Yes, you can go to Cuba legally. Yes, you can have your passport stamped. And yes, it’s safe there. These were just a few of the questions I was bombarded with before and after I went to Cuba in July.
Going to Cuba for Americans is probably the easiest it has been in years. Under the Clinton and Obama administrations, travel restrictions have been eased.
Several tour companies offer educational trips to Cuba including Friendly Planet and Gate One. In addition, specific professional and cultural groups such as lawyers, educators and artists, offer tours.
I went on Friendly Planet’s Discover Havana trip. Friendly Planet’s rates for a five-day trip to Cuba range from $ 2,300 to $3,500. Other tour companies’ rates can go as high as $5,000 for a week in Cuba. Rates are determined by length of stay, the number of sites and cities visited and the number of meals included.
When you arrive in Cuba, an island that is only 90 miles from the United States, you feel like you have stepped back in time. The sight of 1950-era Fords and Chevrolets are one of the first things you notice. And there is lots of traffic. Havana, the capital of Cuba, has traffic that will rival many major American cities. And the drivers there can be just as bad.
Adding to that retro look are the buildings. No modern skyscrapers here. Unfortunately, many of the buildings have not been maintained, primarily due to the U.S. embargo. The embargo stopped the flow of goods from the U.S. to Cuba for decades. Thus, the old cars and even older buildings. However, other countries such as China are actively involved with trading with Cuba.
But what is here is enough to open the eyes and heart for even the most skeptical traveler. The people are warm and friendly. They want to talk and know more about their neighbors to the north. Everywhere you go, you will be treated to heart-thumping, hip-moving Latin music. And often a mojito will be placed in your hands before you have a chance to sit down.
And in most places you visit in Cuba, you will see the African influence – in the music, the art, and the people. Like the U.S., thousands of slaves were brought to Cuba. It was sugar cane and tobacco that were the crops that needed tending. Today, Havana is a huge city with more than two million people of every color.
Havana offers several hotels and has recently remodeled many of the older hotels in Old Havana including Hotel Ambos Mundos, the hotel where Ernest Hemingway stayed before he moved to his fabulous estate just outside of Havana. This is also a great place to have dinner or a drink at the rooftop restaurant.
Our group stayed at the Nacional, the historic hotel that has a colorful and checkered history. In the 1950s, before the Cuban Revolution, it was the headquarters for the Mafia and was the site for gambling and other illicit activities.
Many American singers and musicians performed in the hotel’s clubs including Nat King Cole whose statue now stands in the hotel’s gallery of history. The hotel offers entertainment and a terrific view of the Atlantic Ocean from its back terrace. Peacocks provide another type of entertainment as they call to each other across the lawn.
Even today, the Nacional is the place for important visitors and dignitaries to stay. As we were leaving, Russian President Vladimir Putin was checking in.
Because the purpose of our trip was educational, we toured several cultural and historic sites including a senior citizens center, an organic farm, an experimental graphics workshop, a community center that had been a former trash dump, a health clinic, a ballet school and a reforestation project.
If this sounds mundane, let me assure you, it was not. Our guide and the Cubans who worked at the places we visited were so delightful that they made even the routine seem exciting.
We also learned how cigars are rolled, visited several Cuban artist studios including those of Lester Campa and Jose Fuster, often called the Picasso of the Caribbean, and explored Old Havana, the oldest part of the city where no cars are allowed.
A highlight for me was the visit to Ernest Hemingway’s home. It’s really an estate, since it includes a guest house, a very large pool with no water, of course, and a tower where he did his typing.
And somehow, the Cuban authorities have managed to place his boat there as well which is quite a feat since the property does not sit next to a body of water and his boat is rather large. The house is just as he left it, and even though you can’t go inside, you can see most of the house by looking in the doors and windows. After visiting his home, there is a stand where you can purchase what Cubans claim was one of his favorite drinks—sugar cane juice, pineapple and rum. After completing one of these drinks, you will probably be able to see the spirit of Hemingway.
Did I mention the food? Breakfast is not quite what we are used to in the states, but we had delicious lunch and dinners. Many of the meals were included in the tours, but our guides made sure we had great places to eat. The two free nights we had on our own we went to a paladar, a small, family-run private-owned restaurant. La Guarida, one of the paladars where we dined, would have been a four-star restaurant in the states. The food was outstanding and so was the service.
At night, you can visit many of the musical offerings around the city. These include the Gala Dinner Concert at the Nacional featuring members of the Buena Vista Social Club or the Tropicana with its own Las Vegas type show.
For shoppers, there are some wonderful craft markets and artist studios to entice you. While you cannot bring back Cuban rum, coffee or cigars to the states, there’s no law against you trying these items there.
One thing you will not get on your trip is a discussion about politics. Most Cubans will not talk politics with you although they will be glad to talk to you about just everything else. Pictures of Che Guevara are everywhere while you see few pictures of Fidel or Raul Castro.
But many Cubans are looking forward to the end of the embargo and the thousands of Americans who will probably come once it is over.
Five days was enough to give me a great overview of Cuban life, history, art and culture. On my next trip, I will go back for the details.