When you think of a family vacation to the Caribbean, sand and blue seas come to mind. But mention Cuba, and the images change quickly to colorful vintage cars — and for United States residents, the allure of the unknown kicks into high gear. While Cuba’s essentially been open for business to visitors from the rest of the world, it’s been off-limits to Americans since 1962. Politics are still in play, but the doors have been unlocked, and American families should take full advantage.
Planning a trip to Cuba can be confusing. The possibility of changing rules might be worrisome to some travelers, but it shouldn’t stop parents from making plans. The Department of the Treasury’s frequently asked questions document on the most recent announcement regarding Cuba is a great resource, and loaded with information. Cruising to Cuba falls under the still permitted People-to-People category and offers a number of advantages for traveling families. Parents can actually feel like they are on vacation, as cruise lines take care of all the dirty details.
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My family of four cruised from Tampa to Havana on Carnival Paradise. We picked up our visas at embarkation. Our shore excursion fulfilled the People-to-People U.S. travel requirement, while still leaving us time to wander on our own in Havana. All I had to do was make sure our travel affidavits were printed and signed. It is important to note that, unlike for many other Caribbean cruises, all travelers need a passport to travel to Cuba, and it must be valid for at least six months beyond your scheduled departure date. Birth certificates and passport cards aren’t accepted.
One of the first things families should do when arriving in Havana is to hire a vintage classic car, preferably a colorful convertible, and make the half-hour trip from central Havana to Fusterlandia in the neighborhood of Jaimanitas. Fusterlandia was created by Cuban artist Jose Fuster. Neighbors liked the look of the brightly colored tile mosaics covering his home, joined in the fun and the ongoing expansion began. Local artists display their handicrafts, making the neighborhood a great place to pick up souvenirs. Admission is free.
My teenagers could have spent hours here exploring and snapping photographs, but younger kids will be equally taken, climbing outdoor staircases to reach whimsical tile critters and saying hello to the pet turtle that calls Fuster’s front yard home.
Hop back in your cool set of wheels and ride along the Malecon, a roughly 5-mile esplanade that hugs the sea. At times, it seems like much of Havana is gathered here to fish, stroll, sit or simply stare at the sea. You’ll cover more ground in a car, but if time allows, taking a walk is the old-school way to view the scenery. Don’t be afraid to say hello to locals out doing the same.
TIP: Visiting Cuba is so much about the cultural exchange. Most teens and tweens will find it easy and enjoyable to soak up interactions, but that doesn’t mean parents of young ones shouldn’t make the trip — just be realistic about the patience and enjoyment levels of little ones. While school-age kids might not think much about having lunch at Don Eduardo Alegre overlooking Plaza Vieja, teens will have a moment when they realize they can order a mojito or a pina colada and no one but them (or maybe their parents) will think it’s a big deal.
There’s much to look at when you sail into Havana’s harbor, but even from a distance the Cristo de la Habana (Christ statue), which towers over the city, has a commanding presence. Standing in front of it, the larger-than-life feel is even stronger. Along with some of Havana’s best views, there’s plenty of grass surrounding the statue, giving little legs plenty of room to run and work out any wiggles.
It’s worth popping in to Museo del Chocolate nearby. Getting a table often requires a wait, but you can grab edible works of art to go. The smell alone is worth stepping inside. When the sugar rush kicks in, take advantage and simply wander the streets of central Havana. You may stumble across a wedding, locals dancing or kids playing baseball or soccer. Don’t be surprised, or hesitate, if you’re asked to join in the fun; Cuba is not a place to be shy. The sense of community is strong and friendly.
With teens in tow, Fábrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory) — a former cooking oil factory-turned-art space — is the place to be seen in the evening, with lines to match. If you’re not up for standing in line, sit down to dinner at neighboring El Cocinero. Snag the right table and you can actually look into Fábrica de Arte Cubano while munching on fish tacos, ropa vieja (stewed beef and vegetables) and shrimp.
• U.S. credit cards and debit cards don’t work in Cuba, so you’ll need to carry cash for everything. Cuba has two forms of currency, one for locals and one for tourists. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the Cuban currency used by tourists. It’s easy to exchange money at the cruise terminal in Havana after you go through customs, as well as in banks and some larger hotels. The thought of carrying a large amount of cash is intimidating for some, especially when you have to carry enough for an entire family. My husband and I were careful, just as we would be anywhere else in the world, but we never felt uncomfortable or experienced any reason to be concerned.
• WIFI is scarce and tightly controlled. Enjoy not being connected.
• American brands that are common around the globe don’t exist here in Havana. If you or your kids, have to have something, bring it with you. But even better, take a trip to Cuba as the perfect opportunity to discover and enjoy new things. You won’t regret it.
Browse all tips and ideas for Cuba family travel on Ciao Bambino
Cuba travel tips: A place that inspires important family conversations
Editor’s Note: Dana’s trip to Cuba was sponsored by Carnival Cruise Line. As always, our thoughts and opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Dana Rebmann.
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