Category: cuba

How to travel to Cuba & what it’s like:

I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails recently about the Cuba Diary I wrote a few years ago. People seem to be more interested in traveling to Cuba now than at any time since the embargo. There have been some amazing changes recently in the US policy towards Cuba: relaxing of restrictions, opening of embassies, etc. It’s now fairly easy to travel to that amazing country. I’m going to briefly tell you how I did it and how you can too!

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01. Why did I want to go to Cuba? Why should you?:

In the quiet early days of October 2012 I went to Cuba and it was everything I wanted it to be and it was everything I was told it wouldn’t be. I had been dreaming about Cuba for years. So close and romantic and dangerous and completely irresistible, it was just right there. I thought about flying to Mexico and going illegally, my friend Paul and I wrote up a business plan to export cigars post-embargo, but I went on a people-to-people trip and I’m so glad I did.

I grew up in South Florida. Cuba was 90 miles from my house. When we first moved from New England, we would go for dinner in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, at that time a popular restaurant lawn decoration were rafts Cuban refugees used to get to America. I remember seeing Cuban expats living under the bridges of I-95. What was going on over there? I knew I had to go and see it one day.

I want you to forget about everything you’ve heard about Cuba in the past 50 years. It’s not that prison island. It’s not that Communist nightmare. You should go because you’re a curious person. You should go because you want to see things with your own eyes. You should go because Cuba is bigger than you think, it’s more beautiful than you can imagine, and the people reflect that beauty. They will be curious about you too. They’ll smile and want to shake your hand as you walk down the Malecon.

Most importantly…you should go to Cuba because you can.

02. How did I pick a tour provider?:

There weren’t a lot of options when I decided to travel to Cuba legally. I saw some very expensive tours sponsored by universities in NYC, some obscenely expensive tours sponsored by National Geographic, etc. I’m not sure how I got on their mailing list, but Insight Cuba came to my attention and I was sold.

Here’s where my story get’s complicated. At the time, the State Department stopped issuing licenses to tour groups. Insight Cuba seemed perfect, but for reasons beyond their control they had to postpone my trip month after month. Finally, they decided to team up with Road Scholar (a company that did have a license), and see if I wanted to transfer my reservation to them.

I was hesitant at first. I was 30 years old at the time. Road Scholar specializes in trips for older retired people, but… I didn’t have a choice. Do you want to go to Cuba or not? YES! Of course I wanted to go. Both Insight Cuba and Road Scholar were so helpful and I can’t recommend either of them enough. That’s easy and done. Use one of those.

03. How do you actually get there? Do you need a Visa?:

I’m lucky enough to live close to Miami, the gateway to Latin America. For those of you that live in other states, you’ll need to book a ticket to Miami International Airport and that’s about it. Both Insight and Road Scholar provide a charted flight to Cuba from Miami. It’s still fairly difficult to do this on your own.

You will meet with your tour guide at a hotel close to the airport and that’s all you need to do. If you made it this far, you’ve already signed up and paid, they take care of everything else for you. You don’t need to worry about getting your own Visa. You just fill out the paperwork and everything will be ready for you when you arrive in Miami.

Just drink a beer in the hotel lobby with your new friends and wake up early for your 30 minute flight to Havana!

04. What is like taking a people-to-people trip?:

The trip I took started in Havana, went to the outskirts of Havana, down to Trinidad, Santa Clara, and ended in Cienfuegos. That’s a typical route for an 8-11 day trip. I recommend making sure you hit Trinidad or Santa Clara on your trip if you can. Both are amazing cities you’ll fall in love with.

People-to-people trips are heavily regimented, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have free time. You’ll attend morning lectures, you’ll visit with local people, but you’ll also get to wander around on your own. Honestly, the trip was so amazing because of all the required stipulations. If I went to Cuba by myself I wouldn’t have seen a fraction of what I saw.

You’ll stay in amazing hotels like the historic Hotel Nacional. You’ll eat at the best restaurants. You’ll get to go off on your own at night to a paladre and sip daiquiris where Hemingway sat. Don’t be scared of the educational element.

