One Travel Tuesday – not too long ago – I had the absolute pleasure of talking about a destination that is extremely near and dear to my heart – and now I am super excited to share the content of this chat with you! The destination? Cuba. The reason why its so special to me? My mom and dad are from Cuba – so this is where my roots are – even though I was born and raised in the good ol’ USA.
My guest for this segment was Chad Olin founder of the DMC Cuba Candela. Chad – who actually lived in Havana back in 2015 – was so inspired by this country in so many different respects that he decided to start a destination management company that supports local entrepreneurs in Cuba – and thus Cuba Candela was born.
Cuba is often thought of as a “forbidden country” for US citizens, but I am here to tell you that you certainly can visit Cuba and after reading about all it has to offer, I guarantee you will be adding it to your bucket list – and I suggest you do so before the cruises are allowed back in bringing with them thousands of passengers which means large crowds!
So, pour yourself a mojito, light a Cuban cigar, put your feet up and read on to discover the experiences Cuba holds for you!
Why Visit Cuba? Well first and foremost it is a world class cultural destination that I promise you will not be disappointed in. And of course, there is the aspects of authenticity and connection and social impact – which is purposeful travel elevated to the nth degree! Another major selling point at the time of this writing is that for now – the cruises and big crowds are gone – but it’s not going to stay that way forever! And – this is a big one for a lot of folks who heard rumors about connectivity – the hotels Wi-Fi and overall internet service have improved significantly. Chad elaborated on that by explaining that the Wi-Fi in Cuba has gotten much better – certainly to the point where you can rely on it to check emails multiple times throughout the day although one caveat is it may not be fast enough to stream movies or download huge files – but email is totally fine. And I always suggest WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger as great ways for all of us to communicate when we are out of the country and Chad recommended that you turn off data roaming to avoid huge cell bills. And – even with roaming turned off you can still send text messages for 50 cents per message or you can make calls for about three dollars a minute – so you aren’t completely out of pocket by any means.
How to Visit Cuba: So, like I stated in the intro I always get that question “Can we still go to Cuba?” and the answer is yes and its amazingly easy which often surprises people because there’s so much misperception between the headlines and what the news media is saying about Cuba. The reality is that it’s quite easy to book a flight on any of the major airlines – including Delta, American, Southwest, United and Jet Blue – and fly directly into a Havana. And that my friends is step one – book your flight.
The second step is the visa. The Cuban tourist visa remains quite easy to obtain as you can buy it directly from one of the airlines at the airport. You will find there are different kiosks that are set up when you check in where you can buy the visa and simply pay it for it with a credit card – there’s nothing you have to do in advance. Side Note: I know in the past Southwest was already including the price of the visa in the ticket price so I can check as we build your itinerary if it’s going to be included or not. In pre-Covid days the Cuban visa was running about $75.00 per person – but as we know all too well things can change so don’t hold me to that price point! Chad also noted that Cuban Candela can also send you a visa via Fed Ex in advance of your trip, so you don’t have to worry about it the day of travel.
Third is your reason for traveling to Cuba as you do have to have a purpose for traveling there. There are twelve categories of travel from which to choose from and the most popular now is called Support for the Cuban People. And as for me – this is THE best travel category of why you are going – because you’re supporting the Cuban people – so there is a social impact component behind it and Book Here, Give Here is all about social responsibility.
Choosing that category means you have to – or I prefer to say you get to – spend your time interacting with the culture of Cuba and specifically supporting private Cuban entrepreneurial businesses. So many people are surprised to hear that Cuba actually has a very vibrant entrepreneurial economy – but they do! In fact they have over 500,000 people working in the private sector as entrepreneurs! And so, with the Support for the Cuban People reason for your trip you’re actually directly supporting these entrepreneurs in their businesses. And that can be in the form of staying in a private boutique hotel that’s operated by an entrepreneur or taking a private car that’s operated by an entrepreneur or a myriad of other private experiences – whether it’s salsa lessons or visiting an art gallery or a musical performance.
So there really is just so much being offered by this entrepreneur community in Cuba now and that is how your travel complies with the Support for the Cuban People license and this license is something that Cuba Candela takes care of for me on your behalf. They will take care of all the documentation and Chad advised that they take it very seriously and that the average trip with them directly supports over 30 different Cuban entrepreneurs! Meaning you can really feel good about leaving a positive footprint in the country, know that you made an impact and that your money is directly going the Cuban entrepreneurs.
