We walked down Calle 19 in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. Energized by the espresso our kind casa particular host had served us in small mugs which said “Cafe de Cuba” on the inside lip and “Cubita” on the black coffee saucers, we were excited to explore our new surroundings. At the first intersection, we asked a woman for directions: “Dónde está Malecion?” I asked. “English?” she responded. She was perceptive and not beating around the bush. “Yes, we’re looking for the water.” “La mar,” my friend, Lauren tried. Her Spanish was much better than mine. But the woman was still confused. Finally, after some thinking, she said, “Oh, Malecon!” And she pointed in the direction we thought was the right way, but wanted to make sure. I had softened the “c” in my initial inquiry. But Malecón is a hard “c”. Not unlike the country we were in – Cuba. Not “C-yoo-ba.” Cuba.
There was a storm brewing over the water and our walk along the Malecón became something very reminiscent of a SeaWorld ride. Each step had a high likelihood of cooling us off from the Caribbean sun. We gazed in awe at the classic cars braving the road, which would be closed the next day due to the large waves.
My friend, a blonde newspaper journalist, and myself, a brunette PBS affiliate employee, had found our way to the U.S. Embassy. We had not planned to find it but it was a strange comfort to see the stars and stripes behind the tall black fence. The armed guards smiled at us. And we took photos of the stray cat playing on the U.S. property.
Across the street we entered a strange plaza and did not know what to make of it. On this day, we had no tour guide and we were trying to make sense of things on our own, for now. Red letters on cement blocks read “Patria o Muerte” and we were surrounded by what could have been one hundred or more flag poles.
“Doesn’t ‘muerte’ mean death?” I asked my friend. She nodded, thinking. We had no idea what to really make of what we were seeing.
The next day we did a long, comprehensive tour of Havana. After my tenth or so question, I had to admit to our guide that I was a writer. I don’t think any normal person would have asked so much. And I decided to ask what I knew would be a tough question – what did the plaza mean? He gave a slight awkward laugh, looked away a bit and began to explain. Back when tensions were high between the two countries, Cuban flags were flown in the plaza. It was a way, he said, to show that Cuba could block out American influence. No one could see the embassy behind all of the flags.
When I had internet access again, I Googled the words we had read: Country or death.
Even from my scant time in Cuba, I noted that the Cubans are very welcoming of Americans. It’s true, however, that there is a bit of a complicated past. And I think that just adds to the intrigue.
Cuba is changing. The plaza lays empty now, save for the unused flag poles. Still it was a reminder – we were in a foreign land and we had much to learn.
Yes, Cuba is changing. But that is not the only reason to visit this country. There’s a bit more to it than that. Actually, there’s a lot more to it.
Without even traveling to the 760-mile long island with a rainbow of classic cars and limited internet access, the world feels like it has gone back in time. Russia and possible spies are in American news again and a man named Castro still governs Cuba – at least until 2018 when Raul Castro has said he will abdicate his position. The largest island in the Caribbean, the Republic of Cuba is a wonderful blend of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, which at one point held Cuba as a territory and considered having Cuba officially join the union.
Cuba has a total population of about 11 million, with approximately 2 million in the capital of Havana. While there is a rich Christian heritage, Santeria is considered to be the popular religion of this socialist society, one of the first in Latin America to provide education and healthcare to its citizens. Alright, now that we have some of those basics out of the way – let’s get to why you’re really reading this: What is traveling to Cuba like? Speaking as a seasoned traveler, both the journey to and the experiences within the country are unique.
This diverse tropical island first got on my radar when a friend gave me a daily calendar of 1,001 Places to Visit Before You Die. The blurb on Havana highlighted the brightly colored cars. I’m not much of a car buff but the photo had my attention, at least until the next day when I tore off the page and learned about Machu Picchu, the Galapagos or Timbuktu. For years, that idea of travel to Cuba laid dormant in my head until it was activated last year with the talk of improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba. I immediately started looking into flights but, at that time, only chartered planes were going to the country, just 90 miles from the Florida Keys.
