7114
Jardines de 1830: for salsa on the weekends in a picturesque open air venue at the mouth of the Almendares River
Malecón & Calle 22, Vedado, Plaza (53) 7-838-3091-2
The Magic Flute for later evening jazz performances accompanied by very decent dining and a prime elevated view of the Malecón and US Embassy. Indoor & outdoor seating available.
Calzada #101 (Penthouse) between L & M, Vedado (53) 7-832-3195
La Zorra y el Cuervo is perhaps the most famous jazz venue in Havana, in a basement venue in the middle of the action on La Rampa.
Avenida 23 between N & O, Vedado, Cuba (53) 7-866-2402
Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís: for classical music performances at 5 pm on Sundays
Plaza San Francisco de Asís, Old Havana
Cuban National Ballet: performances are a spectacular bargain and provide insight into Cuban culture at its highest levels. National performances are sometimes at the Teatro Nacional de Cuba and occasionally at the newly-inaugurated Teatro Marti, but usually at the Gran Teatro.
Cuban Contemporary Dance Troupe offers performances, a twice annual festival (Cubadanza) and workshops geared more towards intermediate-professional dancers.
Teatro Nacional de Cuba, Paseo & 39, Plaza, Vedado (53) 7-879-6410 or 7-879-2728
Cuban Dance Classes
La Casa del Son offers instruction for beginners to intermediate dancers in a variety of rhythms including salsa, son, cha-cha-cha, danzon, rumba, casino & folklore in a large restored colonial house.
Empedrado #411 between Compostela & Aguacate, Old Havana (53) 7-867-1537
Spanish Language Courses
The University of Havana offers morning instruction and course length as short as a couple of weeks (40 hours for $200 CUC), to a month or even up to 9 months. With the exception of the month of August, enrollment takes place at the Faculty of Foreign Languages the first Monday of every month. High level of instruction, quality instructors, social activities are often arranged amongst participating students outside of classroom time, and if continuing Spanish education upon your departure from Cuba you´ll find that the transition into your next level of study will often be seamless. More info
The animation departments of most all-inclusive hotels in Cuba offer introductory Spanish classes to their guests for free. But there are of course also a number of private instructors located around the city and country.
Yoga
Eduardo Pimentel of Vidya Yoga studio is Havana’s (and perhaps Cuba’s) most celebrated Yogi. Allow him to help you find your holiday zen with a private or group class.
Calle 26 #514 between/ 5ta & 7ma, Miramar (53) 7-203-3147
Culinary / Agriculture / Wine
El Divino / Finca Yohandra: restaurant, exemplary in community integration/environmental education, 110+ fruit trees in extinction in Cuba, Cuba’s most fabulous wine cellar and in-house sommelier.
El Mediterraneo restaurant is unique in that they cultivate much of their own produce in two farms they operate in Guanabacoa, plus raise small animals, produce their own cured meats, keep goats for milk which they turn into their own cheese, and even maintain a family boat on the south coast in Batabano for the freshest of seafood.
Reading / Relaxing
If the hustle, bustle, bongos and maracas around every corner in Havana gets to be too much and you need a retreat, then Cuba Libro (corner of 19 & 24 in Vedado) is one of my personal favorites for English books, magazines and conversation. I must admit I’m partial as the owner is a friend. But Conner’s café/bookstore/oasis project is unique and a great example of an ethical business model that benefits employees, community members and patrons alike. Sip on a fresh fruit juice, try out a frappuccino, or re-fill your own travel waterbottle from their cooler (without contributing to plastic waste) and then chill out in the garden in a hammock under the shade of the almond tree while browsing your chosen reading material. Check out one of Conner’s Trip Advisor posts (on their review page) for a great list of donation material if you’re inclined to pack anything extra in your suitcase to leave behind after your travels. There’s a good bakery just around the corner (that belongs to another friend!) if you’re looking for something sweet to eat as you indulge in the Cuba Libro’s non-alcoholic beverage menu.

The Old Havana Hotel Crisis

Since 1993 WoWCuba has been exploring Cuba’s backroads, private gastronomical delights, and hidden beaches. Now that even some of the favorite non-resort areas (such as Old Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos & Viñales) are becoming difficult in terms of securing accommodations at preferred properties, it’s time to share some of my favorite alternatives. This post will focus on what’s happening right now in terms of the private restoration efforts in Old Havana.

