The longer I’m away from Cuba, the more I think of it. Cuba embedded itself on my psyche in so many ways, and I find myself promoting it enthusiastically to just about anyone who will listen.
First of all, NO, it is not illegal and definitely not difficult to travel there – thanks to Southwest Airlines, which started servicing the Havana, Santa Clara, and Varadero airports from Fort Lauderdale in December of 2016. We had struggled with other (unnamed) airlines about how to obtain Cuban visas until a spokesperson for one of them actually advised us to go with Southwest. “They are so much better organized than we are,” he whispered discreetly to me. Sure enough, the visa info is right on the Southwest website, along with other useful facts. We just clicked on the link to buy the visa at a bargain $50 U.S., versus at least $85 quoted elsewhere.
It’s not necessary to buy visas ahead of time, but we were still (unnecessarily) worried, so we did. We were astonished when, upon checking in at Fort Lauderdale’s airport, we found the visa desk was connected to the check-in desk, and we just had to walk two feet to the right to pick up the visas.
“Which of the 13 approved categories do you want to check?” the agent asked casually, regarding our reason for visiting Cuba. We told him we didn’t know, to which he said, “Just pick education. That’s what most folks do. But don’t worry, it’s just legalese.”
And yes, it was. No official nor anyone else asked us in Cuba why we had marked “education,” and no one, upon our return to the U.S., asked us anything about it either. We DID try to enter a primary school in Havana, just to look around, but class was in session and we were not allowed in. Other than taking photos of adorable uniformed kids, we did not do anything related to “education” while in Cuba. It was actually easier to travel to Cuba than anywhere else internationally that we have visited! We also found that visitors can legally bring back up to $100 in Cuban cigars.
Although we are experienced travel journalists/photographers, we decided to do this trip completely on our own with no press trip itinerary or media van shuttling us around. We used the Lonely Planet Guidebook and booked our stays through AirBnB (yes, you can pay and book from here with your U.S. credit cards). Almost every Air BnB listed is just $25 a night, with breakfast an additional $5 per person. We visited Havana, Vinales, Cienfuegos and Playa Larga at the Bay of Pigs, traveling in collective taxis, eating out every meal, and, in nine days, spent at most $1,100 for the two of us. Now that’s a bargain!
Winging it on our own was fun and exciting, but to do this, you have to be a bit adventurous and be willing to roll with the punches. We thought we’d be taking the modern ViaAzul buses to our different locations, for example, but, without consistent in-country internet service, booking them was very difficult. Instead, we joined the many travelers from all over the world taking the “colectivos” (collective taxis), which are always waiting en masse at every bus station. Doing this was economical and we met interesting fellow tourists such as Kyle, a young Australian who was Air BnBing and couch surfing for 17 months around the planet, and a husband and wife physician team from Germany. Sometimes we were lucky enough to travel in exquisite classic cars, (they are all over the country); other times in cars that were just OLD and not so exquisite. Sometimes, the taxis might not be so comfortable, such as the ancient van we were piled into with six others. Again, you have to roll with the punches…
The best part of Cuba for us was the people–warm, open, welcoming, and highly educated. They were always eager to talk about politics and their history. We were mesmerized by the articulate, detailed narratives and how easily and honestly they spoke of their politicians and situation. We didn’t encounter any anti-U.S.A sentiment, although almost everyone complained about the U.S. “embargo” which they’ve endured since 1958. We had no idea, until we heard from Cubans, that the embargo also often punishes other nations which do business with Cuba by fining them. Yet, despite the hardships they have endured for almost 60 years, the folks we met insisted that they love their country and are proud of the revolution and its accomplishments. “How free are you Americans if you don’t have access to free education and free medical care?” one young woman asked us.
There are difficulties in Cuba for tourists. One is sparsely-found internet service. There are a few Air Bnbs in Havana which are part of a pilot program to offer internet, and the hotels catering to tourists provide WiFi. But out on the streets, you’ll be subject to buying WiFi cards for $1.50 U.S. per hour, and sitting in WiFi zones, usually little parks, along with throngs of others. In more rural areas like Playa Grande at the Bay of Pigs, there may be no WiFi zone at al. On the other hand, it’s a pleasure to see folks dining and actually speaking to one another, rather than looking at their smartphones. After just a day or two, we loved not getting those pesky and often depressing email news alerts.
Another common occurrence is that food items may not be available in restaurants, due to shortages and government-ordered rationing. A waiter in one small town cafe told us sadly that “Today, we only have chicken. And beer. That’s it!” Fruits and vegetables are offered only in season. There’s no flying products in from Ecuador and Mexico like we’ve gotten used to in the U.S.
We never saw one of those gooey, cheesey fat Cuban sandwiches which we have relished in Miami. In fact, we were told that they were created in Florida, NOT in Cuba. But we did enjoy delicious pasta primavera in Cienfuegos, luscious fruit plates every morning at our BnB’s, fabulous ice cream sundaes, rich cafe con leche, and sublime deviled eggs in Vinales. My husband much enjoyed the Cohiba cigars (Fidel’s brand of choice), which he bought from a clandestine in-home shop in Havana,(replete with the exotic Santeria religion altar,) but we noted very few Cubans smoking them. At $5 a pop, we suspect these cigars are probably just too expensive for the locals.
Beaches, Music, Food
Beaches are gorgeous, everywhere. We spent a day at Santa Maria, just 20 minutes from Havana, and we delighted in the calm turquoise waters and white sand, with rental chairs and umbrellas available for only $1. We splashed around with Cuban youngsters eager to practice their English and socialized with Canadians, Germans, and Italians seated near us. In the Bay of PIgs, one could almost forget about the disastrous history there, except for the excellent museum in town, which tells the story, and the concrete bunkers which dot the spectacular beaches and fabulous snorkeling and diving areas. Cuba’s fantastic coral formations hiding multi-colored fish and crustaceans are still blissfully healthy and brightly colored, and happily, crowds are still small compared to other beach resorts on neighboring islands.
We loved the Cuban music, which is everywhere–sometimes street bands, other times in bars and restaurants, and even free concerts in parks and community centers. Plazas are full of folks conversing, gossiping, and canoodling. Life is full, sociable and open. Several people were astonished when we told them we don’t know most of our neighbors’ names and that they don’t come to visit, nor do we visit them. They found that notion inconceivable. In their culture, folks drop by whenever they like, and are welcomed. Cubans told us that loneliness just doesn’t exist there. Can that really be true? We wondered.
On our return, we ruefully looked as our phones picked up the cell service signal upon landing in Fort Lauderdale. With a sigh, we turned them on to find all of the news alerts and spam and other useless messages we’d missed. Entering the immigration area, we still felt a bit nervous, but the agent whisked us right through with a “Welcome Home.” No questions at all – not even about the ten cigars we had brought. We’re so glad we went to Cuba now – before U.S. visitors are too abundant, and/or before it’s closed off again. And we can’t wait to go back and explore more. – Story by Irene Middleman Thomas, RFT Contributor; Photos Mark Rush Photography.