The untouched reefs! The colorful vintage cars! The music! The history!
No wonder everyone wants to go on a Cuba family vacation these days. “Cuba is one of the most rewarding destinations to bring children and the entire family,” said Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba, which has sent more than 13,000 travelers to Cuba in the past 16 years, including many families. “With Cuba, you don’t need the ‘Atlantis-style’ pool and overabundance of kid-centric activities to make the children happy.”
Of course, Cuba vacations with kids include a tour Old Havana, where locals will be friendly and you’ll hear music at every turn. See the National Museum of Fine Arts where you can take a tour through Cuba’s history through its art, and nearby, the Museum de la Revolucion. Take a walk along the Malecon, the road and seawall along the coast that is nearly 5 miles long. Take a ride in a 1950s American car. And that’s just the beginning of a Cuba family vacation!
During your Cuba vacation with kids, you can also swim in the Bay of Pigs, learn the Rumba in Matanzas where the dance originated, and teach the kids a little history at Santiago de Cuba, where Theodore Roosevelt led his Rough Riders to Victory at San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War.
Cool out in Cienfuegos, on the southern Coast with its beautiful beaches and French-influenced colonial architecture. Go for a bike ride in in Trinidad, a beautifully preserved city and UNESCO World Heritage Site, or snorkel nearby in Playa Ancon. Cuba is said to have the most pristine reefs in all of the Caribbean. Considering a Cuba family vacation? Here’s what you need to know.
Visiting Cuba with kids is decidedly not like any other Caribbean vacation. There’s little internet and hotels are inconsistent, expensive and, because there aren’t enough rooms at present, booked months in advance. You might consider a Casa Particulare, where you stay and eat with a local family for as little as $30 a night. You can book through Airbnb.com or Cubacasas.net.
Currency in Cuba
Because Cuba is a cash society, your debit/credit cards won’t work at most places. Bring plenty of cash that you can convert to Cuban convertibles (called “CUC” and pronounced “Cukes”). Cuba has two currencies– pesos is the other currency, used mainly by locals. You’ll get CUC when you exchange dollars, euros or pounds.
You also can’t spend all day at the beach during your Cuba vacation with kids, as you have to fulfill the U.S. government requirement for eight hours of “people-to-people” interactions daily, though it is unclear how or if the government is enforcing this. Under the current–and recently relaxed regulations–your trip is supposed to be more about interactions with Cubans rather than sun and sand. Insight Cuba’s Popper says for families, the engagement between Cuban and American families proves to be the highlight of the trip.
You can plan your own educational experiences, but it’s not easy to arrange, especially if you don’t speak Spanish.
Driving in Cuba
Driving can be a nightmare. There are no lights on the roads, and you are likely to encounter bicyclists, donkey carts, wild pigs and people in the middle of the road. Besides, it can be cheaper to hire a car and driver than to rent one yourself. Just be sure to settle on a price in advance. Also, government officials warn, anecdotal reports indicate the maintenance that rental car agencies provide to their fleets is inadequate and may cause an accident.
Necessary Documentation for Cuba
For your Cuba family vacation, you will also need a “Tourist Card” which is similar to a tourist visa and can be obtained through your travel agent or a Cuban embassy and consulate and proof that you have purchased travel insurance–required by the Cuban government. Check for the latest rules from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs and the Department of the Treasury’s OFAC website.
Are your kids taking Spanish? Only those involved in the tourism industry seem to speak much English. (Tip: even a few Spanish phrases will help you.)
Cuba Tour Groups
For all of these reasons, this is one time when it can be a lot more expedient and safe to sign on for an organized tour that manages all the details and helps you navigate. The non-profit InsightCuba is the leader in providing these people-to-people programs for Americans and now offers six Signature Cuba Tours with over 250 start dates as long as the kids are 12. Popper, the company’s president, suggests if you are in a group of six or more, customize a private trip, tailoring the visit to individual needs and the kids’ ages. (He suggests kids be at least 6 years of age to appreciate the trip.)
