An Exclusive Small-Group Immersion in the Caribbean's Most Coveted Destination
Day 1: Fort Lauderdale, Florida / Santa Clara, Cuba / Cienfuegos
Our Cuba adventure begins as our small group flies to Santa Clara, a city known for its edgy creativity and revolutionary spirit at the geographic center of the country. Here, our local Cuban guide joins us on arrival and we'll pay a visit to the Che Guevara Museum before driving to the historic city of Cienfuegos. Once we check in to our hotel, we head to the Museo Historico Provincial, a regional museum inside an opulent former Spanish casino, to attend a performance by the internationally acclaimed choral group Cantores de Cienfuegos. Afterward, enjoy a leisurely dinner at a local waterfront restaurant.
Day 2: Cienfuegos—Botanical Garden / Trinidad
Our day begins with a tour of Cienfuegos. Founded by French settlers in 1819, the city is recognized as an outstanding example of early 19th-century urban planning in Latin America, and its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On a walking tour of the scenic area surrounding the Parque Marti, the central square, admire the lavish cathedral and town theater built with materials and craftspeople imported from Europe. We also stop at the Tomas Terry Theater, which opened in 1889 with a performance of Verdi’s Aida. The magnificent interior includes seats made from Cuban hardwoods and an exquisite ceiling fresco.
After lunch, set out by road for Trinidad, dropping by the Cienfuegos baseball stadium to meet with a retired local pro representing Cuba’s favorite national sport. We also stop at Cienfuegos Botanical Garden, established as a center for tropical plant research in the early 1900s, showcasing thousands of tree and plant species imported from around the world. Meet with staff to learn about the history of the garden, which once had close ties with the United States and other nations through sugar cane research and the exchange of rare botanical specimens. Late this afternoon we reach Trinidad, the crown jewel of Cuba’s colonial cities. Founded by Diego de Velasquez in 1514 as a base for expeditions into the New World, Trinidad today is a World Heritage Site still filled with elaborate palaces, cobbled streets and tiled roofs, looking much as the Spaniards left it during its period of greatest opulence.
Day 3: Trinidad
A morning walking tour reveals Trinidad’s historic treasures. Beginning around the Plaza Mayor, the town center, we find the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad, Cuba’s largest church. The 19th-century cathedral is renowned for its acoustics and altars made of precious woods. We then visit the Palacio Cantero, an early 19th-century mansion owned by a German planter who acquired vast sugar estates. The elaborate neoclassical decor of each room is a testament to the wealth he amassed, and the top of the tower offers a splendid view over the city. We also stop at the home and studio of two local artists who discuss the role of art as a form of Cuban cultural expression, then enjoy a lunch of classic Cuban fare at Sol Ananda, Trinidad's best private restaurant.
This afternoon, we travel east to Valle de Los Ingenios—Valley of the Sugar Mills—once the center of Cuba’s sugar industry. Trinidad’s immense wealth was created in this verdant valley from the late 18th to the late 19th century, though most of the 50-plus sugar mills were destroyed during the War of Independence and the Spanish-Cuban-American War. Today, the area’s cultural significance is recognized in its status as a World Heritage Site. Here, we admire the Iznaga Tower, a regional landmark constructed in 1816 that once was Cuba’s tallest structure at 147 feet. Its height and elaborate design were a testament to its owner’s vast material wealth during the Spanish colonial period, much of which was created by the labor of more than 30,000 slaves in the valley.
Later, at the beautiful Trinidadian residence of Julio and Rosa Muñoz, we have a chance to chat with the family. Julio is a photographer, business owner and esteemed horse trainer. Dinner this evening is at a special private restaurant—Casa de Los Conspiradores—owned by artist Yami Martinez, who has achieved international recognition for her work depicting the strains of life on Cuban women. The building remains one of Trinidad’s oldest and most architecturally significant 18th-century houses, and one of the city’s most photographed colonial facades.
Day 4: Topes de Collantes / Playa Giron
Depart Trinidad early this morning and drive to Topes de Collantes. We soon turn inland from the coast, climbing into the Sierra Escambray, whose slopes are draped in Caribbean pines, ancient tree ferns, bamboo and eucalyptus. This area lies within the Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes, a protected reserve encompassing some of Cuba’s lushest natural scenery, including rushing streams and waterfalls. Wet winds coming off the Caribbean Sea have made the north face of the mountains a luxuriant refuge for plants and animals, while the drier south face also contains important ecosystems. A morning nature walk highlights the area’s natural biodiversity, including more than 40 indigenous orchid species, 100 fern species, wild plantain and banana trees, several representatives of the ginger family and some 40 coffee species. Birdlife here is also profuse, with several endemic species of hummingbirds. After lunch in the park, we visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art to admire its little-known but outstanding collection of 20th-century Cuban paintings.
En route to Playa Giron this afternoon, we stop at Bermejas Forest Reserve, a haven for many endemic birds and plants. We’ll hope to see the world’s smallest hummingbird, often found here in the late afternoon, as we learn from park staff about efforts to protect the park’s unique ecosystem. Our accommodations for the next two nights in Playa Giron offer a rare opportunity to stay with a local family in a casa particular, where our Cuban hosts welcome us into their home—run as a small inn—and provide a window through which to witness the culture and customs of everyday life in Cuba.
Day 5: Zapata National Park / Bay of Pigs—Snorkeling
This morning we rise early to explore the Zapata Peninsula, a remote, sparsely populated area of tremendous ecological significance. This UN Biosphere Reserve covers 1.5 million acres, much of it marshes and brackish lagoons that comprise the Caribbean’s largest wetlands. At the heart of the peninsula, Zapata National Park harbors some 1,000-plant species, of which 130 are endemic to Cuba, and a great diversity of habitats such as grasslands, mangroves, varied types of forest, coastal lagoons and coral reefs. We'll be joined by a local naturalist at Las Salinas, home to huge numbers of winter migratory birds as well as rare endemics.
Traveling along Cuba’s southern coast, we stop near San Juan for a chance to snorkel in the Bay of Pigs—the infamous site of the 1961 failed U.S. invasion that helped make Fidel Castro a Cuban national hero. As we glide through the turquoise waters, we'll observe vibrant elkhorn coral formations that support myriad tropical fish. Cuba’s reefs demonstrate a level of health long since lost in corals elsewhere in the Caribbean, in part due to Cuba's decades of isolation from mass tourism and its sustainable agricultural practices. Afterward, visit the Bay of Pigs Museum to learn about the significance of this site in Cuba's history, then head back to Playa Giron for dinner.
Day 6: Las Terrazas / Valle de Viñales
More of Cuba’s beguiling rural scenery awaits as we drive to the western part of the island, arriving in Las Terrazas, a scenic rural community focused on sustainable ecotourism. Surrounded by wild nature, Las Terrazas is the site of some of Cuba’s earliest coffee plantations and a 1968 reforestation project. Today it is part of the UN Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve. This area’s complex geological structure produces special soils that support endemic flora including the tiny orchid (Bletia purpurea
) that is a symbol of the reserve.
After lunch, we continue through Valle de Viñales, Cuba’s most famous landscape. This area was the last refuge of the Ciboney, an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe. The mountains are riddled with caves, some running underground for many miles, in which Ciboney burial artifacts and rock paintings have been found. Enjoy vistas of steep-sided limestone mountains called mogotes that rise starkly from flat valleys where farmers cultivate the red soil for tobacco, fruits and vegetables. The Viñales Valley's famous mogotes are dramatic 250-million-year-old loaf-shaped limestone mountains laced with caves. These karst formations have been worn away by hundreds of years of erosion, becoming small islands that are self-contained ecosystems.
