Currency: The currency is the Cuban peso.
Hello = Hola!
This overview of Cuba is from a group trip I booked with Exodus, "A Taste of Cuba," from March 11-18, 2023.
Arrival and Trip Overview:
When I tell people I’ve visited Cuba, the first response is usually, “Can Americans really go there?” Yes, we can! In the U.S., there are seven categories of travel that are legal for visiting Cuba and one is stated as “Support for the Cuban People.” Based on this category, travelers are to be engaged in a full-time schedule of activities to enhance contact with Cuban people. Doesn’t all travel enhance contact and support the people in the host country in some way? Whether it is the money spent on food, lodging, and various pursuits and purchases, along with understanding a different culture, or the exchange of ideas, I’d like to think that visiting another country is beneficial in many ways. Of course, there is always the downside of tourism, the extra pollution and trash generated to name a few detrimental impacts.
If you are an American who’d like to visit Cuba, the easiest way is to book travel through a group with trips designed to meet the American requirements. It was easy enough to find a group by booking through a company I’ve traveled with previously.
Insurance – Health and Travel:
Another requirement is that you must purchase health insurance for coverage in Cuba as no American plan would be honored there. I purchased an airline ticket from American and their website declared that the insurance was included in the price of the ticket, but I couldn’t find any documentation to this effect. Since most travel companies require a purchase of travel insurance for group travel, I purchased additional insurance to cover Trip Delay, Medical and Hospitalization, Trip Interruption, and Emergency Medical Evacuation and Repatriation. The coverage also included “Covid 19” which was described as being covered as any other illness. The new reality of travel since the 2020 pandemic. I found the policy on the Insubuy website, and it was through Nationwide Insurance. Trawick International issued me a letter confirming medical coverage in case it was needed to apply for my visa. Did I overbuy? Probably. But I guess it is better to have more than not enough.
Flights and Entry Requirements:
There are limited flights from the U.S., but Miami has several flights a day. And it is a quick one-hour flight. When you arrive, be prepared for a rather lengthy immigration process. And who doesn’t love standing in line? It’s not too bad but to prepare you for the process, here is some additional information you might find helpful.
For all visitors, Cuba now requires everyone to complete a form prior to arrival. It can only be completed 48 hours prior to arrival and is straightforward. Once completed, you will be sent an email with a link and a QR code you will need to present on arrival. It’s a good idea to take a screen shot of the code since you will probably not have phone service when you arrive in Cuba. You can access the form through this site: https://www.dviajeros.mitrans.gob.cu/inicio
Upon arrival, you will stand in line so they can scan the code and then you proceed to the usual passport review. Once you think you are done (not so!), you proceed to another line to go through a metal detector device – you and your carry-on bags – similar to what you go through for security check-in at the airport. Then you can finally be on your way.
One curious observation - while waiting in line, be prepared for various people to constantly be inserted in front of you such as flight crew or someone in a wheelchair. What I couldn’t quite understand were the random people that were moved from one line to another with no apparent rationale.
One other interesting note concerning baggage. I flew American and after purchasing my ticket, I was sent an email outlining luggage fees. No surprise that a checked bag to Havana was $30. The big surprise was a checked bag from Havana to Miami was $200! Even though the first checked bag is usually free on an international flight, I guess the rules don’t apply when flying from the U.S. to Cuba. I suggest sticking to carry-on baggage only. I did.
Exodus, the travel company, suggested bringing items that Cubans have difficulty accessing such as over-the-counter medications, and personal hygiene products such as shampoo, deodorant, and even feminine products. Additional “gift” suggestions included pads of paper, pens, and any clothing you may want to donate. I brought ibuprofen and acetaminophen since pain relievers and anti-inflammatories are usually appreciated. I don’t think I’d consider bringing any prescribed medications unless I was dispersing them to a physician or clinic.
This was an interesting topic. Based on the recommendation from the travel company, I took Euros and found them to be accepted everywhere. (In fact, I was able to pre-order them from my bank. Very easy!) Most restaurants would give change in Cuban pesos which were handy for drinks, restrooms, and other small purchases. I found that dollars were also accepted although technically you cannot change dollars within the country. They don’t accept American credit cards anywhere and you won’t be able to use any ATM connected to an American bank. Overall, I found Cuba to be very safe so my usual concerns about entering a country with cash was diminished. But, as you should do in any country, separate any cash you bring so you are not carrying everything with you all the time.
