Looking for a bucket-list destination that offers your family the opportunity to have a fun and meaningful vacation, filled with lively cultural experiences they’ll never forget? Then consider Cuba, with its vibrant culture, music-filled streets and amazing outdoor experiences. Known for its colonial charm, diverse art scene and thriving biodiversity, this Caribbean nation has become the destination to visit for travelers of all ages.
While there have been a few recent policy changes regarding travel to Cuba (which we clarify below), the island is still a very accessible, safe and culturally rich destination for family travel. You can be assured that you and your children will receive a warm welcome from the Cuban people.
Here's why we think you will love visiting Cuba – and how to plan a trip to Cuba with kids.
A mere 90 miles from Miami, traveling to Cuba is easier than ever. In the aftermath of President Obama’s historic visit in March 2016 to reestablish friendly relations with this Caribbean nation, for the first time in 53 years, airlines opened direct routes from the U.S. This gave visitors many options to travel to Cuba — and at affordable rates, too. Of course, there are other ways to get to Cuba, including via cruise ship or ferry from Key West.
For a nation that has been closed off to American visitors for so long, Cuba is incredibly welcoming with its relaxed atmosphere, historic appeal and open-natured people revered for their kindness. In Havana, the country’s capital, visitors can enjoy public music and theatrical performances on traffic-free streets, while wandering between exciting sites, such as pirate-era forts and quirky museums that cover everything from playing cards to chocolate.
There are many opportunities to engage with and learn from the Cuban people during any stay. Cubans are particularly passionate about music, dance, visual arts, baseball and cars — and they're eager to share their talents with visitors. "We are all feeling very happy to receive more tourists visiting Cuba just because it helps to grow our economy and to know people from a different culture," said Global Family Travels’ local Cuban tour partner. "It also helps us be in contact with the outside world.”
Depending on your family’s interests, a people-to-people exchange itinerary can be crafted to connect you with local artists who are more than willing to open up their studios and share some of their latest creations. There are many meaningful people-to-people exchanges with Cuban artists, local actors and small business owners at inspiring community projects in casas de la cultura. These community cultural centers throughout Cuba foster various forms of artistic expression and serve as venues for exhibitions and performing arts.
If you're more of a musical family, Cuba offers a wide range of locations to mingle with and learn from musicians. Experience everything from the Afro-Caribbean rhythms of son to rumba to timba — and perhaps seize the opportunity to join the locals in a free dance lesson while you’re at it.
Now that you’re excited to go, you’ll need a place to stay. The best way to experience Cuban culture is to stay at casa particulares. These private home stays offer a candid glimpse into the lives of Cuban locals and are well-equipped to cater to your family’s needs. In fact, it is quite common for the owners to have children of their own, making them more than qualified to suggest activities that their own families have enjoyed — and to provide food that taste buds of any age will enjoy.
By staying at a casa particular, you can save money and intimately interact with the local culture. And rest assured: No matter which one you end up, they all conform to government-approved standards. Of course, Cuba has many lovely hotels you can stay in too, but we prefer the casas.
Established along the southern coast in 1514 before moving five years later, the capital city of Havana is home to 2.5 million people and a wealth of colonial beauty. Once a top port for the Spanish Empire, Havana has maintained its identity as a leading commercial center and is now the largest city in the Caribbean. In fact, for many it appears as three cities rolled into one: Old Havana, Vedado and the newer suburban districts, each with their own distinct look and feel.
Havana offers plenty to do with kids. Start with a stroll through La Havana Vieja (Old Havana) on Calle Obispo, which starts at Plaza de Armas and ends near Parque Central. A favorite activity on Calle Obispo is to watch the street performers and taste the local chocolate. It doesn’t get much more kid-friendly than that. Another must-see in Havana is the rooftop Camera Obscura in Plaza Vieja. This optical device of lenses and mirrors projects an aerial image of the city into a giant concave screen taking you on a bird's-eye tour of Havana. The views from the top of the building are spectacular, too. A visit to Plaza De La Revolution is also a must, where you can see Che mural and Jose Marti memorial. The plaza was created in the 1920s, but was not fully used until after the 1959 revolution for political speeches and rallies. In a dense city, it is quite an unusual sight to see a vast 11 acres of open space.
After dark, a favorite thing to do in Havana with kids is to attend the evening show at Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, Havana’s fortress, where a cannon is fired every night at 9 p.m. In the colonial era, this shot used to mark the end of the day, when the city gates would close for the night. Leading up to the cannon shot is a reenactment of the 18th century ceremony.
And, of course, no visit to the city is complete without experiencing a ride in a vintage car, as well as a Coco taxi. Be sure to agree to the price ahead of time — and enjoy the ride.
