Comparing Caribbean Coves

Old San Juan balconies
Cobblestone street of Old San Juan

So, you’re interested in a beach vacation in the Caribbean, but you’re not sure where to go. We’ll explore three destinations here with decision points that may inform your choice as they are widely applicable. We’ll compare Panama, Cuba and Puerto Rico, three popular, but very different, experiences.

Each of these destinations has beaches. The beaches in Panama are on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The main tourist beaches are on the Pacific Ocean, which is very cold year-round and also subject to rip tides, so little swimming occurs there. The Atlantic beaches are warm because they are in the Caribbean waters, but these beaches lack the large resorts and are adjacent to quaint beach towns.

Cuba’s beaches are also in the Caribbean and in warm waters, but you usually get to the beach in Cuba as part of an organized tour that includes a city or two. The beach hotels in Cuba are not up to American high standards, catering mainly to Europeans and Canadians looking for cheap beach destinations. The food is usually included, but the resorts I visited all had tasteless food. I surmise that this may be the result of food rationing in Cuba.

Puerto Rico’s beaches are quite nice, but again, the Atlantic Ocean is cold and the tides are strong, so little serious swimming takes place. In Puerto Rico you have the added advantage of being in the U.S., meaning you don’t have to pass through customs or have a passport or visa to visit. English is spoken and the currency is the dollar. Panama is also a dollarized economy, even though they call the dollar the Balboa.

Old Havana is charming, especially the part that is rehabilitated
Buildings in Old Havana look like they might collapse any day

To supplement the beaches, all three of these places have old town areas that look and feel quite similar, but have big differences. In Havana, the old town is being restored by a government that has trouble paying for necessities. Since it is a country where the government owns everything, restoration of old buildings takes a long time and is done so as not to displace residents living in the buildings. Restoration of the main plaza and other discreet areas are finished and are quite nice.

In Panama, the old area is known as Casco Viejo. It isn’t as large as the other old towns, but private money is nicely rehabilitating it. Getting to Casco Viejo may take you through a dicey area known as Chorillo. You’ll want to keep the doors locked in your car or taxi when driving to Casco Viejo, but once you get there, you will be rewarded with elegant restaurants, museums and souvenir shops.

Puerto Rico is rebuilding from Hurricane Maria in September 2017, but its old town, known as Old San Juan or OSJ, was the first area to be rebuilt. The largest of the old towns and very pretty, the area is full of nice restaurants and interesting historical sites.

One common feature of all these old towns is that they aren’t close to the beaches. The old towns are where you go to get a little sightseeing done, participate in the local culture and dine out. Once you’ve seen one of these old towns, you’ll recognize the architecture of the others, with colorful buildings, elaborate balconies and elegant touches on old buildings. You’ll go for the beaches but be charmed by the old towns. Or if it’s just beaches you want, consider heading to Florida.

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