My search found that chartered flights from New York City would be around $800. Luckily, the JetBlue flight I would book several months later would be only a fraction of that. When you book your plane ticket, you’ll need your passport number and you will need to state the purpose of your trip. Americans are not allowed to go to Cuba as tourists. Ok, don’t panic. You can go to Cuba. You can even enjoy yourself while you’re there. You just can’t officially go as a tourist. For me, one of the most confusing parts of planning my recent trip to Cuba was figuring out the general license that I should use. In order to travel to Cuba, you need: 1) A $50 visa (which, depending on your airline, you should be able to purchase upon checking in at the airport). 2) Health insurance (which, again, depending on the airline, should be included with your airfare and your boarding pass should be kept through your entire trip in Cuba as it acts as proof of this required health insurance) And, finally 3) A general license. Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba under 12 different licenses which include family, religion, journalism, professional research, humanitarian projects, and education. Most people will want to use the People to People educational activities general license. With this, keep and print out all of your receipts for tours, museums, and other cultural experiences. My friend Lauren and I – we both said we were going for educational activities when we bought our plane tickets and when we checked in – were not asked to present any such proof but, it’s better to be safe. It’s hard to say exactly what you are and are not able to do under this general license. When I was first looking into going, I spoke with an airline representative about flying to Cuba. The woman I spoke with said she was also interested in going but had heard that you need a full itinerary and she worried about traveling with children. “I would hate to get down there and then be forced to come back,” she said. And, honestly, until I made it through Cuban immigration, no questions asked, I had the same concern. I think it’s these kinds of worries that are limiting the number of Americans traveling to Cuba. Yes, there has been a sharp increase in the number of American travelers but airlines are not seeing the numbers they were anticipating. I can’t help but think this has a lot to do with the lack of up-to-date information available. For example, there was a point just a couple weeks before we left for Cuba, that I looked at the US Embassy in Cuba website which stated in a video that no airlines flew to Cuba and only charter planes were available. Obviously, anyone who had done their research would know better but this shows how confusing it was at times when trying to plan this trip. Another mixed signal for my friend and I was when one day I heard back from a math teacher I had in middle and high school who left Cuba as a young man to work in the United States. He joined a large population of people who left their homeland to find a different life. I’ve read that the money sent back to Cuba from such ex-patriots exceeds $2 billion annually. And, judging from the number of people we met in Cuba who said they had family in Miami, New York City, and even upstate New York – I would believe that figure. Anyway, this teacher had not been back since the 1980s but I was still interested in getting his perspective on my (then) upcoming trip. At that point, my friend and I had planned to travel as journalists. My former teacher said I shouldn’t have any problems traveling as a journalist and would not be bothered. Reading that was a big relief for me, even knowing that it was from someone who had not been back to Cuba in decades. Then, that same day, I received another email. This time from someone who had just visited Cuba in December and was involved in a group in Albany which encourages learning about Cuba. In this email, the person I reached out to informed me that we would actually have to apply for a journalism visa from the Cuban embassy in D.C., the same entity which I had tried calling and emailing multiple times to no avail. When my friend and I met up with our new local contact, he told us that obtaining such a visa would be a long process and, if we were denied, it would mean we could not go to Cuba. With this in mind, and about two months until our trip, we decided to contact our airline and let them know we planned to use an educational general license. With that change, we had to fill out an online affidavit. It was another step but nothing difficult.
While in Cuba, we heard that Americans are not allowed to stay in the beach resorts. But we booked one and then changed the reservation to stay in a more frugal location. We also heard and read that we should exchange our US Dollars to either Euros or Canadian Dollars since the US Dollars carried a 10 percent penalty fee. We heard this from multiple people, including someone at the money exchange at our terminal in JFK. Yet, when in Havana, I exchanged $50 in USD, $50 worth of Euros and $50 worth of Canadian, and I actually received the most money back for the US Dollars. It could have been the cash amount. It could have been the location. It could have been that particular teller. There are many factors but the end result, given what we were told, was confusing and interesting. Just to confuse you further, there are two currencies in Cuba. There is the Cuban convertible peso (the CUC) and the Cuban national peso (the CUP). The CUC, pronounced either “C”-“oo”- “C” or Kook, is the main currency you will use as a tourist and it is the more valued money. One CUC is the equivalent of 25 CUP. In Cuba, 3 CUC can buy you a cheap bottle of rum and 6 CUC can buy a nice, aged bottle of rum. For 4 CUC, you can get a decent cigar from a local farmer. And 5 CUC can get you anywhere in the sprawling city of Havana. The CUC is tied to the American dollar – $1 equals approximately 1 CUC. Since CUC has more value, Cubans prefer to be paid in this currency. But, if you have CUP, you can find good deals. A meal that might be 6 CUC could be the equivalent of less than $1 when using CUP. When Lauren and I had an early bus in the Vinales Valley national park area, a mountain-protected region where much of the country’s tobacco is grown, we went to a bakery down an alley off the main drag of the community. The bakery had a line and local residents were walking out with bags filled with loaves of bread. For less than $1, we each got a large loaf for breakfast. It was not exactly Starbucks but it was certainly delicious and authentic. There have been discussions for years to eliminate one of the country’s currencies. But, until then, you can exchange your money for CUCs, and a small amount of CUPs if you’d like, at banks like Metropolitano, at government-run CADECA currency exchanges, or at certain hotels, some of which may require that you are a guest. The best way I found to tell the difference between CUCs and CUPs is that the former are a bit more colorful. CUCs have monuments on the bills and CUPs have historic men of Cuba. All travel advisories we read said that our U.S. credit and debit cards would not work in Cuba. Granted, we did not try. And I wish I had. For the same reason that I’m glad that I exchanged American dollars, despite being told not to. Still, bring enough cash and then some for your trip. You might feel strange walking into a strange country with that much money on you, but I felt more safe walking the streets of Havana than I have while walking parts of Albany or New York City. The police are visible and do a good job with protecting tourists and visitors.