05. Is it safe? Can I bring my mother? What should I pack? Etc etc etc.:

Cuba is beyond safe. I’ve never felt safer. Bring your mother, bring your children. There were people in my group in their 90s and they had just as much fun as everyone else. Pack how you would pack for any other trip.

You won’t be allowed to go to the beach, but there will be opportunities for you to swim, so pack a bathing suit. You could also bring some gifts for the local people you’ll meet (soap is always beyond appreciated).

Pack an open mind and you’ll have the time of your life.

CUBA AS A BLUR: or, heading home

Wednesday, October 17th 2012:

It’s time to go home.  I only got a few hours of sleep, anticipating that sort of post travel mental hangover.  I gave the room a once over to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. Downstairs bleary-eyed to wait for the bus to Jaime Gonzalez Airport in Cienfuegos.  For a one runway airport it was pretty busy, some computer glitch at passport control was holding everything up.  I paid my 25 CUC exit fee and tried to stay awake through security.  Finally got an espresso from the small terminal bar and took a seat, saying too-soon-goodbyes to all the people I traveled with.  It was a short flight back, about an hour.  That’s the craziest thing…just 90 miles, seems like a world away.

Cuba.  I’ll never forget it. I wish I could write some big, eloquent final thought, but that’s it.  It was an amazing experience.  I’m definitely more confused about what Cuba is now than I was before I left.  I’m embracing that.  Time to plan the next trip.

Cuba, day seven: there must first be a revolution

Tuesday, October 16th 2012:

The last full day in Cuba.  Woke up from a restless sleep, weird sweat-inducing dreams.  Downstairs for breakfast alone.

I got on the bus expecting to go straight to Santa Clara, but we first stopped at a local market in Cienfuegos.  Something all travelers seem to agree on is if you really want to understand a place or culture, you visit their local market.  I was sitting near the back of the bus so I had to wait for everyone to slowly grab cameras and water bottles before I could even think about standing up.  I looked out the window and I was perfectly adjacent to a bread ration store.  I set my camera on the ledge to try and discreetly get some video of the people coming and going.  It was the first time on the trip that I got to see the ration books.  Really fascinating.  Everyone picking up the amount of bread for the month per how many family members in their home.  Got off the bus, crossed the busy street, walked into the open market.  Here all the prices are displayed in local Cuban pesos.  Various kinds of grain, vegetables and meat for sale.  The ubiquitous paintings of Che on the walls behind the produce.  The licenses to operate the market were framed high up in a dark hallway, again printed on paper adorned with Che’s face.  The butchers saw me taking photos and held up a pig’s head for me so I could get the shot.  Posing like they do that everyday.

Bus.  Heading now towards Santa Clara.  Jose got on the loud speaker and told us about “the Russian times.”  Almost wistfully.  Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, apparently most Cubans had it pretty good.  I put my headphones on and leaned back in the seat, staring out the window.  I could do that for days.  Let the bus just keep rolling on.

The first stop in Santa Clara was at a Jewish Temple.  Right before we arrived I took a photo from the bus of the local CDR (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) headquarters, a painting on the outside of the CDR logo rolling over Uncle Sam.  The temple was brand new, less than a hundred members.  With money from family in the states they were able to really renovate the building into something beautiful.  Probably the nicest bathroom I came across in Cuba.  We all sat down and the rabbi gave his speech.  I was really tired, pining for a cup of coffee, but it was still a very affecting talk.  I noticed a few members of the group wiping away tears.  I went up to the roof and took some photos.  Again, an experience I wasn’t really looking forward to that ended up being great.

