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In the 18 months since the Obama administration lightened restrictions on United States citizen’s travel to Cuba, a record number of Americans have visited the country. Because Cuba is just 90 miles from Miami, many Neapolitans may be wondering whether a visit to Cuba should be on their travel agenda. My answer depends on the age of your children, how adventurous they are, how much they’ve traveled, and what their interests are. For the most part, I’d advise against a Cuban trip if you have children younger than about 13 or your older kids aren’t that adventurous. But for older teens and adults, Cuba is a destination I would put close to the top of travel “must see” lists.
I traveled to Cuba in September 2015 under a “people-to-people” program visa. The purpose of the trip was classified as a cultural exchange and as such we were required to be engaged in “meaningful interactions between U.S. citizens and citizens of Cuba.” U.S. law required that we adhere to a schedule of activities that had been predetermined. For older teens and adults who are interested in the culture, this wide variety of activities is educational and fun. For young kids or teens who are used to constant social media or like to sleep late, this isn’t going to be the trip for them. Leave the kids at home and travel with your spouse or a friend instead.
Restrictions on Cuban travel have changed since my trip and U.S. citizens are now able to travel a bit more freely although most trips still must be largely educational in nature. Despite the lifting of the restrictions, I would advise a tour because making arrangements for hotels, restaurants, and attractions is difficult without the right connections. The good news is that there are plenty to choose from and more cropping up every day.
My group flew from Miami to Havana via a chartered jet. Because we were guided by our group representative, our arrival at José Marti International Airport was uneventful although exiting the airport to a huge throng of people waiting for their arriving relatives was a bit of a shock. Our little group of 20 Americans got a lot of attention as we found our way to our tour bus.
Our first stop was the Hotel Nacional which is, quite simply, stunning. Built in 1930 and with a history as diverse as Cuba itself, you truly do feel like you have stepped back in time. We waited for our rooms in the hotel bar where bartenders in immaculate white uniforms make one strong mojito after another. The dark paneled room is filled with drawings and photos of the movie stars, politicians, and other luminaries who have stayed at the hotel. It’s well worth a visit even if you don’t stay at the hotel. Outside there is a lovely courtyard that leads to a view of the Malecon, the broad esplanade, roadway and seawall that stretches for five miles along the Havana coast. At almost any hour of the day or night, the Nacional courtyard is buzzing with music, conversation, activity, and visits from the peacocks who make their home on the property.
My room was small but very clean and comfortable with a large window overlooking the courtyard. There was a mini bar (with real Coke instead of the extra sweet Cuban version!), a television (CNN was the only American channel), and a compact bathroom. The room never really got cool despite cranking up the air conditioning. The walls are pretty thin as I learned later that night. I had just fallen asleep to be woken up by very heavy breathing. I laid in my bed terrified, afraid to leave the bed to find out who or what was in my pitch black room. After a few minutes I finally realized that the breathing was coming from the room next door. Tip: take along a small battery-operated fan. It will cool you off and serve as white noise if your neighbor is a snorer!
Each morning we would meet Connie, our American tour coordinator, and Neici, our Cuban tour guide, at the front of the hotel. We traveled in a comfortable, air conditioned coach with plenty of cold, bottled water. Most of our lunches were served at small, family-run paladars and usually included live music and dancing.
On our agenda over the five-day visit:
- A visit to a Havana cigar factory
- A tour of Finca Vigia (Hemingway’s Cuba retreat)
- Lunch and a quick walk around Cojimar (the setting for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea)
- A stop at Plaza de la Revolucion
- Several hours in Christopher Columbus Cemetery
- A tour of The Yorruba Association Museum (dedicated to the practice of Santería)
- A visit to a primary school in Old Havana
- Time to wander the Used Booksellers’ Market (great place for souvenir books or posters)
- A private concert with Vocal Luna, Cuba’s award winning all-female chorale group
- A lecture and discussion with a Cuban expert on the history of U.S./Cuban relations.
- A tour of Old Havana
- A day at Las Terrazas, a UNESCO site known for its beauty
- Tours of a medical clinic and an organic community garden
- A visit to Fusterlandia, the home of “The Picasso of the Carribean,” Jose Fuster
- A performance by one of Cuba’s most respected dancing troupes
Most of our evenings we were on our own to dine at local paladars (private restaurants usually set up in the owner’s home), enjoy music at a variety of clubs and concert venues, or simply to walk the Mallecon. The 3 youngest members of our group — two 20-something brothers on the tour with a friend — went out every night to different clubs and became our experts on the nightlife of Cuba. We quickly learned not to expect coherent answers from them until about 11:00 a.m. To their credit, they made the bus on time every morning.
One of the highlights of the trip was an evening of music from the Grammy award-winning Buena Vista Social Club. Another evening, several members of the group went to the famous Tropicana and enjoyed the over-the-top, iconic show.
Cuba was definitely everything I had hoped for and then some. I felt like I was entering a time capsule of sorts, a place where time stopped in 1960. But mostly, it’s one contradiction after another: crumbling buildings that are at the same time majestic and beautiful, natural beauty right near ugly Soviet-era buildings, and abundant food for tourists while citizens struggle on rations that consist mainly of rice and beans.
There is definitely poverty but because the struggles are almost universal you don’t see marked differences between the classes. All Cubans are assured of the basics: rations of food, healthcare, and education through high school. But beyond those basics, there hasn’t been much to hope for, although that is changing as Cubans are allowed to keep income they make from small businesses. Private home ownership is on an upswing and loosened restrictions on travel mean that more money and goods are coming in from the U.S. and other western countries.
The Cuban people are a big part of the contradictions I mentioned earlier. Many of the state employees we encountered were unmotivated to say the least. Because they know they are assured of a salary and their rations (about $20 per month salary no matter what the job plus basic food items like beans and rice) there is no incentive to work harder or go the extra mile. The difference between the quality of service and of the food at our state-run hotel and the private paladars where we dined was night and day. At private restaurants, the food was delicious and creative, served by attentive staff. At our hotel, finding someone to bring coffee or refill a water glass was almost impossible. The hotel food was barely edible despite being plentiful.
On the other hand, we met many musicians, artists, and small business owners who were brimming with creativity and excitement. One of the most interesting Cubans I met was a young man who drove one of the vintage cars you see in so many of the photos of Cuba. Luiz lived in Sarasota, Florida, for much of his life, brought to the U.S. by his father. In his teens he returned to Cuba to live with his mother and now in his early 30s, he struggles to make a living as a driver. He leases his car from the government and is responsible for all repairs and gas. He told me that he works about four days of the week to pay for the lease. The rest is his profit. If the weather is bad or the tourists not interested, he loses money that week. At the same time, he seemed genuinely excited about the changes to his country and happy to see Americans visit. He said he hoped his father would be one of them.
A special moment of our trip came on our last day in Cuba, September 11. We visited the recently opened U.S. Embassy where we proudly took group photos in front of the large American flag.
It’s very likely that Cuba will be changing dramatically in the next few years and I am glad to have seen it when I did. My visit sparked an even greater interest in the country and I have been devouring books and listening to Cuban music since my visit (see below for suggestions). A visit to Cuba isn’t your typical vacation, it’s much more of a learning experience where you can be immersed in a totally different culture if you’re willing. Cuba, vuelvo! (Cuba, I’ll be back!)