We Went to Cuba!
When people learn that we have been to 44 countries in the past 3-1/2 years, they often ask which is our favorite. I’ve always had trouble answering that question. But now I can say without hesitation – it’s CUBA! There are so many reasons for that. Read on, and I’ll let you in some of the wonderful things I love about visiting this island country.
In July 2015, when the USA and Cuba restored diplomatic relations and opened embassies in both countries, I told Phil I wanted to go there, and I wanted to go BKFC – before Kentucky Fried Chicken. But I didn’t want to go with an expensive and structured tour group and I didn’t want to enter illegally from Mexico. What if something happened or they stamped my passport by mistake? I’d be in a heap of trouble. There had to be another way – and soon there was.
USA Eases Travel Restrictions
My first chance came when new US government provisions allowed citizens to go if we fit into one of twelve categories. I figured I could go as a “journalist” since I write a blog. But soon restrictions got even easier. Just as President Obama was packing his bags to visit Cuba in March – the first sitting president to do so in 90 years – our government announced that we could go independently, without having to fit one of the categories, with certain other caveats. (See CUBA TIDBITS at the end of this post for more on this.)
I immediately started looking for flights. I found a travel agency in Miami specializing in Cuba travel and bought our $350 tickets. Another $75 each had them provide us with entry visas. Two weeks later we made the 46 minute flight to Havana and I happily got my passport stamped. I just love being on the edge of change….
Arriving in Cuba was exciting even though we had to wait an hour and half for our checked bags (carry-on was too limited on this small charter). During the wait I did my money exchange of US dollars to CUC’s, the Cuban tourist money which is different from the currency local people use.
The CUC is valued at 1 CUC to 1 dollar, ostensibly. But the American dollar, unlike euros and other allowed currencies, gets a “haircut” at the exchange booth. It incurs a 10% penalty, in addition to the 3% exchange fee all foreign currencies are charged. That makes our dollar worth 87 cents. Phil explains away the penalty, saying the Cuban government has to get back at us for the 50 year embargo in some way. There’s talk of lifting the penalty but unfortunately it was still in effect during our visit. Never mind, as you read on, you will see how inexpensive our travel in Cuba was.
Another way I spent my wait time was snapping photos of how uniforms are jazzed up in Cuba.
A Warm Welcome
Cubans seemed genuinely happy to see us Americans in their country. One week earlier President Obama and his family had walked the same streets we toured. Obama had made a rousing speech about restoring our two countries’ friendship that the Cuban people loved. When they talked of him to us, they often touched their hand to their heart.
Adding to the excitement, the Rolling Stones had been in Havana just days before we arrived. A half million people saw the Stones’ outdoor performance and the Cubans were stoked. Rock and roll had been banned in Cuba for many years after the Revolution. Then Fidel Castro determined that John Lennon was a revolutionary and he eased that constraint and put up a monument to him. Go figure.
I Made History in Cuba
While researching for our trip I came upon a Miami Herald article about a Florida bank now authorized to issue a mastercard to be used in Cuba. Since we would have to take all of the money we needed in cash, I immediately applied for one. I was told that one other American had gotten the card before me but hadn’t used it yet so the race was on. When I got to Havana, I plopped that card down at a big hotel right away. The clerk shook her head, saying she couldn’t take American credit cards. I asked her to please just try. Was she ever surprised when it went through!
My family should soon be getting postcards purchased with the first American credit card used in Cuba. They will also get some of the first mail sent from Cuba in a many years. Restored mail service between our two countries is another new development. Oh, and the American credit card also bought Phil some Cuban cigars that made him quite happy.
Throughout Cuba we stayed at casa particulars. These are private homes that are licensed by the Cuban government to rent rooms to tourists. They are highly regulated and highly taxed. Casa particulars have private baths, many have air conditioning and they usually cost 25 CUC a night, a little over $25. Most offer breakfast for an additional 5 CUC. Phil searched on the app CubaJunky but found our first place on trusty TripAdvisor. Airbnb is now also in the business, but it may cost you a little more.
Our havana digs
Casa Compostela was a lovely, antique filled dwelling smack in the middle of Habana Vieja, or Old Town Havana, exactly the kind of area where we like to stay. Out the door and we were in the middle of the action in this fascinating and quaint area. We had a private balcony from which we could watch Old Havana go by and hear the music on the street. Close the door, turn on the AC, and we could enjoy the quite, lovely sleep and dream of the exquisite Cuban coffee and breakfast we would enjoy come morning. This casa was larger than most we stayed in throughout Cuba and it was the only one that cost more, coming in at 45 CUC per night.
