With U.S.-Cuba relations warming, the travel community is abuzz about increased visits to the island nation. And there’s no question—the time to go is now. We’ve received emails, tweets and school-yard questions, all asking: can I take my kids to Cuba? The answer is yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should. We contacted two Cuba experts, both moms, to get their input. Leslie Overton is the managing director and family specialist at New York-based Absolute Travel, and Henrietta Loyd is the director and co-owner of London-based cazenove+loyd. Here's their take. Note: regulations are changing constantly so be sure to check with the State Department's official page.
Cuba is not a beach destination
Cuba is a Caribbean island, but if you’re an American family, restrictions still prevent you from booking a beach resort. European families, go for it, but beware that the resorts here aren’t on par with what you’d expect from neighboring islands with more established tourism. “The coast and the beaches are phenomenal, wonderful Caribbean sea and white sand,” says Loyd, “but there is nowhere to stay that ticks all the boxes.” For those dying for some sun and sand, ask your guide to plan a daytrip. Don’t forget the picnic lunch, since you won’t have great choices for restaurants.
It's great for some kids, not all kids
“Travel to Cuba is entirely about cultural exchange,” explains Overton. “It’s an amazing destination for kids who are sophisticated enough to appreciate that experience, but make sure your kids are the right ones.” Both experts we interviewed recommended bringing older children like teens and leaving the under-10 crowd at home. For American families, the current restrictions require people-to-people licenses, meaning you’ll be accompanied by a guide and follow a schedule that includes tours and visits with Cubans. For older children who have the stamina and patience for a heavy dose of culture, the interactions with locals are fantastic. But your 1st grader might not keep up.
Balance your schedule
There’s a lot to see in Cuba, but if you’re traveling with children, be sure your schedule includes less academic pursuits as well as history and art. “Kids tend to zone out,” says Loyd, “so balancing the amount of culture with fun bits like salsa lessons or doing a spin in a vintage car means that everyone has a good time.” Fun experiences that kids and parents will love include seeing a rehearsal of the Cuban National Ballet, visiting an afterschool program created by an artist, playing soccer with local kids or visiting a farm outside of Havana.
Don’t expect the Four Seasons
Trips to Cuba are based out of Havana, and although the city has some perfectly nice hotels, luxury hounds should manage expectations. Popular hotels like the Park Central have the ideal location, a rooftop pool, comfortable beds and reliable hot water but little ambiance. “People wish there were a nice boutique hotel, but there hasn’t been that kind of investment yet,” says Overton. P.S. Overton warns that interconnecting rooms are limited and difficult to confirm, another reason to travel with children old enough to stay in their own room.
Don’t wing it
The right guides make all the difference. A well-connected company like Absolute Travel or cazenove+loyd can get you behind-the-scenes access and will create customized experiences suited to your family. They also handle the visas and travel logistics, which you’ll need to keep your trip on the up-and-up. Whomever you choose, ask questions, share your family’s preferences and be sure that the final itinerary sounds like what you would enjoy—but also be prepared to roll with the punches.
Travel with other families
Traveling legally to Cuba isn’t cheap. Set costs include both a local and an international guide, so banding together two or three families spreads those costs across the group. Families who think of Cuba as a budget destination will face serious sticker shock if attempting a fully-privatized trip.
The Hemingway house. “It’s boring for most kids,” warns Loyd, “but if you really want to go, we get there before it opens to beat the bus tours.”
Divers shouldn’t miss the Garden of the Queens, a hard-to-reach reef that’s one of the Caribbean’s most lush. The trip is difficult—a six-hour drive from Havana followed by a six-hour boat ride—but you’ll stay on pontoons once you’re there so can schedule a few days of exploration. “Castro was a big diver,” explains Overton, “so he created this incredible marine conservation area. The reef is thriving and full of amazing sea life.”
“The eating culture has changed considerably, and I can honestly say that there are some really cool bars and restaurants now,” says Loyd. The paladares, or private restaurants run from people’s homes, are still wonderful (La Guarida, Nao, Doña Eutimia and Rio Mar are Loyd’s top picks), but there’s also a handful of restaurants worth trying. She suggests El Cocinero, a hip restaurant and rooftop bar frequented by all the cool young Cubans, and she also mentioned a fantastic pizzeria. For parents or for older teens responsible to explore the city’s nightlife, check out Fabrica del Arte, an art space created out of an old oil factory that turns into a club most nights around midnight.