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10 Incredible Alternative Destinations to Cuba
TRAVEL RESOURCES

10 Incredible Alternative Destinations to Cuba

By: Austin Adventures December 27, 2017
Myanmar Bagen Temple Valley

Cuba may be a hot destination right now, but with so much uncertainty about travel to the island nation, it’s time to think about alternatives.

By: Kasey Austin

Cuba is one of those unique, once-in-a-lifetime trips that can’t be matched by any other experience out there. We also know that there is a lot of uncertainty regarding travel to Cuba at the moment and this makes some American travelers nervous. While we know there is no substitute for a vacation to our Caribbean island neighbor (there really is no place exactly like Cuba!), we’ve come up with a list of other destinations to consider as we continue waiting for American travel rules and restrictions to get hashed out. Read on for Austin Adventures’ top-pick destinations to find your “corner of Cuba” across the globe.

machu picchu peru trip

If you want culture

Cuba’s culture is diverse, complex and truly fascinating due to so many varying influences throughout its history. While nothing in the world compares to Cuban culture, one of our other favorite cultural hotspots is Peru, the land of the Inca. Peruvians express their fascinating culture through their music, dance, clothing, art forms, celebrations, and more, just as our Cuban friends do. On our Peru trips, you’ll meet women in traditional dress at Awanacancha who aim to keep the art of traditional textile alive and well through the weaving of intricate handicrafts. You’ll discover a vast collection of folk art dating back to the seventeenth century at a local hacienda. You’ll uncover the secrets of the historic center of Lima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And you’ll trek the Inca Trail through the “Sun Gate” into Machu Picchu, listening as your expert tour leader guides you through the mysterious history of an ancient civilization whose culture still rings evident to this day.

If you want history

The history of Cuba is intriguing, ranging from Spanish occupation to the infamous Cuban revolution masterminded by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. You’re just not going to find a similar historic account to that of Cuba – it’s truly one-of-a-kind, but if you’re looking for an alternate destination steeped in rich history, might I suggest Normandy in France. From the Norman invasion of England in 1066 to the D-Day landings during World War II, Normandy has long played an immense role in European history. On Austin Adventures’ Normandy vacation, you’ll find yourself solemnly staring down the cemeteries and memorials along the D-Day beaches; ogling over the world-famous Bayeux Tapestry, famous for its cartoon scenes of 11th-century life; and listening intently as your knowledgeable guide explains the significance of the Germany Battery at Longues-sur-Mer.

If you want cigars…

There just isn’t really anything that compares to a Cohiba – we all know that! The glory of the Cuban cigar is older than even the Castro regime. Rolling stogies is an art form that’s been passed down through generations, and the flavor is unmatched! BUT, according to Dan Austin, President of Austin Adventures and Cigar Aficionado Extraordinaire, Nicaragua is the next best place to get a quality cigar at a fairly low expense. Dan’s favorite brand of cigar is Oliva, which actually ties into Cuban history. Melanio Oliva first grew tobacco in Pinar Del Rio, Cuba in 1886. Several generations later, after growing tobacco in Cuba for decades, the pressure from the Communist-run government became too great and Gilberto Oliva, Melanio’s grandson, fled Cuba and eventually settled in Nicaragua, a place he felt was fertile enough to produce a similar tobacco of Cuban taste. Today, Gilberto along with his family are Nicaragua’s second largest grower of Cuban-seed tobacco.  On our Nicaragua Adventures, you can see cigars hand rolled right in front of your eyes and then of course, you can sit back and enjoy a relaxing smoke with a fresh, made-from-scratch stogie.

