Last updated: 11:30 AM ET, Fri March 25 2016

Travel Agents Share Cuba’s Hidden Gems

Travel Agent | Lisa Iannucci | March 25, 2016

Travel Agents Share Cuba’s Hidden Gems

PHOTO: Cienfuegos, one of Cuba's hidden gems. (Photo by David Cogswell)

Now that some travel restrictions from the United States to Cuba have been lifted, the conversation turns to what sights are the must-sees. Odds are that many tourists will flock to Havana, the capital of Cuba, to check out the Castillo de la Real fort, Plaza de Armas and some of the other more popular attractions. However, vacationers who make it there should find more off-the-beaten path places to visit.

“Cuba is a fascinating, rapidly changing place,” said David Capaldi, president of Discover Latin America. “Beyond Havana, my favorite destination is the Viñales Valley and Pinar del Río region in the far west of the island. Here, you will find some of the best scenery in the country, in a spectacular Yosemite-like setting, as well as the beautiful, colorful town of Viñales. Unmissable in my opinion.”

This February, Trapper Martin, franchise owner and vacation specialist with CruiseOne in Belle Isle, Florida, went on a seven-day trip to Cuba that he hosted aboard the Celestyl Crystal. “When most people think of Cuba, they think of Havana and old cars and wonderful buildings,” he said. “One thing I didn’t quite realize before my trip, though, is just how much amazing architecture there was and still is.”

READ MORE: 5 Hotels and Resorts in Cuba We Can’t Wait to Visit

He says that Cienfuegos, a city located on the southern coast of Cuba and approximately 145 miles from Havana, was his favorite place to go. “It is certainly a tale of two cities,” he said. “There is a nicer marina area and there is some tourism here for sure. In addition to older cars, I was amazed at how many horse and donkeys are still used as transportation. You can wander really just two blocks off of any area and really see the local culture.”

Visitors who want to immerse themselves in the culture of Cuba should look for restaurants in private houses called Paladares, according to Ernesto Ruben, social media/product development of the House of Travel. “They are authorized by the government and will provide travelers with a great opportunity to immerse themselves in the local culture and tastes,” he said. “Try to find a booklet in the island called the Tourist and Gastronomic Passport that has great listing of these places.”

READ MORE: Traveling to Cuba: Top Tips and Advice From Travel Agents and Tour Operators

Rebecca Heidgerd, the marketing director for StudentUniverse, says that because of the local restrictions, People to People interactions and educational experiences are part of every tour. “It forces travel companies to include numerous opportunities to interact with local people into their itinerary,” she says. “A highlight of my trip also included a non-planned event in Havana. A fellow trip participant and I took a walk around the hotel and were immediately approached by locals. They walked us into a local neighborhood and pulled out their ration card pad and showed us what they could get with it and pointed out the local shop where they could redeem their ration cards.”

She explains that the locals took her into someone's home filled with Santeria shrines and offered us the option to buy cigars there. “Who knows if they were knockoffs, but I don't regret the experience — I learned a lot about a Cuban's life in that hour on the streets of Havana,” she said.

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