A growing number of companies now are offering special family travel to Cuba itineraries at different price points. (Call for prices and children’s discounts.) Examples:
-Classic Journeys family Cuba Journey will introduce you to farmers, students and cigar makers, take you shopping in local markets, to visit a school in Las Terrazas in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve and to a vintage car workshop.
-Intrepid’s 11-day Cuba Family Holiday includes four days in Havana, the chance to explore Trinidad, Cuba’s best-preserved colonial town, visit the Bay of Pigs Museum, the site of Che Guevara’s famous train battle, as well as time for the beach and snorkeling.
-Backroads has an active People-to-People multisport trip, satisfying the government requirements with activities like meeting Cuban baseball players, the chance to bike alongside members of Cuba’s National Cycling Club and visit Matanzas with its caves and white-sand beaches.
-Austin Adventures’ Cuba Family Vacation Package includes hiking in the biosphere of La Terrazas, home to over 117 bird species, swimming at the base of a waterfall in Topes and Playa Larga on the Bay of Pigs, snorkeling, and touring Cienfuegos.
It may prove easier to arrange custom trips as six U.S. airlines have started to fly to Cuba, including American Airlines and Southwest.
Cruises to Cuba
Perhaps the easiest way to introduce the kids to Cuba is via ship. So far, only the Fathom Adonia (the newest Carnival brand and dedicated to immersive tourism) has won approval to sail into Cuba from the United States (other cruises visit Cuba from Caribbean ports). On the Adonia inaugural trip, Carnival Corporation President and CEO Arnold Donald said he expects other cruise lines and other Carnival brands to win approval in the near future. Being on board a ship relieves you of the hassles of getting from place to place on poor roads and the lack of internet. As on other group trips, the people-to-people experiences will be arranged for you. The downside: You won’t spend as much time in each place as you’d like.
What to Pack for Cuba
However you go, pack light:
-Quick-dry and moisture-wicking shorts, tops and pants as well as clothes in lightweight, breathable fabrics like linen.
-Because of cobblestones and uneven streets, plan to wear sneakers or sturdy sandals while touring.
-You need sunglasses and a hat, though the traditional Cuban straw hats with black brim are a popular and inexpensive souvenir.
-Water bottles, which you should be able to safely refill where you are staying, most of the time at least.
-A First Aid kit, medications and non-prescription drug items. Things commonly available in other parts of the world won’t be here so you want to make sure you have shampoo, toothpaste, razor blades, tampons, insect repellent, sunscreen — anything you think you will need.
Additional Tips for Cuba Family Vacations
-Locals will appreciate (and some will ask for) small gifts like hotel-sized toiletries, pens, pencils and candy. Have them at the ready.
-Expect to tip musicians, tour guides and servers at restaurants and in hotels. That small amount of extra money is very important to Cubans.
-Because internet is so iffy, download an offline app like Maps.me that works via GPS. Your phone may not work either. Check with your provider before you go; consider pre-buying services from the state-run phone company Cubacel, Lonely Planet’s Cuba guide suggests.
There are both government-run and now a growing group of private restaurants. The prices may be similar, but you’ll find more interesting food and better service at the private restaurants like El Figaro bar and restaurant in Havana, where we feasted on grilled lobster tail for less than $15. Locals advised that it can be prudent to call ahead as restaurants here are small and get busy after 8 p.m., when Cubans dine.
You’ll find Havana Club rum, Cohibas and other cigars sold widely. As of 2016, there is no limit on the amount of cigars and alcohol U.S. citizens can bring back with them; it just has to be in your carry-on luggage.
The kids, meanwhile, will have a blast buying bead necklaces, bracelets fans, small painted vintage wooden cars and more–all just for a few dollars. Warning: the souvenir photos you may see of Che Guevara and John Lennon playing guitar together are fake. The best part–every souvenir will have a story to tell.
Eileen Ogintz is a nationally known travel writer who writes the syndicated column TakingtheKids and the Kids Guides to major American cities.
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