It's taking U.S. relations with Cuba a while to thaw, but the U.S. travel industry's interest in the island has warmed considerably within the last year.
More than a year after the U.S. renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in roughly half a century, the State Department points to increased travel between the two countries as a sign of progress. However, while the U.S. has approved exports to Cuba -- with FedEx snagging the first U.S. cargo service to the island nation, Cuba has yet to accept them.
Also, though 700,000 U.S. citizens visited Cuba last year and Starwood opened the first of its three proposed Cuba hotels -- Four Points Havana -- their presence is already driving up room rates. Cuba is already flexing its ban on foreign labor to bring in workers from India to complete hotels and placate a tourism market that grew 17% last year and has ballooned another 11% so far in 2016.
Altogether, Cuba brings in nearly $3 billion in revenue from tourism alone. Once a cheap holiday for Canadians and Europeans, Cuba is expecting new five-star hotels in Havana and a flood of new traveler cash from U.S. tourists coming in aboard the eight U.S. airlines approved for flights into the capital city. U.S. tourism to Cuba is still technically prohibited, but a "people to people" loophole has made provisions for educational trips and humanitarian projects.
With hotel prices topping $600 a night in some instances, one would think this would be a great opportunity for Cuban homeowners and online vacation rental companies. That has yet to be the case. We contacted two of the largest vacation rental firms -- Trip Advisor Vacation Rentals and HomeAway -- and were given either vague responses or told that "we do not have inventory in Cuba at this time." We imagine that it's tough to get anything established for U.S. travelers when it's only been a technically legal possibility since March, but Airbnb managed to find a way.
The site managed to amass more than 300 excellent listings in Cuba, with prices ranging from $10 a night for a shared room to $2,500 per night to stay aboard a yacht. We thumbed through listings for September and found ten spots U.S. tourists might consider staying if they can manage a trip:
O.K., so it's a one-bedroom, but there's a lot to it for your $50.
The whole apartment has been recently renovated, with a modernized private bathroom, efficiency kitchen, a king-size bed, airconditioning and Wi-Fi. You're a seven-minute vintage cab ride away from Old Havana and a short walk from the Malecon waterfront and some of the city's finest restaurants. Also, there's a spacious balcony for taking in some of the city views. If you're flying solo or are just a couple getting away for a weekend, it's about all you'll need.
Price per night: $26
The city of Trinidad has been a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1988, and this spot is right in its center.
Largely preserved from its heyday as an sugar-producing powerhouse during the 18th Century, Trinidad sits near the historic Valle de los Ingenios and its dozens of sugar cane mills. From its discotheques to its diving spots in Casilda Bay, Trinidad has a lot to show U.S. visitors who may know little about this aspect of Cuban life. In this case, your temporary home -- "the potter's house" -- is home to a ceramics artist and his workshop. For the per-night cost, you get one of the house's three air-conditioned rooms (though the two on the top floor can be rented together to minimize the discomfort of their shared bathroom), airport pickup, a free welcome cocktail and cleaning services.
The hostel also offers meals each day for an extra charge, as well as laundry, ironing, manicures, hairdressing, guided city tours, bicycle rentals, horseback riding, guided hikes, caves tours, diving classes, dance classes, percussion classes, Spanish classes, car rentals and, of course, pottery classes. It may not be the most private accommodation in Cuba, but it may well be the most active.
Price per night: $20
Why stay at this house in Baracoa? Well, other than the fact that you're on the gorgeous Bay of Honey in Cuba's first city and surrounded by the El Yunque plateaued mountain, waterfalls, 18th-century forts and music halls, you're also in a region driven by banana, coconut and cacao production. Yes, there's a whole lot of chocolate and other sweets -- including the fruit-filled coconut-sugar cucurucho cones -- and your hosts are eager to show you where it all is.
Run by a husband and wife who work as lawyers when they aren't catering to your whim, this guest house benefits from close attention to detail. Air-conditioned rooms, hot showers, laundry, meals for a fee and mojitos that the hosts are especially proud of all await you during your stay, while a sprawling outdoor complex of terraces and gardens immerses visitors in the local flora. Baracoa is a bit out of the way (a two-hour flight from Havana), but this house tries to make it worth the trip.
Price per night: $200
The prices increase a bit in Havana proper, but so do the perks.
This 1930s Colonial wonder is run by an Austrian couple that has poured a whole lot of effort into restoring it over the last three years. Three bedrooms, three air-conditioned bathrooms, HDTV with Bose surround sound, private security, cleaning service, available breakfast and an available chauffeur in a 1955 Buick all have their charms. However, a pool with its own bar and barbecue can come in handy during balmy Havana afternoons, while the house-length veranda with rockers out front are a lovely way to take in the neighborhood after a night out at the nearby restaurants.
