If I may just start this article by proclaiming – Cuba is very safe and her people are extremely friendly.
And, despite what you might hear in our news, Americans can still legally travel to Cuba under the “People-to-People / Educational” group tour category- which is one of 12 various categories that still permit Americans to experience Cuba legally and have meaningful encounters with the local people.
Our group of 10 excited American people flew on a nice short 45-minute flight on American Airlines from Miami to Havana. Right before you board the plane in Miami, the airline will issue you a Visa/travel card for $100 cash with no questions asked. That allows you to stay in Cuba for 30 days. (Some airlines like Delta and Southwest are cheaper, at around $50-$75 for the Visa/travel card.) Most all the airlines will include a $1,000 health insurance policy in the ticket price, which is required for visitors in Cuba.
Havana is the largest city in the Caribbean. It is quite captivating and alluring with a pulse that seems to beat salsa and mambo rhythms 24-.7. Havana is also an incredible feast for the eyes with all its colorful Spanish-colonial-style buildings (albeit many in disrepair) and classic cars from the 1950’s zooming around like a giant outdoor museum on wheels. (Most of them operate as taxis.)
We stayed in Casa Particulars, which are like their version of Airbnb’s and vacation rentals – privately owned and operated homes that kind of feel like a boutique hotel. (Many of the actual hotels and resorts in Havana and Cuba are owned by the government and/or have a connection somehow to the Cuba military, so those are off-limits to Americans.) But if you want to feel like a local, Casa Particulars are the way to go when you stay in Cuba.
Also privately owned and operated out of homes and old mansions are restaurants called Paladares (they actually have individual names, Paladares just refers to the type of restaurant category). Havana’s food scene is exploding right now due to these entrepreneur establishments. At some Paladares, you’ll sit right on the veranda of the house while they serve you your delicious Cuban meal. Many Paladares have bars and lounges as well, so you can get your mojito and daiquiri fix on! (The Cuban rum is so tasty, you might even opt to just sip a glass straight up with an ice cube.)
We spent a couple days walking and touring around Havana, including its old town, its famous squares and monuments, as well as a local mosaic arts district called Fusterlandia on the edge of town.
We even got an exhilarating private performance from the students at Habana Compas Dance School.
One of the highlights of Havana for me was when we rode in convertible classic cars along the Malecon (the few miles long seaside stretch of road in Havana) around sunset time. The Malecon is basically a seawall and an esplanade, a place where assorted lovers, philosophers, poets, fishers and groups of friends hang out, especially in the evenings. Since most bars and clubs are too expensive for locals to go to, the Malecon turns into local party central at night, helped by the fact that it is perfectly legal to walk around with alcohol drinks in Havana.
The next morning we drove in our private coach to the Bay of Pigs area to do some snorkeling and visit a museum. Cuba has one of the best unspoiled coral reefs in the entire world. Afterwards, we visited a wetland preserve at Cienega de Zapata Park, where we saw hundreds of pink flamingos in their natural habitat. And then it was quality beach time for the group to relax at Playa Larga on the Caribbean Sea.
After a couple days in the Playa Larga area, we drove still further across this beautiful country where we visited a tobacco farm in Pinar del Rio and got to see how they grow, pick, dry and hand roll the tobacco into those famous Cuban cigars. In Cuba, 90% of a farmer’s crops are sold to the government. In the case of tobacco, it’s the government that will package the tobacco from the farms into cigars of various popular brands like Romeo y Julieta, Cohiba and Montecristo (just to name a few). But we got to purchase cigars directly from the tobacco farm, which felt really special.
We then finally arrived to Vinales National Park. It has dramatic scenery and vistas featuring limestone mountains that seem to shoot vertically up from the ground as if by some magic force. One of the mountains even has a spectacular mural painted on the side of it called; “Mural of the Prehistorics”.
Vinales has a very nice charming downtown with a laid-back atmosphere featuring dance and music clubs, restaurants and an outdoor Wi-Fi park where locals can access the internet (although it’s very limited). There’s something very charming (from a tourist perspective) about old and young folks all hanging out together in the park in the evening on their smartphones. The word from our local guide was that next year the internet will be more accessible to the Cuban people, and more affordable (Cubans have to pay as much as one day’s salary to access the internet for just one hour’s time).
While in Vinales, a few us in the group went spelunking (caving) in Cuba’s largest cave system; Santo Tomas, while others in the group visited a coffee farm and took a nice boat ride in the park.. The entire Vinales valley is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and as their website states “as the quality of this cultural landscape is enhanced by the vernacular architecture of its farms and villages, where a rich multi-ethnic society survives, illustrating the cultural development of the islands of the Caribbean, and of Cuba.”
Our group was in Cuba for 8 days total and that allowed us to cover roughly one-third of the island, at a pretty decent structured pace. I’d suggest at least a 2-week visit if you want to experience the entire island, including places like Trinidad, Varadero Beach, and Santiago de Cuba.
Cuba is a very highly educated country. Unfortunately though most doctors and engineers etc. make more money in the private sector as cab drivers and/or waiters or tour guides than the government pays for them for their professional college degree jobs.
Cubans are very healthy people indeed, and according to the UN’s World Health Organization, “Cuba’s health care system is an example for all countries of the world. The Cuban health system is recognized worldwide for its excellence and its efficiency.” In fact, the infant mortality rate is well below that of the U.S.
As a visitor, Cuba had an intoxicating effect on me (maybe it was all the rum!), making me want to learn more about it, and get closer to its people, its history, culture, music and art. The Cuban people feel like cousins to us Americans.
I loved Havana, you could see and feel how it was once considered a world-class shining modern city up until 1959 when the revolution came. Now, it’s sort of frozen in time in 1959 along with rest of the country. To me, Havana, in particular, seems like a diamond in the rough, a place where beauty meets decay, a city that is patiently waiting to make a comeback to its glory days of the 1930’s through 1950’s.
But the big question I guess is will gambling ever be legal again in Cuba (It was outlawed right after the 1959 revolution) since it was such a big part of the economic engine that fueled the country as a top destination of pleasure and fun in its Casino-Mafia-Cabaret Show heyday? The answer to that question is certainly blowing in the tropical island breeze; but regardless, my hunch is that regardless of gambling or not, Cuba will once again become a major destination for American tourists that are looking for beaches, nightlife and great music and dance. Oh and not to mention the signature forbidden fruits of Cuba – rum and cigars.
It is recommended that you visit Cuba sooner than later, potentially before the Starbucks and McDonalds and Walmarts go in there. And if all goes as expected, Cuba will name a new president in 2018, and this will be the first time in nearly 60 years that the communist country’s leader won’t be a Castro and/or affiliated with the 1959 revolution that expelled Fulgencio Batista.
Experience Cuba now in its true raw state! If you have 6 or more people in your group ready to go, let me know and I’ll help you design a customized people-to-people legal tour of Cuba – the pearl of the Antilles.