Outside of the city, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, horseback riding and snorkeling in turquoise waters. Better yet, each location can be visited without a flood of tourists to distract you from the beautiful sights. We have highlighted just a few that we know kids will enjoy:
Only a few hours by car from Havana, the Viñales Valley, with its rolling hills, steep cliff-faces and sprawling green tobacco fields offers the full experience of the Cuban countryside. It makes for a fun day excursion from Havana, stopping en route to visit a tobacco farm and interact with farmers devoted to the land, while learning about the role that tobacco has played in Cuban history. Once in Viñales, enjoy its unique landscape and expansive scenery, including horseback riding, cave touring, hiking and biking. Visit the famous mural of Viñales before returning to Havana, or spend the night and enjoy all that the valley has to offer for kids.
Thirty minutes west of Havana, Fusterlandia is a whimsical spot any Gaudí fans will appreciate — the enclave is covered in colorful mosaics — and is fun for kids explore. Cuban artist José Fuster started the project in his own home and then asked to decorate for his neighbors, eventually turning a downtrodden neighborhood into a fairytale-like artist's haven.
Arguably Cuba’s best-preserved colonial town, Trinidad was established a year before Havana due to the nearby Valley de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) and gold mines. Almost five centuries later, the older portion of this city became a UNESCO World Heritage site given its impact on the sugar industry. Visit the Palacio Cantero and its 100-year-old family-run pottery workshop where kids can get their hands dirty and make a pretty piece.
You will also want to visit Trinidad for its natural beauty with the surrounding Escambray Mountains and the white sandy beaches of Playa Ancon on the Caribbean Sea. The Valley of the Sugar Mills is also just outside of the city Trinidad and is a worthwhile stop with its many historic sugar plantations, which are a reminder of the importance of sugar to the Cuban economy over the centuries. Kids will enjoy climbing La Torre Manacas Iznaga, a 148-foot high tower built by Alejo Iznaga Borrell in 1816, erected as a watchtower to oversee the slaves working in the sugar cane fields.
Known as the “Pearl of the South,” Cienfuegos is another UNESCO World Heritage site which has a laid-back vibe and fewer tourists than Havana or Trinidad. Although this town was founded within Spanish territory, French immigrants from Bordeaux and French colonies, such as Louisiana initially settled Cienfuegos in 1819. Thanks to its location in the heart of a fertile agricultural region, it quickly became a trading hub for sugarcane, mangos, tobacco and coffee. One day and overnight in Cienfuegos with kids is all you need to explore its colonial charm.
At the head of the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), Playa Larga was one of two beaches invaded by U.S.-backed exiles in 1961. This lovely cove is the perfect base for exploring the Zapata peninsula, Cuba's largest wilderness area, home to birdwatching, snorkeling, and a crocodile farm.
It is true that the U.S. travel policy towards Cuba has been in a state of flux with the recent change of administrations and regulations mandated by the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). No doubt, navigating these regulations can be a deterrent for many families considering a visit. Here’s a quick synopsis to make you feel more at ease about traveling to Cuba:
Traditional tourism to Cuba from the U.S. has been prohibited since the U.S. embargo in 1961. People-to-people exchanges in Cuba were approved in 1999 under the Clinton administration, with the goal of enhancing cross-cultural relations between Americans and Cubans. Americans who wanted to visit the country need to qualify under 12 approved reasons, including education, visiting family, or carrying out humanitarian projects.
When President Obama announced his policy of opening up to Cuba in 2016, these previous regulations requiring that Americans travel with licensed organizations were replaced by a much more open policy, and individuals have been able to declare “educational” or “people to people” trips on their own.
In June of 2017, President Trump announced changes to this détente, instructing the Department of Treasury, which legislates travel policies to Cuba, to issue regulations that will end individual people-to-people travel. The new legislation in the works by OFAC will require that U.S. travelers use a licensed organization to make these educational trips as part of groups in the future. These changes do not take effect until the new regulations are issued, which is expected to be in mid-September of 2017.
The good news for travelers dreaming of Cuba is that it is still an accessible destination. While individual people-to-people travel will end, guided group tours are permitted to carry on. Likewise, cruising and commercial flights will continue, eliminating the need for the more expensive charters previously required.
Preparation for travel to Cuba will also become more important as travelers will be required to have a full-time schedule of activities during their stay without “free time or recreation in excess” (U.S. Treasury Department). Thankfully, there are many tour organizers, such as Global Family Travels, who can help take care of this for you with full itineraries of exciting events and meaningful connections.
For more on travel to Cuba, visit Global Family Travels, which offers cultural immersion and service learning tours for families through a unique mix of cultural activities, home-stays, and participation in local service projects aimed at improving the lives of the communities we visit. Through the company’s three pillars (learn, serve and immerse), its mission is to build cultural bridges and to foster global citizens who will take responsibility for the challenges facing our global community.
By Jennifer Spatz, Founder of Global Family Travels