Last year, we interviewed two moms who run tours to Cuba about whether or not families should be bringing their children to Havana. The overwhelming advice was yes, but when they’re older and can really learn something on the trip. I read and re-read their advice, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were some really good reasons to bring younger kids, too. So I teamed up with another family, called up the woman whose tour company is based across the street from Passported, and now we’ve run our first trip for families, scouted by five- and six-year-old boys. This is what we learned along the way. (PS add your name to our waitlist to be contacted when we do our next trip, tentatively scheduled for January.)
Despite loosening restrictions, you’ll still need a visa to visit Cuba legally, which means your trip must fall within one of the approved categories of travel. The one most commonly used is people-to-people, which encourages connections between foreigners and Cubans. You can file this yourself, but it’s a lot easier if you work with a company to handle it for you, since you’ll also need a guide and an itinerary that proves you’re there to do more than drink rum and salsa. If you don’t mind bending the rules, you can go via Canada, Mexico or another Caribbean island. We can’t tell you exactly how it works in a public forum, but there are plenty who do it.
Assuming you’ve done your visa properly, there are nonstop flights daily from JFK as well as from Miami. My son and I boarded a jetBlue plane in New York and landed three hours later in Havana. The immigration and customs proceedings on either side cumulatively took more time than the flight itself. Same on the way home. And don’t even dream of playing it cool and arriving close to your departure time. You’ll need at least three hours, more if traveling during peak season, to make it through everything on time.
Dinero, Or How To Pay For Things
Come carrying plenty of cold, hard cash. Your American credit cards and bank cards won’t work here, and US dollars aren’t accepted. You’ll need to exchange money for CUCs, the Cuban convertible peso. Technically it’s a one-to-one ratio, but there’s a penalty for exchanging dollars plus a tax, so you’ll really get more like $.87 CUCs for every USD. Another advantage to using an agency is that you’ll prepay your hotel, flights transportation and even many of your meals, so you don’t need to carry as much cash with you—only enough for tips, limited shopping and extra drinks and meals.
No one goes to Havana to hang out at a fancy hotel. While some major luxury brands are staking their claim, there’s nothing that will satisfy a five-star fiend for now. We stayed at the Hotel Parque Central, which has decor that would really have wowed you in the late 80s. Pay no mind, because it’s clean, comfortable, has reliable air conditioning and good plumbing, plus there’s a rooftop pool with a kids’ pool (yep, you read that right!) where you can chill out at the end of a hot day. Service is pretty decent as well. The Saratoga also gets a lot of lip service, and there are a couple boutique options, but the rule is essentially to you get what you get and don’t get upset. My one caveat would be the rooftop pool; if you’re traveling with kids, that’s a priority. Airbnb options abound these days as well, and I’d love to stay in one of the gorgeous Miramar mansions, but knowing that you have the trustworthy air-con, electricity and lobby wifi makes a somewhat dated hotel keep its appeal.
All the Eats
Everyone told me the food was nothing special. They’re wrong. Eat like Cubans do, and you’ll dine happy. Ropa vieja, roasted pork and chicken, rice and beans, and Spanish standards such as shrimp or other seafood sauteed in garlic and olive oil were all fantastic. Also, due to trade embargoes, all locally raised food is organic and grown on small farms, so the quality is great. Skip anything that sounds like it’s aimed at fancy tourists, and don’t expect a lengthy wine list; you’re in Havana not Miami, so enjoy the more authentic food (and drink!) and everyone will leave with full tummies. Side note: pack lots of snacks. The smart mom I traveled with planned ahead and brought from NYC the crackers, chips and other easy snacks that we could give the kids when their energy flagged during the day. Although there were great goodies when we bought some fresh mango or fresh coconut water on the street, the on-the-go snacks you’d grab at a bodega at home are a lot harder to find.
One of our favorite days was skipping the city and heading out to Las Terrazas, an eco-village and nature reserve an hour’s drive from Havana. We ziplined, ate in a rural restaurant where chickens wandered through the dining patio and spent hours swimming in natural swimming pools formed by waterfalls. There were no tourists there, and our kids played with the Cuban children splashing around the falls and pools. It was perfect. If we’d had more time, I would have added Viñales, a village in one of the more mountainous regions of the country (and also where many of the best cigar tobacco is grown). Although there aren’t many hotels there, it can be done with a long day trip (too long for young kids) or you can Airbnb a homestay.