"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." Mark Twain
"The people in Cuba, they know what I stand for, and there's a lot of people in Cuba that stand for the same. But they can't say it." - Pitbull
I had a wonderful opportunity to visit Cuba in the spring of 2016 with my friend Sarah and people are so curious about my experience, I thought should share some details of our trip, my thoughts on what we saw, as well as some photos and a few tips on traveling there...
The first thing everyone wants to know is "How was it...Did you love it? Did you ride in an old car?" Yes, we rode in an old car...but the rest of the answer is complicated and difficult to describe. I had a wonderful time, it was beautiful in its own unique way. Should you go? Absolutely...but it won't be your average trip. Stepping back in time is truly charming, and the people you will meet are wonderful. But, the only reason you are able to step back in time is because the country has no access to things like newer cars, modern equipment, paint, food...going into a grocery store where there is very little food available is shocking and uncomfortable, the feeling of lack is all around you. But as a tourist you lack for nothing...at least you lack for nothing of what is available. So, first, what do you need to know? Here are my top three tips:
Be flexible and open to new experiences. If you can't live without your special Starbucks drink or are a picky eater (or even if you have special dietary restrictions) you may want to forgo Cuba. If you cannot live without wifi or dislike the idea of staying at a basic accommodation, you will be disappointed. No judgement...just know your travel style and remember, there is not much luxury in a place where the basics are hard to come by...no matter how it looks in the photos.
Bring everything you think you might need. If there is something you cannot live without or think you might need, you need to bring it with you...toilet paper, toiletries, o.t.c. medications, snacks...things, even the basics we take for granted, are not readily available, if at all. No kidding.
Bring more cash than you think you'll need. There is no way for a US citizen to get cash while in Cuba, no cash machines and no way to use your credit card. You will be using cash for things you would normally pay for with a credit card, like your hotel and all meals, and the costs add up quickly. Additionally, you lose 10% right off the top in "penalty" for exchanging USD. Overestimate what you think you need and then bring more, even famed travel writer Rick Steves ran out of cash when he was there! Cuba operates on two different currencies (pictured above), the Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC (pronounced kook) and the Cuban Peso (CUP). The CUC is for tourists and CUP is for citizens. We were never able to get a handle on what the conversion rate was from CUC to CUP (it's estimated at 25:1) but everything you will buy will be priced in CUCs. It is important to know the difference between the monies and make sure you are always getting the correct type back in change. It's actually pretty easy, the CUP has people on it and the CUC has buildings.
So, what did we do in Cuba? Our itinerary was packed and it was a privilege to be able to go...I really want to thank my friend Sarah for including me! I would definitely want to return in 10 years or more to see how, or if, things have changed.
Our trip left from Miami on a charter flight, just before US commercial airlines started flying there and right before President Obama's visit. It seemed like we were the only tour group on our flight but it was (surprisingly to me) full of Cuban nationals and their stuff. Bicycles, tires, tables, lamps, a woman with more silk flowers than she could hold, baskets full of stuff; everything wrapped by that cellophane spinning machine at the airport..it was a sight to behold and as we would soon see in Cuba, for a very good reason; there are very few goods available at stores. The flight was short and uneventful as was customs in Cuba...waiting for luggage was hugely entertaining as all of that stuff was unloaded...and it took quite awhile. With our luggage in hand we were directed to the money exchange booth to exchange our money and we were off to our first stop...Plaza de la Revolución or Revolution Square.
Following our photo-op at Revolution square we were off to lunch. We discovered there are two types of restaurants in Cuba, the government run restaurant and the paladar. A paladar is a privately owned restaurant, usually family run and often located in the family home. We ate at a variety of both and the fare was typical of the Latin American diet; rice and beans with chicken or pork. Food is not plentiful in Cuba and the citizens get most of their food supply from a ration store (more about this later). Some people do farm but it is pretty rare and farm/co-op type farms are a newer occurrence...fresh vegetables and salad are not typical. Also, surprising, to me, was the limited amount of fruit and seafood, being a tropical island.
Spices, including salt and pepper, are a luxury for the Cuban people and as part of our "people to people exchange" we brought some spices (and other things) as gifts for the people we met. Over the week we ate very well, but I got more and more uneasy about consuming what were very limited resources to those around me. Our visit to a ration store and a grocery store were truly humbling. Despite these limitations the food we were served was good and plentiful and there were several outstanding dishes, especially at the paladars. The families that ran the paladars were amazing and would show us around their beautiful homes, which were frozen in time (like everything in Cuba). One cool thing of note were the beautiful crystal chandeliers in many of the homes...a relic of the 50's. Many of the paladars were started as ways for these families to pay their bills and keep their homes.
Recent new reports are upsetting about the increasing food shortages for the Cuban people caused by the increase in tourism...part of the uneasy fabric of the visiting Cuba...a moral dilemma.
,Our first several days were spent touring Havana. Beautiful, dilapidated and somewhat desolate is how I would describe the capital city. There really is no other place like it on earth. Frozen in time and abandoned by the world. The people we met were extraordinarily friendly, the city was safe and, amazingly, for such a poor country, there were no beggars or panhandlers. At one point another tourist gave some hotel soap bars to some children playing on the street and you would have thought they had given them a hundred dollars. There is this sort of feeling of us existing in one dimension and the local people on another, occasionally crossing paths...with us having easy access to life's necessities and the people around us unable to secure many basics.
