Visiting Cuba gained popularity after Obama lifted some of the travel restrictions, but where should you be sending your clients? Every traveler has the major hotspots such as Havana on their bucket list, but what are other less-frequented and just-as-fabulous places to see in Cuba?
We reached out to Conner Gorry, a New York writer and journalist, and author of the recently released “100 Places in Cuba Every Woman Should Go,” who has called Havana home since 2002, for her favorite spots to visit on the island. This is an insider’s peek your clients can benefit from during their travels to the island.
Gorry says that everyone goes to Havana, Old Havana, what locals refer to as Habana Vieja, as it’s the number one spot in the country for tourists to visit. But, as Gorry explains, Havana is a big city with a variety of neighborhoods, many of which the average tourist never gets to. “One of my favorites—terrific for a morning or afternoon of exploring—is Regla, across the Bay from Habana Vieja,” says Gorry. “You get there via ferry (La Lanchita), which leaves from alongside the cruise port. After 15 minutes, you disembark in what feels like a small, friendly country town peppered with pocket parks, wooden houses, and strong Afro-Cuban religious traditions,” she points out. “A few minutes’ walk from the dock is the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Regla, which houses the Black Madonna who represents Saint Yemaya in Afro-Cuban religions. Adherents flock here to pay their respects and leave offerings, and there are folks in the front patio who read shells and perform other works of interpretation between our world and that inhabited by the saints (orishas).
Hotel Pick: The five-star Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinksi, which opened in 2017. Gorry recommends the couples’ massage at the spa “with views of the Bacardi building, an Art Deco jewel.” The property also offers panoramic vistas of Old Havana from the rooftop pool and bar area.
5. Santiago de Cuba
Though most travelers see Havana as the spot in which to get their cultural immersion fix, Gorry says “Santiago de Cuba is the place to go for nonstop cultural action (accompanied by nonstop parties!).” Known as Cuba’s “second city,” guests can find lots of music and dancing during some of the yearly festivals including Fiesta del Fuego (held in July), and Carnaval (held in August). “Santiago pulsates with ‘round the clock’ music and dancing, accompanied by copious amounts of rum and roasted pork,” she says. Gorry suggests you book your clients far in advance if they’re heading to Santiago during one of these festivals as they attract travelers from all over the world. Another attraction to visit in Santiago de Cuba, she says, is “the internment of Fidel Castro’s remains in the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia. Together with the tombs of Cuban hero Jose Marti, this is a must-see in Santiago.” And if your clients have an extra half-day, a visit to the basilica at El Cobre, which houses Cuba’s patron saint, La Virgen de la Caridad, makes for a moving side trip, she notes.
Hotel Pick: Casa Granada, a mid-sized hotel built in 1914 that has been recently renovated puts guests at the center of the action with a room overlooking Parque Cespedes. This property offers “a wonderful people-watching spot—especially from the balcony, where you can take your rum cocktails just like Mr. Wormold of Graham Greene’s ‘Our Man in Havana,’” says Gorry.
4. Pinar del Rio and Oriente
Suggest your clients leave the city life behind and explore other areas Cuba has to offer. Whether they head west from Havana to Pinar del Rio or east to Oriente, they’ll be “thrust into verdant landscapes dotted with fertile fields of tobacco and rice, backed by mountains or tucked into valleys cut through with rivers and waterfalls,” says Gorry. “One of the greatest natural secrets discovered by few visitors are the double waterfalls of Salto de Guayabo and Salto de Berraco in the Holguin province. The highest waterfalls accessible to visitors, these side-by-side falls measure 318 ft. and 417 ft., respectively, are nestled deep in the mountains, and offer terrific hiking and birdwatching opportunities with pools for cooling off. Need some hydrotherapy for aching muscles? A few minutes under these pounding falls are just what the doctor ordered.”
Hotel Pick: “Part of the enchantment of visiting the Salto de Guayabo and Berraco, the double waterfalls in Holguin province, says Gorry, is staying at Villa Pinares de Mayari. “A few nights here set amongst Cuba’s largest pine forest and vistas of the Sierra del Cristal is the perfect panacea for tired bodies and souls,” she points out. From this property, guests can hike, go horseback riding, or take a day trip to the white sands of Cayo Saetia.
3. San Diego de los Banos
Located just 45 minutes from Havana, guests can find Cuba’s medicinal baths at San Diego de los Banos. These baths have been known to provide relief for innumerable visitors since the 17th century. “These are the oldest established thermal waters on the island and a recent facelift makes them more inviting than ever,” Gorry says. “Chock-full of sulphur, calcium, sodium, magnesium, fluoride and other minerals, the waters here run between 96 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit and are recommended for stress-relieving soaks, of course, but also various conditions including arthritis, respiratory illnesses, psoriasis and more.” Massages are also offered here, as well as other therapeutic treatments including mud therapy.
Just a short drive from San Diego de los Banos is the Parque la Guira, another rarely visited spot with hiking trails, gardens, and endemic flora and fauna. Those travelers seeking a wellness aspect to their trip would enjoy this combo addition to their itinerary.
2. Parque Almendares
For clients traveling with kids, visiting museums and taking in the colonial architecture of the region can get boring. Suggest a trip to Parque Almendares in the center of Havana. “Bisected by a river and flanked by the Bosque de la Habana (Havana Forest), Parque Alemendares,” Gorry says, “is the perfect destination for a few hours of fun. You can rent a rowboat to explore the river, play miniature golf or romp on the playground. On weekends, there are special events for the little ones including pony rides, clowns and acrobats, and concerts in the amphitheater.”
And those interested in the ceremonies and offerings related to Santeria and other Afro-Cuban religions, will get to experience the sites, sounds, and smells of religious ceremonies taking place every day in the Bosque de la Habana.
1. Take in a Local Game
Ok, #6 isn’t a must-visit location in Cuba, but we added this bonus as a must-do activity for your clients to take in while traveling through Cuba. Gorry suggests travelers take in a local baseball game and spend an evening with thousands of Cuban fans to enjoy the sport “the old fashioned way”—with no advertising or corporate sponsorship. With stadiums located in every province offering highly competitive teams, plus ticket prices that are under a dollar, “this is a sure fire bet for an authentic, local experience,” she adds.