In 1959, when I was eleven years old, the commies took over Cuba. With that takeover, and everything that went on after, it looked like I would never see the day when the doors would open to Americans. That is, till this year. Following a series of sweeping reforms, a path is now open.
For years, I have discussed with friends how we might get over there. Now, all of a sudden, here it was. And, there was no better time, since we would already be in Florida for the twenty-year anniversary of our first visit to Key West that I posted earlier. And, while everyone in our party considered it, only I and one other, John Starr, actually decided to go through with it. Dianne had no particular interest in this experience.
Serious planning for this trip began around the end of May. Last year, Dianne and I visited Costa Rica and on this trip all the planning and arrangements were accomplished through the assistance of a tremendous organization called “Anywhere Costa Rica”. I was pleased to discover that they had just opened up an office in Havana called “Anywhere Cuba”. I contacted them right away, and just like in Costa Rica, they were outstanding to work with.
At this time it is not possible to go to Cuba as a tourist. You have to plan your travel to meet one of the twelve approved reasons for going. The category we chose was the “People to People Travel” which focuses on interaction with the Cuban people through planned activities. These activities were set up by “Anywhere Cuba”, and there were plenty of them. Anyone who has followed this blog already knows that these kinds of exchanges, more than just sightseeing, are the reason we like to travel in the first place.
Although all this sounds simple, there were a lot of details to work out which I won’t go into on this blog. If you are seriously considering doing this yourself, contact me directly and I will provide you with links and budget info. It is not extremely expensive, but not cheap either.
The purpose of our trip, in addition to interacting with the people, was to see Havana before we Americans come in with our Yankee dollars and change the place forever. It is rare to be able to go anywhere that has not been overdeveloped. Cuba is one of the last.
Sometime this summer, four or five airlines were approved by the US and Cuban governments to fly routes to Cuba. It was not until about a month ago that any of them began to actually fly. And, while all approved airlines put out flight schedules, none of them fly into Havana. The closest we could get was an American Airlines flight into a small town called Varadero, which we had never heard of. It is about an two hour drive to Havana from there. I checked to see if there were buses running and there were several. I contacted “Anywhere Cuba” and they offered to send a private driver and, since we would not arrive in Cuba till about noon, they booked one night for us there and two nights in Havana. That was all we needed.
One of the requirement for getting into Cuba is to purchase a visa or, Travel Card. If you buy it from the Cuban government, it costs 50 USD’s. If you buy it through American Airlines it costs 85. I tried to buy it directly, but the Cuban government web site is not set up to handle American currency. Since I didn’t have any British Pounds laying around, I went through American. I will say, they provided very good service and FedEx’d the visas immediately.
The visa comes in two halves. One to get into the country and, more importantly, one to get out. Sadly, the Cubans only stamp the visa, not your passport.
Because of the still-in-place embargo, Cuba has no relationship with any US banks, cell providers, or anyone else. Even UPS and FedEx have nothing there. DHL is the only delivery service. So, when you go to Cuba you will have NO cell phone service, internet (except VERY sparse wifi) no credit cards, no debit cards. You are on your own Thankfully, Anywhere Cuba provided us with a Cuban cell phone in case we had problems. That was our life line down there.
You must bring cash to Cuba. When you get to the Cuban airport there will be a currency exchange. You will change your USD’s to the Cuban currency called the CUC, although they are called pesos by the locals. The Cuban government charges a 10% penalty for the exchange of USD’s. So, 100 USD’s will get you about 80-90 CUC’s depending on the exchange rate over and above the penalty.
Interestingly, the CUC is a currency created for tourists only. It is not traded on any international currency exchange, so you cannot buy them ahead. Actual Cuban citizens use a similar peso called a CUP. These are not traded either. While no one explained this to us, it is pretty evident that the Cuban economy is shored up, in part, by its holdings in foreign currency.
With American Airlines it is not possible to pre-print a boarding pass to Cuba. They say to be there three hours before the flight. We were a little tardy, but not much. When you get to a kiosk at the check-in everything is routine. They scan your passport and then a screen comes up asking for which of the 12 reasons your are going to Cuba. You tap the one that applies to you and that’s it. The subject never comes up again. No questions asked. No one to see. No nothing. They print your boarding pass, you go through TSA and head for the gate.
At the gate, there is a kiosk just for visitors to Cuba. There a young lady looks over your visa to make sure it’s filled out correctly, looks over your passport and then stamps your boarding pass “Cuba Ready”. With that stamp you are allowed on board the plane. Cuba also requires a fee for their medical insurance and an exit fee (like many countries south of the border) but the cost of these things is already built into your plane ticket and they handle it.
So now, after all these months, the only thing left for us to do was fly.
Varadero, as it turns out, is a beach resort area overlooking the Strait of Florida where it meets the Gulf of Mexico.In Havana they call it the “Plastic City” because it was apparently created for tourists. You see it on the right.
The plane was only about 2/3 full and most of the passengers were Cuban nationals. Very few like us. John and I were able to switch seats so we could see what was below. We were surprised to see fairly rugged mountains, like the Blue Ridge, but not as high. Here is what looked like on approach:
The airport is new, but small with a total of four gates.