We enjoyed seeing the very best of Havana; we visited a film studio, an artist studio, the University of Havana, the Art Deco former Bacardi building, an art institute and the boat Fidel Castro came to Cuba in. We also saw Earnest Hemingway's former home and Cojimar, the town that was the inspiration for Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. We had free time to explore a bit on our own; we did some shopping at a craft market, visited El Floridita for a Daiquiri and took in the local culture at the Buena Vista Social Club. We spent an afternoon at a co-op farm where people live and work the land together. The fresh food they grow there is their's to eat and sell to the restaurants. We also spent some time at a cigar factory where they make the famous Cuban cigars.
We visited the University of Havana where a young man spoke to us about the education system in Cuba. It was here where I watched a girl secretly selling Old Navy clothing out of a bag; remember all of the things I spoke of at the airport? People who are able to travel freely to the US can bring things back to sell to those who, may not be able to travel, but, can afford to buy the goods brought back by those who can travel. Part of the strangeness of Cuba is the, almost, in your face black market all around.
After several days in Havana we hit the road to drive across the island to Cienfuegos, a gorgeous beach town. On the (desolate) ride we saw numerous hitchhikers, which is a common practice in Cuba, as very few people have cars. Government vehicles are required to pick up hitchhikers and there are government workers at various stations along the road to make sure people get rides. As a tourist, however, it is illegal to hitchhike and illegal for a Cuban citizen to offer you a ride. Again, another dimension.
We enjoyed lunch at a beautiful seaside paladar and then were treated to a choir concert in one of the towns beautiful art deco style buildings. After some free time wandering around the town we headed to our next stop, the town of Sancti Spíritus where we stayed for a couple of days.
Lets take a moment here to talk a little about hotels and the like in Cuba. Our accommodations were arranged by our tour company and were lovely, pristine and certainly very luxurious by Cuban standards. In Havana we stayed at the Meliã Cohiba, owned by the Spanish hotel chain, Meliã. A high-rise hotel overlooking the famous Malecón. Our room was a suite with a view of the sea, marble bath with double sinks, large shower and bidet. We had a king size bed and sitting room and while certainly not luxurious by U.S. standards it certainly was luxury here in Cuba and we really appreciated what we had. In Sancti Spíritus we stayed in a converted bankers home (apparently that means it was confiscated by the government during the revolution). Again, luxury in a place where luxury is hard to come by; high ceilings, crystal chandeliers, indoor whirlpool and a resident rooster. AirBnB is booming here and would be a great option for those who would like to really get to know the culture by staying in someone's home. What is know as a "casa particular" people everywhere are opening up their homes to tourists. The casa particular can be identified by what resembles an upside down anchor or triangle symbol on the home...only homes with the blue symbols can be rented by tourists...orange signifies availability to Cuban citizens only. If you are planning a trip to Cuba, staying at a casa particular not only helps support the local people but it would give you an intimate look at real life in Cuba. But, take extra care when making arrangements; read everything you can online while making arrangements for accommodations...with limited access to the internet communicating with casa particular operators can be time consuming and difficult and while AirBnB can help some it isn't a guarantee. Staying at a hotel (at over 10x the price of a casa particular) isn't a guarantee of top rated accommodations. The highly rated and beautiful Hotel Nacional de Cuba, like most places in Cuba, has beautiful public spaces but its rooms are sparse and threadbare.
From our home in Sancti Spíritus we went to the fascinating town of Trinidad, where we visited craftsmen at a potters workshop, a school, a Santería place of worship, and ate at my favorite restaurant in all of Cuba (the lovely Paladar Ananda...highly recommend it). We climbed to the top of a (very rickety) tower for some beautiful views, visited the local rations store, a church with an incredible carved wooden alter and sampled the local drink of canchánchara. The streets of Trinidad are "paved" with small stone cobbles that give any medieval city a run for its ankle twisting money. It was a long and hot day in Trinidad and we enjoyed relaxing at our lovely hotel's whirlpool before dinner. The next day after leaving Sancti Spíritus we headed to Santa Clara and the memorial of Che Guevara, which was interesting. We had quite a bit of free time in Santa Clara and so we were able to take a pedicab ride around the town. It was then time to head back to Havana for our big evening out to the famous Tropicana Nightclub. Tickets started at $75 CUC for the show and 1/4 bottle of rum with cola and a small snack (a dish of nuts). The show was spectacular and we rode to the show in one of the old classic cars which was a gas. If this is something you want to do be sure to book a car in advance either through your hotel or by making arrangements with a car you like when you see them on the street. We failed to do this but luckily found a suitable semi-restored Chevrolet with suicide doors and some "aftermarket" funky interior lighting. It really didn't matter...it was great and really added to the experience.
Our last day in Cuba brought us to some of the most interesting things yet. Our first stop was Las Terrazas "biosphere" or more of a self contained community. Located in a tropical hillside, this community contained all it needed to survive, the people lived and worked here, there were schools, hospital, rations store, "famous" coffee shop etc. They host tourists here (although not US citizens) and offer hiking in the mountains, zip lines and swimming and sailing in a beautiful lake (including a Rave type water trampoline and slide...where did that come from?). There were cabins available to rent, although we did not see inside. We were supposed to be here to meet the medical staff and tour the hospital, but ended up having a nurse talk to us, at the coffeeshop, about the health care system in Cuba instead. Apparently, a tourist had died and no one was allowed into the hospital. Following our talk with the nurse we visited a beautiful like-side artist studio and then had lunch at a quaint lakeside picnic area...and then it was off to the coolest place of all...to see the Gaudi of Cuba!