There are not many hotels in Cuba, although there are a few really nice ones, reminiscent of Cuba’s pre-Revolution heyday as an American playground. All hotels today are government run, pricy and fully booked. We visited several of them, mostly for their wifi, fancy cocktails, and well-kept cigars in nice humidors that Phil liked.
Havana has to be our #1 favorite place in Cuba and we would return, even just for a long weekend like Americans used to do. It has so much appeal – magnificent, crumbling old buildings with no modern architectural anomalies to break up the continuity. In some ways the condition of the buildings was sad, but you could feel the hope, and you could see the restoration in process. UNESCO and other organizations are busy preserving these grand structures and a far-sighted city historian has undertaken a massive and impressive restoration project in Old Havana. I read recently that Starwood has inked a deal to restore 3 of the grand old buildings and open its hotel brand in Havana.
Thousands of OLD AMERICAN CARS
Havana’s Malecon is wonderful 5 mile strip that runs along the sea and stretches the breath of the city. The most impressive way to experience it is in a beautiful old American car. What a joy it was to ride in a red ’52 convertible, chauffeured by a young, handsome, cheerful Cuban man, straw hat raked back on his head. Adrian grinned widely when I told him he has the best job in Cuba. Our tour along the malecon and around Havana’s streets cost us 30 CUC and got me a stint in the driver’s seat.
Adrian showed Phil the car’s original straight six engine and original parts, unlike many of the old cars that are pieced together with “bubble gum and baling wire.” The 29-year-old got his car from his grandfather and spent a year getting it ready for service as a taxi and tour car. The horn that sounded like a wolf whistle went off frequently as he passed some of his amigos, or a pretty girl. His is a private business, he told us, for which he paid a marketing fee to our day-guide, and regularly pays a large tax to the State. The government inspects these cars monthly and does a major inspection annually, Adrian explained. He said that there are over 200,000 classic American cars in Cuba. This could be a collector’s dream land.
Don’t believe ’em when they tell you the food in Cuba is not good. While it’s true that the Cubans get coupon books to obtain their food rations from the government, restaurants for tourists have other purveyors. Remember, tourists have been coming to Cuba all along; it is only Americans who were not allowed to come by our government for the last 50 years. During this time some pretty fine paladares have emerged.
Paladares are private family-run restaurants that were first legalized by Fidel Castro in 1995. During the economic chaos of the ‘Special Period’ the government could not provide as much for the people. Paladares became a source of income for Cubans that could run restaurants. Like casa particulars they are required to pay a steep monthly tax to the government and had severe restrictions. Then in 2011 some of the restrictions were lifted by Raul Castro so that paladares can now seat up to 50 people, hire non-family members and serve foods other than pork and chicken, like lobster, prawns, beef and wine.
We had some really fine dishes, meats with demi-glace and lettuce salads with cheese and nuts, at top paladares. At some mid-range places we enjoyed the national dish called rope vieja, or Old Clothes, which despite its name, was a wonderful shredded lamb in a tasty sauce. Our favorites were the lobster tails, which we could get for $10-15, and the tender, succulent grilled pork ribs at Taverna Botilja in Trinidad, that literally fell off the bone.
dinner at our casa particular
Several times we chose to eat dinner at our casa. For this we told the owner what we wanted and at what time and it was lovingly prepared for us. It was here that I got home-cooked black beans and rice, root vegetables such as malanga (similar to taro) or sweet potato, a salad of shredded cabbage and thinly sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, fish and the best and biggest lobster of all. At this casa, the owner said he goes to the market in the morning and “looks the fish in the eye” before he buys it.
Getting around Cuba is pretty straightforward. The government controls most of the the travel services, so there’s no need to shop around or haggle (except for local taxi’s that may be “off the meter”). You can take the tourist bus which some people told us they liked. Other buses are reserved for locals only, and they looked crowded and hot. We opted to do our long distance rides in a taxi or a taxi “collectivo” which is a larger car or minivan shared by several people. Very reasonable prices, $30-$60 for both of us for a day-long trip and less for the 3 hour ride to Vinales. It wasn’t hard to compare that to the $100 taxi ride just from the Miami airport!