Cuba’s high-end hotel room availability can’t meet the current demand for high-end lodging. The private sector is beginning to emerge as the next best alternative until the high end hotel chains can catch up for the masses. One of the most desirable neighborhoods at the moment is known as the Loma del Angel (for the 1604 church there, the Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio). Facing the church is a small square called the “Plazuela del Santo Angel” where a scene of a legendary Cuban romance “Cecilia Valdes” by Cuban writer Cirilo Villaverde took place. Check out the statue here. Some of the neighbors will tell you the gentrifying of the neighborhood began with the arrival of Cuban fashion designer Jaqueline Fumero. When the changing of local laws 3 years ago allowing buying/selling of property in Cuba amongst Cuban residents, she converted the corner building facing the church, which sits on elevated ground at the top of the street, into a lovely boutique/café. They have a pleasant outdoor seating area in the Plazuela and my husband and I have shared and enjoyed their $6 complete breakfast (plus crepes on the side, just for weekend decadence). The classic apartment building with the winding wide marble staircase in front is where you’ll find the Hostal del Angel, featuring an even higher view of the neighborhood from their terrific front balcony. The same family has opened up their doors to visitors to Cuba in another couple of properties (one of which you can see from the balcony), restoring the exterior and renovating the interior of a former rundown architectural gem into comfortable tourist rooms plus a rooftop bar/terrace from which to enjoy the surroundings and view of museums, colonial architecture and El Morro fortress across the bay.

Complimentary businesses have sprung up ranging from art galleries, dance studios, an alley of barbers (for anyone looking for a haircut/shave/or maybe even just some local gossip while on holiday), juice bars (some the same juices you can buy in national money from the back side of the apartments situated behind the Cohiba hotel by the way, but of course it costs more to drink lovely fresh local fruit juices in their beautiful Old Havana location). Sit in the shaded indoor restaurant or catch a breeze in the sun, if you prefer, on the upper deck. We like some of the small/creative Cuban restaurants like Chef Ivan Justo (or Aguacate 9 as it’s also known), housed on the second floor of a 1776 colonial home with sight lines to Museum of the Revolution, just steps from the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana). Donde Lis, or Al Carbon are also worth a visit. Casa Pedro Maria has made the most of their space in their prime location behind Al Carbon (because who doesn’t like the smell of barbecue), with their inner courtyard/dining area, a common living room area, and 3 tasteful rooms with private bath separated by curtains from the sleeping areas. With no one living above them, in all likelihood getting permission from the City Historian’s office to add a second floor would be a wise investment. Over 8 years (they were ahead of the curve) the folks at Casa Vitrales have gradually unified their 3-story treasure into a really funky space which spans two pedestrian colonial streets and of course the view’s hard to beat from their 3rd floor rooftop lounge/breakfast bar. Just down the street it’s nice to see that the City Historian’s master plan in this neighborhood also includes beautifully restored and pleasant gathering spaces for the elderly.

Keep heading south from here, about as far as Teniente Rey Street (which we also really like, by the way), to Aguacate and you’ll be treated with views to Plaza Vieja on one end and sightlines to the Capitolio on the other, and picturesque streetscapes in between. If you’re keen on investigating further, you’ll discover that almost every corner building has been purchased by someone or other (from Argentina, China, Italy, France, and of course Cuban Americans with family here, or in some cases Cubans who also have residence abroad) intending to convert it into a small-scale inn with the possibility of other commercial operations on the ground floor. Nice to have all those balconies and exterior ventilation/illumination for guest rooms. Bit by bit the real estate is being picked up (and no longer at a song, by the way). As families relocate (I imagine into more modern and coveted non-shared spaces), the fractured spaces of even the most rundown Old Havana properties, the divided interior courtyards, ceilings (barbacoas) where they never should have been, are now receiving considerable facelifts. Some of these properties face complete reconstruction on the inside (making some of us wonder how long it’s going to take their owners to make their investment back, in fact), but bit by bit some of the jewels are being returned to their former glory. We like the apartment-style accommodations surrounding the tranquil interior courtyard of the Cafe Bohemia building. Bohemia apartmentIf you had a lot of money to burn and someone to invest it with in Cuba, you could buy 3 bedrooms/1 bathroom for 285,000 EUR right in Plaza Vieja. But that’s still pretty much right in the thick of things and the loud Cuban music at La Vitrola might wear on you if you sit next to it for too long.