belize adventure travel

If you want beaches…

If you were heading to Cuba because you wanted to sun yourself on the beach, chances are you were probably signing up for the wrong type of vacation. As an American citizen, you can’t travel on your own to Cuba and do whatever you please (as amazing as we think this would be!) In November 2017, policy changes were announced that reverted back to the stricter rules that applied to Cuba travel prior to March 2016. At that time, individual Americans couldn’t travel on their own – they had to be on a licensed “People to People” group tour – and they had to maintain a full schedule of activities that engaged with and civilly supported the Cuba people. Due to these regulations, hanging out on the beach doesn’t make the license requirements for “People to People” engagement. If you’re looking for a vacation with plenty of beach time, you might want to check out our Belize Adventure where the last three days of your itinerary are spent on Ambergris Caye located in the clear shallow waters of the Caribbean Sea. Here you can choose what to do with your time: catch some rays on the beach, swim the calm azure waters of the Caribbean or snorkel the second largest barrier reef in the world, just a mile away from your resort.

If you want nightlife…

Havana brims with Cuba’s best nightlife, which hinges on dancing and music. Clubs and bars are plentiful and you’re sure to kick back a daiquiri or two and salsa the night away with reckless abandon. While Havana is sure to knock your socks off with its legendary nightlife, Bogotá in Colombia is sure to give Havana a run for its money. Rumor has it that the best nightlife in Latin America can be found in Colombia’s sprawling high-altitude capital city and luck has it that you’ll stay in Bogotá for three nights on Austin’s Colombia Adventure. What’s even better is that your accommodation, Cité Hotel is just a short walk away from Zona T, the prime nightclub district of the city. The area is considered relatively safe after dark, even for tourists and you can find literally every type of music you’re looking for: Electronic, Bachata, Vallenato, Pop, Reggaeton, Salsa, Hip-hop, Rock – throughout the district. There are also wonderful places throughout the city to check out a live show, sip a local cocktail, take some salsa lessons, or mingle with the locals…whatever floats your boat. It would take a year to check out every local spot and your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to head out for a night on the town in Bogotá to create your own list of favorite local hotspots.

If you want food…

Cuba is all about simply prepared, good dishes. The food culture is driven by a uniquely Cuban streak of resourcefulness in response to scarcity. On a trip to Cuba, you’ll eat a lot of black beans and a whole lot of foods cooked in the holy trinity of spices: garlic, oregano, and sour orange. While Cuban cuisine is unique and not found many places other than Cuba, there are other foodie destinations out there that focus much more on the gastronomic experience. Sure, there are more obvious locales like Italy, Ireland, & France, but one of our not-as-well-known favorite food-centric havens is Croatia! Traditional cuisine across Croatia is wide and varied and even differs significantly from one region to another. Food is influenced by tastes and traditions from neighboring countries, and different nations that ruled territory of Croatia throughout history (think Italian, Austrian, Hungarian and Turkish influences), yet the dishes have their own distinct Croatian interpretation and taste. On an Austin Adventures Croatia tour, you’ll participate in a cooking class where’ll you try your hand at cooking a Croatian specialty such as ćevapčiči (spiced sausages) with ajvar sauce, mussels, and black risotto. Yum!

If you want lodging…

I’m just going to be honest with you here – if you’re going to Cuba to have a five-star lodging experience, you’re going to want to re-evaluate your reasons for traveling to Cuba. Broadly speaking, Cuba accommodations are divided into two types: hotels and casas particulares.  Hotels are either owned or run by the Cuban state or are run as joint ventures with foreign companies. They range from top-class historic hotels (key word here…historic) to budget, basic uniform blocks in the cities. Casas particulares are private homes and most houses are very modest; you’re basically living with a Cuban family. Luxuries such as air conditioning and even toilet seats are often scarce. Part of the experience in Cuba is learning to appreciate everyday Cuban resourcefulness. While Cuban accommodations are unique and just fine for most people as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into, there are other destinations out there for those looking at an itinerary with a keen eye for authentic accommodations that live up to American expectations. Take our Costa Rica program for example. You start and end your adventure near San José at Xandari Resort, located on a forest reserve in the foothills of Poas Volcano. You then move on to Evergreen Tortuguero Lodge, located 5 minutes from the main entrance to Tortuguero National Park accessible only by air and water (talk about off-the-grid!) Raft the world-class Pacuare River into the Rios Tropicales eco-lodge where you can recharge in the rainforest! And finish up your trip getting your “Pura Vida” on at the beachfront Cariblue Beach & Jungle Resort. Ahh, paradise!
Close-up of person pouring wine in France