Now one of the biggest questions that always comes up from you guys is “Well this is a beach resort so why can’t we do the beaches?” And Chad relayed that why can we not do beach resorts first goes back to the travel category of Support for the Cuban People which requires that all visitors have a full-time schedule of cultural experiences. So, you’re actually required to have meaningful interactions with the people of Cuba. And let’s face it – it’s one of the most wonderful things about visiting Cuba because the Cuban people are so hospitable and they’re so welcoming and they’re so interesting! There’s so many different conversations and cultural exchanges that you can have interacting with the Cuban people that it’s a wonderful thing that they require you a full-time schedule of cultural experiences! So, think about it – it’s hard to have those interactions if you’re just sitting at a beach resort, sipping on a mojito and soaking in the sun. That’s certainly not interacting with the locals and so that’s one reason why the beach resorts are not compliant with this travel category. The second thing is the beach resorts in Cuba are not the best quality at this time. So, if you’re looking for a beach resort you can go to any other island in the Caribbean – save the beach resort in Cuba for another time in future perhaps when the rules change.
Now that is not to say that visiting a beach while you are there is not possible. It is. How you ask? Well Chad can set up a trip to the beach during your free time – and he promises it is possible to have free time on this full-time schedule. They can have it be a trip to the beach for an afternoon with a cultural aspect to it. You would be accompanied by a local guide who will introduce you to some cultural aspects of the beach – such as the local people and local vendors that frequent them. So, there is a way to support Cuban entrepreneurs during your trip to the beach as you can buy food or drinks from local vendors or any other services they may be offering. And thus, they have a way of doing it so it’s legally compliant and within the Support of the Cuban People framework.
When to Visit Cuba: Since Cuba is situated in the Caribbean you are going to find the highest – i.e. – hottest temperatures from May through October meaning that November through April is the most popular time to visit. You can go year-round – however just be cognizant of hurricanes as Cuba is in the hurricane belt and they do experience quite number of them. And since it is the Caribbean be you may also experience tropical showers where it will rain for a few minutes and then it stops and it’s beautiful the rest of the day! Side Note: Chad added not to let hurricane season detour your trip as they offer insurance that is affordable and covers 100% trip cancellation for hurricanes – which of course I can hook you up with when we create your package.
Destinations: Many people are surprised by how large Cuba is. It is actually about the size of the state of Pennsylvania with a population of 11 million people. If you take a look at it on a map you will notice it is about 50% of all of the Caribbean landmass – in other words Cuba is the size of all the Caribbean countries combined! There are four main cities that most visit and that Chad refers to as the “circuit.”
- Havana: The capital city of Cuba – is pretty much the city where everyone wants to start their exploration of the country. Havana is a 500-year-old city making it one of the oldest cities in the Western Hemisphere. This stunning city features many different architectural styles, those infamous old convertible cars, the vibrancy of culture and music coming from every street corner, and its hospitable locals welcoming – there’s no place like it and it’s an excellent place to start. It is also a very safe destination. Chad’s love of Cuba came through loud and clear during our chat – especially as he shared a photo of a part of old Havana and confessed that he can still remember the day that he took it – pointing out the beautiful street filled with stunning architecture and that the best time to go is at sunset – or the golden hour – which makes the colors on the buildings all aglow. He is passionate about this being on everyone’s bucket list to see this in your lifetime as it is a most interesting place to visit thanks to its architectural styles and the fact that they’ve got almost every style of architecture covered from the past 150 years. So just walking around old Havana is a really wonderful experience in itself and this is one area that that I personally love due to the fact that my father grew up in a section of Havana and when my parents met in college, they actually lived not too far from this area so it’s for me it’s nostalgic because I get to learn about where my parents are from.
On the cultural side of things, in the central part of the city you will find the well-known Parque Central which is bordered by significant buildings such as Gran Teatro. Gran Teatro is an excellent venue for you to enjoy an opera or ballet performance. Chad noted that most would be surprised that Cuba’s actually done a rather good job of supporting the arts historically. In fact – the Cuban ballet is one of the most renowned ballets worldwide. And of course, we can get tickets for you and at a great price – with front row seats typically between $20 and $30! This amazing theater – built in 1800s – was restored several years ago and it is just stunning. Chad advised that they actually like to give a tour in addition to going to show to see this beautiful spectacle that features marble all throughout the inside.
Oh, and those vintage cars – we’ve been seeing pictures of the cars for a really long time and once you’re there you’ll get to experience them – as Chad said it the best photo op in the whole country and he always encourage visitors to dress in what he refers to as island chic – i.e., a sun dress for women and a Panama hat and a cigar for the men! These beautifully restored 1950s era vintage cars are also a great way to see the city – picture yourself in the back seat of a convertible, a nice breeze as you ride along the Malecon – which is the waterfront promenade and taking in views of historical landmarks. Sign me up!
