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From the Magazine: Cuba

Panoramic view of the Havana skyline waves crashing into the Malecon seawall.

Cuba is one of the hottest travel destinations right now–and not just for the island’s perfect Caribbean weather. There’s a sense of urgency to Cuban tourism. About 4.5 million visitors headed to Cuba in 2017, seeking to experience the “real Cuba” before modernity takes over—or, as our Havana tour guide explained it, “Before the Americans bring their McDonald’s.”

At the moment, “fast food” in Cuba is a pan con croqueta, or ham-and-cheese croquette, passed through the window of a ventanitas, or food stand run out of a local’s home. There’s no Mc-anything here, and that’s a point of pride for the people of Cuba. It’s a simpler way of life, one that emphasizes self-reliance and creativity. Take, for example, our tour guide, who bragged about maintaining his 60-year-old Chevrolet convertible, which looked—and ran—like new. “My father gave it to me,” he said, “and I will give it to my son. It will last forever.”

Indeed, traveling through Cuba is full of moments that feel like opening a time capsule. Instead of Starbucks and their venti lattes, there are thimble-sized cups of potent cafecitos; instead of hailing Uber, you simply stroll. The streets are safe, no matter the hour. It’s likely you’ll be invited to a local’s home for dinner at some point during your trip (do NOT refuse.). Your phone won’t work there, and you’ll be happy about it—there’s simply too much to take in. History, music, art, cuisine, outdoor adventure—Cuba has it all.

Day 1: Havana

Start your day with a strong Cuban coffee at one of the many cafés surrounding the PlazaVieja (Old Square) before strolling through the cobblestoned streets. In the afternoon, hail an old-school taxi for a tour along the seaside, through the Plaza de la Revolucion, and into the colorful Jaimanitas neighborhood, where more than 80 houses are decorated with vibrant and eclectic mosaics by local artist José Fuster. End your day at the Fabrica de Arte Cubano—an art installation that is the center of Cuban nightlife, with live music and salsa dancing well into the night.

Day 2: Viñales

The Valley of Vinales.

Take a three-hour ride into the Cuban countryside, where the Valley of Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage destination, is unlike anything you’ll ever see. Soaring limestone mogotes tower over lush green tobacco farms, where you can get a hands-on lesson in rolling your own Cuban cigars. The area is rife with opportunities for outdoor adventure, be it caving, rock-climbing, cycling, hiking or bird-watching. After your day outside, refuel with a literal farm-to-table experience–most of the agricultural families in the area serve up dinner to tourists with fresh-picked farm fare

Yes, It’s Legal
to Visit Cuba 

A rollercoaster of regulations has left Americans confused on the rules regarding travel to Cuba. Though the Trump administration has imposed stricter travel regulations, travel to the island has not been banned altogether. Instead, travelers must be traveling for a specific purpose, such as family visits, humanitarian projects, journalistic activity or “support for the Cuban people.” It’s this last category that most tourists use to enter the country—by staying in a casa particular, or privately-run guesthouse, and patronizing paladares (restaurants), tourists are contributing to the local economy, which qualifies as “support.”

Day 3: Cienfuegos

The “Pearl of the South” features some of the most stunning architecture on the island, including beautiful columned buildings, gold-leaf mosaics and a bell tower that dates back to the eighteenth-century. Be sure to visit the Laguna Guanaroca, a relaxing oasis where you’ll spot pelicans, herons and large flocks of flamingoes.

Day 4: Baracoa

Cuba’s oldest and most isolated town, located on the easternmost tip of the island, is worth the trip up and over the Cuchillos del Toa mountains. In addition to warm hospitality and a vibrant town square, the region boasts some of the best chocolate and coffee in the world. Don’t leave without trying cucurucho, an addicting local sweet treat of coconut, sugar and fruit wrapped in dried palm leaves. 

Eat, Drink, Think Cuba 

Several years ago, food and travel writer Nancy Nichols set out to explore Cuba. For two weeks, she drove across the island and stayed with locals. She visited food markets and listened to music, ate street food and met hundreds of musicians, artists, chefs and farmers. She fell in love with the people of the country , their spark of life and—literally—the flavor of the country.

As tourism grows across Cuba, farmers are struggling to supply the increading demand of state-run restaurants and family-owned paladares with food. Nichols has watched the quality and quantity of lettuces, vegetables, herbs and fruit explode—fresh bok choy, peas and arugula alongside traditional cassava and cane. Chefs are creating partnerships and working directly with farmers. Farmers also tote their crops to neighborhood food markets.

They say you can’t really know a place until you eat the food—so now Nancy Nichols conducts culinary and cultural tours of Cuba.  For more information, contact  nicholscreativein@gmail.com. 214-729-5231.

Susan Lacke :