If you want to get off the beaten path, you can do that by heading further south to the Jesus Maria neighborhood by the Santa Clara Convent. That neighborhood’s still not overdeveloped, although it probably won’t take much longer for things to start rolling. There’s a new port overhaul going on now that the main industrial shipping port’s been moved out of the city to Mariel. The Cerveceria (beer gardens on the bay) and the largest indoor handcraft fair in Havana are just a few blocks away, and new cruise ship / Havana Bay ferry terminal / train station restoration projects are underway. A new floating promenade has just been inaugurated on San Pedro, extending out into the bay.

There were times when you’d probably think twice about wandering around many parts of Old Havana at night by yourself. That’s certainly changing now, although if you don’t know your neighborhoods/plan on drinking/being out really late you’re probably still better not to leave your room with lots of flashy jewelry or be flashing cash around. While violent crime here is minimum, quick thefts or minor scams are not necessarily uncommon. We were stopped driving to work the other day at a routine checkpoint and the officer wanted to know if my husband had a machete in the car. Seriously. He thought his steering wheel locking device lodged beside the driver’s seat was a big mother knife. Or at least that was the first question we got when we got pulled over. If we didn’t have a knife in the car (which presumably would be assumed for self defense?) he could have been given ticket for leaving the car running (since I was sitting in it enjoying the a/c) because when a driver in Cuba exits the car I guess he’s supposed to turn it off and take out the key. Yes, seriously. Not the first time we’ve been told that when being pulled over for doing nothing wrong either. But I’m straying from my topic…

The payment system for many of the 100% Cuban operated b&b’s is still awkward for the most part, with many establishments not having a way to accept credit card payments, others who have little or no internet presence or email access (or an unreliable Nauta account – the local communications company has been struggling with their email servers for several days now), and I think it’s a fairly safe bet to say that most just really prefer to work in cash leaving them freer to engage in tax evasion. Many of the newer establishments have travel operators (with foreign accounts) looking to secure rooms for their guests as backers, so prepayment and guaranteed reservations in their inns won’t be an issue. But small scale inns featuring more than half a dozen rooms that are actually operating at this point are still few & far between. Many of the newest spots with increased capacity (more than the traditional 2-room rentals that used to be permitted under local laws) that will serve the short-term accommodation crisis have yet to open their doors. I’ve also only seen a handful of private establishments that even publish an online availability calendar/fixed rates yet, which makes the work of checking space and confirming accommodations considerably more laborious. I’ve even encountered a “bumping” already with a prepaid private homestay this season, where the owner inadvertently double-booked the same apartment for two different clients on the same date. Thankfully they were able to protect the clients in a higher-priced property very close by. But even prepaid bookings can sometimes go slightly astray.

There are other areas of Havana, of course, besides Old Havana. There are even some surprisingly luxurious spots that have cropped up in decrepit Central Havana, not too far from the action in Old Havana or just a short bike taxi ride to neighboring Vedado. You can find penthouses or mansions in Vedado, beautifully-doted mansions in Miramar, oasis homes on the ocean in Guanabo, and of course a lot of the lower-end $25/night room family-run establishments in the Capital are still open to visitors. But in that price range you should usually be prepared for satin bedspreads, horse or tiger rug wall art, and in some cases very rustic shower facilities as for that price not all the owners can afford to invest in modern comforts or just aren’t aware of all those home renovation/design shows y’all love to watch on tv so much in the developed world. There aren’t too many $25/night undiscovered Architectural Digest candidates out there in Havana these days I’m afraid. We checked in at one place whose online pictures looked considerably more inviting than the reality. The owners (unwittingly?) revealed that the private Cuban accommodation booking site who they list with helped them a lot with removing crowded furniture from their common space and making their space look optimal when he came to take their pictures for his website. Except they then proceeded put everything back where it was when he left, as it was pret-ty rus-tic and cramped, and while certainly a good base for exploring location-wise, I wouldn’t have wanted to spend too much time in that room or its ensuite bathroom. I’m no princess but at this stage in the game I would absolutely be happy to pay more for a superior room and comfort while on a well-deserved holiday.

Booking as far in advance as possible with a reliable operator who will prepay and guarantee your lodging is key right now and will continue to be so for some time. On Sunday I was speaking with some professional drivers who were accompanying clients and they told me that there were actually tourists sleeping in the park in Viñales. With one of the highest concentration of private home accommodations in Cuba, that’s a sure sign that the hotel situation in key areas in Cuba can now be accurately compared to that of Bethlehem upon the birth of Christ.