Bring toilet paper! You will need it. Some places will have someone who charges a few pesos for toilet paper at the restrooms. But I always want my own little stash in my pockets. Just in case. Bring anything you may need as it is not easy to find stores or pharmacies for necessities.
Our guide, Tony, was great, very upbeat, and extremely knowledgeable. Our accommodations were in Casas Particulares, which are rooms/properties leased by local families. We did not always stay together in the same lodging but were usually quite close so that we ate meals together. WiFi was random and unreliable. Enjoy the unplug for a week!
On arrival in Havana, my first impressions noted the contrast. Even when flying into a major city on the large island, I could see a lack of cars on the road. And the drive from the airport? Let’s just say that lanes are a concept not strongly held by all. Then there were the buildings as we drove into Havana, crumbled and neglected while the contrasting “official” buildings look new and pristine. On a Saturday night, the streets were full of people and a casual wander revealed music everywhere with the expected Latin sounds. My dinner was a delicious meal of rice, beans, and shredded lamb with green peppers and tomatoes, close to the Cathedral Square. And yes, there are old cars everywhere but not all are restored to their original luster. Bright laundry hangs from every balcony, adding a kaleidoscope of reds, blues, and greens to the faded yellow and grey buildings. A woman sauntered down the street with a loudspeaker to make sure her diatribe was heard, but I had no idea what she was saying. I returned to my hotel to sit on a small balcony circled by decorative wrought iron, mosaic tiles at my feet of greens and faded red/orange flowers. The owner told me I had his best room and it exceeded my expectations. I had a two-story room, with a small living area on one floor, the bedroom and bathroom upstairs, aggressive AC, weak, weak WiFi, and a small refrigerator, perfect for cooling bottles of water. Luxury. Across the small alley, I noticed others sitting on their balconies, enjoying the cooler evening, watching cars and people parade down the street.
The next morning, the adventure began as we drove out of Havana, headed for a small farming community. Tony had an encyclopedic knowledge of the island, spewing names and dates as we drove from Havana to the Vinales Valley. As we drove out of Havana, we did see more modern hotels and buildings and an area with houses for government workers or consulates, apparently a wealthier area. But after the Iron Curtain fell, the situation in Cuba became worse, with less support from other countries. Perhaps that explained the neglected look of most houses and building. I heard from another traveler to Cuba that most people focused on updating the interior of their homes rather than the exterior. So, how would we really know what was neglected? I cannot say whether this is true or not but in one of the places we stayed, the façade did not reveal the more elegant and polished interior.
The goal for the first day was to take a walk through the Vinales Valley area and stop at a tobacco farm to learn about the process. Raoul, the tobacco farmer, filled us with knowledge on the process, describing the three types of leaves used for the filler, the wrapper, and the binder glued with honey. He quickly rolled a cigar for us and showed us how they packaged 10 or 20 in a bunch. These smaller bunches were wrapped with leaves, grouped in a large bundle, and wrapped again with leaves. The bundles can be left for 1-2 years and he warned us that if opened before then, the quality of the cigars may suffer. He passed around samples and everyone puffed a few, showing off their ability to blow smoke rings.
Most amazing to me, was the economics of growing and harvesting tobacco. The government takes 90% or more of their crop, paying about $40 (or euros) for a few kilos, depending on the quality of the tobacco for the year. Each kilo can produce 500-600 cigars sold for $10-$20 apiece or more. The farmer can roll and sell the remaining tobacco as cigars for their own profit. We sat on a small, covered porch, sipping drinks while Raoul sold his wares to others in the group. As an American, I was not allowed to bring cigars back into the U.S. The same applied to the purchase of rum, fondly referred to as vitamin “R” on this journey. No souvenirs for me.
This trip involved quite a bit of driving, but most roads were somewhat deserted. With the price of cars and fuel, it is definitely not a country with busy roadways. Some roads had visible signs of neglect, full of huge potholes and crumbling patches of asphalt which our driver maneuvered around as if we were working our way through a giant pinball machine. The upside is that it keeps people from speeding recklessly and the downside is that it slows down progress.
