The Door to Cuba Cracks Open

Seems like a lot of talk about Cuba these days with Fidel stepping aside and the new, kinder U.S. policies in place. It’s going to change fast, that’s what we kept hearing. We should sail to Cuba before all the tourists arrive. Better go before all those old cars get bought up and sent back to the States… After several month of discussion, four of us—three brothers and our 82-year-old father—began our planning.

At the writing of this article, travel to Cuba by a U.S. citizen was still restricted. Sailing from Annapolis, although our first choice, was not a viable option due to current restrictions (see spinsheet.com/sail-to-cuba), and our dad who prefers the hard. American citizens traveling directly from the U.S. must have State Department approval to be legal, fitting into one of 13 categories to go, such as education, humanitarian, religious, or sports. That travel is restricted to approved tour groups, and there are limits where you will be spending your vacation dollars.

An alternative travel option is flying into Havana via a third country, such as the Bahamas or Mexico. We chose this option, flying through the Bahamas. A Cuban tourist visa is required and can be obtained from your airline into Cuba for $15. Bahamas Airlines operates 737s direct to Cuba. Although we flew to Cuba, we know a lot of Chesapeake sailors were headed to the Conch Republic Cup/ Key West Cuba Race Week (January 27 – February 7). Some of our recent experiences may help future sailors be better prepared for when they step off the boat. 

Arriving in Havana According to the travel guides and tourism brochures, we would find Havana and most of Cuba as a bright and colorful vacation destination; semi modern, a country caught in the year 1958. What we found was a Cuba not depicted in the magazines or the government pamphlets.

We landed on an island filled with wonderful, friendly people embracing change, but we discovered the city of Havana in utter decay, with everyone living in apparent poverty. We experienced a vacation of adventure, contradiction, frustration, and total surprise. Havana is the largest city of the Caribbean with a population of 2.1 million. The airport terminal is small, but clean, and the Cuban people begin their friendly welcome the moment you arrive. Customs will ask if you want your passport stamped. I elected to have mine stamped both in and out of Cuba with no issues on my return to the U.S., but if you are concerned, they will stamp your visa instead.

Travel guides will inform you that health insurance is required while in Cuba and must be purchased for $2 a day prior to entering. Although we saw someone leave the immigration line to purchase insurance, three in our group were never questioned.

I was only asked to show my American insurance card. We passed through customs with no issues.

The author, a brother, and his dad climb into an American classic taxi for a short ride to a rum factory. Photo by Mark Duehmig[/caption] Transportation from the airport to the casa of your choosing is available from traditional yellow taxis, or the well-know “classic” cars. We chose a yellow van taxi for the extra room. Negotiate the price before you travel. Cost to most of the Havana area for four persons is about 30 CUC (Cuban currency is in pesos, but for the tourist, or non-Cuban, the island uses Cuban Convertibles or CUC; one CUC equals $1 at press time). This is the government’s attempt to control the black market and ensure a reasonable price paid by visitors. Both attempts seem to have worked well for them; there appears to be little in the way of an underground market of any kind and with an exchange rate of one-to-one to the American dollar, the tourist pays far more than the Cubans. Locals use the Cuban peso that exchanges at approximately 24 to one dollar. Tourist magazines will have you believe that the American dollar is not welcomed here and that you should exchange them for euros prior to Cuban entry. We found just the opposite in at least one place. Western Union at the Havana airport would only except dollars. Money exchanges, the most trustworthy, are called Cadecas. They are available throughout Havana and most of the larger cities and readily exchange the U.S. dollar. However, there is a 13-percent fee, and at times they restrict you to $200 per transaction. Also, almost no one will accept the U.S. dollar as payment, so plan ahead.

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Photo by Mark Duehmig

Avoiding tourist traps
Havana consists of three areas: Vedado, Centro, and Vieja. We traveled through Vedado, seeing the Palace, Havana’s largest hospital, and major government buildings on the way to our B&B located in the heart of Centro Havana. We purposely avoided the tourist traps of beach hotels, looking for a more genuine Cuba experience. That is exactly what we found.

The scene that unfolded as we entered into Centro Havana was, at first site, frightening. The city appeared as a bombed out metropolis with buildings crumbling around the people and the cars that filled the streets. Piles of rubble lay swept into heaps at the intersections. Few structures stood unaffected by the decay, let alone painted. Narrow streets with open doorways, were filled with people watching life of the city go by. Street vendors plied their wares of fruit and three-wheeled bicycles called Cuban limos cruised the streets with their passengers.

We were all surprised when our taxi stopped and announced we had arrived. Our B&B (a casa particular in Spanish) called Casa Nuvo was on the second floor of a typical central city building, with clean, comfortable rooms and the host very accommodating. Air conditioning was available only in the bedrooms, but was just what we needed. It appears that this is a luxury exclusively for visitors to the island. The high-ceiling Spanish architecture of the building helped pull cooler air in and kept the common rooms relatively comfortable despite the 95-plus degrees outside. The room cost $25 per per night.