Vinales is a tiny agricultural town with a gorgeous valley that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here tobacco and sugarcane fields lie side by side and rocky limestone outcrops, known as mogotes, dot the landscape. Our casa in Havana arranged a taxi for us which we shared with two young Dutch women, Mireille and Miranda. Like many travelers we met, they had not reserved a casa in advance and took the recommendation of the taxi driver. Who knows if he got a kickback, but who cares?
Their casa, like ours, was fine and they cost the usual 25 CUC. We enjoyed the family we stayed with – four generations living together, from the abuela (the grandmother), the mother, son and grandson. As is often the case in casa particulares and paladares, we walked through the family home to get to our private room with bath, AC, and private patio. It was a brightly colored house with an inner courtyard and was right where 3 streets converged. Stepping out in the morning presented all sorts of interesting daily transportation options to observe. Like other cases we stayed in, the parents had outside jobs and the grown child ran the guest services. Here the son and his wife made our breakfasts and took care of our needs.
The Green Valley That Grows Cigars
We easily arranged an English-speaking walking tour, government sponsored of course, of the spectacular Vinales valley. Our guide was an engaging naturalist who showed us the many fruits, flowers, and vegetables the valley produces. The scenery here is some of the most picturesque in Cuba and included watching oxen plow the fields. Horses, while abundant, are not permitted to do this kind of heavy work, only transportation and racing. We learned that citizens are not permitted to kill either horses or cows – only the government can do that. Our guide said that if you kill one, you will turn white “because you will go to jail and not see the sun”.
A visit to a tobacco farm
We visited one of the many tobacco farms and learned what goes into operating it. The government takes 90% of a farm’s production for its cigar factories. Ostensibly the government regulates tobacco quality and sales, though I think I detected some innuendos to the contrary from our young guide. The farm gets to keep the remaining 10% of the crop and rolls and sells its own cigars directly. When I pressed one young man at a farm on how much the government taxed the farm on its 10% portion, he seemed to get rather nervous and told me, “I’d better not talk about that”. It struck me how foreign that is to me and how grateful I am for my liberties to speak out about my government.
My favorite part of this day was watching a man in the tobacco barn roll a cigar which he then handed it to me to light up. I’m not a smoker but since you don’t inhale a cigar, I didn’t hesitate to take a draw – at least for the photo op for Phil and our fellow tourists from many countries. I ran into some of them later and they told me that photo is going around the world!
Our Wild Adventure in Trinidad
We booked a “collectivo” minivan for the all-day ride southeastward to Trinidad. This colonial city lies nearly halfway to the Bay of Pigs and Guantanamo, the American owned naval base and infamous prison that has been figuring into the embargo negotiations recently. Our van companions included a delightful Israeli couple near our age, a pair of very friendly Scandinavians and a young Italian couple who sat up front and translated between the driver and us non-Spanish speakers.
The Israelis never book their casas in advance, preferring to get dropped off in the town square until something presents itself. So when our driver took us down the funky, unpaved road outside of town, Phil and I figured he must be taking the young Italians to their less expensive casa. Families sat outside their open doorways on logs and stumps placed there for seating – mamas with hair in rollers, kids playing stickball in the street, and shirtless men staving off the southern heat. Phil turned to the Israelis and said, “If this were our place, I’d tell the driver to keep driving.”
HA – it WAS our place. We had gotten our referral from a blog written by some other travelers and the nice folks at our previous casa had called ahead and booked it for us. Later I recall reading that the bloggers said they preferred to stay outside the tourist area and “see how the locals live”. Well, this fit the bill for them but it wasn’t our style.
This arrangement got even more tangled. I could see from the open doorway that the casa we booked was lovely inside, but the owner denied that we had a reservation. “No,” he said to us. “I told your casa that we had no space for you. But I will help you find a place.” We were tempted to get back in the van and go on to the town square with the Israelis, but we were so tired from the 9-hour journey that we let him call the young women down the street. We moved into “Casa Brenda”, a 3 room separate apartment a few doors away, turned on the AC and flopped down on our 2 beds.
Brenda, her mother and other family members lived up the street where we were soon summoned to have a cold guava drink and hand over our passports to register. None of them could speak English so we didn’t learn how Brenda acquired this apartment to use as a rental. We assumed it had long been in the family, like others we encountered. Through sign language Brenda indicated that breakfast would be served there in the family home and we quickly told her no breakfast. She and lovely Adiari ended up bringing a fine breakfast to our casa at our requested time both mornings, which was more comfortable for us and gave them some added income.