Okay, so…next up was a short ride through town to the Che Guevara Mausoleum and Museum.  This was the type of thing I was most excited to see on the trip.  When I was a teenager the idea of the Cuban Revolution, just everything from that time period…Bob Dylan, JFK, was incredibly romantic to me.  We were told to leave everything on the bus, no cameras allowed inside.  We walked around to the entrance at the back of the building.  First up was walking through the museum.  It goes through Che’s entire life story complete with many of his personal items.  Guns, typewriters, passports, clothing.  Pretty crazy to see that iconic beret of his in real life.  We then went into the mausoleum.  Everyone was instructed to remove their hats.  No talking allowed.  His remains were found in Bolivia in 1997 and returned to Cuba soon after, along with the remains of 23 of his comrades.  It’s designed to look like a cave inside, a solitary light shines across the room onto a plaque on the mausoleum wall where he’s buried.  I’m sure it’s a pretty emotional place for some Cubans.  I hurried back to the bus to grab my camera so I could take photos of the huge bronze statue on top of the building with no one else around.  It towers above some stone reliefs detailing famous battles Che fought in, particularly the Battle of Santa Clara.  It overlooks a large open square framed by billboards with quotes from Fidel praising Che.  One simply with the slogan “We will be like Che!”  Your personal opinions of the man aside, he’s an important part of history, it’s an amazing place to see.

Next we drove to downtown Santa Clara for lunch.  The streets are pretty narrow so the bus had to be parked a long walk away from the restaurant.  Lunch was at a brand new hotel called Hotel America.  I wasn’t taking notes at the time so I don’t even remember what I ate, but another good meal.  We then took a walk to have a tour of the main square.  Santa Clara seems like a really cool city.  I wish I had a couple days to explore it on my own.  Beautiful old buildings, some with still visible bullet holes on their facades.  There was a huge library taking up one side of the main square.  Again, due to time constraints I didn’t get a chance to check it out.  These OFAC approved tours definitely have their downsides.

Our last stop in Santa Clara was the Cuban Association for Arts and Artists, a senior community center.  The group we met with called themselves “The Joy of Living Club”.  An adorable group of impeccably dressed elderly Cubans.  They meet weekly to play dominoes, baseball, dance, and play music.  It was unbearably hot in their club’s courtyard, the women all fanning themselves, but they still got everyone up to dance and try out some of their games.

Time to head back to Cienfuegos.  Jose spent the hour or so bus ride telling us about his family.  How he got married and moved in with his mother-in-law, something most Cuban men seem to do.  It was perfect timing on his part ensuring everyone would tip him generously the next day at the airport.  Before we got back to the hotel we made an unscheduled stop at a local ration shop.  A heavy dose of reality.  The bus driver voiced his concerns that it might be a depressing last stop for the trip.  We go to see exactly how the ration cards work and what everyone is entitled to.  The store owner let me go in the back to take some photos.  A concrete room full of barrels and sacks of rice imported from Vietnam.

We had about an hour at the hotel before dinner.  I bought a couple postcards in the lobby and took them up to my room to fill out.  One for Marissa, one for my mom.  I had the front desk add them to their outgoing mail, who knows if they’ll ever actually arrive.  Our farewell dinner was across the street at Casa Verde.  The first time we were served turkey on the trip.  A nice final meal in Cuba.  Back at the hotel we had to meet up by the pool for one final meeting.  The group leaders wanted to get feedback from us all.  It was interesting to go around and hear everyone’s feelings about the trip.  Everyone seemed to really love it.  I think some people were definitely headed home with a little unexpected perspective.  I then ran back up to my room to catch the end of the third presidential debate.  It was the foreign policy debate so I was hoping they would mention Cuba.  No such luck.  Downstairs for one final beer with my little crew, one last cigar I’d been saving.  Going home tomorrow.  A good night’s sleep didn’t seem to be an option.  Just packing and pacing.

Cuba, day six: sweating through trinidad

Monday, October 15th 2012:

The first morning waking up in Cienfuegos.  Quick shower, kick the door open, downstairs for breakfast.  Croquettes, lots of citrus, two cups of awful instant coffee.  Typical morning routine, waiting in the lobby for the bus to arrive.

