How did we decide to go? Hubs and I discussed what type of vacation we were in need of: more active or more vegetating, scoping out the pool all day while planning dinner? Discussed how far to travel and to someplace new or a favorite? We are both lucky that at this point in our lives nothing is off limits per se. We decided: new, more active, less time traveling. And, well frankly, we were intrigued when we saw a US-based Cuba tour. Result: Miami and Cuba for two weeks.
Didn’t JayZ and Beyonce just travel to Cuba? Yes, they stayed at the Saratoga Hotel in Havana. We drove by it. What people aren’t getting right is the fact that the golden duo visited on the same type of visa we did – a people-to-people visa issued by the US Dept. of Treasury. This category of visa was barely opened by Clinton, when Bush shut it down, only to have Obama reopen it recently. One the key characteristic of this visa is that it must have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba. Not shopping, hanging out at the resorts and soaking up the sun along the beaches (which I hear are delightful – we had one afternoon to enjoy). Tour operators have lost their license for not adhering to the guidelines and their approved itinerary.
We visited primary schools, a dance training program and a youth theater group. This was my favorite. We stopped in Santa Clara for a few hours and were treated to a rendition of Little Red Riding Hood by “La Colmenita” (or the Little Beehive in English). You know I love bees! These kiddos were no exception. Wonderful dancing, singing and performance!
What is there to do at night? We are big fans of exploring on foot, so walking around the streets in Havana at night after dinner was a treat (don’t worry a lot of people were out and about). We would also recommend hiring a bicycle cab to take you around Havana at night. We learned that there was a Chinatown, saw several sights and visited a few repeats that looked different at night. Tip the cabbie well and maybe buy him a bottle of water. Be sure to visit the Buena Vista Social Club, but do not bother with dinner there. We did not make it out to Tropicana, which would have been fun but wasn’t in the cards for us. In Trinidad, we visited Casa de Musica for some great dancing and music under the stars and took an adventurous cab ride to the Club Ayala, a dance club in a cave. The cabbie was great and walked us from the parking lot up to the cave and also came back to get us later. Despite the fact there were a few moments where it seemed like we were in a scary movie, awaiting a kidnapping (we had to walk through a construction site and up a hill), the club was pretty unique and played good modern music. It doesn’t start until late and I would recommend not being the first ones there, to decrease the creepy factor. No where in the US would this club ever get permitted.
What do I wish I had packed but didn’t? I think I did a pretty good job packing but would have like to have some envelops for tips, business cards for Odds & Hens and more useful gifts (see below). I am glad that I packed an umbrella (for sun), lots of clean undies (no time to dry in the room), dresses for the evenings, bug spray, sunscreen, shampoo/conditioner from home, travel hair dryer, scarves (to cover up on planes, dress up a plain shirt etc.), tour book (to read up on what I just saw or heard about), via, granola bars, a small medicine cabinet (hey, there are expectations when a pharmacist is on the tour), Kleenex packs/travel toilet paper, smaller bag for day trips, several undershirts (you just sweat a lot in the humidity) and my Fitbit. Yes, the Fitbit logged my steps every day and stored the data until I was back in the US. Amazing!
Did we bring back any cigars? No. We didn’t bring back any of the forbidden Cuban Trilogy: rum, coffee and cigars. We did enjoy them while there however. One of our stops included learning how they make cigars (by hand), how to smoke them and enjoy with the classic pairings of coffee and rum (even mixed together). There are penalties beyond customs getting grumpy with you for violating the rules. We weren’t about to ruin it for anyone nor guarantee ourselves a life time of cavity probes every time we fly.
So, what did we bring back? We brought back good memories, photographs, new friends, motivation for being a better person, gorgeous oil paintings, some gifts for the holidays, tiles by Fuster (but best in checked baggage so not viewed as a weapon), Che Guevara hat and t-shirt, a slight tan (not that it takes much to color me from blue to off-white), some currency (both convertible and local), necklaces, packet of honey (duh, have to compare), blog inspiration, sand from Trinidad, chocolate bars, quilted bed throw and a pair of pink baby booties. The booties were given to us as a gift with the purchase of our quilt in Trinidad. I think it might be a sign of things to come, after all, the lady’s shop was located in the same building as the Santeria temple (unbeknownst to me at time of purchase). Do dee do do. Do dee do do ….
How did we get there? Well, Havana is only about 90 miles from Key West, which makes sense but surprised us even though we knew it couldn’t be too far given the fact people swim the distance. I had visions of flying in a crop dusting prop plane and came loaded for motion sickness bear. But it was actually a pretty new 737 charter plane operated by ABC in conjunction with American Airlines. The easiest way, unless you have Cuban relatives, is to join a guided US tour. I will not give pointers for illegal entry via Canada or Mexico.
