A street scene in Havana (Photo: Jonathan Bloom)
On Wednesday, President Obama rocked the travel world, announcing the easing of 53 years of sanctions against Cuba and the start of talks that may usher in a new era of U.S. relations with the once-forbidden Caribbean island. The Twitter-sphere started smoking immediately— over the prospect of legal Cuban cigars. As Sylvain Galineau tweeted: “Diplomatic relations: what everyone heard was ‘Cuban Cigars.’”
Some experts say that we shouldn’t be lighting our stogies in celebration just yet. “The lifting of the embargo will not mean the island will be suddenly open to tourism,” says travel advisor Eric Sheets of Latin Exursions. But we couldn’t help but get excited.
Exploring Havana (Photo: Jonathan Bloom)
Mind you, it’s still possible to go now. In 2012 alone, more than 100,000 U.S. travelers legally visited the island, according to Sheets. “Cuba is already a top destination in the Caribbean and has more arrivals than Ecuador, New Zealand, and even Costa Rica.”
But the government limits how Americans can see the island by restricting them to highly supervised people-to-people trips through companies like Geographic Expeditions. ”The idea has been that U.S. tourists will act as cultural ambassadors to Cuba by meeting with experts and everyday people,” says Jennine Cohen, managing director of Latin America for Geographic Expeditions.
Along the Malecón in Havana (Photo: Jonathan Bloom)
While you get to see a deeper side of Cuba by meeting architects and economists and dance performers, the downside of these trips is that travelers are not allowed to go off the beaten path. So the prospect of freely being able to come and go and wander the streets of Havana unchaperoned makes us swoon.
Here are eight things we’re going to do as soon as we’re able to go to Cuba with no restrictions.
Relax on Cuba’s Pristine Beaches
Playa de las Estrellas del Mar, also known as “Starfish Beach” (Topyti/Flickr)
According to Cohen of Geographic Expeditions, the biggest request her company gets is from travelers who are looking to go to the beach, which isn’t allowed on people-to-people trips. What they are missing out on are gorgeous white-sand beaches set alongside the neon blue Caribbean sea. One of our favorite spots is the pristine Playa Ancón, minutes from the colonial city of Trinidad. Another discovery is Playa de las Estrellas del Mar, or “Starfish Beach” because it is lined with starfish. If you want to get adventurous, you can go for a swim in the famous Bay of Pigs.
Get Adventurous in Viñales
The Viñales Valley (Thinkstock)
Also off limits to U.S. travelers: adventure travel, since people-to-people trips are highly focused on meeting people. And when the island opens up, be prepared for the adventurers to rush in. The lush Valle de Viñales is a national park and a World Heritage Site best known for its cigar-making industry. But adventure travelers love it, too, for its rock climbing on sheer 1,000-foot limestone faces, with stalactites hanging above. Interestingly, some people-to-people trips allow opportunities to go birding, also a hallmark of Viñales.
Puff on a Cigar — Legally
A stogie and a sip (Thinkstock)
Did we mention that we’re beside ourselves over the prospect of being able to bring Cuban cigars back to the U.S.? Banned since the embargo started, the mighty Cuban cigar is worshipped the world over. Now American travelers will be allowed to come home with $100 worth of tobacco and alcohol products. So that’s good for our rum consumption, too. Cuba Libre, anyone?
Hitch a Ride in a Classic Car in Havana
Vintage American cars in Havana (Thinkstock)
The dilapidated streets of Havana are lined with perfectly preserved cars of yesteryear — it’s like being in a time warp. Many of them operate like illegal jitneys, roaming the streets and picking up multiple passengers along the way. Or if you prefer, Old Car Tours will take you for a convertible ride around the city in a vintage Buick or a Dodge that your grandfather might have driven back in the day.
Listen to Cuban Music on the Streets of Trinidad
Musicians on the streets of Trinidad (Matteo Artizzu/Flickr)
Wherever you go in Cuba, it’s hard to escape the lilting soundtrack of the Buena Vista Social Club. Santiago de Cuba is known as the musical capital of the island. But there’s nothing like sitting on the steps of the main church in the cobblestoned town of Trindad, listening to a local band performing “Chan Chan.”
Dine at an Under-the-Radar Restaurant in Havana
The paladar La Guarida (Photo: La Guarida)
It used to be that everyone in Cuba had to eat in government restaurants that served sad Soviet-era ropa vieja (pulled meat) and potatoes. So an industry of illegal paladares sprung up in private homes and deserted buildings, serving much more ambitious dishes. The word “paladar” came from a Brazilian soap opera shown in Cuba in the early 1990s and is Portuguese and Spanish for “palate.” They’re now legal in Cuba, but there’s still an air of mystery around them. One of the most famous is La Guarida, set in a beautifully decaying building that was featured in the movie Strawberry and Chocolate. This is where Jay Z and Beyonce recently spent their fifth anniversary, dining on black beans and rice.
Walk in the Footsteps of Hemingway
Hemingway’s house (Tony Hisgett/Flickr)
Ernest Hemingway’s legend still looms large in Cuba. He first visited in 1928 and became enchanted with the island, eventually moving there and writing many of his best-loved books, including The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast, and Islands in the Stream. Today, you can visit his former home, Finca Vigía, in a beachside town near Havana. It has been converted into a museum that is filled with his books and keepsakes. And in Havana, one of his favorite bars, La Floridita, still serves the daiquiris that he so loved (though they also make a mean mojito).
Watch Showgirls at the Tropicana
Strutting their stuff at the Tropicana (Atushi Masegi/Flickr)
We debated whether to include this one because it’s so tacky and touristy, but you just have to visit the legendary Tropicana. The open-air Havana nightclub is the stuff of legend. It was featured in Graham Greene’s 1958 book Our Man in Havana and little has changed since.
A few of our favorite things in Cuba (Photo: Thinkstock)
And yet, all of this is still at least six months to a year off, according to experts — who also predict that the island will change fast once Cuba’s doors are totally open to tourists and travel companies. So, listen to Geographic Expeditions’ Jennine Cohen, who advises: “All those plans to go to Europe? Put those off. This is the year to go to Cuba. It will still be a special destination, but it will soon be a different one.”
WATCH: What’s Next After Obama’s Move to End Cuba’s Isolation?