Our second day in Cuba involved a long drive to the Bay of Pigs site, where we stopped for lunch alongside the ocean, eating lobster and fish followed by a nature talk to explain the flora and fauna of the area. Then on to the Giron Museum to learn about the failed invasion from the Americans and see more evidence of Castro as a hero for the Cubans. Our day’s journey ended in Cienfuegos, a seaside city with beautiful architecture where we again enjoyed dinner by the water.
The following morning, Tony wanted to make sure we had an opportunity to see the best of Cienfuegos. He organized bike taxis (Bici Taxis) to drive us around the city, stopping to take photos by the giant “art” sunglasses and eventually leading us to a main square where we had time to walk around and enjoy more of the older buildings and stop for a drink at the Union hotel. I purchased a few post cards from an older gentleman with a table full of scenic cards and he made sure I had stamps as well, pasting them on himself, so I could send word to friends of the fabulous time I was having in Cuba.
Lunch was nothing special and we began to realize the prophecy set by the trip notes on the food expectations. Keep the bar low.
For our afternoon we motored on to Trinidad, a well-preserved colonial town. We admired the beautiful colorful buildings, that seemed as depleted by the hot sun as we felt while walking around the town. We wandered about, snapping photos, and stopped to see a list of local weekly rations in a grocery post. Everything was outlined on a chalk board with quantities for the time period. If you wanted to supplement, you could go to a small market. We visited one in a very large building but there were only a few produce stands and each seemed to have only a couple of baskets of fruits or vegetable. Not the bustling type of food market I’m used to seeing in other countries. We also visited the Casa Templo de Santaria de Yemaya, to learn a little more about the Santeria Afro-Cuban religion. It seems to still be a practice in this communist country. A couple of frightful looking but harmless hairless dogs wandered through the small chapel as we visited. At least they may have been cooler as the March heat was somewhat oppressive.
The rooms in Trinidad? Basic. Basic. The mattress on my small twin bed may have pre-dated Castro. But the very friendly hostess served us a delicious strawberry drink on our arrival and prepared a wonderful breakfast both days. She was very chatty but since I don’t speak Spanish, it was a lost conversation, consisting of confused looks and smiles. Everywhere we went, people were friendly and engaging, even if we didn't speak the same language.
After our dinner, we walked to a small club and the ladies took turns dancing salsa with Tony. Although small, the place was packed and the dance floor was elevated next to the band so that I felt I was on stage as I tried to keep up with an accomplished salsa artist. Lively music, drinks, and laughs for our Cuban night out. When we returned to our rooms, there was no power. However, our hostess met us with a flashlight and the power was quickly restored. And then the decision was, how to best handle the lumpy coil spring bed. Which side deserves insult tonight? My back? My front? The left or right side? Anyone who has traveled the world soon learns how to sleep in even the most interesting circumstances.
Our third day on the island and we went to the beach and swam in the ocean at Playa Ancon. There were only a few buildings along the shore - a current resort and another resort now closed, so the beach was relatively uncrowded. It was about a dollar to reserve a beach chair under an awning where we could sit and watch the waves while escaping the sun. Considering the heat, we all dashed into the cool of the water, enjoying a break from our travel van. While treading among the waves, I talked to Tony about people he has known that have moved to the U.S. His impression was that it was more of a struggle than in Cuba because of the expensive nature of living in a big city such as New York, and yet he said they are happy. He didn’t seem to understand why that would be - can you be as happy when life is more of a challenge? I guess it depends on how you describe a challenge.
Another “al fresco” lunch at a small restaurant with tables under awnings along the water where we could order lobster again. Lobster is a common dish in Cuba and was usually decent as warm water lobster can be. Pork was another popular menu item along with “fish.” What kind of fish? I don’t think anyone ever told me….
Then we were off to a pottery class where we each tried a spin on the wheel making some unrecognizable lumps of clay. As is somewhat typical with a tour type of trip, the pottery class was merely an excuse to bring us to a store where we could purchase many examples of the local wares – dishes, vases, pots, and various household items made from clay and painted with interesting designs and colors. An official Cuban souvenir.
