Why You Should Explore the Charms of Cuba During the Off-Season

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Why You Should Explore the Charms of Cuba During the Off-Season
The future of U.S.-Cuba relations may be uncertain, but the largest country in the Caribbean remains a dream destination for many travelers. To keep up with the demand, cruise companies and tour operators continue to add new Cuba itineraries. For some, the appeal is all about classic cars and cigars; for others, it’s about traveling deeper from the heart of old Havana to off-the-beaten-track destinations along the country’s east coast. As tourism in Cuba becomes more popular, escaping the crowds has become ever more important—and off-season travel might just be the answer.

Recently, I explored off-season Cuba on smarTour’s The Best of Cuba tour as part of AFAR’s partnership with the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA). USTOA members are known for providing travelers with unparalleled access, insider knowledge, and peace-of-mind to destinations across the globe, so I was able to experience many sides of Cuba. Even better? Without the crowds, I found it easier to capture both iconic Cuban scenes and everyday life beyond the clichés. Click through to see highlights from my trip and then read more about my journey on the USTOA blog.
By Ben Schuyler, AFAR Ambassador
Photo by Ben Schuyler
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    A Cuban Quartet
    It’s admittedly hard to visit Havana and not snap a million pictures of powder blue Chevrolets. At any moment in Cuba, a vintage car could zip by, which always makes for an incredible, classic photograph of old Havana. I took a lot of those photos, but I also loved capturing snapshots of daily life in the city. This scene of three men moving from one worksite to the next with their canine friend in tow is one of my favorites.
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    A Portrait of a Potter
    One of the most memorable experiences from my time in Cuba was our visit to the home and studio Bernardo Valeriano Casanova Fuentes, a ceramic artist based in Camagüey. Fuentes is a man of few words. Instead, his son shared Fuentes’ story while the artist quietly and attentively formed piece after piece at his potter’s wheel. In a matter of ten minutes, he had produced a diverse collection of objects from single slab of clay.
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    Art in Motion
    There is a lot of African influence in Cuban culture—you can see it in the visual arts, in music, food, and dance. I headed to the Palenque de los Congos Reales, a performing arts theater in Trinidad, Cuba, where performers of all ages present dances in traditional African garb. This particular piece reminded me of the many beautiful flowers around the city.
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    A Beach of One's Own
    Not only did my off-season trip allow me to see some of Cuba’s most popular spots without jostling with other tourists, but it also made the quieter moments more memorable. I stayed at Hotel Playa Pesquero, and would often head to the beach in the early morning and late afternoon to enjoy a relaxing, crowd-free swim in the warm Caribbean waters.
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    Capturing the Countryside
    Cuba is a large country, so we spent a decent amount of time traveling from one side of the island to the other. It was a great opportunity to think about everything I had seen in the previous days while taking in the diverse scenery on the other side of the window.
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    Just the Right Moment
    Cuba is a photographer’s dream, but the best photographs still require a little work. It takes patience and attention to capture quick moments like this one of a motorcyclist driving by a massive portrait of Che Guevera in the Plaza de la Revolución, but in the end, they're so worth it.
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    A Sweet Ride
    Seeing unexpected sides of Cuba was fascinating, but exploring Havana in one of those iconic vintage automobiles was still a thrill. It was as if everything I dreamed Cuba would be had come to life, and I was smack dab in the middle of it.
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    Watching the World Go By
    We spent our final night in Camagüey navigating cobblestone streets by bici-taxis before visiting the atelier of artist Martha Jiménez at the Plaza del Carmen. The plaza is also home to a collection of her life-size bronze sculptures. On our way to dinner, we passed by this wistful dog, which was watching children playing soccer in the street nearby.
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    Picture Perfect
    I took this portrait of one of the dancers at the Palenque de los Congos Reales in Trinidad, Cuba, after he had performed a handful of traditional Afro-Cuban dances. His clothes and hair matched some of the colors in the building behind and we both agreed that it would make for a striking photograph.
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    Totally Swept Away
    Old Havana, famous for old colonial buildings, is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. While exploring that spectacular part of the city in the early morning, I spotted this man sweeping bean pods and fallen leaves from the towering trees in this pristine park. It was evident that Cuban people take a lot of pride in keeping their country beautiful.
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