To give you some idea of a budget: in one week, Lauren and I stayed in Havana for three nights, Vinales for one night, and in Varadero for two nights. We went horseback riding through tobacco fields, went cave swimming, saw old cave drawings, enjoyed the beach, rode in multiple classic cars, purchased obligatory items like rum, cigars, coffee, and crafts, and I spent a total of about $800 in the week, not including the airfare and AirBnBs, which are called casas particulares. In Cuba, it is possible to travel very cheaply and it is possible to travel extravagantly. It all depends on what you want to do. Hotels are upwards of $250 a night and can include wifi, a coveted amenity. A casa particular is around $30 a night and sometimes includes a welcome drink of coffee or a cocktail. You also get the experience of living with a Cuban local. Of the five casas particulares we booked with, each host spoke at least a little English and all of them were extremely helpful and gracious. These locations were all booked using AirBnB. Since they were Cuba bookings, we had to use a browser and not the app to actually make the reservations. But contacting the hosts through the app was easy after that. Lauren and I had some problems finding hotels through American websites but we met fellow Americans who booked hotels through foreign sites. Hotels in Old Havana and Central Havana are pricey – I heard of some that could be $500 or $600 per night. In some cases, you are also paying for the history. The Hotel Nacionale de Cuba, right along the water and Havana’s famous Malecon boardwalk, has hosted dozens of famous guests including Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Walt Disney, Jimmy Carter, and John Kerry, during his trip to Cuba to re-open the American embassy in 2015 after it had been dormant since the 1960s. The Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana has one famous former guest in particular – Ernest Hemingway. The ornate and pristinely kept lobby and bar has a corner with photos of the author who dedicated his Nobel Prize in Literature to Cuba. A few blocks away, you can drink at El Floridita, where Hemingway helped invent the daiquiri. The original drink is 6 CUC, about double what you would pay for drinks in other parts of the city, and you get to enjoy the 1950s ambiance, complete with a statue of Hemingway in the corner.
Life goes as a slightly slower pace in Cuba – just as you might notice a change when heading south in the United States. You’ll see this especially at restaurants and bars. We might be used to New York minute, but in Cuba you’ll likely be running on the Havana Hour. Cuba has its quirks but it’s a lively place full of salsa music, dancing, and people who are funloving. Lauren and I had a wonderful tour with Havana Tour Company. For $100 each, we had an approximately 4 hour tour of Old and Central Havana. This was followed by a lunch that was included in the fee at one of the many restaurants now privately run by Cuban residents – instead of run by the government as they were before. These establishments, which may only have a maximum of 50 seats and must buy all of their supplies at state-run retail stores, are called paladares. Food in Cuba is delicious. Staple meals include pork, chicken, beef, seafood, and rice. There are steaks, paella, fajitas (though, you’ll be hard pressed to find a tortilla), and even lobster. Breakfast for 5 CUC at your casa particular will likely include toast, fresh fruit, fresh juice, an omelet, and coffee. If you want something a little different for dinner, there’s even a Chinatown in Havana where the food is quite similar to American Chinese. As more permits are eventually given out for more paladares, more types of food will inevitably be offered. The tour in Havana also included cruising in a convertible classic car around the city and to the Revolution Plaza, which hosted Pope Francis in 2015.
Our guide in Havana was named Yohandro, though he said our group, made up of Americans, should call him “Joe.” He told us about Cuba’s free access to education, including college, and to health care. Residents are given rations. The rations are not always enough but they help. Lauren and I learned from several in Cuba about how certain jobs in Cuba that might have large salaries in the United States are government-paid and equate to about $40 a month. Doctors and engineers end up becoming taxi drivers in their spare time to make more money. Havana does not have a metro system or a tourist-friendly bus system so taxis are essential. I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said about half of our budget went to transportation. We looked into rental cars – but only enough to hear stories that car rental agreements require you to stay in Cuba if you get into an accident until a person injured is healed or a car is fully repaired. Those stories, hearing about false car rental sites, and the overall difficulty of renting, were enough of a deterrent and we relied on our bargaining skills with taxi drivers instead. This might be a good time to mention that knowing a little Spanish is very helpful. Though, you can also download an offline version of Google translator. You’ll need offline apps, for things like Tripadvisor too, since internet infrastructure is still lacking severely. I read that there are about 240 public wifi locations in the city of Havana. But when you’re trying to find one – it seems like much fewer. Though, you will know you found a wifi site when everyone on the block is looking at their phone. You can purchase 1 hour of wifi for about 1.50 CUC at kiosks around the city, including at the Viazul bus station which is the main transportation to other parts of the island. A one-way bus to Varadero, about a three hour ride, is 10 CUC. You won’t be able to buy tickets online so make sure you get to the station a couple of days ahead of when you want to go. Grab a wifi card while you’re there. The wi-fi cards have a scratch off area and when you go to a public location that says ETECSA as a wifi option, you use the username and password on the card. You don’t have to use the full hour at once. Speaking from experience, this is much cheaper than using a Pay-As-You-Go method, which Verizon offers. In other countries, Verizon lets you extend your usual monthly plan for an extra $10 per day. But, in Cuba, it’s just a bit more expensive. I recommend sticking with the wi-fi cards.