We returned to Trinidad for another walk about town and a look at the markets. Stall after stall with repeats of tourist items – shirts, hats, purses. The usual fare. Back to the hotel to get ready for our salsa lesson before dinner. No power again but at least we had hot water for the showers.
Although members of our group seemed a bit skeptical, the salsa lesson was more fun than any of us anticipated and soon we were all moving to the music, swinging about, and laughing with glee. On to dinner where we had a lesson (actually a demonstration) of how to make a few popular drinks – a daiquiri, a Mojito, and a Canchanchara (my personal favorite!). Of course, we then sent them around the table for sipping before we ordered our own.
Our week was almost over as we headed back to Havana. The first stop was to see some handmade textiles in another small shop, where a young woman and two young men danced a traditional dance for us in local costumes of bright whites punctuated by red scarves and red trim. Further up the road, we stopped as an old planation to learn more about the sugar growing industry and its history. Full tour buses had stopped to keep us company.
As our drive to Havana continued, we made another stop to visit a small farm and a farmer raising crops such as coffee, vegetables, and of course, chickens, while sporting a rather impressive machete hanging from his belt. He introduced us to a lonely puppy howling for its mother while running among our feet before being deposited back in a small shed. After enjoying some coffee from his harvest, we continued on our way around the island.
Our last stop as we drove to the north side of the island was the Mausoleum of Che Guevara, one of the most beautiful buildings I had seen so far, built in the communist era. The interior was cool and quiet, with beautiful stone and wood finishings. There was also a museum with photos depicting his life. It was an interesting perspective, trying to understand this man, a hero to many and a villain to others. What happened to make him who he was?
For our last night together as a full group, Tony made reservations at an excellent Cuban/Asian fusion restaurant where we passed small plates of food around amongst our drinks. After dinner, we made our way to the Floridita, a famous bar from the Hemingway days, but were told the bar was not open because they had run out of ice and sugar. Not easy to make daiquiris without two key ingredients! Overall, food in Havana was great, although multiple orders of the same dish could lead to a request from our server to make a different selection because some items were in short supply. The Cubans seemed to take this in stride and of course, we quickly adjusted as well.
On our final full day in Havana, we walked outside the hotel after breakfast, and were greeted by three beautifully restored classic old Chevys. A classic car ride was a great start to the morning, especially after yesterday’s long van ride. It was the iconic Cuban adventure and was just as fun as it looks in the photos. We cruised around Havana, stopping to take photos here and there, including one of John Lennon’s statue, posed on a park bench. In the heat, we walked around old Havana and enjoyed the architecture with Tony’s commentary on the history of the city. I admired the classic buildings, with their painted walls of bright blue, yellow, or green, and the occasional faces of heroes or others making for impressive street art.
For our last evening in Havana, the group was determined to have our drink at the famous Floridita after being denied the previous evening. It was bustling with activity for happy hour, but we managed to crowd in at the bar, ordering classic daiquiris and mojitos. We found a small restaurant with good food for dinner but endured a long wait due to a broken stove. This is when you see the difference in expectations from the Cubans versus the tourists. We were a bit anxious as we had purchased tickets to the Buena Vista Social Club for an evening of Cuban entertainment and we did not want to miss the show. Eventually, we were served, paid our check, and made a mad dash for the show. Sometimes these tourist traps can deliver a memorable experience. The show featured multiple singers and a live band, along with dancing and drinking. It was impossible to refrain from living in the moment, especially as the entertainers were focused on crowd participation, working their way around the room and pulling individuals up to the front to dance in front of the audience. After a lively evening, we had a short walk back to the hotel. Despite the intensity of the club, the streets were very quiet for a Friday night, as if the retirement time was agreed upon by everyone in the city.
Cuba was some of what I expected and much more. I felt welcome and safe, and I wanted to ask so many questions but tried to reserve my curiosity in a respectful way. Despite the shortages for what many of us would consider to be essentials, people seemed happy and healthy. And is it really so terrible to live without many of the distractions we have in our lives in the United States? I think that both countries have their challenges.