I must say it was interesting staying almost a mile outside of town. The first night we gave the neighbor guy 2 CUC’s to take us into town on his bicycle cart and another guy 3 CUC’s to bring us back after dinner and music. But the ride was so bumpy over the lumpy cobblestone streets that I had to sit on the edge of the cart’s seat to spare my back. And the 5 CUC’s added to the cost of our 25 CUC accommodations – all things being relative – so it seemed like an unnecessary expense. Besides, I was wearing my Fitbit and the walk to and from town added to my 10,000 steps and helped keep the pounds off from the mojitos and black beans.
I am happy to report that I always felt safe wherever I was in Cuba, even when we stayed in areas we normally wouldn’t have. We walked down streets at night in more than one Cuban town that, from the looks of them, we wouldn’t have dared venture onto in other countries. I’m thinking it’s the scarcity of street drugs and guns that makes it safer, along with the genuinely nice people who live there. Happily, we heard no tales of crime toward visitors.
The Colonial City
Trinidad was founded in 1514 by the Spanish conquistador Diego Velazquez and became prosperous mainly due to its slave trade and sugar mills. Many of its colorful colonial mansions and cobblestone streets still stand in this city that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Music and dance were highlights in Trinidad – from salsa al fresco on the square’s steps, reminiscent of Rome’s Spanish Steps, to the guitar and violin played at our paladar, culminating with the amazing Afro-Cuban dance we saw for 1 CUC at Palenque de los Congos Reales. This show featured in dance the Afro-Cuban slave-era history and the Santeria religion (related to voodoo) that is practiced by some Afro-Cubans. We later visited the Santeria Temple in town to get more understanding of it.
The lovely Lidice, our contact at the state-run Cubatur travel agency, booked our private taxi for the 2 hour ride to Cienfuegos for us. She was so named by her father after a Czechoslovakian town that had been overrun by the Nazi’s, she told us. “Lily’s” father was quite well-read, as are many Cubans. Cuba has an extraordinarily high literacy rate. Education, as well as health care, is provided at no expense. The TV show CSI came up in our conversation with Lily, a show which our oldest granddaughter had once liked. Lily proclaimed herself a “CSI addict” and she especially likes George Eads, for any fans out there. Apparently, Cubans see some American TV shows but I didn’t get to explore that aspect of life in Cuba. The young kids at my next casa particular were having a school holiday when I was there and they were playing the video game Minecraft, our 8-year-old granddaughter’s current favorite.
Cienfuegos was only 2 hours from Trinidad by taxi. Lily had booked us a very nice casa particular owned by a doctor and his wife and operated by their youngest son Andros. The older son is in Miami working in IT and Andros, like other Cubans we met, is currently doing the long paperwork process to try to join him in the USA.
Cienfuegos could be Cuba’s Paris if you gave the French city a spectacular natural bay. This Cuban city was founded by French, rather than Spanish colonizers, and it is evident in the neoclassical architecture. It’s a newer city, founded in 1819, by a French emigre from Louisiana who wanted to increase the population of white people on the island. It’s another of Cuba’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is the home of one of Cuba’s most famous singers, Benny More.
The city is split into two interesting sections. The first is the colonnaded central zone with its park named for Jose Marti, the famous poet, philosopher and hero of Cuba’s Second Independence War in 1895. Marti was quoted by President Obama on his recent visit to Cuba which pleased the Cuban people.This section also features the Paseo del Prado, the longest street of its kind in Cuba. It stretches all the way from town, down the long seaside malecon into the 2nd section of the town known as Punta Gorda.
Punta Gorda, on a thin knife of land where the male con ends, is where the ultra-rich sugar merchants built their mansions. Rich Americans also built their Miami-type houses here and stayed until Bautista was ousted and the Revolution took away their playground. The mansions and throwback houses still stand. By contrast, the town square was rather empty on our Sunday visit. It was here that we found all the Cuban people, seaside on the very tip of Punta Gorda. This area was especially populated with teenagers, strutting their stuff and mock-fighting from atop the big guys’ shoulders as they horsed around in the calm waters of the bay.