Day 7: Viñales National Park / Havana
As we explore Viñales National Park this morning, we are accompanied by a local naturalist for a close-up look at this fascinating ecosystem. A walk along the Coco Solo Palmarito Trail reveals rich plant and birdlife. Over lunch at an organic farm, we meet the family, learn about their ecologically supportive growing techniques and sample some fresh produce. The views are spectacular across this tropical plain famous for its tobacco plantations, rice paddies and hibiscus, bougainvillea and flame trees. Our visit to the valley also includes a typical Cuban tobacco farm. With the development of the European tobacco market in the early 19th century and the perfection of the Havana cigar, Cubans realized this Pinar del Rio region guarded a treasure: soil and climate that produced the world’s best tobacco. The timeless scenes here epitomize rural Cuba—thatched homesteads and farmers, called guajiros
, driving ox carts with their faithful dogs trotting at their heels.
Late this afternoon, continue on Cuba’s vibrant capital of Havana, passing through the city’s heart, the Plaza de la Revolucion, the most politically important square in Cuba. The plaza has stood witness to many rallies and revolutions that altered the course of Cuban history.
Day 8: Havana
This morning, we explore historic Havana on a walking tour. The strategic and commercial importance of Havana as Cuba’s capital is reflected in the fortifications surrounding the city. The original city was built in 1519 around the plaza, one of the largest city squares in the world, followed by the construction of the 17th-century walls that ring what is now Old Havana. After lunch on the Plaza Catedral, a prominent architectural historian joins us for an overview of Havana on foot and by bus. We’ll see and learn about key buildings such as the Pabellon Cuba, the Hotel Havana Libre, the Yara Cinema and Art Deco apartment buildings. Along the way, we stop for a mojito at the Hotel Nacional. This classic landmark overlooking the Malecon waterfront opened in 1930 when Cuba was a leading travel destination for Americans.We also stop by a rehearsal for one of two local dance troupes: Havana Compass, which blends traditional and modern dance with traces of Spanish flamenco, Afro-Cuban Jazz and African rhythm; or Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, which melds classical ballet and American modern dance with folkloric Afro-Cuban dance, Cuban rumba and Spanish flamenco.
Early this evening we meet Dr. Norma Guillard, a University of Havana professor who studies psychology and gender. She is featured in the documentary La Maestra
(a film we’ll see), which tells the stories of young women literacy workers who traveled across Cuba to teach and found themselves deeply transformed in the process. Afterward, dinner is at your leisure, with a chance to try your choice of one of Havana's many popular paladares
, or privately owned restaurants. Radically altering Cuba's food landscape, paladares have made dining out a growing highlight of life in modern Cuba.
Day 9: Havana
The morning begins with a roundtable discussion with an economist from the University of Havana, sharing the monumental economic changes afoot in Cuba as forces for liberalization and privatization continue to gain greater hold. Afterward, we visit the new Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes: Arte Cubano (Cuban Collection), accompanied by a curator. The museum dates to 1842, when the San Alejandro Art Academy started its collection that became the nucleus of the museum founded in 1913. Then it’s on to the Havana Botanical Garden for lunch, where we take in a panel discussion on the conservation of biodiversity in Cuba.
Our grand Cuba adventure wraps up with a farewell dinner at La Guarida, perhaps the best known of Havana’s trendy new paladares. Among Havana’s most elegant offerings, La Guarida attained fame as the locale where the 1994 Oscar-nominated Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate
Day 10: Havana / Miami / Depart
Our Cuba tour concludes today as we fly from Havana to Miami.
Please note: This itinerary is meant as a guideline and can change due to diplomatic events in Cuba, amendments to U.S.-Cuba sanctions, weather, hotel restrictions and/or scheduling changes. These factors may require us to deviate from our intended itinerary, in which case we will provide the best available alternative, though our focus will always be on educational exchanges that offer support for the Cuban people, and we'll make a great adventure of it!
Physical Rating: Moderate