If you want drinking…

Soaking in the essence of Cuba is best done at one of the classic bars while sipping a daiquiri, mojito or Cuba Libre. Rum is a core part of Cuba’s national identity and has, along with cigars, fueled the country’s economy for decades. Americans have been fascinated with Cuban rum for centuries and while traveling to Cuba, you’re likely to visit a few of Hemingway’s favorite watering holes on your explorations throughout Havana. If rum isn’t your thing, consider visiting another country known for its drink of choice. In Scotland, you’re sure to stop by at least one of the country’s 100 active distilleries for a wee dram of whisky.  Between the Malbec of Argentina and the Cabernet Sauvignon of Chile, you really can’t go wrong. And if you’re a beer connoisseur, the good ole’ US of A’s ongoing craft brew renaissance is sure to delight your taste buds!

If you want activities…

Signing up for a trip to Cuba as an American is going to give you many fascinating experiences involving educational people-to-people interactions. Your adventure will provide a full-time schedule of exchanges with the locals designed to result in meaningful engagements between traveler and Cuban. On an Austin Adventures Cuba Vacation, you’ll learn all about the role of coffee in Cuba at a coffee plantation, you’ll experience Cuba’s amazing music scene with visits to post-dinner concerts and clubs, you’ll explore Hemingway’s former estate to discover his inspiration for several of his books and you’ll learn all about Cuba’s signal crop, tobacco, in the Viñales Valley. Your itinerary will absolutely be something to write home about, but it will be fairly regimented and follow a strict set of guidelines that allow little in the way of flexibility. That’s just the nature of travel to Cuba for an American citizen! If you’re looking for an itinerary that has less of a focus on cultural experiences and more of an emphasis on outdoorsy activities, try out one of our many U.S. national parks programs. Depending on where you travel, your days will be filled with hiking, biking, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, kayaking, zip lining or swimming. You’ll also get to meet the locals when you go on a park ranger walk in Yosemite, head out horseback riding with a fourth generation Montana rancher or keep a keen eye out for whales with your kayak guide in Alaska. Our national parks programs feature our own version of “people to people” interactions while also keeping to a flexible “people to nature” agenda as well!

If you want UNESCO World Heritage Sites…

For such a small country, Cuba has a pleasing collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. On our Cuba: Caribbean Vacation, you visit four of the country’s nine sites over the course of eight days: the Historic Centre of Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Viñales Valley and La Habana. Those who have been to Cuba before tout that the country’s most precious resource is its people (we’d have to agree on that one), but  seeing even a few of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Cuba allows you to complement human encounters with experiences in some of the world’s most culturally significant, historically important and naturally pristine places. For those looking for a different kind of experience surrounding UNESCO World Heritage Sites, another region to look towards is Southeast Asia. The area is as large as it is varied, but this culturally rich destination offers 37 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in nine countries, many of them close enough together that it’s fairly easy to check several off your bucket list in one trip. In Indonesia, you’re sure to explore Borobudur, a Mandala-shaped monument near Yogykarta that immortalizes Buddhist cosmology in stone.  On our Laos/Cambodia trip, you’ll visit Luang Prabang, Laos’s most sacred town as well as Angkor Wat, the grand temple complex of Cambodia. A visit to Vietnam will check off Ha Long Bay’s dramatic limestone karst pillars; the ancient, peaceful old town of Hoi An; and the Complex of Hue Monuments.

There you have it…a whole list of worldwide destinations Austin Adventures-style that provide a taste of Cuba without actually going to the country itself. Like we’ve been saying, there is no true substitution for a Cuba vacation, but as we wait for Cuban/American relations to strengthen, we must remember there are other bucket list destinations to quench our travel yearnings in the meantime.

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