Cuba Tidbits of Interest
The amended US regulations under which we traveled to Cuba had specific and, I think, quirky requirements. For example, we were not allowed to travel for tourism. Instead we were supposed to “engage in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activity”. This activity was supposed to “enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities” (italics mine). It was further required that our activities “not be with certain Government of Cuba or Cuban Communist Party officials.” To the best of my knowledge, I did not cavort with Communist Party officials, but I’m not sure if I promoted Cuban peoples’ independence from Cuban authorities….Could that have been risky?
We were permitted to bring back into the USA $400 worth of goods each. Only $100 of that could be cigars and rum combined. Phil wanted to “borrow” my $100 for cigars, but I wanted some Cuban rum so we had to watch our purchases carefully. When we arrived back in the States, lo and behold, no one checked!
Vitamin R is code name for rum or ron as it is called in Cuba. Rum was so plentiful that when we ordered a pina colada, they put the whole bottle on the table so we could help ourselves!
Whenever I could, I would query Cubans about life in their country. One man I met showed me a Facebook post he did with a picture of birds in a cage. He said that he hoped people got the message. A woman who ran a casa and recently married an American in Cuba said she was called into a government office to answer questions about why he was coming to Cuba and staying in her casa so often. She said she replied with the equivalent of “Duh!”
Another man with a degree as a mechanical engineer said he could hope to earn 30-40 CUC per month. Normal salaries are about 20 CUC. A top cardiologist we learned about earns 60 CUC per month plus an allowance of 30 liters of gasoline a month. The gasoline prices we saw posted equated to around $6 a gallon. Imagine buying gas on a Cuban salary. Imagine buying a car – one family said their 15 year old Russian Lada cost 20,000 CUC, around $20,000.
I asked a woman who cooked for us about the food rations Cubans get and here is what she told me. Each person gets per month: 7 pounds of rice, 1 pound of beans, 1/2 liter of oil, 4 pounds of sugar, 5 eggs, 4 oz of coffee, 6 oz of salt for 6 months, 3-4 pounds of pork, some butter, jam and a small chicken two times a month. And one bun per day. Children get milk when they are very young but it is cut off after they are 7 years old and they get some yoghurt between the ages of 2 and 9. By the way, a favorite for baby’s first food is very soft taro, like poi in Hawaii. Also like Hawaii, Cuba grows breadfruit, mangos, papayas, coconut and other tropical fruits.
One casa particular owner said they pay 200-250 CUC’s as tax to the government each month, whether or not the rooms are rented. This house had 2 rooms to rent at 25 CUC per night, and renting is seasonal (it was almost too hot for my comfort in early April) so when I do the math it looks like a pretty high tax rate. They also pay around 60 CUC per month for electricity. Water cost is minimal, although there may be none some of the time. We had that experience in Havana and went a day without showering. I heard one story of the water being off for 6 days.
The military comes to the houses to spray for mosquitos regularly. We were notified of this at one of our casas and left early for the day, but at another one I tasted the stuff for several hours that morning.
Paris, New York and Las Vegas showgirls have nothing over the beauties at Cuba’s Tropicana! The sequin-and-feather cabaret has been running continuously since 1939. It was a spectacular show with some good dancing and athletic abilities – not to forget good-looking men and women. Guests were allowed to smoke cigars during the show – like the good ole mobster-days, I imagine.
Apparently, there is a good deal of black market trade going on in Cuba. We came upon what may have been a transaction on our private walking tour in Havana. We stepped into the vestibule of a large house as our guide explained how, after the Revolution, these homes were divided up between 6 or so families. Some activity was going on in one of the doorways that got confused by our presence. The guide said it might have been something as simple as selling food ration coupons. Another Cuban gave an example of when a painter is given several gallons of paint to cover a wall, he may save out a couple of them to sell on his own. One Cuban commented, when we told him our casa had no water, that they needed to pay the water tank drivers “under the table”. Our guide explained all this away when he said, “People have to make ends meet in Cuba.”
Cubans were not allowed to make and sell t-shirts for the Rolling Stones concert. I don’t know the reason why, but we only saw a few of them during our visit. An American we met had a few made in the US and brought them over for his friends. He said that as he walks down the street in Havana in his Stones t-shirt, Cubans look at it wistfully and say, “I’ll give you anything for it.”
VIVA CUBA! We are looking forward to a return trip in the future and hope the new relationship between our two countries continues to grow in a positive direction.
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