“I want to come to Cuba before it changes” (credit: the Gringos, 2015)

If I had a dime for every US client email that I’ve received since December 2014 from an American looking to visit Cuba before it changes… It’s starting to grate on me because for those citizens of the rest of the world who’ve been traveling to Cuba for the last 20+ years), of course you know that a lot of things have been gradually changing for some time now. But not due to increased US presence or because of restored diplomatic relations. For the old timers who are familiar with Cuba from its pre-revolutionary days, you’ll know that it’s already come a long way, baby. If Cuba has held fast to its revolutionary principles despite more than 55 years of an economic blockade from its closest neighbor and great economic challenges endured because of that failed policy, well it’s not terribly likely that it’s all of a sudden going to do an about-face now. Cuba might be a third world country but its citizens are educated; Cuba’s revolutionary government eradicated illiteracy in the country in 1961 and most Cubans are no dummies. They got rid of a corrupt government that was in the pockets of the United States business community (and mafia), and nationalized the oil companies and the United Fruit Company, none of which were contributing to (or even concerned about) the well-being of Cuban citizens, their health or education, but rather lining their pockets and extracting profits from Cuba. Goodbye Esso & Shell, hello Cupet. Following are some images someone recently shared with me, de-classified from pre-revolutionary public works files.

I was lamenting the other day to a long-time Canadian client-turned-friend of mine as my workdays get increasingly longer as I try to keep up to the new flow of US clients anxious to come to Cuba, demanding a five star foreign-managed hotel experience from where they expect the country’s history, culture and beauty can be contemplated and appreciated. Besides having no real clue about what they really want to do once here (which makes my job even more laborious), space at the five star hotels in Havana and certain other highly-demanded areas is about as scarce as cheap cars in Cuba these days (for those of you who aren’t in the know, the price of cars has gone completely through the roof here). Her response was priceless and a much-needed infusion of humor into my work day:

“I’ve been musing over this email of yours, and thinking what a great assistant I could be to you if only I could speak Spanish. If I lived in Havana I would want to run small group tours for intelligent tourists (this would be identified by their interest in my tour, of course). It would be a historical tour of pre-revolutionary Cuba. Taking them to buildings and places where all the monkey business went on. I could say “Yes, here is the former police station #3, where they would extract the eyeballs of those who challenged Batista’s dictatorship”, and take them inside to tour the cell block. I might lock up a couple of the Americans for 15 minutes or so as a punishment for the blockade. Or show them the house that some filthy stinking rich dirt bag of a person associated with US business interests lived in with his three mistresses. All the best and most interesting scandals that occurred before the Revolution. Followed by lunch at El Aljibe and a few Bucaneros, of course.”

Over the past 2+ decades, we’ve been privileged to host some of the most intrepid visitors from the US who have traveled to Cuba through a third country, despite their country’s travel ban. The risk of getting “caught” or assessed a fine by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control for traveling to Cuba on an unlicensed basis is now at an all-time low. I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the possibility still exists since the US government so far has not changed its stance on Cuba travel, although it would appear that they may be poised to do so sometime in the next year. For anyone looking for no-risk travel to Cuba, however, the only options are still to undertake travel in one of their 12 general (paperless) categories, or through one of the US companies offering pricey people to people trips. All these options require you to sign an affidavit attesting to the fact that you will be undertaking licensed Cuba travel if you board a direct flight from the US to Cuba. Some US citizens are knowingly (or unknowingly) falsifying that information, but I’m not certain that’s really such a good plan as you never know when Uncle Sam will catch up to you. Some of the agencies holding people to people licenses offer some interesting trips, but all have content designed to be compliant with their license. Although the categorization of exactly what qualifies as people to people contact nowadays is fairly loosely interpreted. Throw in a dance class, talk to some people in the street, visit a church and tweaking how the itinerary is worded to satisfy US government regulations seem to be key. The kind of independent, unstructured travel that most US travelers would probably prefer to take, combining independent visits of colonial cities, maybe a beach or two and perhaps some excursions (just for fun) into the mountains is still not possible under OFAC regulations. That doesn’t stop the more adventurous US traveler from undertaking travel on their own terms though. They simply travel through a third country, avoid signing any affadavits implicating themselves, and skip declaring their Cuba travel on their return. If it were all up to Obama, I figure he’d say kill the embargo now. If some extremist like Marco Rubio ever gets into power though, you just never know what kind of twists & turns the diplomatic road will take.