We took a drive through town to visit a local graphic arts studio.  The city looked totally different this morning, actual traffic, people everywhere.  Yesterday’s arrival during a storm wasn’t the best introduction.  We drove by a large crowd congregating around an office building.  Jose jokingly said it was a travel agency.  I read that morning about the government’s plan to relax travel restrictions for Cubans.  Really good news, a step in the right direction.  We arrived at the Graphic Society of Cienfuegos, a small collective of local artists.  The workspace reminded me of the classrooms at Parsons in New York.  We lined up in chairs at the front of the room for a short presentation from the studio’s director.  Our group leader called me out during the Q&A part of the talk.  She wanted them to know that I was a graphic designer and that maybe I would have something I wanted to add to the conversation.  I didn’t really know what to say.  I just talked a little about how the studio reminded me of school, how I do most of my work on a computer.  That was enough.  We spent about 20 minutes walking around, looking at each artist’s work.  I ended up buying a small lithograph that I noticed as soon as I walked in.  Just some broken trees in light red ink.  The artist told me how hard it is for them to find supplies in Cuba.  He was excited to show off a box of engraving tools sent from someone in the states.  Before they would have to fashion similar tools from broken umbrella handles.  I got their address and I plan on sending some more supplies soon.

Back on the bus.  About an hour or so to Trinidad, one of the oldest cities on the island.  We stopped at another small roadside stand on the way.  I leaned on the bar in the hot sun and ordered an espresso.  Best cup of coffee of the trip.  For some reason things get hazy from here on, this day was sort of a blur.  Trinidad.  I was really looking forward to seeing this city.  First thing I noticed: no breeze.  Surrounded by mountains and coastline, the heat just gets trapped.  It was at least five degrees hotter here.  It was an eight block walk to lunch, cobblestone streets, everything seems to be uphill.  A woman in our group hired a rickshaw that had to be pushed by two people to make it up the street.  Lunch was at Plaza Mayor Restaurant, perfectly decent.  Again, a buffet of roasted pork, rice and beans.  I sat at a table with three other guys from the group.  We had some earlier-than-appropriate Cristals and talked about the day.

Lunch was running long so I left early to walk around.  Found shade in a small shop and waited for everyone to file out of the restaurant.  Jose ran out and told me to walk up the main square, that we would be seeing a church first.  It’s usually closed, so he seemed pretty excited that we were going to have a chance to see it.  A bunch of little kids played out front with homemade kites.  Then it was the obligatory tour of the main square.  An old man rode a donkey around trying to get you to take his picture for a peso.  I walked off and bought a 3D picture of Che from a small museum gift shop.

Next up was another house visit.  This time the house had been converted to a bed and breakfast, only recently a legal practice.  I can’t remember the name of the place but they even had their TripAdvisor rating framed in the entranceway.  Super cheap to stay there.  A perfect way to experience the city like a local.  The surprisingly round owner (you don’t see too many fat people in Cuba) had lived in the house his whole life.  It’s decorated just like your grandmother’s house.  Framed old photos of young, beautiful people.  I climbed up on the roof and took photos of the distant mountains and spanish tile roof tops.  It felt a lot like being back in Cusco.  I walked around the city in the rain for a while past the ever-present old cars, people selling bananas from carts, kids in class smiling through glassless windows.  I stopped in a small bar to escape the heat, order a beer and wait for the bus.  The owner was rolling cigars and I picked one up to have on my last night.

Heading northeast we drove through the rolling green hills of the Sierra del Escambray to the Valle de los Ingenious, the valley of the sugar mills.  Another UNESCO World Heritage site.  We walked up a steep residential street to check out an old sugar plantation.  The beggars here were definitely the most persistent of the trip.  One guy kept handing me his handmade bracelets despite me refusing them repeatedly.  He kept saying they were free, a gift.  This is a pretty standard tactic.  Out of frustration I just took them knowing that wouldn’t be the end of it.  On the way back to the bus he came up to me again wanting money.  I shoved them back in his bag and Jose got him to go away.  In the plantation we sat out back and they demonstrated how slaves would juice the sugarcane.  They passed around small glasses so we could try it.  Some local women came over and tried to sell us homemade table cloths.  When someone yelled that the police were on their way they ran, scattering in every direction.

On the way back to the bus we got a chance to go inside a local family’s home.  A typical rural Cuban house.  It was pretty unreal, like walking through a museum exhibit of what life was like two hundred years ago. The owner showed me how she prepares dinner in the almost nonexistent kitchen.  I slipped her a peso on the way out.  A few people ran to climb up the seven story Manac Iznaga tower at the end of the street.