Rum & Cigars
I loved Cuba’s diverse landscape. One day we were in a city, the next day we were learning about cigars in the country, and the next day we were on the beach. Main destinations in Cuba include Havana, Vinales, Varadero, Santiago de Cuba, and Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage site. A highlight on our trip was the tranquil horseback riding tour in Vinales Valley. A farmer named Mario told Lauren and I about how his family has farmed on their land here for generations. They cycle crops, depending on the time of the year, and hand roll cigars. These quintessential Cuban souvenirs are made from three tobacco leaves which have been dried and fermented. I also greatly enjoyed comparing rums I brought from the U.S. with Cuban rum, namely Havana Club. Clear rum is harsher while the dark rum is aged, sweeter, and more flavorful. The Cuban rum won in our taste test hands down. It had a distinct honey-like taste which set it apart from Bacardi, which used to be based in Cuba, and Captain Morgan, named for a pirate which used to visit Cuba.
I ran into people with varying views of Cuba. A woman we met in Vinales who happened to be from the Berkshires and is now retired in Mexico said Cuba was dirty. I took this with a grain of margarita salt since she also said in one blanket statement that “Mexico is not dirty.” Another woman we met randomly while in line to get a heaping portion of rice and meat for 2.50 CUC in Varadero was coincidentally from Amsterdam, NY. She said Cuba was clean, especially for a Caribbean country and comparing it to the Dominican Republic where her family is from. As Lauren and I waited at the Jose Marti Airport outside of Havana, we met a Canadian couple who had been to Cuba more than a dozen times in the past 10 years. (Canadians make up the largest group of tourists to Cuba, though Americans are expected to make a dent in this number as visitors in the next few years.) They said that hotel room prices have already doubled in the past two years while the selection of food available to local residents in markets has decreased. It would seem tourism is a catch-22 with the country needing the money, which is a major source of revenue, but more supplies for residents are needed. While Americans now have an easier time visiting Cuba, Cubans cannot as easily visit the United States. Our Havana guide Yohandro said he knew people who applied and paid the required fee and were rejected, even if they had family in the U.S., while people who did not have family were approved. It was emphasized by multiple people that getting that approval to go to the United States was rare and coveted. Until the end of Obama’s term, Cubans were able to enter the United States if they made it to shore. That recently changed. Yohandro, a very talkative young man, went quiet as he told Lauren and I that he knew people who made the trip and he knew people who attempted to cross and were “never heard from again.” He said he agreed that it was only right that the Wet Foot, Dry Foot law changes were made since it was not fair for other countries and it encouraged people to leave Cuba, their homeland. Yohandro, like all of the Cubans I spoke with, said he liked seeing all of the Americans in Cuba. He is starting his own business to cater to this new market of people and show them the real Cuba by giving us a glimpse into the lives of Cubans. All of the Cubans I spoke with said they thought that it was great that more Americans were visiting and they thought it will help improve Cuba – though, many were not as sure about our president but I think the Trump factor is another reason why not as many Americans are traveling to Cuba or other countries. It’s been more than a week since my trip. My sneakers still have red clay from walking in the rich Vinales soil. The slight tan I had has faded. And I’m already hoping to one day visit this country again, maybe to see Trinidad and Santiago, and to note any changes from this past trip. I know I didn’t see Cuba before it changed. It has already changed and is still changing. But, further evolution is inevitable with the expected new leadership coming in 2018. Many believe it will be another person with ties to the current government. Despite some slightly confusing extra hoops to go through, if you know what to expect and do your research, it is very possible to have a smooth trip to Cuba. I wish I could explain it all – I really do. But I guess you’ll just have to experience Cuba for yourself.
Danielle Sanzone, your friendly neighborhood writer, has been to 33 countries and counting. A recovering journalist, she works in the Interactive Media department at local PBS affiliate WMHT.