If you are a US citizen booking travel to Cuba through a third country you will want to be sure that the airline you fly with doesn’t require you to sign any affidavit regarding licensed Cuba travel. Flying with Aeromexico, for example, you might think you would be off the hook. Read a little more closely, however, and you will see that CitiBank (US-owned) has a stake in the airline. So they still ask for a signed affidavit before boarding. Cubana de Aviacion, Copa, Bahamas Air, Cayman Airways, and most Canadian airlines are frequent choices for non-licensed US travelers to Cuba. Some can be difficult to book from the US and may require payment outside of the US. Others may require you to book your air segments separately (not offering a thru fare from the US, but rather two or more separate tickets). And you can’t check your luggage from the US straight through to Cuba when flying through a third country. So you need to gauge for additional connection time. The US recently announced the possibility of adding scheduled flight services to Cuba as early as December, but that may have been a little premature as a few things still need to happen in Congress before travel to and trade with Cuba is normalized.

If you’re a US traveler considering visiting Cuba for the first time, here are some of the most frequent questions that I field:
1) Are you going to go the licensed or unlicensed route? That’s the first decision you’ll need to make as if you’re only considering licensed travel, then the list of travel service providers who can assist you will automatically be greatly reduced, and the price tag for your travel will automatically be higher. WoWCuba and many other Canadian agencies have forged partnerships with US agencies who have coverage for people to people licenses, and are happy to pass on referrals to those agencies and collaborate with them to deliver your travel services on the ground in Cuba.
2) If you’re going the unlicensed route, congratulations. You’re getting closer to how to see Cuba “before it changes” (eye roll) on your own terms. First you’ll need to decide where it makes the most sense to fly from to get to Cuba. Various Canadian cities offer flights to Cuba, with Toronto being the major hub for most year round flights, and other cities offering direct charter flights to various Cuban airports concentrated mainly in the winter months. Cubana Airlines offers daily morning flights from Mexico City to Havana, and mid-afternoon flights between Cancun and Havana. East coast travelers often travel via Nassau, the Cayman Islands, Panama, or Santo Domingo to Cuba. If you require assistance with reserving flights or checking schedules WoWCuba can help. Once your flights to Cuba are secured, then proceed to reserve your connecting flights from the US to/from the Cuba gateway. If traveling in the winter months, do keep in mind that snowstorms can interfere with departures, and planning for an overnight enroute to Cuba can be a good precautionary measure. And do be careful about avoiding connection times that are too tight, especially when dealing with air travel in the Caribbean with air carriers that may not have a good record of on time departures.
3) Trip Cancellation and Medical Insurance is currently only available from US insurance providers for travelers who are undertaking licensed Cuba travel. Medical insurance can be purchased locally upon arrival in Cuba (before going through the immigration counters) from Asistur.
4) Once you get to Cuba, where are you going to stay, how are you going to get around, and what kind of activities do you want to engage in? For the first-time traveler, the options can sometimes be confusing. We have a Trip Planning Resources page that we highly recommend as a starting point. Check out the helpful links there to guide books, maps, distance charts, apps for restaurants, entertainment and accommodation recommendations and much more. Talk to friends that have traveled there, spend a little time reading, peruse the internet. And then get back to us with your general ideas when you’re ready to have us put a quotation together for your travel elements.

Please DON’T tell us you want to experience Cuba’s beauty, culture, and history and expect us to magically produce your ideal itinerary. Those parameters are simply too general for us to draw any intelligent conclusions about what you really want to do and where you want to go in Cuba, the largest Island in the Antilles, 1200 kms long. The experienced traveler will find beauty/culture/history around every corner in Cuba providing their eyes are open, but your enlightenment can often be greatly enhanced when interpretation is provided by a knowledgeable local, especially true if you don’t speak Spanish. Unless you are family or a personal friend of someone working with us, then we don’t know you/your tastes/budget, and can’t possibly guess if “adventurous” for you means just stepping foot outside of your all inclusive hotel to board a bus with 40 other tourists and taking one of those (questionably ethical) swim with the dolphin tours. Or if you’d be happy stuck on a back road somewhere tooling around with a local mechanic (who’s questionably sober) after your motorcycle breaks down following a day of zipline/cave exploration. It’s all relative and we need our clients to be as specific as possible about their needs and expectations if we’re truly to be of any help in offering them direction on which services we can assist in pre-arranging on their behalf.