Long ride back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.  Walked across the street to Villa Lagarto, a small hotel with a restaurant out back on the water.  There was a choice of chicken, beef, pork, fish or lobster.  Everyone ordered lobster.  Really good dinner.  After that it was a pretty uneventful night.  I basically just went up to my room and passed out.  long day.

Shopping through the revolution:

I’m really not one for buying souvenirs.  I never know what to get and I really don’t have the space for wood sculptures, maracas, and shot glasses from everywhere I go.  All of that stuff is readily available in Cuba, just like everywhere else in the world.  I definitely brought more home from this trip than I usually do, but I think it’s all interesting stuff.  So, here I thought I’d share.  The prices are all in Cuban convertible pesos.  I’ll get back to posting the day-to-day reports tomorrow.

1.  The Seven-League Giant: An illustrated handbook of US aggression against the peoples of Our America – I picked this up in the Hotel Nacional’s lobby bookstore.  It’s a pretty crazy read.  $12.00
2.  3D photo of Che Guevara – I got this off a postcard rack in Trinidad.  It was just too weird to pass up.  $3.30
3. Two postcards – One from the Hotel Jagua.  One from the Hotel Nacional.  $1.00
4.  The October 11, 2012 edition of Granma – This is the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.  I picked this up in Plaza de Armas.  $1.00 tip.
5.  Two vintage pins – I bought these from a used bookseller in Plaza de Armas.  One celebrates the twentieth anniversary of the 26th of July Movement.  The other has a picture of the Granma.  $6.00
6.  The October 2, 2012 edition of The Havana Reporter – I got this in the lobby of the Hotel Jagua in Cienfuegos.  The headline is “U.S. Blockade Costs Cuba $1 Trillion”.  $1.00
7.  Cigar keychain – Our group leader gave each of us a keychain on our final night.  $0.00
8.  Lithograph – I bought this from a local artist at the Graphic Society of Cienfuegos.  The one underneath it was a gift.  $10.00
9.  Four stamps – I bought these before I realized the postcards were postage paid.  The subject matter deals with the anniversary of Che’s death in Bolivia.  $2.00
10.  Cuban convertible pesos – I like to save a little money from all the places I go.  I ended up coming back with way too much this time.  $47.95
11.  Lazaro Ros – Orisha Aye Yemaya CD – I got this at Asociación Cultural Yoruba de Cuba, the Santeria museum in Havana.  $10.00
12.  Random hotel junk – I felt the need to save my two guest cards from the hotels.  Also three handwritten and decorated notes from the chambermaids.  $0.00
13.  Dona Eutimia business card – This is from the paladar I went to in Havana.  I found this shoved in the bottom of my suitcase when I got home.  $0.00

Cuba, day five: adios havana! or, the bay of pigs

Sunday, October 14th 2012:

The last morning in Havana.  I had to be up early to pay the cashier and check out of the Hotel Nacional.  Walked out back to take a few last minute photos and then back on the bus for the long ride to Cienfuegos.  It was nice seeing the scenery change even though I would have loved to have a had a couple more days in the city.  After about an hour we stopped at a small roadside cafe/souvenir shop.  Some people got coffee, most spent money on bad souvenirs.  We headed south on the national highway, the main road that connects major cities all over the island.  Due to the cost of cars and gas the entire highway is virtually empty.  It’s pretty strange seeing miles of open road with almost no other cars.  Just the occasional bus, rental car, or truck carrying people from the rural areas around.  We headed into Matanzas province which leads right into The Bay of Pigs.  It looks exactly like the Florida Everglades.  We passed a farm where they breed crocodiles and release them into the wild for the locals to hunt for food and leather.  Crocodiles, sawgrass, swampland.  I know I’ve already written about all the billboards and signs, but even out in the country you can’t drive five minutes without seeing one.  Pictures of Che, anti-US paintings, quotes from Fidel, everything deals with the revolution.  Every other utility pole seems to have “VIVA FIDEL” scrawled down the side in white paint.

After a while we arrived at Museo Giron, a museum dedicated to the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Jose calls it “the Bay of Pigs story”.  It’s located in a very small town with hardly much around.  The bay is still pretty isolated, not as much as during the invasion, but still.  The museum is mostly photos and info cards on the walls, a few guns and mortars.  It starts out explaining the history of the region and as you walk around goes through the lead up, the incident, and the fallout.  It was pretty fascinating hearing the story told from the other side.  Jose kept referring to the U.S. as “the invaders” as he led the tour.  The exhibit ends with photographs of the 200 Cubans killed during the conflict along with some of their personal belongings.  Badges, burnt ID cards, blood stained clothing.  Jose pridefully told us a story about a dying Cuban fighter scrawling “FIDEL” on a piece of wood, something very symbolic for the people in the area.  Everyone left a bit quiet, it’s not easy being on the other side of history.  The grounds outside had a few tanks, boats, and a downed airplane.  Beyond the fence are little shacks, a basketball court, goats and horses tied up in random places.

Next we drove to have lunch at this weird, small resort called Caleta Buena.  Right on the ocean, beautiful clear Caribbean waters.  It was basically a bar, a buffet, a dive shop, and a bunch of natural pools.  The clientele seemed to be mostly Russian, everyone wearing Speedos.  The food was pretty bad, flies everywhere.  Worst lunch of the trip.  It was beyond hot out and I just waited it out on a lounge chair in the shade of a tree.  I guess not the worst way to spend an afternoon, but I just wanted to get going.

It was another hour and a half on the bus to Cienfuegos.  Everyone fell asleep and I just listened to my headphones and watched the scenery fly by.  A totally different Cuba than Havana.  We finally arrived in downtown Cienfuegos during an afternoon storm.  The first noticeable difference about this town is the amount of beggars.  As soon as the bus pulled in they started lining up, waiting for us to get off.  We went to have yet another welcome cocktail in the lobby of Teatro Tomas Terry, a theater built in 1889.  The rain sort of screwed up some of the plans for the day so we only got to see the theater for about 5 minutes.  I took a photo before I knew that wasn’t allowed, handed over a peso, not a big deal.  Beautiful place, Caruso used to play there.  Next we had a tour of the main square, another Unesco World Heritage site.

On the other side of the square across from the theater we went to see Cantores de Cienfuegos, a local choir.  I really wasn’t looking forward to this, exhausted, sweaty, wet from the rain. But of course it turned out to be amazing.  That seems to have been a running theme, as soon as you begin to mentally check out something unexpected and beautiful happens.  They sang about 10 songs with some cute choreographed dance moves.  Their voices filling up the incredible, three story open room, peeling turquoise paint, open doors and windows, umbrellas littering the corners.

Next it was time to check into the second hotel of the trip, Hotel Jagua.  A sort of Miami Beach style, art deco building from the 50s, surrounded by water on both sides.  Only one elevator was working so I walked up the stairs to my room on the sixth floor.  I had to kick the door in due to the wood swelling from the humidity, something other members of the group would have to deal with for the next few days.  A woman missed breakfast the following morning because she couldn’t get out of her room.  They kept telling us the hotels don’t hold up to ones in the states, but despite the doors sometimes not opening, I thought it would be considered a nice beach hotel anywhere in the world.  Beautiful views of the city and the bay from my balcony.  A local baseball team’s stadium, the abandoned shell of a nuclear power plant the Russians were building using the same technology from Chernobyl.  The locals call it the Cuban Taj Mahal.

Dinner was supposed to be at an open air restaurant in town, but due to the rain they brought the food to the hotel and we ate in the lobby restaurant.  More roast pork, rice and beans.  Again an excellent meal.  After dinner I went up to my room to take a shower but again felt the anxious urge to walk around.  I walked down and had a drink by the water and talked with a couple local rickshaw drivers.  They tried to convince me to go to a party down the street but I wasn’t feeling it, too tired.  They gave me a couple big cigars and I smoked one outside of the lobby bar.  The power went out a couple times, quick blackouts that made the sky open up with millions of stars.  Not sure what tomorrow will be like.  I feel like I’m learning so much, yet somehow know less.