Is the food good? Depends on the point of reference. Cuba has to import about 70% of their food, impact availability and quality. The food tends to not be heavily seasoned, light on fresh vegetables and the meat will be overcooked by our standards. That said, there are good places to eat while you are there, just don’t expect the Seattle foodie scene. Many restaurants are state run, others are private. In general the private restaurants were better. They are called paladars and are basically restaurants in people’s homes. There are still licenses and menus and you might need reservations, however, the food at the ones we enjoyed, was varied, nicely presented and the ambience can’t be beat. We did also have a good meal at state run Italian restaurant Prado y Neptuno, near our hotel, or we just were happy to have pizza and no rice and beans. Do some research before you go and get out and try some paladars. There is something to be said in terms of the level of service at a paladar vs. state run place, you do the math. We would recommend the following (just because ate at them). Sorry in advance for the photos, they were just with the phone and always low light it seems. You get the point.
NAO Bar Paladar – Obispo No 1 e/San Pedro y Baratillo | Old Havana, Havana, Cuba
Paladar Los Mercaderese – Calle Mercaderes #207 | e/ Lamparilla y Amargura, Havana, Cuba
Ivan Chef’s Justo: Aguacate 9, Esquina Chacon | Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba
This place was built in the 1770s. They also serve up some great fresh veggies. I think they are related to Vivero Alamar organopónico (organic urban garden) we visited later on in the trip.
If you venture out of Havana, try:
Las Terrazas in Pinar del Rio Province. An interesting community, willing to share their way of life.
Palacio de Valle: Cienfuegos, Cuba Food was nothing too fancy but the location!
Sol Ananda: Real 45 | Frente a la Plaza Mayor, Trinidad 62600, Cuba
Interior is amazing and there is a curious bed covered in wine bottles. Nice selection of food and enthusiastic host. My photos are lame and don’t do it any justice.
What is your political perspective? Well, short answer Cuban-American politics are complicated and I won’t even claim to be knowledgeable. But what I witnessed and learned while there is that embargoes are not effective, the changes in the government are from other factors and the people are punished. It seems that if we really wanted to embargo a government it would done towards a larger country having a greater impact both on US and them. One of our tour events involved a lecture with an exceptional professor. It could have gone on for hours without complaint (just maybe a coffee), the professor was eloquent, worldly and did a great job breaking down the issues at hand.
What did you take for gifts for the community projects? I really struggled with this. A strict weight limit was presented in the preparatory paperwork, only to find out later that it was not really enforced and Cuban-Americans visiting Cuba were taking in so much stuff (like checking flat screen TVs, elephants etc), the desk agents didn’t even blink at my five pound over bag. Regardless, I didn’t want to get charged for being over luggage weight due to gifts and we were gone for a long enough time. That said, I also read several posts that discourage visitors bringing gifts and encouraging begging over work and reminding visitors that Cuba is not poor compared to other countries nearby, like Haiti. In addition, that giving shampoo etc to maids put them at potential risk of being accused of theft. Another several posts mentioned that there must be maids out there with rooms full of little shampoo bottles they will never use. I did witness very little begging but those loitering outside the hotel were asking us specifically for shampoo. We decided to go the conservative route and took mostly stickers for the school groups and I left several books that I was reading on the trip as I went (not ideal as in English, but did make room for some purchases). There was at least one other person in the parallel group that boasted the first night at having 60 pounds of stuff (old white lady with Asian boy-toy – no joke, but someone had to carry it all!). I thought that seemed a bit much, and more like loving the power of giving but who am I to judge anymore that I already have. The tour group did a good job of not making it awkward to leave the donations and the recipients didn’t fawn over things in front of us. So, now that I know and have the benefit of hindsight, I would take school supplies and some over the counter new medications. Skip the shampoo, tip the maids. I do wish that the tour operator gave more information about this in advance, as I fretted for quite some time. Do your own research on the subject and know that what you take will be appreciated. Remember – Don’t call them donations as Cuban Customs may confiscate them (per other travel websites).
Can you buy a house in Cuba? Depends (and no one actually asked me this). Only recently have Cubans been able to buy and sell their homes privately, with limits. Previously it was more of a lease to own with the government arrangement, of sorts. Se Vende…
Did I feel safe? Yes, I did feel safe, even after we had a purse snatching happen to our group one night in Havana. Why?! Because neighbors that saw it happen came out, called the police, a gentleman helped interpret and repeatedly apologized for “his people” AND the lady who lost her purse GOT BACK her credit and insurance cards (not the cash or the lipstick though). People actually turned the items into the police who followed up with hotel we were staying at. Pretty darn amazing if you ask me. I don’t think that would have happened in the US. Talk about “people-to-people”.
Do they take American Express? No, but don’t go getting high and mighty MasterCard, Visa and Discover. No US credit cards work in Cuba. Take cash to change and be sure to pull out at the beginning enough for tipping your tour guides, drivers etc. Be sure to get CUC coins early on and whenever you can to tip the bathroom attendants.
Should you put it on my bucket list? Yes, you should, but go soon before it opens up and is “ruined” by all us Americans (oh the irony)
What other questions do you have?
Other posts about Cuba: