(This song was stuck in my head the entire time I was in Havana. Now it can ear-worm you, too. You’re welcome.)
PLEASE NOTE: AS OF JUNE 15, 2017, TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS HAVE BEEN REINSTATED. AS SUMMARIZED BY THE NEW YORK TIMES:
Recently, I went to Cuba for the first time. A few short days before Trump’s inauguration, I took a direct flight from Tampa to Havana on Southwest Airlines for $150, round-trip. The relaxation of travel restrictions for Americans instituted by Barack Obama two years ago is just beginning to bear fruit; direct flights to Havana from Florida cities began in December 2016. And, you may now legally bring back rum and cigars!
I plan to spend some time in Miami next winter, and I might have waited to take a longer trip to Cuba then, but I was concerned that Trump may roll back the law – something he has already alluded to in one of his infamous tweets.
For those of you unfamiliar with the process, as an American you no longer enter Cuba by flying from a foreign country or taking an air or sea charter. Several airlines now serve Cuba from the U.S., and the fares are affordable. You do not need to notify our Government that you are going to Cuba, as long as your purpose of travel fits into one of these approved categories:
1. Educational activities in Cuba for schools, including people-to-people exchanges open to everyone;
2. Professional research and professional meetings in Cuba;
3. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions in Cuba;
4. Religious activities in Cuba;
5. Humanitarian projects in Cuba;
6. Journalistic activities in Cuba;
7. Family visits to close relatives in Cuba;
8. Activities in Cuba by private foundations, or research or educational institutes;
9. Any type of support for the Cuban people;
10. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information technologies or materials;
11. Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products, and tools, equipment and construction supplies for private use; and
12. Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations.
I chose “journalistic activities” because of the blog, but my visit would fit into a few of the other categories as well.
Within five years of travel the U.S. government could request all receipts and paperwork related to your trip, but that is highly unlikely to occur.
You must obtain a visa from the Cuban government. This could not be easier. Directly adjacent to the Southwest Airlines counter in Tampa was the visa agent. The visa was $50. It is blank, and you fill it out yourself, giving half upon entering Cuba and the other half when exiting. Double-check that you can purchase a visa at the airport. If not, there are online services that will mail you one, but at double the cost.
You must also have Cuban health insurance, but that is included in the price of the airline ticket.
Money is fairly simple in Cuba, because no plastic is taken at this time. Cash is king, so bring plenty of it. There are two types of Cuban pesos – the CUC (convertible currency), for tourists, and the Moneda Nacional, for Cubans. Some guidebooks advise to obtain Moneda Nacional instead of CUC’s, but unless you look like a Cuban this will not work; the Cambios will give you CUC’s, and people will expect CUC’s from a white person.
While the peso and the US dollar are par, 13 percent in fees and penalties will be levied in the exchange. I thought I was smart and took Canadian money. The only problem is the Canadian dollar is not as strong as the American dollar at this time. $200 in Canadian money netted me $140 pesos.
There are Cambios at the airport and all around the city. As a tourist, you can also always exchange money at the front desks of the western-style hotels. Some people will take US dollars, but be very clear on what you are paying before you hand them the money, and you will need exact change.
Whatever you do, don’t get too many pesos. They will not be bought back by any bank in the United States.
The Havana Time Machine
As soon as you land, you know you are somewhere else. The passengers applaud – something I encountered only one other time, in Egypt in the 1990’s. We Americans are far too stoic to admit that our lives were just in the hands of complete strangers in the cockpit. Cubans rejoice in the good fortune of landing safely.
Step outside, and 1950’s American cars are everywhere. They are not maintained just for rich tourists. The ones that are not bright and shiny are used as taxis for Cubans. Modern yellow taxis are also available, Russian-made.
Entering old Havana, you are immediately struck by the 19th century building façades, many of which are collapsing – what I call “hauntingly beautiful decay.”
Some of the buildings are being refurbished. El Capitolo has been under scaffold since 2011.
The performing Arts Center, next door to my hotel, the Hotel Inglaterra, recently got a facelift.
The Hotel Inglaterra, the oldest hotel in Havana, opened in 1875.
$225 per night (a lot for my budget, but it was only for one night) gets you a tidy, serviceable room with tiled floors, air conditioning, a shower in the bathroom, free breakfast in the lobby, one hour of Wi-Fi, a bottle of water, AND a bottle of rum. Less expensive accommodations can be had at Casa Particulars, which I discuss below.
On a tour of the city,* all the tourists were American except for one Japanese woman.
The tour guide noted his tours were heavily American nowadays, as Americans want to see Havana before it gets “corrupted.” It is odd, to say the least, to be in a huge city with no McDonald’s, no slogans, no trademarks, and no billboards except ones for the government and the revolution.
Touring Old Town
Just on the other side of Central Park from the Hotel Inglaterra are the pedestrian-friendly streets and squares of old Havana.
At the top of a Obispo Street sits Floridita, original maker of the daiquiri and barfly hang out of Ernest Hemingway.
Turns out there are quite a few places Ernest drank in Havana, and here’s another one.
And here’s the hotel where he lived for nine years. His room is a small museum, which you can see for $2 pesos.
A tapas bar recently opened in Havana, hanging a sign out front, “Ernest Hemingway never drank here.”
One by one, the squares of Havana are being refurbished. The most beautiful is Plaza Vieja, or Old Square, complete with a coffee shop, Havana’s only brewery, a Benetton store which no one sets foot in, and one of the few remaining cameras obscura in the world.
A few blocks away is the Malecon – 8 kilometers of waterfront along Havana Bay, known as Havana’s living room. People-watching is a favorite pasttime.
Comida Y Bebidas
At one time Cuban cuisine may have been quite fine, full of African and Spanish influence, but not so since the embargo. Paladars – private restaurants in homes and apartments allowed by the Raul Castro government – are your best hope of getting anything noteworthy. Even then, portions are small, pork is dry, and lettuce leaves are wilty. But you won’t notice after a few mojitos.
When it comes to drink, there are many options in Cuba. There’s rum, and then there’s rum. Oh, I almost forgot rum, and you can also get rum in most places. If that doesn’t suit your fancy, they’ll have rum. Ron, as the Cubans call it, is made a-plenty in the country, and the only cocktails worth having our Mojitos, Daiquiris, Cuba Libres, and Piña Coladas. Those drinks will cost about $2.50. Imported alcohol from Argentina, Spain, Italy, France and Britain will run you quite a bit more. When in doubt, drink rum. Some bottles of ron in Cuba cost less than a bottle of water.
Viva La Revolution
In life as well as death, Fidel Castro decreed that no buildings or streets or monuments be raised or named for him. In the Plaza de la Revolución, monuments to Jose Marti, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos are the only ones you will see.
Marti, a poet martyred during a failed revolutionary attempt against Spain in 1895, is revered in Cuba. His likeness is also found in Central Park.
One of his poems is the basis for the ubiquitous tune, “Guantanamera.” Guevara, a physician from Argentina instrumental in the Cuban revolution, was executed by the CIA in 1967 at the age of 39, and if you’re ever interested in why I believe that is a shame I’d be happy to discuss it with you over a cocktail.
Cienfuegos, Fidel’s right-hand man, mysteriously disappeared in a plane in 1959, which is the subject of a lot of conspiracy theories, including that Fidel had him killed. Regarding the wording on the 2009 monument, on Fidel’s first night back in Havana after fighting in the mountains for two years, in the middle of a speech to the nation, he paused to ask, “Voy bien, Camilo?” (Am I on the right track?) Cienfuegos replied, “Vas bien, Fidel” (You’re doing good, Fidel), and the crowd roared.
At one time in Cuba they were over 1 million African slaves. This terrible time in their history produced one of the greatest gifts to the world – Afro-Cuban music – that exquisite amalgam of Latin and African rhythms. Musicians abound in Havana, and music can be found on almost every corner.
On an evening out I clapped and danced to a 13-piece playing traditional Cuban folk songs à la Buena Vista Social Club. It was jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring.
Cuban people are generally happy, and genuinely happy to see you. They greet you with the shorthand, “Buenas!” Never mind adding the Dias, Tardes, or Noches you learned in school. Eighty percent of Cuba’s Gross Domestic Product is tourism. Tourists are kings, and any disputes will be resolved in their favor. The biggest “scams” involve overcharging for a taxi, selling $1 peso cigars made with banana leaves, or befriending a tourist and asking for money for a sick relative. People are poor, but have dignity. They sweep the eroding sidewalks or take a little paint to spruce up their screen doors.
At night I walked down residential streets of crumbling and cramped apartment buildings where streetlights had long since burned out and herds of cats were eating from garbage bags on the curb, never once fearing for my safety.
When I arrived, my taxi driver was Daniel. He was friendly and helpful, taking my bag and showing me where to change money. I asked for his card for my return trip, as I heard that the taxis directly outside Hotel Inglaterra would charge as much as double for the ride back to the airport. We agreed on a pick up time, and he was punctual. The charge was as agreed. He hugged me at the airport and told me to call him the next time I was in town. It did not feel fake or forced.
Wi-fi for locals just came to Cuba last year, and the government provides Wi-Fi hot spots in public parks. Cubans are not allowed to have Wi-Fi in their homes, I guess the theory being that one would not plot an overthrow of the government in public. Unlike China, where websites like Google are banned, Cubans’ surfing is not censored, at least according to my tour guide. The only exception is when Cubans create Craig’s List types of sites to sell durable goods, which the government immediately shuts down, because the sale of those goods are within the purview of the government.
In Raul Castro’s government, individuals are allowed to sell homemade products and handicrafts, which makes paladars possible. Raul also allowed people to rent their apartments. While housing is free in Havana, it is not plentiful. Three and four generations of families live together in small spaces. Younger people, with more disposable income, are now free to rent apartments from other Cubans. The government gets its cut on all of this, of course. Tourists can also get in on the deal by renting Casas Particular, tourist housing which could consist of a bedroom or an entire apartment. The sign indicating a Casa Particular looks like this.
When I return to Cuba, I intend to travel outside Havana. In those regions, it is best to speak at least a little Spanish. In Havana the locals accustomed to dealing with tourists will speak some English, which will probably be enough to get you by. Even though I speak some Spanish, I still have a lot to learn, and here’s a little story that might give you a chuckle.
My reservation at Hotel Inglaterra came with one hour of free Wi-Fi. The desk clerk gave me a Wi-Fi card.
Try as I might, I could not get it to work; it would not accept the password clearly printed on the card: “Raspe con cuidado.”
I knew that “con cuidado” meant “carefully,” didn’t know what the word “raspe” meant, and found it curious that the password was made up of actual words instead of numbers. I kept trying.
Finally, I noticed a silver substance beneath the words on the card. The phrase I had been entering over and over was “Scratch with care.” I finally did, and the password was revealed.
The following day in the hotel lobby, as I waited for Daniel to pick me up, I saw a Japanese woman struggling with a Wi-Fi card. I approached her, tapped her on the shoulder, and pantomimed for her to hand me the card, using my thumbnail to scratch off the silver substance obscuring the password. She smiled and nodded with understanding and relief.
A 60-Year Social Experiment
Many of you have asked my thoughts and observations on Socialism and its effect on the people of Cuba. I certainly do not claim to be an expert, and I was there only a very short time. But, in my opinion, the embargo, not Socialism, has burdened the Cuban people the most. Without trade, they are unable to get even the most basic items. For example, the fruit selection at breakfast consisted of some sad looking plantains, and canned fruit cocktail; very little fruit is grown in Cuba, and because of the embargo they are unable to get any variety.
I experienced firsthand the healthcare available to all Cubans, and it was superb. Before I left Tampa I was not feeling well, but I was determined to go on the trip. Throughout the day my abdominal pain worsened, and by that evening I rang the hotel clerk to inquire about seeing a doctor. Within a half hour, a female doctor was knocking on my door. She conducted a physical examination and took my vitals. Knowing I was returning to the United States soon, she recommended I follow up at home, but gave me the name and address of the closest hospital to hand to a taxi driver if necessary.
My time in Cuba was too short. I can’t wait to return.
*A full-day (9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.) tour with Havana Tour Company included a 2.5 hour walking tour, lunch with cocktail, sightseeing in a classic convertible car taxi, and drink at the Hotel Nacional, for $99. I highly recommend it.