- Viñales: Viñales is located in tobacco growing country in the western part of Cuba – about two and a half to three hours west of Havana. It is home to stunning rock formations called mogotes – that are incredibly unique – although they do exist in other parts of the world – specifically in Southeast Asia. This area used to be underwater millions of years ago and now it is filled with incredibly fertile soil that is great for growing tobacco. And – if you are interested in learning about Cuban cigars – Chad and team have a really cool cigar rolling experience. It starts with a visit to a local family at their farm and then you can choose to do a hike or horseback ride through the mogotes. As Chad explained – being in Viñales and seeing the mogotes – this landscape is just a kind of a mystical feeling – something like you’ve never seen before. Since it not that far from Havana if you have five days he recommends doing a day trip there and then spend the other four in Havana. And for my cigar aficionados you’ll be delighted to hear that the old rule about only being allowed to bring a certain amount back was eliminated so now there’s no Cuba specific limits any longer on the tobacco or alcohol you can bring back – just the normal limits which are the same as if you go to any other country. And people love Cuban cigars so if you know any cigar smokers this is the perfect gift to bring them back!
- Cienfuegos and Trinidad: Situated east of Viñales in the southern part of the island you will find Cienfuegos. Normally you would stop in Cienfuegos on the way to Trinidad which is the third area on what Chad refers to as the “circuit.” Fun Fact: This is the town where my mom grew up! So, Cienfuegos is very similar to New York City in the sense of you’ve got your avenues and you have got your streets making it an easy walking city and it is a great day trip. It is situated right on the water and features some really cool architecture in the town square. A great way to experience it is to start in Havana then head to Cienfuegos – which is also known as the Pearl of the South – have a wonderful lunch right on the water and then head off to Trinidad which is just a couple of hours away from Cienfuegos. And if you wanted to spend the night in Cienfuegos or Trinidad – we absolutely can make that happen as well.
Length of Stay: So – if you have four or five days you can cover Havana and a day trip to Viñales. However, if you have seven, eight or even up to ten days then you can also include Cienfuegos and Trinidad in your itinerary – which are about a four- or five-hour drive from Havana and you would stay overnight in either Cienfuegos or Trinidad. Now – if you guys are interested in going into Santiago de Cuba -which is located on the other side of the island then we would need to make sure that your itinerary is long enough as it can be up to a 15-hour drive. As we said – it’s a huge island and there’s really no easy way to get to Santiago once you’re already in Cuba. Chad noted that if you’re thinking of going to some of the outer provinces could plan a trip like that as they do get them as special requests from those who have a specific reason to cover the whole island – perhaps they’re visiting family members or perhaps visiting their roots – however – for most people they probably want to stick with just Havana, Viñales, Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
Accommodations: Cuba does offer hotels but there are also private villas and I know that some of you may be wary of ending up in a rundown building – but that is why I have Chad as my eyes and ears on the ground in Cuba – to make sure that you guys are experiencing what you’re used to here in America for the most part.
Chad shared with us that one of his favorite luxury boutique hotels in Cuba is one that not many people are aware that it even exists as it has only been around for a few years. It is called Paseo 206 and it’s in old mansion that was built in the 1930s but is now been beautifully restored. They feature a full restaurant on site, Wi-Fi and all amenities. The property consists of ten rooms with each room being different. It is the only SLH property – the small luxury hotels accreditation group – in Cuba. If you are looking for a luxury experience this is it and I can make it happen!
Cuba also offers another unique product – private villas. What a marvelous way to experience Cuba – especially if you are traveling with a large or multigenerational family. Just think – you will be able to hang out and bond with one another but since there are villas that feature up to seven bedrooms and seven bathrooms – you will have your privacy as well. Plus – having a villa as a venue means you can also have different experiences brought right to you – such as cooking classes! A lot of villas also come with a swimming pool – making this a great alternative.
Another option are the casa particulares which are private home rentals similar to bed and breakfasts here in the US that give you the opportunity to make a positive impact supporting the Cuban entrepreneur who owns it as well as the staff that works there. They are also a wonderful authentic, way to experience true cultural immersion.
And finally, you may come across paladares while researching a trip to Cuba. These are restaurants that are privately owned and operated by Cuban entrepreneurs usually right out of their homes. There is no doubt that this is where you’ll get the best culinary experience in Cuba, but you may notice some offer sleeping arrangements as well. I just want to make sure that we have that conversation while I am curating your itinerary so that I ensure that I’m giving you exactly what you’re looking for.
Sightseeing and Activities and Experiences: Here’s a bit of trivia for you – Ernest Hemingway loved Cuba. In fact, he would visit Cuba often as he was based in Key West, so it was not a long haul for him. And he ended up writing quite a few books while he was in Cuba. This is why you can find a place called Hemingway Fishing Village located in the Cojímar fishing village which is a district in Havana. Cojímar inspired The Old Man and the Sea and although he didn’t live there, he did keep his boat there. He actually lived in Finca Vigía which is about 20 minutes from Cojímar. You can visit Hemingway’s house in Finca Vigía and it’s pretty well preserved exactly the way it used to look. You can see into the home and spot where he marked his height on the wall and see that there’s actually a Picasso dish hanging on the wall and more. You can also take a walk around the grounds where you will find local specialists you will tell you all the stories about Hemingway’s house – like how there used to be celebrities there all the time in swimming the pool skinny dipping and there were cats and dogs running all over the property – for example. What a great trip back in time filled with fun little facts making for a meaningful experience.
One of the things that I do love and miss is Cuban home cooking. The good news for you my friends is that you will have an opportunity to have a private chef experience while visiting Cuba! So not only can you have someone come to where you’re staying and cook for you and create these amazing local dishes, but they can also even teach you – so if you wanted to have a cooking class for you and whoever you’re traveling with you’ve got that option as well.
One experience Chad highlighted actually takes place in the home of a private chef. Apparently, he’s a character and is actually the Director of Art Cinema in Cuba. The best part is that he refuses to use recipes to cook because he believes they are too formulaic and so he only will cook from emotion – and thus he’s got a whole performance that he goes through where he talks about the emotion that inspired each dish and how he channeled that to find the right ingredients and spices. There’s a whole back story behind that as well – because – well it’s Cuba so you can’t just go to the grocery store and pick up exactly what you want to cook with – you have to go out and find it and be resourceful and innovative. What this private chef has been able to do with these flavors is nothing short of spectacular. It really is one of the best meals you can have. Another cool thing is that his house looks like it’s a movie set straight out of 1950s. What a neat experience for the whole family or if you’re traveling just as a couple it could be really nice romantic dinner for the two of you.
You cannot come to Cuba without dancing a little bit of salsa as it is probably the capital of salsa worldwide! On just about every street corner, you’ll hear salsa music and you’ll see people dancing – it’s part of the way of life – they have a rhythm and it’s just so fun! In fact, my dad used to tell me how he would just go outside and all of sudden people would call him over to teach him how to dance – and by the way – he is a great dancer thanks to those personal salsa lessons!
Another thing that you will experience everywhere you go in Cuba – local music. No matter where you are on any street or on the boardwalk – people love music – it just makes them happy and and it exudes from them. What an amazing experience to share in that love!
Shall we talk a bit about the drinks? Why yes, we shall! There’s nothing better than sipping a mojito and doing some rum tasting and it is even better here as Cuba is known as being the birthplace of the mojito and Cuban rum is some of the world’s best!
And don’t forget the nightlife! Hit the town for an evening out and see a 12-piece salsa jazz band play or visit the infamous Tropicana which is a throwback to the cabaret shows of the 1950s and it hasn’t changed since then! Or if you just want to relax and dine with view there are private rooftops around the city that we can easily arrange for you to eat at – and of course – this is great for keeping with our new normal of social distancing as you’re not feeling overcrowded as it is just you and those who are traveling with you.
Type of Traveler: Cuba is pretty much anyone who is looking for an enriching experience in a unique culture who wants to make a social impact with their travels. Anyone from single to couples to families for any type of celebration, anniversary or holiday. The only type of traveler I do not recommend this for is my beach bums who just want to hang on a beach with a cold drink and a good book as this is not the place for that currently.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Cuba.
What an amazing introduction to what both Chad and I love about Cuba. If you haven’t thought about Cuba as a vacation destination now is the time! This is a really amazing country to visit as it’s a very friendly place and it’s also a very safe place and although we didn’t talk too much about safety Chad did reiterate that it’s one of the safest places you can go. Plus – as I said now is a great time because the cruise ship crowds have dissipated. Side Note: There were actually 800,000 passengers booked on Cuba cruises that were canceled about a year ago! So – yes – it’s a really good time to think about a trip and I would love to help you make it happen and I’m excited to be planning my trip there as well!
For more details on things to see and do in Cuba, where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!