Cuba has really opened its doors to the outside world since the early 1990s. Though the Welcome mat awaits, Americans are still not allowed to travel to Cuba for tourism. In spite of this, I went there when I was spending some time in the Caribbean, and many a sailor reminisced how they'd spend months at a time there. "You should see the homemade cigars in Havana!" they would always say. You see, the rules are a bit vague and rarely enforced. Our brethren to the north in Canada go for holidays and honeymoons by the thousands. Changing policies are on the tip of the government tongue for Americans. Soon enough, it will be legal to travel to Cuba, should you want to wait. In light of our government lifting restrictions, I've compiled a must-see list of places to go on your next holiday to Cuba.
Malecon: Havana's districts and some buildings have received some major facelifts over the last couple decades. Malecon is the major waterfront road and pedestrian walkway in Havana; it goes from Old Havana (see below) to Vedado. There are sections that go by some of the most historic buildings and people (still fishing) in all of Cuba. If there is anything going onÃ¢ÂÂfrom a festival to a party to a paradeÃ¢ÂÂit will indefinitely be on the Malecon.
La Habana Vieja: If you want to get a glimpse of what Havana used to look like, then take a walk through Old Havana. Old buildings, houses, mansions, and amazing churches line the close-knit streets. The whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so a walking tour is one of the best ways to get all the information that the guidebooks leave out. Old Havana hasn't been renovated too much yet, so see it before they repair the oldness that tourists come to see.
Playas: If you were to take a pencil and trace the coastline of Cuba, you would need a lot of pencils. The coast runs for over 3,000 miles and includes beaches galore. It's said that finding your own beach for the day is as simple as putting your finger on the map. I didn't do the finger on the map method, but I did easily find several beautiful beaches not too far out of Havana where there was not a soul to be seen. The locals head to Playas del Este near Havana, and tourist who only want locals serving them often go to Cayo Coco. Varadero is right on the beach (with tons of diving out at sea), and it has some of the best nightlife. The Varadero hotels are some of the nicest in all of Cuba.
Bellamar Caves: The beautiful sea cavesÃ¢ÂÂCuevas de BellamarÃ¢ÂÂwere not recently discovered, but you'd be surprised at how people never hear of them until they land in Cuba. They are less than 100 km from Havana proper and even closer to Varadero. There is an intricate underground network of rivers, lakes and ponds; amazing stalactites and stalagmites and there are crystals and pictographs from long ago. These caves reminded me a lot of the California Caverns in Northern California - kind of tight and close in rather than the staggering amphitheater caves of somewhere like Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The same types of delicate crystalline structures abound and there is an excellent network of well designed paths and stairs into the heart of the caves.
Museos: No holiday is complete without a trip to a local museum, where you can leave with an appreciation of a culture's history and struggles. The Museo de la Revolucion, then, is one not to be missed. There are scenes from the Cuban War of Independence and the Cuban War. Apparently, the yacht that Castro and his people used to sail from Mexico to Cuba sits behind the museum (I didn't see it, but supposedly it is there). As you may know, Castro over-threw Batista to become Cuban president/leader/whatever and bring communism for over fifty years and counting.
There are plenty of other things to pass time in Cuba. If nothing else, going snorkeling and scuba diving gives views of some of the largest coral beds this side of the world. Hunt down the ghost of Hemingway and walk through the streets chatting it up with locals, who have a surprisingly large world view from atop their island perch. Hiking and biking are great fun, but have a guide, a map or a master of the Spanish language if you don't want to get lost. Cuba is ready for Americans and welcomes them with open arms, illegally or legally, now or later.