Do you like biking, yoga, ziplines, rock climbing, cave exploration, diving, cave diving, diving with sharks, snorkeling, hiking, birdwatching, fishing, sailing, photography?
Are you more interested in cities, colonial architecture, mountains, beaches, waterfalls, agriculture, restaurant diversity, shopping (note to shopaholics: Cuba’s probably the not for you!), relaxation, spa experiences, museums, cooking classes?
Would you be comfortable driving a rental car? Or would you rather have your own driver, take taxis, or a bus service?
These are some of the questions you should be considering if seeking assistance from a travel professional in arranging your ideal Cuban vacation.

TIPS:
Group tours are often the best way for first-timers to get oriented in Cuba. Something with a pre-designed multi-day itinerary, support team, transportation, and local guide to interpret history/culture and answer the myriad of questions you’re sure to pose. But be selective about what kind of trip you sign up for. If you’re not a fan of traditional bus tours, then maybe a bicycle tour with van support might be more up your alley. Cycling is one of the best ways to see Cuba up close & slowly, taking in all the sights, smells and sounds of the country at your own pace. For weaker riders, we even have electric-assist bikes to take some of the work out of hills. Our bicycle tours are multi-center holidays, allowing you to get a flavor for different areas of Cuba. You’ll combine an active holiday with some of the best restaurants available in the country, and free time to explore or just chill in the afternoon. There’s a support van too, for any non-cycling companions or those interested in less of a physical challenge on holiday.

Accommodations: If traveling independently, book as far ahead as possible if you’re looking for hotel space in Old Havana, Viñales, Cienfuegos or Trinidad. These destinations are highly demanded and hotel rooms are limited.
Looking to get off the beaten path or see more of true Cuban culture, in all of its glory? Take a deep breath and get ready. First rule of thumb: avoid all-inclusive properties/tourist enclaves that the government created for the sole purpose of collecting foreign currency to support its economy and social programs, while at the same time protecting real Cuban culture from the nasty stuff that comes with increased tourism. Places such as Cayo Largo, Cayo Coco/Guillermo, Guardalavaca, Cayo Santa Maria, or Varadero. Head east instead or into smaller villages and spread the wealth around. Santiago de Cuba receives less than 1/10 of the visitors to Havana, and offers a number of nature tourism options. We also like Soroa/La Moka, Camaguey, Sancti Spiritus, Baracoa, Gibara, and Maria la Gorda/Cabo San Antonio, although that’s hardly an exhaustive list.

Transportation:
ANTIQUE CARS are the vehicle of choice for nostalgic Americans visiting Cuba. And entrepreneurial Cubans know it. With the ongoing economic reforms, several years ago there was a boom in purchase of some of the old relics to be transformed into convertible roadsters for city tours. You’ll see the colorful cars parked in Havana near Central Park awaiting fares (these are usually 1-hour cruises). They’re also a popular mode of transport between Varadero and Havana for the all inclusive crowd looking to head to the Capital for the day. The Matanzas antique car owners have mostly converted their cars to diesel-powered engines and have added air conditioning for the comfort of passengers. In Havana there are many collective taxi routes which are one of the cheapest/fastest (if not the safest) ways of getting from point A to point B within the city.
CAR RENTAL may not be the right choice for your first trip to Cuba, but for repeaters it’s often the preferred mode of travel when looking for a multi-center holiday. Signage is lacking in Cuba, and it’s sometimes even hard to find one of the detailed road guides/maps at local shops. It’s definitely an adventure though. First-timers might want to avoid picking up hitchhikers until they have a better grasp on local culture/customs. I imagine that as tourism increases, so too might scams directed at tourists. So far not a huge problem, but not unheard of for petty theft to be directed at unsuspecting visitors. Always avoid driving at night as loose livestock can be a hazard on roads.
CHAUFFEURED CAR RENTAL Several of the local rental companies also offer chauffeured car rental service, which is more costly than a self-drive holiday, but takes some of the pressure off since you know you’re in good hands with a local. Only one of the four Cuban car rental companies (REX) can guarantee English-speaking drivers, so keep that in mind if your Spanish (or sign language) skills are lacking.
TAXIS Taxi transfers between destinations are how some people prefer to travel, then exploring locally by bike taxi/coco taxi/horse & carriage or on foot. We can book state taxis in advance, or you can always book/pay locally. From the airport, they’re often the best way to arrive to your hotel and we recommend local (rather than advance) payment on that route.
BUSES There are a couple of collective bus services connecting the various provinces. One is Viazul, the national bus company. They offer the most extensive list of routes and you can usually reserve locally just a day in advance with no space issues. Viazul accepts bicycles for carriage at a 10% surcharge. There’s also the Connecting Cuba bus service for the most popular routes for visitors to Cuba, which has the advantage of offering hotel pickups/drop-offs across Cuba (except in Old Havana where access is sometimes difficult for interior properties, so you need to make your way to the nearest designated street-access property). WoWCuba reserves this service as part of client travel packages, or you can purchase locally at Cubanacan tour desks if preferred. Connecting Cuba uses comfortable Transtur tourist buses for their service.
TRAIN service is not recommended for visitors to Cuba as it’s unreliable, uncomfortable and involves too much time to be practical compared to alternative options.
DOMESTIC FLIGHTS can also be arranged in advance by WoWCuba as part of client travel packages. Flight schedules especially to some of the keys in Cuba can sometimes be irregular and are only confirmed the day prior to departure. To avoid disappointment, WoWCuba never recommends planning for same-day international/domestic flight services in Cuba.

