Folks, we are knee deep in the winter weather months. The magic of the holiday season has left us with snow and sludge instead of snow, sludge, AND holiday cheer. Our minds are wandering at our desks, during walks to and from work, wondering if the uncontrollable tears from the below zero wind chill are worth living up north. Depending on where you live, there are many cheap flights to southern destinations that will leave you relaxed, refreshed, and a little toasted. Here are some of my favorite warm getaways to plan for your first vacation of the year. Act fast because popular tourist months to travel are just around the corner. I can already feel the sand between my toes.
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Traveling to Puerto Rico is one of the best ways to aid the country in post-Maria hurricane efforts (Really! It’s true). The tiny island nation is working hard to bounce back from the devastating effects of the 2017 hurricane and has been named the top place to travel to in 2019, according to The New York Times. The article brings up an interesting question posed to tourists: “Do we owe something to the places that make us happy?” While the beautiful resorts and white sand beaches show a nation that may have very well already recovered, the glaring reality can be found just around the corner. Hundreds of residents are still living in poverty, unable to fix their leaking roofs, properly fish, or harvest valuable coffee beans. The hurricane wiped out major farms and forests that Puerto Ricans relied on for income. The changed terrain will take decades to return to normal, but threatening effects due to global warming are making “normal” less of a reality for the resilient people. Celebrities have been adding awareness to the country, from Beyonce to Lin Manuel Miranda. Miranda, whose parents are native Puerto Ricans, has directed his skill sets to lead relief efforts. Miranda has spent the month of January in the nation’s capital performing his musical “Hamilton,” not only for entertainment but humanitarian efforts.
Visit the picturesque forts located around Old San Juan, a must-do when you first arrive. For Piña Colada and Daiquiri enthusiasts, plan a tour of Casa Bacardi; the world’s largest premium rum distillery. If you’re looking for adventures that satisfy the outdoor enthusiast, hike El Yunque National Forest for breathtaking waterfalls and lush tropical vegetation, or take a kayak tour through the stunning Bioluminescent Bay. There’s no shortage of white sand beaches to relax on in Puerto Rico in between exploring the local culture and tropical excursions. (consider adding a photo here/ for each tropical destination so that the reader gets a visual)
It’s worth noting, though, that regardless of when you travel, exploring Puerto Rico is relatively inexpensive. They use the US dollar, so there is no currency conversion to worry about. An average day’s meals total around $30. Airbnb has revolutionized the way people travel on a budget while exploring the true local gems of a country, so utilize the cost-effective accommodation website not only for this destination but the rest listed.
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If you’re looking to eat and drink your way through your vacation, San Diego is the place to be. The Southern California destination is beautiful to travel to during the spring months for its mild temperatures, and the insane tourist season doesn’t begin until May, so fewer crowds. It’s impossible to sit still with the amount of activities brewing in the coastal city.
The youthful city has become a food and culture hotspot in the last decade, seeing a resurgence in artists’ dedication to preserving the deep-rooted Mexican traditions from neighboring Tijuana. You MUST eat authentic street tacos, that’s a known fact, but wash them down with a local cold brew. Like many cities around the nation, San Diego is a craft beer hotspot for drinking enthusiasts. Go on a taco and beer crawl and feast your way through the eclectic city. If beer isn’t your alcoholic drink of choice, take a short trip over to Baja for an all-inclusive winery tour.
The cultural-renaissance brewing in Tijuana is enough of a reason to travel across the border to experience the brimming arts, food, and music scene (just don’t forget your passport!). San Diego even offers a trolley to take you to the border if you don’t have a car. Parking is enough of a hassle already in the city, so relying on Uber or Lyft is probably your best option. The Mexican city has long been known as a place for drunken stumbles or drug dabbles, but there is so much rich culture to experience while sober (ie: don’t be stupid). You’ll be able to tell your jealous friends that you ate the most delicious, authentic street tacos available.
Of course, San Diego has such a unique terrain that it’d be crazy to not mention the adventures you can take. From surfing the Pacific waters to hiking along its many mountain trails amid breathtaking ocean views, there is no shortage of things to do to burn off the beer and tacos. The famous San Diego Zoo is also a classic spot to visit, as well as the vast greenery and museums located around Balboa Park.
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Belize is a buzzword destination for 2019. Tons of travel sites are saying this is the place to be, and for good reasons. You can have the best of both worlds, from adventures on the Caribbean Sea to excursions through Central American jungles. It’s now easier than ever to travel to the tiny nation thanks to more US cities opening up direct flights for cheap. The country’s dry season lasts until mid-April, making it the perfect weekend getaway from frigid temperatures. English is the official language, so getting around without translating is easy.
For starters, most people don’t know that Belize is home to the second largest coral reef in the world, behind the Great Barrier Reef. If you’re scuba certified or love a good snorkel trip, you’ll definitely want to plan a diving trip at one of the many coral reef spots including Mexico Rocks, Hol Chan Marine Reserve, and Southwest Caye. You’ll swim amid stingrays, parrot fish, and bull sharks, so don’t forget your GoPro. Or even helicopter over the Great Blue Hole to see breathtaking views of one of the largest underwater sinkholes in the world (or dive inside it, but do so with a trustworthy company).