When we got off the plane we had to go through passport control and another TSA type screening. John and I only had carry-on bags. We had been warned by Anywhere that checked bags can take over an hour to be processed.
After we got through all that we headed for the exit and there was our driver holding up the Anywhere Cuba sign! Always a relief to see that guy. We stopped at the currency exchange, got enough bills to last a day or two and we were off to our new home.
Perhaps you are familiar with the ABC’s of sales: “Always be Closing”. In Cuba, they have not hit that level quite yet. Instead it is “Always be Selling” and from the moment your tootsies hit Cuban soil, somebody will be trying to sell you something. Between the currency exchange window and our cab it was cold beer and souvenirs. We declined both.
In Cuba, tourists have two options for places to stay: One is the state-run hotels which generally receive poor reviews. The other option is a “Casa Particualar”. Within the last few years the government has allowed private property owners to rent out all, or part, of their houses to tourist after the fashion of B&Bs. Casa Partculars are available through, for example, Air B&B. Their reputation is much better than the hotels. And, staying with a family is consistent with the “people to people” mission. A perfect fit.
Originally, Anywhere booked us into a house in town. A few days before departure, however, I received an e-mail from them saying they had just added a new property which was on the beach. They changed the booking and put us there, subject to our approval. We approved. This was the place:
Before long, our driver pulled up to the gate and we were in! They had two rooms for us, one in the front, one in the back. We flipped for the one in front. I won. But, we mostly spent time on the balcony anyway, so we both got good use out of that room. Here is a view from the room:
And, from the balcony. A private resort was next door.
Here is the room interior. Dated and somewhat worn.
Here is the layout of Varadero. An X marks our location:
This is an expanded view:
The point of these maps is, this place is much bigger than it looks. That is, longer. We had a nice lunch. Our first meal in Cuba was a pizza. Then, we went back to the house. The rooms were ready, so we got settled in and checked out the beach. John waded into the water, but I declined. When I was younger I loved the sun. Now, for some reason, it seems to want to kill me. Even when trying to avoid it, I still get plenty.
Later in the afternoon we decided to head uptown. However, it became clear that we were not going to see much of this place without assistance. Travel in Varadero takes three forms: Standard taxi, three-wheeled motorcycle, or horse-drawn carts. Keeping with “people to people” we chose the latter.
The driver was an old man, who spoke little English, but we were able to get the message across that we wanted a tour. Off we went!. He had one of his sons with him and we soon picked up another.
Here was part of trip: (video)
Here is what The Lonely Planet says about Cuba: “Timeworn but magnificent, dilapidated but dignified, fun yet maddeningly frustrating – Cuba is a country of indefinable magic.” That’s as close as I can come to explaining this place, although I’m still processing it. It is like a 1950’s theme park, except it is real. So, on the one hand you have a very nice resort:
A few blocks down, this: Right on the beach.
You think a beach front property like this would be standing in the US? Cranes would be running into each other trying to knock it down. Throughout all the places we visited the one glaring common theme was lack of working capital.
The fitness club was a big attraction for the locals:
It was now almost dark and our driver started recommending restaurants. It later became clear that drivers get a little extra for bringing in people. But his choice was good and so was the food.
They had an excellent band playing Cuban music at this restaurant. During the break they come around for tips, which we gladly provided. The band leader asked where we were from and when we said “America” he didn’t understand. When I said “Estados Unidos” he stared at both of us and shook John’s hand. He said that was the first time he had ever shaken hands with someone from the US. Maybe. Maybe not.
If I have learned anything from our travels it is, when someone approaches you for whatever reason, be wary. Before long, the leader was back with a small handful of USD’s. He said the manager had paid him in these and he wondered if we could convert them to CUC’s. So, here we go again. I told him on our tour we had passed a very nice bank. We suggested that he use it.
After dinner it was now pitch black and we had no idea how far up the main street we were from our house. We took a left and started hoofin’ it. Before long we spied a lady with a three-wheeled moped looking like she could use some work. She spoke virtually no English, and we could not give her a destination since we didn’t even know our address. While I was searching through my pockets for a card from the house she noticed my World Series hat. She said “Ah Basebol!” In very broken English she said she knew Adolphus Chapman, the Cubs fireballer, who is from Cuba. John kept asking her questions. It turns out her son plays baseball and played with Adolphus. Well, then, it turned out he didn’t play with him, but had seen him. Uh, OK, she actually never met him, but had heard of him.
While this discussion was going on, I realized I had nothing to show her our destination. Finally we said, “Turn left and we’ll tell you when to stop.” Off we went.
It turned out to be a short trip, however and she soon had us home.
This is the main gathering area of the house:
The TV was on and the election returns were coming in. John and I went to our respective rooms. I watched the returns until there were some grave doubts that Hillary would pull this off. I shut it off and hit the hay. But there were some real issues with this room that I won’t get into. Suffice it to say, it was a mostly sleepless night.
When I woke up the next morning I turned on the TV in my room. There was no cable service. I went downstairs and met John at a patio by the beach. A woman from another group came over to ask if we had heard the news. She didn’t have to bother. Her expression told the story. Nothing to be done about it. We got ready for our driver to Havana, who was due at 8.