Excursions: If not traveling as part of a group, we would caution you to avoid overplanning your day-to-day activities. This is a novice mistake. You can easily purchase optional excursions locally from any hotel tour desk without having to be locked into a fixed itinerary which may be affected on arrival by delays/weather/illness. Take care of your basic accommodation and transportation needs in advance. But unless you’re looking for something super-specialized not offered by the national excursion operators (like a ½ day cooking class) or need to ensure a certain schedule/activity (such as a dive course, where the course material needs to be in place in your language for arrival), in our experience booking these services locally with the hotel tour desks is the best way to go. In Havana, San Cristobal (the City Historian’s Office travel agency) offers a number of very interesting guided city tours, many of which can be purchased on an exclusive basis, so you’ll have the guide all to yourselves.

Dining: Except for restaurants within foreign-managed hotels, we don’t have any foreign (American or otherwise) restaurant franchises in Cuba. And it’s not likely to happen either, for those of you who still refuse to understand that Cuba’s principles are not negotiable and fear its impending Americanization. Michael Moore films have made it to public Cuban tv, and Cuba’s admirable public health system is based on prevention. We know all about Super Size Me and the unhealthy model of US fast food franchises. Experiencing local cuisine and trying out different paladars (privately-owned restaurants) is one of the activities that will enrich your Cuba travel. Cuba’s emerging restaurant scene is vibrant, and if you carefully select the venues to visit, it’s indeed possible to create an extraordinary gastronomical experience. One of the best apps for restaurants in Cuba is http://www.alamesacuba.com, and it should be downloaded in advance of arrival. Only a very few select establishments (such as La Guarida or San Cristobal) in Havana will actually require advance reservations if you hope to get in the door, but most places accept and can easily accommodate walk-ins. In Varadero we love Salsa Suarez; in Trinidad don’t miss Paladar San Jose; in Viñales El Olivo is one of the best spots to dine. Sweet Cuban coffee, pulled pork sandwiches, tostones (fried green plantains), sugarcane juice, some of the best avocados and mangoes in the world, organic fruit juices and smoothies, and flan or bread/rice pudding (arroz con leche) should all be on your list of things to try while here. We wholly recommend diving into the local restaurant scene and trying out a diverse selection of paladars while in Cuba.

And perhaps my last tips are the most important of all. Cuba is home to various protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and to the largest wetlands in the Antilles (in the Bay of Pigs area). There are major programs in place for the protection of its coastlines, coral reefs, forests, and endangered species. We sincerely hope that Cuba continues on its sustainable path as tourism numbers increase. We ask that you respect Cuba’s flora, fauna and local customs to the maximum of your ability while you are exploring its nooks & crannies. Leave the shells where they are. Don’t touch the coral. Be respectful of locals and their customs. Observe and learn rather than imposing your own values or opinions. Be generous with your gratuities, but only distribute them when a service has been provided. Learn how to say “por favor” and “gracias”. Tread softly and we can at least hope that Cuba’s natural beauty and unique culture will be conserved. As an island nation with a very insular culture, I believe it’s reasonable not to lose that hope. As the gringos lament change in Cuba, meanwhile Cubans are celebrating the potential economic benefits that increased US tourism will hopefully bring to Cuba. We’re all for that.