Lately, hopping a flight to Cuba seems as common a getaway as taking a weekend trip to Miami — and it’s not much farther away. And while the U.S. government’s new Cuba policy does rein things in, Americans can still visit the island if they go under the right terms.
When the policy announced by President Donald Trump in June goes into effect in several months, U.S. residents will be restricted from personal travel and from supporting Cuban military ventures. In Cuba, that means government-owned businesses, including many hotels and restaurants. In order to stay within the guidelines, traveling with a tour operator is your best option.
As visitors flow into the country — there were four million of them last year — consider looking beyond the crowded streets of Havana to a smaller city just about 200 miles away on the island’s southern shore.
Once-wealthy Trinidad, while still full of tourists, offers all of Cuba’s culture packed into a small, historic city.
GETTING THERE AND ACCOMMODATIONS
My husband and I traveled to Cuba with Espíritu Travel, a tour company that specializes in small cultural trips that meet the requirements for American travelers. We spent the first four days of a weeklong trip in Havana before arriving in Trinidad via a taxi arranged by our guide.
If Havana, with its classic cars and cash economy, feels like a peek into the past, Trinidad, a Colonial city founded in 1514, is a time capsule. The airy houses feature wooden doors and clay-tile roofs; the cobblestone streets are so rugged they can be treacherous; actual cowboys on horseback trot through the city.
In Trinidad, as in Havana, we stayed in a casa particular — a private homestay. The home was large, clean and comfortable, and our hosts were welcoming and talkative.
In the mornings, breakfast was served on the rooftop terrace. A flour-and-honey pancake served with a sugary coconut-flake spread lingers in my memory, as does the strong, fragrant coffee, and bright — sometimes unidentifiable — fresh fruit.
WHAT TO SEE
We saw most of Trinidad on foot. The buildings almost shock your eye with their vibrant color, and music streams out of every open door. Plaza Mayor is a good place to start, with stunning 18th century churches and Spanish Colonial mansions — mostly turned into museums — surrounding it. In the center of these attractions is a garden of manicured green squares sprouting palm trees. For a bird’s-eye view of the city, climb the bell tower at Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Bandidos. Afterward, drop in the funky Café Don Pepe for a coffee — maybe even one with a splash of rum in it.
Just east of the Plaza Mayor are the stone steps leading to Casa de la Música, a jazz club. The steps themselves serve as an outdoor stage. You can order a cocktail at one of the bars that line the street and sit on a step to experience live music and salsa dancing.
Walking the streets of Trinidad also gives you a glimpse into daily life. People set up card tables outside their houses, debate sports and politics on street corners, and gather in parks and plazas — often to use the newly available Wi-Fi.
Many homeowners with historic houses take pride in showing them off, our guide told us. If you linger long enough outside the wide-open double doors or peer in through the wooden window bars, someone is likely to invite you to take a look inside.
You should not miss the opportunity to see some of the beautiful sights outside the city, all accessible by taxi or even on a rented bike.
Playa Ancón, a white sand beach, is just seven miles from the center of Trinidad. Thatched beach umbrellas and lounge chairs line the shore, and a handful of bars, restaurants and hotels on the beach offers refreshments and water activities.
The peaks of the Escambray Mountains protrude over the colorful clay rooftops of Trinidad. El Nicho, a waterfall at the northern edge of Topes de Collantes National Park, is less than 30 miles from town. After our guide drove us a few miles along steep and winding roads, we stopped at Sendero Reino de las Aguas, a 1.2-mile hike through the forest.
Perhaps my favorite experience in Trinidad was horseback riding through the Valley of the Sugar Mills, or Valle de los Ingenios, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our tour guide led us through the open fields of the adjacent valley where sugar plantations once operated. He discussed the sugar trade and life in Cuba as we headed to nearby El Pilón falls for a swim.
After a few hours, we headed back into Trinidad in the late-afternoon sun, riding through the city’s cobbled streets on horseback as women brought in their laundry and kids played in the street. Though I’m sure we looked every bit the tourist, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit like a local — or, at the very least, that we had experienced something special.
If you go
Our seven-day trip with Espíritu Travel (espiritutraveltocuba.com) cost about $2,000 per person (prices vary by date), which included a full-time tour guide, a driver, accommodations, attraction fees and most meals.
Flights booked separately were less than $300 each round-trip from New York to Havana. You can also find direct flights to Santa Clara and Cienfuegos, both within 60 miles of Trinidad.
Cuba is a cash economy. Do not expect to be able to use your credit card. The most convenient place to exchange money is at the airport. The exchange rate for Cuban Convertibles, or CUCs, is 1:1, but there is a 10 percent charge. Since meals were mostly covered, Espíritu recommended we budget about $50 per person per day. We found that number just about right.
What the new U.S. policy means for travelers
The changes in Cuba policy announced in June will restrict individual travel but allow for group travel that meets the “people-to-people” guidelines, which fall under the educational travel category, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
The regulations won’t be put into effect for several months.
Karin Eckhard, chief executive of Espíritu Travel, said she doesn’t expect the regulations to affect tour groups that are fully escorted and follow a culturally immersive itinerary.
Enforcement could become more strict, and travelers may need to show their itinerary or prove they have adhered to a full schedule of educational and cultural activities.