Price per night: $29
If Matanzas isn't one of the first Cuban cities that U.S. travelers are circling on their maps, it should be.
The "Venice of Cuba" was the birthplace of the rumba, the cradle of Afro-Cuban tradition and the gems including the Sauto Theater, St. Charles Borromeo Cathedral and Bellamar caves. Its bridges speak to Cuba's architectural tradition, while its poets, musicians and artists speak to its cultural significance.
It also has some lovely beaches along the Bay of Matanzas, and this one-bedroom, one bathroom home with its private garden patio is just about 220 yards away from them. The air conditioning, the occasional fish dinner prepared by the hosts and the hot showers all make this an ideal base of operations in a city with lots to explore.
Price per night: $21
Viñales, in the Northwest reaches of Cuba, is dotted with casas particulares like this one that cater to the region's visitors -- which comes in handy when there are all of three hotels in the area.
The surrounding valley has been protected since 1976, considered a national monument since 1978 and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. Coffee and tobacco are grown here now, but the caves in Valle de Viñales National Park once served as shelter for runaway slaves. One of those caves is now a nightclub, but the botanical gardens, paleontology museum and other nearby attractions tend to have a more natural appeal.
Villa Mercy has a tremendous view of that valley and the mountains from both its rooms and its gardens and terraces. The accommodations basically consist of a room with a private bath, but the hosts grow and roast their own coffee and will cook meals for a modest fee. They'll also organize horseback tours of the valley if you choose. Sure, it can get a bit humid and buggy, but that's something to expect in this corner of Cuba. If you're enjoying the minimal prices of its casas particulares, however, you already understand part of its appeal.
Price per night: $99
Want to be right in the middle of Old Havana? Here you go.
You aren't getting any closer than this fully renovated house, and you're going to have a tough time finding a better deal on a two-bedroom apartment with its balcony overlooking the musicians, artists and crowds on Teniente Rey.
Your bedrooms are air-conditioned, your bathroom has hot water, you get a full kitchen and you have breakfast waiting for you every morning. Throw in your hosts Yanier and Lucia, who cook for you and make you coconut mango smoothies, and you're getting one of the better deals in town.
Price per night: $108
Man, Havana is just ready for U.S. tourists.
This is a massive apartment for the money. You're getting three bedrooms, two bathrooms, enough beds for nine people and a spot right near Havana's Central Park and Old Havana. The rooms are air-conditioned and come with private safes, the bathroom has hot water and a rain showerhead and the outdoor terrace looks down onto a cityscape right off of a Buena Vista Social Club album cover.
No, you don't get an updated TV or a slew of services at this price, but you can bring in nine folks for as little as $11 a day. Until Havana's quality hotels are ready, you and your friends or family will just have to make do with quantity.
Price per night: $100
O.K., this one's for the worriers out there.
Still think Cuba's a little too volatile for U.S. visitors. Still not sure how improved relations are going to pan out? Well, this Havana apartment not only has magnificent views of the Malecon from its front windows, but the Stars and Stripes, high fences and security cameras of the U.S. Embassy as well. That's right, Uncle Sam's your neighbor and your fallback option just in case things go south.
However, considering that folks from other countries have stayed at the nearby National Hotel for years without incident and that this particular apartment comes with a 10% discount at the nearby Magic Flute restaurant, we're guessing there isn't much need to go ducking into the embassy.
However, the massive corner bed, the modern furnishings and appliances, the HDTV, the spa bathroom, the airconditioning and the heavy security presence all make this an easy choice for U.S. tourists who are less than 100% certain that this is a trip they're ready to take.
Price per night: $2,500
If you're still uncertain about staying in Cuba, then don't.
We don't mean you should skip the trip altogether. We just mean that maybe you don't fly into Havana and, instead, catch this yacht from the warm, stateside comforts of Miami. This mid-sized yacht has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, room for eight and a whole lot of options for just how much time you'd like to spend in Havana.
With a powered sun roof, teak deck, generator, air conditioning, hydraulic swim platform with cockpit sun lounge, underwater lighting, grill, refrigerator and ice maker, this convertible floating luxury hotel can make it from Miami to Havana in three to six hours. Want to spend a birthday listening to son cubano or danzon? Want to test the limits of fragile international diplomacy with your bachelor or bachelorette party? Want to tack $200 to $500 on for cleaning, $55 on for each extra steward, $200 every time you ask the yacht to move? Well, you can do that all with a stocked bar, underwater bedside views and the promise of a quick return stateside when your two-night minimum is exhausted.