For the outdoor junkies, go on a cave tour in the world’s #1 sacred cave (yep, you read that right). National Geographic has declared Belize’s Actun Tunichil Muknal cave as a must-see for adventure and ancient history enthusiasts. Hike to the beautiful Big Rock Falls to experience huge waterfalls and bathe in the refreshing waters. The highest waterfall in Central America is located in Belize, too, aptly named the Thousand Foot Fall. These and more are all located in the Mountain Pine Ridge Nature Reserve, which covers over 400 square-kilometers of land. Or go on an exhilarating 40 mph ride on the longest zip line in Belize at Bocawina National Park.
For the history buffs, Belize has the largest number of Mayan ruins in all of Central America. The most well-known and largest ancient ruin is Caracol, covering around 55 square-miles. Enjoy a day trip here and pack a lunch to eat on premise, soaking in the grandeur of what was once one of the most powerful cities in the Maya world.
Of course, Belize’s coastline offers pristine beaches where you can be as lazy as you want. Some of the most popular is the Placencia Peninsula and the islands of Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye. You’ll have to travel to the islands, but you’ll experience stunning coral reefs and clear blue water amid relaxing island life.
While I’ve been to the previous three locations, it’s been a while (most when I was a child), so my memory is hazy. But Cuba is different, and therefore I feel the need to insert my *lengthier* opinion. I visited Cuba for the first time in 2018 with my brother. We decided to spend what would likely be our last college spring break trip together (I was ending my undergrad career and he was starting his in medical school) and visit somewhere we’ve never been.
Recounting my memories spent in the island nation, I feel nothing but fondness for the locals, their rich culture and unparalleled kindness toward us. We stayed at an Airbnb (something I highly recommend) in a small neighborhood just outside of the busy capital, Havana. Our hosts radiated nothing but gratitude, happy that we were supporting them directly and that we wanted to experience Cuba the way locals do.
Note: it is VERY easy to travel to Cuba if you’re American, as long as you gather the necessary travel documents and state your reason for travel. The most common if you are planning on vacationing is “support for the Cuban people,” but you need to actually support them by partaking in non-government owned entities. This basically means you should eat at local restaurants, stay at an Airbnb and support the local arts scene, things you would hopefully already be doing.
A little history lesson: Cubans have a complicated relationship with their government, and many have mixed feelings toward Americans. In 2017, President Trump introduced policies that limit American travel and trade with Cuba in an effort to reverse the Obama-era normalization with the nation. This, along with a major Presidential switch to Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez (the first non-Castro to lead since 1959) and the crisis happening between Cuba and Venezuela, mean a lot of recent, nervous change for Cubans. Cubans make on average $25 a month, but through Airbnb, make an average of $250 per booking. That’s revolutionary for Cubans who are trying to make a living.
Lesson aside, Cuba is chock-full of things to do, whether you want to spend most of your time in Havana or do day trips around the country. Cuba is quite large when compared to other Caribbean nations, so there is no shortage of adventures as long as you have a reliable form of transportation.
Many who visit stay put in Havana, and for good reason. The nation’s capital is brimming with things to do (it’s 281.2 square-miles – I’m not exaggerating). Stroll along the cobblestone streets of Old Havana and marvel at the whimsical multi-colored houses lining the way. Take in the beauty of the seaside Plaza Vieja and tour the Museo de la Revolución that sits at the top. Enjoy the wafts of music on every street corner and dance in the streets to Afro-Cuban jazz. Walk along Malecón and peek at the artists who’ve set up shop on the waterfront, or walk through the picturesque Plaza de Armas. Check out Obispo street, which is a borough in Old Havana that’s filled with beautiful art and kitschy galleries. Drink authentic mojitos at any bar you stumble into, or go to the famous El Floridita, where Ernest Hemingway frequented to drink a daiquiri (beware: while unique, it’s packed with tourists, which I think takes away from the charm).
Take a vintage car tour all around the city, including to El Capitolio and the Christ statue overlooking the bay. Make sure your guide is reliable and English speaking, and ask questions about their thoughts on the political situation. Everyone has an opinion and it’s interesting to hear their take on American-Cuban relations.
The modern portion of Havana is a trek away, so take an open-air motorcycle taxi over to Vedado, Havana’s urban neighborhood. You’ll see the historical Plaza de la Revolución and the José Martí Memorial, among other sites. Eat and drink at the art gallery/club La Fábrica de Arte Cubano, which is arguably the hippest nightlife spot in Havana.
That’s basically everything we did in Havana, which is nothing close to all the city has to offer. There’s a reason your trip can be planned out entirely in the city alone, but we wanted to do a day trip away from the hustle and bustle and into the nature-filled spots that Cuba has to offer.
While there are many gorgeous day trips to go on in Cuba, we chose to bus to Varadero Beach (the bus company Viazul is the cheap, main way to get around the nation if you don’t have a rental car). Places like Valle de Viñales and Trinidad are also gorgeous trips to make around the island, particularly if you want to explore coffee and tobacco farms (hello authentic Cuban cigars) or visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But we wanted a white sand beach to relax on after the major walking we did around Havana. With clear blue water and sand like sugar, Varadero did not disappoint. Not to mention you can order food and drinks from neighboring restaurants without moving an inch thanks to washboard-ab beach waiters.
It’s impossible to put Cuba into one category. It has so many rich layers that have long been overlooked due to political strife. Support the local economy and venture to the Caribbean nation for an unforgettable trip.
Opt for a new way to travel and truly connect with the locals. Go on excursions that directly connect you to their way of life and benefit the nation’s economy. Feast on delicious local specialties, explore unique natural wonders and lounge on the tranquil beaches all these destinations have to offer. You’ll forget about the winter blues in no time.
Feature image via Vanessa Granda