Pleasures of paladars 

A trait of traditional paladars, or small, family-owned restaurants, is huge amounts of food. Photo by Mark Duehmig

The dining experience throughout our venture to Cuba was better than we could have ever expected, with traditional paladars (family owned restaurants), the best investment in quality of food and money spent. Guidebooks told us to expect tiny places in people’s homes or backyards, but in Havana most paladars were real restaurants.

Two of the finest in Havana are LaGuardia on Concordia and Escobar Streets (order the Carpaccio) and Cafa Miglis at 120 Lealtad Street (order the lobster). Check them out on the web before going to Cuba, as the internet is not easily available. The best meals run about $15-$25. Numerous government-run restaurants, such as Sloppy Joes and Castropol, offer decent menus, but we found many of the staff bored and service poor. Most paladars add a 10 percent service fee, but that goes to the government. If you find the service worth a tip, 10 percent is standard.

Traveling within Central and Old (Vieja) Havana was one of the most enjoyable parts of our trip. Go by way of the Cuban limo, the three-wheeled bicycles. Again, negotiate your price before the ride. The friendly, would-be tour guides on their modern-day rickshaws will transfer you in shaded comfort to paladars and places of interest for one to two CUC per person. The colorful, pristine Havana, shown in the tourist magazines can be found in Vieja Havana as a 10-block strip kept for the tourists. You will find several small areas of artwork and trinkets for sale, but again to our surprise, the T-shirt tourist section of junk has yet to arrive in Havana.

 

The long hike down to the waterfall Cascada Soroa near Las Terrazas was worth it. An entrepreneur set up a small bar at the bottom to reward visitors for the hike down, and prepare them for the trek back out. Photo by Mark Duehmig

Outside Havana
Travel to areas outside of Havana is a must. I recommend bus travel for getting around within Cuba. Viazul is the main long distance bus company available to non-Cubans, and it offers air-conditioned, timely travel to many desired locations (viazul.com). If you are looking for more adventurous travel destinations, rent a yellow, official taxi for the day.

Make your own destination plans and negotiate the rate before you travel. A full day trip out and back should run about $140.

I highly recommend not going by way of “classic car.” The classic car nostalgia is just that; they don’t make those cars anymore for a reason. They are cramped, with no safety features including seat belts, airbags, or anti-lock brakes, with no air conditioning, not to mention the worst feature of every Cuban vehicle: exhaust fumes. With no emissions laws, every, car, truck, bus, or motorcycle spews toxic fumes that can make your road travel experience, well, less than desirable.

While researching for our trip, drinking water and toilet paper were listed as major concerns. Don’t drink the tap water. We were happy to find bottled water everywhere we traveled, so water filters systems are not necessary unless you plan to go way off the beaten path. And with the rum drinks being so important to the Cuban economy and lifestyle, most places make ice with filtered water. Cubans make an outstanding mojito. Toilet paper, however, appears to be an allotted luxury for most Cubans.]

An elderly woman watches from her balcony in Havana Centro. Photo by Mark Duehmig

Rum and cigars
On almost everyone’s list of things to enjoy or purchase while in Cuba are rum and cigars. While both are readily available, they are closely controlled by the government and can be relatively expensive. Havana Club appears to be the most common rum (pronounced ron), and bottles run from six CUCs ($6) for rum aged two years to 70 CUCs ($70) or more up for those aged seven years.

Although rum drinks were fashionable everywhere we dined, we saw very few people actually smoking cigars. Readily available as the rum, they are quite expensive as well. Cohiba cigars are a brand name made from tobacco grown in the western side of the island called the Vuelta Abajo region, a wonderful day trip from Havana if you have the time. Originally made exclusively for Fidel Castro and communist leaders, they have been sold to the public since 1982. A single Cohiba can run from $4 for very small ones to $15 if you choose a Churchill style.

These higher priced cigars are not what is enjoyed by the locals, but it is advisable to purchase them over what you may find offered from a street vendor. El Floridita, the bar made famous by Hemingway and his daiquiris, is a nostalgic place to enjoy a rum cocktail. It’s on Obispo Street in Vieja Havana. While there, stop by upstairs at the Havana Club store, and pick up a bottle of Cuban rum and a few Cohibas for your return trip. You won’t be disappointed.

Don’t forget to bring…
Finally, I recommend carrying a small backpack with needed supplies for your day trips. Include a decent map, Spanish translation dictionary, water, toilet paper, a quality flashlight, small pocketknife, and a camera. Violent crime is almost unheard of in Cuba, but everyone warns about petty theft. Keep your belongings close and locked. Remember, things occur at a different pace in Cuba. Not just Island Time, more like a Cuban Occasion. Relax, know that everything will not work as you expect, greet everyone with a smile and Hola, and you will be inspired by the wonderful people you meet and delighted by places that are like nowhere else you’ve ever been. ~story by David Henry, photos by Mark Duehmig 

The author and his brother Joe ride in a Cuban limo, a convenient, inexpensive bicycle rickshaw. Photo by Mark Duehmig

Some helpful links:
FAQ on regulations
Breaking Cuba travel news
Capt Cheryl Barr's website about Cuba travel
Recent New York Times article on Cuba travel